The Future is Hybrid
As the presented use cases show, travel might not become redundant or entirely virtual even though it might be practically possible. Tourism sites become more accessible in the Immersive Tourism Reality Continuum, solving issues of being out of reach, temporary closed or not accessible any longer. With destinations moving into virtual, DMO’s not only compete on the world stage with each other as they have always done, but additionally enter into a competition with alternative leisure activities such as games, events, movies, and concerts. We enter into a rivalry of people’s time and attention.
Foremost tourism destinations that are suffering under tourism pressure, investing in digital technology provides a chance to manage tourism capacities. Similarly, an increasing number of tourist sites are required to be preserved due to excessive tourist numbers accounting for harms at the Great Barrier Reef or the Mount Everest. With VR, these sites become accessible even for the less experienced hikers engaging into an immersive VR experience which can be reconstructed to an impressive detail. This also prevents users from putting themselves or others at risk, while experiencing the extraordinary trip from the comfort of their own home. Such developments can further contribute to the protection of our environment, as the devastating amount of environmental pollution and littering left at tourism and nature sites will decrease. However, based on our inherent human need for connection, we do not expect to fully replace live events, travels, and museum visits. There might be an opportunity to replace physical business meetings or conferences, but a more likely scenario will be the formation of hybrid versions that offer a digital overlay or hybrid approaches to reach a wider target audience.
Where early VR experiences were perceived impersonal and isolating (e.g., VR roller-coaster rides at amusement parks), simulated worlds become enriched with virtual humans, which increases the sense of social presence and immersion in the virtual world. XR technology is being continuously improved, increasing opportunities for remote travel. With technology advancements in XR we can deliver more real and new experiences, supported by automation, language processing, AI, and cinematic and volumetric VR. Seamlessly engaging multiple senses in virtual worlds will come close what we only know from science fiction movies such as the Matrix or Avatar.
In the end however, it is not about the technology itself, but the added value created for and with tourists. How the technology integrated to create value and build digital connections, particularly in times of temporary imperative social distance measures is vital. From what we have experienced under COVID-19 regulations in the past year, we are still in need of real human connections based on facial expressions, gestures, scent, and banter. How can we fight loneliness through virtual worlds and have a dialogue without building relationships? Simulating a conversation with a chatbot or virtual avatar as presented with FB Horizon or Virbela still feels unnatural and challenging. We need relational context, visual cues, facial expressions, tone of voice, and body language to interpret meaning and understand each other. Without personal connections and relationships, there exists a sense of distance to others sometimes allowing for toxic environments to be formed on platforms with high social traffic. Ignoring such implications while developing XR solutions can have a huge impact on the future of society as we might create more problems being together online than being separated offline. Therefore, it is not only valuable but highly necessary to bring together multiple disciplines and perspectives in the development process to discuss and respect various conditions and effects that XR will have on a multi-faceted industry such as tourism.
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