Geekend: Oculus Rift Tourism - InformationWeek
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12/12/2014
09:06 AM
David Wagner
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Geekend: Oculus Rift Tourism

The tourism industry hopes to lure us with virtual reality previews of destinations viewed with the Oculus Rift and other VR headsets. Will it backfire?

Been there. Done that. Check it off the bucket list. I just spent three minutes looking at British Columbia through the Oculus Rift and that's all I need. No need for a plane ticket. I saw the whole thing through a helmet (well, a preview of what I'll see through the Oculus Rift virtual reality helmet, available next summer). That's way more efficient than flying, right?

Canada sure hopes you don't think that way. It's hoping it will give you just enough tease of the real thing to make you want to come visit. Destination British Columbia has started marketing travel to BC via the Oculus Rift. It thinks a journey through the Great Bear Rainforest via VR helmet is going to make you want to see the real thing. The device lets you choose your own path where you can travel through different parts of the rainforest based on what you look at. Here's a video of it:

The whole thing was shot with GoPro cameras, so the technology is pretty easy, and the experience looks pretty real even on a YouTube video. Presumably, via a VR helmet it will be even nicer. But what if it is too nice?

The funny thing about virtual reality marketing is that virtual reality is supposed to replace, augment, or at least mimic plain old, real reality. How good does it have to be to make us feel like we saw the real thing? Could a video designed to make us want to see something make us feel like we already saw it?

[Do you check your smartphone first thing in the morning? Read Americans 'Obsessed' With Their Devices.]

You might be skeptical at this point. Seeing a documentary on the Grand Canyon doesn't make you feel like you've seen the Grand Canyon. You don't feel like you gambled in Vegas because you played blackjack on your phone. Heck, there's even been a really immersive nine-screen movie about Canada in Disney World's Epcot for decades (see below). To my knowledge it hasn't made people decide Canada was off their bucket lists. Skip the first minute to get to the movie:

So why the fuss? Next year's hot Christmas item is going to be the VR helmet. And by next year, I won't be sharing YouTube videos on this site anymore, but VR videos instead. And it won't take long for those videos to get really good. Sure, at first they're going to have all the quality of a grumpy cat video. But eventually, we're going to be making GoPro-style cameras that shoot specifically for VR. And the quality will be increasingly lifelike.

Fans of Star Trek know exactly what can happen to people who get immersed in VR.

You end up imagining a sword fight with your boss.

So if VR gets any less virtual and any more real, maybe a VR trip to the rainforest is just as good as the real thing. I know there are certain real places that are hard enough to get to I might just as soon see them through virtual reality.

If I were getting a VR helmet for Christmas next year, the first places I'd put on my list to visit virtually would be places like the Amazon. All the beauty, none of the piranha. I think I'd really love to see the Taj Mahal. Don't know if I could handle the plane trip. The Grand Canyon was amazing but the last time I went, I almost died of dehydration. No one told me how darned hot it would be.

Sure, until we have a holodeck, nothing will copy the smells in the air, the feeling of the breeze, the warm touch of sand on a tropical beach. But part of a good thing is better than nothing. I really like the use of VR for marketing tourism right now. But in a few years, in a decade, maybe a little longer, I wonder if it won't be giving away the product for free.

What do you think? Will VR replace the real thing? If it could, what would you most want to see virtually? What's your own bucket list of VR destinations? Tell us in the Comments section.

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David has been writing on business and technology for over 10 years and was most recently Managing Editor at Enterpriseefficiency.com. Before that he was an Assistant Editor at MIT Sloan Management Review, where he covered a wide range of business topics including IT, ... View Full Bio
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David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
12/29/2014 | 12:24:34 PM
Re: Rift realism
@Gary_El- Not smells! Any time someone makes good smells, someone is going to be tempted to make bad smells. I don't want an 8th grader's version of virtual reality. :)
kstaron
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kstaron,
User Rank: Ninja
12/29/2014 | 10:29:58 AM
A great interactive movie is still just a movie
VR and actual reality don't really compare yet. Part of going to exotic locations isn't just to see stuff but to experience it. It's the quirky tour guide coupled with the other tourists from different continents comparingtravel notes. It's the "not flat" road that is more vertical than not and so twisty you're not sure you'll ever get back to your hotel. Or the minor hysterics you get when you realize the train you got on is going away from your destination. it's eating/smelling the ethnic cuisine in the market stalls and having vendors hawk their wares as you trod down cobbled stone streets.

