The marvel of virtual reality is one of science fiction’s most enduring concepts—for as long as its thinkers have meditated on where technology could one day take us, they have relentlessly conjured up stories where the artificial, digital world is able to blend with the material one. Only conceivable in the past century—beginning perhaps with the invention of the View-Master in the 1930s—countless films, novels and thought experiments have delved into the possibility of simulating reality. The wondrous ideas of Avatar, Johnny Mnemonic, Lawnmower Man, Tron, The Matrix, Ready Player One, and Neuromancer all build upon a rich constellation of ideas developed over the last century to solve a single question: what happens when a human construction can pass as reality?
But virtual reality is no longer the stuff of speculative fiction. In the past two years, several powerful consumer headsets, developed by some of the most powerful companies in computing, have kickstarted an industry now valued at over 12 billion dollars and counting. The Oculus Rift, the HTC Vive and Sony’s PSVR compose the upper tier of VR headsets, while many other less costly options like the GearVR and Google Cardboard have created similar experiences using only your smartphone.
Along with a flood of hardware, many of the biggest platforms on the Internet—Facebook, YouTube, Vimeo, and more—have introduced tools that have made uploading and sharing 360-degree content easier than ever before. Meanwhile, apps like Instagram and Snapchat have normalized augmented reality, or AR, that allows users to place 3D models and digital meshes over videos taken by users themselves. (This is how your friend sent a photo or video of them with animated dog ears on their head) These simultaneous trends contribute to a consumer culture that views reality itself as malleable—where users have increasingly seen, and participated in, the digital world blending with the physical one.
The market has never been more supportive of VR content than it is now, nor have consumers been more comfortable with using novel technologies to address creative problems—meaning it has never been more prudent that destinations understand the strengths and weaknesses of this emerging technology, and to ultimately decide if it’s right for you.
Challenges of the Medium
Virtual Reality is Not Easy
Strong 360 content requires a well-coordinated, professional team. Everything from initial storyboarding, to shooting, all the way to post-production and posting requires specialized knowledge. While many aspects of the development pipeline have become much easier in the last few years, much of the production still relies on cutting-edge technologies, early software, and a healthy number of plugins and workarounds.
Devices Can Be Unpredictable
Headset experiences can quickly become disorienting if the headsets aren’t calibrated properly, or if internet connectivity is spotty. In effect, every viewer has the possibility of having a different experience depending on which headset they are using and how stable their connection is to that content. For now, in the early days of VR, users must come with a degree of patience. No art form has ever been more dependent upon the quality of consumer electronics, and yet it wouldn’t be unfair to say that by now we’ve turned being annoyed by our devices into a national pastime. As the industry currently stands, VR is often at odds with the ease, immediacy, and reliability we’ve come to expect in our daily life.
Strengths of the Medium
There is no substitute for a well-executed VR experience. Sights, sounds and scale all translate into a completely immersive experience where viewers are utterly awash in the location of your choice and the message you are conveying. Similar to FAMs, VR as a medium is all about immersion. Many complex concepts or stories can only be explained through the feeling of presence provided by virtual reality: conveying grand scale and size, the relationship of proximity or distance between things, the physical composition of a space or area, or an atmosphere of emotion or general ambience are all made possible when the viewer feels inside the content. For this reason, 360 content is extremely well-suited for educational material. As the costs associated with traditional FAMs and the number of tour operators, meeting planners, journalists, etc. you work with continue to grow, virtual reality FAM tours are worth considering.
VR Comes Naturally
VR content rewards our natural curiosity to explore and investigate. With visual material in every direction, viewers are encouraged to search every angle of their surroundings, taking an active role in the experience. Unlike passive content like traditional videos or commercials where viewers can easily become distracted or outright ignore the message, 360 content translates viewers into willing participants who, by necessity, actively remain attentive and alert. This isn’t a feat of engineering – this is a fundamental feature of human psychology: we are nosey, inquisitive and enjoy being the center of attention—qualities that 360 content caters to in abundance because in virtual reality, you truly are the center of the universe).
360 content is, by definition, virtual (a la virtual reality), meaning it can be viewed and shared as easily as most other digital media (websites videos, social media posts, etc.) and can also be monetized, trafficked to and tracked analytically. And like all other digital content, your virtual tour or VR short films have all the same opportunities to gather precious likes, links, shares, and subscribers as it makes its way around the internet. That means, so long as it is hosted online, VR content has an infinite lifespan to promote your destination.
As the travel planning experience becomes more and more digitized, and video consumption continues to grow, virtual reality offers a unique opportunity for visitors to get a taste of your destination by immersing them in the best of what your area has to offer.