These days, it feels like you can’t pretend-throw a low polygon rock without hitting a press release about some revolutionary new VR-related startup, headset, department or workflow. The virtual reality gold rush is real, and it’s happening because, after decades of what-ifs, the underlying technology is finally catching up to our collective imaginations. As the benchmark for a good VR experience rises on a regular basis, it’s suddenly easier to imagine a world where telepresence in a photorealistic environment is a genuine possibility. And while the advertising industry already has a bad habit of aggressively shoehorning emerging new technologies into existing communications plans, it does feel like there should be natural opportunities for VR in the travel sector. Both industries are, after all, fundamentally in the business of selling experiences of other places. Might there be a way to deploy one in service of the other?
Before we can answer that question, we need to first understand that ‘virtual reality’ is actually an unhelpful catch-all phrase for vastly different types of immersive experiences. On one side of the spectrum, VR might refer to a 360 degree panoramic film. Such films can be produced pretty much anywhere on earth with relative ease, and thanks to recent updates to YouTube’s native player functionality, and the growing popularity of mobile-ready VR solutions like Google Cardboard, they’re starting to become more accessible too. The downside? Video cameras shoot on fixed paths. A 360 degree might give you a first person point-of-view and the option to look left or right, but the ultimate lack of user mobility in such an experience creates a feeling of being ‘locked in’ that pretty much cancels out the novelty of being able to swivel around in any direction. In short, they can feel as frustrating as they do novel.
On the other end of the spectrum are fully immersive, digitally-created 3D environments where users have the freedom to move around entirely at their own discretion; basically, video game worlds. Where 360 films can be produced quickly and at scale, bespoke 3D environments require more time and resource to create, triply so when the technique is being leveraged to recreate a real-life place. We recently partnered with Google on an initiative to allow users to embark on an exhaustive virtual tour of Abbey Road Studios; the process of re-creating that studio as a virtual space took months of painstaking work that involved rebuilding the bones of the space in 3D and dressing it with photoreal textures and lighting. The end result of these kinds of projects can be spectacular, but the workflow is far from boilerplate.
Now consider VR for travel against both of those contexts. It’s not uncommon to encounter 360 panoramic films of various places masquerading as ‘virtual tours’ of said spaces, but the jury’s still out on whether those types of experiences could actually move the needle for the travel industry in any meaningful way. By its very nature, that feeling of being ‘locked in’ might run counter to what we now look for in our travel experiences. If one of the great takeaways of Airbnb’s success is that we crave travel experiences that are curated, connected and personal, couldn’t we also argue that it’s reductive and backwards-thinking to present a first person POV perspective of a city – or really, any public place – as a pre-rendered product? The idea of selling London as a city is no longer enough; it’s your unique and completely subjective experience of London that matters more.
Meanwhile, the effort and resource required to re-create convincing and lifelike 3D environments of real-life travel destinations coupled with the lack of places to consume those experiences renders the prospect of everyday virtual tourism still out of reach for most marketers. And even if we could make someone feel like they’re on a beach, how do we know for a fact that it would make them more inclined to put money down on an actual trip?
That intriguing question underpinned a project from last year that saw Marriott set up camp outside New York City Hall and invite the city’s emerging newlyweds to strap on an Oculus Rift and embark on a virtual honeymoon. While the sentiment behind the idea is sweet enough – “you’ve just done a really momentous thing; now celebrate in marvellous fashion” – it’s tough to watch a parade of sharply dressed brides and grooms get ‘virtually transported’ to places like Hawaii and London and not feel, well, a little disappointed for them. Yes, the technology’s getting there, but it’s hardly at honeymoon-replacement level. Sampling is a viable strategy when you’re handing out sausages on sticks at the grocery store, less so when there’s an uncanny valley between your sample and the thing you’re selling.
The deployment of VR as an analogue for real experiences feels like a fundamental misreading of its potential. As evidenced by initiatives like Google Expeditions, an educational programme designed to transport students from “the bottom of the sea to the surface of Mars”, VR is better used as a window into worlds that we might never be able to experience first-hand, or, in the case of Clouds over Sidra – the United Nations’ recent 360 film about the plight of Syrian refugees in Jordan – worlds that we might never want to. Yes, VR is thrilling, sensory and novel, and yes, we all want those same things from our travel experiences, but we also look to the travel industry for convenience, comfort, information, logistics, memories and, now more than ever, material proof that we went there, did that, and shared it on social media. Virtual reality, as far as travel is concerned, isn’t up to those tasks. Luckily, the real world is still very much in demand.
Below: To promote its luxury hotels as honeymoon destinations, Marriott set up a ‘teleporter’ outside New York’s City Hall and invited a number of newly wed couples to take a virtual reality trip to Hawaii or London