How virtual reality is rapidly changing the Asian tourism industry

Dr Wong King Yin

Wearing a head-mounted display to have an immersive experience of a potential destination before travelling is a new trend. Tourism industry players such as airlines, travel agencies and tourism boards have growing interests in using virtual reality (VR) technology to attract and engage prospective customers. For example, Thomas Cook, a leading British travel company, has opened a few concept stores called Discovery across the UK offering its customers VR tours. With its proven popularity among customers, Thomas Cook plans to open a further 25 Discovery stores by the end of 2019. In Asia, The China National Tourism Administration has established the China VR Tourism Cloud Data Service Platform, which aims to present travellers with VR content of international tourist destinations in more than 200,000 offline stores across China in the near future. Advancements in VR technology are having a significant impact on the tourism industry, changing how the industry players interact with customers and how travellers plan and experience their journeys.

What is VR?

VR describes a computer-generated 3D environment that users can navigate through and possibly interact with (Guttentag, 2010). VR is at one end of the Reality-Virtuality continuum (Milgram, Takemura, Utsumi, & Kishino, 1994) as shown in Figure 1 below.

Mixed Reality

Figure 1: Reality-Virtuality Continuum (Milgram et al. 1994)

In contrast to a real environment in which the user’s physical body is actually located, VR emulates the physical world by stimulating one or more of the users’ five senses in a way that is similar to their experiences in a real-life scenario, deceiving the brain to accept the virtual environment as a real environment. The Teleporter offered by Marriott Hotels is just one example of a high-quality VR experience offered by the tourism industry. Hotel guests in the United States are “teleported” to different destinations in a phone booth-like structure by wearing a VR headset and wireless headphones. Heat, wind and mist are also introduced to offer the guests a fully immersive, 4-D sensory travel experience.  For a detailed account of this technology, a video published by Marriott Hotels is available at https://youtu.be/i6yMqXLnpN4.

In between reality and VR, there are different types of mixed reality (MR) including augmented reality (AR) and augmented virtuality (AV). AR (a layer of digital information, often graphical in nature, is superimposed on the real environment) is widely used in the tourism industry as a destination guide. For example, TripAdvisor, Lonely Planet and Hotels.com have launched their own smartphone apps that enable travellers to use their phone’s camera to view the surrounding environment on which relevant information, guidance, content and entertainment is superimposed onto the physical locations shown on the screen transforming smartphones into interactive real-time travel guides. Many museums too are using AR technology as a visitor information aid. On the other hand, taking pictures in front of a plain screen and let them undergo a special production process to produce a picture with visitors placed perfectly in front of a tourist spot is a widely adopted application of AV (real objects are inserted into a computer-generated virtual environment) in the tourism industry.

VR vs. 360-degree Video

It is easy to confuse VR with online virtual tours or 360-degree videos. Strictly speaking, most online virtual tours do not constitute examples of VR, because visitors do not experience a 3D simulation if they are taking the online tours at home without wearing any VR gears. They are only able to control the angle of view of the video by using the mouse, and are unable to control the interaction and navigation in the virtual space. However, high-quality 360-degree videos are VR-ready. They can present users a VR experience when they wear the VR gear and when the content is modified in a way that allows users to interact and control their navigation in the virtual environment. The supply of high-definition VR-ready content has been on the rise as 360-degree cameras and drones have become more affordable. The demand for VR headsets has also been growing. It appears that an increasing number of consumers will be using their own VR headsets to experience VR videos at home. Consumers who are satisfied with 360-degree videos today are expected to find them insufficiently immersive in the near future when VR technology has become more sophisticated and affordable.

Latest VR Trends

Current VR applications in the tourism industry indicate that the technology is changing visitor purchase behaviour as well as their service experience. Most of the existing VR applications in this sector focus on the awareness and consideration stages of the conversion funnel. They seek to provide customers an immersive experience of a destination so as to build awareness of a new spot, connect with millennial travellers, help them make more informed decisions and ultimately entice them to purchase travel products. The latest VR trend focuses more on the final conversion stage, trying to encourage consumers to pay in the virtual world. For example, Amadeus, one of the leading Global-Distribution-Systems, just introduced the first VR search and book experience a few months ago. Users can book directly by their credit card in VR, as shown in https://youtu.be/Ax0BmO3DrTc. Similar to the development of e-commerce and m-commerce, developing a seamless payment experience to complete the whole purchase journey is foreseen to be the next step for VR-commerce.

