Oh, the places you’ll go!
On 1st March 2023 a new report warned that while the global tourism industry urgently needs to decarbonise to tackle climate change it is heading in the wrong direction, with emissions set to increase by 73 percent by 2050. Could virtual travel sate our wanderlust, letting us tour the world from the comfort of our own living room – and help save the planet along the way?
1st March 2023 (Taken from: #50)
I’m paddling through the placid waters of Antarctica, icebergs of improbable turquoise looming over me like surrealist sculptures. A low, orangey sun paints a dancing path across the surface. Up ahead a lone Adélie penguin dawdles on the edge of a floe, then plops in and races away below my kayak into the unexplored depths. I push on, my bow displacing a bobbing chunk of ice that I can’t resist scraping with my paddle as I slide languidly past.
It’s delightful, exhilarating and awe-inspiring. It is also entirely fake. Rather than crossing the icy oceans of the world’s southernmost continent I’m actually sitting in a sunlit office in Amsterdam’s creative quarter surrounded by computer monitors, headsets and the trio of young developers responsible for this transportational wizardry. This is the headquarters of Better Than Life, the independent studio behind Kayak VR: Mirage – one of the most immersive and photorealistic virtual travel experiences ever made. Highly acclaimed by users, it has topped download charts from North America to Japan, holding its own in a sector traditionally owned by gaming. It’s one of a small but growing number of experiential VR offerings nudging this often maligned form of escapism in a direction that could upend the $9.2 trillion travel industry and ultimately affect us all.
Better Than Life was set up by Leon van Oord, 31, his high-school friend Arend Koopmans, 31, and Arend’s 29-year-old brother Jetse. The studio’s name perfectly defines their goal: not just to mimic travel, but to better it. Their Antarctica kayaking offering is good, really good; save for a trio of menacing leopard seals that developed an unsettling fixation with our boats, it’s remarkably redolent of my experience of the real thing a few years back. But is it good enough?
Virtual travel was all the rage during the pandemic. As Covid-19 tore across the planet I was travel editor of the Times and Sunday Times and faced a problem confronted by none of my predecessors: we were selling escapism, and the whole world was shut. A deep-dive into the arcane world of armchair travel followed as we sought something, anything, to serve up to shell-shocked readers climbing the walls of lockdown living rooms. Crowd-free museum tours; digital safaris; 360-degree videos of ferociously telegenic faux-couples swanning around Barbadian resorts. The choice was impressive. The fidelity and sense of fulfilment? Not so much.
But the added focus and impetus of the pandemic appears to have supercharged the worlds of virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR) and hybrid mixed reality (MR), the overlapping elements that fall under the umbrella of XR (extended reality). Every part of this alphabet soup of technologies has been “catapulted forward” by the fallout from Covid, one expert told me – perhaps by as much as five years.
Super-lightweight, custom-fitted headsets with 120-degree fields of view. Spatial audio precise enough to track the footfall of a squirrel scurrying overhead. Next-generation haptic gloves and bodysuits so sensitive that users can feel the roll of a marble in their digital hand or shapes being traced on their backs. Portable, omnidirectional treadmills, for infinite movement in any direction. Wearable olfactory units that mimic an environment’s changing scents. Fully expressive, photorealistic avatars. And, augmented by AI, software that can generate real-time, satellite-precise 3D simulations of everywhere from a Maldivian atoll to Marrakech’s Jemaa el Fna square in seconds. Knit these together and you have the means to create a multisensory experience that – to parrot the aspiration of Meta (formerly Facebook)’s Mark Zuckerberg for the burgeoning metaverse – “is indistinguishable from reality”.
Global tourism is set to double in size from 2019 levels by 2050, and emissions to increase by 73 percent”
These innovations come at a time of unprecedented challenges to travel itself. Overtourism, with popular cities and landmarks inundated with visitors, global instability, economic turbulence. And, critically, the climate emergency. In March, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a report, based on an eight-year study, that assumed the doom-laden tone we’ve come to expect of such documents. It catalogued the devastating, self-amplifying consequences of rising greenhouse gas emissions, to which tourism is a major contributor.
The same month, Envisioning Tourism in 2030 and Beyond – a report compiled by the Travel Foundation charity – set out the decarbonising priorities for the travel industry over the next 25 years. The challenge is mind-boggling: global tourism is set to double in size from 2019 levels by 2050, and emissions to increase by 73 percent. That’s the same 2050 when, according to the UN’s Paris Climate Accords, tourism and every other human activity must achieve net zero. The report’s urgent recommendations include curbing long-haul flights – left unchecked they’re set to quadruple by 2050 – and to “start identifying and providing low and net-zero-emission tourism options”.
