Gordon Meyer, director of virtual reality (VR) company YouVisit, will tell you that travel is the ideal space for the technology to make an impact because it provides a visual medium to showcase destinations and experiences that is far more vivid and experiential than flat, two-dimensional media.
"The pairing of travel and VR just makes so much sense," he said. "It's a perfect-use case for VR."
The industry is taking note and beginning to test VR programs. For example, Meyer's company has worked with several destinations to create VR content, and Ascape, another VR company, is also working with travel brands, providing virtual tours of destinations for companies like JetBlue.
VR is in the early stages of making its way into the agency space, as well. Ascape recently partnered with Thomas Cook, curating a collection of VR tours for the agency, and Virtuoso has begun a limited beta test, placing high-end headsets in some member agencies.
"It's an evolution of marketing platforms," said Tony Corneto, Virtuoso's director of user experience. "You started with books, and then you moved to photographs, and then you moved to video, and then you're now moving to VR. It has the potential, depending on who you talk to about this, to have quite a sea change in terms of engaging people in all different ways, whether it's in-agency or with the motion picture industry or whatever the case may be. I think there's a lot of opportunities to inspire people."
VR was one of the topics Sabre Labs, the GDS's travel and technology innovation lab, covered in its 2017 Emerging Technology in Travel report.
Sabre Labs found three uses for VR specifically relating to travel agencies: An inspirational shopping tool for clients, a product training tool for agents and an opportunity to advertise alongside VR content that is either directly or indirectly related to travel.
"This idea for brick-and-mortar agencies to provide an inspirational experience, we see a lot of content in that realm right now," said Mark McSpadden, head of Sabre Labs. As an example, McSpadden said, a good deal of content from YouVisit is for travel inspiration. Overall, however, he admitted that VR content is "spotty right now."
"What you couldn't do is say, 'Yeah, we've got VR content that covers our top 50 destinations.' I don't think that you could do that at this point," he said. "What you could do is say, 'We've got VR content on these destinations.'"
McSpadden said most VR content focuses on more obscure locations and is professionally produced. But lower-cost cameras that enable users to generate their own VR videos are becoming more common and affordable (many are in the $300 range), which could make it feasible for users to create their own VR content in the future.
Even so, McSpadden said, professionally produced content is better quality. He likened user-generated VR to the "home video realm right now."
VR is becoming more prevalent in the consumer space. A Google VR short film recently became the first virtual reality production to be nominated for an Academy Award.
Headsets are also coming down in price, with some that use a mobile phone to power VR experiences retailing for less than $100, including the Samsung Gear VR. In fact, Digi-Capital, a technology consulting firm, predicts that mobile VR will be the primary driver in the VR and augmented reality market.
But some travel groups, including Virtuoso, are banking on agencies using higher-end headsets like the Oculus Rift ($600) and HTC Vive ($799) to differentiate their VR offerings and draw in clients.
When purchased with accessories like handsets, those higher-end systems retail for nearly $1,000. They also require higher-powered computers to operate.
Virtual reality company YouVisit has created content for several travel companies and destinations, such as this view of Machu Picchu in Peru. Photo Credit: YouVisit
However, McSpadden said there is a quality difference between the lower-end headsets, most of which use smartphones as their visual platforms, and the higher-end headsets, which are tethered to game machines or other computers.
"The mobile headsets are good," McSpadden said. "They don't feel perfect, but they feel good. The tethered headsets feel real. While the mobile ones may be more convenient for an agency setup and provide that right level of 'I'm going to give you a glimpse of this place,' if you want to really create an immersive experience, the tethered ones provide a significant benefit over the mobile headsets."
Using a better VR system is a differentiating factor for Virtuoso, Corneto said.
"You have one opportunity with someone trying it for the first time, and if they have a poor experience, whether it makes them dizzy or nauseous or whether the content is blurry, you've lost them," he said. "We want to make sure that the experiences that Virtuoso provides are as good as they can be."
Virtuoso's pilot program involves placing the Oculus Rift in some member agencies as a platform for inspirational shopping. Corneto said the company is also considering using VR for agent training. Content will be curated from preferred suppliers, tourism boards and even potential partnerships between Virtuoso and VR studios.
"Our idea -- initially, at least -- is sort of a mixed model of internal and external production," Corneto said.
A test of VR video and equipment at Virtuoso Travel Week generated good feedback from agents, he said, and they were enthusiastic about using VR with their own clients and as an agent-training tool.
Scott Largay, director of marketing at Virtuoso member Largay Travel, said the agency has been working to develop an app filled with VR content that its agents can share with clients around the country, particularly at events like bridal shows. Largay is also working on developing VR as a training tool for agents.
Largay Travel and Virtuoso are collaborating on their VR initiatives. While the agency is currently using only the Oculus Rift headset, Largay said he is considering other platforms, including less-expensive ones that might be more accessible.
"I really do think it's the next biggest sales tool for travel," Largay said. "I really think that if done right and put in the right environments, it really can be just an amazing sales tool for our advisers."