April 23, 2016

Are Virtual Reality and Tourism on a Collision Course?

by Malek Murison

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How will virtual reality impact upon the travel industry?

On the face of it, virtual reality and tourism don't belong in the same sentence. One is an emerging technology that has only come in to being in the past few years, while the other is essentially a concept that has been around for as long as humans can remember. Sure, our Neanderthal ancestors didn't spend too much time booking food tours in romantic destinations, but the notion of travel, and the curiosity that drives it, has always been present.

Anyway, back to the matter at hand. Why are these two vastly different ideas becoming increasingly related? Well, let's start at the beginning. In case you didn't know, virtual reality is an up and coming technology that's becoming more and more sophisticated with every passing year. It goes without saying that the more immersive and believable VR is able to become, the more potential there is for commercial applications to be developed.

So far virtual reality applications have, understandably, been entertainment focused. Games consoles are improving with every new generation, but the idea that you can actually put yourself inside the game, rather than watch it playing out on a screen, is pretty exciting for Xbox and PlayStation fans. But there are also commercial applications across a range of industries.

In a study commissioned by Invest Bristol & Bath (IBB), virtual reality is expected by the public to have the most impact on the gaming sector (60%), although the entertainment (45%) and education (23%) industries are also considered to potentially benefit. So where is the action happening already? To give you an idea of some examples, virtual reality is already being applied in both real estate and architecture. Estate agents are using the technology to give people virtual tours of homes that haven't even been built yet. While in architecture, virtual reality is changing the way structures are designed and envisioned, with the incorporation of gesture controls and immersive 3d models.

So you get the idea: it's well on its way to becoming a pretty big deal. But interestingly, the study above also pointed to a small percentage (13%) of people expecting virtual reality to impact upon travel. But how is this so? They seem polar opposites. One is a genuine journey, the other a completely artificial one. With this being how things are, is there a way that VR can be used to complement genuine tourism, or do developers instead dream of the day when tourists visit other countries from the comfort of their own living room instead?

The obvious issue is this: virtual reality is already at the stage where it can provide users with authentic, realistic visual experiences. And the technology is only going to grow more powerful. Once developers manage to perfect both the hardware and software on the visual side of things, the next step - and this is where they might hit a brick wall - will be the physical aspect of the experience. Sure, they can make it look like you're strolling along a beach in the Caribbean, but can they make it feel like that's what you're doing? Will a simulation ever be able to accurately recreate the heat of the sun on your back, or the touch of sand between your toes?

Surely the worry for members of the travel industry at the moment must be that virtual reality will at least become both accessible and compelling enough visually. If this happens, perhaps people will be less inclined to travel, which could only be a bad thing for the tourism trade...

Virtual reality will actually help ramp up tourism

But fear not fellow travel industry workers! VR in its current state has the power to revamp and enhance tourism. The main potential for VR technology is in marketing. Yes, a virtual experience cannot (yet) match a genuine one, especially if we're talking skiing in the Alps or ice caving in Iceland. But what it can do is give you a taste of the action. And that taste, according to Abi Mandelbaum, CEO and co-founder of YouVisit, can be enough to drive bookings and generate interest. The comapny's analytics have found that more than 13% of people who take a VR tour of a destination are interested enough to take the next step in the process of planning an actual trip. 

"You can’t replicate real life in VR, but you can give people a preview and understanding of what they would experience if they went to visit physically," he said.

But the potential for virtual reality in tourism goes deeper than just helping you choose a destination. VR can also be applied when it comes to planning your trip. Think of it as the ultimate 'try before you buy' tool.

“It’s just short of the real thing,” says Richard Broo, founder and CEO of VR company Wemersive. “It allows you to quickly experience things that would otherwise take you weeks to research … It’s kind of like teleporting yourself into an experience, and it’s a great way to make a shortlist for your trip.”

In short, he says, VR gives you the best possible indication of what a place will be like without going there. Think of it as the perfect way to scope out a hotel or resort. He also suggests that it's generally a much more fun and interactive way of sorting out what is usually a tedious planning process. "Instead of sifting through a ton of websites, how about spending 10 minutes or so learning more about the location in a fully immersive environment?" he says.

The future's bright

It looks as though virtual reality could be a catalyst for the next generation of travellers. Yes, young adults these days are more attached to their screens and devices than any generation in history. But look on the bright side, if they're being inspired to travel by the latest in VR technology, or if their planning is being made easier by a quick virtual tour of a hotel, that can only be a good thing.

While one day the travel industry could well suffer as a result of increasingly sophisticated virtual experiences, that threat still seems pretty far off. For now, the industry should embrace it, and welcome VR's potential to improve tourism for all.