Virtual Travel and Exploration Apps Are Key to Mainstream VR Adoption

on May 29, 2018
Reading Time: 4 minutes

As we pass Memorial Day and enter the unofficial start of summer and vacation time, it’s natural to think about the potential summer applications of technology. Unfortunately, the most obvious one is that, thanks to smartphones, we’re never really disconnected from our work. That is, unless you have the guts to actually turn your phone off for an extended period of time (and more power to you if you do!)—or are intentionally visiting a place with limited connectivity.

However, there are plenty of very positive applications for summertime relaxation and enjoyment with technology, as well. Relaxing on the beach with your favorite streaming music service, finding the best restaurants to visit in your vacation locale, or planning the perfect summer road trip (and making sure you accurately get there), are all great examples of applications and capabilities that people literally all over the world now take for granted thanks to our tech devices and services.

Looking ahead, I expect we’ll see even more dramatic applications for technology and travel. One of the more intriguing possibilities is the concept of virtual travel and exploration through dedicated virtual reality headsets and applications. In fact, in a recent TECHnalysis Research study of 1,000 US consumers who already own VR and/or AR headsets, the top applications people were already doing on their devices were intensive and casual gaming (to no one’s surprise), but they were only a few percentage points above virtual travel and exploration. This was particularly surprising because the respondents to the survey all identified themselves as gamers. In addition, the top two applications that survey respondents wanted to use but weren’t currently using were simulations (such as riding a virtual roller coaster, etc.), followed closely by virtual travel and exploration.

In other words, even among an arguably gaming-focused crowd, there was tremendous interest in applications and experiences that could bring them to new parts of the world. It’s armchair travel for the 21st century.

The top reason why people said they weren’t currently using those apps is that they simply didn’t know enough about them. Interestingly, the lack of overall awareness is a problem for the entire AR and VR industry. Most people simply aren’t aware of or haven’t had a good opportunity to experience VR or AR. This lack of education or awareness even extends to people who’ve made the effort to purchase and use a headset.

To my mind, this screams of an enormous opportunity for headset makers, AR and VR platform providers, and/or application and content developers to take a more intensive look at travel and experience-focused applications, not just games. There’s clearly a demand among existing gaming-focused device owners, but virtual travel is also the kind of application that could open up VR headset sales to a much broader, mainstream audience.

Thankfully, there are a number of efforts from a variety of vendors to start to address these issues. For personally created content, vendors like Lenovo and Samsung have started to build and sell cameras that are specifically optimized to create 180˚ and 360˚ movies that can be viewed and experienced on VR headsets (as well as on smartphones, PCs, and TVs). Lenovo’s new $299 Mirage Camera follows the Google VR180 format and lets you record and even stream widescreen movies to people wearing their Daydream-compatible Mirage Solo headset. Samsung’s popular Gear 360 camera can do either 360˚, or by flipping a switch 180˚ video as well, and can also stream live to Galaxy S8 and S9-driven Gear VR headsets to provide a real-time VR experience.

Travel VR content creation tools are also starting to grow. At this year’s I/O, Google announced a new tool for students called Tour Creator, which builds on the company’s previous Expedition tool and allows kids (and adults) to create their own virtual travel experiences. Unfortunately, there aren’t yet a lot of truly “killer” virtual travel commercial apps—particularly ones that work across all the different VR platforms. In fact, this is one of the other major challenges facing wider VR consumer adoption. There simply aren’t enough high-quality VR travel applications, and the ones that are out there aren’t very well known.

Of course, getting to the higher-resolution visual experience that people are demanding is another big challenge. While virtual travel is certainly exciting, the fact that it’s supposed to be taking people to “real” places means that expectations for visual quality are going to be very high—much higher than for a simulated or animated world. Support for higher-resolution screens and dedicated VR/AR chipsets—such as the widely rumored Qualcomm Snapdragon XR1 that many sites have speculated will be released at this week’s Augmented World Expo show—are certainly going to be steps in the right direction, but it’s clear that we are still in the early days of VR and AR technology.

Virtual travel will never replace the real thing, but it is a great cost-effective alternative and for many—including the elderly and the less mobile—it may be the only way they can experience new places. Plus, for applications that offer the possibility to explore new worlds—from the microscopic to the extraplanetary—it’s the only solution for all of us.

While it’s easy to get caught up in the excitement around gaming in VR, given that the total worldwide travel industry is over 100x the revenues of the worldwide gaming industry (roughly $8 trillion vs. $80 billion per year), the opportunity for bringing high-quality travel experiences to VR is too big to ignore.