Once used as a fun marketing gimmick, virtual reality (VR) technology is now being deployed to offer out-of-reach travel experiences to Australians unable to venture internationally.
The current pandemic has shown us, there has never been a greater need for technologies that help us enhance limited physical environments. And, as it happens, virtual reality has been developed for just such an occasion.
Already being used to help those with dementia recall old memories, and assist people with particular vision impairments to see images more clearly, VR has now set its sights on the tourism sector.
Its use is widespread
The use of VR technology within the travel industry is still in its relative infancy, however a growing number of companies are experimenting with VR headsets.
Immersive videos of Australian holiday destinations created by Tourism Australia have been viewed more than 10.5 million times over the past two years, whilst research conducted by the same organisation shows that almost one in five travellers have used VR to choose a holiday destination.
Used to capture tourism events such as the Star Wars parade at Disneyland Hong Kong or reindeer racing in Norway in a unique way, VR is achieved using specialist cameras, rigs and software. The finished content can then be viewed on either a VR headset or mobile device.
Whilst unlikely to ever replace traditional travel, those behind VR’s development say its real value lies in the fact it can offer positive wellbeing, reduce isolation and support social integration. It can help by transporting people to places that are otherwise inaccessible.
It has universal appeal
Jamie Gilroy, a director of immersive technology group Catalyst VR, says while it will depend on individual needs, VR tourism is likely to appeal to people living with disability for all the same reasons as those without.
Jamie says the tourism sector is an experience-based industry, so being able to engage consumers at scale with virtual versions of their experiences is a great way to change people’s perceptions and influence behaviours.
“VR enables powerful, engaging experiences that are difficult, hard or impossible to do in real life.
The experiences could be everything from visiting outer space, competing in a game set in a futuristic world, or enjoying the world’s natural beauty. The benefits of VR are the same for anyone - you can do things quicker, easier and safer in VR than you can in the real world. It might not be the same as the real thing but hopefully VR allows more experiences that are the next best thing to doing it in real life.”
Not everyone is convinced
As a fairly new technology, its detractors say VR still faces a number of challenges including possible motion sickness. They argue some users can expect to get disoriented in a virtual environment causing balance issues.
They also say navigating the non-virtual environment – if the user is not confined to a limited area - can be dangerous without external sensory information.
Physical Disability Australia’s Simon Burchill, whose organisation works to promote the rights, responsibilities, issues and participation of people with physical disability, says the obvious benefit of VR tourism is that travellers with disability will not be challenged by the barriers placed in their way by operators who have not taken the time to make their vehicles and accommodation accessible.
He says they may also be protected from some of the risks associated with in-person travel too.
However, Simon believes overall this type of technology will do little to address the main issue faced by its members when traveling to high profile, high traffic tourist destinations, such as the inaccessibility of vehicles (be they planes, buses, boats, etc) and a lack of consistent quality in accessible accommodation.
“Travel is about the destination, the people you meet there and the natural and cultural features it has. Looking at recorded images and hearing recorded sounds (no matter how skilfully they are rendered) is likely to be a poor substitute.
Recommended VR travel experiences
- Experience the rhythm of Cuba by cruising the streets in a vintage convertible.
- Glide with hundreds of hot air balloons in Cappadocia, Turkey.
- Experience the Wingsuit Skydive over Dubai or paraglide the Swiss Alps.
- Ride on the Toy Story roller coaster.
- Gasp in wonder at the Northern Lights.
- Get away from it all by diving with manta rays.