WASHINGTON: Jem Jenkins Jones was stuck at home in Wales for much of the past year amid pandemic lockdowns but managed to fulfil a promise to her 10-year-old daughter to see the northern lights from Iceland and South Africa’s game reserves — in virtual reality.
“She was amazed,” she said, calling the VR travel experiences “a lifesaver for us.”
Strict lockdowns and travel limitations during the pandemic have sparked fresh interest in immersive virtual travel experiences, which have become more accessible and affordable with new apps and VR hardware.
Even those confined to their homes can take a virtual jaunt to Machu Picchu, the rainforests of Borneo or a road trip across the US in a convertible.
Data on VR travel usage is limited but developers have seen surging interest since the pandemic hit.
“It has been skyrocketing,” said Cezara Windrem, creator of the Alcove VR platform at AARP Innovation Labs. “We’re getting more adoption every month.”
Alcove enables users to visit exotic locales such as Australia’s coral reef or the island of Malta, while adding a “shared” experience which enables people to interact and even “lead” a family member without the technical skills to navigate in a VR headset.
“We’ve heard from a lot of people who discovered Alcove and decided buy a headset for their elderly family members,” Windrem said.
This allows for shared travel even during a lockdown and other kinds of experiences such as “playing chess with someone on the other side of the planet.”
With the tourism industry largely obliterated by the coronavirus outbreak, virtual reality has emerged as both a substitute for real-world travel and a complement to help people plan their next trip.
App developers have created a range of travel experiences: Touring the pyramids of Egypt, the Taj Mahal, the savannahs of Kenya or the Antarctic from a kayak. These come from commercial operators or organizations such as National Geographic or World Wildlife Fund.
Users can opt for hardware from Facebook’s Oculus, Sony’s PlayStation or the inexpensive Google Cardboard, among others. Some gear costs as little as $300 and many apps are free.
Virtual reality’s most popular applications are in gaming and fantasy worlds, but travel is seen as a new growth vector.