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Virtual travel is finally about to take off - and not for the reasons you'd expect

The Telegraph logo The Telegraph 29/01/2021 Robbie Hodges
a man and a woman sitting on a couch posing for the camera: man wearing vr headset on sofa © Provided by The Telegraph man wearing vr headset on sofa

The hottest destination of the next decade? It won’t be far-flung or hyperlocal; it will be hard-coded. If the current trajectory of technological advancement is any indication, then all of us – Mum, Dad, Grandma and the kids – will soon be swapping our sunglasses for hi-tech headsets and holidaying together in “the metaverse”.

A word originally coined by Neal Stephenson in his 1992 science fiction novel, Snow Crash, the metaverse is no longer the stuff of fantasy. Put simply, the metaverse is an emerging, shared online space in which users, embodied by avatars, can socialise safely with friends and family.

As gateways to this alternative reality opened up last year, hundreds of thousands of people checked in.  The felted folds of the Faroe Islands might have been closed for business, but that didn’t stop 700,000 visitors (five times the number of tourists who went there in 2019) from heading out on virtual rambles between April and June. As part of the archipelago’s  “remote tourism” project, islanders were equipped with high-definition cameras and directed to run, walk and jump by tourists grounded at home via their mobile phones.

While the Faroese were being ping-ponged over field and mountain, elsewhere in the metaverse avatars clinked daiquiris while reclining poolside at Capella, a luxury hotel on Singapore’s Sentosa Island – which, in the absence of living, breathing guests, had remodelled itself in the style of the popular Nintendo game Animal Crossing.

a birthday cake decorated with flowers: sentosa on animal crossing - Sentosa Development Corporation/Sentosa Development Corporation © Provided by The Telegraph sentosa on animal crossing - Sentosa Development Corporation/Sentosa Development Corporation

Meanwhile, popular crisps brand Ruffles invited American college students to let loose in the Brazilian party hotspot of Porto Seguro, which it had transplanted to the social simulation game Fortnite.


Gallery: 10 best ARKit apps: Our pick of iOS augmented reality apps (Pocket-lint)

I know what you are thinking: “It will never replace the real thing”. But increasingly, developers are arguing it will – especially for people with mobility issues or in respite care. The real benefits of virtual travel experiences won’t be reaped by tech-savvy teens, but by their parents and grandparents. 

The latest VR headsets combine immersive visuals with crystalline sound and arm motion sensors. “It’s so convincing that users are regularly moved to tears,” says Billy Agnew, founder of Viarama (viarama.co.uk), a social enterprise that aims to establish VR services in every nursing home, hospice and respite centre in the UK.

Since 2016, Billy has sent people trundling through the Highlands on a motorbike and back to honeymoon hotspots, as well as arranging transcontinental family reunions by hosting users scattered all over the world in virtual chat rooms.

More than just a novelty, these journeys through time and place have been proven to ­alleviate the suffering of those with dementia by triggering automatic behaviour responses.

While the price of VR technology remains a barrier to widespread adoption (Vive headsets used by Viarama cost between £549 and £1,299), organisations like Billy’s are gaining ground – Rendever and MyndVR, for example – as the metaverse’s potential for combating epidemics such as loneliness and depression, as well as chronic neurological conditions, is realised.

Today’s metaverse might be a teenage pleasure playground, but tomorrow’s will be awash with silver surfers. In the future, an online holiday could be just what the doctor ordered.

Robbie is an analyst at TrendWatching.

What do you think of virtual travel? Let us know in the comments section below. 

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