There is little doubt that virtual reality will become an increasingly advanced tool for exploring the world, but what purpose will it serve when it comes to physical travel?
Jacki Ford Morie thinks VR is here to enhance travel.
With her project, the Augmented Traveler, she hopes to make history come alive on your smartphone, tablet and, eventually, see-through wearable device:
“When you’re travelling around, you don’t want to be putting something on your face to experience a location,” Morie says. “I mean, after all, you go to the location so that you actually can absorb some of the atmosphere of that place. But what if, when you went to these historic places, you could travel back in time and actually see characters from a distant time appear as if they were in front of you, talking as if they were living their lives and doing the things they did back then?”
That’s where the PastPort app comes in. It’s your — you guessed it — passport to the past.
The characters in the app will appear fully rendered and animated and will perform a three-minute story with some narration to help you understand the history of a specific site.
“So, say it’s Leonardo [da Vinci] and his assistant Salai, and they’ve come to Venice in 1499 to sell the prince a war machine. Now, there’s a lot of historical facts that are correct there, but we take some liberties and we say he’s sitting there in the courtyard with this machine and he sets it off. He goes ‘Let’s test it now, Salai.’ So, they set off the crossbow — which doesn’t shoot arrows, unbelievably, it shoots firey cannonballs — and the firey cannonball goes over you head and out to the bay where the Turks are moored. You’re living the story a little bit.”
Eventually — Morie says five or six years down the line — the characters will be intelligible agents. In other words, you’ll be able to ask Leonardo to take a selfie with you.
These things take time, and the technology is not up to scratch just yet.
“We have a lot of challenges with this particular application because augmented travel is not at that level of sophistication yet,” Morie says. “There are a number of technologies that still have to be created for this.”
But what stage are we at now? How real is this virtual world?
“We’re working on the first story for Leonardo and Venice,” Morie says. “We’ve had him modelled in 3D and his assistant. We’ve had them dressed and we’ve had them rigged, so we’ve got an animator working on the animation… We’re working on the user interface design for the application on your mobile device, and then we’ll put it all together…
“We want to show the viability of the product, we want to take it to Venice and do a focus group there, but we really need some venture money to go into full production. I’m planning eight story vignettes for the launch.”
The Augmented Traveler is intended to be a travel companion, not a replacement for real-life travel.
“It gives you that little bit of information that makes you feel like an insider. And people want to know, they want these cultural experience… I think it’s going to change our expectations for travel. It’s going to make it much more personal and much more real and make it more memorable.”
For the travel industry, the same technology could be used to allow a client to “try” a location or hotel before they buy. It could also create new possibilities for disabled travellers who otherwise wouldn’t be able to take part in certain activities.
“I think we haven’t even started to scratch [the surface],” Morie says. “I mean, it’s me and a team of three people. So that’s it right now. But the dream is pretty cool. I really hope it comes true.”