Can memories experienced in a virtual vacation ever be as satisfying as actually being there?
Those of us who are passionate about real world travel would argue that nothing can replace getting out there and exploring the globe, interacting with people, seeing the sights, sensing the smells, tasting the food and embracing all the serendipitous bliss of being elsewhere.
On the flip side, there is something to be said for escaping in a simulated immersive experience to far-flung places without the hassles of transporting there, the expense of lodgings, the stress of unfamiliar surroundings and all the potentially awkward aspects of venturing away from the comforts of home.
Whatever your perspective on the issue, virtual reality, augmented reality, 360-degree videos and other emerging technologies are transforming the travel industry in a big way.
The Evolution of VR
Humans have been intent on creating the illusion that we are somewhere else for quite some time. Enormous 19th century panoramic paintings were an attempt to fully engross the viewer into a scene, making them feel like they’re part of it.
In 1939, the View-Master stereoscope managed to instill a sense of depth into an image, taking the immersive experience up a reality notch and introducing an early taste of virtual tourism.
In the 1950s, cinematographer Morton Heilig developed the Sensorama, a novelty theater cabinet that used three-dimensional images, stereo sound, scent generators, fans and a vibrating chair to create an engaging multi-sensory film experience. Not long after, he invented the Telesphere Mask, which was the first head-mounted VR device.
As computer graphics technology advanced, step-by-step improvements in immersive simulations occurred, and by 1987 the term “virtual reality” entered the lexicon. Jaron Lanier founded the Visual Programming Lab which developed wearable gear like the Dataglove, EyePhone head-mounted display and Virtual Reality goggles, all far too expensive and rudimentary to have any mainstream consumer applications yet.
Video gaming helped propel things to the next level, with improved VR goggles, head-tracking systems and real-time engaging multi-player experiences. SEGA, Nintendo and others tried to launch games in this space in the 1990s, but they were commercial flops. Movies like Total Recall, The Lawnmower Man and The Matrix heralded VR technology’s promise, but tech-wise things weren’t quite there yet.
The 21st century has seen rapid advancement in the VR and AR fields. Lightweight mobile devices with high-density displays, richer graphics, depth sensing cameras, motion controllers and natural human interfaces have become more affordable and ubiquitous. Facebook acquiring headset innovator Oculus Rift for a cool $2 billion is a good indication that this industry is booming. Microsoft HoloLens, Samsung Gear, Sony PlayStation VR, Google Cardboard and HTC Vive are all jumping into this burgeoning space, too. Now that the hardware is capable, software and content creation is finally catching up and consumer demand for immersive interactive VR products is exploding.
VR and the Travel Industry
The travel industry is right at the forefront of this revolution, and more and more brands are experimenting with the emerging medium for marketing purposes.
Marriott Hotels were one of the first to jump in with their Teleporter kiosks in 2014, which incorporated 4-D techniques like heat, wind, water and motion along with VR headsets to sweep people away on virtual tours of London and Hawaii – complete with feeling the sun on their face, the breeze in their hair and a splash of ocean waves. They also launched “VRoom Service” whereby guests in select hotels can order in-room virtual travel experiences via VR Postcards. These allow viewers to join real travelers on journeys to the mountains of Chile, the streets of Beijing and an ice cream shop in Rwanda.
The British Columbia tourism office has produced a spectacular virtual reality experience that lets visitors get a taste of the rainforest and some outdoor adventure activities they can pursue there. The Wild Within VR Experience more than just a novelty gimmick. It’s a kick-ass marketing tool that builds buzz and inspires people to actually go there.
Similarly, China’s national tourist office has developed an immersive VR tour of the Temple of Heaven in Beijing. Viewers in headsets can turn around and explore the site in 360 degree glory, and zoom in to examine closeup details if they choose.
Qantas recently became the first airline to introduce virtual reality headsets to first-class passengers on select flights, showcasing tourist-friendly highlights of Australia before landing.
Club Med sees the value of VR marketing and has developed 360-degree teaser videos to tempt travelers to their all-inclusive resorts. Viewers can feel like they’re flying on a trapeze, snorkeling on a reef, checking out an over-water bungalow, and meeting the multicultural staff to get a sense of being there. Not surprisingly, inviting people to sample these compelling VR videos on the cold streets of Montreal last February was a boon for bookings.
