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You can visit Yosemite National Park with Obama … in VR

Rob Pegoraro
·Contributing Editor
An image of president obama at yosemite park
You can tour Yosemite with President Obama … in VR

I was standing in the middle of Yosemite National Park hearing President Barack Obama talk about the place, which was funny since I haven’t been to Yosemite since 2001 and have never had a personal chat with the president.

I did, however, have a Samsung Gear VR headset strapped to my face, which teleported me from a Washington hotel room to the picturesque California park.

The occasion was an advance look at “Through the Ages: President Obama Celebrates America’s National Parks.” Obama may have welcomed a robotic giraffe to the South Lawn of the White House in 2014, but this is the first time he’s appearing in VR production.

Spoiler alert: Yosemite is beautiful

The clip — available today on the Oculus store for Gear VR devices and via a Facebook 360-degree video on National Geographic’s page — is one of Obama’s salutes to the 100th birthday of the service behind America’s national parks.

As VR productions go, this one — shot over six days, including Obama’s Father’s Day visit to the park this year — looks pretty static. We see Yosemite from the Merced River to the tops of its mountains, but most of the shots keep us in one place. The video does a better job of capturing time, as seen in a panorama of sunset over Yosemite’s summits, than of the magnificent expanse of the park.

Yet being able to look around and up at Half Dome and El Capitan and hear the river trickling by still induced some powerful nostalgia for the place I last saw in August 2001.

It would have been nice to smell the pine cones and feel the wind in my face. But as Mad Men’s Don Draper said while describing a Kodak carousel slide projector, VR done right “takes us to a place where we ache to go again.”

Obama shares his own nostalgia in the video when he talks to a park ranger about his childhood visit to Yellowstone National Park—44 years old by the time President Woodrow Wilson signed the “Organic Act” founding the National Park Service on Aug. 25, 1916. The president recounts his 11-year-old self being awestruck to see bison, moose and bears for the first time.

“Places like Yosemite make us feel part of something bigger than ourselves,” Obama says. “We connect not just with our own spirit, but with something great — with the spirit of America itself.”

A canoe on a lake in yosemite

Nostalgia may not be the only reaction this VR video elicits. It also features Obama defending action to slow global warming caused by carbon dioxide put into the air by human activity, a subject of disbelief among a large minority of Americans.

If you’re not going to believe an overwhelming majority of scientists or even ExxonMobil, strapping a VR headset to your face probably won’t convince you either.

Reality check: Most people can’t try VR

On the other hand, most people aren’t even in a position to don a VR headset, much less in the formats “Through the Ages” supports.

Samsung’s Gear VR is relatively cheap at just $100, but it remains a curiosity in the mass market. The Rift headset developed by Facebook’s (FB) Oculus subsidiary, which will get a version of the Obama experience soon, may be better known, but it’s also $599.

Without a version of “Through the Ages,” for the more accessible Google Cardboard, most viewers will probably have to content themselves with Facebook’s 360-video release, which has its own list of software requirements.

With all the hype over VR, it’s easy to forget how inaccessible the medium can be. You can’t walk into a library or an electronics store and expect to try it out. Google Cardboard — a simple contraption that holds a phone before your eyes to allow stereoscopic vision of a VR vista — continues to be rare enough that I never have trouble giving any away when I speak before a computer user group.

I was reminded of this a day after my advanced look at “Through the Ages” when I visited a VR arcade in Washington. As far as I can tell, NotionVR is the only such arcade within 300 miles or so of the District; the next closest option may be an establishment called Ctrl V in Waterloo, Ontario.

The VR-development firm NotionTheory opened this arcade to show off the medium’s possibilities. For $30 an hour, visitors can strap on an HTC Vive and experience titles like Halfbrick Studios’ “Fruit Ninja VR and Google’s “Tilt Brush.”

As a visiting journalist, I didn’t have to pay, got to linger for more than 30 minutes and enjoyed every minute of it. If you’ll be around D.C. and want to check out VR, you might want to book time there yourself.

But if you want to regain a renewed appreciation for our national parks, step away from whatever device you’re reading this on and go visit one this weekend. It’ll be free, and if you take enough photos you can stitch them into your own 360-degree panorama.

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Email Rob at rob@robpegoraro.com; follow him on Twitter at @robpegoraro.