Two divergent trajectories, then: physical travel getting inordinately more problematic, both practically and ethically, just as its virtual equivalent becomes ever-more innovative and immersive. The corollary is as intriguing as it will be unpalatable to many: could one ultimately replace the other, allowing us to indulge in lavish, unconstrained globetrotting from the comfort of our homes – and for a fraction of the cost of a Lanzarote fly-and-flop?
To the slope of enlightenment
The Gartner Hype Cycle is a respected model in tech circles. Created by the eponymous, Connecticut-based firm of business analysts in the mid-1990s, it defines the maturation of a technology from inception to mainstream adoption. The ‘trough of disillusionment’ is stage three, the plummet following a peak of inflated expectations. A sense that a technology is too impractical or niche to achieve cut through. In other words, a plausible description of VR until recently, with its clunky, ornamental headsets and gripes about everything from neck ache to nausea.
The next phase of the Gartner cycle is the ‘slope of enlightenment’. Capitalising on that Covid dividend and powered by big tech’s renewed focus on extended reality, many believe this resurgent climb has already begun in earnest.
When I meet the Better Than Life team in Amsterdam they’re recently back from the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco. Here they tested Bigscreen Beyond, the lightest VR headset yet: 127g, with a 5K display and facial-scan-customised fitting. ‘All-day comfort’ is the buzz phrase. “It’s insane. Lighter than a smartphone,” says Van Oord. “People have been a little bit down on VR and AR because it’s not been moving as fast as they’d like, but the future is bright. I see big leaps happening and more and more companies creating great hardware.”
Sony is among them. I use its second-generation PSVR2 headset – also released in February 2023 – to test out Kayak VR: Mirage. The striking device is as comfortable as a favourite cap, with pin-sharp visuals and zero ambient light leakage. Meanwhile, Meta’s headsets are currently the most popular and intuitive on the market – an estimated 20 million Quest, Quest 2 and Quest Pro devices have been sold since 2019, and the slimmer, higher-resolution Quest 3 goes on sale this autumn.
But it’s the arrival into the market of paradigm shifters-in-chief, Apple, that has really moved the dial. CEO Tim Cook, a sceptic-turned-advocate for XR, sees a future in which a significant proportion of the developed world (at first) will have daily immersion in some form of extended reality and – à la internet and smartphone – “we’ll wonder how we once lived without it”. Unveiled on 5th June 2023 and targeting users far beyond the gaming and business worlds, its Vision Pro headset has a ski-goggles aesthetic, is controlled by eye and finger movements and enables seamless transition between VR, AR and a wearer’s physical surroundings.
Radically evolving hardware is a boon to companies such as Brink XR, creators of the Brink Traveler experience. Badged as “the closest thing you’ll have to a teleport button anytime soon,” it allows users to explore a curated series of landscapes captured in volumetric 3D [a more comprehensive form of 3D that defines internal structure as well as outer shapes] and displayed in dazzling fidelity. Spectacularly vertiginous Pulpit Rock, in Norway, and Europe’s tallest sand dune, the Dune du Pilat near Bordeaux, are a couple of recent additions.
Run by a small team of VFX artists, VR creators, climbers and “world travellers”, Brink’s ethos is to open up inaccessible places while preserving them for future generations – paradoxical aspirations in anything other than a virtual setting. “It’s an exciting time right now – like the computer revolution in the 1970s,” says founder Akin Bilgic. “Most of VR’s use case is still gaming but there’s a rising subcurrent of people looking for more transformative experiences.”
Could he envisage a time when – much like consumers’ shift from cinema to home-based streaming of movies – we take, say, one big holiday a year and multiple virtual trips? “Absolutely,” he says. “For a vast number of people some of these places are not accessible. There are billions of people, limited permits. And a lot of places are in danger of not being around beyond our generation.”
Haptics is another XR sector that’s advancing rapidly. A broad field that encompasses everything from the vibrations in a smartphone to the sensation I have of scraping my paddle across a virtual ice floe, it’s key to any credible multisensory experience – and HaptX, based outside Seattle, is in the vanguard.
Its lightweight, wireless G1 gloves use compressed air to displace the user’s skin in the way a real object would, with more than 130 points of tactile feedback per hand. Surface texture is precisely replicated, while “force feedback” conveys the shape and size of an object.
Speaking from San Luis Obispo, California, co-founder Dr Bob Crockett says the technology is finally coming of age. “VR has always been a few years away. People hear the hype, then they try it, then they get disappointed because the hardware is not living up to expectations,” he says. “This time round, with the tech that [we] and others are creating, and the amount of money going into this from big tech, we have a much better chance.”
