Yes we laughed, “No one is going to walk down the street talking on one of those contraptions” when Motorola’s Martin Cooper appeared on stage back in 1983 with his DynaTAC – one of the first ever commercial ‘portablecellular phones’. 2 billion smartphone users later and those laughs can no longer be heard over the sound of millions and millions of ringtones, text alerts and app notifications.
We were reminded of this moment last month in that now infamous picture of Mark Zuckerberg striding past the VR ‘headsetted’ audience at Mobile World Congress a few weeks ago to discuss his prediction that Virtual Reality (VR) Technology will be the “the next platform” in social experience. While his announcement was met with a lot of excitement, like Cooper’s address in 1983, there was some skepticism. This raises the question, will history repeat itself and will Zuckerberg’s prediction on VR hold true?
If history has taught us anything, it is that being an early adopter of new technology is not easy and can sometimes be difficult and socially isolating as I experienced as one of the eager tech aficionados (read ‘mobile obsessed’) that bought a Neptune Pine back in January 2014. But two years later, smartwatch sales continue to soar, estimated to reach 68 million by the end of the year. With the imminent launch of Apple Watch 2 next month (TBC), smartwatches are no longer seen as a passing fad but rather a requirement of the future.
New technologies and innovations are often met with derision in their early phases but as they mature and demonstrate the value they bring to everyday life and interactions, early scepticism fades away…well except for the Neptune Pine, that is still met with derision.
In our 10th anniversary blog last December, we said:
“The way we communicate and engage with the world around us is becoming more visual than ever before. In mobile this means that consumers increasingly will expect to see and be allowed to preview experiences before making that engagement and purchasing decision”
So what does the virtual future of travel look like? Well, before we look ahead to the future, let’s first look back at some brave early adopters of virtual reality (VR) technology in travel.
Marriott led the way in 2014 with its ‘Travel Brilliantly’ campaign when it allowed guests to experience virtual honeymoons. Using VR, guests could transport from London to Maui in Haiwaii in 90 seconds.
Image source: Youtube.com
And this Teleporter contraption started the trend for hyperbole quotes around the technology such as,
“It very well might be the future of travel”.
Image source: bbc.co.uk
In the airline world, it was Qantas and Emirates who moved into this space a few years ago before anyone else was even thinking about it. Virtual services on offer by these airlines included everything from a VR tour of the aircraft and first class suites to immersive destination guides and movies.
Finally, Thomas Cook made sure the OTAs were not left out when it came to virtual reality holidays with their roll out of VR concept stores last year. Plus they continued the trend for hyperbolic quotes:
“In the future, people might take ‘virtual holidays’ – experiences so deep and immersive that there is no need to leave home.”
Image source: Marketingweek.com
But alongside the hyperbole, Thomas Cook shared cold hard numbers too. “Over three months, the revenue for New York excursions was up by 190%, and flight and hotel bookings went up by £12,000 ($17,500) from people making a purchase after the using the Samsung Gear in these stores”.
With impressive figures like that, it is not surprising that interest in VR from other travel brands have surged.
Late last year Virgin Atlantic teamed up with Microsoft to bring ‘IDA’ (it wouldn’t be travel without another 3 letter code to learn). IDA is an ‘Immersive Digital Experience’ that uses VR to sell Virgin Atlantic’s upper class experience to those customers that have not yet bought a ticket.
Image source: Youtube.com
There are some travel brands that are really pushing the boundaries when it comes to VR – moving beyond the ‘try before you fly’ and ‘preview our cabins’ mind-set.
XL Airways France announced last month that they would become the first airline in the world to offer ‘SkyTheater’, an immersive 2D and 3D cinema experience delivered via a wearable headset. The new VR technology was created by French start-up Skylights and while XL is confirmed as the first adopter, it has been reported that 4 major airlines based in Europe and the Middle East will shortly follow. Old school ‘back of the seat’ IFE suppliers should start getting very worried now if they are not already.
If the idea of immersive headsets sounds a bit insular and lonely, then soon you will be able to go ‘virtually’ anywhere you want with your friends and family too. Companies such as AltspaceVR offer a new world of social VR where you can all ‘hang out’ separately, in different rooms or timezones but all together in a destination thousands of miles away. My head hurts just thinking about that future!
So where exactly is this virtual future heading for travel? Are we moving towards a time as Thomas Cook predicted, where you will be able to sit on your bed in Doncaster and be transported to the Great Wall Of China or take a helicopter tour of the Grand Canyon during your lunch break in Cork? The truth is that VR technology is still so new that everyone (including travel brands) are testing the waters with how they use it. However as new hardware such as HTC’s Hive, Oculus, Hololens, MagicLeap, Samsung’s Gear VR andPlayStation VR among others continue to flood the market and with predictions that the VR market will be worth $150 Billion by 2020, it is clear that VR is no longer a trend just worth watching, but rather something that will also transform the wider digital travel experience and strategies of airlines and travel companies.
While I agree that this new mobile revolution of VR, Augmented Reality (AR), avatars in virtual spaces and immersive destination experiences need some time before the wider travel population is convinced and engaged with these technologies (a development that is not helped by the verbose hyperbole in quotes featured earlier). However, let me leave you with the words of the person in the right hand picture of the tweet at the beginning of this post:
“Virtual reality was once the dream of science fiction. But the internet was also once a dream, and so were computers and smartphones”
We are already seeing early examples of how virtual reality can be used in travel. This is only the beginning as airlines and travel companies continue to explore how VR can be integrated into their wider digital strategies and can be leveraged to drive engagement and increase revenues.
To me it is clear – virtual reality will become a reality of the future. It is just a matter of time. Just like Cooper’s prediction in ’83 about the rise of mobile and my early adoption of the Neptune Pine.
If you would like to discuss any of the topics discussed in the blog or to have a wider discussion about your mobile strategy please contact us here.
 Gartner, February 2016 ‘Gartner Says Worldwide Wearable Devices Sales to Grow 18.4 Percent in 2016′
 Digiday, January 2016, http://digiday.com/brands/well-take-travel-brands-using-virtual-reality/
 Techcrunch, April 2015, http://techcrunch.com/2015/04/06/augmented-and-virtual-reality-to-hit-15...
 Facebook, March 2014, https://www.facebook.com/zuck/posts/10101319050523971