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VR May Have Unintended Consequences For Travel

Can strapping on a headset that puts you in a mountain meadow induce you to visit that actual meadow on your next vacation?

The travel industry thinks so, and last week’s Globe article “Can virtual reality bring real tourists to B.C.?” practically yodels “YES!” in reply.

I beg to disagree, or at least to pause in praising virtual reality (VR) as the next revolution in travel.

I say this because, the day before this article appeared, I had a demonstration of VR’s astounding ability to convey the three-dimensional, 360-degree reality of, well, everything you can see now on a YouTube video, including travel videos. The demo had four parts: a Cirque du Soleil performance where I was on stage with acrobats flinging around me; a guy walking through the streets of New York; a baby one month from being born (the baby smiled at me!); and a mountaintop that the camera (and I) took off from.

They were all stunning. I was charmed, gob-smacked, instantly hooked. After 10 minutes, I felt the same way I did when I first used a mobile phone to take pictures, the first time I saw a 3D movie, the first time I’d actually been to a real mountaintop.

Part of my life involves taking friends on trips — especially to the Rocky Mountains. So, I started thinking about the future of what I’d just experienced. My second thoughts started seconds into that process. Maybe it was because I felt slightly nauseated after taking off the headset. The demo guy told me this can happen, because the 3D, 360-degree stuff plays tricks with your eyes and sense of balance.

That aside, there are some implications from this magical new technology that may make claims of the death of printed brochures and even 3D videos greatly exaggerated. Here are a handful of reminders that every new technology comes with unintended consequences:

1. If everything’s amazing, pretty soon nothing is.
Companies are placing billion-dollar bets that VR will catch on the way video itself has. But remember just a few years ago when travel videos were a novelty? Sure, a few early adopters gained a market advantage, just like B.C. plans to (they’re the first government agency to use VR to market their destinations).

But now, it’s only if you don’t have a marketing video that people will give your destination or property a pass. I think the same will soon hold true for VR.

2. The VR of a bad hotel only amplifies the reality of a bad hotel.
Still photos can still fool us. That creaky hotel can look all dressed up and new in a retouched photo. With video, it’s harder to fake grimy reality. With VR video, it’s much, much harder to sweep the grunge under the rug , especially when you’re standing on the rug. So, top-rate places will be proud to show themselves off in VR; others, not so much.

3. VR is incredibly expensive to produce.
Sure, that cost will fall dramatically in the next few years. But not so much that it won’t create a class system with the rich destinations and marketers “going VR” and the poor ones not.

4. Pretty soon, it won’t be enough for just you to be immersed in the video.
Your family and friends (or at least their avatars) will need to be in the same totally immersive picture. And that won’t cost peanuts.

5. Isn’t travel supposed to be about making discoveries?
You know, about the world and yourself? I suspect being able to preview every nanosecond of your incredible experience on that mountaintop will diminish the thrill of actually standing there. As the saying goes:

“Adventure is not in the guidebook, and beauty is not on the map.”

Nor will reality succumb easily to virtual reality.


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