Thursday, June 13, 2024
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The Agony and Ecstasy (and Nausea) of VR Tourism

The sheer icy cliff face looms high above me. I’m tired from lifting my ice picks above my head and sinking them over and over again into the Antarctic glacier. I look up. A long ways to go. I wish I was home. Luckily, I am home — I lift up my VR goggles and have a sip of tea before plunging back into the icy abyss.
Welcome to the confusing, impressive, and nauseating world of virtual-reality tourism, the stage for a big debate only likely to become even bigger in the years to come: Do we need to travel anywhere? Or can we do it all with a Wi-Fi connection and an open mind?
I’m one of the lucky ones. Meta (formerly known as Facebook) sent me its latest Quest 3 mixed reality headset, comprising the head-mounted face computer part and two controllers with buttons and triggers like you’d find on an Xbox or PlayStation gamepad, so I can try out the various VR tourism apps currently available. This means getting to grips with an entire language and landscape wholly unfamiliar to me as someone who tried VR once and nearly vomited all over himself from motion sickness.
In Antarctica, I am able to kayak through water, ricocheting off blocks of ice and seeing whales swimming beneath me. National Geographic Explore VR
As I’m sure you are, I’m someone who loves to travel; to hear a foreign conversation in a village café; to stand on top of a mountain and deeply inhale one’s achievement; to stand in awe of a local custom as it dances past you. As clinical neuropsychologist Paul Nussbaum tells Inverse, travel is fantastic for our minds “because it gets the brain firing: It has to problem-solve; it has to execute; it has to organize.” We receive delicious dopamine and oxytocin hits from travel, making it good for us on almost every conceivable metric.
What travel is not good for, of course, is the environment. One of the various silver linings of the pandemic was that the termination of almost all travel temporarily but enormously improved air quality. Because travel is so convenient today, we go through with it with little consideration of the environmental consequences — it’s a purchase of only several clicks, which isn’t dissimilar to buying some socks or ordering a burger. And, in part because of a growing middle class in places like India and China, the predictions for the amount of long-haul travel taking place in the coming years are “sky-high,” says Elke Dens, director of global programs at The Travel Foundation.
“ I spend what feels like 32 years in the app’s introductory living room.”
Here’s where VR travel could step in, according to its advocates. Might VR be able to keep people at home, “experiencing” a plethora of exotic destinations without contributing to carbon emissions? “It’s a story the airline industry does not want to hear, of course,” says Dens. But if the technology is up to the challenge, perhaps it might radically overhaul the tourism industry — hey, maybe the world — as we know it.
So how is the technology? Well…
The first thing you must never forget about crossing over into the magical world of VR is that you have to wear massive goggles on your head. The Quest 3 headset was painfully apparent throughout all of my experiences, and it never allowed me to fully relax. It weighs 515 grams (or a little more than 1 pound), and it’s fantastically irritating. National Geographic’s Explore VR ($9.99) is the first VR tourism app I try. I don’t know it at the time, but I’m about to enter a world of pain.
The author experiencing the wonders of VR tourism. Ralph Jones
In theory, it should be easy to use the National Geographic app, which promises excursions to either Machu Picchu or Antarctica. Like all of these VR tourism apps, however, so great is the desire to streamline and to make the environment all-encompassing that it can be impossible to work out how to do anything. I spend what feels like 32 years in the app’s introductory living room. For some reason, the app wants me to take photos. I spend about two months trying to pick up the camera (with absolutely no help from my cheerful guide) and am filled with a kind of fiery loathing. Eventually, I work out how to take photos… and they’re all of the floor. As I continue on my various trips around the world, this will remain a mystery: Why would anyone want to take photos of a digital holiday? Who would ever look at them?
Finally, I get to Machu Picchu, where a guide called Jose talks me through some of the history. While the technology rendering the landscape is extraordinarily impressive, the experience is not. You can do nothing but plod aimlessly around, bumping into walls. Crucial to a traveler’s experience of a real location are a multitude of senses, says Dens. “The disadvantage [of VR] is that it’s not as good as the travel experience yet because it’s very visual, and it needs to tap into all these senses.” Michael Bennett, co-founder of bespoke travel agency Explorer X, points out that the two most crucial senses when it comes to memory are smell and taste. Boasting neither of these, the tourism apps on the Quest 3 are always likely to pale in comparison with the real thing.
National Geographic’s VR app really wants you to take photos of your virtual travels. PREV NEXT Info 1 / 7 PREV NEXT
Before I can go from Machu Picchu to Antarctica, I’m stuck in a kind of purgatory back in the original living room, where not only am I forced to stare at the awful floor photos I took earlier, unable to move away from the spot I’m in, but I become aware of a mysterious vibration that sounds like a phone. To this day, I do not understand what it was or what I was supposed to do about it. The colossal downside of the apps is their inability to simply and clearly tell you how you’re supposed to use them. Much as this whole hellish experience might simulate the rage of being stuck in a traffic jam in a far-flung land, I don’t suspect it was what National Geographic’s designers had in mind.
