The New Head Trip

Virtual-reality travel might just revolutionize tourism - while turning us all into shut-ins.
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Virtual-reality travel might just revolutionize tourism - while turning us all into shut-ins.
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“You might want to sit down,” Mike Woods tells me.

I recline in an office chair, and a moment later, after whizzing through a space-time tunnel that looks like a tornado made of pure light, I find myself standing on a beach in Hawaii. The colors are vivid and rich, the sunlight dappled. The sound of waves echoes in my ears, palms sway in the wind, and the wide ocean sparkles to the horizon. I am alone.

I feel an immediate sense of calm. It’s uncanny, but I would swear my skin is growing warm in the sunlight and a faint breeze is carrying a mist off the water. My heartbeat begins to slow. But as I crane my neck to check the trees for coconuts, the landscape becomes pixelated. It’s kind of like being on spring break in World of Warcraft.

I’m immersed in a virtual-reality experience, aptly called the Teleporter, created by the British digital media studio Framestore. The Hawaiian expedition, along with a virtual journey to the top of a London skyscraper, was designed for Marriott Hotels as a way for its guests to experience the future of travel. Woods, the founder of Framestore’s digital department, helps me off with my headset, an Oculus VR Rift. It’s then that I realize the ocean spray was actually just beads of sweat that collected on my forehead around the edges of the bulky goggles.

“It’s as close as you can get to a real-life experience,” Woods tells me.

All those former travel agents who lost their jobs because of the digital revolution haven’t seen anything yet. VR companies are working feverishly to enable would-be adventurers to travel the globe from the comfort of their own futons. Want to scale a digital replica of the Great Wall of China? Paddle down the Amazon? Just “jack in,” as Ralph Fiennes put it in Strange Days. “People in the next few years will have a separate room in their house that’s just full of stuff like this,” Woods claims. “If you want to go and hang out at the top of the Eiffel Tower or go to a mountain in Iceland, you can.”

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It will be cheap, safe, and completely hassle-free. “Think of all the trauma involved in travel: the fossil fuels it spends, the germs you get on a plane, the money it costs, the amount of time it takes,” says Jeremy Bailenson, the founding director of Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab. “VR allows you to travel when you want to, not when you have to.” Forget TSA patdowns, jet lag, lost luggage, bewildering menus, lumpy mattresses, and predatory locals, all of which make actual travel such a drag. The Oculus Rift never runs out of space in the overhead bins.

This is how tech people tend to talk—with total confidence that every new tool is going to radically change everything. Remember life before the Segway forever changed transportation, or TaskRabbit forever changed commerce? Exactly. And yet research suggests that virtual travel does offer some of the salutary mental effects of the real thing. A recent study conducted by the University of Melbourne found that 40-second-long “microbreaks” spent viewing a virtual simulation of nature increased workers’ ability to focus on the tasks at hand. The suits in HR are already asking themselves: Do people even need vacation days?

By now we’re all familiar with Oculus Rift. In 2012, 19-year-old Palmer Luckey, who was working at USC’s Institute for Creative Technologies, developed a cheap VR helmet that attracted the interest of his professors. He then launched a Kickstarter and raised more than $2.4 million. Last year, after delivering early models, Luckey sold the company to Facebook for $2 billion. Meanwhile, numerous other VR companies are racing ahead with similar technology, as tech bloggers and other early users rave about the experience.

Scott Broock is the vice president of content at Jaunt, a San Francisco– area VR company. When I meet Broock in a West Village bar, he’s dressed in the soft blazer, crisp checked shirt, and designer glasses of a Hollywood exec. Broock puts an Oculus Rift on my head and suddenly I’m standing in a grungy alleyway covered in graffiti. An alien zooms into my field of vision and starts deejaying on a pair of intergalactic turntables.

A great VR experience “lets you feel like you’ve escaped,” Broock tells me.

Marriott is considering incorporating VR into its hotel rooms, the better to advertise its other properties and let guests “sample destinations before they go,” says Michael Dail, the company’s VP of marketing. “We’re rethinking in-room entertainment.”

It would be like movie trailers, but for destinations. Before you go outside to see San Francisco in the flesh, first take a peek at what you could be doing in Istanbul! But would it increase sales? Here’s what no doubt would: Hoteliers could pump adult pay-per-view into the Oculus. Guests would never go home.

As for the prospect of virtual travel, my whirlwind tour of pixelated destinations leaves me pining for the glorious inconvenience of a delayed flight or a malfunctioning hotel thermostat. No matter how seamless the 3-D scanning, a virtual vacation will never manage to replicate the greatest thing about going somewhere: serendipity.

On a virtual vacation, every step is bitmapped. The programmer is your tour guide, and you can never stray from the group. “You can’t say you discovered this tiny little restaurant, met these amazing people on the street, or saw an impromptu concert,” says Sean Murphy, the editor in chief of Jetsetter, a travel Web site. For all its bells and whistles, VR is more like a postcard than a journey. It flattens what should be a multisensory voyage into a shallow facsimile thereof: a nifty development for marketers but hardly the Holodeck from Star Trek. “I don’t see it as a replacement; I see it as a way to inspire people to travel more,” says Albert “Skip” Rizzo, a psychologist who launched a VR lab at USC in 1996. “People are always going to go in the flesh. You don’t have the feel of the sand, the sun shining on you, all those tactile senses.” But companies will sure try: They’re already hard at work on making VR more tactile. Marriott’s Teleporter originally simulated ocean mist with a spray bottle.

The best VR trip on my grand tour takes place at Specular, an underground studio in Brooklyn, where I visit “Exquisite City,” a surreal version of Belgrade that mixes 3-D scans of the actual place with elements that conjure a drugged-out Minecraft mod. When James George, the cocreator of the piece, fits the Oculus over my head, I find myself in a nighttime urban landscape where stars shine like pixels in the dark sky above me. Or is it the other way around and the pixels are stars?

Navigating the terrain with the help of a keyboard, I come across buildings made entirely of ATMs, a skyscraper tower built from freestanding stairs, and trees growing upside down. “You’re an anthropologist on an alien planet,” George tells me. The experience is deeply unsettling, but I can’t get enough of it. The whole notion that VR travel should mimic the real thing suddenly seems mistaken. The unknowns are what make travel great. It’s not standing in front of the Eiffel Tower and taking a snapshot—it’s chatting up a hot art student who invites you to a house party in a sketchy arrondissement and waking up wondering what happened to your pants. The further away you get from your own everyday reality, the easier it is to feel like you’ve really gone somewhere and found a piece of yourself you never knew.

So if you’re one of those early adopters who can’t wait to lie on a virtual beach, go right ahead. It just means more space on the sand for those of us who prefer the real thing. ■

Photos by Rick Wenner