A 2-D look at the future of virtual reality in travel

What We'll See From Virtual Reality In 2016
What We'll See From Virtual Reality In 2016

Since the 1990 release of "Total Recall," the film in which Arnold Schwarzenegger reclined, put on goggles and took a virtual reality vacation to Mars, the travel industry has been intrigued by the technology's promise.

Early commercial experiments used augmented reality, simpler software that's popular for video games and doesn't require special equipment to view. And in 2014, when Facebook spent $2 billion to buy the virtual reality headset maker Oculus, the travel industry took notice. What's more, the latest Technology, Media and Telecommunications Predictions forecast from Deloitte predict a $1 billion year for virtual reality in 2016, with $700 million being spent on hardware and $300 million on content production, indicating the technology's accelerating adoption.

Evolving from Augmented Reality to Virtual Reality

"What makes AR and VR cool is that they're interactive. Viewers can click, move a mouse, or turn their heads and make a choice of what to see from a 360-degree view," says Eric Miro, creative director at General Idea, a design studio for three-dimensional animation and visual effects.

Virtual reality is more immersive than augmented reality because viewers wearing a helmet or goggles focus on a new 3-D, 360-degree reality with no awareness of their immediate surroundings.

With such potential, why aren't we all enjoying virtual reality experiences? Producing virtual reality content is expensive and, because the public has been slow to adopt the wearable technology that makes it work, there's not much available to see.

YouVisit virtual reality travel
YouVisit virtual reality travel

The Travel Industry's Experimentation with Virtual Reality

In 2014, the early adopters at Marriott Hotels designed a phone-booth-like "Teleporter Room" that traveled to eight cities, presenting virtual tours of Hawaiian beaches and the London skyline. The Marriott teleporter used an Oculus Rift DK2 virtual reality headset, wireless headphones, and so-called 4-D techniques (heat, wind and movement) to enhance viewers' experiences.

With 500 hotels and resorts in nearly 50 countries, Marriott is still innovating. Their "VRoom Service" program, produced in collaboration with Samsung, was just tested at their New York and London hotels. It enables guests to order virtual reality experiences by phone or app to be consumed in their rooms – ironically, at a time when in room dining is disappearing from many chain hotels. On the devices, users can view "VR Postcards" featuring video footage of immersive travel adventures.

"It combines storytelling with technology, two things that are important to next generation travelers," says Matthew Carroll, vice president, Marriott Hotels.

Destinations have also rolled out innovative virtual reality technology. The tourism office for British Columbia produced a virtual reality experience that lets visitors at brick and mortar tourist offices select among outdoor adventure activities they can pursue once in Canada.

"At the point of sale, virtual reality is a very effective tool," Miro explains.

And China's national tourist office recently previewed a virtual reality tour of Beijing's Temple of Heaven. Wearing headsets, viewers could turn and see the gardens behind the main temple; using the controller, they could zoom in and study its architectural details.

YouVisit.com virtual reality travel
YouVisit.com virtual reality travel

The Variety of Virtual Reality Content Increases

The pace of virtual reality technology adoption is accelerating. Facebook is encouraging the Discovery Channel, VICE and other producers to create 360-degree videos for their News Feeds. The New York Times Magazine recently packaged its cover story with a virtual reality film and sent out a million Google Cardboard virtual reality viewers (a $25 paper viewer with 3-D lenses) to subscribers. Prospective travelers, who use the viewer to eliminate the spherical warping of 3-D videos seen on 2-D hotel booking websites, can simulate what it's like to be virtually there.

Suzanne Sanders, director of marketing at the virtual reality production company YouVisit.com, emphasizes the potential of interactivity to engage travelers in new destinations. She says visitors spend an average of 10.4 minutes interacting with a virtual reality experience, and average 22 percent more in-person visits after the experience

What's Next in the Virtual World?

The jury is out on whether digital exposure to a destination – no matter how realistic or how in-depth – will prompt the in-person visits that translate into tourism revenue. "The technology seen in 'Total Recall' is here now, but the virtual vacation experience...it's going to take a while," Sanders says.

See photos of the Oculus Rift virtual reality experience below:

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