From full-on headsets to immersive websites, Steve Vickers explores how virtual reality technology is changing the way we think about travel.

You might have seen the video. Filmed in a Seattle home, it shows an elderly lady leaning back in a flowery armchair, as a virtual version of Tuscany appears before her eyes. Leaves quiver on the trees and white butterflies flutter through the air. Somewhere in the distance, waves break gently onto the shore.

“I imagine it looks peculiar from your point of view,” she says, turning her head from side to side. “But my goodness, the scenery!”

In the last few weeks of her life, cancer had made it too painful for Roberta Firstenberg to travel, and even walking upstairs or venturing into the garden had become a major battle. But sitting in her armchair wearing a Oculus Rift headset, a virtual reality device initially funded by Kickstarter, she could get a temporary break from reality.

“The Oculus Rift gave her a sense of independent mobility that she had really missed,” her granddaughter Priscilla, who filmed the video, told me over email. “She kept going on and on about being able to go up the stairs in one of the demos. She was an avid gardener and loved butterflies, and was excited to experience those things again, despite it being October in Seattle.”

The Oculus Rift had pushed open a door. Without travelling anywhere, Roberta got the chance to explore the world anew.

In a few short years, virtual reality technology has improved to the point where these vivid experiences are now possible. Once the preserve of science fiction novels, the technology is now reliable enough – real enough – that it’s being used in ever-more creative ways. It can drop people into new, fully immersive environments and, temporarily at least, detach them from reality.

Oculus Rift headsetOculus Rift development kit, image by Oculus Rift

“When virtual reality was first conceived of, it was just considered a tool for engineering – for when the stakes were very high,” Sarah Cockburn-Price tells me. She represents Virtalis, one of the UK’s longest-running virtual reality companies. The purpose of this early technology was that if engineers wanted to build a new aircraft carrier or oil refinery, for example, they could model the whole thing first and then explore it using virtual reality. If there were problems with the design, they would be spotted early on by a real person, potentially saving millions of dollars in the process.

By the early 1990s computer game developers were tipping virtual reality as the next consumer trend. But as this American news broadcast from the time shows, poor graphics hindered any proper sense of realism.

Today, with the cost of the technology falling, and computers capable of rendering incredibly life-like environments, virtual reality is once again a hot topic – and it’s not only gamers and big corporations who are making use of the technology.

Pilots are using it to practice take-offs and landings; geologists are using it to survey vast landscapes remotely (both here on earth and elsewhere in the solar system); and architects are using it to show people around buildings that are still years away from completion.

“If you’re studying sub-atomic particles you can create a virtual world where you go in and fly amongst the particles,” Cockburn-Price tells me. “Similarly, if you want to go to Tahiti, you would be able to model [the island] on a 1:1 scale.”

This idea of exploring new places from afar has made virtual reality particularly appealing to parts of the travel industry. Wouldn’t a free, virtual reality tour of the Colosseum help a tour operator sell more holidays to Rome? What about a peek inside the city’s most luxurious resorts, with the chance to look around the rooms and take a ‘stroll’ through the restaurant, the gardens, or the gym?

This might seem far-fetched, but the technology is already capable and the ideas are already being tested – not just by experimental young companies in Silicon Valley, but also by some of the travel industry’s biggest players.

The travel industry goes VR

Earlier this month Thomas Cook, one of the UK’s largest package holiday companies, announced plans to trial virtual reality technology at a new concept store in Kent. Potential customers are now being invited to take a virtual tour of a resort in Mallorca using the Oculus Rift headset. Sounds from a Thomas Cook resort are added to enhance the effect, as is one of the hotel’s ‘signature fragrances’. Visitors can also look inside Thomas Cook’s aeroplane cabins before deciding which seats to pick.

