Virtual Reality is the Future of Travel? I Still Hope Not — or Perhaps…
“J ust like we capture photos and videos today and then share them on the Internet to let others experience them too, we’ll be able to capture whole 3D scenes and create new environments and then share those with people as well.”
This quote was recently attributed to Mark Zuckerberg — who is the founder of Facebook — as he believes that “technology will one day let people travel virtually to places real or imagined”, according to this article from ARY News.
I truly hope that will not be the case in terms of virtual reality replacing traditional methods of travel — or that at least regular travel will still be possible if this indeed does happen.
Transporter Unveiled in 2014
There is evidence that travel is headed in the virtual reality direction: in this article which I wrote back on Thursday, September 18, 2014, a machine called a Transporter was unveiled by Marriott International where you can virtually experience sensations and sights from places around the world as though you were there, speculating that it could possibly be the future of travel.
I hope not. As someone who enjoys travel to the point where it is a passion, I really hope not.
In my opinion, this Transporter is perfect for those people who have no plans to ever leave the country which they consider home but want a taste to check out what it is like to be in China or Chile or Chad. I personally have known people who have no desire to see other countries around the world: “There is so much to see in the United States.”
When they step out of that Transporter, they can say “Whew! I am glad I did not spend the money, time and effort to travel to that place. Those 90 seconds were enough for me.”
Fine. To those people who think that way — not that there is anything wrong with that — I say you go ahead and enjoy your Transporter experience.
Is There a Role for Virtual Reality as Part of the Travel Experience?
To me, travel is an experience which needs to be real. No book, photograph or movie can do reality justice. No matter how many times you skim through reviews on Milepoint, FlyerTalk, Trip Advisor or weblogs; no matter how many travel guides or books you read; no matter how much footage of a video you watch; no matter how close the food you taste compares to that in that far-off land where it originated; no matter how well friends or colleagues can impart and relate their travel experiences to you and give suggestions and recommendations, there is nothing like experiencing travel in real life — despite all of the disadvantages of travel we endure today.
Now, I can see virtual reality being implemented to give the user a taste of what to experience before traveling: what is it like to stay in a traditional ryokan in Japan or an authentic hanok in South Korea? Can you sample a Halo-Halo from Manila or compare the food from competing steakhouses in Johannesburg? What does a durian smell like? Is it worth experiencing the view from the top of the Empire State Building?
Virtual reality could possibly even be used for certain experiences which you might have been unable to enjoy while you were actually at a destination due to illness, time constraints, scheduling conflicts or other impediments. You have been to South Africa but did not go to the Cradle of Humankind? Not a problem — just experience it through virtual reality.
By the way, I have been to the Cradle of Humankind — one of eight World Heritage sites in South Africa — and intend to post my experience in a future article here at The Gate…
…but I have found that I have already employed a “virtual reality” of sorts to augment my travel. For example, several months ago I visited the permanent collection at the Museo Nacional del Prado in Madrid free of charge, where I viewed actual paintings by such Spanish artists as Francisco Goya and Diego Velázquez — as well as actual masterpieces from other artists such as Peter Paul Rubens; Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn; Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio; and El Greco — Spanish for The Greek, whose real name was Doménikos Theotokópoulos — who was an important and influential master during the Spanish Renaissance.
While I was at the Museo Nacional del Prado, I admired the art first-hand and up close — especially as I am an artist myself and can relate to the techniques used in the paintings. Although one of the requirements of earning my Bachelor of Arts degree at one of the top art schools in the world was studying art history — I still have my textbooks — two hours was more than enough for me, as I can only take so much of being in a museum in one visit. This included the Louvre when I was in Paris. As an artist, I appreciate works of art; but I like my museum visits to not take too long. Thanks to the Internet, I can spend my time simply viewing the works of art which I like in person at a museum — studying the brush strokes, noticing the imperfections of the canvas, marvel at how the artist used light in his or her work, imagine what life was like back in the time the work of art was created, and interpret the work my own way — and then learn more about them on my free time at home if I so choose…
…so I suppose that the Internet is somewhat of an augmentation of virtual reality; but for me, it complements the experience — not replaces it. That is a significant difference to me.
There was a time when simply being on an observation deck at the top of a tall building was the experience. Now it is augmented by an array of different forms of technology and media designed to augment the observation deck experience — as well as charge a significant amount of money for the privilege — for visitors. The One World Observatory at the new World Trade Center in New York, which is scheduled to open on May 29, 2015; and Burj Khalifa in Dubai, which is the tallest building in the world are two examples which come to my mind. I may possibly visit the observation decks of both buildings this year; and if I do, I intend to report on my experiences…
…but would it be the same if the aforementioned experiences were accessed solely via virtual reality?
Flight Simulators a Form of Virtual Reality
When you think about it, a flight simulator is a form of virtual reality. I have piloted actual flight simulators a number of times — and I will admit that it is an experience like no other. Sure, you can get a good idea of what it is like to be in the cockpit flying a jumbo jet from takeoff to landing without the ennui of the entire duration of the flight itself. Flip a switch and you are on the runway in Honolulu, about to take off in a heavy rainstorm. Once in the “air”, flip a switch — and you are suddenly on approach to a runway in New York on a clear evening where you can see the lights of the city as you prepare to land. Commit a fatal error and crash? No problem. Either flip a switch and try again; or walk away and go home with only your ego bruised.
Some pilots have told me that landing an actual airplane is easier than using a flight simulator when I relate my experience of “greasing” a landing in a Boeing 777-200. I do not know about that — and unless I can suddenly earn a commercial pilot’s license and have access to an airplane, it is highly likely that I ever will — but regardless of how real the experience inside of a flight simulator can be, I still maintain that it still is not like being in an actual airplane during a flight. There is just something about actually being in the air on a real airplane; looking down at the real planet on which we all live; and arriving at a real destination where you can interact with real people and eat real food.
As I mentioned in this article, I do not want to be in a windowless airplane. I want to be in an airplane with real windows. I want to feel the real rays of the sun burning on my real arm; to see the celestial show in store after dusk outside of the airplane starring the moon and the stars; to look down and wonder what the residents of the city below are doing right now as I fly over them; to watch a lightning storm at night which imitates a thousand photographers within the clouds all flashing their cameras; to pass the few cars and trucks no larger than pinholes slowly meandering below along a lonely highway where there is nothing for miles.
There are certain things which I can see being replaced virtually. Remember when city ticket offices abounded? I had no remorse for their demise, as the experience of waiting in line to purchase an airline ticket was not exactly one to which I looked forward. I would much rather book my airline tickets via the Internet in minutes than to first take an hour of my time, use up fuel to drive to a city ticket office, park the car and wait in line…
…but then again, there probably are people who enjoyed that experience; so who am I to say that their disappearance is a good thing? Similarly, there will be people who will welcome the prospect of traveling virtually. As I said about the Internet, I believe there is the potential for virtual reality to play a significant role in enhancing and complementing the travel experience; but I would not want to see it replace actual travel — despite the thought for some people of cheering the idea of not being “trapped in an aluminum tube” for 16 hours and having to deal with airport security checkpoints if not officially enrolled and registered as a “known traveler” in order to experience far-flung destinations around the world.
Perhaps a combination of both virtual reality and real reality — for lack of a better term — might be ideal; and I am willing to keep an open mind to that…
…but please do not take away my enjoyment of traditional travel and completely replace it with virtual travel — not that I believe that that would happen in my lifetime anyway…