Virtual reality has had something of a fall and rise over the last decade. Reports and articles published at the end of the 2010s speculated that early demo headsets, muted consumer interest, and a perceived lack of applications meant that the implementation of Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) across key industries such as gaming, health and commerce has been stop-start (less than 1% of retailers claimed they used AR or VR in their customer buying experience, according to research by Mobile Maker).

However, VR and AR projects continue to have an evolving impact in said industries, as technology and research continues to advance and improve. It’s reported that the global VR/AR market will see a 77% compound annual growth rate ​​from 2019 to 2023, showing both consumers and businesses the continuing potential of virtual reality.

Landmark headlines like the launch of Facebook’s metaverse has made virtual reality more relevant than ever, and with Google search volumes implying that VR is growing its market share, there has never been a better time for businesses to embrace virtual reality and how it can revolutionize their industry.

Virtual reality in travel and tourism

One industry that has been energised by virtual reality is travel and tourism. The impact of lockdown and COVID-19 has been described as a catalyst for virtual tourism as a reality. “The impact of Covid-19 may have allowed VR to somewhat shake off its image of being a gimmick in tourism,” tourist analyst Ralph Hollister told BBC News, while Steve Perillo, boss of Travel World VR, described the impact of the pandemic as a “shot of adrenaline” for tech that to date had “not yet really arrived”.

Enduring effects of the pandemic vary across the globe, yet the adoption of VR in tourism appears to be on the rise, with several businesses and projects centering recent ventures around the technology.

Launched in June 2020, the Xplore Petra app provides users with the opportunity to “visit” the iconic Jordanian archaeological site, showcasing an innovative approach to localised virtual reality tourism, along with Lights over Lapland. The Finnish-based travel company has implemented VR so users can experience the Northern Lights from the comfort of their home.

Meanwhile, Social Bee Adventures is an app that uses AR to create a customisable experience for at-home holidaymakers. You can take a trip to Rome’s iconic coliseum, even simulating the gladiatorial events that took place there through history, with more options to gamify the experience for further engagement.

Implementing virtual reality in cultural centres

Innovations in VR travel and tourism aren’t just found on the app store, with established cultural centres investing and introducing virtual reality into their programmes. As highlighted by National Geographic, the Museum of Natural History in Paris brings extinct species back to life in an augmented reality exhibit, introducing visitors to Earth’s ancient animals.

Meanwhile, the National Museum of Singapore has unveiled the “Story of the Forest” in recent years. The innovative exhibition allows visitors to experience a virtual forest, modelled on natural drawings from the museum’s archive.

Stateside, the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History has launched apps that use augmented reality to engage both its in-person and digital visitors. “Skin and Bones” lets users explore the Smithsonian’s animal archive, while “Apollo’s Moon Shot” uses AR to take audiences to the moon. This gives businesses a blueprint of how to use augmented and virtual reality as an integrated part of tourism and travel within localized companies and cultural centres.

Virtual reality’s impact in global partnerships

Advancements in AR and VR have also led to the technology being used in ambitious partnerships between global organisations, indicating the trust being placed in virtual reality that perhaps wasn’t there before.

Shanghai-based company DPVR, which specialises in VR device design and manufacturing, recently partnered with Travel Africa Network, a TV station based in South Africa. DPVR will act as a VR tech provider, supplying customised VR hardware and software to the influential African satellite network. Elsewhere, the Tourism Bureau of Taiwan recently initiated the “360 VR Experience Taiwan in One Day” programme. The project lets users experience a virtual reality tour of Taiwan using a VR headset while riding an exercise bike, featured at California Fitness & Yoga centres.

This boom of new programmes, projects, and partnerships shows that the era of VR-skepticism could well be over in this key industry. Spurned by the isolating effects of global lockdown, virtual reality may evolve past being a substitute for holidays, and instead become an important, integrated element of the travel and tourism industry for years to come.

“VR is not going to replace travel and tourism. It is just going to enhance [it],” Anu Pillai, head of Digital Center of Excellence at Wipro, a technology company, told National Geographic. With that said, only time will tell how much this evolving technology will shape the reality of travel and tourism in the near future.

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