Could the evolution of technology render travel redundant? Bought by Facebook for $2 billion in March, the recently founded firm Oculus is developing virtual reality visors that will enable wearers to explore popular destinations and entirely new realms without leaving their homes.
Last night in London I used one of the company’s Oculus Rift devices to wander through a villa in Tuscany.
Many steps above the 3D glasses provided at your local Imax, Oculus Rift is a mask that completely envelopes the wearer's field of vision and screens computer-generated environments in place of his or her actual surroundings.
At the flick of a switch, I was transported from congested central London to a wooden-beamed Italian hideaway, with rolling hillsides and fluttering butterflies visible through old stone windows.
A request to see something different suddenly jolted me onto a rapidly looping rollercoaster and then, distressingly, off a skyscraper.
While the visuals I saw weren’t entirely convincing – they’re perhaps on par with the graphics generated by first-generation PlayStations and Xboxs – they’re improving rapidly and I really was able to get a feel for my temporary Tuscan surrounds.
Travel experts predict that we’ll be able to see precise replicas of the world’s most popular destinations within a decade.
But will that mean we’ll forgo the expense and time constraints of travelling to far-flung destinations, in favour of a virtual holiday from home?
Filip Filipov, head of B2B at the flight-comparision site Skyscanner, doesn’t think so: “Experiencing things as a human being will never be substituted.”
Instead he predicts the technology will be used to enable travellers considering trips abroad to “try before they buy”.
In practice that means we can “visit” a villa or hotel before we commit to booking a stay there; more ambitiously, we could see if the Great Barrier Reef really does pass muster before committing to a long flight, or have an amble through Machu Picchu to decide if the trek beforehand is worth it.
As the technology advances, touch sensors might also allow us to “feel” these new surroundings.
That’s not the only change in store. As part of a newly released report on the future of travel, Skyscanner has categorised the innovations that could revolutionise the way we travel in the next 10 years.
Some of the main changes we can expect are listed below:
Digital Travel Buddies
By 2024, we could have "digital travel buddies", virtual companions that use artificial intelligence (AI) to suggest and book trips tailor-made to our preferences.
Constantly connected to the web, our individual AI devices would have an innate understanding of our preferences and could have the face, voice or characteristics of a favourite personality to provide it with an attractive temperament.
Travel companies could rent out additional digital travel buddies as part of their holiday packages, allowing holidaymakers to have an expert guide or immediate assistance on hand should problems arise.
It seems Google Glass will look laughably dated in years to come. In the future, we may wear mobile devices so small they can be inserted into a contact lens.
Among other functions, the technology could translate foreign languages in an instant.
It could also be embedded into the body, with Skyscanner suggesting future travellers might track their children by chipping them in this way, or attaching a miniature camera to their bodies, so what they see and where they are can be monitored.
In 2024, voice- and gesture-controlled tools will be able to scan humans and read emotions, providing content likely to increase our levels of contentment or inspire us to buy a certain product.
If a device interprets your facial gestures as sad, for example, it will react with information designed to make you happy.
That in turn will affect the types of services it offers you and, for travellers, the kind of travel experiences search engines might suggest.
Whether these services are all in place by 2024 remains to be seen, but Martin Raymond of the Future Laboratory, the trend-forecasting agency that collaborated on research with Skyscanner, is confident that the travel industry will change beyond measure in the next 10 years.
“All of the technologies mentioned in the [Future of Travel report] are either real, being tested or undergoing prototype development.”
The Telegraph, London