Welcome To The Age Of Digital Exploration

Technology – your free pass to the entire world

The world is a book, wrote St Augustine in the fourth century, and those who do not travel read only a page. Whether or not the philosopher actually penned this dictum, the message rings true. With so much of the world to see, travel has become a popular pursuit. But what if you can’t travel, for whatever reason? Thanks to disruptive technology and the expansion of the digital sphere, learning about the world we live in (and worlds that we don’t) has never been easier. But what does this mean for travel and tourism?

Try before you fly

For the past couple of years, Jacqui Kenny, also known as the Agoraphobic Traveller, has traversed the globe taking photographs of interesting scenes. But, thanks to Google Street View, she doesn’t experience the anxiety and fear she normally finds is brought on by open, unfamiliar spaces. Kenny, like most of the digitally literate world, one way or another, is a virtual explorer. Combined with rapid improvements in visualisation tech like Virtual and Augmented Reality, developers can build a coherent picture of environments that would otherwise be left to the imagination. One of Virtual Reality’s greatest selling points is its ability to take people to remote locations.

Thomas Cook took advantage of this through their virtual holiday app, offering customers the next best thing to ‘try before you buy’ for vacations. But as well as turning the pages of Augustine’s global book, virtual explorers can be time travellers, too. In China, Baidu’s web encyclopedia Baidu Baike hosts over 230 digital museums and heritage sites which can be viewed for free. It’s all part of a push to both preserve and publicise China’s cultural heritage, giving access to prohibited areas (like the aptly named Forbidden City) while protecting them from the trudge of the tourist. Augmented Reality is also enhancing the experience of physical visitors to sites like the Terracotta Army but revealing bonus information about artefacts. The end goal is to set up an open platform where any museum or cultural attraction can upload content. Of course, if China wants to reach as many people as possible, the country might have to reconsider its internet policy.

Looking forward while looking back

Virtual travel, be it in the present, past or even in an alternate reality, is massively interesting and potentially disruptive. In travel and tourism, virtual content could entice potential visitors, provide a ‘try before you fly’ service, and preserve and popularise cultural heritage. Virtual experiences, while often criticised as insular, also offer an aspect of personalisation that can be easily lost in a bustling museum.

Although there are considerable potential benefits, virtual travel is a two sided coin. In many respects it presents an opportunity to tease an experience, which could drive sales. This is exactly what Thomas Cook aimed to do with their virtual holiday app. But at the same time, high quality virtual experiences could be detrimental to existing models. Why pay for a plane ticket, a hotel, transportation and a long list of other expenses if the virtual experience is in any way preferable to visiting the real location? This, in turn, will have an impact on transportation. If fewer people choose to physically fly to destinations, then the price of flight tickets will increase. Outside of travel, visualisation technology is already impacting education by bringing subjects like geography and history to life. This is as much the case outside of the classroom as within it. Virtual travel could even be used in medical facilities to give patients an escape from what can often become mundane routines.

It’s difficult to imagine that virtual tourism could ever replace real life experiences however the possibilities presented by these technologies are likely to enable new markets. Through Virtual Reality, it’s possible for almost anyone to see the world. While this could damage the revenues of traditional travel and tourism, it’s equally that case that ‘try before you fly’ services are an invaluable way to make sure the consumer gets exactly what they want. They could even stir an interest that the viewer didn’t have prior to digital exploration. As much as virtual travel helps people to daydream about places that they could go, it can also create unique digital environments that no longer, or simple couldn’t, exist in the real world. Where will technology take us next?

Can digital exploration provide a feasible alternative to physical travel? Which other industries could be disrupted by virtual travel? Will we see the growth of a digital travel industry? Share your thoughts.

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