Why you should care

Because booking a trip should be a lot simpler and more fun than it is now.

Picture yourself in the comfort of your own living room, researching a vacation worth blowing your savings on. But you’re not squinting at a screen on your phone or tablet: Instead, garbed in a headset and gear out of a Tron flick, you are virtually walking onto a plane and selecting a seat that isn’t in airline Siberia, taking a test drive in a Tesla rental car and making sure that hip hotel isn’t a youth hostel in disguise.

All of that is currently possible as more and more travel vendors use virtual reality (VR) content as the ultimate travel brochure. Now leap ahead five or 10 years. Imagine doing all of the above, and then add this new twist: putting the travel goodies you select in your cart, and then buying them without leaving your immersive VR universe. Sounds like sci-fi, but many experts believe it’s coming sooner than we think. “The big leap will be moving [VR] from a marketing gimmick to something that could bring in booking revenue,” says Sean O’Neill, a travel technology expert for Skift, a New York–based research and media company.

Navitaire is developing proof-of-concept hardware and software that will turn VR headsets into transactional tools for travel.

For most travel consumers, a disruption can’t come soon enough. Online systems were supposed to make buying travel products — airline and rail tickets, car rentals, hotel rooms — as simple as a few keystrokes. But the drill is increasingly complicated as we surf seemingly endless pages and options on the reservation booking sites run by online travel agencies (OTAs). Lowest price, best departure time, nonstop, one-stop, budget room, suite with a view … the list goes on and on. When it comes to exchanging money for goods and services, this $7.2 trillion global industry seems to be slowing down, not speeding up. According to Expedia, the average traveler makes at least 30 visits to websites to book a single trip.

Innovations like voice-driven searches already are poised to change the way we plan our journeys, but virtual reality would pole-vault us into a future free of screens and keyboards — and for that very reason some entrepreneurs are betting this option will ultimately supplant the familiar tech we now use to book travel.

Leading the pack in tackling the tough challenge is Navitaire, which is developing proof-of-concept hardware and software that will turn VR headsets into transactional tools for travel. And that functionality is designed to be incorporated into efforts by Avegant, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, HTC, Samsung, Sony and others who ultimately are trying to develop VR rigs that are consumers’ primary computing tool — one that’s used not on their desks or laps, but on their heads.

Justin Wilde, a user-experience developer who created a prototype for travel VR booking, notes that “20 years ago we couldn’t imagine how these devices would change our lives — video-game equipment wasn’t something you would have in your home.” Yet he concedes that it will be a challenge to get a fragmented travel business on board with the concept: 700 airlines, a half-million hotels and countless other entities sharing visual images of their products and integrating them into purchasing streams.

But the winners will be the ones who ride this horse in the direction it’s going. “The race is on for travel companies to come up with this type of personalized experience,” using technologies like VR or its cousins, augmented reality — which superimposes digital content onto a user’s view of the real world — and artificial intelligence, says Rashesh Jethi, head of research and development in the Americas for Amadeus, the Madrid-based travel technology giant that owns Navitaire and develops booking platforms for hundreds of the world’s major airlines and hospitality companies.

One issue: Compared with mobile devices and tablets, most “VR gear is expensive and cumbersome,” says Skift’s O’Neill. “And even when it’s cheap and lightweight, like Google Cardboard, it’s still clunky.” But he points out that as major players like Sony and Google work to bring down the costs of headsets and widen the audience for VR, travel transactions will feel more comfortable.

Indeed, VR headsets are becoming more affordable, with prices around $800 for an upscale product like the HTC Vive VR system. Research firm International Data Corporation estimates total shipments of headsets for VR and augmented reality will rise at a compounded annual rate of 58 percent over the next five years. And consumer adoption in the travel field may be accelerated by VR use in other fields. Jethi points out that VR is already taking off as a tool in real estate and automobiles — two other types of big-ticket purchase items that can’t be fully experienced in advance or easily returned for a refund.

Scott Wainner, CEO of Fareness.com, a Bay Area–based OTA, says he understands the appeal, but sees a dark side to it, at least from the standpoint of the travel business: Virtual reality could become so much like, well, reality itself that it could dampen people’s wanderlust. “I own an Oculus Rift, and it’s getting really immersive. Before I went to Venice, I used Google Earth for Oculus to fly around the city and see what it was like there, and it really helped orient me much better than a flat map or pictures could,” he says. “But when VR becomes nearly indistinguishable from reality, it could start cutting into actual travel bookings.”

In this admittedly far-fetched vision of the future, travelers will get all the thrills of seeing Rome or Rio sans the pickpockets, bad food or other ills that beset the world’s tourist meccas … or, for that matter, without the hassle of booking and the expense of actual travel. Now that’s a scenario that might strain the credulity of even the most devoted sci-fi fan.

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