The present and future of virtual travel

[This story from the BBC features thoughtful reflections on the nature of actual and virtual travel in and beyond the era of the pandemic. See the original for three more pictures. –Matthew]

[Image: Credit: mustafagull/Getty Images]

With most of the world homebound, it’s time to reflect on what it actually means to travel – and whether it’s possible to travel without, well, travelling.

By Toby Skinner
31 March 2020

Against a backdrop of whistling wind and heavy breathing, a man with a Germanic accent is yelling at me: “Take your time!”.

I try to focus on the ascender clips on two wires leading steeply upwards, but there’s a constant temptation to look left to a sharp drop into a vast snowy abyss. But I reach out, clip in and start to climb. I am at the foot of the Hillary Step, the infamous 12m rock face near the summit of Everest, long considered the most challenging section of an ascent from the Nepal side. With oxygen dangerously thin at approximately 8,790m high, many climbers have fallen here, or simply sat down and never stood up again.

When Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay became the first known individuals to reach the summit of Everest in 1953, Hillary wrote of Norgay reaching the top of the Hillary Step: “He collapsed exhausted… like a giant fish when it has just been hauled from the sea after a terrific struggle.”

When I reach the top of the wires and unclip, I feel faintly queasy, but not perhaps in the way the great Sherpa did. I pause Everest VR and take off my HTC Vive virtual reality headset. As my eyes recalibrate, I find myself in my second-floor flat in Hackney, East London, on coronavirus-induced lockdown. My view is no longer a bird’s-eye one of the high Himalayas. Instead, beyond my Juliet balcony, a handful of builders are working on a new residential block, the sun glinting on their high-vis vests. I find myself envying them, while also pondering if they really qualify as essential workers.

While there are many people much worse off than I am, this is an awkward time to be a freelance travel writer. I’ve had trips to Kazakhstan’s Charyn Canyon and Utah’s Canyon Point postponed indefinitely, and most of my commissions cancelled. There was a brief window where hiring a motor home and driving to the Scottish Western Isle of Eigg seemed like a good idea. Now, like many across the world, I’m mostly homebound.

It’s become a time to reflect on what it actually means to travel, something I’ve done on an almost monthly basis for years – and whether it’s possible to travel without, well, travelling.

In one sense, the answer is yes. Everest VR, an hour-long recreation of an Everest climb – from incense ceremonies and kit run-throughs at Base Camp to crossing deep crevasses – is just one of the experiences available with VR headsets from brands such as Vive and Oculus.

I could equally choose to swim with blue whales and entrancing blooms of jellyfish in Blu, or drive a Mars Rover around 15 square miles of rocky Martian ochre in Mars 2030. While the mainstream uptake of VR has been limited by the quality and quantity of releases, and the high cost of headsets like the HTC Vive and Oculus Quest, it is still improving. Half Life: Alyx, a darkly immersive new zombie shoot-em-up game for VR headsets, has already been hailed as a breakthrough for the format in terms of intuitive playability and storytelling.

The wider video game industry – which was worth more than US$148.8 billion last year, according to industry analysts Newzoo – has long been creating rich and beautiful virtual worlds, from the anime sci-fi world of Final Fantasy to the rich Wild West of Red Dead Redemption 2 and the infinite galaxies of No Man’s Sky. Ubisoft, the makers of popular action-adventure game Assassin’s Creed Origins, employed an in-house historian and a team of Egyptologists to create a version of Ancient Egypt so accurate that it even predicted the 2017 discovery of a secret antechamber in the Great Pyramid. The game also has a tour mode so gamers can explore Cleopatra-era Egypt with virtual tour guides instead of enemies from the Templar Order.

Gaming “tourism” has become such a thing that late last year Rough Guides released The Rough Guide to Xbox, an exploration of beautiful locations in Xbox games, from the Arcadian Eddian Grove in Anthem to the Golden Sands Outpost in Sea of Thieves, a sort of Maldivian pirate island.

