Virtual travel experiences have now become more accessible and affordable than ever with the new apps and VR hardware that have sparked a fresh interest to the public during the pandemic due to strict lockdowns and travel limitations.
Even those confined to their homes can take a tour to Machu Picchu, the rainforests of Borneo, or a road trip across the United States virtually in a convertible.
Since the pandemic hit, developers saw a surge of interest in VR travel even though data about it is limited.
"It has been skyrocketing," said Cezara Windrem, creator of the Alcove VR platform at AARP Innovation Labs. "We're getting more adoption every month."
Alcove enables users to visit exotic locales such as Australia's coral reef or the island of Malta while adding a "shared" experience that enables people to interact and even "lead" a family member without the technical skills to navigate in a VR headset.
"We’ve heard from a lot of people who discovered Alcove and decided to buy a headset for their elderly family members," Windrem said.
With this, one can experience shared travel even amidst a lockdown and other forms of experiences as well like "playing chess with someone on the other side of the planet."
Travel substitute, complement
Virtual reality has emerged as both a substitute for real-world travel and a complement to help people plan their next trip while the tourism industry is down because of the coronavirus outbreak.
App developers have created a range of travel experiences that came from commercial operators or organizations such as National Geographic or World Wildlife Fund such as touring the pyramids of Egypt, the Taj Mahal, the savannahs of Kenya, or the Antarctic from a kayak.
Some gear costs as little as $300 and many apps are free. Users can opt for hardware from Facebook's Oculus, Sony's PlayStation, or the inexpensive Google Cardboard, among others.
"I have traveled every week since the pandemic, from the comfort of my home," said Rafael Cortes, a San Antonio computer professional who uses Alcove and YouTube VR.
"I've been to London, the glass bridge in China, Angel Falls in Venezuela, the ancient city of Petra in Jordan, a helicopter tour of New York."
Gaming and beyond
Travel is seen as a new growth vector in the world of virtual reality which is usually a hit in the fields of fantasy worlds and gaming.
"During the pandemic when everyone is socially isolated it may seem strange to isolate yourself further to transport yourself somewhere else but it does allow us to experience things we can’t experience today," said Avi Greengart, an analyst with the consultancy Techsponential.
Though VR travel has some advantages Greengart said it can't be compared with the real thing.
"With VR travel you're not getting the food unique to the area, you're missing a lot of the sensory experiences and serendipitous meetings with locals," he said.
On the other hand, "you can browse a museum and have it all to yourself," which may be impossible in the physical world.
Even before the pandemic, a report by research firm GlobalData revealed that virtual and augmented reality had already been gaining momentum from travel operators and tourism boards to help enable people to get a taste of a destination before going there.
GlobalData analyst Ralph Hollister said the pandemic may be giving the sector a lift that will endure even after the pandemic.
"Spending considerably more time indoors with an abundance of spare time, combined with an urge to travel, has meant that aspiring travelers have been turning to VR to fill a void that travel restrictions have left," Hollister said.
Hollister said he sees VR becoming an important part of the process of travelers viewing and selecting a travel destination.
"The widespread adoption of VR for this kind of purpose could be the next step for this technology and help it permanently move away from its ‘gimmick’ label,” he said.
Source: ABS CBN News