Summer has arrived (for half of the world, at least). This means roughly 45% of people are itching for a fun getaway — and, if Facebook posts are any indicator, many of these are due solely to parents’ need to maintain a certain level of sanity during the off-school months. According to travel statistics, this equates to 657,000,000 long-distance trips in just fourteen weeks.
It goes without saying that vacationing is fun, but what’s really changed in the industry over the last few decades? One hundred years ago, airplanes began to transport people as a faster mode of transportation, and that was neat. Then the internet came along (also neat), and after a time, has become instrumental in helping people find, research, and plan trips to places they may not have otherwise known about.
Sure, trends emerge from time to time. Hard suitcases became a fad, and people are enjoying Airbnbs as a hotel alternative, all while documenting the perfectly posed photos on Instagram to evoke a bit of jealousy from cubicle-ridden friends. However, aside from passing trends and some decade-old game-changers, there hasn’t been a huge shift in how we vacation — until now.
You’re Already Being Eased into Traveling with AR/VR.
As with all other areas slowly beginning to incorporate augmented and virtual realities, the tourism and travel industries are using available technology to bridge the time between now and the inevitable AR/VR boom, even if not all of them are easily recognizable.
Let’s start with an easy example: Pokemon Go. This augmented reality game, something Niantic promoted as a game to get people moving, only allows you to catch certain Pokemon with a given area. You must travel to find others.
My brother-in-law, who had lived in the dessert when the game was launched, enjoyed finding the water Pokemon during a visit to my lakeside city. He was excited to walk about the town to find new members for his clan, and we even opted to try a specific brewery since it was near a Pokestop.
Many other businesses and destinations are more overt in their use of the tech, though. In a recent trip I made to the Smithsonian, I was excited to see early adoption of the emerging tour add-ons. One stop, at the Museum of Natural History, attempted to incorporate AR into what had likely been a largely unchanged exhibit for many years.
The exhibit, called Bones (you can likely guess what was seen within that space), promoted an app called Skin and Bones. Simply overlay your phone on a skeleton and see what the creature would have looked like while living.
As an AR/VR junkie, I immediately stopped in the middle of the pathway to download the app. Unfortunately, between the poor wi-fi connection and the inability to find the app under the indicated name, I trudged away, defeated.
Just about every combination of VR/AR headset and programing can be seen somewhere within the fields of the tourism industry.
Hotels are beginning to use 360 photos and video to promote their spaces over the flat-photos Google Images provides. Many museums are utilizing technologies like the Hololens to place items, such as full-scale ships, within small buildings. Visitor bureaus, both small and large, are using the ability to envelope potential tourists in an action-packed, full-circle experience as a selling point.
While you won’t find either AR or VR in every situation when you travel, you will likely find at least one example somewhere between your planning and experience stages.
I Already Travel and Enjoy Myself, So Who Cares?
Well, you do.
Vacationing, at its core, is the want and need to escape everyday life for just a bit. Allowing people the best possible experience gives the sense of value.
Let’s think on this a moment: when you’re done with a single experience within your overall vacation, do you take a moment to reflect on whether it was an appropriate use of your spending money or time off? Of course, we all do — even if it’s just that blink of an eye where we say, “well, that was cool,” or “that was awful.”
When you’re done with your whole vacation, do you want to feel as though your time was well spent, validating your choices? Of course! Otherwise, it wouldn’t be enjoyable.
But, have you ever looked at the things that make something feel worthwhile and asked why you felt as though they were? In nearly every scenario, it’s the details combined into a whole experience, and that’s where AR/VR comes into play.
Remember that time you went to visit your brother-in-law’s cousin (second removed) and her four kids under the age of six? Didn’t it take just under twenty minutes in her house to suddenly realize your true calling was as a monk in a silent monastery? That, or you found the stash of warm beer hidden in a child-proofed cupboard.
So, two beers and a near career-change later, you find yourself and the nap-less youths at the local zoo. But, the lions, polar bears, and three types of monkeys are all hidden away “taking naps.” In between the shrieks of toddlers’ temper tantrums — empty fence after empty fence being boring, after all — you found a camel out roaming in its pen, but it spit on you.
When the adventure is over, you think about the horrific experience. It wasn’t even the zoo’s fault, but the worst experience you have on vacation, if sufficiently bad, will become the vacation’s overall take-away.