The gulf in quality between the Machu Picchu experience and the Antarctica experience is inexplicable. In Antarctica, I am able to kayak through water, ricocheting off blocks of ice and seeing whales swimming beneath me; I get out of the kayak and use ice picks to climb up a frozen cliff. This is what VR is able to achieve, I think. It is the interactivity that defines this entire experience.
“I can walk to the very edge of a crevasse and feel actual vertigo.”
“Why is it so powerful for people to be able to travel?” says Dens. “It is because of the interaction. And interaction could mean interacting with the environment there or interaction with other people — with local people. They need to build in all sorts of interactive possibilities.” And while the technology lets me down again — the ice picks become impossible to extricate from the ice, and I feel like I might have another breakdown — Antarctica is a glimpse of what could be. It feels like it was made by a different team, one that understands what tourists might want.
Not everyone comes to VR with the same background, of course. One group of people for whom the technology may be a godsend is the elderly. “I think about my mom, for example,” says Bennett. “She’s 70 years old; she’s got mobility issues; she would love to go and spend weeks walking about little villages in Italy, but she can’t.” While I see no evidence that VR could provide this exact experience — using Google Street View or tours like DiscoverLive would be more effective — it can help people with accessibility problems disappear into an immersive other world. And for the emotionally isolated, says Nussbaum, “This provides a therapeutic intervention. Even if you get a smaller dose of all the positivity that you get from physically traveling, that’s better than no dose.”
Brink Traveler offers a multiplayer mode that let’s you “travel” with friends. Brink Traveler
I have two apps left to try. The first is Brink Traveler ($14.99), which offers more locations than National Geographic but is more limited in interactivity. With a narrator who sounds like Jodie Foster, Brink Traveler plops you into a destination — locations include Landmannalaugar in Iceland and Horseshoe Bend in Colorado — and lets you look around panoramic views that wrap all around you. I can walk to the very edge of a crevasse and feel actual vertigo; on Lone Pine Peak, I can hear the mountain wind rushing past me. The problem is that’s the extent of what you can do in the app. In all of the locations, I can’t actually engage with the surroundings, speak to locals, or — of course — smell or taste anything. As ever, there is exasperatingly little aid. The designers seem to subscribe to the idea that helping people use the app would mean unnecessary confusion. If one of the promises of VR tourism is that it might give users a sense of a place before visiting it — or, better for the environment, negate the need to go there at all — Brink Traveler doesn’t deliver. You see a beautiful landscape but feel no connection to the location.
Horseshoe Bend, Lone Pine Peak, and other destinations in Brink Traveler. PREV NEXT Info 1 / 9 PREV NEXT
It is left to an app called Othersight ($17.99), then, to remind us of some of the potential for VR to allow the user to experience real destinations. Among the several locations are the backstreets of Tokyo, in which a Japanese guide — translated by a voiceover — tells you about the area. There is also Havana, where a Cuban mechanic talks to me, for some reason in great detail, about a car he’s fixing. The benefit is that the app deliberately gives you an unsanitized version of the area. The downside is that, despite not moving from my sofa, I feel nauseated because my walking through the city didn’t match the movement of my real body. This isn’t uncommon for VR users, but I am particularly VR-sick and consider it a huge hindrance. If you don’t feel sick walking through the real streets of Tokyo, why use a technology where you do?
The other curiosity is the way the locations were designed. In Havana, the street is completely empty. Why? The designers also seem to think that what you really want to do in a VR foreign country is pick up a shirt hanging up on the side of the road and waggle it about. When I pick up a hammer and try to hit the car with it — a natural human impulse — it slides through like water. While I hate to encourage vandalism, this is the opposite of an interactive experience and makes the destinations feel more like museums.
OtherSight lets you visit Tokyo an Havana with a tour guide, but interaction is limited. PREV NEXT Info 1 / 6 PREV NEXT
Neurologically, Nussbaum says, there won’t be a huge difference between a holiday in VR and a holiday in real life. “The brain’s not going to say, ‘This is virtual reality; this is not virtual reality.’ It’s going to say, ‘This is what my body’s experiencing because I’m processing this.’” But the brain is aware that your body hasn’t left the room, and part of the psychological benefit of vacations, says Nussbaum, is the knowledge that you are leaving behind the baggage that is with you at home.
For this reason and more, it is impossible to see VR travel being a remote threat to the tourism industry any time soon. When Bennett says “I don’t want people to think about those virtual reality experiences as a replacement for actually being there,” he has nothing to worry about — as things currently stand, there is zero risk of this. The TripVision app in the much-publicized Apple Vision Pro may up the stakes a little, but its promise of “a unique and immersive experience of popular destinations worldwide” sounds like the promises of the underwhelming apps I tried with the Meta Quest 3.
So, until there is the demand for VR tourism that there is for VR gaming, it’s hard to see exactly why you’d put on a heavy headset to hear a Cuban mechanic talking to you about the logistics of getting an old car part. There are opportunities galore here, but at the moment, the reality leaves you wanting less virtual reality and more actual reality.



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