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Travel the World in Immersive VR

Few verticals seem more suited for virtual reality than travel. From allowing potential guests to tour hotels and lodges before deciding to book to letting them see the sights before they’ve even started planning a trip, VR is a natural fit. But the travel industry shouldn’t rest on its laurels when it comes to making great content — rather, it should continue to innovate and push the boundaries of what can be done in VR.

Airlines have embraced VR and produced glossy, big budget pieces — most notably, Etihad’s lavish experience with Nicole Kidman, which allows viewers to travel with her on a flight from New York to Abu Dhabi and explore the features of the aircraft. United partnered with Matt Damon to create a piece that lets viewers see new business class features, and Quantas has actually started distributing headsets, preloaded with their own and other experiences, inside certain cabins.

As fun and shiny as these experiences are, they are definitely geared towards a more affluent user — the average traveler will likely never set foot in the first class cabin of a major global airplane. They are also little more than glorified commercials — sexy, fun, commercials, but they’re not doing anything all that earth-shattering. You don’t need VR to know that business class on a Gulf airline will be pretty swanky.

But allowing people to experience what happens once they step off the airplane is where the real fun begins. There are virtual tours of many cities now available, and they range in quality and utility. Some seem to be straight marketing plays — a virtual helicopter tour of New York City is a fun taste of what someone can experience, but doesn’t really seek to replace the real thing. It’s not bad, necessarily, but you don’t actually feel like you’ve seen the city when you take off the headset — you just have an appetite to explore more.

Other travel experiences involve much richer storytelling and context. Last summer, National Geographic released a piece that interspersed footage of national parks with former President Obama visiting them and talking to rangers. The piece was immersive and well-produced, and viewers came away with a sensation of actually having been there. The downside was that the piece lacked any sort of user direction — you couldn’t skip over parts you found dull or choose to spend more time in parts you found interesting or beautiful. Still, it was a great look at what a travel documentary in VR could be.

So how can brands master the travel space in VR? For one, the more immersive and personal the experience, the better. Just wandering around a city has limited appeal — but if you walk around with a guide who addresses you and points things out, that makes it more personal and immersive. While 360 video limits the user’s ability to interact all that much, making sure that there are interesting things in all directions can set the experience apart from a simple flat video. And finally, the more the user can explore and direct their own experience, the better.