Travel entices nearly everyone. When we dream of walking crystalline beaches, wandering blissfully lost past nature’s most idyllic creations, or navigating the strange buzz of an exotic mega-city lit up at night, it’s difficult to be anything but enthralled. In fact, I’d bet that if most people could, they would take their friends, their loved ones, and travel together nonstop. But that dream comes with an unfortunate caveat: reality. The reality of most of our situations leaves us unable to travel; we’re too busy working, providing. Living. Such thoughts make for wonderful daydreams, but our real preoccupation is with life.
Virtual reality could change everything. If we can convincingly sink ourselves into virtual landscapes, experiencing in staggering depth and clarity the sights and sounds of faraway places, VR may one day be able to fool our senses into traversing the globe (and beyond), without leaving the convenience of home. As it stands, the technology is still raw; it has yet to trickle fully into the mainstream, and what we do have is only a fraction of what might be achieved with VR.
Nevertheless, wearable VR has improved substantially since the colossal market failure of reality augmentation device Google Glass only a few years prior. Personal VR headsets which offer levels of visual immersion bordering on realistic are now produced and sold by companies such as Oculus Rift, Sony, and Samsung, and efforts to create virtual travel experiences are already well underway.
State-sponsored tourism channels have been among the first to accept VR’s potential to show us what we wouldn’t otherwise see; in November 2016, Thailand’s Tourism Authority released a series of 360-degree videos, which included depictions of an elephant sanctuary, as well as western Thailand’s Kung Lao cave. “We want consumers to be able to touch, feel, see, and hopefully one day smell Thailand,” comments Steven Johnson-Stevenson, Thailand’s tourism marketing authority for the eastern United States. Tourism Australia has also published a number of 360 degree videos, including clips of a Sydney sunset, and snorkeling among the Great Barrier reef’s vibrant wildlife.
Another one of VR’s valuable travel applications is its ability to allow prospective vacationers to sample locations, in order to decide on the ideal setting. Travel companies such as Delta Airlines and Lufthansa use Oculus Rift to give a taste of what their services offer; also, the Thomas Cook Group launched a “fly before you buy,” initiative, implementing VR to spirit browsing customers away on a helicopter journey above Manhattan, a trek straight up the Pyramids of Giza, and more. Marriott has taken VR vacation sampling a step beyond the rest; in 2015, the hotel chain rolled out its interactive “teleport stations,” which utilize Oculus tech to entice customers, displaying across all five senses the virtual details of Hawaii’s breathtaking obsidian beaches.
But we’ve seen VR do more than just simulate a destination; it can also introduce an intriguing layer to our travels themselves; for example, VR app Timelooper transports users back in time by simulating major historic events at particular locations. “When you visit a historical site, there’s an abundance of resources to understand facts and figures—when it was constructed, how it was made, how people lived there at the time—but the thing that’s missing is a way to emotionally and immersively connect connect with these places,” elaborates Andrew Feinberg, Timelooper’s Chief Operating Officer.
From simulating a compelling, virtual version of travel to augmenting the journey itself, there seems to be every reason to conclude that in coming decades VR will undoubtedly hold sway over where we go, how we get there, and what travel actually means.