It felt so surreal. Being in an office, standing on a virtual ‘real’ mountain and talking to a real ‘virtual’ person”
He talks enthusiastically about VR transcending gaming and moving into experiential realms such as travel – and how the bar for achieving convincing experiences doesn’t necessarily have to sit at perfect simulation. “Beyond a certain level of immersion, your brain is very good at filling in the missing pieces,” he says. “But even if you have a perfect haptic and virtual system, you need to be able to share that virtual space.”
Ah yes – that key component of travel: other people. As Chris McCandless, the high priest of all-in escapism, once concluded: “Happiness is only real when shared.” [McCandless’s solitary and ultimately fatal adventures in Alaska were turned into a book and a Sean Penn-directed film, Into the Wild]
Progress is being made. Brink Traveler launched a social element last summer; switched to ‘public’ mode you can encounter other travellers while exploring, say, Utah’s sandstone-sculpted Arches National Park. One user, Marcel Hampel, tweeted their praise. “While on a mountain, someone from Indonesia joined and we had a little talk. It felt so surreal. Being in an office, standing on a huge virtual ‘real’ mountain and talking to a real ‘virtual’ person.”
Powered by Meta Avatars, Brink’s digital representations of humans remain cartoonish but this is surely just a precursor to fully expressive, photorealistic digital twins. In March 2023, Zuckerberg demoed Meta’s second-generation avatars, for which cursory scans of the face generated realistic 3D representations with a suite of non-verbal cues, from raised eyebrows to frowns, and the ability to reflect a virtual environment’s changing light.
Sergi Fernandez works for i2CAT, a leading research and innovation centre in Barcelona specialising in advanced digital technologies. One focus is the seamless integration of lifelike avatars into virtual environments. When we speak, Fernandez shares a video of holoportation: two colleagues, who could be anywhere in the world, interacting as they walk around a virtual hotel room. “We’re trying to reconstruct the human body in real time,” he says. “You could go with your brother or daughter to a virtual experience and both enter together.”
Putting you in the picture
To fully appreciate the god-like world-building capabilities now in the hands of developers thanks to AI, you need to see something called NeRF in action. The acronym stands for Neural Radiance Fields. Put simply, it’s an inverse rendering tool that uses machine learning to infer a photorealistic 3D world from a series of 2D images. Put more simply still, it places you in the picture.
A vivid example to be found online is a creation by Oregon-based digital artist Jonathan Stephens entitled ‘Amalfi Coast’. Using an advanced form of NeRF called NVIDIA Instant that requires fewer input images and speeds up the rendering process to mere minutes, it portrays this much-photographed Italian stretch, with its steep conical slopes and rainbow villas – only in a way that’s anything but familiar. Waves crash, clouds roam and you’re given a roving perspective that circles the meticulously reproduced scene like a tourist chopper. You can practically taste the limoncello.
Brochure shots, iPhone images, drone pictures – all can be transformed in this way. Satellite pictures too, as with a tie up between satellite imagery specialist Maxar, Blackshark.ai and Unreal Engine – the open software programme used by Better Than Life. We are now in the realm of creating a real-time, photorealistic, 3D digital twin of every inch of the globe.
In this world, the talk is not of 2D pixels but 3D ‘voxels’ – volumetric representations so detailed and complex they can precisely convey wafting smoke or strands of wind-blown hair. “The beauty [of NeRF] is it captures life phenomena: glancing light, the movement of water or foliage. It gives that sense of presence that’s so important to us,” says Eric Hanson, CEO of Blueplanet VR. This virtual travel app transports users to 50 lesser-explored locations around the world, from the Bristlecone Forest in California’s White Mountains to Borobudur Temple in Indonesia. You can get a hang-glider’s perspective of the sites or stride through them in real-world scale by walking around your living room. The app has been likened to having your own Star Trek holodeck.
A former visual effects artist in the film industry, who has worked on multi-million-pound productions including The Day After Tomorrow and The Fifth Element, Hanson has a “strong philosophy” on VR travel. “[It] should not be about interactivity so much as presence,” he says. “What I aim to do is create content that imparts some sense of existential meaning or depth in a location.”
“In gaming, your mind dismisses it because it’s a fictional world,” he continues, “but in virtual travel a magical thing happens: your system begins to accept the reality of the content. Studies have shown that virtual reality experiences affect your memory in similar ways to real experiences. You may feel like you went to Machu Picchu but you won’t necessarily remember if it’s in VR or real life.” Or as James Jensen – founder of the terrifyingly realistic virtual base-jumping experience, Jump, in Utah – put it: “I don’t need to do the real thing. I have a memory of it already.”
