By Seph Lund, Digital Designer at Billian IT Solutions
Virtual Reality technology is playing a bigger role in society than ever before, but what opportunities does it present for the travel industry?
As I queued to ride the latest Virtual Reality (VR) rollercoaster at a well-known UK theme park at the weekend, seeing carriages of VR-headset-clad thrill-seekers speed by on the tracks overhead, it was difficult to deny the very real impact that the technology is starting to have on the mainstream.
Only the week before a colleague brought a basic headset into the office for us to try – a jet-black one-size-fits-all pair of goggles that you slot your smartphone into to view VR scenarios, using apps or one of the many VR websites that are cropping up online.
hough it’s a far-cry from the advanced, heavy bit of kit that was strapped to me on the rollercoaster previously mentioned (with only an elastic strap, Velcro fastener and the strong nose of my heritage to keep it in place), you are struck by just how impressive it is – and affordable!
As Google Cardboard has previously demonstrated, VR is now easily accessible to anyone with a smartphone, which means it’s available to consumers and, importantly, is at the disposal of marketers. As I hurtled through the solar system, dodged asteroids and witnessed the birth of a star whilst strapped to a rollercoaster car I couldn’t help but wonder what applications VR technology could have for travel (that’s earth travel, not space).
Of course, you don’t have to look far to see that the travel industry is already adopting the medium for mainstream purposes – hot on the heels of the natural first-in-line to the VR throne; the gaming industry.
Delta Airlines and Lufthansa both used VR technology in the form of an advanced Oculus Rift headset to demonstrate the experience of their products at the GBTA Europe Conference in November 2015, the latter even releasing a free VR app.
Marriott also premiered their immersive 4D experience in 2015, utilising Oculus Rift technology and a purpose-built “teleporter station” to stimulate all five senses. Not to mention the Thomas Cook Holiday 360 app, that allows travellers to “Try before you fly” using just a smartphone and a cardboard viewer.
The majority of these experiences utilise 360 video technologies (although some do make use of CGI and have interactive elements), created using special omnidirectional cameras or a collection of cameras positioned in a spherical shape to capture a complete panorama of a location.
All the individual videos are then stitched together using specialist editing software, which allows the viewer to control the viewing direction during playback. YouTube and Facebook have already started to roll out support for 360 videos, which when viewed on a smartphone can be controlled simply by physically moving your device.
Perhaps the most exciting thing about VR and 360 video technologies is that it is all still very much in its infancy. Though there is an argument that it is all merely a gimmick that will blow over, it cannot be denied that there is a world of possibility for marketers, as viewing and recording equipment advances and becomes more affordable.
Let’s consider the likely applications and opportunities that it presents for the travel industry …
This is a clear opportunity and one that we are already seeing examples of; creating an immersive experience for consumers with the goal of tapping into their wanderlust and tempting them to book a trip.
There’s a reason that video is so integral in travel and destination marketing and that’s because travel is a very visual pastime; we want the hotel with the sea view, to watch the sunset from a cliff edge, and to gaze up at stunning architecture. With VR, travellers can experience the luxury of a hotel, skip to all the best bits of a tour on a city break, or, for the thrill-seeking traveller, experience parasailing on the beaches of Dubai.
The great part is that while the VR preview is fun, most will agree that it doesn’t compare to the real thing, giving travel companies a great window to entice customers.
TripAdvisor reviews and ‘quick facts’ could also be integrated into the virtual landscape, so that a traveller need only press a button or look at a restaurant for a prolonged period to find out more.
It also provides a good opportunity for travel marketers to showcase premium features and add-ons. It is much easier for consumers to resist chargeable extras when they are just words on a page, but when they have experienced it first hand, so to speak, they will likely see the benefits more clearly and find them much more difficult to resist.
The extra leg space and complimentary services of a first class plane ticket, the amenities included in a premium hotel suite, or a particularly riveting excursion. Just be sure to make clear what is an additional extra or this could backfire!
User Generated Content
As 360 video recording devices become more popular, we are likely to see more and more low-priced variations hit the consumer market and it’s only a matter of time before it becomes the “must-have travel accessory of the summer.”
As mentioned above, Facebook and YouTube are already paving the way for UGC by supporting the upload of 360 videos and the social media savvy traveller isn’t going to miss jumping on that bandwagon! We often see photo and video competitions from travel brands, so it seems a natural application for the tech should it evolve in such a way.
360 videos are a very exciting development for travel bloggers too, and though the trusty GoPro has served us well, it’s very likely that we will see more and more 360 videos on the travel blogger feeds in times to come – as 360 camera equipment becomes more accessible.
As we saw with Google’s Cardboard goggles, the equipment necessary to enjoy VR does not need to be expensive – for the brand or the consumer.
A flat-packed, self-assembly viewing headset emblazoned with your company’s logo could be sent out free to your customers at a relatively low-cost to you. Include a QR code that links to your VR app and what self-respecting smartphone owner could resist giving that a go?
Virtual Reality Booking Engine
We’ve discussed how immersive experiences could entice travellers pre-booking and touched upon how it could be utilised on their trip through user generated content, but what about during the booking process? Could we see a VR booking engine in the near future?
Imagine a virtual space that offers you a selection of scenarios to choose from, for example City Breaks, Beach Holidays, etc, but that presents them to you in an immersive and visually compelling way. For the undecided traveller this could be a great way to nudge them into making a decision, with the help of Google Street View or pre-loaded VR content of hotel tours and excursions.
It is also possible that the interface could be intuitive; progressing through the process based on whichever scenario the user is paying most attention to. If they stay a while on a Hawaiian beach then VR tours of nearby hotels or 360 footage of local excursions could be suggested.
It may seem like a somewhat kooky idea right now, but the benefits for both the traveller and the travel provider are undeniable.
It would have at one time been difficult to imagine a use for VR that didn’t revolve around gaming or fairground attractions, but as both viewing and creating becomes easier, marketers are starting to take it more seriously – none more so than travel marketers.
After all, in a virtual world the possibilities are quite literally endless.