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.