Virtual reality goggles are helping restore the lost pleasure of hillwalking for veterans affected by sight loss.

The VR platform is being used by Sight Scotland Veterans, allowing ex-servicemen and women to enjoy the experience of Munro bagging without ascending rocky outcrops.

Veterans with visual impairments are now able to enjoy the great outdoors once again with VR headsets after they were installed at the charity’s Hawkhead Centre ‘base camp’ in Paisley.

Centre officer and keen hillwalker Jason Turnbull has been among the first to try out the equipment in the IT suite.

Jason, who is responsible for organising activities for the veterans, is combining his passion for hillwalking and the power of virtual reality for the benefit of veterans.

He said: “I had previous experience with VR headset, so I was very keen to try it at Hawkhead. I watched 360-degree videos on YouTube and thought to myself ‘I can do better than that’. So, I bought a 360-degree camera and took it up the hills with me.

“I then began showing the veterans who are keen hillwalkers, and those who weren’t, the footage and there was a very positive reaction. They said it was ‘like being back on the hills’.”

The centre officer explained that because the VR headset lenses are close to their eyes, the veterans can experience the video footage like those without vision loss.

He adds: “I thought I am on to something here, so I have been going around as many Munros as I can so they can come with me. I am starting with the centrally located ones, in and around Crianlarich, like Ben More and Stob Binnein. I edit the footage and show the veterans when I come back, and they are saying it is absolutely unbelievable.

“It’s reawakening something in them. It is so rewarding to watch them and see their reaction. Perhaps it has been many years since they’ve climbed that hill, but they realise where they are. The VR allows them to revisit somewhere that was special to them. It triggers all those memories and sparks positive feelings within them.”

Noreen Smith, a former army nurse who has macular degeneration, who regularly attends the centre, has always been a great hillwalker but had to give up her passion due to her vision impairment.

She said: “The VR is just wonderful, it is just like you are back there again, it brings back so many happy memories for me. I can see the whole landscape, all the tremendous views, it really is like I am walking up the hills again.” 

Brian Wilson, who works in Sight Scotland Veterans’ Linburn Centre, is also seeing, first-hand, how VR is having a huge impact on the centre users.

Brian said: “In many instances, it enables veterans to see again, which is just amazing. As the screens are very close to their eyes, and includes large, bold images, it helps people with low vision see better and up close. Some of them find it quite overwhelming the first time they experience it. It opens up a whole new world to a person with a visual impairment.

“It is fully immersive and allows them to completely forget about the outside world. They can forget about their eye condition or any other problems or stresses they have and just relax and enjoy the experience.”