It may sound like a redundant statement, but technology is changing every aspect of how we live our lives. That’s doesn’t just mean in the way smartphones have become an extension of our bodies, but also in the way we experience the world around us.
So it should be no surprise then that VR is being touted as the next horizon for the travel industry. After all, it makes sense that virtual reality and selling a travel experience would go hand in hand – you want to preview an experience before shelling out your hard-earned money, and donning a VR headset is the closest you can get to experiencing a location without actually being there.
With a market value estimated to hit US$70 Billion by 2020 and new research showing virtual tourism to be in the top five most popular activities for virtual VR users, the next few years will be interesting for VR and travel, to say the least. Tom Harding, director of VR and immersive products for Samsung Electronics America summed up the technology’s potential, “VR is incredibly powerful because it allows travel businesses to intimately showcase their expertise as curators of experience — be it destination options, restaurant suggestions or hidden gems that only the locals know.” While this is true, there are still some issues we have to work through before this VR can be adopted across the board. For one, VR today only covers one or two senses at the most. IN the future, travel companies will look to integrate the other senses to create a totally immersive experience, including adding location-specific scents – picture sea air and paella for Spanish beach holidays – and a temperature controlled environment.
Before you book
Sure, VR isn’t the same as actually being there, but it’s the closest travellers will get to actually experiencing locations without visiting them. As detractors line up to argue against getting too carried away, developers are slowly filling in the gaps with what is still a relatively new technology. Plus, with additional sensory features like immersive audio, moving platforms and, as we mentioned earlier, even ‘smellovision’ on the horizon, VR use as an original visual marketing tool is becoming more relevant by the day.
Booking a hotel comes with its own unique challenges – not least of which is deciphering the size, scale and layout of a room from the cleverly-placed camera shots found on-site. But with VR, travellers can get a virtual walkthrough of potential hotels and choose from more than just the standard 2D thumbnails afforded by most booking sites. Shangri-La Hotels and Resorts trialled their own VR experience as part of a worldwide sales push. Brian Windle, vice president of sales and marketing for the Americas for Shangri-La Hotels and Resorts argued, “It’s easy to talk about square footage and hardware, but VR lets clients virtually step into event spaces to envision not only the space but also an experience for their customers.”
When Thomas Cook trialled their ‘Try before you fly’ campaign, commercial VR and 360-degree video were still in their infancy. The campaign invited customers to try on a VR headset and try to decipher clues from the surrounding environment. In the video, users are seated aboard a Thomas Cook plane and can choose between economy and premium classes, with clues indicating to which exotic location the flight is headed. The campaign proved a big hit, earning the travel company a 190% uplift in their New York excursions and a 40 % ROI.
When you’re there
The way over
With its myriad applications, VR isn’t just limited to the booking process. Qantas is already experimenting with putting Samsung Gear VR headsets onto flights for first-class customers. The headsets allow passengers (or those lucky enough to be in first class, anyway) to escape the humdrum of flying with virtual tours of different exotic locations – also acting as a nice precursor to the passenger’s own adventure. While the scope of VR use on planes is limited today, it could point to a wider trend for years to come.
Finding your way around
It’s easy to envision the uses for immersive multimedia technology in the booking process, but what about when you actually reach your destination? You don’t need to visualise the sparkling beach or the luxurious hotel room when you’re there. Augmented reality, on the other hand, could hold some real applications after you’ve arrived. The popularity of Pokemon Go proved people are more than ready for AR, and that’s good news for the travel sector. Augmented reality allows you to find all the top spots in a new location – presented in a ‘Google Street View’ like display with markers identifying all the nearby cafes, bars, restaurants and public attractions.
Your own virtual travel guide
As one of the better-known AR travel apps, Wikitude stands head and shoulders above the rest. Utilising a range of resources to present the best in bars, restaurants, activities, attractions and more, Wikitude is like having a digital pocket tour guide with the added bonus that you can curate your own unique journey. This is the true future of travel – sharing experiences through insightful, mobile-oriented apps that give you the information you need while allowing you to construct your own narrative.
The future of holiday reviews
Just as AR apps now allow travellers to document their journey with reviews and pictures, VR can capture your experiences and share them in an immersive environment for other travellers. Reviewing a travel attraction through VR gives you an entirely new dimension with which to work. Imagine, witnessing a travel review through the eyes of the reviewer – watching the waiter bring the wine, seeing which hotel offers the best sunset views or comparing walking tours, all without leaving your living room.
A new kind of slideshow
Down the line, travellers could compose their own VR experience to show friends and family back home – probably a welcome relief for anyone who’s had to sit through hours of monotonous slideshows from recently holidayed relatives. Grandma can’t make it to the wedding in Barcelona? With VR, you could film the entire day and allow her to enjoy it as if she were really there. Want your parents to witness your first bungee jump without the nerve-rattling experience of having to stand on the bridge alongside you? With VR, they can see for themselves without taking the leap themselves.
Travel VR: some unresolved issues
Getting the footage
Right now, there aren’t enough professional companies capturing locations with high-definition, virtual reality technology. Of course, this will change over time, but right now the content just can’t keep up with the technology. Likewise, only the most renowned locations, like Machu Picchu or the Eiffel Tower, have actually been captured in a way that would allow travel companies to curate a truly immersive experience. As time goes on and the technology develops, we can expect far more locations to become accessible through VR, but until then our experiences will be limited.
Just how accessible is it?
The same is true for those wishing to view locations using their own technology. With high-end VR kits (such as Oculus Rift and the HTC Vive) still out of reach for the majority of people, experiencing locations in full HD requires attending travel conventions or shelling out large amounts of money. Of course, there are cheaper options out there. Google Cardboard, at only $20, can give you a unique VR experience without breaking the bank – but for that truly immersive experience, you may want to wait until the high-cost models come down in price.
A technology that provides a visual medium to showcase destinations certainly sounds like the holy grail of travel marketing. Despite its relative success, the sheer cost of hosting VR devices and of capturing locations for use in these virtual realities makes it unlikely we will be using the technology to book our next holiday. However, to the sceptics in the travel sector that argue the real-world costs and difficulties will drive VR back to the realms of contrived novelty gadgets – be patient. Costs invariably go down as we discover new, more efficient means of capturing those high-quality visuals and transporting customers to new worlds.