Cruise lines are exploring VR marketing too. For example, Carnival has built promotional experiences for Google Cardboard whereby potential passengers can explore the ships’ staterooms, check out amenities and get a taste of shore excursions. Not only does it help spark the travel itch for a cruise experience, it’s an effective up-sell tactic, too.
Last year, Thomas Cook travel agencies implemented a VR promotion to invite customers to “try before you fly.” Customers were enticed into their bricks-and-mortar stores to try out Samsung Gear VR headsets that took them on a virtual journey to New York City. Bookings to that destination increased 190 per cent in 2015.
As a marketing tool, there’s no question that VR’s “wow factor” is a game-changer for travel and tourism. It’s a modern-day extension of the static brochures of yore, only on steroids. Beyond pretty pictures and alluring prose, we can now provide an immersive thrill to potential travel consumers through the lens of VR device. It gets people pumped, primed and informed about a location, hotel, attraction or adventure prior to actually going there. A well-executed 360 degree VR experience can instill a deeper connection and emotional bond with a destination in a more visceral, heartfelt, memorable manner than other media can. That’s a powerful motivator that should increase revenue and customer conversion.
Travel VR Today and Tomorrow
We’re in the infancy of VR content creation, so its potential has only just begun to be explored. As it becomes more and more mainstream, the format’s rich perspective will provide new, exciting and insightful ways for us to experience our world.
For example, check out Youtopia VR‘s unofficial app that integrates Google Street View data to let you poke around anywhere on the globe at whim. It uses voice support, so you can say “take me to the top of the Eiffel Tower” and be gazing out over the City of Lights in an instant, and then pop on over to the Great Wall of China or Times Square if you want. It’s not as slick as it could be, but for now it’s the closest thing we have to that movie Jumper.
Discovery VR, an offshoot of the Discovery Channel, is starting to produce compelling 360 degree content. You can feel like you’re exploring shark-infested shipwrecks without getting wet, or enjoy the thrill of skateboarding down San Francisco’s twisty Lombard Street without breaking your leg. They’re also producing meaningful documentaries about, for example, the trafficking of endangered species. Rather than being passive spectators, viewers are urged to continue the conversation on social media and are becoming passionate ambassadors to these causes. It opens up a whole new dimension of geo-relevant, socially conscious, educational entertainment.
If you want to do a little armchair traveling on your smartphone, look at Ascape‘s 360-degree video and photo tours. The travel app can let you experience Disneyland Hong Kong’s Star Wars parade or reindeer racing in Norway.
Jaunt is another production company that specializes in quality VR travel content that delivers an uncanny sense of presence previously not possible. They’ve created amazing documentaries on Nepal, Iceland, Machu Picchu and other destinations that really capture the imagination of globetrotters. Expect more of this type of content as our collective hunger for innovative VR storytelling increases.
VR technology is also poised to become an astounding global educational tool. Don some goggles and peruse the Louvre museum, explore the Amazon or see the Roman Colosseum as it was during its construction. The possibilities are limitless, and the quality will just skyrocket from here on out.
Others are working on bringing immersive image creation and sharing to the masses, so you no longer need a Hollywood blockbuster budget to get in the game. Google VR and Go-Pro have developed Jump and Odyssey, so anyone can capture stereoscopic panoramic images and video footage to view them on affordable Google Cardboard Viewers. Samsung Gear 360 has come out with a spherical high-resolution camera that retails around the $350 mark. Seene is a 3D creation and viewing app for Cardboard-compatible smartphone viewers, which allows you to merge image, depth and movement into a scene. Splash, Cycloramic and Photo 360 are other current apps that let you capture and share 360 images on your smartphone. None are perfect, but the experience will surely improve at warp speed as everyone wants to own the consumer VR ecosystem.
Don’t Burn Your Passport Just Yet
No doubt there’s a yet-to-be-developed killer virtual vacation app just waiting to wow us. However, as exciting as these emerging possibilities are, virtual travel experiences will never make real world exploration obsolete. Gadgets, gizmos and games can seemingly teleport you around the world, but the sensation is a facsimile of the real thing.
Some virtual tourists may feel satisfied to check items off their been there-done that virtual bucket lists through a headset. Many of us, though, are still driven by an authentic sense of wanderlust, an itch that can only be scratched by true travel. No matter how convincing, insightful, immersive or engaging the VR content, digital exposure to a destination isn’t a soul-satisfying substitute for actually being there.