Consumer adoption of virtual reality (VR) has been on the upswing since affordable headsets, both standalone and versions powered by smartphones, hit the market. It's already proving to be a useful sales tool for travel advisors who have been among the early adopters of the technology.
But VR has one big downside: Creating professional-level content is expensive -- some might say prohibitively expensive.
So I set out to answer a question that's been on my mind for some time: How hard and expensive would it be for an agent to create his or her own VR content and share it with potential or existing clients?
Here are a few examples of Jamie Biesiada's VR videos and 360 photos.
VR makes a lot of sense in the sale of travel, which naturally lends itself to visuals, whether photos or videos. Why not take it one step further and virtually place your client in a destination they're considering? It's a great tool, and doing it yourself is not only more cost effective, it also lends a sense of authenticity to your content.
Think about Facebook or Instagram. Professional photos and videos look great, but in today's social media landscape, they also come with the implication that they've been heavily curated (and, in some cases, heavily edited). But people love live videos because they're exactly the opposite: they're not curated, they can't be edited in the traditional sense, and they help engender a sense of trust and, again, authenticity.
You can place homemade VR photos and videos in that same bucket. Depending on what kind of camera and headset you use, they might not match the quality of professionally produced content, but they, too, will convey a sense of authenticity to clients, especially when you point out that you were the videographer.
And it's not hard to get that content to a headset from the camera you use. I know, because I just did it myself.
Admittedly, I have a little bit of a procrastination problem. In 2017, I bought a Samsung Gear 360, 2017 edition ($230 at the time, available for significantly less today). I took it on my honeymoon to Scotland, took some photos and videos and promptly forgot about it.
My current mission was simple: Using the technology I had at hand -- namely, the camera, a MacBook Pro and an iPhone SE -- I would get the content uploaded somewhere, viewable with an Oculus Go, a standalone VR headset that starts at $199.
I wasn't exactly alone in this venture. I found a VR expert willing to talk to me for this report, Kent Bye, the host of the "Voices of VR" podcast. Bye has conducted more than 1,000 interviews with VR experts for more than 700 episodes of the podcast, touching on many aspects of VR and its close relative, augmented reality (AR).
He was reassuring.
"Three-sixty video, of all the different things you can produce in a virtual or augmented reality space, it's one of the easier ones," Bye said. "You don't have to model an entire world in a game engine. You can basically get a camera and start to shoot stuff and then edit it together.
"There are a number of 360 cameras on the market today. They come at different price points and quality levels. The professional models cost multiple thousands of dollars and require post-production editing. But more and more self-contained models are available today."
According to Bye, "When [360 cameras] first came out, they were $30,000 or so." But that price tag has come down significantly. Insta360 makes cameras that connect directly with iPhones and Android devices starting around $100. Theta manufactures standalone cameras that start at $200, and Samsung's latest Gear 360 sells for $70.
I found the content I shot with the Gear 360 to be good -- not great, but good -- and it does give you a sense of place when you look at it with a VR headset.
Bye agreed there's plenty of consumer-level equipment readily available today, and an enterprising agent wouldn't have much trouble creating his or her own content.
To take photos and videos, I attached my camera to a small Joby GorillaPod, a flexible, lightweight tripod (about $20). I downloaded the camera's free app, and connected to the camera. The camera can be completely controlled via the app, so I set it up and took photos remotely. I also posed in a few.
I decided the easiest way to share my 360 photos would be via Facebook, accessible via the Facebook app and Facebook 360 app on my Oculus Go.
Facebook is also nearly ubiquitous in the agent community. Travel Weekly's 2018 Travel Industry Survey found that 70% of agents use social media for marketing, and 95% of those use Facebook.
Consumer-designed cameras are great because they do all the work for you: They stitch different images together to form a 360 video or photo that can be viewed in VR. I didn't even use my computer to get my files up on Facebook.
Instead, I used the app to view the photos (other consumer-facing 360 cameras also come with similar apps). I saved my favorite photos to my phone, then shared them on Facebook through the app.
On the Oculus Go, I opened the Facebook 360 app, clicked "Your Photos," and there they were.
Using the same method, I also uploaded a 360 video to Facebook and viewed it via the Oculus. And it turns out that uploading 360 videos to YouTube was just as easy. I signed into my account in the Samsung Gear 360 app, uploaded the video, and there it was in the YouTube VR app on the Oculus Go.
There are versions of the camera's app meant for a computer, but I found Samsung's to be glitchy at best. Samsung, like others, is clearly putting its money where consumers are: mobile.
It's not hard or too expensive to get started creating your own VR content. And while the quality of your photos and videos might not be as good as the pros, it certainly will be authentic.
Bye said he believes professional VR content is going to come down in price in the future, but that will happen when VR itself becomes more mainstream. He suspects that will be as soon as 2025 or as far off as 2045, depending on the acceleration of the technology over the next few years.
"VR and AR is a completely revolutionary paradigm shift of spatial computing, which means that it has so many compelling applications for education and training," he said. "In every domain of human experience, there's going to be some way VR is going to change people's lives."
But, he added, "It's a paradigm shift, and it's shifting the culture in a lot of ways. Because of that, I'm convinced it's not going to go away, but I can't predict exactly when it's going to be mainstream."