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Virtual reality tourism and the theater of the mind

December 13, 2016
Virtual reality and the Eiffel Tower

When television became one of the great national pastimes many years ago, there were people who predicted the TV would be a huge blow to tourism. Why, they mused, would a person spend the time and money traveling to faraway destinations when they could be experienced from the comfort of a living room sofa? Rather, television inspired people to do even more traveling.

Today, virtual reality promises to take us places with a far more immersive experience than has ever been possible with the TV or even movie theater. Again, with advanced virtual reality equipment, one can fully immerse themselves in travel to destinations the world over without having to leave home. And, again, new technology is serving to inspire people to do even more traveling.

Not only is VR proving to be a powerful travel-planning tool, it can be used to augment the experience of visiting the world’s great places. For example, some hotel operators are using VR devices to offer more experiences to guests. Marriott Hotels recently launched the VRoom Service, which allows guests to borrow a VR device and experience VR Postcards — immersive stories where the users can visit Beijing, Chile or Rwanda.

While VR can deliver great experiences — and the technology is only going to get more advanced and immersive — it cannot match the varied and unique experience (and complete immersion) of live travel.

“You can’t replicate that in VR, but you can give people a preview and understanding of what they would experience if they went to visit physically,” Abi Mandelbaum was quoted in a recent story on the social media news site Mashable. Mandelbaum is CEO and co-founder of YouVisit, an organization that specializes in VR tours.

Mandelbaum told Mashable that VR tours do — and will continue to — positively influence real trips, and YouVisit has stats that back it up. The organization’s analytics have found that more than 13 percent of people who take a VR tour of a destination have their interest piqued enough to take the next step in the process of planning an actual trip, which is to say they either book travel or lodging, or get in contact to learn more about a visit.

That same Mashable article challenged readers to imagine they have got a week’s vacation planned, or a three-day business trip. In either scenario, the traveler wants to make the most of his or her time by doing the things that appeal most. Incorporating virtual tours into the planning process can help in a big way — a super-technological “try before you buy” tool that lets travelers get a taste for an area or activity before committing.

“It’s just short of the real thing,” Richard Broo, founder and CEO of Wemersive, told Mashable. Wemersive works with ad agencies, film studios and production companies to bring mobile VR experiences to the masses. “It allows you to quickly experience things that would otherwise take you weeks to research.”

Even tourism mecca Las Vegas is embracing VR tours to attract and enable visitors, having recently launched a virtual reality companion app called Vegas VR. The Las Vegas Convention & Visitors Authority teamed up with Wemersive to make the app to complements the immersive desktop experience, GeoVegas, which offers 360 video tours of attractions, hotels and other activities.

Cathy Tull, an executive with the Las Vegas Convention & Visitors Authority, put it this way: “Virtual reality is the future of vacation planning.”

It isn’t yet the “Beam me up, Scotty” of Star Trek yore, but virtual reality is taking travelers — and the travel business — to bold new vistas places that will make travel even more accessible and exhilarating.