Virtual Reality Will Change Corporate Travel
What is virtual reality
Virtual reality (VR) is the next layer of the internet. A digital universe in which we can play, learn, explore, and interact. Except instead of the laws of physics or, you know, other humans getting in our way, we act in a world of 1s and 0s. A virtual world.
Virtual reality has been in discussion for most of the 20th century, but recent advances in hardware and software have led it to be a subject of intrigue and varying speculation. While it will have a major effect on most industries, we’re going to focus on how virtual reality will alter travel.
VR for business travel
As a business traveler, your reasons for booking trips are very different than the usual tourist. While traditional travelers get away to, erm, get away, business travel happens for different reasons. Pitching new clients, meeting investors, and collaborating with distributed teams are the three most popular reasons for travel, and cost small businesses almost 20% more than large companies.
And all this travel adds up, as small business spent more than $50b on travel in 2012. Virtual reality can, when performing at it’s best, minimize these costs and maximize efficiency. One of the most important VR tools will be interactivity. If done well, it can remove the need for a huge percentage of current travel.
As the Wall Street Journal reported, VR conferencing in companies can “feel like the future of collaboration.”
VR for collaboration
By creating an environment from people far apart from each other to speak, share, and communicate, VR can create a cheaper and, perhaps, more effective collaboration model than traveling to meet people in person.
Imagine entering a digital conference room, where your team or potential clients appear as avatars. You’re able to communicate, ideate, debate, and come to conclusions in a very similar manner to real, in-person meetings.
Cisco Spark, a collaboration tool, is using Oculus (A VR company bought by Facebook for $2b in 2014) to build better collaborative experiences. Introducing the ability to whiteboard, read and share documents, and communicate can bring a whole new level of productivity, especially to the millions of teams that function remotely across the world.
VR for sales
One of the most important reasons for business travel is closing sales deals. As TripIt.com writes, some Fortune 100 companies won’t even consider closing a deal without a face to face meeting. As much as we want to believe in our robotized, AI-focused, data-driven businesses, decisions are still made by humans, that’s not entirely accurate. Humans still believe in the importance of intuition and trust that can only be built through an in-person human connection.
If VR can improve enough to permit a similar, or at least a permissible, level of trust in interaction, it can replace a huge percentage of business travel. Shaking hands in the digital world will, one day, be as important as a physical handshake.
VR will even be a useful tool for more traditional sales and marketing tactics by making them more immersive and curated than ever before. Instead of traveling to a trade-show or sales pitch with a whole suitcase worth of tools, you can upload a world of experiences into VR apps, and share them with VR headset owners anywhere in the world. Companies like Samsung are investing heavily in this, and have many ideas about how VR can be most useful.
VR for Travel- planning, booking, and flying
There are two competing views of how VR will alter travel. The first is the fearful dystopian opinion that VR will lock all humans in a masked cage of our own creation, never leaving our bedrooms but believing ourselves to be ‘citizens of the world’. Just put on your headset, and disappear behind an avatar (slightly taller and better looking than yourself) as you “travel” to parts unknown.
The negative ramifications are clear. As the Huffington Post writes, we lose the spontaneity that comes with real travel. We don’t make new friends in sketchy dive bars, don’t challenge ourselves with menus in other languages, and don’t learn about cultures around the world. We’re just hermits, hiding from social integrity and the whims of travel.
But there is the competing view. The view that VR will create a travel boom like never before. As inc.com writes,
“This virtual sample of almost any location in the world will be a game changer for the tourism industry. It will take user experience to the next level.”
As discussed in this Medium post by VR writer Scottie Gardonio, VR can positively impact every leg of the travel journey.
Planning a business trip
Years ago, travel agents did the work for us. They showed a few brochures, pitched a few excursions from which they likely received a commission, and sent you on your merry way.
Video on the internet changed that. Today, we can Google “Things to do in [insert city]” and just look at images and videos until you can come to a conclusion of what to book for your NYC business trip. VR can change this paradigm once again.
Tools like Try Before You Buy, developed by European travel agency Thomas Cook, permit a traveler to experience a city or event in a full 360 view. Walk the streets, see the museums, experience a city, view real estate. This 5 minute VR trip doesn’t remove the need for real travel, it tightens our desire for travel. It provides a virtual tasting menu of a dozen options, and it’s up to you to decide which experience to dive into.
As Samuel Haber, CEO of Advir told us,
“VR is known for creating emotional attachment and empathy – tricking your brain into believing that you are not just a spectator, but present in the scene. The scene becomes more tangible, more familiar. This works very well for experience-based content such as travel, where you can experience places (the scenery, but also accommodation) before actually going.”
So VR creates an opportunity for business travelers and tourists alike to tour cities, understand environments, and have better data before making travel decisions. Now, your company doesn’t need to spend thousands of dollars booking trips to find a city for a new office. VR can give a sneak peak, lowering the cost enormously.
Booking a trip
Once a plan is made, booking becomes the next step of the travel journey. VR can remove the pains of this process by providing tours of the planes and hotels in which you’ll find yourself.
Some well angled and slightly photoshopped images of a hotel can be deceiving. We’ve all booked a 3-star hotel with reviews like “AMAZING LOCATION” and “good food, will return,” just to find a haunted house with some beds and a continental breakfast.
