How to Go Anywhere (Even in a Pandemic)

“It was the done thing to travel at that age. The different stellar systems were spectacular but you could see just as good a view in virtual, and he still didn’t really understand what people saw in actually having been in any particular system.” These lines from Iain M. Banks’ The Player Of Games reflect what many futurists dream about – the age when VR is so immersive that physical travel is all but impractical. But until recently, virtual travel was the domain of enthusiasts. Still, the vision is increasingly becoming reality. 

Virtual reality (VR) technology has been steadily improving over the years, and travel is poised to become its “killer app”. Who wouldn’t want, at least sometimes, to skip airport queues, red-eye flights, tiny hotel rooms and just enjoy exploring new places? Yet, breakthrough technologies always take time to catch up with the imagination.

Take the VR Plunge
I’ve been experimenting with virtual travel since the first modern headsets hit the market. But after COVID-19 broke out and all international travel ceased, I came to really appreciate the power of VR. As someone who is used to jetting around, being stuck at home made me feel like a fish out of water. That’s when my high-fidelity Oculus headset came to the rescue! 

I started revisiting places I knew from the past but could no longer go to: New York, San Francisco, Bangkok, Barcelona, among others. Surprisingly, even though the experience was virtual, it created the feeling of presence and allowed me to “walk” through streets I missed. Encouraged, I started exploring cities that were on my to-do list – Venice, Osaka and New Orleans were the first stops on my digital journey around the world. 

Presence
I enjoyed walking virtual miles through these cities, learning their history, geography and architecture. And now I would even be comfortable to give a tour to someone visiting these places for the first time. While VR travel is a new and different experience, it can certainly provide a sense of wonder and adventure that we crave. And although VR may not be quite as “real” as experiencing a place with its crowds, sounds, smells and tastes – it works well for a quick run around the city and a glimpse of its landmarks (which is what many travellers limit themselves to anyway).

Travel Anywhere
Actually, I’m not alone in my virtual travels. Take the example of The Agoraphobic Traveller, Jacqui Kenny. Unable to physically travel because of her condition, Kenny realised her dream of exploring the world ­– with Google Street View. Recently, iconic travel magazine National Geographic launched exciting guided VR tours around the world. VR venues are also drawing ever larger crowds to concerts, shows and education events. 

The COVID-19 situation has accelerated technological trends and the adoption of new habits and behaviours. Hence, while VR travel is not yet at the level experienced by Iain M. Banks’ spacefaring protagonists, we can already participate in that promised future – now.

First published in the IT Society Magazine from the Singapore Computer Society