VR can get you to see places you may never be able to physically get to due to accessibility or affordability, but it can only ever be an immersive movie of a destination until it can incorporate all of the senses and more than that incorporate the people of that destination ala massive multiplayer games. VR teasers sound like a great way to get people to get a place on their bucket list, but I don't lknow of many people that could go to a place but won't after a bit of VR.
Gary_EL
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Gary_EL,
User Rank: Ninja
12/24/2014 | 10:24:50 PM
Re: Rift realism
Ah, but it wouldn't end there. You would also need to simulate smell, because we "taste"food almost as much through smell as through taste. And, I can't think of any way to imitate the feeling of swallowing and sensation of fullness you get through eating. So, no help for your diet any time soon, unfortunately.
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
12/24/2014 | 12:26:16 PM
Re: Rift realism
@gary_el- It would really help my diet if we could simulate taste. If I could "eat" a candy bar without the candy I'd be very happy.
zerox203
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zerox203,
User Rank: Ninja
12/23/2014 | 5:08:40 PM
Re: Oculus Rift Tourism
The stuff happening in this space is nothing short of amazing. Like Whoopty, I've seen plenty of tech demos and such making the rounds, and they never fail to impress me - but I haven't actually used an Oculus Rift personally, so it's much appreciated to have that insight. I would have imagined the opposite effect; that the more you use the device, the more you get used to it's quirks and the easier it becomes to get immersed. Like Dave said, I wonder if that's a case of the current offerings (software-wise) not taking full advantage of the hardware, rather than a fault in the hardware. I'm sure this is not the last time this topic will appear on the Geekend, so please keep us posted on your impressions as new stuff comes out, Whoopty.

As for virtual tourism, I think the sky's the limit. We talk about 'hyperconvergence' when it comes to networking hardware, but here we see something like that happening in a different space. They mention the use of drone cameras and other technology that combines with the Oculus to do something that seems impossible. Gary_EL mentions bandwidth, and all the myriad technologies on that end come into play here as well. Most people that have expected to be underwhelmed by the Oculus have said the opposite after using it (in my reading). Let's not forget that you could use this technology to visit fictional and physically impossible places as if they were British Colombia. You could hang out on the moon, or in Middle-Earth. Like the mobile revolution of some years ago, I wouldn't be surprised if all this creeps up on us faster than we realize. The technology is all there.
Gary_EL
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Gary_EL,
User Rank: Ninja
12/13/2014 | 2:15:42 PM
Re: Rift realism
We already have sight and sound, and by wearing transducers on our arms, torso and legs, we can soon have touch. It's taste and smell that are still off in the future. Ultimately, I think bandwidth and speed-of-light limitations will be the only real barriers to this exciting idea.
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
12/12/2014 | 12:25:25 PM
Re: Rift realism
@Whoopty- Interesting. My problem with the VR helmet has always been the fact that I'm essentially blindfolded. If I was using it for gaming or another type of physical experience, I'm very likely to injure myself or others as I flail around my living room. I haven't had enough experience with one to get the effect you describe. I wonder if that has to do with content or our own brain realizing reality is more fun.
Whoopty
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Whoopty,
User Rank: Ninja
12/12/2014 | 12:18:41 PM
Rift realism
I've spent quite a bit of time with both the Oculus Rift DK1 and DK2 at trade shows and later in my own home when they arrived (I was rather excited). 

While I agree to an extent that the experience can feel very real, after prolonged usage you do start to disconnect with it a little. It can still be incredibly fun and immersive, but beyond the first few hours it does lose its sheen. I don't doubt that one day we will get truly immersive virtual reality, but really, until it's plugging right into our brain it doesn't replace the real thing. 

Maybe, if you're talking about a generation raised on VR, that has less real world experience? But still giving them something they can touch and feel is more immersive than any VR in the near future. 
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