Gear Review: Bolt-On™ Virtua-Trekker

HeadsetFor the last few months I’ve been cutting a dash on the hills wearing the wrap-round headset pictured above. It’s the core component of the new Virtua-Trekker—the first application of Virtual Reality for the hill-walker or fell-runner—and the nice people at Bolt-On™ Cybernetics have been kind enough to give me an early prototype to review. I’ve been under a press embargo until today (April 1st), and I’m also obliged to let Bolt-On™’s lawyers review my proposed text before it goes live—hopefully they won’t find too many commercially sensitive details to object to.

Bolt-On™ have a long history as developers of hi-tech outdoors equipment. In the mid-90s, trading as the Bolt-On™ Corporation, they hit the market with a succession of emergency “surgical management” devices for hill-goers, most famously their Leg Repair Kit—a simple external fixator designed to be applied to a broken leg by either the casualty or a companion, stabilizing the fracture so as to allow the injured person to walk off the hill unaided. These were surprisingly cheap and initially sold well, but a number of high-profile adverse outcomes dogged the company into the early 2000s, culminating in a civil lawsuit brought on behalf of [REDACTED] which was eventually settled for [REDACTED]. Bolt-On™ effectively went dark for a decade thereafter, rumoured to be [REDACTED], before re-emerging as Bolt-On™ Cybernetics a couple of years ago, with a new mission statement to supply Augmented Reality products for outdoors activities.

The Virtua-Trekker is their flagship device, consisting of the goggles illustrated above with a visual field of [REDACTED] degrees containing [REDACTED] pixels in each lens, a GPS receiver/processor unit about the size of a small [REDACTED] and weighing [REDACTED] which can be carried in any reasonably sized rucksack, an optional microphone for the voice-recognition interface, and an accelerometer-glove (right hand only) for the gestural interface. The whole assembly is designed to lay what Bolt-On™ call Annotated Reality on to the user’s view of the outdoors—navigational information, weather updates, data tagging of landscape features, and so on. The various components can be connected to each other by cable or Bluetooth, and the processor unit can be linked to a home network for updates, data backup, and the transfer of waypoints and route files in several standard formats.

EASE OF USE

The processor connected readily to my wireless network. I was able to download the North Britain dataset from the Bolt-On™ website without difficulty—I understand access to a range of datasets, including [REDACTED], will be a subscription service when the device is released commercially. I was also able to transfer route files in *.gpx format from my PC’s mapping software to the device.

GPS reception seems to be generally stable, though I did encounter a certain amount of what Bolt-On™ refer to as “intermittent route lurch” while passing through dense forest, and one episode of “secular route drift” on steep ground.

The rechargeable batteries for the unit seem to have a lifetime of about four hours, so spares will need to be carried for all but the shortest trips.

The goggles are comfortable to wear in cool weather, but can become a little claustrophobic when it’s warm. My unit displayed a tendency to internal fogging when I exerted myself, but the Bolt-On™ technicians assure me this is unlikely to happen for someone who is “reasonably fit”. Rain on the lenses is an issue, and the hydrophobic wipes provided were only a partial solution. The bulky headgear certainly attracted attention—most people I encountered expressed interest, some were sympathetic, and a small number were verbally abusive.

I was unable to test the real-time weather update feature, which reportedly adds a graphical representation of approaching weather fronts to the virtual environment. This feature requires 3G network coverage, which was of course completely absent in the Scottish Highlands.

The voice-recognition interface functioned poorly in all but light winds, and I soon abandoned its use. The gestural interface is intuitive, allowing the user to tap through various function menus (presented at a virtual distance of about a metre). However, it can send unintended signals during normal hand movements. For example, while unscrewing the cap of my flask I inadvertently and unexpectedly accessed an “Easter Egg” routine—a game mode called Zombie Apocalypse that was quite distressing at the time. The programmers tell me that its presence will be properly flagged in the instruction manual of the commercial product, though they did seem a little disappointed that I hadn’t enjoyed the experience more.

NAVIGATION MODE

Basic navigation mode includes a direction indicator in the upper field of view, a route trace, annotated waypoints, and a set of “data packets” attached to various landscape features. I found the route trace (which laid my intended route on to the landscape as a red line) invaluable, especially in poor visibility.

Virtua-Trekker 1
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Virtual-Trekker 2
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The data packets available in my unit opened what appeared to be copies of Wikipedia pages, which were of neither use nor interest, occasionally fatuous and often misplaced.

VIEW MODE

View mode provides the names of landscape features visible on the horizon—which should finally put a stop to those endless “Can you see Schiehallion from here?” arguments.

Virtua-Trekker 5
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Switching to “mist mode” also provides an overlay sketch of the horizon itself, allowing the user to “enjoy the view” even when real-world visibility is restricted to a few metres. While the Bolt-On™ technicians seemed proud of the amount of processing required to produce this feature in real time, I found it tantalizing and annoying rather than useful.

Virtua-Trekker 6
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THE “NAISMITH WALKER”

This is one of the most innovative features of the kit. In default mode, it generates a virtual hiker who moves at a steady speed determined by Naismith’s Rule (a method of calculating the time required to complete a walk of given distance and ascent). The formula parameters are customizable (including an allowance for descent, which will be welcomed by those whose knees are of a certain age). Fell-runners are served by “Naismith Runners” of varying degrees of fitness, all suitably lean and lycra-clad.

Virtua-Trekker 3
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The Naismith Walker provides a ready estimate of how quickly (or slowly) you are progressing relative to your aspirational timings. It can be a little unsettling, however, to pause for a breather on a steep slope only to have the virtual Walker pass through you from behind and stride away uphill.  The interface provides a small selection of Walker avatars to choose from—male or female, young or old. I also discovered the option to have the Walker appear in the form of Death—a flying, black-hooded skeleton carrying a scythe. (I presume this was inserted by the same programmers who provided me with a Zombie Apocalypse halfway up the Stone Chute on Beinn Eighe.)

One disadvantage of the Walker’s steady pace is that the virtual figure falls well behind on flat ground, but quickly catches up during the ascent. After I turned around to see the figure of Death sweeping up the misty slopes of Ben Loyal towards me, I turned off the Naismith Walker.

Virtua-Trekker 4
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When I later remarked to the Bolt-On™ representatives that watching the approach of the Death avatar was a little reminiscent of the plot of the 2014 horror film It Follows, they became visibly excited. I understand they are now in licensing negotiations with the film’s production company.

VERDICT

A remarkable and innovative piece of kit that nevertheless has [REDACTED].

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