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

File 20190304 110119 1uwzd7h.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
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.

Read more:
How Virtual Reality is giving the world’s roller coasters a new twist

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.

Virtual reality brings new dimension to conservation

Ivy Shih, The Conversation

Virtual reality technology is introducing a new dimension to wildlife conservation by helping researchers anywhere in the world assess the conditions of distant species and environments as if they were on location.

The first application has been to better understand the environment of endangered jaguars living in the Peruvian Amazon.

This information is being used to improve mathematical and statistical models that predict abundance and location of jaguars, as well as population trends and threats.

The approach also has applications in other regions of the world, such as protecting threatened regions of the Great Barrier Reef.

The eyes of researchers

The jaguar (Panthera onca) is currently classified as near threatened. But a lack of information on jaguar populations poses a barrier to conservation efforts.

So researchers from the Queensland University of Technology and the Lupunaluz Foundation recreated areas of the Amazon after painstakingly stitching together 360-degree video footage.

Virtual reality 360 footage of the Amazon captured during the expedition. Contains interactive content.

The footage will enable researchers and policy makers anywhere in the world to don a VR headset and experience the location as if they were there.

The study is unique by bringing together new virtual reality technology, local and international knowledge, and mathematical and statistical expertise, to form a strong predictive model of jaguar populations, behaviour and movement.

Professor Kerrie Mengersen, from the Queensland University of Technology, who led the expedition, said virtual reality enabled experts to enter an immersive environment so they could identify characteristics of areas where jaguars are likely to live.

“Because we can’t take these experts to these inaccessible places, how could we take these places to them?” she said.

The team filmed 360-degree video using multiple cameras, including six GoPro Hero 4 camreas, and sound recording devices. The technological set up was crucial to reconstruct the Amazon with the greatest degree of fidelity possible.

“We had a series of 360 degree camera systems, like hacked versions of GoPro used to capture video,” said Associate Professor Tomasz Bednarz, also from the Queensland University of Technology, who was instrumental in the set up of the project.

“We also had recording systems to capture the sounds of the environment from all directions.”

A 360-degree camera (left) and hardware used to capture footage of the Amazon
QUT ACEMS, Author provided

Mengersen told The Conversation that this method preserved more detailed information compared with computer generated virtual reality environments developed in a pilot study with rock wallabies in Australia.

“The experts needed to know about the type of rocks to make any judgements about habitat suitability for the wallabies, and it is that degree of small scale detail that was really hard to obtain in our computer generated environments,” Mengersen said.

“But immersive environments using 360-degree photos and video can give us that.”

The virtual reality footage from the Amazon enabled experts to identify tree species that jaguar would frequent or fruiting species that would attract their prey.

The information will be used by the Lupunaluz Foundation and the big cat charity Panthera to guide policy decisions and to help establish “jaguar corridors”. These are safe roads of passage between fragmented sections of the jaguar’s habitat.

Bringing the natural world to the people

Dr Megan Saunders, a marine ecologist in the Global Change Institute at the University of Queensland, said virtual reality technology could help engage the public with conservation issues.

“It has the potential to explain to people the importance of preserving the environment,” she said.

One similar project is the XL Catlin Seaview Survey, which uses 360-degree imaging to monitor coral reefs around the world in the form of high-resolution panoramic images, which are made available to the research community.

An image of the Great Barrier Reef capture by the XL Catlin SeaviewSurvey.
XL Catlin SeaviewSurvey

The most recent expedition was to Heron Island to survey the widespread coral bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef.

“These tools can bring the natural world to people,” Dr Saunders said. “Virtual reality has the potential to bring usually inaccessible areas to people who have the power to make decisions and achieve positive change.”

The Conversation

Ivy Shih, Editor, The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.