Monitoring Week - Travel the World By Screen

By Jess Goulart

A view of Earth from Google’s virtual reality Holodeck. Photo courtesy of Duncan Hull.

On Sept 18, 2014, a line of people wound its way through the New York Marriott Marquis, one of many Marriott hotels in Manhattan, New York. They weren’t waiting for the customer service desk, the gym to open, or an extra piece of French toast at the breakfast buffet. They waited to walk into a small, vertical glass chamber, don a bulky headset, and press the “on” button.

That’s when the magic happened.

Suddenly they were no longer in New York, but standing on a black sand beach in Maui, Hawaii, the feel of the ocean spray tickling their skin, the sun warming their face, and the sounds of gulls and waves resonating all around. They could move about the beach as if they were really standing on it and no matter where they focused their gaze–behind them, beneath them, to the left, to the right–the tropical vision remained steady. It was as if they were there.

However, the illusion moved on quickly; in less than 90 seconds, users found themselves on top of a skyscraper in London, England, with a view of the city spread out around them.

They were the first few to partake in Marriott’s new Teleporter, a virtual reality (VR) experience that allows people to visit Hawaii and London without actually having to travel there.

Any Star Trek fans who happened to be among them no doubt thought wistfully of the Starship Enterprise’s holodeck, an intricate VR room that creates complex realities with artificially intelligent characters that users can interact with, almost entirely unrestrictedly.

Of course, the 4-D Teleporter isn’t quite so sophisticated, at least not yet, but it is a colossal step forward in VR development.

VR technology has gained popularity over the past few years with the impending release of the VR headset from Oculus, called the Rift. Their latest prototype won countless trade show awards and, in March 2014, they were bought for $2 billion by Facebook. Shortly thereafter, several other entertainment conglomerates announced VR developments similar to the Rift and at San Diego Comic Con 2014 there was even a Hollywood VR experience for Pacific Rim and Sleepy Hollow.

The Oculus Rift in use. Photo courtesy of Sergey Galyonkin.

Developer Alan Dang received one of the Rift prototypes, the Oculus DK2. He tells BTR he’s generally incredibly impressed with the technology. His main complaints are the headsets’ cumbersomeness and complicated chords system, its guzzling of power, and its tendency to make people motion sick.

“My favorite game so far is a beta for a solar system tour through space. You sit in a rocket ship and zoom around the planets and because it’s 3-D you really understand the concept of scale in a way that’s hard to grasp just reading from a book,” Dang says.

With catapulting people into virtual space already a go, developers also looked to exploring destinations a bit closer to home. Thus the concept of virtual travel was born.

Though consumer versions of reality headsets have yet to hit market, travel companies jumped on the idea of providing people with hassle-free travel. The first of its kind, Marriott’s #GetTeleported campaign, was met with mixed reviews. While users at CNN, Wired, and Travel & Leisure sung the tech’s praises, those at Gizmodo and FastCo.Exist were underwhelmed.

But is virtual travel enticing enough to catch on for good, or it is just a fad? As Dang points out, VR is exceptional for education purposes and seeing what people normally couldn’t. But, what about places it is possible to visit? After all, you’re not actually going anywhere, which means you perhaps intrinsically miss the whole point.

Dr Linchi Kwok, assistant professor at The Collins College of Hospitality Management at CSU Pomona, the only hospitality college in the state of California, tells BTR he predicts virtual travel will be used most successfully for marketing purposes rather than vacationing.

“[Virtual reality travel] will have its space and will grow slowly, I’m not sure it will grow dramatically,” he says. “It will be very helpful in sales and marketing for promoting a destination and will be good for a short term getaway, maybe one or two hours, but it won’t work for long vacations, like two weeks.”

Kwok continues that if someone is having a difficult day and wants to escape their city but not spend money, they can pop on a headset and go sit under the stars in a meadow for an hour or so.

Another virtual reality platform that’s being used for travel is Second Life. The massive multiplayer online game involves users creating an avatar and then playing through the world as if it were real. Avatars can interact with each other, build careers, purchase property, shop, eat, sleep, and so on, in a way that emulates reality.

If Second Life can incorporate 3-D and 4-D tech, it could potentially be used for virtual vacationing. So far, however, travel companies use it only to try out their products before a real-world launch.

For example, in 2006 Starwood Hotels tested their newly designed loft-style hotel chain in Second Life. They received feedback from the players and tweaked their branding campaign accordingly before going to market.

Kwok predicts marketing with VR will continue to grow.

“I won’t say because of virtual tourism people won’t go to a place anymore–people still want to get the real experience. There is a social interaction or local culture interaction that they want,” Kwok concludes. “I see virtual reality adding to existing tourism–the two complementing one another–rather than replacing it.”