THE TRAVEL ISSUE
The week of May 24, 2015

I had the ultimate staycation using virtual reality

By Mike Wehner

Luxury travel site Jetsetter recently welcomed guests to book rooms at Perception, a virtual reality hotel that didn’t actually exist.

Booking a trip to Perception was priced at several hundred dollars, and rather than a room, you’d get a VR headset that was “pre-programmed with personalized experiences with real-time updating capabilities.” After two usages, Jetsetter noted that users would need to purchase new vacation programs for an additional $250.

The listing was a pitch-perfect April Fools’ prank, but it wasn’t long before Facebook commenters and other social networks began to buzz about whether Perception was actually all that far fetched. Some even seemed to buy the gag at face value, saying that they were interested in trying it out.

As off the wall as the idea of a virtual hotel might seem, the technology already exists for such a thing to become real, and you can piece together a completely digital vacation with nothing more than a VR headset and an Internet connection. VR companies like Oculus—whose Rift headset is the most-hyped virtual reality gadget of all time—are preparing to launch consumer-level VR gear, while developers large and small are working to make immersive worlds that will let you temporarily leave your life behind.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the cost of taking a trip within the United States jumped from $440 in 2005 to $583 in 2013.  Virtual Reality removes the transportation, the wait, and the cost associated with traditional travel, making it quite appealing for those who hate paying for a plane ticket—people like me.

Ask anyone that knows me how I feel about travel and you’ll get the same story: I despise everything associated with modern vacations. Airports are cramped and stressful, flights give me instant motion sickness, and hotel rooms and resort suites are never as breathtaking as they seem in photos. The only saving grace is the rare moment of relaxation or adventure that I couldn’t experience at home, a fleeting instant that could perhaps be accomplished through virtual reality.

Welcome to the future of staycations.

Some of Oculus’ first customers have been travel agencies like Thomas Cook, which uses virtual reality to offer potential customers a glimpse inside one of the company’s posh jets or lavish resorts, while Azamara Club Cruises lets you virtually walk the deck of a 686-passenger cruise liner, taking in all the sights and sounds of the ship. Destination British Columbia has a VR simulation that places you in the Great Bear Rainforest, and Cuban refugees have even used the Rift to simulate a trip back home. Even at this early stage, virtual reality is everywhere.

With an Oculus Rift DK2 in hand and a computer capable of running pretty much anything I can throw at it, I decided to see what kind of a vacation I could embark on without having to get up from my comfy office chair.

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Welcome to the future of staycations.

Street View vacations

Before you move forward, sometimes you first have to look back at your rearview mirror.

Google Street View launched in 2007, and with it came the ability to see a ground-level, 360-degree image of a place you’ve never been before. Every click of an arrow takes you a few yards further, and if you have enough time you can virtually stroll down a cramped boulevard in New York City or take a scenic cruise down California’s Pacific Coast Highway.

Having originally created Street View as a way to more accurately plan real-life travel, it quickly became a fun pastime for anyone who wanted to get away, even while they remained stuck in an office cubicle. Google seemed to recognize this trend and began adding more scenic locations and tourist spots to Street View. Today, you can visit historic Stonehenge, Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, or even a Mt. Everest base camp, all while sipping your morning coffee.

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“Our goal at Google Maps is to create the most accurate, useful and comprehensive map of the world,” Google’s Susan Cadrecha told the Kernel. “A large part of getting us to that goal is through Street View, which gives people a digital reflection of the real world in Google Maps. So it was the natural next step for us to take Street View offroading with the Trekker.”

I felt like a superhero.

Trekker, Google’s backpack-mounted camera rig, is what makes Street View’s best scenic adventures possible, bringing the same 360-degree beauty to anywhere a human can venture.

As beautiful as these vistas are, they’re still just static images stitched together by a computer. You can suspend your disbelief for only so long before you have to click your mouse to walk forward or drag the screen to look around. Street View mini vacations were great for the 2000s, but I’m ready for what’s next.

My virtual vacation

By its very definition, virtual reality is a simulation of being somewhere different, and if you’re in need of an immediate break from your current reality, stepping into a virtual one in a matter of moments is the ultimate form of escapism.

With the retail release of the Oculus Rift on the horizon, we’re only just now seeing what such a device is capable of. But even months ahead of its official debut, I was able to see plenty of promise and enjoyed a digital excursion of my own. The Oculus Rift development kit (the prerelease version of the device seeded to game and app creators months ago) currently offers the most options, with Google Cardboard and Samsung’s Gear VR still limited when it comes to apps aimed at relaxation.

I wanted to see how close I could get to replicating a real vacation experience, without any of the TSA headaches, so I didn’t bother trying to find a simulator for standing in line at airport security. Instead, I jumped straight into the sky with a tech demo called Ambient Flight, a 3D flight simulation where you can pretend you’re flying without the help of a plane.

