Writer Vikram Ahuja Talks Exploration Through Virtual Reality

Dont listen to the cynics. Virtual reality and augmented reality can do wonders for the travel industry, he maintains.
Virtual Reality allows for a unique exploration without travel
Virtual Reality allows for a unique exploration without travel

It was 4pm in the afternoon. I scanned the vast Antarctic landscape around me. I had just boarded a Zodiac to zigzag around icebergs, en route to an Ad&eacutelie penguin colony. Before that, a helicopter ride over the glaciers. In the morning, I had witnessed a herd of elephants walk past me in Maasai Mara and hung out with a Bedouin in Petra, Jordan. All the while sitting in my living room.

I was experiencing the world through virtual reality (VR), a revolutionary technology that allows viewers, through a headset, to place themselves in a simulated world. Think of it like watching TV&mdashwhile being inside one. In this grey area between reality and a virtual universe lies the possibility to trick the mind into believing that it is at a different location from where it physically is. It&rsquos this idea of &lsquovirtual presence&rsquo that has the travel industry excited about changing the way people plan for travel and experience destinations.

Recently hotels, airlines, restaurants and travel companies have experimented with features that use virtual reality and its better-known counterpart, augmented reality (AR). The latter describes how virtual objects can be overlaid on sights of the real world, often using the phone camera. If you&rsquove used one of the face filters on Instagram or tried catching Pok&eacutemon in your living room with Pok&eacutemon Go, you&rsquove used AR before. Now, summertime is when I usually start planning a vacation with my wife and daughter it is often a complex task involving spreadsheets, Post-its and Pinterest boards. With all the innovation I have seen with these technologies, I began to wonder how the planning and experiential aspects of travel would change for all of us in the near future. Here is what I have to say about that.

Mountain or beach

I wanted to spend the summer surfing on a beach and sipping on pi&ntildea coladas while my wife, Caroline, insisted on the mountains. As a first step towards deciding where to travel, we put our options to the test by &lsquoseeing&rsquo how we feel in these destinations. After downloading one of the few high-quality destination VR apps (some examples include Ascape, Google Expeditions, and our own, Byond Travel), we virtually teleported between the beaches of Mauritius and the beautiful landscapes of Ladakh, debating the merits of both. We digressed many a time. There was a swim with sharks in South Africa, followed by a Mount Everest climb. The ability to experience destinations remotely is exciting, enthralling and very distracting. By the way, we eventually decided on Portugal.

Check-in or carry-on

Always worried about the size of our carry-on bags, I now have help from another AR function. KLM has a new feature in their mobile app that makes it easy for passengers to determine whether their hand baggage is of the correct size. We lined up our bag and the app superimposed a virtual suitcase on top of it, sized to perfectly match the allowed dimensions.

Bem-vindo a Lisboa

We had made it to actual Lisbon. My Portuguese needed some brushing up, so I generously used my Google Translate app&rsquos World Lens feature to translate menus and signboards into English in real-time. In the city&rsquos many museums and historical sites, there were specific apps that could detect exhibits and supplement our experience with videos and useful information.

What to order

Portuguese food is typically hearty and relies heavily on fresh seafood, pork and vegetables. With so many dishes, I experimented with interactive menus to see three-dimensional images of food items on my smartphone screen. The meal was digitally placed on an actual plate, to perfect scale, colour and appearance. Presentation, as they say, is half of what helps one decide what to eat. However, one doesn&rsquot need to see AR versions of the famed Portuguese custard tarts. They are delicious either way.

The immersive nature of these technologies disrupt more than just the traveller. For example, my own experience of using VR for training involved some work Byond Travel did with the Jordan Tourism Board. We used the technology to teleport travel agents to the Wadi Rum desert. They were able to stand next to a cave in Petra and retain far more information regarding the place than they would have reading about it.

Airlines such as Qantas and Singapore Airlines are also experimenting with VR for in-flight entertainment, while many are excited about VR travel creating accessibility for those unable to travel due to medical or financial reasons. One of my biggest (now unfulfilled) dreams was to help my grandmother explore the world virtually, including revisiting her pre-partition house in Pakistan.

While VR and AR sound great, why aren&rsquot they changing our lives yet Maybe it&rsquos time to talk about the elephant in the room (no, not the one who had walked past me earlier in Kenya). These technologies have often been hard to use. If wearing a heavy, clunky headset makes you feel isolated from everything around you (not to mention, sweaty), walking around with a smartphone in front of your face is barely practical. The lack of VR/AR-ready hardware, the high costs of producing content and, therefore, the paucity of great content, has meant slow adoption for these technologies. Some also report experiencing motion sickness and vertigo when using a headset for extended periods of time.

But once technologists get these things right (everyone from Apple to Samsung is investing heavily), it could change the way we interact with the world. Imagine a future with always-on VR and AR (contact lenses instead of clunky headsets, anyone) and multi-sensory experiences to make this technology even more compelling. Imagine the smell of the ocean and the sun on your back as you explore a luxury liner&rsquos new launch. Maybe we could even vacation in virtual reality. We&rsquoll avoid the unpleasant airport queues and hang out with our friends around virtual campfires, or attend virtual concerts. The purists among us shudder at the thought, but if people can fall in love with robots, virtual travel isn&rsquot implausible. The question is&mdashwhere do we draw the line

For now, you must excuse me. I need to put on my headset and get back to watching Titanic. We&rsquore just about to hit an iceberg.

The writer is a serial-entrepreneur and the founder of Byond Travel, India's largest interest-driven community travel and content platform

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