This Hypnotic App Lets You Explore A Half-Real, Half-Imagined Forest

A surreal visit to the English forest as it was before people ruined it.

Bears disappeared from the English woods over 1,500 years ago, but a new app is bringing them back virtually. U.K. artists used lasers to scan a local forest, recording every detail of the space, and then combined those images with a layer of computer-generated animals to create a half-digital world.


You can explore the forest through the app, called Datum Explorer, watching as pixelated animals walk by. But the artists also took the digital game back to the actual woods last summer, projecting the virtual world into the real one for a temporary installation.

“The installation appears as a constructed ‘data atmosphere,’ illuminated against the dark forest backdrop,” says designers Zhan Wang, William Gowland, Samantha Lee, and Oliviu Lugojan-Ghenciu, who make up a collective called Universal Assembly Unit.

“It’s brought to life by the ghostly appearances of simulated animals, disappearing and reappearing in response to visitors’ movement,” they explain. “When looking closely you see the pixels of the projection overlaid with the grain of tree trunks and line fines of spider webs, altogether creating a surreal fusion of real and imagined.”

On the mobile app or the desktop version of the game, you can turn and look around the space. “As an exploratory game, Datum Explorer does not have set goals,” the designers say. “Instead, it’s more like a visit to the English countryside, where you are free to choose your own route. The experience offers endless combinations of site specific recordings and elusive animals that stalk different territories. There is, however, a boundary edge to the game, where the forest bleeds into darkness.”

The app is connected to the physical world through a geo-locative trigger–if someone returns to the original site with a smartphone, the virtual forest “explodes into seasonal bloom.” The designers see it as an example of a way that technology can bring people closer to nature.

“Despite digital media’s bad reputation for gluing us to our screens, it can also be used to reveal hidden narrative layers that enrich our sense of reality,” they say.

About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.