First there was the travel agent. Then people started booking their own flights and hotels online. Now Thomas Cook has changed the game again, using virtual reality headsets to allow customers to experience certain holidays and excursions before they buy.
“Holidays are one of the things you look forward to most,” explains Marco Ryan, Thomas Cook’s chief digital officer. “However, buying a holiday isn’t like buying a phone where you go into a shop and come out with a product. It’s usually something you do online or over the phone. We see virtual reality as a way of bringing the experience higher up the excitement curve.
“What better way of getting someone excited about their holiday than showing them a taste of their hotel – what the view is like from their room, what the restaurant is like, how far they are from the beach? Virtual reality has come of age. This isn’t the blocky images you see on Minecraft. It’s a 3D HD immersive world that is extremely relevant to the customer.”
What better way of getting someone excited about their holiday than showing them a taste of their hotel
After a successful trial at Bluewater Shopping Centre in the summer of 2014, Thomas Cook is rolling out its virtual reality technology – a Samsung Gear VR headset powered by Oculus – into three more UK stores, plus three in Belgium and another three in Germany.
“We’ll be ramping up aggressively in 2015,” says Ryan. “That means covering more hotels, excursions and airlines and rolling the technology out into more stores. The competition amongst our staff to get hold of the headsets is fierce at the moment. Everyone wants them and all the customers who try one on just say, ‘wow’.
“What we’ve found is that the virtual reality experience helps our customers ask more detailed questions about the hotel or the excursion we’ve shown them. They seem happier to pay a supplement for something once they’ve seen it and it helps us to sell them the right experience.
“Moving forwards, we’re expecting to see an explosion in the use of virtual reality headsets in the home. People will use them for gaming so they’ll end up in most homes. We’re building up a strong library of virtual reality content and talking to some providers to see how we might be able to feed some of it into their platforms.”
NOT LOST IN TRANSLATION
Oculus Rift headsets are just the tip of the iceberg for improving the travel experience. Having already bought the company behind the World Lens App, which allows users to translate written words in real-time using their smartphones, Google has now taken the concept of translation into the realms of virtual reality.
The company’s latest development, Captioning on Glass, allows Google Glass wearers to use their smartphones as microphones before displaying what is said into them as text on the lenses. Currently being used to aid the hard of hearing, the technology is being adapted for use as a translation device to help people whilst they’re traveling.
“The person wearing Glass has to hand their smartphone to someone else to begin a conversation,” says Professor Thad Starner, who is leading the project. “It’s not ideal for strangers but we designed the program to be used among friends, trusted acquaintances or while making purchases.”
The next step for virtual reality in travel could be to enhance the way people search for holidays. In a report he wrote for Skyscanner looking into future trends in travel and tourism, the company’s head of B2B Filip Filipov identified semantic search as the next frontier for virtual reality in the industry.
“Travel websites don’t match the way people think,” he explains. “You don’t think, ‘I want to go to this place from and to these dates’. You think, ‘I want to go on a beach holiday or city break within the next six months’. It’s hard to solve but the idea of semantic search is to find a way to match the intentions of the traveller with relevant results.
“The problem is that the way we book holidays has changed from ringing an agent to searching online to using a mobile. How can you get the information on such a small screen to help you perform a semantic search? The answer is to use your voice.
“You’ll be wearing your virtual reality headset and you’ll say, ‘I want to go to Paris to visit John’ or ‘show me hotels in New York’. The set will utilise an organiser such as Siri or Google Now and respond to your voice input and show your prices, hotel rooms, whatever you’ve asked for.
“Moving forwards I think the virtual reality experience will get even better when it is supplemented by haptic technology. You’ll be able to put on a sock that will replicate the feeling of sand or water on your feet. Disney and Intel are already developing products along these lines and it will quickly become more mainstream.”
TRAVELING WITHOUT MOVING
There are already ways of feeling the benefits of a holiday without actually going anywhere. The Guided Meditation app allows users to experience the sensation of sunbathing – complete with the sound of waves lapping the shore – whilst Ocean Rift can take you into the water and let you swim with dolphins without ever getting your feet wet. Could that point to a new way of traveling without moving?
“It depends what you mean by a holiday,” says Llyr ap Cenydd, the Bangor University professor who designed Ocean Rift. “If you mean taking a break from it all then yes. I’ve been known to go swimming with the dolphins using my app when I’m stressed. It has therapeutic benefits like you might get from going away.
“I think virtual reality will be transformational for the travel and tourism industry. It’s all just a matter of resource. At the moment, the only people who can develop this technology are video games developers. None of the big boys are putting any money into it because there’s no market for it but it will come. I show virtual reality technology at open days all over the country and the first thing anybody ever asks me is, ‘where can I get one?’
“I think the market will develop with enthusiasts at first but as it gets bigger, there will be more investment and the technology will get better and smaller. Mobile phones were like bricks when they first came out but now you can get them the size of a postage stamp. I expect the same to happen with virtual reality technology as graphics improve and we work out better ways of sending the images into our eyes.”
As technology improves the question will inevitably arise: will virtual reality render physical holidays obsolete? After all, they’d be much cheaper and less costly to the environment. And in fact, they’re already happening up to a point.
US company All These Worlds has created a programme for NASA that allows astronauts to experience virtual vacations while they’re in space. Designed to help maintain physical and psychological health during long space missions, ANSIBLE provides a virtual world where people can interact with family members, go to a club, walk through beautiful countryside and even dive a coral reef. So does this demonstrate that virtual reality could one day replace the traditional summer holiday?
The Chinese Government has made 500 remote Buddhist caves available virtually
“I believe that many people might like to travel virtually for a variety of reasons,” says Jacki Mori, founder and chief scientist at All These Worlds. “That could be cost or they are not physically able to travel or just to get the lay of the land before actual physical travel. VR travel might also be great for inaccessible locations like deep inside caves or on top of the Himalayas.
“It would also be great for cultural monuments that cannot handle the wear and tear of too many tourists. The Chinese Government, for example, has been making the 500 remote Buddhist caves of Dunhuang in Western China available virtually to researchers and scholars for some time now.
“One thing to consider, however, is that today’s VR insulates the participant from the physical world via the head-mounted display. So VR travel will most likely remain something we do from our homes or special centres.
“As such it will remain somewhat of a second order experience. Much more interesting is the idea of merging the virtual and the physical. I’m in the process of starting up a company with a product that uses virtual reality to enhance the way we physically travel.”