Changes are coming to how consumers perceive reality, and the travel industry could be a major beneficiary.
Augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) -- sometimes separately, sometimes combined -- will be rapidly changing the way that travel is sold and experienced.
You have no doubt experienced AR, even if the term is unfamiliar to you. It refers to the overlay of information beyond what your senses are perceiving. If, for example, you're watching a football game on TV, those messages crawling across the bottom of your screen with team trivia, or the boxes displaying stats, are additives to the live action you're watching. So is that glowing, and nonexistent, first-down line.
Those are familiar applications of AR. I experienced more experimental forms during the year I used Google Glass as I traveled. If I launched the Word Lens app and looked at a sign in a foreign language, I'd see the translation appear on the small screen attached to my headset. Or if I gave the proper verbal command, the speaker in my earpiece would read web articles to me as I looked at something that sparked my curiosity.
VR, on the other hand, is often experienced without regard to the user's location or sensory input. Using a headset or viewer, it places the user at the center of a spherical representation of a real or imagined world. Its travel applications typically involve a spherical video of a destination, often with a soundtrack.
Because that experience can be extraordinarily immersive, it is a fantastic sales tool. I virtually toured the Arctic while on Waikiki Beach, thanks to Mike Turino, the head of partnerships for YouVisit.com, and a presenter two weeks ago at Travel Weekly's Hawaii Leadership Forum. Last week, I parasailed over the Caribbean while sitting in a New York City hotel lobby, courtesy of Henri Giscard d'Estaing, the CEO of Club Med.
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This April, I moderated a panel at Microsoft's Envision conference in New Orleans, and I raised the topics of augmented and virtual realities.
Robert Tercek, who has been creating interactive content since the 1990s, said he did not think the novelty of VR would wear off any time soon, and he predicted that when walking down the aisle of an airplane five years from now, one will see "everyone immobilized with a head-mounted [VR] display."
AR, he believes, will "greatly enhance the ability for people to understand where they are. If you're in Rome and show your kids the Forum, they'll say, 'Dad, it's a bunch of rocks.'"
It takes a great deal of imagination to see otherwise, he said, but with AR, you could overlay what you see with how it looked shortly after its construction.
Actually, there's an app that combines AR and VR and shows more than just static visual overlays. With Timelooper, you can, according to its website, "relive unforgettable moments in history." Put your phone in a VR viewer and Timelooper, triggered by the GPS, will re-create the Blitz of 1940, with bombs falling around you as you stand in Trafalgar Square in London. ("Beware where you stand," it warns.)
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Travel+Social Good, which promotes sustainable travel, held its Global Summit earlier this month, and the day beforehand offered a tour of the Lower East Side of Manhattan, led by neighborhood activist Wendy Brawer.
Listening to Brawer, I thought about Timelooper. And I recalled that, for a period of about five years in the '90s, the band Pearl Jam refused to make music videos. Frontman Eddie Vedder said that before music videos, fans would come up with their own imagery for a song, images that came from within. Videos had effectively killed that form of self-expression.
In his view, to augment music with video was to diminish it.
Brawer's commentary was vivid and revelatory. I had walked some of those streets dozens of times but saw them anew as she provided the historical, architectural and social significance of everything from a former nursing home to a community garden.
She helped us "see" underground, standing on the site where an abandoned subway line will become a park ("the Lowline").
Her humanity touched me. She was the best kind of activist, neither strident nor cynical. Changes to the neighborhood didn't bother her; in fact, she would push hard for progressive development. But she would also fight City Hall if a proposed change led to an injustice.
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Fortunately, travel doesn't force us to choose between humanity and technology. We can hire an inspiring guide plus tap rich content made possible by AR and VR.
At the Microsoft Envision conference, entrepreneur Jeff Hoffman was also on my panel. He described an app that enables travelers to leave a video message to anyone in their social network who might one day visit that same spot in the future, and the message will be triggered by the subsequent visitor's GPS-enabled phone.
Interactive expert Tercek was impressed. What's really important about VR and AR, he said, is that they transcend the limitations of time and space.
Today, he said, "those two physical limitations govern and define the travel experience." And technology, he added, will "greatly enhance people's understanding and experience. That could be a very exciting future."