Travelers are discoverers. One of the best parts of any trip is not knowing exactly what lies in store until we go and find out for ourselves. What is travel if not a leap into the unknown?
No matter how tempting the thrill of discovery may be, though, there are some surprises that most of us could do without. Discovering the hotel’s website photos are more than a little deceptive. Finding out your seat on the plane is right beside the toilet, or that the in-flight “entertainment” consists of a broken set of headphones and three sitcoms from the early eighties.
Virtual reality is promising to help travelers with all of these issues, and many others. The technology has been around for a while, but it wasn’t until recently that it started to show up in the travel space.
It’s still early days, but whether it’s simple applications like taking a virtual stroll around potential accommodation or checking out tours, to more advanced options like minimizing flight anxiety or even (heaven forbid) trying to entirely replace physical travel, there’s a whole lot going on with virtual reality.
Here’s what’s happening with the technology right now, and what we’re expecting to see in the future.
Applications: Trial Runs, In-Flight Entertainment, and More
Trial Runs for Tours & Accommodation
One of VR’s first applications for travel was to test-drive potential attractions and hotels, and it is easy to see why. If you’re going to fly for hours and shell-out your hard-earned money, wouldn’t you want to know it’ll be worthwhile?
That’s the logic for all the companies offering VR tours of hotels, destinations, and activities: see before you buy. The technology has been particularly useful for hotels, since VR offers a transparency and visual appeal that static two-dimensional images can’t provide.
However, there’s an obvious problem with trying to offer virtual-reality walkthroughs to a wide audience: the need to use special equipment like VR headsets, which most people don’t own. For now, hotels and agencies are offering 360° images and video, a kind of pseudo-VR which is viewable by anybody with a web browser. Brands already trying this include NH, Hilton, W Hotels, and St. Regis.
Similar to hotel tours, VR allows airlines to show prospective flyers exactly what their plane will look like. Even before booking a flight, passengers will get the chance to explore the actual aircraft they’d be boarding, see the layout, and choose a seat.
As well as pre-flight tours, VR may soon be coming along for the ride in the form of in-flight entertainment. Anything that makes long-haul flights more bearable is a winner in our books, and we may soon get a fully immersive onboard entertainment experience, far beyond the usual 2D movies and TV shows. Whether users will have to bring their own headsets or airlines will provide them is unknown as yet.
Virtual reality offers more to passengers than just entertainment and plane walkthroughs, however. It could help ease anxiety for those with a fear of flying by helping them forget they’re on a plane, or even be part of a treatment plan to cure it once and for all.
In-flight VR could also offer virtual maps of the destination airport, helping travelers get their bearings before landing rather than having to run around looking for a connecting gate or onward transport.
Virtual reality looks promising for pre-trip planning and research, but to actually book the flights, accommodation, or tours you’re looking at, you’d still have to return to a website or app to do it, right? Maybe not — a few developers are testing out adding direct booking capabilities to some of these VR systems.
Imagine: after walking through the hotel, getting a taste of the destination, checking out the plane and choosing your seat, you just head to the checkout in your virtual environment. There’d be no need to take off your headset or switch back to a traditional online booking system. Easy, fast, and convenient.
VR is helping create entirely new types of business, with virtual travel agencies being a good example.
There aren’t many of these agencies yet, but they’re already starting to pop up with promises of travel without the hassle: no jet lag, no language barriers, no expensive price tags. Travel without breaking the bank, maybe even without leaving the house.
One such agency is Japanese company First Airlines, which offers “trips” to Paris, Rome, New York, and Hawaii, without ever leaving Tokyo. Operating since 2016, First Airlines advertises its service as “travel without the hassle.”
The “flights” take two hours, with passengers sitting in first class-style seats and enjoying four-course meals. After “landing,” they’re taken on a VR tour of the main sights of each destination, all for the price of 6,600 yen (~$62).
First Airlines says their trips have been fully booked since launch, mainly by elderly people from around the country.