HolidayopendayHoliday Open Day \ TUI

From a marketing perspective, at least, it seems to be showing results: the company told us that some of the customers who’ve toured the aircraft have chosen to upgrade their seat to premium class. Now, as part of a campaign to promote new flights and holidays, Thomas Cook is planning to allow would-be customers to explore parts of New York City with the same technology. Thomas Cook’s big rival, TUI, (which owns the Thomson and First Choice brands) has also invested in virtual reality – albeit a simpler and less impressive form that, for the moment, is much more accessible to consumers.

‘Holiday Open Day’ is a mini site featuring interactive videos filmed in the first person, with immersive footage of families larking about on waterslides and building sandcastles on the beach. Users can click from one activity to another, getting snapshots of what their holiday might be like in reality. Choose the ‘couple’s getaway’ option and you’ll get to see, first person, what it’s like to take a romantic boat trip at sunset, drink cocktails together by the waterside, or run into the sea with your snorkel on.

In September 2014, Marriott Hotels launched their 'Teleporter', which goes one step further and claims to be a four dimensional virtual reality experience, using VR headsets along with sounds and smells to really transport the users to another place.

Although these three approaches are very different, the raison d'être is identical: to market real-life holidays to paying tourists. Because even though sounds, street scenes and even smells and flavours can all be integrated into today’s virtual experiences, a lot of the joy we get from travelling relies on us physically being there. It’s hard to have a spontaneous travel experience like sharing a conversation with a stranger or getting lost in a chaotic city when the world around you is scripted.

But when compared with staying in one place – because of money troubles, or illness, or fear of flying, or work, or any of the other stuff that life throws at us – travelling virtually still holds a certain appeal.

“When you look back at human history, you can see that we have a tendency to explore,” Dr Alice Boyes, a blogger at Psychology Today, tells me over Skype. “You can also see it in babies, developmentally – the urge to explore our environment and to push our boundaries. It’s a built in tendency we have because we need it for learning.” And at least some of the benefits we get from travelling could also show themselves when we experience a new place virtually.

“Any kind of change in environment will cause your thinking to shift,” Dr Alice says. “And there’s an excitement factor to virtual reality – you’re getting your positive emotions stimulated.” Taking a virtual peek at a holiday destination or hotel after booking, she suggests, could even help travellers to get more from the whole experience.

“There are some people that like to not know anything about where they’re travelling. They don’t want to read a lot of stuff on the internet; they want to go and see everything with their own eyes. There are other people who like to do tons of research. They like to build up that positive anticipation. It’s just like with Christmas; most of the benefit is actually in the anticipation.”

Of all the virtual reality companies currently making waves, one stands out as a potential game changer for the travel industry. Instead of using computer-generated graphics, like the games that work with Oculus Rift, Silicon Valley start-up Jaunt has put its energy into recreating real environments in exceptional detail.

Omni-directional, ball-shaped cameras work in tandem with 3D microphones to record real-life scenes, such as basketball games, concerts and famous landmarks, allowing people to view them in real time later on.

“The experience you have as a user is of being transported to wherever the camera has been recording,” says Jaunt CEO Jens Christensen over the phone. “Things pop out at you and you feel like you’re actually in that location.”

“When you put on the goggles and the headphones, the feeling of being somewhere else is one that you don’t get if you’re watching TV or sat in front of your browser, or even at the movies. Everything you’re seeing and hearing is from that other location.”

User generated virtual reality experiences

Right now this kind of high-end footage is extremely expensive to create and only really within the reach of big film companies, such Los Angeles-based New Deal Studios, which is currently working on a short virtual reality film set during World War Two.

However, the hope is that, as with smartphones and tablets, the price will eventually drop to a level where consumers themselves can become the content creators. “At some point it will make sense to record your personal vacation,” Jens tells us. “Or if you have your house for sale you may want to record your house in VR so that can people can preview it online.”

Rumours suggest that a consumer version of the Oculus Rift, which is now owned by Facebook, could be available as soon as 2015. At the moment developer kits are available online for $350 a piece, and are being used to create and test content that will eventually be sold to a wider consumer audience. But the Oculus Rift is not the only player; tech giant Sony recently unveiled a slick competitor codenamed Project Morpheus, which is still in development.