Now, let’s venture to a zoo embracing augmented realities.
Suddenly, mobile devices (pick your favorite: headset, cell phone, etc.) show the kids how to get from building to building by way of AR-viewed animal tracks. The pens that are empty due to animal care are suddenly bursting with life by way of AR overlays.
It’s even easier to get a bit of knowledge into their receptive minds, as small bits of information can be given over time instead of in big bursts. Despite the kids being a handful, and even though that camel still spit in your face, the trip takes on a different mood altogether.
The same is true for other locations.
I work at a historic house museum (Glensheen), where, for many years, we’ve had to struggle with sacrificing visitor experience for history or the other way around. As a five-floor mansion, we aren’t as friendly to the mobility-restricted visitors as contemporary buildings.
Our options were to install elevators (compromising the historic integrity of the site — which historic preservation societies will not allow) or charge less for a smaller tour which results in many visitors not seeing the entirety of the building.
Until recently, our only option was to provide photo slideshows or videos to visitors who could not manage stairs. In most cases, this meant a party of people would be separated, and Great-Aunt Maggie wouldn’t get the same experience as the rest of the family.
Now, however, we can utilize virtual reality to give everyone “virtually” the same experience. While you and your party make your way through the home, entering each room to get facts and see the expansiveness of the mansion, Great-Aunt Maggie gets the same tour — she just doesn’t have to compromise her health to do so. Instead, as she sits comfortably in a chair, she travels through each room — seeing it as if she were in it — while being educated by a personable tour guide.
As you leave our site, and many other historic locations previously off-limits to those with mobility restrictions, you no longer feel guilty you left poor Great-Aunt Maggie sitting in a chair looking at photos. Instead, you all go to lunch and discuss the silver chandeliers and marble fireplaces.
It Won’t Be Long Before You’ll Ask Yourself How You Traveled Without AR/VR.
Now, before I get a slew of people telling me that they like to go camping in the middle of nowhere to get away from it all, let me ask: how did you find your campsite? How did you hear about the area you wanted to visit, and how did you ultimately get to your destination?
Even if you take a tech-less vacation, once AR/VR become staples within the industry, you will likely use 360 photos or videos to view your campsite.
There’s a good chance you heard about the park from someone else, but did you also see that ad pop-up during your VR Hulu binge session? And, when it comes to the driving, would you have found the site if you hadn’t had your AR-enabled self-driving vehicle?
The point is, that once these things become more integrated into our everyday lives, similar to smartphones, you won’t be able avoid them altogether. Unless you decide to abandon society and become a hermit in that nylon tent you placed near a convenient water source, of course.
These technologies will change the tourism landscape in many other ways, too. From start to finish, the entire experience will be more enjoyable for the vast majority of people.
You’ve already decided on the dates, and you have a few locations in mind, but how do you choose? Via virtual reality.
Once you stick on your headset, you will be able to search or browse through popular locations and experience them as if you were there. You’ll saunter down the streets of Paris or glide down Venetian canals. A quick five minutes in each location, and you’ll be ready to make an educated choice.
Perhaps one of the most dreaded experiences in travel is booking lodging. From a great distance, with only internet photos as your ally, choosing a hotel or resort can be daunting. Still, even with the perfectly manicured photos plastered on a hotel’s Google page, a certain level of deceptiveness is inevitable.
You pick your room, based off of a gorgeous photo of a well-made bed in a room with a large window. When you arrive, it’s easy to see the vantage point from which the photo was taken. However, when you spin from that spot, you find the door’s locks have been busted off, you wonder if the filth in the shower will help or hinder your daily cleaning ritual, and it’s fairly clear that stain on the floor is older than your sister.
When you are able to look at a 360 photo or video of this space, however, it’s more difficult to hide the flaws. So, while you might not enjoy seeing the stained carpet in the VR booking tour, at least you’re not mislead, and you will have an opportunity to find a suitable alternative.
Both glorious and awful at the same time, flights are the dreaded bookend on many vacations. While I’ve flown a lot, I can’t say I look forward to the cramped seating and inevitable long-flight leg cramps or schedule delays.
Despite the infinite list of reasons flight cons, I find boredom is my biggest challenge. But, just imagine if on that twenty-two hour flight to Australia, you got to take a couple of different adventures while you wait.
