For decades, virtual reality was a consistent presence in science fiction. Blockbusters like Total Recall, The Lawnmower Man, and The Matrix all explore what life may be like once virtual reality becomes, well, a reality.
While the technology may not yet have caught up with the imaginations of science fiction’s greatest minds, it’s come a lot further than most people know. Case in point: virtual reality travel.
What Is Virtual Reality Travel?
Virtual reality travel is exactly what it sounds like. It refers to technology that allows users to explore another point on the planet without ever leaving their current location.
Imagine connecting to a virtual travel system somewhere in America and suddenly being able to walk across the frozen landscape of Antarctica or stroll the beaches of Bali. As a VR tourist, you can have these experiences from the comfort of your living room without the hours upon hours of travel time or the need to pack your bags. The moment you disconnect from your virtual travel system, you’d be back in your own home, ready to head to work or make dinner for your family.
Is Virtual Reality Travel Really Possible?
Does this sound too good to be true?
While we may not be at Matrix-esque levels quite yet, virtual reality travel is already an actual reality.
Here is just a small list of apps that already offer some version of a VR tourist services to the public:
- Realities – This virtual reality app lets users explore a number of different destinations all over the planet, including the Cologne Cathedral – one of the largest in the world – and the Staufer Castle, which still stands after 800 years. You can even experience the inside of a prison cell at Alcatraz.
- Everest VR – If risking life and limb to reach the summit of the world’s tallest mountain doesn’t sound appealing, don’t worry. Everest VR will let you take the trip – including realistic and interactive mountain-climbing features – while enjoying the comfort of central heating. Five different settings exist, spanning from the beginning of your expedition on basecamp to your shining moment on the summit.
- The VR Museum of Fine Art – This app is a good example of how virtual reality travel doesn’t actually have to correspond exactly to objective reality. If you’re a fan of art but don’t want to spend the money it would take to travel the globe and see every major work, this app has collected some of the most popular pieces in one “museum.” While the collection is regularly updated, it currently features scale recreations of the David, the Mona Lisa, and many more.
There is no foreseeable end to the list of virtual reality travel apps heading their way to the market. Again, this is a very small sample of what is currently available.
How Does Virtual Reality Travel Work?
Just like there are numerous apps to meet your VR tourist needs, there are a number of different ways this technology works.
This is important to understand because it means that some forms of virtual reality tourism are superior to others.
For example, the aforementioned Realities.io created their realistic settings by using a method known as photogrammetry. Simply put, it involves taking a large number of 2D photographs of entire environments and objects and then using them to recreate these spaces in 3D. As you can imagine, the combination process is a complicated one that requires tedious measurements and meshing in order to produce a realistic effect.
Check out the video below to get a sense for how realistic photogrammetry can make an environment. This is taken from Realities.io:
The company also uses a scanning technique called LiDAR and other versions, when necessary, to ensure they capture as many details as possible.
On the other hand, something like The Grand Canyon VR Experience offers a very different look, something much more akin to what you would expect from conventional video games. See for yourself:
As you probably guessed, photogrammetry was not used to create this Grand Canyon.
At the moment, the easiest way for anyone to experience virtual reality travel for themselves is with VR headsets. Right now, the most popular options are:
Not all virtual reality travel apps are supported by each of these, though. So it’s worth doing some research before making a purchase.
What Does the Future of Virtual Reality Tourism Look Like?
Keep in mind that virtual reality tourism doesn’t need to be limited by the confines of our planet, either. Apps already exist that allow users to travel the solar system. However, given our recent exploration of Mars, it’s probably safe to assume that some version of photogrammetry will allow people to “visit” the Red Planet long before anyone ever actually steps foot on it. Someday, there will be no limit to where virtual reality tourism can take us.