My feet are planted firmly beneath me, but somehow I'm stepping into and through a map on the wall, when a blast of warm air ruffles my blouse. Now I'm on a sandy beach in Hawaii. A spray of clean ocean air mists my face. But before I can reach out and touch the fanned leaves of a sun-kissed palm tree, the ground beneath my feet shakes, and I've been sucked through a wormhole. Seconds later, I find myself in the swank lobby bar of a Marriott hotel.
This is advertising on steroids.
Marriott calls this a “4-D” experience, and its one of the latest innovations in virtual reality. Delivered via an Oculus Rift headset inside a special Teleporter station, this experience is part of the hotel chain's “Travel Brilliantly” campaign. You feel as if you’re in a movie playing 360-degrees around you, all above you, underneath your feet. You don’t direct it like a video game but instead hold on and go for the ride.
It very well might be the future of travel.
The Extra Dimension
Wearing army camo-sneakers and chewing gum during a Sunday morning tour of his office in Manhattan’s Tribeca neighborhood, Relevent’s founder and chief executive officer, Tony Berger, is amped up on the prospects of VR (and the can of Red Bull he’s been nursing). His "experiential marketing" firm was hired by Marriott to help create the Teleporter.
"The secret sauce,” he says, “is in 4D, because being on a vacation affects more than just your eyes and ears." So when you step onto the beach you smell the salty air (via a synced scent release), or when you tunnel through a wormhole you feel the ground shake (via motion signals and a rumbling platform).
Relegated to geeky fantasy for years, VR hardware is suddenly cheap, portable, and there for the travel-brand taking. For his next off-the-record project for Marriott, he’ll be using $199 off-the-shelf Gear VR headsets by Samsung to view a Galaxy 6 or Galaxy Note 4 smartphone running Oculus software.
"It's a race right now for content. If you're first, you win."
Travel companies such as Thomas Cook, Qantas Airways, and Destination BC in Canada are also creating their own promotional VR videos. And they say this is just the beginning.
"We see virtual reality as an innovation that will change the travel business," says Marco Ryan, chief digital officer for Thomas Cook Group, a U.K.-based tour operator that began testing VR content last year to boost sales. "The closer you get to the destination, the more excited you are to have that experience"—i.e., buy that experience.
VR is not changing what customers actually experience on a trip. At least, not yet.
Currently, in 10 select Thomas Cook store locations in the U.K., Germany, and Belgium, you can strap on a Gear VR headset and try your tour before you buy: Walk through the billowing blue curtains of a Santorini hotel balcony, ride a helicopter above Manhattan's skyline. This year Cook has seen VR-promoted New York excursion revenue increase 190 percent.
The next step, according to Ryan, is to go beyond brick-and-mortar stores and deliver VR brochures into homes.
Together with a VR company called Visualise, Thomas Cook has begun gathering “excursion” videos. They’re filmed with a 360-degree, specially designed rig of GoPro cameras, which the company made itself before Google unveiled its commercial version of a similar 16-camera rig called Jump at last month's I/O conference. (See a hands-on here.)
Last week, Thomas Cook went to Egypt to film the pyramids, six different hotel properties, and live-action biking on sand dunes. Next week, these videos will be ready for 3D travel marketing. By August, Thomas Cook will be mass mailing 5,000 brochures, equipped with inexpensive (about $24 a pop) Cardboard headsets—both the name and the material. Using specs from Google, these open-source units will let targeted customers use their own smartphones to power custom-branded VR experiences via a downloadable app.
"This is a huge sales tool that's scalable and affordable," adds Ryan. More than 1 million of the Cardboard devices are currently in circulation, according to Google reps.
VR for Everybody
While the content race continues, Google is attempting to make creating VR as accessible as consuming it. Jump is a do-it-yourself VR platform that means you don’t have to invest millions of dollars in a Peter Jackson-worthy camera setup.
"We want this to be for everyone," says Mike Jazayeri, product director for Google Cardboard. "But for travel companies in particular, Jump provides a very natural way to take video of the environments you'd want to visit."
By “natural,” Jazayeri is referring to the fact that Google's hard-core back-end software (called Jump Assembler) processes the stereoscopic video with ease, stitching together the multiple cameras with minimal user skill. A special YouTube player is on the way. Just wait: Aunt Bessie’s immersive cat videos are sure to follow.
Given the popularity of video sharing on such social platforms as Instagram and Twitter and increasingly faster Internet speeds, it seems only a matter of time before 3D videos become the ultimate vacation selfie. Instead of “Look at this cliff” it's “Look—and feel exactly how terrifying it is to base jump off this cliff.” (Moms everywhere, we feel for you.)