Perhaps you go with the newest 3D-VR feature film, or maybe you opt to explore your destination city before your arrival. Some airlines are already beginning to use this technology as an on-flight perk, and more will likely join the revolution as VR headsets are are more tangible entertainment option versus in-seat monitors.
And VR/AR is just one of the technologies that will transform the future of plane travel.
So, now you’re in a new city. The laws of probability indicate that within your group, you have the following people:
- One who wants to wander without a sense of direction. It’s a bummer you put her in charge at lunch time, only to find yourself in the one area of the city where food is somehow elusive.
- The old-school map person. Despite always having an interactive and up-to-date map in the cell phone he always has at the ready, his need to use a six-year-old paper map has your group somewhere in Omaha (weren’t you in Florida?).
- The “I won’t ask for directions” adventurer. There’s only one way to handle this person — ask for directions, don’t relay the information, and leave him behind.
Thankfully, augmented reality navigation is coming along nicely. Soon, as you walk down a new street to explore, you won’t worry about finding a coffee shop or that hidden gem of a local restaurant. Using a map function on your AR device will show you everything you want in a user-friendly way.
Whether it’s the Leaning Tower of Pisa or a quaint little museum, the locations you choose to patronize will become more personalized experiences.
Some years in the future, you make your way to good ol’ Paris, and you make the hike toward the Eiffel Tower. Instead of doing the normal tourism standard we know today (take a photo, take another photo, walk around it, tour it, etc.), you want to make the whole experience unique to you.
You download the Paris Adventurer app, and now you pick your experience. You want 30% history, 40% romance, 10% food, and 20% of the cliche tourist moments. The app does its thing, and suddenly you’re being taken on a tour of Paris which truly speaks to your desires.
Instead of getting a historic fact every fifteen feet, as the history buffs might choose, you only get a cool fact every hour as the walking tour brings you to just a portion of the area’s romantic highlights. You find and sample some of the best food easily, all the while, you’re sure you won’t miss the most coveted spots, as you’ve already indicated you want to see some popular areas.
Awesome! I Can See it Through VR. Why Would I Pay to Go, Now?
This is by far the most common, speculative question I get when I try to speak with people about how AR/VR will affect travel and tourism. While I can see how people might think this is a valid concern, it actually won’t be.
AR and VR will not, in any way, hinder peoples’ want to travel within our lifetimes. It will, instead, do the exact opposite.
Take a moment to relive your first virtual reality roller coaster. You went on the ride, it was kind of cool, and now it’s over. Ask yourself the following:
- Did you want to try the roller coaster in the first place? If not, then you likely don’t enjoy roller coasters, and your choice to not go on a real one is a completely moot point.
- When you were on the roller coaster, did you get the same rush as you do when you’re on a real one? No. Unless you were in a very large and professional VR rig, you didn’t get the wind in your face or feel the movements of the car giving our brain all of the sensory information needed to make it a “whole’ experience.
- You enjoyed the VR version, but did you then decide you had no reason to go on the real version if the opportunity arose? Of course not! You like roller coasters, and being able to try this one in a partial form only makes you want to try it again with the wind pounding your face.
When it comes to AR and VR in the tourism space, VR is the sales pitch, and AR is the experience enhancement.
There will be, of course, exceptions to this. I, for one, don’t ever see myself banking ten years worth of vacation time allowing for a trip to Mars. So, until the time when space travel is more efficient, I’ll happily pay for a virtual vacation to the planet (sans any Total Recall-related complications).
There are additional benefits to traveling via virtual reality. Perhaps someone who desperately wants to see the view from the top of Mount Everest has physical limitations. Or, maybe someone’s life dream has been to see the Inca Temples, but budget restrictions don’t allow for the venture. In these cases, paid virtual reality tours open the world to the otherwise confined population.
So, will people skip the horrendous road construction travel season for the convenience of visiting Venice via VR from their living room couch? Not likely. If their personal situation allows for the real-life travel, they’ll simply be more convinced of their desire to go after a virtual reality “test run.”
Augmented and virtual realities have many potential functions in our coming world. The travel and tourism industries are any easy fit for this technology, as are already beginning to see. As things change, one thing is clear: we’ll all enjoy our travels even more with AR/VR by our side.
As read on Medium