Hanson is convinced that the hard work and investment of his nascent sector could be about to pay off. “Up until now, this has been a true believer’s field,” he tells me. “We’ve had to build the community from the ground up. We need someone like Apple to bring millions of new users overnight – and that’s what will clearly happen.”
A long journey
I paddle on in my headset and, at the click of an icon, find myself 5,000 miles away off the Costa Rican coast. Suddenly the room’s ambient temperature makes much more sense. Palms sway, the seabed shimmers, a turtle powers gracefully by. Determined to find a crack in this immaculate Truman Show facade, I veer off course and through an arch: the light subtly changes, the sound takes on an expansive, echoey quality. Tiny drips from the moist rock above strike the water. It’s eerie.
Yet I find myself craving the full multisensory version: to trail fingers in those invitingly clear waters; to smell the acrid stench of the humpback’s blow in Antarctica. The technology is out there – just not yet in one place. A full-body equivalent to HaptX’s gloves, Teslasuit is currently mainly used for emergency services and aerospace training, and can relay multiple sensations including heat and – useful for virtual UK trips and staycations – raindrops hitting the skin. Spanish company OWO, meanwhile, has created haptic vests that look like cycling tops and mimic everything from the wind on your skin to insect bites, should you find your VR trip diminished by a lack of midges. And German innovators Swim VR have combined snorkels and specialist waterproof headsets to enable pool swimmers to have an authentic ocean experience. How’s that for full immersion?
Vermont-based olfactory specialists OVR Technology this year announced the launch of ION3, the company’s first wearable device for the mass market. The bluetooth-enabled attachment works by combining aromas in a cartridge to create thousands of scents. Meanwhile, the unveiling of Virtuix’s Omni One omnidirectional treadmill in March heralds fully locomotive virtual experiences. Designed for home use, it’s both foldable and portable, with the user tethered in a rucksack-style harness. Leap between boulders on a beach, run a mountain pass, or take a half-day city tour – and have the aching legs to prove it.
All beyond the average person’s budget, of course. But for how long? Asked on the Intrepid X podcast about the chances of the disparate elements coming together to create the means for near-total, multisensory realism – and at an affordable price – HaptX founder and CEO Jake Rubin was sanguine: “You’re going to see two processes converging and leading to widespread adoption of high-end VR devices by consumers: the technology rapidly coming down in price; and with consumers spending more of their lives working and playing in VR, their willingness to spend going up.”
It’s perhaps instructive to see credible virtual travel not as an isolated aspiration, then, but an extension of a radically changed way of life. Multiple companies are placing big bets on the metaverse taking off, none more so than Meta. The figures are persuasive: VR and AR, valued at $22.6 billion in 2021, are anticipated to balloon to $451.5 billion by 2030 according to Acumen Research and Consulting. US management consultant firm McKinsey reported last summer that the wider metaverse has the potential to grow to $5 trillion in value over the same period. It’s worth remembering that, for hundreds of thousands of people, it isn’t a hypothetical construct. McKinsey’s survey of 3,400 current metaverse users around the world found 59 percent of respondents already preferred at least one metaverse experience to its physical alternative. And while Meta has drawn plenty of ire for the low-fidelity soullessness of its Horizon Worlds app, other virtual worlds enjoy devoted and growing followings.
Jen Davis-Wilson (aka ‘Fionna’) is a VR artist and “world creator” for VRChat, a virtual world platform in which avatars interact as they move around thousands of interconnecting domains. You can hang out in bars or on beaches, kick back by hilltop campfires or swan around penthouse suites overlooking hyper-realistic cityscapes.
Every weekend I host a cocktail party in VRChat. For me it’s not a virtual experience – I’m at a party’”
Based in California, Davis-Wilson spends up to 16 hours at a time in virtual environments, even sleeping there (“with the headset on you almost have to sleep like a corpse. You can’t turn over”). How far does she think we are from packing headset and haptics for a holiday rather than passport and suncream? “The answer is: infinitely away – and we’re already doing it,” she says. “The idea of immersion is very subjective. It’s more about the individual. Every weekend I host a cocktail party in VRChat. For me it’s not a virtual experience – I’m at a party.” She sees the hardware getting infinitely better, too. “In smartphone terms, the Meta Quest 2 feels like a PalmPilot. We’re not at the iPhone yet.”
Ipswich-based futurologist Dr Ian Pearson has spent 25 years squinting into the future, trying to divine the paths we’ll all be taking. He believes we’re fast approaching a “sensory tipping point” – the threshold at which so many boxes are ticked that simulation becomes, to all intents and purposes, reality. “At that point the equation of actual travel is going to get harder and harder to justify,” he says. “The hassle of getting to the airport, the cost. Why bother? Younger generations will throw in the towel and just grab their headsets.”
