THE BLOG

Even Better Than the Real Thing?

28/04/2015 15:19 BST | Updated 27/06/2015 10:59 BST

Virtual reality technology is becoming of greater interest to many sectors, not least the travel industry. However, not everyone is impressed as a recent article by a travel journalist highlighted.

It made the point that no matter how clever the technology becomes - and it is getting better all the time - it can never replace the visceral buzz you get from really travelling to a place. You don't get the smells, the sounds, or crucially the interaction with the locals that make travel one of our favourite leisure pastimes.

And you won't get any argument from me that the writer isn't correct. But he also misses the real point of virtual reality.

Tools such as Oculus Rift should not be thought of as an alternative to travel. How could they be? A five minute 'ride' wearing a headset that presents a 3D image of somewhere is always going to be a poor substitute for actually going there.

Rather than thinking of virtual reality technology as an alternative to travel, it is better to think of it as a way of providing a more immersive insight to a destination that will ultimately encourage travellers to visit. In that respect, VR is no different to a host of other media throughout the decades that have informed would-be travellers.

Assuming that a virtual reality experience will make someone less likely to visit a destination is like saying that after looking at a travel brochure, watching a destination video, or even reading an article by a top travel journalist, you'll sit back and go: "Tick! Done that!"

Virtual reality has a great future as a tool for travel marketing because it represents the next step in bringing a destination to life. Properly executed, it could be the ultimate try before you buy sampling experience that de-risks a high-ticket purchase. VR doesn't take away from the full experience - it's like checking out a couple of tracks on Spotify before being convinced that you want to own the album, or a two-minute film trailer enticing you to go to the cinema.

Smart tourism marketing bosses certainly think so. South Africa Tourism created its own Oculus Rift experience to showcase the country. A film crew captured 360 degree imagery and teamed it up with surround sound to produce an immersive experience. You can walk through markets, visit bars, go paragliding and even dive with sharks - something not everyone would want to do in real life. The tourism board sees it as an ingenious way of making the country the content and bringing the brand to life, providing a rounded picture of South Africa.

The future of VR will be even more sensorial so that the experience will become ever richer with smells, temperature, touch and tastes becoming part of the package. Maybe then, you really won't know the difference.

In fact, the future of travel is shaping up to have a lot in common with VR. Airbus envisages that by 2050 planes could have LCD walls that provide a 360 degree view of the world outside, and will feature virtual shopping malls where travellers swipe goods and collect them when they land.

And here's a thought. As we become more aware of the importance of managing our carbon emissions, then maybe virtual travel could have a role in helping us protect some of the world's more precious destinations. Places such as the Galapagos Islands, Antarctica, and others like them are special because they are not over-run with travellers. VR could be a way of supporting sustainability and environmental tourism by limiting numbers to these places, while still providing a sense of wonder.

It may jar against our notions of 'authenticity' but perhaps in future, a manufactured travel experience, such as summiting Kilimanjaro on a climbing wall will find a market and the only question will be how real do you want it to be?