Jem Jenkins Jones was stuck at home in Wales for much of the past year amid COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns, but fulfilled a promise to her 10-year-old daughter to see the northern lights from Iceland and South Africa’s game reserves — in virtual reality (VR).
“She was amazed,” Jones said, calling the VR travel experiences “a lifesaver for us.”
Strict lockdowns and travel limitations during the pandemic have sparked fresh interest in immersive virtual travel experiences, which have become more accessible and affordable with new apps and VR hardware.
Even those confined to their homes can take a virtual jaunt to Machu Picchu, the rainforests of Borneo or a road trip across the US in a convertible.
Data on VR travel usage is limited, but developers have seen surging interest since the pandemic hit.
“It has been skyrocketing,” said Cezara Windrem, creator of the Alcove VR platform at AARP Innovation Labs. “We’re getting more adoption every month.”
Alcove enables users to visit exotic locales such as Australia’s coral reef or the island of Malta, while adding a “shared” experience that enables people to interact and even “lead” a family member without the technical skills to navigate in a VR headset.
“We’ve heard from a lot of people who discovered Alcove and decided to buy a headset for their elderly family members,” Windrem said.
This allows for shared travel even during a lockdown and other kinds of experiences such as “playing chess with someone on the other side of the planet,” Windremm said.
With the tourism industry largely obliterated amid the pandemic, VR has emerged as a substitute for real-world travel and a complement to help people plan their next trip.
App developers have created a range of travel experiences: touring the pyramids of Egypt, the Taj Mahal, the savannahs of Kenya or Antarctica from a kayak.
These come from commercial operators or organizations such as National Geographic or WWF.
Users can opt for hardware from Facebook’s Oculus, Sony’s PlayStation or Google Cardboard, among others.
Some gear costs as little as US$300 and many apps are free.
“I have traveled every week since the pandemic from the comfort of my home,” said Rafael Cortes, a computer professional from San Antonio, Texas, who uses Alcove and YouTube VR.
“I’ve been to London, the glass bridge in China, Angel Falls in Venezuela, the ancient city of Petra in Jordan, a helicopter tour of New York,” Cortes said.
Amy Erdt lives in Portland, Oregon, but with VR she said that she likes “to walk around my sister’s town in Wallingford, England, occasionally because I can’t be there.”
Erdt, who administers a Facebook group of VR users, said there are “some great travel experiences” in virtual reality that can be remarkably realistic.
“I once sat at VR poker table at 1am with a guy in Australia who was eating KFC,” she said. “I could hear his KFC crunch. It was a trip.”
VR’s most popular applications are in gaming and fantasy worlds, but travel is seen as a new growth vector.
“During the pandemic when everyone is socially isolated, it may seem strange to isolate yourself further to transport yourself somewhere else, but it does allow us to experience things we can’t experience today,” said Avi Greengart, an analyst with consultancy Techsponential.
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