It’s a salient point: any embracing of a substitute form of travel is likely to be a generational question as much as a technological one. Great chunks of those who decry virtual travel as a synthetic abomination will be neither the target market nor the gatekeepers. Environmentally-attuned Gen Z-ers and, particularly, Gen Alphas [anyone under 26] will not only be more XR conversant, they may also suffer from a comparative and self-imposed nostalgia deficit. In short, they won’t remember that full-moon party in Koh Phi Phi that their older relatives always profess not to remember.
Holidays on Mars
It’s not to say there wouldn’t be a healthy degree of cross-generational scepticism. Josh Temple, aka Slogo, is a YouTuber with 11.2 million subscribers and “too many” VR headsets (in his defence, he says, he does have them sent to him). Bright and articulate, Temple gets straight to the heart of some of the more pernicious concerns around simulated travel: data and privacy; the erosion of the complex economic interdependencies of an industry that supported 330 million jobs in 2019; and the considerable risk of exploitation.
“There are definitely pluses from an environmental perspective,” he says. “But how much control would you or I have over it? If you go into this VR world and it allows someone to have their eye on you all the time then that’s not good. And I’d worry who was profiting. Would it be the local tourism organisations – or the companies providing the experience? Sometimes it’s tourism that keeps things functioning, and without funding, sites could fall into disrepair. So there would be some interesting questions around IP [intellectual property].”
Indeed. One could readily envisage a form of unfettered digital colonisation taking hold: places captured and rendered in pristine form to be leveraged in perpetuity, while the vestigial sites – starved of visitors and the incentive for preservation – atrophy. One step closer to the “desert of the real” that Morpheus (quoting French philosopher Jean Baudrillard) reveals to Neo in the seminal 1999 Matrix film. Time, perhaps, to slap a copyright sign on Machu Picchu.
And yet the world goes on getting more fragile, the ranks of potential travellers go on swelling, and the appalling ramifications of the Faustian pact that island nations in particular have made with international tourism are already being felt. The developed world cannot wash its hands of this problem: half of tourism’s global footprint is caused by travel between the richest countries, while the most frequent fliers (less than one percent of the world’s population) account for more than half of total emissions from passenger air travel.
Eric Hanson of Blueplanet VR, and Brink XR’s Akin Bilgic both view their products as being complementary to travel rather than a substitute, envisaging a scenario in which individuals mix virtual and actual travel according to means, mobility and whim. What price a future where the super-wealthy wrestle with permits, tourist taxes and their eco-consciences to see over-subscribed corners of the globe, while the rest of us enjoy frictionless, crowd-free global exploration from our front rooms? The age of the Grand Tour repackaged for the digital generation.
There’s an elephant in the room here, of course (or should that be woolly mammoth?). Freed from the bonds of reality in a travel sense, why would we possibly confine ourselves to it?
The real world sucks when compared with what your imagination can do… the options are limitless”
Strolling hand-in-hand with a loved one down a photorealistic representation of a Maldivian beach is a laughably limited aspiration when you consider the potential such innovations allow for time travel (city breaks to Pompeii; safaris featuring extinct as well as existing creatures); interplanetary space travel; and fantasy travel. Reanimation, or “digital resurrection”, will broaden the scope of your travel companions, too: Bach, Einstein, perhaps even your late Auntie Mabel.
“Given the opportunity, you’d tick off all the bucket-list places like the Taj Mahal on your first day,” agrees Dr Ian Pearson. “After that you’ll be going to creations – really, really nice ones – that couldn’t exist. Like Vegas 6, the fantasy planet. Smiling people. Three moons flying past. The real world sucks when compared with what your imagination can do – and if you can make AI do the imagining then the options are limitless.”
Suddenly, as photorealistic as my kayaking experience is, it seems… limited. Too grounded in reality, perversely. I take off my headset, thank the Better Than Life trio and head off into a dazzling spring afternoon in Amsterdam (exemplary spatial audio; floral olfactory dialled up to 11).
Travelling home, I recall something YouTuber Josh Temple told me. Left to their own devices, virtual reality users will often choose not an avatar that resembles themselves, but rather one that strikingly doesn’t. “Wherever you go, there you are,” laments the old travel truism. Well, perhaps not anymore. Holidays of the future could also be holidays from ourselves: a ripped avatar in budgie-smugglers or bikini striding down that virtual, triple-mooned beach, rather than the real you with all your pesky flesh-and-blood flaws. Temple laughed. “If you’re going to travel virtually then you’ve got to get an upgrade, right?”
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