Virtual reality adds to tourism through touch, smell and real people’s experiences

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Virtual reality can bring historical sites to life.

Erik Malcolm Champion, Curtin University

Back in 2001, an acquaintance who worked for Lonely Planet told me about a surprise discovery. The travel guide business had an audience of people who would buy their travel books, but never travel. Lonely Planet dubbed them “virtual tourists”.

Now Lonely Planet, and others, have become excited by tourism powered by virtual reality (VR) – both on this planet and, thanks to NASA, on others.

VR films are also being developed by travel companies, such as Thomas Cook. And Tourism Australia has partnered with Google to understand the marketing potential of VR (well, 360 degree panoramic videos).

But VR tourism isn’t only about recreating a virtual version of reality that renders travel to the destination unnecessary. It can enhance tourism in other ways – by allowing tourists to handle precious historical artefacts in virtual form, or by retelling contested histories from previously unexplored perspectives.

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What is virtual tourism?

In contrast to Lonely Planet’s definition, let’s consider virtual tourism to be the application of virtual reality – including augmented reality (AR) and mixed reality (MR) – to tourism.

The term virtual reality is most commonly used to describe what happens when you are completely immersed in a virtual environment you can see through a headset. Enhanced forms of virtual reality allow you to interact with that environment using extra equipment, such as gloves fitted with sensors.

Virtual reality is also used as a catch-all term to describe the overall spectrum of digitally mediated reality, which includes virtual reality, as well as mixed reality and augmented reality.

Augmented reality and mixed reality are computer-generated visualisations that augment our sense of the real world around us or merge the real and virtual together. You still wear a headset, but rather than blocking out the world, an AR or MR headset enables you to see visualisations within your real world surroundings.

PhD student Mafkereseb Bekele demonstrates a digital underwater landscape augmented over the real world as it would appear through a Microsoft Hololens headset.
Author provided

Augmented reality and mixed reality is usually visual, but you can now get audio augmented reality, that will play audio recordings through special glasses about sites you’re looking at. There is even olfactory-augmented reality that can enhance your experience with smell.

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Moving beyond realism

Virtual reality can be more than a mirror that gives you a realistic interactive simulation of the current world: it can bring the past into the present.

As Sir David Attenborough has noted:

The one thing that really frustrates you in a museum is when you see something really fascinating, you don’t want to be separated from it by glass. You want to be able to look at it and see the back of it and turn it around and so on.

The London Natural History Museum’s app Hold the World gives users a chance to move and manipulate virtual objects that are fragile, expensive or remote.

Virtual tourism is also breathing new life into mythology and folklore. In Denmark, there are plans to turn a virtual reality exhibition exploring Viking history and Norse mythology into a permanent theme park. Visitors will be able to fight giants and dragons, and explore a complete “Nordic” landscape.

Virtual tourism can allow people to hear fresh interpretations of history. For example, the augmented reality app Dilly Bag connects users with the stories of Indigenous Australian servicemen via a smartphone.

Stories can be told from the perspective of flying animals, or provide thrills and spills that appear more dangerous, immediate and visceral than the real thing (see this VR rollercoaster theme park in China).

Whether virtual tourism proves to be only a pale imitation of the real thing depends on how imaginative we are.

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How common is virtual tourism?

Given the expense and complexity of virtual reality, augmented reality and mixed reality arguably have more potential for virtual tourism.

Wi-Fi, which is required for many virtual tourism experiences, is now commonplace, and many people do have their own devices. But content must be tailored to specific devices – smartphones can overheat from processing so much data, and the size of tablets can make them unwieldy.

The number of exciting technological showcases is matched by the number of failed or broken equipment and deserted VR centres. Hyped promises proliferate – apparently every year is the year that VR, AR and MR will break though.

Yet any VR software and hardware currently full of promise seems to get old very, very, quickly. If we are to move past one-hit AR wonders such as Pokémon Go, we need scalable yet engaging content, stable tools, appropriate evaluation research and robust infrastructure.

Formats such as WebVR and Web XR promise to supply content across both desktops and head mounted displays, without having to download plugins.

But before we see virtual tourism become widespread, we need to change our preconceptions about what virtual reality is. Let’s not limit VR experiences to recreations of the real world, instead let’s open our minds to history, mythology and fresh perspectives from real people.The Conversation

Erik Malcolm Champion, UNESCO Chair of Cultural Heritage and Visualisation, Curtin University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


The firewood banksia is bursting with beauty

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Gnangarra via Wikipedia, CC BY-ND

Rachel Standish, Murdoch University and Lauren Svejcar, Murdoch University

Sign up to Beating Around the Bush, a series that profiles native plants: part gardening column, part dispatches from country, entirely Australian.

