With over a year’s worth of lockdowns and travel restrictions behind us and, potentially, many more months to come, the travel and tourism industries have taken an enormous hit. But, while the aggregate impact has certainly been severe, that is not to say that all tourism and travel businesses have been suffering. Indeed, with people doing whatever they could to just ‘get away,’ so-called ‘staycations’ became an increasingly popular thing to do. And while there have certainly been some smaller accommodations and businesses that have done particularly well out of this, they are far from the biggest benefactors of our changed travel habits.
That title would belong to Augmented and (in particular) Virtual Reality (AR and VR), which brought a whole host of experiences to the loungerooms of one and all, not just those fortunate enough to be living in an area conducive to tourism and local travel.
Forget Zoom: Biggest Covid-19 winner was Virtual Reality, not virtual meetings
Going by sheer numbers alone, Zoom was a highlight amongst the tools that allowed business to continue (sort of) as usual. But that result comes largely as a result of it being the only tool available to fill one of the most pressing needs of the time—virtual meetings and conferences. However, the use cases for online meeting software dwindle as soon as we’re all back at the office, meaning its time in the spotlight is necessarily limited—remote working will not remain as widespread as the threat of Covid-19 diminishes.
The story for Virtual Reality—another Covid-19 winner—is different though. This is in part attributable to the bump in interest in gaming that occurred throughout the pandemic. But a big part is also attributable to VR users seeking a virtual change of scenery, with virtual travel becoming a major use case for the burgeoning technology.
And while VR certainly benefited from a significant bump throughout the Covid-19 pandemic in much the same way that online video conferencing software did, its sustained success is not dependent on a sustained state of isolation and lockdown. Even virtual travel which, intuitively, should also decline in popularity as soon as life goes back to normal is finding enduring interest in the more traditional travel sector.
Demand for VR grew fast… too fast
As an aside, it should also be noted here that the additional attention VR received throughout the pandemic is easy to underestimate. Unfortunately, the adoption rate of VR throughout Covid-19 was severely hampered due to headsets being sold out. While this was partly attributable to the increased demand for VR, a compounding factor—and the one that really hurt sales figures—was the slump in hardware shipments that resulted from the pandemic’s supply chain disruptions. It was estimated that, by Q2 2020, shipments had slumped by 24%, right as the demand for new stay-at-home technology was hitting its peak.
With a significantly reduced cap imposed on hardware sales, a more telling statistic for gauging the increased demand for VR during Covid-19 lies in observing the rate at which VR usage increased: 71% of VR users reported an increase in usage throughout the pandemic. This, perhaps, says a lot more about the adoption rate of VR than unit sales, which was otherwise rendered unreliable as a VR interest indicator by the hardware shortages.
Interest in VR travel continues to grow, even as Covid-19’s end is in sight
There’s little need to explain away the increased interest in VR travel that resulted from the Covid pandemic—fully immersive escapades were exactly what confined populations needed to get away from the recurring drudgery of their homes. But what interest does the travel industry have in VR now that vaccine rollouts are bringing the end of the crisis nearer every day?
The answer lies in using VR as a marketing tool. Now it seems that destinations are increasingly using these VR travel experiences as a sort of ‘try before you buy’ tool, in the hope that the virtual teaser will be enough to pique the interest of travelers enough.
Arguably, this is a better use for VR travel than pretending that the virtual experience came anywhere near the real version. While we might be willing to suspend our disbelief during Covid-19 where we have little other option, everyone knows that the experience of a place is more than just visual. A Niagra falls teaser in VR may be impressive, but it cannot replace ‘feeling’ the sound of thundering water and the spray, nor the ‘super radically ultra HD 400k’ display that real life gives us. But it may be just enough to convince many people to make the journey.
VR travel marketing interest hints at VR’s future
VR travel making its transition into a marketing tool gives us a hint about the future direction of VR. As already noted, despite VR’s immersive qualities, it’s often a poor substitute for the real experience. Even something as mundane as clothes shopping in VR still misses vital pieces of the real-world sensory experience, such as the weight and texture of the fabrics used.
But, as with travel, VR makes the perfect tool for marketing clothing. It’s a natural draw for online consumers for whom the 2D studio-shot pictures are not enough. But it also allows brands to enhance the experience into something far more memorable. With a little creative flair and some effort on production, brands can even use VR to create deeper brand connections through one-of-a-kind experiences that even real-life can’t offer.
There is also the slightly more practical end of the spectrum, with apps like XRApplied’s AR home flooring app using virtual duplicates of real-world flooring products that home builders and renovators can use to pre-visualize how different floor designs will look in their homes. This time, Augmented Reality (AR) is being used (which is effectively the overlay of VR objects in a real world environment), but the principles remain the same—it is not about recreating the experience of installing new flooring in one’s home. Rather, it is about giving someone a taste of what the experience will be like.
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