Can “Virtual Travel” Replace Traditional Vacations?

While the desire to visit foreign countries and exotic locales is a near-universal human experience, it is also one that can only be realized by people with a certain amount of privilege. For one, traveling is expensive, and it requires a job that allows employees to be absent from work for several days at a time. And health issues like disabilities keep many would-be travelers stuck at home. Recently, environmental concerns have given tourists a bad name; flying by plane is considered one of the most environmentally-damaging ways to travel, and tourists often litter, much to the chagrin of local residents. As the global population expands, an increasing number of people are visiting vacation destinations, leading to overcrowding and worsening the problem of tourism for locals. As technology advances, though, the future of tourism may lie in virtual reality, as simulations of tourist experiences grow ever more realistic and immersive.

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Long considered to reside squarely in the realm of futuristic sci-fi stories, virtual reality simulations of tourist destinations are already widespread in the form of 3D videos and games designed for use with headsets like the Oculus Rift. While impressive, these simulations don’t come close to replicating the experience of visiting a faraway destination in person, as they are limited to sights and sounds and generally offer users little to no freedom to shape the nature of their experience. All of this is set to change, however, as technology improves and developers invest more into expanding and refining these experiences.

Already, the travel industry is undergoing disruption thanks to the influx of technology like augmented-reality apps that help travelers determine whether their luggage will fit in the overhead compartment, and apps that allow users to preview restaurant meals by viewing 3D models superimposed on real-world objects. Some companies, like the airline KLM, are looking to entice tourists by offering vacationers a preview of their destination in the form of 3D 360 degree videos to be viewed with a virtual reality headset. While immersive, these experiences are not interactive, so their appeal in replicating the travel experience is limited.

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Other companies, however, are looking to replace the travel experience altogether by incorporating more sophisticated elements, like computer graphics and interactivity, into their virtual-reality offerings. Similar programs already exist in the form of video games, which is currently the industry most heavily invested in virtual reality. With time, though, virtual reality headsets are likely to grow in popularity as they become more useful for medical, business, and educational purposes. One company that’s pushing the boundaries of virtual travel experiences is TimeRide, which offers a virtual reality experience in Berlin which allows customers to “experience the past directly” by wearing a virtual reality headset that shows images of the city’s past. Other companies are looking to entice customers by offering live, 360-degree videos recorded by drones exploring locations from around the world.

Despite these developments, though, virtual reality has a number of hurdles to overcome before it can truly replicate the travel experience. For one, virtual reality headsets only provide video and audio, whereas real-world traveling obviously incorporates all of a person’s senses. And while artificial intelligence and telecommunications technology has improved, it still cannot replicate the experience of meeting another human being face-to-face. Nevertheless, virtual reality technology promises to shape the future of the travel industry, and it has the potential to bring the joy of travel to millions of people who otherwise don’t have the means to experience it.


Link’s Awakening on Nintendo Switch Earns Positive Reviews, With Some Caveats

Reviews for Nintendo’s remake of the 1992 Game Boy classic The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening, which releases tomorrow, September 20th, are finally live. After the date for lifting the review embargo was delayed to just a day before the game’s launch, many were worried about the quality of the game, as publishers tend to prolong review embargoes for games they expect to review poorly. Fans can breathe a sigh of relief, however, as reviews indicate that the new Switch title is a faithful, polished, and immensely enjoyable recreation of the beloved original.

One thing you’ll notice immediately upon booting up the game for the first time is the graphics. While the original game was designed around the limitations of the Game Boy’s black-and-white 160×144 display, the remake takes full advantage of the processing power and high-definition capabilities of the Switch, rendering a beautifully detailed and animated world with a unique new art style reminiscent of plastic toy figures. The game takes advantage of rendering techniques like shallow depth-of field to give the impression of a miniature diorama-style environment, brought to life by smoothly animated enemies, characters, and objects. One of the few complaints reviewers had concerned the game’s performance; during certain segments, the game’s framerate would stutter and lag, temporarily disrupting the player’s sense of immersion. These issues are minor, however, and while nothing has yet been announced it’s possible Nintendo will push out a software update that addresses these concerns.

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Another notable improvement from the original game is found in its soundtrack. While the limited processing power of the Game Boy imposed significant limitations on the score’s instrumentation, the remake features an entirely re-recorded, almost fully-orchestrated collection of songs, which are pleasing to hear even as they are repeated throughout the game. Like the game’s graphics, its reimagined soundtrack breathes new life into the game’s original melodies, highlighting and emphasizing the quality of the composition. Nintendo games are famous for the quality of their music, and Link’s Awakening, featuring compositions from the legendary Kazumi Totaka among others, is no exception.

For the most part, reviewers feel that because the original game was so good, few changes were necessary

The game’s overall design is largely unchanged from the version released 27 years ago, but some changes have been made to meet the game design standards of 2019. While the original game only displayed one screen of the environment at the time due to technological limitations, the remake scrolls smoothly across the environment, helping to make the game world feel more cohesive. While the original game only let the player save their progress in certain locations, players of the remake can save and load their game at any point in the environment, picking up right where they left off. Just as in the original game, the player traverses the environment, collecting tools and abilities, interacting with in-game characters, and solving puzzles to progress and allow an original story to unfold. These gameplay elements are largely unchanged, with the exception of features that take advantage of the Switch’s expanded number of buttons and an enhanced map system, among other minor improvements. For the most part, reviewers feel that because the original game was so good, few changes were necessary, and the fundamental gameplay experience holds up even today. While Patrick Klepek of Vice noticed that elements of the game’s design feel dated, Andrew Webster of The Verge described the game as seeming like a brand-new experience.

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The remake introduces a new feature, called Chamber Dungeons, which allows players to customize the game’s various dungeons, rearranging the order of rooms to create a new experience. While the option of creating your own Zelda dungeons sounds enticing, reviewers felt that this mode did not live up to the hype, and instead proved to be a frustrating and dull affair. Reviewers complained that the level of customizability afforded in this mode was far too restrictive, and the dungeons created in this mode ended up feeling repetitive and overly simplistic. Fortunately, this mode is entirely optional, and players who stick to the game’s main campaign won’t have to miss out on any secrets or bonuses if they choose not to bother with the Chamber Dungeons mode.

It’s worth noting that this is not the first time Link’s Awakening has been remade. In 1998, The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening DX was released for the Game Boy Color, featuring color graphics and an optional ninth dungeon which has been carried over to the Switch release. The fact that the game received such strong reviews after having been remade not just once, but twice after nearly 30 years is a testament to the quality of the core gameplay and a sign that the Switch edition of this cult classic is worth checking out, particularly if you’ve never played any version of the game before.