In the last few days the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset has launched in the UK, bringing virtual reality to the headlines once again; although at £549, it still is beyond the reach of most. A much cheaper introduction, as I have recently discovered and been repeatedly astounded by, is the open source Google Cardboard. Anyone with £15 and 15 minutes to spare can explore the many ways Virtual Reality will transform tourism (and just about everything else from architecture to medicine) in the next few years. (You can even make your own – the open source specifications can be downloaded here.)
I am not going to try to explain the experience – as this TED talk puts it, “talking about virtual reality is like dancing about architecture” – except to say two things. First, it is more immersive, and more game-changing than I could have imagined. And second, despite all the tech fears about how it might be abused, my over-riding response is that this is a piece of technology that really can promote empathy; and that is why the potential for sustainable tourism excites me so much. Yesterday, for example, I ‘watched’ a co-production by Vice and the UN that took me to witness life as an Ebola survivor in Liberia. I doubt I will ever experience a situation like this in the outside world, but VR brought a far deeper understanding than I could otherwise have imagined possible.
The very first film I ‘watched’ (the word does no justice), took me inside the famous dinosaur room at the Natural History Museum, and as I stared up, down, left, right, the space around me filled with water, and a Rhomaleosaurus, became flesh and swam off its plinth and straight past me. And yes, I ducked.
Since then I have sat among gorillas in the forests of the Congo. Been transported back by Timelooper to experience the Tower of London as it was in 1255. And visited countless hard to reach heritage monuments and attractions thanks to Google Expeditions. Yet all the time I was sat at home in North London, with just a Google Cardboard and my phone.
Of course forward thinking travel companies are already exploring the opportunities this presents, from hotels like Marriott, to DMOs such as Tourism Australia, Failte Ireland for the Wild Atlantic Way, Visit British Columbia’s The Wild Inside, or New Zealand’s Dept of Conservation’s Five Great Walks. It’s both just beginning, and happening very fast.
The question then, is what might all this mean for the sustainability of the tourism industry?
I am sure it will turn flying for conferences and much of business travel on its head. It also offers a much more sustainable, cheaper way to supply virtual fam trips to as many as want them, as Sanctuary Retreats is already doing. When it comes to how we choose to go on holiday however, it’s too early to tell whether people will be motivated to travel more often and to more places as a result of what they experience, or whether they are more likely to now choose to stay at home.
I expect the amount we travel won’t change directly as a result, but how we choose where we go will. VR offers those with a richer, more immersive, more connected experience to promote the chance to stand out. That should excite many working towards sustainable tourism.
From an accessibility perspective, there is huge potential. I am never going to attempt to climb Everest, but VR could take me to the top. I could gain access to Stonehenge, Uluru or other protected sites, without jeopardising their integrity. And for travellers with mobility restrictions – or financial constraints, VR offers the chance to experience places that they might otherwise be unable to access.
Moreover, just as the Timelooper app can show us what London looked like in the past, so campaigners and communities can use the technology to create visions of possible futures – adding layers onto today to enable people to experience the world after 2 feet of sea level rise for example, or for a community to see how their beach might look after development.
For people working towards sustainable tourism, therefore, now is the time to start experimenting with many ways that virtual reality can support our aims. You can make films at their most rudimentary using a high end smartphone, or better still with a specialist camera costing a few hundred pounds. VR may have had a few false dawns, but it isn’t going to go away now; and within a very few years will be ubiquitous. We need to get our heads around and inside this technology as fast as possible.
NB: All the links to VR videos should work in a normal smartphone without Google Cardboard or another headset, but the experience will in no way compare.