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It was 4pm in the afternoon. I scanned the vast Antarctic landscape around me. I had just boarded a Zodiac to zigzag around icebergs, en route to an Adélie penguin colony. Before that, a helicopter ride over the glaciers. In the morning, I had witnessed a herd of elephants walk past me in Maasai Mara and hung out with a Bedouin in Petra, Jordan. All the while sitting in my living room.
I was experiencing the world through virtual reality (VR), a revolutionary technology that allows viewers, through a headset, to place themselves in a simulated world. Think of it like watching TV—while being inside one. In this grey area between reality and a virtual universe lies the possibility to trick the mind into believing that it is at a different location from where it physically is. It’s this idea of ‘virtual presence’ that has the travel industry excited about changing the way people plan for travel and experience destinations.
Recently hotels, airlines, restaurants and travel companies have experimented with features that use virtual reality and its better-known counterpart, augmented reality (AR). The latter describes how virtual objects can be overlaid on sights of the real world, often using the phone camera. If you’ve used one of the face filters on Instagram or tried catching Pokémon in your living room with Pokémon Go, you’ve used AR before. Now, summertime is when I usually start planning a vacation with my wife and daughter; it is often a complex task involving spreadsheets, Post-its and Pinterest boards. With all the innovation I have seen with these technologies, I began to wonder how the planning and experiential aspects of travel would change for all of us in the near future. Here is what I have to say about that.
Mountain or beach?
I wanted to spend the summer surfing on a beach and sipping on piña coladas while my wife, Caroline, insisted on the mountains. As a first step towards deciding where to travel, we put our options to the test by ‘seeing’ how we feel in these destinations. After downloading one of the few high-quality destination VR apps (some examples include Ascape, Google Expeditions, and our own, Byond Travel), we virtually teleported between the beaches of Mauritius and the beautiful landscapes of Ladakh, debating the merits of both. We digressed many a time. There was a swim with sharks in South Africa, followed by a Mount Everest climb. The ability to experience destinations remotely is exciting, enthralling and very distracting. By the way, we eventually decided on Portugal.
Check-in or carry-on?
Always worried about the size of our carry-on bags, I now have help from another AR function. KLM has a new feature in their mobile app that makes it easy for passengers to determine whether their hand baggage is of the correct size. We lined up our bag and the app superimposed a virtual suitcase on top of it, sized to perfectly match the allowed dimensions.
Bem-vindo a Lisboa
We had made it to actual Lisbon. My Portuguese needed some brushing up, so I generously used my Google Translate app’s World Lens feature to translate menus and signboards into English in real-time. In the city’s many museums and historical sites, there were specific apps that could detect exhibits and supplement our experience with videos and useful information.
What to order?
Portuguese food is typically hearty and relies heavily on fresh seafood, pork and vegetables. With so many dishes, I experimented with interactive menus to see three-dimensional images of food items on my smartphone screen. The meal was digitally placed on an actual plate, to perfect scale, colour and appearance. Presentation, as they say, is half of what helps one decide what to eat. However, one doesn’t need to see AR versions of the famed Portuguese custard tarts. They are delicious either way.
The immersive nature of these technologies disrupt more than just the traveller. For example, my own experience of using VR for training involved some work Byond Travel did with the Jordan Tourism Board. We used the technology to teleport travel agents to the Wadi Rum desert. They were able to stand next to a cave in Petra and retain far more information regarding the place than they would have reading about it.
Airlines such as Qantas and Singapore Airlines are also experimenting with VR for in-flight entertainment, while many are excited about VR travel creating accessibility for those unable to travel due to medical or financial reasons. One of my biggest (now unfulfilled) dreams was to help my grandmother explore the world virtually, including revisiting her pre-partition house in Pakistan.
While VR and AR sound great, why aren’t they changing our lives yet? Maybe it’s time to talk about the elephant in the room (no, not the one who had walked past me earlier in Kenya). These technologies have often been hard to use. If wearing a heavy, clunky headset makes you feel isolated from everything around you (not to mention, sweaty), walking around with a smartphone in front of your face is barely practical. The lack of VR/AR-ready hardware, the high costs of producing content and, therefore, the paucity of great content, has meant slow adoption for these technologies. Some also report experiencing motion sickness and vertigo when using a headset for extended periods of time.
But once technologists get these things right (everyone from Apple to Samsung is investing heavily), it could change the way we interact with the world. Imagine a future with always-on VR and AR (contact lenses instead of clunky headsets, anyone?) and multi-sensory experiences to make this technology even more compelling. Imagine the smell of the ocean and the sun on your back as you explore a luxury liner’s new launch. Maybe we could even vacation in virtual reality. We’ll avoid the unpleasant airport queues and hang out with our friends around virtual campfires, or attend virtual concerts. The purists among us shudder at the thought, but if people can fall in love with robots, virtual travel isn’t implausible. The question is—where do we draw the line?
For now, you must excuse me. I need to put on my headset and get back to watching Titanic. We’re just about to hit an iceberg.
The writer is a serial-entrepreneur and the founder of Byond Travel, India's largest interest-driven community travel and content platform
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