And ultra low budget alternatives are already beginning to emerge, opening up exciting new possibilities for a mass-market form of virtual reality. Google Cardboard is one of the most exciting developments. A do-it-yourself solution made with lenses, magnets and cardboard, among other things, it allows ultra-cheap viewing of virtual reality content. Its secret weapon is a device that’s becoming widespread even in the developing world: the smartphone.

Google cardboardImage courtesy of Google

Place your Android phone inside one of these homemade housings and you can quickly take a basic, virtual trip. How about a helicopter ride over the Great Barrier Reef? Or maybe a bear-spotting trip to Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula?  Users who get sufficiently inspired can then begin developing their own content to share online. This, in turn, opens up the possibility of individual tours and travel ‘experiences’ being sold on platforms like the App Store and Google Play, just as other travel apps are sold online today.

“Each new technology adoption seems to go faster than the previous one,” says Jens. “The tablet adoption was quicker than the cell phone adoption, which was much quicker than the PC adoption.” Because of this quickening, Jaunt estimates that over the next three years, there will be tens of millions of virtual reality headsets around the world, giving consumers the chance to travel without actually travelling.

The notion of shifting perspective, rather than physically travelling to a new part of the world, is a relatively old one. Consider the 30-odd Eiffel Tower replicas dotted around the globe, many built for those who can’t (or won’t) travel to the original one in Paris. And then there are the ski slopes built in Dubai, despite the ludicrous heat.

Similarly in Sweden, where winter temperatures frequently drop below zero, an indoor beach has been built as a kind of temporary refuge from the snow. Real sand, warm air and jungle sounds are all used help transport local people to the tropics, with sessions priced by the hour. There’s even special lighting that encourages the human body to produce vitamin D in the same way that it does when exposed to sunlight.

The possibilities of augmented reality

Of course, we travellers might not have to choose between these ‘faked’ environments and pure, computer-generated trickery. Real-life travel could simply be integrated with, and enhanced by, the new technology. A good example is the Spike S-512, a supersonic business jet that’s still in the early stages of design. It’s one of at least two aircraft that could end up being developed with panoramic digital displays running along the inside of its fuselage instead of physical windows. The idea is that the screens could show anything from movies to soothing exotic landscapes, reducing drag on the outside of the plane and helping passengers forget that they are actually flying.

Much more advanced than this is augmented reality, the kind of technology that seamlessly links the real world with the digital one. It’s used in stargazing apps, where you point your phone at a constellation in the sky and get information on the stars relayed back to your screen. Google’s Goggles app also uses this technology. When tourists point their camera at landmarks and famous paintings, the names of architects and artists suddenly appear onscreen.

But as augmented reality technology develops it’s becoming more impressive to look at. Eon Reality’s AR Engine app, available for iPhone and Android, is a good free option to try at home. Just point the phone at a 2D picture of a jet engine and suddenly it appears in 3D, allowing you to view the model from different angles and interact with the components.

eonrealityImage courtesy of Eon Reality 

Developers say this same technology could easily be applied to let people examine artefacts up close (an ancient object at a museum for example), or interact with a scale model of a well-known tourist sight.

“One of the things that we dream about for the future is to connect, over a remote distance, multiple virtual reality devices,” Eon Reality CEO Mats Johansson tells us. “Just as kids play games today with people around the world using their computers, we can do the same in a virtual reality immersion environment, where people can be represented by an avatar, and they can talk to each other and interact.” Combine this with the ultra-realistic footage being produced at Jaunt, and things could get very interesting indeed.

But will virtual reality ever get so good that people stop travelling altogether? And by dabbling with the technology, are travel agents like Thomas Cook clipping their own wings? The answer to both of those questions is almost certainly no. For many, real travel is just too rewarding. But when it comes to getting people excited about a new place, improving their travel experiences, and helping those who can no longer venture out into the big wide world – just like Roberta Firstenberg, who gained so much from it in her final days – it looks like virtual reality is beginning to find its place.


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