Meanwhile, producers of all kinds are looking at fresh ways to immerse us, from Google – whose Expeditions app includes VR tours of the International Space Station and the National Museum of Iraq, using Cardboard headsets – to the BBC. If series like Seven Worlds, One Planet are arguably as close as many people get to travel, the BBC’s Natural History Unit wants to take viewers further. It has produced 360-degree 3D videos including a solar eclipse from space and diving with giant manta rays in Mexico, and has teamed up with Magic Leap and Preloaded – the makers of augmented reality headsets – so that viewers can see virtual leafcutter ants and wandering spiders on their living room tables. There are plans afoot for a VR tour of the home, going deep into the world of house flies, spiders and the rats that live under our floorboards.

“Even viewing nature digitally has been scientifically proven to help peoples’ mental wellbeing, which feels especially important right now,” said Lee Bacon, head of digital at the BBC’s Natural History Unit, over Zoom (one of the apps that has boomed in recent weeks). “We’re always looking to use new innovations for deeper immersion, whether that means VR or Slow TV. With people travelling less, it could be a big moment for this kind of technology.”

Certainly, current conditions seem ripe for virtual travel to grow, with the era of low-cost flights now threatened by both covid-19 and growing concerns over the environmental impact of flying. Dr Ian Pearson is a leading futurist, engineer, author and inventor who runs Futurizon, a futurist consultancy. He predicts a number of innovations that will make digital travel more appealing in the near future, especially in the field of virtual reality.

One example is what he calls Active Skin, which will allow us to feel virtual destinations, perhaps some time in the 2030s. “We can already make transistors so small that they can penetrate skin,” he told me over the phone. “They could be sprayed on, like ink, and then send signals to our nervous system. We could then be manipulated to feel the sunshine and salty breeze on a beach in the Maldives, or the cool marble of the Taj Mahal.” Even sooner, he argues, we will see augmented reality contact lenses, which will use existing technology to give physical spaces different digital properties, for example turning living rooms into tiki bars or airport lounges into rainforests.

But it’s in the 2050s that he sees the really big advances. By then, he says, we’ll be able to upload our minds to cyberspace using nano devices linked to our synapses, allowing our brains to inhabit a new breed of fully functioning humanoid robots, effectively turning us into superhumans. “You’ll be able to log on in the UK, say, and choose your robot in Australia,” he said. “Then you’ll be able to inhabit its body and do anything a human would, and more. You’ll also be able to think faster and have a bigger memory, so the travel memories will be with you longer.”

It is, he admits, a problematic proposition. “The engineer in me thinks it’s great fun, but of course there are a lot of dystopian potential outcomes, from android overpopulation to the ethical issues of minds living on electronically,” he said. “There will be winners and losers, and – like in the X-Men – a lot of people won’t want to live side-by-side with new humans with superpowers.”

Many of these ideas make my head hurt. So, after our call, I go for my daily walk. It is a sunny afternoon in London’s Victoria Park, and I am determined to soak it all in: the longboarders and lovers; the wagging tails of dogs with their owners’ undivided attention; the man singing Hallelujah to a faintly wary, unusually dispersed crowd.

For once, I read the little signs around the park: about the beautiful Chinese pagoda bought from Hyde Park for £110 in 1847, which East End kids believed was home to a mysterious Chinese family; and about the statues of two guard dogs, both replicas of a 2nd-Century Roman statue, installed in 1912 and still believed to guard against drownings in the nearby canal. In the lake by the Pavilion, I watch coots with white faces like Venetian masks, swans like bread-seeking cruise liners and male mallards whose necks and heads seem to be made of the most lavish green velvet. And I see something new in pigeons, those flying vermin, whose neck feathers glint a magnificent green and pink in the sunlight, and whose soft cooing is strangely soothing.

Travel has always been a difficult thing to define in philosophical terms, but in slowing down, looking and really appreciating my surroundings, I feel like I’m travelling. Digital developers will have to do something big to come close to replicating all of this – and when I later summit my virtual Everest, it doesn’t give the same joy as watching those Victoria Park pigeons. We will be seeing more and more mind-bending and beautiful virtual worlds in the years to come – but to me, the real world still has the upper hand.


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