The Oculus headset is easy to describe but hard to understand unless you’ve worn one yourself. It’s essentially a high-resolution LCD screen split down the middle, with half of the display devoted to each of your eyes. A lens sits between each of your eyes and the screen, which gives the illusion that whatever is displayed on the screen is surrounding you, reaching the corners of your field of vision.

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Ambient Flight/Wild Child Games

When you look through the lenses, into the screen and into the virtual world, everything looks three dimensional and solid, though edges sometimes appear jagged and torn, like what you might see in an early 3D video game, due to the screen’s close proximity to your eyes. In Ambient Flight, as you move your mouse, your virtual body turns, and all you see is the sky above you and the terrain whipping by beneath. I felt like a superhero.

I took off my headset, and suddenly I was back home.

Add some relaxing music, and the virtual landscape of over 220 square kilometers seemed a million miles removed from my office desk. It was a more pleasant flight than I’ve ever experienced in real life.

Skipping the baggage claim, the Uber ride, and check-in line at the hotel, I went straight from the sky to the ocean where I had a date with some sharks, thanks to Ocean Rift, a scuba diving simulator that twisted my stomach in knots. Sparse streaks of sunlight beamed down onto the ocean floor as I made my way past swaying seaweed and schools of small fish. I spotted a shipwreck and got to investigate before looking up to see a shark swimming uncomfortably close.

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SundownSFA/YouTube

As I turned to head in the opposite direction, I started to feel my palms sweat and knew I was about to be hit with a bit of motion sickness. Such a thing isn’t unusual for me in underwater environments, and in that way, the virtual version seemed to replicate it perfectly. I decided I’d be better off relaxing for a bit.

I left the ocean in favor of the beach, and for that I turned to Yana Virtual Relaxation, an app where all you can do is kick back and watch as the sun goes down. Plenty of palm trees, soaring seagulls, and splashing ocean waves put my mind at ease, and I set my feet up on my real life desk and let time pass by. After about 10 minutes, the sun dipped down past the horizon and the orange glow gave way to violet and finally a dark blue. The moon peeked up and I knew it’s time for me to leave, but I didn’t really want to—kind of like a real vacation.

yana

Game Hard 4.0/YouTube

It struck me that thus far I’d only done things that I could probably do in real life anyway. It was time to try something I’d truly never have the guts or opportunity to do. I gave up the idea of flying back “home” and took a much higher altitude trip instead.

I zipped up my virtual space suit in VR Spacewalk, and before I knew it, I was slowly drifting my way around a faithfully recreated version of the International Space Station. There’s not much to do in this spacewalk simulation besides float around and take in the sights, and I had no idea what any of the bars, knobs, and panels on the station actually do, but it all looked quite impressive, and it’s interesting just to see it all up close and in 3D. As the sun shifted, it cast shadow on the Earth, and the city lights so far below began to glow.

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VR Spacewalk/IgnisVR

Just as I was taking it all in, the screen froze and I heard the telltale Windows alert sound. Some random plugin associated with my virtual desktop software had crashed, and so had my virtual space station. I took off my headset, and suddenly I was back home.

The Oculus headset is easy to describe but hard to understand unless you’ve worn one yourself.

It’s a fitting end that perfectly represents the current state of VR travel: It’s great, but it’s just not quite there yet.

The fourth dimension

As fantastic as each individual experience was, they were separated by the tasks of closing programs, downloading and installing new ones, and ultimate ended in a crash. A single program that can take meld multiple vacation experiences into one cohesive trip is closer than ever, and it’s certainly something to look forward to.

One of the next frontiers in virtual vacationing is being pioneered by a company that has been in the travel business for nearly 60 years. Marriott’s take on virtual vacations is a lot like the digital journey I myself took, but with an added twist. Instead of strapping on a VR headset and simply seeing and hearing a new world, the hotel megacorp has created a way for you to feel your new surroundings.

Standing in specially designed pods, virtual vacationers are bombarded with an extra layer of sensory feedback in the form of wind, water, and a shifting floor. You can walk along a virtual beach and feel the ocean spray misting your skin, or experience shaky-legged vertigo as you peer down from the edge of a skyscraper while wind whips at your clothing.

Marriott wrapped up its cross-country tour with the pods in late 2014, and their future availability remains a mystery. Having one in your own home is still a pipe dream, but it’s clear we’re one step closer to being somewhere we’re not.

Everyone has a different definition of what a vacation really is, but we all want to get away in one form or another, to feel as though we’ve escaped ourselves, if only for a moment. With the launch of the Oculus Rift just months away, you might find that the quickest route to your ultimate holiday is hidden inside a virtual reality headset.

Illustration by Tiffany Pai