Virtual reality technology delivers a taste of the vacation experience — without the hassle of traditional travel.
Between flights, car rental, lodging and all the other expenses that pile on when taking a vacation, the increasing cost of travel is forcing many would-be travelers to choose another day at the office over the beach or theme park.
However, new technologies offer rich, immersive and interactive digital experiences and usher in a new type of tourism. Now, it’s possible to explore new worlds — without ever leaving home.
“What virtual reality vacations can do is offer us a brief escape from our increasingly hectic lifestyles, or attempt something we perhaps wouldn’t normally consider,” said Susannah DiLallo, co-founder and executive producer of Rapid VR, a production company specializing in 360-degree virtual reality (VR) experiences.
“Done right, this can provide audiences with authentic, memorable and even highly emotional experiences,” she said.
Virtual vacations offer travelers many real-world benefits, without needing to pack or plan. A VR head-mounted display (HMD) is about all that’s needed to experience the sights and sounds of exotic places on this planet and beyond. VR technology can even transport people back in time to witness historical events.
Not Your Parents’ Vacation
While camping is a low-cost alternative to expensive resorts or international travel, it can quickly add up. Many of the 400-plus parks in the U.S. now charge for admission, parking and campsite reservations.
Now anyone with access to the internet can get a taste of the country’s national treasures via The Hidden Worlds of the National Parks, Google’s new virtual tour series.
The project includes 360-degree video tours that let viewers fly over active Hawaiian volcanoes, kayak between Alaskan icebergs and swim through a Floridian shipwreck.
The increase in the costs of visiting national parks is due in large part to maintenance expenses. Dozens of bridges, roads and hiking trails are in need of repair, and virtual initiatives like Google’s can actually help preserve these national wonders.
“360 VR can also work with bodies such as the tourism industry to give audiences realistic samplings of certain adventures or experiences,” said DiLallo. “Providing the consumer with a better understanding of what they might hope to see or experience in turn drives the decision-making process.”
This ability to “test drive” a vacation before actually pulling the trigger on tickets is even more valuable for those looking to take once-in-a-lifetime trips on the other side of the world.
An Expanded World
In addition to creating unique and inexpensive travel experiences, virtual vacations open up new destination possibilities. An 80-year-old might never go to Saturn, say, but she could travel there in a digital world.
In 2011, Guerilla Science launched the Intergalactic Travel Bureau (ITB), a faux travel agency specializing in space tourism. Attendees at the ITB pop-up experiences interact with “agents” to plan their out-of-this-world trip into space.
“The goal of the project is to bring together scientists and the public to imagine what it might be like to visit other planets,” said Olivia Koski, head of operations at Guerilla Science. “We use the starting point of a possible vacation, since it’s so universal.”
Now, Guerilla Science is elevating its space travel concept to the next level by crowdfunding the creation of a mobile virtual reality app.
While ITB describes itself as “a little bit like Virgin Galactic and SpaceX meet The Jetsons and Mad Men,” it leans far heavier on fact than fiction for its app landscapes, using actual NASA scientific data in the design of its virtual worlds.
Once the app is ready, intrepid explorers will be able to visit the Apollo mission landing sites on the Moon, canyons on Mars and more.
While future generations may one day be able to actually book trips to these far-off destinations, ITB’s app is as close as many will ever get.
“Most of us will never take a trip to the Moon or even to low Earth orbit, so virtual reality is the only way that most people from my generation and older will be able to experience a space vacation,” said Koski.
Traveling Through Time in Paris
Virtual travel isn’t limited to in-home experiences. Increasingly, travel destinations are using VR to bring visitors deeper into a site’s significance, both past and present.
French start-up Timescope created “the first self-service virtual reality kiosk,” where its users travel back in time. Only available in Paris, the VR telescope kiosks are located at popular sites throughout the city.
The VR telescopes feature a launch page where users can choose the year they wish to visit. When they then look through the viewer, they see an historically accurate 3D reconstruction of the exact spot where they are standing now.
Each recreated space was designed using archived assets, and historians ensure accuracy. The user can rotate in 360 degrees to feel as though they are truly immersed in the past, experiencing the banks of the River Seine in 1628 or the Bastille in 1416. Period-specific sounds further add to the experience.
“By peering into Timescope, viewers travel back in time, the Middle Ages for example, and can experience just how much everything has changed,” Timescope co-founder Adrian Sedaka told Frenchly. “It’s a virtual time machine.”
It’s Only the Beginning
Whether taking a trip to the Grand Canyon, the moon or the 17th century, today’s tourists have more options than ever if they want an out-of-this-world escape from everyday life.
The technology hasn’t come close to reaching its full potential, so there’s no telling where tomorrow’s VR experiences will go.
“Five years from now, you will be able to put on a VR head-mounted display and navigate your way into a first-class seat on a luxury jetliner and view all the splendor of that air travel, land in Tahiti and enjoy a walk on the beach,” predicts Rajeev Puran, a business development manager at Intel.
“You’ll feel the cool air and meet people from other places that are also in HMDs. You can talk to them, go dancing with them and so on. In five years, it will be off the charts.”
As VR quickly evolves, new merged reality experiences — including Intel’s Project Alloy could bring even more tantalizing virtual travel experiences.