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Virtual reality travel: is it more than just a gimmick?

Can VR still offer a rich travel experience? Technology innovations and a lockdown-led surge in interest suggest virtual travel is here to stay.

By Sarah Barrell
Published 30 May 2021, 08:00 BST
As the technology gets better and a new generation of tech-friendly gamers grow up into globetrotters, VR ...

As the technology gets better and a new generation of tech-friendly gamers grow up into globetrotters, VR could become a standard part of the travel experience.

Photograph by Getty images

Once the preserve of gamers, geeks and marketing agencies, VR has been given a new lease of life under lockdown. Let’s be clear: it’s never going to replace actual, physical travel in the real world. But as the technology gets better — the headsets more advanced and apps genuinely more immersive — and a new generation of tech-friendly gamers grow up into globetrotters, VR could become a standard part of the travel experience. Being able to step into a 3D space, be it a hotel room or museum, natural beauty spot or city street, isn’t only a useful tool at the planning stage, but a means to augment your experience on the road, and a way to relive it afterwards. VR also offers opportunities to explore with a lighter carbon footprint and, right now, while international travel remains limited, it caters to both those hungry for new horizons and travellers seeking a way to revisit favourite haunts.

Where should I start?

The latest improvements in VR headsets mean most now support apps, and as a result there are more programs to tap into; you can journey worldwide into whichever arena of nature or culture you fancy. Leading the pack, Oculus launched its Quest 2 headset in October 2020 with sharp screen resolution, no cables and visual hand-tracking. This means that as you reach out, your VR hands do the same, allowing for more intuitive movement. It still hasn’t quite overcome VR’s potential to cause motion sickness in some users, but as travel apps are generally less high-octane than games, it’s less of a risk. And as tech innovations increase, the price seems to be decreasing — at £299, Quest 2 isn’t the preserve of VR fanatics only. Also creating a buzz, thanks to headset innovations and a menu of engaging apps, is PlayStation’s PS VR headset, HTC’s Vive and Vive Pro, and Valve’s Valve Index.

What about VR on my phone?

It’s possible, but not nearly so immersive. Google Cardboard, allows you to turn your phone into something like a VR headset, offering an immersive viewing experience within a foldout frame. Plenty of smartphone apps, as well as YouTube and Facebook, offer 360-degree videos, which approach a VR experience, albeit in standard 2D view. And, proving that the pandemic-led boom in Instagram TV cook-along sessions, live-stream lectures, Zoom concerts and online museum tours has left a permanent mark, Amazon is the latest big brand to invest megabucks in VR-like experiences that bring the world to your doorstep. The launch of Amazon Explore in September offers one-on-one tours and classes in destinations worldwide, via live video. 

Where can I go?

Via Oculus, National Geographic VR allows you to hop into a kayak to explore icebergs in Antarctica, or discover Machu Picchu. With Wander, meanwhile, you can walk anywhere in the world that’s mapped in Google Street View, with Wikipedia integration that adds location-based learning as you stroll. Plus, it offers a way to jump back in time to witness changes to your destination over the past 16 years (Google launched the Street View app in 2005). If you want to experience Europe’s cities during these strange times, When We Stayed Home travels through the heart of familiar, currently deserted, urban destinations. In Paris, your guide is local bookseller Jérôme Callais, while in Venice it’s gondolier Alex Hai. 

Who can take me there?

What began as a pandemic stopgap is looking more like a viable product, not least for tourism bodies keen to keep their destination front and centre in people’s minds for when travel resumes. Maldives Marketing & Public Relations Corporation uses VR to showcase such seductive offerings as snorkelling, beach yoga sessions and cookery classes, while the German National Tourist Board can take VR travellers with Oculus Rift headsets on 360-degree treks across the country, and on trips along its Baltic and North Sea coasts. Six of Germany’s fairy tale castles are also open for exploration for those with Microsoft HoloLens smart glasses.   

Three VR experiences to try

1. First Airlines offers VR ‘flights’ from its Tokyo base. The company reported a 50% spike in bookings last summer. 

2. Kayak in search of a lost penguin colony, all in 3D, with 360-degree video footage shot by National Geographic.

3. Earlier this year, Snoop Dogg and the TIDAL streaming service presented a live DJ night via Facebook’s Oculus, while Jean-Michel Jarre saw in the New Year with a show at Notre-Dame.

Published in the June 2021 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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