You can hear the crunch of foliage beneath boots, see the glare of the rising sun, and look out over the dawning valley below, but your shoes are clean and dry and the air around you is climate controlled.
It’s the best of both worlds.
While a group of friends pushes into the cold morning incline of a Pacific Northwest forest you’re at home on the East Coast pacing with them on the treadmill in your spare room.
Between you is a video call that spans the nation, and through your smartphone screen you can take in all the awe of your remote friend’s location, and join in the mix of grumbling and ecstatic conversation. Outdoor video conferencing can turn your suburban morning exercise routine into a social hike through the wilds.
Taking Video Tech Outside
The suburban side of this cross-country video conference is the easier to imagine, because the technology of video calling has been developed around the resources of our homes, our offices, and our cafes. Apple sells music by showing us Taylor Swift running on a treadmill while connected to her smartphone, and none of the tech involved is surprising.
Out in the terrain of Washington’s Capitol State or Tiger Mountain State forests, however, there are no power points to recharge our phones, no infrastructure to nurture our wifi needs, and no clusters of permanent customers to urge a carrier to up the mobile network coverage.
It’s also true that digital tech feels out of place in such natural locations, even invasive. We will get over that feeling, however. Video calling is no longer a fad, it’s a part of our everyday lives. Around 400 million people make audio and video calls each month through Facebook Messenger alone.
If you see the great outdoors as an escape from the noise of home and work, then sure, experience the forest as a digital no-go zone. If you want to share your natural experience, however, and bring your friends with you into the wilds of America, then video calling is ready to go there with the entire gang.
Outdoor Video Conferencing Research
Researchers in Canada are currently looking at ways to make video calling more compatible with outdoor activities. Their work comes with the comforting caveat that they’re not trying to reduce in-person interaction, but make it easier to share our lives outside of the city as easily as we do our lives within it. They use the example of two people on opposite sides of the planet being able to walk together through different environments, turning an isolated hike into an immersive, shared exploration of the natural world.
They’ve also highlighted the potential dangers of riding or hiking through treacherous terrain while staring into a smartphone–which are as real as driving a car while holding a phone.
So maybe video calling in the outdoors needs technology of its own. We’ve already seen the arrival of remote video exercise in the form of stationary exercise bikes that can be linked via video call to entire pelotons of remote riders; surely something could be rigged up to let us better share our distant friends’ early morning hike through the Cascades outside Seattle?
A Dedicated Outdoor Video Phone
We could weld together several pieces of existing technology to create a specialized outdoor video phone. For a start, the device could be nothing more than a video phone. Without all the battery draining apps and web browsers and games, we could reduce the energy required to operate a video connection. Something along the lines of a GoPro camera that serves a single purpose, and therefore serves it well.
The design of the GoPro is another bit of tech we could repurpose. The compact and robust construction and its simplified operation would make video calling less cumbersome–perhaps even less intrusive. All you’d need to do is point and stream, or mount and stream. Video calling on FaceTime, for example, requires only a touch or two of your finger to engage, so it shouldn’t be hard to include a user interface that doubles as viewing screen once a connection is made.
Then there’s the need to see two things at once: the caller and their surrounds. Most smartphones now carry an array of cameras in the front and back that function with equal clarity, and, in the case of the iPhone 7 Plus, they can capture different images simultaneously. So let’s develop that a little further so we can send back dual streams–one of us as we hike, and one of the hills we’re hiking through. We’d need just a group chat window layout to execute it.
Video Calling with Poor Network Coverage
Finally, there’s the question of poor internet coverage. Well, Microsoft has already developed Skype Lite for areas of India that receive only minimal network support. The device is half the file size of the usual Skype, and runs more economically to prolong battery life. Sure, you still probably wouldn’t be able to video chat from somewhere in the complete wilderness, stay close enough to civilization and you’re ok.
Add all that up and you’ve got a dedicated video phone that’s robust enough for all terrains, able to function in digitally dim areas, and smart enough to bring us both images of our hiking friends and the beautiful surroundings they’re straining to experience.
Back home, all we need is a plain old smartphone or tablet and some way of getting our own bodies moving, and we can join them all on that frosty trail, even if the busy realities of a life mean we can’t get there in person.