As a result of the pandemic, we have seen a massive increase in demand for more localised travel, and in some cases virtual experiences during the tougher periods of lockdown. As the world becomes increasingly conscious of the environment and the impact travel has, we can expect to see alternative methods playing out, whether it be more interrailing, staycations, and now real time virtual reality travel experiences. Unfortunately, this poses a different challenge for the tourism industry as a whole, how can they maintain steady revenue whilst providing those unique and special experiences for international travelers, when they aren’t necessarily able to travel?
Until now sampling tourism experiences have been limited to well-shot imagery or videos available on tourist body websites and social platforms, which only gives one a flavour of the experience, and can feel impersonal at times. Through our recent virtual reality-based work with Historic Environment Scotland (HES) we prototyped several different ‘user’ case scenarios to develop possible virtual travel experiences for HES various sites. These ranged from operational toolsets to public-facing, remote access facilities. The common characteristic was the communal or ‘networked’ nature of the experiences. This communal aspect was essential for the efficacy of operational toolsets and the main inspiration for initiating the project. However, in creating the remote access prototype it became clear that the ‘guided tour potential delivered by our system would open up new tourism opportunities. Through this platform travelers will be able to, in real-time, explore historical sites attending a virtual tour with a tour guide located at that very location, offering the user the opportunity to fully immerse themselves within their surroundings. This is something that we can expect to see more of moving forwards with tourist bodies looking to become more versatile.
Virtual reality, as a broad catchall category, has been part of the communications strategy in tourism for some time. Evolving from static, ‘spherical’ photo viewers of beauty spots and video tours, the technology’s ability to ‘transport’ the viewer to a new destination has always been the draw. The logical and predictable evolution and maturation of the hardware and software used to build and deliver virtual reality experiences have seen realism, freedom of movement (you can now walk around, not just look around) and immersion improve. This coupled with the growing ubiquity of consumer headset ownership, and various key industry players, such as Oculus and HTC producing affordable headsets, the need to improve consumer ‘reach’ means that VR is becoming significantly more relevant to destination tourism.
Multiplayer games technology is a fork in the road of VR technology development. For tourism, it means guided tours, the opportunity to visit a destination within a matter of minutes; it also means visiting somewhere with your friends, maybe planning your perfect itinerary together ahead of an actual trip to that destination? It also presents the opportunity for travelers to spend time at an exotic, sometimes, impossibly inaccessible historic site with the archaeology team that originally unearthed the site. Users will be able to enjoy something that is genuinely new, not a poor analogue for the real thing.
What else will the ability to connect unlikely people to an unlikely destination mean for the industry? On a basic level, this could mean a more consistent stream of revenue for various historic sites and tourism bodies, but this could also mean the opportunity to broaden historical education, share awe-inspiring places to far-reaching corners of the globe, and be used as a tool to inspire young minds on how to preserve our planet and the world’s rich historical sites that are key to our future.