Virtual reality: the key to future holiday plans

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Try a bicycle tour, go to a concert, or enjoy the views of a city from a hotel terrace. Thanks to virtual reality, tourists can now relish experiences such as these and get to know a destination almost as if they were actually there, without the need to travel.

Put your glasses on, we’re going to Japan“. A while ago, tourists were accustomed to using paper guidebooks, then after that, the arrival of the Internet made organising a holiday easier, whereas now, virtual reality (VR) is becoming another factor for planning trips away.  Thanks to this new concept, users can try out new experiences as varied as watching a sumo wrestling match, dining in a revolving restaurant, or visiting the Fushimi Inari Taisha shrine.

These are just some of the 16 places that the Japanese National Tourist Office (JNTO) has included in its 360º virtual reality video, as part of the JAPAN – Where tradition meets the future campaign. The video was presented last January, and has become a reference for how this technology is capable of transporting tourists to any destination and getting to know it better.

Virtual reality creates new digital worlds, which can be either fictitious or representative of real-life spaces. The equipment necessary for accessing these worlds is diverse: glasses, headsets and supports for mobile devices that allow the user to view these virtual scenarios. According to statistics compiled by Stasista, the number of people using this type of technology has been on the increase since 2015. Three years ago, there were 6.7 million virtual reality users. Today, the figure is approaching 171 million.

This technology is already in use in sectors such as video games, education and industry. In doing this, it has introduced new possibilities to the way we work, study and entertain ourselves. It can now also change the way we travel. According to Sergio Usón, director of technology and new business at Idealmedia and one of the founders of the Sociedad Española de Agencias de Viaje con Realidad Virtual  [Spanish Society of Virtual Reality Travel Agents], in tourism, the technology is used across three areas: as a sales tool at the travel agents’ offices, for training travel agents who haven’t visited the destinations, and as a communication method in innovative campaigns.

Founder and CEO of Two Reality, Giovanni Cetto, explains that this trend started around three or four years ago, although the real boom of virtual reality in tourism has occurred this year, and will further increase next year: “Until now, there were very few recordings of the destinations and the hardware was very expensive. Thanks to evolution in the technology, VR is now more accessible.”

Scuba diving in Australia, walking tours in Switzerland

Typical images and videos promoting a country, town or region will gradually be left behind. “Virtual reality is a higher-quality artistic method” notes Usón. “It works as an initial point of contact. People find it very useful during the ‘period of inspiration’: you can take a trip to a destination and therefore find out what awaits you there”, adds the director of the Oficina de Turismo de Suiza en España [Swiss Tourist Office in Spain], Sandra Babey.

In fact, this was one of the objectives of the campaign in Japan. The video, scarcely three minutes long, represents a taster of what a traveller might uncover on a trip to Japan. Although this country is one of the most technologically advanced, it is not just Japan which has turned to immersive technology to seduce potential visitors.

There is something to please all tastes. For example, those who appreciate rest and recuperation can assess just what a hotel is like before booking it, a feature offered by the Hong Kong-based Shangri-La chain of hotels. There are also opportunities for music lovers. The Hard Rock Hotel in Tenerife (Spain) allows its potential guests to experience its adrenaline-fuelled concerts virtually.  For the most adventurous travellers, there is the option to dive deep down to the bottom of the sea, thanks to work by the Australian Tourist Office, which has created a video that takes the user to the Great Barrier Reef in Queensland (Australia).

For Babey, one of the main objectives of these experiences is that the user does not only see the destination, but feels it. She adds that this is what they were aiming for at the Swiss Tourist Office in Spain right from the outset of their first virtual reality project.

As is the case in several areas of the north of Europe, cycling is one of the best ways to get to know a countryTo enable the user to feel this experience, a VR video of a bicycle journey through Switzerland was created.  The recording was played as the user pedalled a small bike attached to the floor. As the user increased their pedalling speed, they became aware of a little breeze, and the video played more quickly. “If people make a physical effort, they become more involved with the experience”, she says.

Additionally, most virtual reality videos promoting a destination are narrated by a presenter. As if the presenter were the user’s best friend, they explain the details and features of what the user is seeing. For example, the Swiss Tourist Office created the character of Heidi, who shares only a name with the fictional figure, to narrate the secrets of this country; the VR studio Gorilla invites you to visit London (UK) with Peter; and the technology company Visyon has chosen Jasmine to show you round Barcelona (Spain).

In travel agents and at home

Although the most common way to enjoy experiences like these has been, until now, at tourism trade fairs and events, it is hoped that travel agents will turn towards this trend more and more. “Virtual reality is a type of illusion, it is not something tangible. It is difficult to convince agents that users will respond positively to such a phenomenon”, says Usón. That said, there are already establishments which are bringing VR to the tourist. This is what happened with online agent Logitravel, which has opened its first physical office in Madrid (Spain). It has included in its services technologies such as VR and sensory packages which convey to the user the typical sensations they might experience during a visit to a particular area.

Virtual reality is reaching agents and also houses – users can already ‘travel’ without having to leave the comfort of their own homes. VR videos available on YouTube and Facebook are now added to the already well-known virtual visits created with 360⁰ photographs produced by Google Earth. It is enough to configure your smartphone to visualise the video content in virtual reality, connect some headphones it and make some cardboard glasses (Google Cardboard gives the headset instructions away for free so that everyone can make their own).

Founder and CEO of Two Reality, Giovanni Cetto, goes further and points out that more end user products are becoming increasingly readily available, so that it will soon be common for people to have professional glasses in their homes. “For example, the Oculus Go glasses (which cost around €200) benefit from their own interface, which means that there is no need to insert a mobile phone. Cultural visits are included in the different experiences offered”, he comments.

Of course, although virtual reality has the capacity to take you anywhere you desire, it will never surpass the magic of travelling. “VR will be complementary to tourism, not a substitute”, notes Cetto. And, as Usón points out, it is certain that teleporting is not a possibility, but it is becoming easier to see far flung corners of the world without actually being there in person.

By Alba Casilda

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