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Travel Made Possible By... Your Headset?

You’re standing in a field in Tanzania with your eyes glued on a spot about 40 feet in front of you.

You dare not turn your gaze or move a muscle because the guide standing to your left has just pointed out a lioness and her cubs, out of sight behind a bush you have now centered your focus on. You are about to witness this family plodding the ground together in what is arguably one of the most sensational experiences of the Serengeti. Just as you hear a deep throaty groan, the lioness comes out from behind the bush, with cubs in tow. Then a phone rings from somewhere in the sky, loud and clear. You stand up, put your bare feet on the soft carpet, and run to pick it up. Nope, this is not a dream. With virtual tourism, your imagination has come to life.

How is this done?

Virtual reality technology today is much more than just a tool for the ultimate gaming experience. Thanks to new developments, top-notch video software and superb filming equipment, virtual reality has set its perfectly manicured paws into the realm of tourism.

Meet Oculus Rift, affectionately nicknamed “The Rift.” It’s not a game console, but a glittery new virtual reality headset, and the first product launched by California-based Oculus VR. Headquartered in an edgy, modern glass building in Menlo Park and founded by a self-described hardware geek, Oculus says their goal with the Rift product is to revolutionize the way people experience interactive content. And from what it looks like so far, they will.

The Rift headset, currently available on the Oculus site for developers only (and purported to be in the $1,500 range when made available to consumers sometime in early 2016), looks like a futuristic merging of ski goggles and a TomTom navigation device. Looks aside, it has the ability to produce a 3D user experience by uniting specialized mapping software, a massive field of view and low-latency head tracking (the last of which means there’s no lag between when you turn your head left and when the image pans left).

Originally created with gaming in mind, the Rift has another super function: When paired with destination-related video content, it transports the user to a virtually-created but reality-based environment. Where users could previously only watch a video about Tanzania on a screen, now they can step into a virtual experience. Use of the Rift will tap into two of the strongest senses we have as humans – sight and sound – to create a perfect sensation of being (in a room, at the beach, on a mountain, or in the middle of the Serengeti.)

The most obvious question about Oculus Rift in the context of tourism is whether it will boost the tourism market or result in a decrease in national and global travel. Sure, the virtual experience might cost less than the average plane ticket, but are you really going anywhere? Will you feel the grass beneath your feet, and taste the distinct flavors that make a destination special?

One company that sees the potential for virtual tourism as a means of creating travel inspiration is Vancouver-based Destination British Columbia. Destination BC has partnered with Oculus VR to create one of the first tourism-related 3D experiences, using Rift gear and a custom-built spherical rig fitted with seven GoPro cameras. You can get an idea of what it looks like by watching the “making of” video of their The Wild Within campaign, with snippets from the virtual experience and interviews with the BC team. The full virtual experience (which requires the Rift headset) is available on the Oculus website. Based on the comments alone, the video promo has already boosted travel enthusiasm for British Columbia.

Virtual tourism is still a relatively young concept, but its future seems promising. Will destinations use this technology to draw larger crowds? Will people stop jet setting and start “headsetting?” If air travel prices continue to rise, will the purchase of Rift headsets for “travel” outweigh the desire to take a real vacation? Might the term “vacation” itself be redefined? It seems there will undoubtedly be some effect on the tourism market. With the ability to go anywhere simply by putting on a headset, the possibilities are now virtually endless. (Pun intended.)

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