Virtual reality is expected to transform several industries, including travel and hospitality. What started as nascent technology is poised to become, in business, a tool for promotions and advertising. For consumers, it’s a new way to plan: Imagine walking through a hotel room before you book, or exploring a location’s sights and sounds as you narrow down a shortlist of vacation destinations, all from inside your home and using your phone.
This isn’t a far-off technology: There are several virtual travel apps already available, and companies like Qantas, British Airways, and Marriott have already started experimenting with it as a marketing tool. On the consumption end, YouTube and Facebook are just a handful of the major sites supporting 360-degree content.
But even if you have no plans to physically go anywhere, VR is a fantastic new video-based medium for armchair wanderlust. It takes the Google Street View approach of dragging your mouse around 360-degree photos, and transforming it into an immersive experience where you’re transported into those environments. You can travel to places you may never be able to go (or want to), such as destinations that are off-limits to tourists or just plain dangerous. And when you add narration from a tour guide to those videos, the experience becomes that much greater.
While video resolution quality isn’t there yet (depending on the production quality, viewing through VR goggles and headsets could be nauseating; photos, however, look great), it’s getting better. As we recently experienced with Marriott’s “VRoom Service,” using a Samsung Gear VR headset, the audio-visual “sensory experience” did make us feel as if we’re there (pardon the cliché). Expect to see more content uploaded in the near future – a mix of professional, high-quality videos to those shot by consumers on their phones or cameras.
So if you’ve purchased a VR headset with your new Galaxy phone, were sent a cardboard viewer as some type of promotion, or even just with your phone or computer, here are a few sites and apps that give you a taste of virtual travel.
Marriott VR Postcards
Last year, Marriott launched its “VRoom Service” collaboration with Samsung; guests could borrow a Gear VR headset and experience three “VR Postcards,” in which tour guides take them a unique locale and explain the significance of the destination. What’s interesting about the VR Postcards is that the narrative adds an interesting layer to the overall experience.
VRoom Service is Marriott’s second experiment in virtual travel, created by Framestore and Relevent – two agencies with the know-how in building VR experiences, but you don’t need to check in to a Marriott hotel to check it out; Gear VR owners could download the VR Postcards through the Milk VR service.
For its YouTube page, German airliner Lufthansa created several 360-degree on-location videos in Beijing, Hong Kong, Miami, New York, San Francisco, and Tokyo. Each 46-minute clip lets you pan around a notable area in each of those cities, such as Wan Chai Street Market in Hong Kong or Lombard Street in San Francisco. You don’t need a VR viewer, although it’s more immersive if you use the YouTube Android app with Google Cardboard viewer.
Google Street View
Without us realizing, Street View in Google Maps has been preparing us for virtual travel for years. The ability to zoom into many parts of the world (as well as inside buildings) at street level, is one its coolest features. Now, with the Google Street View app for iOS and Android and a compatible viewer (Google Cardboard, Mattel View-Master, Zeiss VR One GX), virtual travelers can finally put themselves inside those locations.
Action cam maker GoPro is getting into the VR game in a big way. Its Odyssey uses 16 Hero4 Black cameras to capture an 8K panoramic video, while it’s rumored in some circles that it is developing a consumer-friendly 360 camera. Of course, GoPro’s videos are short of amazing, and its 360-degree ones are no exception. From surfing in Tahiti to riding a BMW bike on the rooftops of Gran Canaria and inside an Indycar over the Golden Gate Bridge. Check out the personal New York City tour with photographer and Instagrammer, Neil Britto. GoPro won’t be the only big camera company getting into VR: Samsung and Nikon recently announced their 360 cameras, so we can expect to see content from them.
Chances are, most of us will never experience space travel in our lifetime, let alone journey to Mars. Thanks to thousands of images that have been transmitted back to Earth from its Sojourner and Curiosity rovers, NASA was able to put together 360-degree videos and images of what walking on Mars would be like. The most recent panorama comes from Curiosity, from a site known as Namib Dune.
As its name would suggest, Ascape is a VR app that’s dedicated entirely to travel. Available as an app for Android or iOS, and viewable on a phone or VR viewer, Ascape has a bunch of 360-degree video and photo tours – from the Star Wars parade at Disneyland Hong Kong to reindeer racing in Norway – and are neatly categorized (called “collections”). You will need to download each experience, which could take up a chunk of space on your phone.
Littlstar is a VR “cinema network” hosting a variety of 360-degree photos and videos, available on the Web or via its app for Android or iOS. Its aerial and travel categories contain numerous content from around the world, including videos from Discovery and National Geographic. When you’ve looked through all the travel videos, check out the many others, including tech, sports, cars, and fashion.
Like Littlstar, YouVisit lets you experience its content on the Web (through a Web browser or the Oculus Rift) or with a VR headset via its app for iPhone or Android. YouVisit has a variety of interesting travel-related 360-degree photos and videos, from the Ayautthaya temples of Thailand to the Louvre Museum in Paris and helicopter ride over New York City. You can even get onboard the Carnival Breeze and explore the different parts of the cruise ship.
Destination B.C., an agency that promotes tourism in Canada’s British Columbia, launched a virtual reality experience called “Wild Within,” which explores the natural areas of this western province. In the videos, the viewer travels through the Broughton Archipelago of the Great Bear Rainforest, but has the option of taking one of two paths – the coastline or up a mountain. Wild Within was first developed for the Oculus Rift on a desktop, but it’s now available as an app for iOS or Android.
Discovery is one of the major media companies to dive into virtual reality. Last August, it launched its Discovery VR initiative that lets users experience TV shows like Gold Rush, Survivorman, Puppy Bowl, and MythBusters, in an immersive manner. Besides exploring the exotic locales, you can swim with sharks, ski downhill with Bode Miller, or learn to forage for food, for example. Discovery VR content can be watched online, but it’s best via a phone and Google Cardboard or similar viewer, or Samsung Gear VR (via Milk VR).