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12/12/2014
09:06 AM
David Wagner
David Wagner
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Geekend: Oculus Rift Tourism

The tourism industry hopes to lure us with virtual reality previews of destinations viewed with the Oculus Rift and other VR headsets. Will it backfire?



Been there. Done that. Check it off the bucket list. I just spent three minutes looking at British Columbia through the Oculus Rift and that's all I need. No need for a plane ticket. I saw the whole thing through a helmet (well, a preview of what I'll see through the Oculus Rift virtual reality helmet, available next summer). That's way more efficient than flying, right?

Canada sure hopes you don't think that way. It's hoping it will give you just enough tease of the real thing to make you want to come visit. Destination British Columbia has started marketing travel to BC via the Oculus Rift. It thinks a journey through the Great Bear Rainforest via VR helmet is going to make you want to see the real thing. The device lets you choose your own path where you can travel through different parts of the rainforest based on what you look at. Here's a video of it:

The whole thing was shot with GoPro cameras, so the technology is pretty easy, and the experience looks pretty real even on a YouTube video. Presumably, via a VR helmet it will be even nicer. But what if it is too nice?

The funny thing about virtual reality marketing is that virtual reality is supposed to replace, augment, or at least mimic plain old, real reality. How good does it have to be to make us feel like we saw the real thing? Could a video designed to make us want to see something make us feel like we already saw it?

[Do you check your smartphone first thing in the morning? Read Americans 'Obsessed' With Their Devices.]

You might be skeptical at this point. Seeing a documentary on the Grand Canyon doesn't make you feel like you've seen the Grand Canyon. You don't feel like you gambled in Vegas because you played blackjack on your phone. Heck, there's even been a really immersive nine-screen movie about Canada in Disney World's Epcot for decades (see below). To my knowledge it hasn't made people decide Canada was off their bucket lists. Skip the first minute to get to the movie:

So why the fuss? Next year's hot Christmas item is going to be the VR helmet. And by next year, I won't be sharing YouTube videos on this site anymore, but VR videos instead. And it won't take long for those videos to get really good. Sure, at first they're going to have all the quality of a grumpy cat video. But eventually, we're going to be making GoPro-style cameras that shoot specifically for VR. And the quality will be increasingly lifelike.

Fans of Star Trek know exactly what can happen to people who get immersed in VR.

You end up imagining a sword fight with your boss.

So if VR gets any less virtual and any more real, maybe a VR trip to the rainforest is just as good as the real thing. I know there are certain real places that are hard enough to get to I might just as soon see them through virtual reality.

If I were getting a VR helmet for Christmas next year, the first places I'd put on my list to visit virtually would be places like the Amazon. All the beauty, none of the piranha. I think I'd really love to see the Taj Mahal. Don't know if I could handle the plane trip. The Grand Canyon was amazing but the last time I went, I almost died of dehydration. No one told me how darned hot it would be.

Sure, until we have a holodeck, nothing will copy the smells in the air, the feeling of the breeze, the warm touch of sand on a tropical beach. But part of a good thing is better than nothing. I really like the use of VR for marketing tourism right now. But in a few years, in a decade, maybe a little longer, I wonder if it won't be giving away the product for free.

What do you think? Will VR replace the real thing? If it could, what would you most want to see virtually? What's your own bucket list of VR destinations? Tell us in the Comments section.

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David has been writing on business and technology for over 10 years and was most recently Managing Editor at Enterpriseefficiency.com. Before that he was an Assistant Editor at MIT Sloan Management Review, where he covered a wide range of business topics including IT, ... View Full Bio
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