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DG #50 preview: Is virtual reality the future of travel?

The 50th issue of Delayed Gratification features an article by Duncan Craig about the rapid development of virtual travel and how it might help combat carbon emissions from the global tourism industry. Inga Marsden talks to Duncan about the prospect of seeing the world without leaving your living room

Inga: What inspired you to write this piece?
Duncan: I was struck by how travel is facing such huge challenges at the moment – it’s unprecedented since the dawn of mass tourism. You’ve got over-tourism, economic turbulence, global instability and, probably the biggest one, the climate emergency. All of this is happening just as virtual experiences are reaching new heights of sophistication and fidelity. VR is moving away from being the preserve of gamers to something that’s more universally appealing. It’s intriguing that VR travel could ultimately replace real travel, and that was the basis for the piece, a deep dive into a question that’s as much an ethical one as it is practical.

IM: What was your most memorable experience researching this article?
DC: Definitely visiting Amsterdam and the studio of Better Than Life, where a trio of young developers have created the Kayak VR: Mirage. It’s arguably the most realistic virtual travel experience yet created and I got to properly road test it. It took me to Antarctica. I am a kayaker in real life and have actually kayaked in Antarctica before. I found it superb, incredibly realistic right down to things like the wonderful turquoise luminosity of the icebergs, and the wildlife interacting with you. Even the peculiar viscosity of the water when you’re paddling through it because it’s part ice and part sea – to capture something as obscure as that is seriously impressive.

IM: Do you predict that VR travel will catch on in the future?
DC: I’m surprised to say yes. I think that technology is advancing so rapidly now and it’s been turbocharged by the pandemic, which saw a sudden necessity, rather than desirability, of virtual experiences. If the price point starts to make sense to the average budget, then given the universality of interest in travel I can definitely see it catching on. Also, we are moving far away from frictionless travel these days – you’ll hear nothing but complaints about costs, queues and cancellations. I can see people in the not too distant future balancing actual travel with virtual travel, particularly as the hardware gets smaller and less intrusive.

IM: Do you have any reservations about VR travel?
DC: The main one is that the travel industry employs millions of people, and supports tens of millions more. Anything that erodes that source of employment would obviously have huge repercussions. I think in many cases developing nations would feel the effect the most, given that many of them are dependent on tourism. In the best case scenario, virtual travel could act as a preserver, where profits may be ploughed back into preserving those sites in perpetuity. At fragile sites you would be reducing the footfall because they’re being rendered virtually for people to enjoy. But there is obviously a big flipside and you can well envisage a sort of unfettered digital colonisation, where companies with no vested interest in the destination itself could be exploiting those places in a virtual sense.

IM: Do you think you and your travel writer colleagues will regularly be writing articles about virtual destinations in ten years time?
DC: Travel journalism goes where travellers go and it’s our job to be in the vanguard, writing about new developments and trends and making sense of them. As headsets, olfactory devices, omnidirectional treadmills and the wearable haptics that enable you to feel heat or rainfall or wind on your skin evolve, they will need reviewing and analysing in a journalistic sense. I think the challenge is going to be the sheer number of destinations available and how fast they’re going to evolve and multiply. The real world, however vast, is a finite entity with a set number of destinations, but our imaginations fuelled by AI offer infinite permutations. I wonder if we’re going to have many tailor-made places, where we are offered highly personalised utopias or, depending where one sits on this whole question, dystopias.

You can read the full feature by Duncan Craig in issue 50 of Delayed Gratification, available from our online shop here.

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