Virtual reality: on the road to becoming mainstream?

With the availability of inexpensive headsets virtual reality as a marketing tool is becoming, well, a reality for museums and other attractions. Andrew Hennigan reports

Recently the British museum hosted a Virtual Reality Weekend where visitors could explore a virtual Bronze Age settlement, examining virtual replicas of objects from the museum’s collections. To view the virtual world visitors used Samsung Gear VR headsets, tablets and an immersive ‘fulldome’ that could seat family groups of five people at a time. The Bronze Age experience was a one-off pilot but the museum is looking at how the technology can be integrated with their regular school and family programming.

Virtual reality (VR) is also becoming a popular sales tool, allowing potential customers to experience a destination, a resort or even just a conference room before they decide to book it. Marriott Hotel’s Get Teleported project uses Oculus Rift virtual reality technology to allow customers to experience a virtual visit to Hawaii. Qantas offers virtual reality experiences on board airplanes and Thomas Cook creates virtual experiences to promote destinations.

Not so long ago VR experiences like this would have stretched most budgets, but with Samsung headsets selling for less than $200 the technology has become much more affordable. Even more affordable is the ‘Cardboard’ virtual reality viewer – basically just a piece of folded cardboard that turns any smartphone into a virtual reality experience. Originally created by Google through their Cardboard App project, similar popup viewers are available from companies like DodoCase, Knox Labs and Unofficial Cardboard and sell for around $20 for a one-off, and even less in commercial quantities. Unsurprisingly, Google also provides all of the other elements needed to create immersive experiences, including a special camera rig called Jump and a software developers’ kit to create apps based on this technology.

So far most of the high-profile uses of virtual reality are one-off exhibitions and demonstrations mostly aimed at attracting attention.

So far most of the high-profile uses of virtual reality are one-off exhibitions and demonstrations mostly aimed at attracting attention. Where the technology is likely to go mainstream first is in selling destinations, packages, attractions and facilities. Pop-up cardboard viewers are easy to produce in branded versions and they can be folded flat. This means that it is easy to add a cardboard VR viewer with a printed brochure or mail them to potential customers, so that they can simply slip in their own smartphone and connect to a virtual sales experience.

On the business-to-consumer side, this is already being done by travel companies like Thomas Cook. In the consumer market it will be challenging to compete with rivals offering virtual visits to their properties so this is very appealing and relatively inexpensive. There are also many opportunities to use the same technology in business-to-business selling, which is already being adopted by companies like GCH Hotel Group in Europe to market their meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibition products.

“GCH has more than 500 conference and event rooms,” says Daniel Wishnia, GCH’s Director of Digital Promotion, “and this innovative solution helps our partners to organise their events and stays with an intuitive virtual reality app that guide’s the event manager through the entire process.” 

…there are also signs that some companies are working on virtual worlds that are the final destination

Meanwhile, though virtual reality technology is still primarily a promotional tool (Virtual Tourism: the Path to Promotion or Profit?, EyeforTravel, July 29, 2015), there are also signs that some companies are working on virtual worlds that are the final destination. Linden Labs, creators of the Second Life virtual world recently added the capability to navigate that world using virtual reality headsets and the company is recruiting testers for a new virtual world called Project Sansar, created from the beginning for virtual reality headset users. Project Sansar will be available for beta testing in 2016. Exactly how Linden Labs plans to monetise this world is not yet clear, but it gives another reason to be watching virtual reality technology. If it isn’t quite mainstream yet it is likely to be getting there soon.

Daniel Wishnia, GCH’s Director of Digital Promotion will be speaking at EyeforTravel’s Connected Traveller conference in London (Oct 22-23)

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