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The Realities of Virtual Reality in the Customer Travel Experience

By James Carroll, Senior Vice President, Labs as a Service

On April Fools’ Day last year, the travel aggregator Kayak offered people “Virtual Vacations” as a chance to “travel from the comfort of their own couch.” Promising no delays, crowds of tourists, or bad airport food, the stunt had echoes of the 1990 science-fiction movie Total Recall in which Arnold Schwarzenegger’s character has the chance to buy the memory of his ideal vacation.

Clearly, any such reality is neither possible right now nor—in spite of the democratizing appeal of removing barriers like expense, time and age from vacations—even desirable. Nonetheless, Kayak’s jest was clearly a response to how the travel industry is developing.

testing the waters with Virtual Reality (VR) experiential marketing campaigns and interactive online experiences

Complementary, Not Competitive

Today’s travel companies are testing the waters with Virtual Reality (VR) experiential marketing campaigns like Thomas Cook’s “Try Before You Fly”. Others have leveraged VR to entice customers with enhanced experiences: Eurostar’s Odyssey offers the first virtual reality experience on a train, giving travelers the chance to explore the depths of the ocean as they pass under the English Channel. The British Museum’s VR Tour gives users an interactive peek into one of the museum’s most popular galleries.

For all its current applications, virtual reality is still in its first generation. The recent launch of the Oculus Quest significantly moved the bar for VR, but the technology still has many inherent problems: headsets are clunky, heavy and low resolution, impeding the overall experience.

Thus, VR adoption comes with risk. In addition to the hardware cost itself, the creation of custom experiences is not cheap. Furthermore, ever since early attempts at commercialization in the 1990s, virtual reality has never quite managed to develop into anything but a novelty that occasionally pops up in a new iteration. For a technology like VR to go mainstream, it must become an integral, social experience. Today’s headsets shut out the possibility of social interaction, as users must disengage with others in the room once they put one on.

A further danger of incorporating VR into the travel experience is the development of unrealistic expectations, which might lead to customer disappointment when actual experiences do not live up to the glossy, perfect virtual world.

Location-based Play

While VR is struggling to achieve mass adoption in home environments, one area it’s dominating is location-based play. Location-based play, which lets people roam free inside an environment designed to mimic real-world sensory experiences, is breaking ground with partnerships like The Void, which features brand activations with Star Wars, Wreck-it Ralph and Ghostbusters. The applications for travel are limitless—imagine touring a restored Colosseum or being able to walk on and touch The Great Wall of China from the comfort of a couch. Take Marriott’s VRoom Service, which delivers VR headsets to guest rooms with virtual travel sites and experiences.

Next generation VR headsets will include dual hand controllers and multiple wide-angle tracking cameras, giving users more control and range. Built-in sensors translate movements directly into the virtual world, while also allowing for room-scale tracking. Instead of layering a digital world over the physical, devices like the Oculus Go allow the physical world to blend into the virtual, aligning a user’s physical confines to the virtual experience.  

In the future, location-based play will offer the ability to explore the world during any time period and enter alternate environments designed by programmers. Travel companies may want to explore the expanded use cases and functionality of next generation headsets to capitalize on new marketing and entertainment opportunities.

Keeping it Real

Competitive benchmarking is a common first step for a company looking to expand, but the lack of widespread industry adoption of virtual reality renders things more challenging. Although some general survey data is available (62% of German respondents would consider it for holiday planning), businesses should consider using data on augmented reality as a substitute. As a more common technology, it can be used with forecasting tools to gauge possible outcomes, such as IKEA Place.

After establishing some potential markets, businesses looking to determine future profitability more accurately should conduct trials to identify and address possible issues. For example, a poor approximation of reality could undersell an experience and undermine initial uptake, while an embellished version could oversell it and impinge on loyalty. Other more practical concerns might involve the very real concerns over virtual motion sickness and age minimums. The Oculus Rift, Samsung's Gear VR and Sony’s PlayStation VR have recommended age minimums of 12 to 13 years.

A Virtual Means to an End

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of virtual reality is that once adopted, the technology itself can open up further possibilities for testing. The idea of using simulated environments to study how best to manage and guide tourists in specific locations and situations is not new, and it is already being applied in urban planning to obtain valuable public input on the impact of development projects.

Instead of using virtual technology to entice customers or enhance experiences, such an approach focuses on improving products and services in the real word, regardless of any virtual engagement. Fortunately, these two applications need not be mutually exclusive. Effectively combining them both through a careful application of data analytics will be a key differentiator of success in upcoming years.

Ask James Carroll

Questions on this article? Reach out to James Carroll to learn more about Mastercard’s Labs as a Service virtual reality solutions.

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