Keeping pace with virtual reality

Dr Abdullah Bin Mohammed Belhaif Al Nuaimi, Minister of Public Works

FEW years ago, virtual or ‘augmented’ reality was all the rage and everybody was talking about it. Journalists were busy forecasting the impact this technology would have on various industries and start-up companies involved in virtual and augmented reality projects sprung up in many places. Not a day went by when products like Google Glass wasn’t mentioned in the press. Once the initial excitement had died down a little, however, it suddenly got very quiet again regarding all things virtual and augmented.

It’s important for industry professionals to understand the difference between augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR). Augmented reality blends virtual reality and real life and users are able to interact with virtual contents in the real world, and are able to distinguish between the two. A very basic example would be Google Maps which, in certain locations, allows you to point your smartphone’s camera at the street in front of you and then overlays the camera (i.e. real) image with augmented reality information, e.g. names of buildings, information about public transport, etc.

Virtual reality, on the other hand, is about creating a virtual world that users can interact with. Users often find it difficult to tell the difference from what is real and what is not. VR is usually achieved by the wearing of a VR helmet or goggles.

So why bother about AR and VR? Firstly, because they’re far from dead. Things may have calmed down a bit and – unlike previously predicted by many tech journalists – we’re not all wearing Google Glass yet, but that doesn’t mean that nothing has happened in the AR and VR field over the past few years.

Secondly, because the travel, tourism, and hospitality industries stand to benefit considerably from augmented and virtual realities and tomorrow’s winners in our industries will be companies who understand this today.

Why our industries? I, like many others, attended this year’s Arabian Travel Market and stepped into Marriott’s ‘teleporter’ station. The experience, delivered in 4D and via special headsets, was awe-inspiring. It was like being sucked through a wormhole and being spat out on a sandy beach in Hawaii. Or in central London. Or in the lobby of a swanky Marriott hotel in San Francisco. It was like actually being there.

What’s in it for me, you might ask? After all, we want our customers or guests to actually go, stay in hotels, and spend real money, rather than travel virtually. Sure we do, but how much more compelling would a virtual visit to a destination be during the booking process than a website or brochure? Thomas Cook is already testing VR content and technology figuring that the closer you get to a destination during the decision making process, the more likely you are to actually buy the package.

Did you know that there’s a product called Google Cardboard, which does essentially what Google Glass does, but only costs $24/device and is compatible with all smartphones? Thomas Cook is using Cardboard to bring VR to customers in their homes and offices. Together with freely available software, it allows you to truly immerse yourself in a destination – far more than even the best brochure, website, or travel video allows.

Best Western is spending $2 million on capturing images of its properties to allow potential guests to virtually walk through them before booking.

More and more tourism destinations are using VR and AR tools to provide visitors with a more immersive experience, e.g. an application called 'Paris, Then and Now' allows you to explore Paris using your smartphone’s camera, Cardboard, or Google Glass to overlay your actual surroundings with historical images. Spain’s Alhambra in Granada recently hosted a meeting of specialists from over 45 countries to discuss the combination of new technologies and cultural heritage.

So, will we all be soon stepping into VR teleporters and travel virtually? Probably not, but what we will see is the emergence of an entirely new form of travel marketing. VR and AR powered marketing campaigns that allow customers to get the best possible picture of a destination before they book. Are you ready for it? 

By Martin Kubler