VR technology has not yet been fully exploited to connect with travellers after their trip. However, with Facebook having launched its social VR platform, Spaces, in April this year, it is expected that the industry will now follow suit, aiming to connect with travellers before, during and after their journey using VR platforms. Facebook users who have an Oculus Rift headset and Touch (remote control) can meet and interact with family and friends through avatars (a digital version of the user) in Facebook Spaces VR.  For example, if a user was recently on vacation and took numerous 360-degree pictures and videos, he is able to invite his friends to join him in this VR platform to relive the experiences. Rather than simply showing his friends the photographs and videos on screen, he can share his experiences in a much more immersive way by walking through the scenes with friends in the VR platform as shown in https://youtu.be/dr_04PCSDWE.

Facebook Spaces offers the tourism industry an effective platform on which to engage and connect with customers. Not only can customers take virtual tours in Spaces, but they can also interact with family and friends living in distant locations.  While some tourism agencies are contemplating introducing virtual guides into these virtual tours, others are already arranging for residents within remote local communities to be able to interact with customers immersed in the virtual tour of their town. By introducing a real-time component, Facebook users will soon be able to react and comment on virtual tourist’s experiences live. For example, scuba divers who are not able to communicate verbally with each other when they are underwater, can nevertheless use Spaces after the dive to share their experiences with other divers. The platform works as follows. A diver’s avatar can, for example, take selfies underwater in Spaces and the diver’s friends, including those whose avatars do not join the tour in Spaces, are able to react and comment on the underwater tour in real time providing the diver chooses to broadcast the virtual tour live, in a manner similar to the live option currently available on Facebook.

These latest advances mean that the virtual tour is no longer a solo travel experience that follows a pre-determined sequence of scenes, but a social and dynamic experience which can excite and surprise customers, and engage multiple users simultaneously. Pre-trip and post-trip interactions between service providers and customers also helps to complement and enrich the actual trip, giving travellers a much deeper understanding of, and stronger emotional connection with, a specific destination.

Despite advances in VR technology, simulating all five human senses in VR has proved challenging. While much of the currently popular and available hardware (e.g. HTC Vive, Sony PlayStation VR, Samsung Gear VR, etc.) successfully simulates sound and vision, simulating the senses of taste, smell and touch has proved considerably more problematical. It is clear that the VR industry is still some way off being able to offer visitors on virtual vineyard tours the opportunity to virtually taste the wines, or those engaged in online shopping to compare the texture of Persian carpets using haptic simulators. However, researchers and industry players are working hard to overcome these challenges in a bid to offer users a more immersive VR experience. For example, Project Nourished (http://www.projectnourished.com/) is exploring ways in which they can allow consumers to smell, taste and even chew foods in VR without actually putting anything edible in their mouths, while Virgin Experience Days is collaborating with an indoor skydiving centre and VR provider to offer customers a VR 4D skydiving experience (https://youtu.be/XXviAo-s3ps).

Finally, an exciting breakthrough in VR has been the use of advanced neuro-technology which enables users to use their brain to control their interactions in VR, instead of using remote controls. For more details of this latest neuro-technology, a video published by the University of Michigan is available at https://youtu.be/42VK5VJGxT0. Users’ sense of physical immersion and psychological presence in VR can be greatly enhanced by this technique as the distraction of controllers is removed. If our brain waves, facial expressions, and body gestures could be detected in a more comprehensive way in the future, the representation of physical body in VR is set to become even more accurate. As a result, interactions between avatars in VR will become far more natural and perhaps even indistinguishable from our natural face-to-face interactions. Moreover, just as video conferencing has become indispensable to businesses, the integration of VR into our travel plans may become a mainstay in the near future.

References

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Authors: Dr Wong King Yin
Date: 27 Sep 2017

About the Author

Dr. Wong King Yin is an ACI Associate Fellow and a lecturer of Marketing and International Business at Nanyang at Nanyang Business School, Nanyang Technological University. Her research interests include service technology, digital marketing, and consumer welfare in health and finance.

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