VR travel has predictably extended to the world of tourism and travel agencies, but how else can transporting ourselves to other lands (imaginary or not) be beneficial to us in mind and body?
If you had to explain Virtual Reality to someone who had never heard of it what would you say?
Personally, I would explain that it is essentially a computer-generated simulation of an environment. It’s a medium through which we can travel to another place by subverting our vision and hearing.
So, VR, by definition, is a form of travel. Some may argue the same for books or television but these do not physically harness your senses and fill the gap that imagination usually inhabits. It is an immersive technology. It would then in turn seem to be a no-brainer that the travel industry would be jumping on the VR bandwagon, and they are.
Those getting involved in the burgeoning world of virtual travel are not trying to sell these experiences as an alternative to physically travelling, but rather as an appetizer. The endgame is to entice the user to eventually book the real-life experience with the company. These immersive VR travel experiences are being used as sources of travel inspiration.
In a way, the industry is using VR as a further extension of content marketing. The purpose of content marketing is to create an association or engagement with a brand or product. Sometimes it can be directly promoting a product, but it's really about positive association and getting people to engage with the brand. If anything, this format of content creation is possibly the most potent example of content marketing that a company could provide. There has been a remarkable change in the marketing metrics since companies have begun using this content. In general, 360° videos have a 40% higher view count on average and the click through rate is up to 30% (compared to the industry average of 1.5% for traditional videos). Also, interestingly, the video completion rate for 360° videos is twice as high. If these statistics are anything to go by, the marketing power of VR cannot be underestimated for the tourism and travel industries.
Some companies, however, such as the Marriott hotel group, are taking it one step further. Not only are they harnessing vision and sound, but they are adding in as much else as is humanly possible to make the experience as visceral as they can. Their Teleporter has heaters, smells, ocean spray and even a floor that simulates the underfoot sensation particular to the environment they are striving to simulate. Upon testing the Teleporter, Travel and Leisure’s Mark Orwoll (who finds VR travel thus far to be “…sterile, devoid of life, without sensory interaction, and, frankly, a little fake”) says that the worst part of the experience was “…when the nice woman who operates the Teleporter breaks into your dream state with a cheery, “Welcome back!”.
Beyond creating impressively believable duplications of real places, there are additional upsides to VR travel. There is the monetary aspect. For individuals without the funds to travel to some locations in the world, this offers a worthy substitute. They will get to experience surroundings they may never have had the opportunity to do previously; indulge their wanderlust, whether penniless or not. VR travel is also creating a route to these destinations for people with accessibility issues, the disabled or perhaps those too weak to travel; the elderly.
In fact, in a recent NPR article, Kara Platoni talks to tech-enabled healthcare expert, Dr. Sonya Kim, about how she has used VR travel to drastically change the life of the elderly. She first used an Oculus headset at a VR mixer in San Francisco. She walked through a virtual garden and subsequently fell in love with the medium. She was convinced that some of her older patients would love it too and foresaw the huge benefits this could possibly have for patients with Dementia or Alzheimer’s. "Dementia patients often feel lost, because they feel that they don't belong anywhere," says Kim — they may be confused about their surroundings or who they are, or estranged from family members overwhelmed by their care. By giving them a beautiful beach, Kim said, "I want them to feel found again."
Kim conducts group therapy sessions in assisted-living centers, and although some of her clients do struggle with verbal communication they have found other ways to express their enjoyment. “One client, Kim said, simply blew kisses. Another hummed happily. A third stole 40 minutes in the headset, repeatedly asking for ‘Just a little more, hon.’ A few just go to sleep.” By presenting her patients with a brand new safe space, it seems Kim is transporting them to a place devoid of their everyday pains and anxieties. She is bringing them the gift of escape and relief.
There is also some very solid scientific evidence as to why VR can help to relieve pain. In the 1990s, researchers at the University of Washington developed an icy virtual environment entitled ‘SnowWorld’. This was proven to reduce pain for burn victims during their wound treatment. The somatosensory cortex and the insula, the parts of the brain that are linked to pain, are less active when a patient is immersed in VR. Amputees have even reported severe relief from ‘phantom pain’ when using a technique called ‘virtual mirror therapy’ whereby controlling a virtual version of the absent limb gives them relief from this pain.
Those diagnosed with PTSD have also been found to gain relief from their symptoms via exposure therapy in virtual environments. Scientists at the Chronic Pain Research Institute have tested a virtual meditative walk which has proven to help users manage stress and anxiety. Having personally written a thesis that focused on PTSD patients and having spoken to numerous sufferers of the disease, I discovered that these ‘moments’ from their lives that they are somewhat ‘stuck in’ are very real places and environments that live inside them. In the most recent series of House of Cards, Republican candidate Will Conway is seen using an immersive VR game that reflects his post-9/11 tour in the Armed Forces. It is allegedly part of a program that’s meant to help veterans like him lessen the symptoms of their PTSD. Seeing a restorative technique such as this being so actively highlighted in such a popular show is re-assuring for the industry. The possibility that VR could be a huge step in helping their symptoms through creating alternate environments is very exciting.
As a result of combing through this fascinating research, I couldn’t help but draw some interesting parallels. I have done a lot of yoga and other meditational practices throughout my life and I could not help but find this whole concept to be very reminiscent of guided meditation. There are of course many types of guided meditation, but some forms ask you to create an environment for yourself, a ‘happy place’, if you will. This place can be a meadow, a beach, or even outer space… But the point is, it asks you to transport yourself to somewhere else with the view to relaxation.
In a scene from my favorite film, Fight Club, Edward Norton’s character takes part in a guided meditation and finds his safe place to be in an icy cave. There he meets his ‘power animal’, a cute little smiling penguin, who tells Norton to ‘Slide’ and swiftly glides out of the cave on his belly. A scenario like this would be more than easy to create in VR and having researched further I came across a company that seem to be doing this very successfully. Guided Meditation VR is a virtual reality relaxation app where you can recharge in exotic locations across the universe. In fact, it seems that VR relaxation has very much become a genre of its own.
Transferring ourselves to other places without physically going there is by no means a recent phenomenon. In Victorian times, the rise of realism in nineteenth-century literature gave way to a new way of exploring, from one’s own home. Despite the expansion of river and railway networks making travel easier than ever before, staying at home and fantasizing about travel turned into a favorite pastime. New ways of representing ‘place’ began to emerge; 360° panoramas, fold-out river maps and exhaustive railway guides offering themselves as substitutes for actual travels. If we think of these representations as being forms of ‘virtual travel’, we can identify a surprising similarity between the Victorian fascination with imaginative dislocation and our twenty-first century efforts of using digital technologies to expand the physical boundaries of the self.
Whether through reading, television, video games or meditation, humans have been imaginatively transporting themselves to other places for hundreds of years. VR is just another vehicle to get there.