Virtual reality is transforming travel and hospitality. What started as nascent technology is poised to become, in business, a tool for promotions and advertising. For consumers, it’s a new way to plan: Imagine walking through a hotel room before you book, or exploring a location’s sights and sounds as you narrow down a shortlist of vacation destinations, all from inside your home and using your phone.
This isn’t a far-off technology, either. There are several virtual travel apps already available, and companies such as Qantas, British Airways, and Marriott have already started experimenting with it as a marketing tool. On the consumption end, YouTube and Facebook are just a handful of the major sites that now support 360-degree content.
But even if you have no plans to physically go anywhere, VR is a fantastic video-based medium for armchair wanderlust. It takes the Google Street View approach of dragging your mouse around 360-degree photos, and transforms it into an immersive experience in which you can explore those environments in greater detail. You can travel to places you may never be able to go (or want to), including destinations that are off-limits to tourists or simply dangerous. And when you add narration from a tour guide to those videos, the experience becomes that much greater.
While video resolution quality isn’t there yet — depending on the production quality, viewing through VR goggles and headsets can be nauseating — it’s getting better. As we experienced back in 2015 with Marriott’s “VRoom Service,” using the Samsung Gear VR, the audio-visual “sensory experience” did make us feel as if we’re there (pardon the cliché). Expect to see more content uploaded in the near future, including a mix of professional, high-quality videos and those shot by consumers on their phones or cameras.
So if you’ve purchased a VR headset with your new Galaxy phone, or were sent a cardboard viewer as part of a promotion, here are a few sites and apps that will give you a taste of virtual travel.
Google Earth VR
Have you ever wanted to fly around the world? Google Earth’s VR app for the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive does that and so much more — virtually, of course. Google Earth VR starts you off in space, but you can zoom in on any part of the globe and, within seconds, you’ll have a bird’s eye view of the locale in question. With a simple long press and drag of your controller, you can fly from the top of the Eiffel Tower to the inside of Disney World — and it happens quicker than you might expect.
If you need inspiration for your next adventure, Google provides tours of famous landmarks, along with themed destinations. You can even go from day to night — just point to the sky and swipe. You can also type in an address and Google Earth VR will transport you to said destination, where you can capture and save snapshots of what you see.
In Boulevard (formerly WoofbertVR), you can explore 3D renderings of various museums and cultural sites located throughout England and San Francisco. However, the app allows you to do more than merely look around. You can access a virtual tablet with the tap of a button, which will provide you with textual information on what you are looking at and allow you to to take a brief audio tour. It can even show you which exhibits you can further engage with.
For instance, if you tap on Édouard Manet’s famous 19th century painting, A Bar at the Folies-Bergère, you’ll be transported beyond the frame and into an animated reimagining of the events depicted in the painting. Or, if you tap on a 1969 photo of painter Helen Frankenthaler, you’ll be able to walk around a 3D rendering of her minimalist workspace, giving you the feeling you just stepped into a memory. If you’re looking to indulge in fine art on your next trip abroad, Boulevard might be right up your ally.
Virtual reality has turned photo galleries into 3D experiences. Gala360 consists of a collection of shots culled from professional photographers, all of which allow you to examine events, museums, landmarks, and different locales with a mere swipe of your finger.
You can walk around and explore the cavernous lava tubes of Hawaii, for example, or take in the breathtaking views of Yosemite National Park. Certain experiences even have audio commentary, providing you further context about what you’re seeing as you scroll through the app’s various photos. Many of these experiences are free, though, premium content will cost you a $1 a month.
For its YouTube page, German airliner Lufthansa created several 360-degree on-location videos in Beijing, Hong Kong, Miami, New York, San Francisco, and Tokyo. Each 46-minute clip lets you pan around a notable area in each of those cities, such as Wan Chai Street Market in Hong Kong or Lombard Street in San Francisco. You don’t need a VR viewer, although it’s more immersive if you use the YouTube Android app with Google Cardboard viewer.
Action cam maker GoPro is getting into the VR game in a big way. Its Odyssey uses 16 Hero4 Black cameras to capture an 8K panoramic video, and its consumer-friendly 360 camera, the Fusion, is coming soon. Of course, GoPro’s videos are short of amazing, and its 360-degree ones are no exception. From surfing in Tahiti to riding a BMW bike on the rooftops of Gran Canaria and inside an Indycar over the Golden Gate Bridge. Check out the personal New York City tour with photographer and Instagrammer, Neil Britto. GoPro won’t be the only big camera company getting into VR: Samsung, Nikon, and Ricoh all have 360 cameras, and we can expect to see content from them. The New York Times, for example, has a series of 360-degree videos created using the Samsung Gear 360.
Chances are, most of us will never experience space travel in our lifetime, let alone journey to Mars. Thanks to thousands of images that have been transmitted back to Earth from its Sojourner and Curiosity rovers, NASA was able to put together 360-degree videos and images of what walking on Mars would be like. The most recent panorama comes from the Curiosity Mars Rover, from a site known as Ogunquit Beach.
As its name would suggest, Ascape is a VR app that’s dedicated entirely to travel. Available as an app for both Android or iOS, and viewable on a phone or VR viewer, Ascape has a bunch of 360-degree video and photo tours — from the Star Wars parade at Disneyland Hong Kong to reindeer racing in Norway — and are neatly categorized (called “collections”). You will need to download each experience, which could take up a chunk of space on your phone.
Littlstar is a VR “cinema network” hosting a variety of 360-degree photos and videos, available on the web or via its app for Android or iOS. Its aerial and travel categories contain numerous content from around the world, including videos from Discovery and National Geographic. When you’re looked through all the travel videos, check out the many others, including tech, sports, cars, and fashion.
Like Littlstar, YouVisit lets you experience its content on the web (through a web browser or the Oculus Rift) or with a VR headset via its app for iPhone or Android. YouVisit has a variety of interesting travel-related 360-degree photos and videos, from the Ayautthaya temples of Thailand to the Louvre Museum in Paris and helicopter ride over New York City. You can even get onboard the Carnival Breeze and explore the different parts of the cruise ship.
Destination B.C., an agency that promotes tourism in Canada’s British Columbia, launched a virtual reality experience called “Wild Within,” which explores the natural areas of this western province. In the videos, the viewer travels through the Broughton Archipelago of the Great Bear Rainforest, but has the option of taking one of two paths — the coastline or up a mountain. Wild Within was first developed for the Oculus Rift on a desktop, but it’s now available as an app for iOS or Android.
Discovery is one of the major media companies to dive into virtual reality. Last August, it launched its Discovery VR initiative that lets users experience TV shows like Gold Rush, Survivorman, Puppy Bowl, and MythBusters, in an immersive manner. Besides exploring the exotic locales, you can swim with sharks, ski downhill with Bode Miller, or learn to forage for food, for example. Discovery VR content can be watched online, but it’s best via a phone and Google Cardboard or similar viewer, or Samsung Gear VR (via Oculus store).
Update: Added Boulevard, Gala360, and Google Earth VR.
- The best iPhone apps (January 2021)
- The best video-editing apps for iOS and Android
- The best emoji keyboards for Android and iOS
- The best Android games currently available (January 2021)
- The best apartment-finder apps for Android and iOS