How Covid-19 Changes the Debate About Virtual Tourism

Planes may be grounded, but virtual tourism is taking off as a way to still see the world from our sofas

Virtual travel is the holy grail of VR. The idea we can stay at home and take off for the Holy Land, Vienna’s cafés, or the jungles of Costa Rica, is as thrilling to technologists as it is to travellers.

The first wearable VR device, Morton Hellig’s Telesphere Mask, patented in 1960, promised “a complete sensation of reality… with 100 percent peripheral vision, binaural sound, scents and air breezes.” It flopped, but we’re still chasing the breezes.

The near cessation of global travel due to Covid-19 and the possibility the travel industry won’t bounce back any time soon makes virtual tourism a hot topic. But there’s also a generalised feeling that things should not simply go back to normal. Empty skies are cleaner and quieter. Reduced traffic is good for birds, and lungs. A virtual holiday is kinder to the environment and climate than a long-haul flight.

“VR can certainly play a role in cutting carbon emissions and reducing overtourism,” says professor Caroline Scarles, a specialist in technology in society at the University of Surrey’s school of hospitality and tourism management. 

“It will be one of a range of responses. Tourism needs to be less impactful, so we can all continue to enjoy it.”

The real deal?

The capital-intensive consumer VR industry is largely the domain of a few major players, including Facebook’s Oculus, HTC’s Vive, Valve and Windows Mixed Reality, with its HoloLens smartglasses. While they scramble for valuable patents and market share, firms have concentrated on gaming and fantasy milieus and shied away from the technically more demanding replication of travel experiences.

We learn five senses at school, but there are really around twenty

“VR only stimulates the external senses, notably sight and hearing,” says professor Anthony Steed, head of the virtual environments and computer graphics group at University College London. 

“We learn five senses at school, but there are really around twenty. Touch is a challenge. There are gloves but it’s difficult to scale this up to something that covers the entire body. You need to know a lot about people, their body mass and where they are carrying weight.

“Smell devices have been around a while and smell has powerful associations with memory recall. A lot of labs are looking at this, but it’s chemical based and potentially messy. You have the difficulty of evacuating the smell too.”

It’s not only the aroma of a freshly cooked Neapolitan pizza that eludes VR designers. The simple act of walking is impossible in a confined space. 

Thus, while some of Oculus’s ‘Travel the World’ apps, such as ‘Chernobyl VR Project’, impress for their artistry and ambition, they leave the “traveller” feeling somewhat passive and static. To compensate, apps like ‘Wander’, which is akin to a mash-up of Google’ Street View and VR, allow users to invite friends, and go back in time. 

Back in reality, many tourist destinations have been extremely quiet amid coronavirus measures

Destination apps for Venice, Rio and Pompeii—which benefit from panoramic and hi-res imaging—are offered on the platform for free or at very low prices. The problem is that many VR headsets cost as much as a luxury holiday.

Using our imagination

Armchair tourism, of one kind or another, is a promotional tool. Companies and organisations such as Thomas Cook and Nashville Music City tourist board offer lo-tech virtual experiences to get punters interested. 

In 2015, Qantas Airlines partnered with Samsung to launch an in-flight VR experience for first-class passengers. (Why anyone wants a VR chopper flight to Hamilton Island while they were actually flying—through real clouds—is a moot point.)

The lockdown has spurred a creative burst in virtual marketing, from VIVA Cruises’ 360-degree tour of its newest ship to an invitation to “Experience Egypt from Home” to the Faroe Islands’ “Remote Tourism Tool”, which runs live hour-long virtual tours at scheduled times.

But it’s in the realm of arts and heritage that VR, combined with AR (augmented reality) and MR (mixed reality), is arguably finding its natural home. 

The Louvre, the most visited museum on earth, gets over 10 million visitors per year. Those who want to see the Mona Lisa have to do so through bulletproof glass, above the heads of others, and for only 30 seconds on average. Last year, the museum teamed up with HTC—for the 500th anniversary of Leonardo da Vinci’s death—to develop ‘Beyond the Glass’, an app for visitors. 

Now available as a download, it allows headset-wearers to study da Vinci’s painting techniques using X-ray and infrared photography, survey the artist’s model from a 3D point of view, and learn about the composition and evolution of the masterpiece. 

Professor Scarles, who has led research into the value of immersive technologies for healthy ageing, believes such approaches can democratise culture.

“VR and MR can provide opportunities for those who can’t travel due to mobility or mental health issues or who can’t afford to do it. We can bring a foreign holiday into someone’s home. It has great potential when it comes to doing social good.” 

Museum app Smartify has a database of some two million artworks housed at more than 120 venues. As a response to Covid-19, it recently made all its audio tours free for the rest of 2020.

Going beyond gaming

In November 2019, PricewaterhouseCoopers estimated that VR and AR could add £62.5 billion to the UK economy and £1.4 trillion to the global economy by 2030.

The sector seems to be having a moment. Headsets are harder to score than loo roll and Half-Life: Alyx, launched in March, is being talked about as the first killer app on VR platforms.

Virtual safaris by “telepresence”? Lions and hippos have never been safer

Virtual travel would be a good deal more marketable with a device as functional and unintrusive as a smartphone. Professor Steed believes one might be coming quite soon.

“In five-ten years we’ll see a convergence, when headsets will be able to provide both HoloLens and Oculus-type features. 

“This means you’ll be able to swap between augmented reality and virtual reality. There are some technical challenges to overcome and it also has to be cheap enough, but there are a lot of steps coming that will make VR higher quality, less fatiguing and more accessible.”

In February, HTC released images of its Proton prototype, an MR-capable device that looked like a pair of oversized sunglasses. Could it be the ultimate travel accessory?

Meanwhile, robots designed to facilitate disinfection of public places during the coronavirus outbreak are also being geared up to allow virtual safaris by “telepresence”. Lions and hippos were never safer. 

For all the advances, it remains unlikely VR (or AR, MR or XR) will ever completely replace tangible travel experiences. We travel with our bodies as well as our minds. We seem not to mind jostling for space and joining queues, so long as the rewards are sufficient. We need those breezes.

The future is excitingly unpredictable. Consider how social media has disrupted the way we travel. But VR is already providing an escape from the here and now.

“I know of a couple who celebrated a fiftieth birthday by buying a couple of cheap headsets online,” says professor Scarles. “They couldn’t travel to Italy as planned, so they made do with a glass of wine, a virtual night at the opera and a lot of fun.

“At this point in time, virtual worlds are firing some people’s imaginations, giving others ideas about visiting new places someday soon, and providing all of us with an escape from Covid reality.”