5…7…9 hours fastened to a stiff, itchy seat. Legs bent like pretzels to accommodate “one handbag and one carry on.” The flight attendant screeches in your mind like a broken record. Ticket and hotel expenses dig trenches in your bank account.
But the moment cool sand slips into the crevices between your toes, travel strains are swept away with the tide. A soft breeze whistles in your ears. A salty mist speckles your cheeks. Wouldn’t just one serene afternoon in Maui, Hawaii be worth every penny, every second on a stuffy airplane? That is- unless you could get a similar experience by strapping into a black headset and goggles, or peering through a cardboard box for $24 courtesy of Amazon?
Meet virtual reality (VR), the innovative media technology that builds a digital landscape for users to enter and experience from within. Google, Samsung, HTC and Oculus sell VR headsets, which use special lens and sensors to create 360-degree vision. With the proper headgear, you can wander around a virtual space and feel as if you are actually physically there. Many types of equipment are available to make VR a full body, sensory experience, such as force feedback haptic suits, gesture control gloves and arm and chest sensors. These products use micro-sensors and electromagnetic technology to provide haptic feedback to users, making it possible to use hands and arms to control and interact with virtual objects. Certain equipment also converts sound waves into vibrations and uses contact points to simulate force feedback. As the VR technology improves, developers hope to continually reduce the gap between virtual and actual reality.
The spectacular capabilities of VR are expected to transform the travel and hospitality industries. VR unlocks the ability to explore destinations around the world and beyond without the need to physically travel. The implications for VR and travel are being explored by a large variety of businesses from NASA, GoPro and Discovery to Marriot and Lufthansa and more. Marriot currently uses “one of the most immersive VR experiences ever created” to advertise their brand through a Virtual Travel program. Virtual Travel comes to life with the Teleporter, a “science fiction-inspired experiential portal that looks like a high-tech phone booth.” Users enter the Teleporter booth and put on Oculus Rift VR headsets and wireless headphones. Once plugged in, the user is transported to Wai’anapanapa Beach in Maui or to the top of Tower 42 in London. With a 3D 360 “immersive video,” computer generated images and “4D” sensory features such as sounds, heat, wind, scents, floor movements etc, the user enjoys a seemingly authentic experience in countries across the globe. The CEO and founder of Relevant, a marketing group working on the Teleporter, says that the “secret sauce” of this VR tool “is in 4D, because being on a vacation affects more than just your eyes and ears.” Check it out here: VirtualTour.
Yet the high tech Teleporter is not the only device for those wanting to escape into a virtual reality. With just a simple headset, you can travel to far flung destinations from the comfort of your couch, a classroom or airplane seat. The instantaneous travel experience of VR is currently being used by Quantas Airlines, who offers VR technology as part of their in-flight- entertainment for first class passengers. With a Samsung headset, flyers can visit Sydney’s Harbor Bridge or ride down a river in Kakadu National Park while in the air. In Spring of 2016, NASA debuted Mars 2030, a VR experience where people can traverse a virtual construction of the Red Planet. If one is disabled or lacks the financial resources, they can still explore the Pyramids, Machu Picchu or climb Mt. Everest. The travel potential of VR seems limitless.
But, will real travel ever actually be replaced by virtual travel? Vice President of Marketing at Marriott does not think so, “Nothing can replace actually going to a destination, experiencing it yourself, and sharing your experiences with others.” The idea of VR is not to replace real-world travel, however companies continue to hone in on making the virtual experience as real as possible. The ability to share VR spaces with other users is in developmental stages, so in the future it will be possible to travel in VR with friends and family. In addition, while real travel has many costs and constraints, virtual travel is accessible to people of all ages, physical states and financial situations. Tech giants like Google, Facebook, Sony, Nintendo, Samsung, Microsoft and more are acquiring VR technologies that are easy to use and cost efficient. Google created VR goggles made from cardboard boxes at an exceptionally low price just to prove it can be done, to show how far technology has come and where it can take us. Most VR technologies can be hooked up to smartphones through downloadable applications, so all you need in addition to some goggles is a smartphone and a solid Wi-Fi connection.
Virtual travel is a budding industry. Today, its main use in the travel industry is for advertising purposes- to give consumers a taste of a new destination so that they are persuaded to go there. Yet is it not hard not to envision the great potential for virtual travel. Even if it never replaces real travel, the ability to experience far away, dream destinations without any hassle is game changing.