Arnie Weissmann
Arnie Weissmann

Last month, on a sunny Saturday morning, I hiked a trail in Sabino Canyon, outside Tucson, Ariz. From every vantage, the geology and flora of the Santa Catalina mountains were on magnificent display.

I paused at a viewpoint. A family of four, parents and two teenagers, passed. The teens were actively engaged on their phones, somehow managing to keep their feet on the trail while their heads were in ... Snapchat? Fortnite? Pokemon Go?

They were somewhere in the metaverse, described (in part) by technology consultant Shelly Palmer as a world "where everyone lives their ideal lives, visits amazing places, hangs out with incredible people and has the photographic evidence to prove it." His essay "What is the Metaverse?" is a must-read and ends with the caution that efforts to forecast where the metaverse is headed will likely miss the mark. Technology (and imagination) simply do not progress in a predictable, linear fashion.

But understanding the premise that alternative, immersive worlds, enhanced to allow our senses to inhabit places we could not go without virtual, augmented, extended and mixed realities, is a good starting point to conceive how this might impact travel. Will it, as the teens in Sabino Canyon suggest, compete for attention with physical travel? Enrich the travel experience? Degrade it?

All of the above, I suspect. Would the teens, or their parents, have found the canyon more interesting if their sunglasses could caption or narrate information in real time about the cactuses, rock formations or history of the land they were traversing? Or alternately, might they have entertained themselves with an app and wearable that turned the canyon into terrain for a first-person shooter game in which they'd compete with similarly-minded hikers-turned-avatars as they moved up the trail?

The former would certainly enhance the hike for me; I was already stopping and Googling about what I was seeing, and tech-enabled sunglasses would have been more efficient. (My experiences with Google Glass and Spectacles by Snap were less than fulfilling. But, as they say, "early days.")

I put the question of metaverse impact on travel to Richard Garriott de Cayeux, an early video game developer credited as being the first to use the word "avatar" in a gaming context and who was the inspiration for the character James Halliday in Ernest Cline's metaverse-based book "Ready Player One" (Crown Publishing, 2011), made into a film by Steven Spielberg.

"These technologies have great promise but also risk shallowing experiences dramatically," he told me. "When the most broadly available tool is the smartphone and not a wearable, we tend to drive people to the shallower end of the spectrum. Whether you go to Disney World or the Grand Canyon, you'll find photo spots that people have predetermined are the best background location to take a selfie and may even offer tools to augment the photos with a virtual overlay, like having Nessie appear in the background at Loch Ness.

"People will drive for hours to the rim of the Grand Canyon, stand there for a few minutes, take a selfie and drive back without taking a moment to wonder about the strata of the rocks or turn over a log to see what lives under it," he continued.

"We're already seeing people giving up on an in-depth relationship with the real world in favor of the shallower, quickie version of the real world."

The more positive end of the spectrum, he believes, is still years away. Garriott de Cayeux, who is currently the president of the Explorers Club and has a strong interest in microorganisms that can withstand extreme conditions, said he'd love to have a wearable that could identify physical spots that are chemical- or temperature-unique.

"The market will dictate how this evolves," he said. "But the time for us to be wrestling with this subject is now."

The augmented overlay of information on the physical world is clearly a plus, but central to pondering the impact of the metaverse is its ability to enhance or degrade human interactions, a prime motivator to travel. 

On one hand, Garriott de Cayeux said he's shocked at the strength of bonds formed in virtual worlds. "People fall in love. Virtual worlds can transcend the distances of the physical world to bring people together."

And we've already seen many examples of how virtual worlds can inspire travel across the physical world. They can be terrific sales and marketing tools, and I'm excited about ways the metaverse might enrich travel. 

But evidence of "shallowing" is everywhere. It's still incongruous to see people with their eyes glued to their phones on a nature trail, but it's commonplace on the sidewalks of New York. Assuming devices become only more immersive as the metaverse develops, those idealized lives, where you can virtually visit amazing places and hang out with incredible, imaginary people, may also, simultaneously, accelerate real-world detachment from one another and from the places we physically inhabit.

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