December 23, 2019   |   Updated: December 19, 2019

With the start of winter, those in the Northern Hemisphere may be shopping for a beach vacation before the cold weather blues settle in. Today it’s possible to sample some of the sights and sounds of different beach destinations before choosing, thanks to the help of VR (virtual reality).

Can VR appeal to our sense of touch and smell? Can it help us see sights that we missed while traveling? Can it replace travel altogether? We asked IEEE member Todd Richmond about the potential of VR to transform the travel industry.

IEEE: How is VR being used today in the travel industry?
Todd Richmond: To date, VR has been used essentially as a high-tech brochure before a trip. Some travel companies are using 360-degree videos, a form of “casual VR,” to allow consumers to “look around” a vacation spot by simply using Samsung Gear (wearable computing devices), Google Cardboard (a low-cost VR platform), or the equivalent even before they’ve packed a bag. More immersive experiences require much more development effort and costs on the part of travel vendors, and on the part of the consumer, a computer and VR headset, which most people don’t have.

IEEE: What capabilities does VR provide to travelers that they didn’t have before?
TR: A traveler can “look around” an environment – be it a hotel room, club, street scene or wilderness area. The ability to interactively view (by turning your head and body) is a bit more immersive than a traditional video, and gives the user some degree of agency to look where they want. Audio can be part of the experience, as spatial audio is becoming more common. But touch and smell remain experimental and can be expensive to deploy.

IEEE: What other travel applications can we expect VR to tap into in the future?
TR: Two other possibilities could be intriguing. The first is the ability to relive the trip, by watching 360-degree video that was captured during the trip. Just like travel photos, travel 360s could provide a more immersive memory experience, and also provide the possibility of seeing things that were missed during the actual trip (“I didn’t look over there”).

The second possibility is for VR to replace travel. This has been the stuff of science fiction for decades, but as we get better at deep immersion and telepresence, it could be that much of our travel experience will happen from the privacy and security of our homes. The next step for this is to enable social interactions on the VR-enabled “trip”. These capabilities will see double-duty in the workplace for telecommuting.

See also Experience History and Art In a Whole New Way with AR and VR in Museums

IEEE: In your view, will VR create more armchair travelers, or will it inspire people to go out and experience the real thing?
TR: I think you’ll see both. Like with any technology, people use it in a variety of ways – some for positive outcomes, some with unintended consequences. Since VR breaks time and space, it can enable people to virtually travel to places that they can’t actually get to (e.g., Mount Everest) or places that are no longer like they used to be, like any rapidly growing area.

With a growing older population virtual travel may end up helping with feelings of isolation and allow “travel” even when someone has debilitating physical limitations. This type of stimulation could help keep mental acuity as people age. Of course, more studies need to be done to determine the benefits of these types of experiences but the possibilities are there.

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