But a full VR view of a hotel room- bathtub stains and wallpaper tears included- forces accommodations into honesty, and permits the traveler with a full working knowledge of what they’re about to get into.
You can virtually double-check the amenities you’ll need to get work done, like conference meeting rooms and computer stations, etc.
Flying on planes
You’ve booked your trip, have your accommodations set, and you’re up to what was, until now, one of the least enjoyable parts of your trip- the flight. Whether 6 hours from NY to SF, or 16 from the US to Asia, the flight offers a chance to read, sleep, and watch movies. But no matter how often you fly, the options exhaust themselves quite quickly. Plus, you never seem to be seated next to the thinnest or quietest passengers.
VR headsets can transform the flight experience. Watching 3D films, taking tours of the place you’re about to visit, or joining interactive hangout rooms with your friends spread throughout the plan can make the longest trips go by quickly.
Some companies, like Skylights are placing big bets on VR on planes, as they provide both headsets and immersive companies for travel. Even traditional airlines are starting to appreciate the impact VR will have, as Quantas became the first airline to offer in-flight VR entertainment to passengers.
A lot of VR content already exists
An important aspect of VR is that we’re not starting from scratch. Artists, designers, and businesses have been building virtual worlds, games, trips, and videos for over a decade.
With Youtube channels like 360 Travel Videos and sites like SVRF.com permitting easy search and browsing of VR and 360 video content, travelers can already start exploring the world before ever stepping foot in it. And this trend is expected to continue.
As Sophia Dominguez, CEO of SVRF.com told 30STF,
“There is more travel VR content than in any other category. People are constantly seeking to see things that they: want to experience, have never experienced, and/or once enjoyed and now fond of those memories.”
And this isn’t necessarily an unseen revolution. It’s very reminiscent of the experience currently provided by 2D photo sharing platforms like Pinterest and Instagram. Sophia Dominguez sees this as an expansion of a trend.
“We’ve seen examples of this in other mediums such as Instagram, where some of the largest accounts are those that evoke wanderlust and showcase beautiful and interesting parts of the world. VR will be no different and is, in fact, perfect for showcasing travel destinations because it is the most immersive medium to date.”
The drawbacks of VR
While the opportunities are enormous, VR isn’t going to take over your life or business quite yet- we promise.
VR is expensive
Equipment is still expensive and relatively rare. Only 6m VR headsets have been sold last year. It’s an impressive number, but considering that most are set up solely for gaming, and there are many millions of professionals around the world, it is not yet enough to serve as a full-scale communications platform for businesses. And as a small business, it may not be in the budget to purchase a VR headset, each of which can cost as much as a smartphone.
Even creating content is a challenge. Just the simplest apps can cost tens of thousands of dollars to develop, limiting the opportunities. But that doesn’t stop professional shops like Lucid Dream (which targets enterprise clients) to develop apps, while sites like SVRF.com host indie designer work.
VR makes you sick
Entering a new world isn’t without its difficulties. Our biology simply isn’t evolving quickly enough to handle the rapidity of technological changes, so VR developers need to learn to adapt.
As LiveScience explains, the anticipated motion seen by your eyes, but not necessarily felt by your body, interacts in a way to create a sense of nausea. Virtual environments have been improving in this category since early simulations became popular in the military of the mid-20th century. So while a VR headset may incite dizziness in some, we can be certain that it’s orders of magnitude better than it used to be, and further improvements are coming.
VR isn’t accurate enough
When we’re speaking about collaboration, VR is going to need to compete with a pretty lofty challenger- the real world. When in a conference room working with their team, people can accomplish a lot through subtleties of nonverbal communication, and the specificities of writing, drawing, and engaging.
While VR headsets are starting to be able to primitively read and display real human emotions, it’s still a long way from the subtlety of the real thing. When working together in person, a furrowed eyebrow or slight frown can tell you that your coworker doesn’t agree with a solution, while wide eyes can show excitement. These intricacies don’t yet exist in the virtual world, which can detract from VR collaboration.
Additionally, VR isn’t yet perfect at the specific motor functions so important to normal work. While it can capture general movements, like waves and head bobs, businesses are pushing to capture intricate finger movements. These can permit collaborative whiteboarding and file sharing currently available only in the real world.
A 360 view of VR and the future
Virtual reality isn’t perfect, but it can definitely be practical. As with any decision, it’s about the cost-benefit analysis. For businesses, is the money saved on travel worth the limited experience of virtual collaboration? For travelers, is the limited scope of a 360 tour worth missing a real travel opportunity?
The answer for both is: sometimes. Virtual reality has a long way to go in its development. It must improve in quality and decrease in cost. But the benefits of the technology are, in many ways, already present and even prevalent in our lives.
It will undoubtedly change the way, and the reasons, we plan, book, and experience our travel. But will it make us lazy couch potatoes stuck in a Wall-e imagined universe? We can only guess, but the optimist in us says the human race still has hope!
I’m a Brooklyn-born vagabond with a proud Russian heritage. I’m into startups of all kind, and anytime we can talk about the future of humanity’s interaction with robots, or just gab about good comedy and literature, I’m there. I also host the Adriel’s Curious City podcast, interviewing thought leaders about the future of their industries.