Climbers at Joshua Tree National Park. | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Climbers at Joshua Tree National Park. | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The climber perched near the top of Atlantis Wall in Joshua Tree National Park, as a fellow mountaineer reached up with his hand to try to close the distance. Before he could catch up, however, a message popped up on the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset: “Altitude stimulates the production of red blood cells.”

Louisville-based health insurer Humana and the National Park Foundation are employing virtual reality experiences captured in some of the nation’s most iconic natural environments to entice people to spend more time in parks to improve their physical and mental health.

The company is launching the VR experience in Chicago today and will take it on the road in the next few weeks — mostly in the Midwest and Southeast — to Humana sites and public events.

Louisvillians use virtual reality headsets at Humana's headquarters to travel to Yosemite and Joshua Tree National parks. | Photo by Boris Ladwig.

Louisvillians use virtual reality headsets at Humana’s HQ to travel to Yosemite and Joshua Tree National parks. | Photo by Boris Ladwig.

Louisvillians got a sneak peak at the setup last week on the ground floor of Humana’s headquarters, where employees sat in wooden chairs, donned the Oculus Rift and headphones, and virtually traveled to Joshua Tree and Yosemite.

Participants could turn their heads in any direction as people hiked, climbed and cycled through the beautiful scenery. Pop-up messages — which were easy to miss if you were looking elsewhere — conveyed the benefits of physical activity and spending time in nature.

A time-lapse sequence showing a tent in Joshua Tree under a starry night encouraged viewers to reset their inner clocks by sleeping in nature. The Yosemite program showed a couple hiking under a bridge over a waterfall, informing viewers that the park has 800 miles of walking trails. At Mirror Lake, the program promoted the cardiovascular benefits of kayaking and canoeing.

In a quiet and serene sequence, a woman snowshoed through a wooded area. In the Badger Pass Ski Area, snowboarders and skiers whisked past the lens.

Humana wants to remind people of the innumerable health benefits that come with being outdoors, especially because people spend so much of their time indoors, said Tres Waterfield, the company’s sponsorship manager.

The company hopes the virtual reality experience — and its restorative effects — will encourage employees and customers to spend more time in nature, whether they engage in physical activities or just relax and read a book, Waterfield said.

Humana also will launch a quiz it developed with National Geographic to measure people’s “nature engagement levels” and to provide tips about how they can spend more time outdoors.

Yosemite National Park. | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Yosemite National Park. | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The marketing campaign is tied in with the company’s goal to make its communities 20 percent healthier by 2020, by reducing the number of days on which customers report being physically or mentally unhealthy.

Nick Walter, Humana’s director of digital marketing and strategy, said the virtual environments allow people to experience things that they otherwise might not. People who are physically incapable of climbing a mountain, for example, can experience the activity — and the vistas — virtually.

Walter said the technology and its applications are still in their infancy, but VR could be used to treat psychological conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder, by exposing people in a virtual reality environment to triggers of the their condition to help them cope.

From a technical perspective, too, virtual reality still has a ways to go: While Humana’s virtual reality experience neatly immersed the headset wearers into the environment, the scenes came with a noticeable pixelation, which caused somewhat of an alienation effect.

Walter got a firsthand look at some VR applications at the recent SXSW tech conference in Austin, Texas, where he sat on a bicycle on which a virtual reality program had him pedaling through a city. If he seemed to slack off, fellow cyclists in the program encouraged him to pick up the pace.

For now, Humana hopes the VR experiences in the national parks whets people’s appetite for spending more of their leisure time on inexpensive activities that improve their physical and mental health.