A VR primer
First, it's important to define VR, because even within the VR world there are some nuances.
According to industry experts, true VR constitutes an eye-covering headset that closes the viewer off to the "outside world" so that they can be completely immersed in the environment. The experience is rounded out by headphones (either attached to the headset or not) and some kind of controllers that allow for interactivity, including the ability to grab onto, push and pull on, shoot at and do just about anything else with or to elements of the environment.
More advanced VR technologies will also sense body movement, enabling the user to walk and move around within the environment.
Based on that description, it's not hard to understand why the gaming industry has pounced most fervently onto the potential that VR represents. And while this high-tech, high-priced experience (during CES, Oculus announced that its Oculus Rift headset will retail for $599) might seem a bit more costly than some in the travel industry can or want to invest in, there are many other, more attainable forms of VR experiences.
Perhaps not surprisingly, given the high price tag of top-end VR headsets, many more affordable alternatives are already cropping up on the market. The Samsung Gear VR headset, which works with the Samsung Galaxy smartphone and is powered by Oculus, retails for $100. And there are headsets as cheap as $12; cardboard viewers that work with smartphones, such as Google's cardboard VR kit; and VR viewing glasses that clip onto a smartphone (French company Homido makes a pair that retails for $15). VR can even be experienced by simply using a smartphone or tablet without any kind of viewing device.
VR purists will argue that some of this cheaper VR hardware doesn't constitute true VR because you're no longer fully immersed, not to mention that image quality traditionally decreases with price. But for the travel industry's purposes, some of these options are much more accessible and will make it much easier to create a client interface.
But what's perhaps as important if not more important than the hardware is the content. Generally, there are two types of VR environments: computer-generated environments, which are popular in the gaming world because they enable developers to create the fantastical experiences the gaming industry thrives on; and real-world video environments, which constitute 360-degree, spherical video images. Movement and interactivity are also important differentiators between VR and its predecessor, the 360-degree tour. While 360-degree tours of a space enable the viewer to spin all the way around in a room, true VR should enable the viewer to also look up and down (hence the spherical element) and ultimately move through the environment, whether that involves actual movement of the body or using commands on a control device.
Also, when talking about VR images, those are either moving video images, which are definitely more impressive and engaging, or 360-degree, spherical photos that simply enable the viewer to look all around them at a still image.
For the travel industry, there has been and likely will continue to be a tendency toward creating real-world video VR content in order to showcase the destinations and products travel companies sell, but there's also a case to be made for realistic, computer-generated environments.
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Regardless of the environment, travel companies and travel sellers will have to decide whether they want to develop content in-house, have customized VR content created for them by a third party or simply tap into the growing database of existing content.
Creating VR content in-house might seem like an overwhelming endeavor, but it shouldn't be ruled out. Numerous companies are already rolling out 360-degree cameras and rigs to accommodate DIYers. At CES, French company Giroptic was showcasing its palm-size 360-degree camera, and Olean, N.Y.-based 360Heros has created a series of devices in which you place multiple GoPro cameras to capture a complete spherical environment. Once the video is shot, it can either be pieced together in-house (360Heros also sells editing software) or outsourced for editing.
If that seems a bit ambitious, plenty of companies are willing to develop VR content for clients -- at a cost, of course. VR creation services can cost anywhere from $15,000 to $100,000, according to YouVisit's Mandelbaum, who said his VR packages trend toward the cheaper end of that scale.
But increasingly there is more VR content being made available for free as companies either make the content they've created for other clients available to all, or look to showcase large libraries of content in order to better sell the hardware, software or whatever aspect of the VR experience they are selling.
While for the time being a lot of that content is still geared toward the gaming space, it's only a matter of time before more of it will be travel-focused. San Francisco-based Ascape, for example, has already compiled dozens of VR travel videos on its app that can be quickly accessed from any smartphone.