Creating cinematic-quality VR—especially in 4D—remains the purview of such major players as Facebook's Oculus, SFX heavyweight Framestore, and VR producers such as Jaunt, in which Google Ventures has already invested.
"Most videos are 30 frames a second. For cinematic VR, you want at least 60 frames a second to reduce latency. Teams of engineers are working to make that content compatible on all mobile platforms,” says Jaunt CEO Jens Christensen, who recently traversed Australia shooting film for Qantas Airlines.
First-class passengers can strap on a Samsung Gear VR and watch Jaunt’s videos of Sydney's Harbor Bridge or take a boat ride in Kakadu National Park, before ever landing down under. Basically it’s an enhanced version of the ubiquitous in-flight edutainment vids available to everyone—but with more fun novelty and biz-plus bragging rights beyond the free champagne and caviar.
But if you’re Oculus CEO Brendan Iribe, the future is bullish. “We're finally able to teleport to new worlds. We can experience the magic of presence—the feeling of actually being there,” he said during a June 11 press conference.
Company officials declined to comment further on how they might seek to disrupt travel, but Facebook's $2 billion acquisition of Oculus in March 2014 speaks volumes. And, well, so did Zuckerberg.
"Imagine sharing not just moments with your friends online but entire experiences and adventures—just by putting on goggles in your home," said the Facebook CEO in a post discussing the announcement.
By 2020, tech advisor Digi-Capital projects the VR and augmented reality markets to reach $150 billion. With a $2 trillion global tourism industry at stake, growth potential is huge—especially if somebody were to crack past by simply selling and augmenting trips.
Right now, only Rift's developer kits are available, but by 2016 it will be a different story. Oculus commercial headsets will hit the market along with such competitors as HTC's Vive and Sony's Morpheus. Microsoft’s partnership with Oculus adds to its own efforts, which include HoloLens, an augmented-reality headset.
Buzz to Bookings
Back inside Relevent HQ, CEO Tony Berger and his business partner Ian Cleary can't wait. It's already "Appy Hour," according to a cheeky electric-bulb sign hanging like a nerd chandelier in their conference room, and they're in planning mode. Their client roster—including such brands as HBO, Jeep, and Microsoft—seeks ever-higher results in media impressions. And one by one, they're jumping on the VR bandwagon.
"Picture a cinematic scene, like the JFK motorcade. Now, put it in a motion capture room with multiple people in the scene with you," says Berger, miming this out for myself and Cleary. "Soon, we think you'll be able to interact with others using VR."
"It's all about blurring the line, and getting closer and closer to reality," Cleary chimes in. And of course, more and more word-of-mouth buzz like Marriott had with its recordable Teleporter videos.
VR firm Virtalis is extending that notion to include visiting places you could never go in person. With a focus on engineering, rather than on video games or commercials, it creates VR videos meant to inform architects and urban planners.
"We use Oculus Rift and geographic information to go underground and look at mines or drilling sites," says Paul Ewing, software consultant for Virtalis. "You can now see borehole data and get all kinds of information on oil and precious metals you didn't have before."
It’s not difficult to see how business leaders could use VR to make decisions that previously required an airline ticket and a corporate travel budget—or how clever content providers could make the jump to consumer leisure experiences.
"We're capturing entire countries' worth of data," adds Ewing, citing Virtalis's recent work in the U.K. "Want to visit Stonehenge? 'Land' on the ground with this tech and have a look at the stones around you."
For those who cannot travel for whatever reason (budget, disability, or simply lack of time), strapping on a headset could put the top of Mt. Everest or the floor of the Grand Canyon as close as your couch—like an immersive Google Maps Street View.
Into the Real
Which begs the ultimate question: Could a VR experience eventually become so “real” that it will replace actual trips?
It’s easy to follow the logic, should the technology leap past video games.
Startups such as AltSpaceVR are creating virtual spaces in which avatars can "hang out" with other avatars, akin to a group trip. To increase the feeling of physical immersion, Oculus’s Rift headset will come with gloves that enable users to manipulate virtual objects.
For its part, Samsung’s birth stunt took (literal) baby steps toward showing how live processing of 360-degree video could turn VR into a sort of 3D Periscope or Meerkat, two services that allow users to tune into live video streams. But much more serious innovation in telepresence will need to be done before one could control a drone and, say, “walk around” a music festival (or conduct more risky shenanigans).
"Nothing can replace actually going to a destination, experiencing it yourself, and sharing your experiences with others," says Michael Dail, vice president for marketing at Marriott Hotels.
But as money drives innovation—and it’s sales and marketing that are driving VR in the travel industry now—who’s to say that the (virtual) future won’t be passport free?