Firewood banksia is rugged and yet stunning. Short, stout and gnarled, it is often ignored by tree lovers. Indeed, it was commonly cut down and used as firewood in the early days of the Swan River Colony in modern-day Western Australia.

However, the flower spikes are stunning – showy and vibrant, dark pink-red in colour that becomes mixed with yellow as they open – and set against a backdrop of elegant twisted grey-green leaves. Each spike is composed of up to 6,000 individual flowers, and yet only a few become filled with seeds.

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The “cones” (these are not true cones like pine cones) are magnificent too – velvety chocolate brown, impressive in their woodiness, and expressive as the mouth-like follicles open to release their seeds. Symmetrical by turn and then messy by another turn, no other banksia species looks quite like it.

The Conversation

We admire firewood banksia for functional reasons too. Life on Western Australia’s sandplains is tough, especially in the heat of the summer. One of us (Lauren) knows this all too well, having spent hours on her hands and knees counting banksia seedlings for her PhD research.

Large seeds provide the seedlings with resources to grow exceptionally long roots to reach water deep in the sandy, nutrient-poor soils. It’s an adventure race for survival because roots need to tap the ground water before the arrival of the long, hot Perth summer.

Seedlings of a neighbouring banksia species, the slender banksia, can grow roots at a rate of up to 3.5cm per day!

The flower spikes begin as a dark pink-red and become red-yellow as they mature.
Photo by Lauren Svejcar

Uniquely Aussie

Banksia is a plant genus unique to Australia, named after the great botanical explorer Sir Joseph Banks. Banks travelled on the HMS Endeavour with James Cook on his first great voyage to the “unknown southern land”. The specimens Banks and his team collected formed the first scientific collections of Australian flora, now held at the Natural History Museum in London and the Royal Botanic Gardens in Sydney.

According to fossil records of pollen, leaves and cones, banksia species have grown in Australia for at least 60 million years making their lineage one of the oldest in Australia. Banksia have persisted through major climate shifts from wet to dry climates that occurred about 25 million years ago. Even the first banksia species were able to survive recurrent wildfire, owing to what botanist Alex George refers to as the “ruggedness” of their features. Banksia epitomise what it means to be Australian.

A woody ‘cone’ (infructescence) with seeds maturing inside swollen follicles. It is cheap for plants to produce wood in Australia because there’s plenty of sunlight, so why not offer your seeds total protection?
Photo Lauren Svejcar.

Some 20 years after Cook’s first voyage of the east coast came the discovery of the rich banksia flora on the south-west coast of Australia. Banksia grow in non-arid regions all over Australia, but most species grow only in Western Australia.

Surgeon-naturalist Archibald Menzies was the first explorer to see and sample the diversity of banksia species growing in the south-west near Albany. Our favourite banksia, the firewood banksia is named in his honour: Banksia menziesii.

Facing danger

While their experience of historic climate change and ruggedness may protect firewood banksia from Perth’s drying climate, ongoing habitat clearing makes them vulnerable to decline and has contributed to the banksia woodlands of the Swan Coastal Plain being listed as an endangered ecological community.

One of us (Rachel) played in banksia woodlands as a child, climbing the gnarly trucks of firewood banksia and collecting spent cones. Long before that, the Whadjuk Noongar collected flower spikes to make bush medicine. Having nature nearby is so important for people and for conservation. It is overwhelmingly sad that future generations of Perth may not be afforded this unique opportunity.

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Birds and insects love firewood banksia too. Birds are the primary pollinators of firewood banksia, no doubt attracted to the beautiful pollen-rich flowers. Interestingly, insects visit flowers more often than birds, but they are less effective pollinators.

Carnaby’s cockatoos feeding on firewood banksia.
Photo by Lauren Svejcar

The seeds are an important food source for the critically endangered Carnaby’s cockatoo. Hungry cockatoos often visit the firewood banksias that grow on our university campus in Perth’s southern suburbs. We count our lucky stars we get to watch while they squawk and feast, leaving when their tummies are so full that take-off is comical and there’s a mess of woody litter under the trees. It’s a blissful moment before the snarl of commuting traffic or the pull of work, connecting us to nature and to things bigger than ourselves.

Sign up to Beating Around the Bush, a series that profiles native plants: part gardening column, part dispatches from country, entirely Australian.. Read previous instalments here.The Conversation

Rachel Standish, Senior Lecturer in Ecology, Murdoch University and Lauren Svejcar, PhD Candidate, Murdoch University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.