Virtual reality will transform the way we buy and sell flights and hotel stays, writes Tony Donohoe
“Well, we didn’t have that in my day,” every parent has uttered at one time or another – usually when a bored child won’t look up from a screen – as if their youth belongs in a Dickens novel. But truth lies behind their tortured nostalgia. Take the World Wide Web for instance: a service that wasn’t publicly available until 1991. To say the advent of the internet remodelled the face of the travel industry is a gross understatement.
But, after that milestone, what’s next? With virtual reality (VR) devices coming to the market in 2016, could we see the face of travel change once more? How could business travel, in particular, evolve?
In a recent study, Expedia found that 42% of UK millennials agree that holiday photos posted by social media contacts influence their choice of destination. While there are a few conclusions we could draw from this statistic, the most conspicuous seems to be that a growing audience is yearning for more authentic, more immersive experiences. And why wouldn’t they? After all, the days of flipping through brick-like brochures are gone.
VR is the 21st-century travel brochure. Travel inspiration is now taken from real-time images and videos that pepper social media platforms and cradle the side of web pages. The response from the travel sector in light of these trends has been palpable. Earlier this year, United Airways partnered with a creative studio to create a 3D virtual tour of its swanky new business-class cabins, utilizing Oculus Rift headsets: VR devices that were purchased by Facebook for a cool $2bn. The 3D tours showed prospective customers a highly realistic example of the gate-to-boarding experience.
Allowing customers to explore their chosen seat, menu, gate, and even airport, gives the travel sector the opportunity to make VR an integral and effective part of the sales process. “Technology will also further enhance the travel inspiration and discovery phase,” says Gary Morrison, senior vice president and head of retail at Expedia Worldwide.
In other words, business travellers will be able to demand a highly customized experience tailored to first-hand – albeit virtual – observations.
Even affordable setups like the Google Cardboard viewing goggles (yours for around $15) offer a taste of what VR can offer. For newcomers, the VR experience is immersive and somewhat bewildering.
Even the disappointing launch of Google Glass demonstrates that technology is paving the way for augmented devices, allowing us to communicate, work and play from the same screen.
While we may be a little way fromhaving a universal device that works seamlessly – and doesn’t look ridiculous – it is possible that VR headsets could be used by businesses to aid customer experiences.
Just imagine: you kick back in the business lounge, strap on a VR headset and receive flight updates, texts, emails and notifications, all while you watch your favourite TV show. No rushing to find departure boards: just one chair and one headset with everything you need, pre-flight, to relax and stay connected. “The modern traveller wants a friction-free, mobile-led experience,” says Kevin May, senior editor at travel news website Tnooz.
As a business traveller, connectivity is key. With the help of VR, frequent flyers may have the opportunity to conference call, video chat or even attend meetings within virtual reality.
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Last year, Qantas became the first airline to offer an in-flight VR experience, adopting a Samsung headset: the Gear VR. The device allows passengers to browse products, watch films and preview destinations close up – the three-month trial gives passengers a taste of what we could look forward to in the near future.
If you are a frequent flyer, you’ll know all too well that once you’re in the air, it becomes a priority to catch up on work and rest. If the latter is your primary concern, expect to see airlines scrap the once revolutionary backseat screen and, instead, plump for VR devices that connect you with your personal video content. Platforms like Netflix are tipped to become an entertainment essential for luxury airliners, allowing passengers to continue watching their favourite shows. The quality and viability of this will depend on plane-makers being able to embed fast and frequent wifi connections aboard commercial aircraft.
Need to work on a PowerPoint presentation? Is there a meeting you should attend? Soon, VR will have the capability to host virtual spaces, where game-like avatars are used to talk to other people. It is an innovation from tech startup AltSpaceVR. Who knows: one day we may even see our own office desks replicated in 3D.
While Google’s driverless prototypes suggest that automated vehicles may be on the horizon, there are ways in which VR can help business travellers in the present.
One of these is executive car rental. Instead of relying on 2D web images or on-the-day browsing, VR could allow business travellers to ‘physically’ test out rental companies’ fleets. Want something spacious? Comfortable? Just strap on your goggles in the airport business lounge and browse a virtual supermarket of SUVs, saloons and
Cynical about the effectiveness of VR being used in sales? Enter Jaguar Land Rover. The British car giant is using VR to design and sell cars, allowing prospective customers to ‘experience’ a new vehicle and choose interior features. It says VR has been “incredibly successful for driving purchases”. Business travel will be the next sector to exploit the new technology.
— Tony Donohoe is chief technology officer at Expedia Inc
— For more information about VR and travel, read Expedia’s Holiday of the Future report