Is the future of travel in the past?

Jacki Ford Morie speaking at the Web Summit
Jacki Ford Morie speaking at the Web Summit
Image: Sportfile

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.”

Jacki Ford Morie in conversation with Mary Aiken
Jacki Ford Morie in conversation with Mary Aiken
Image: Sportfile

Read Travel Extra’s special digital pull-out, the Summit Supplement.

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Hailing the eternal taxi ride

Jorge Pilo is co-CEO of Easy Taxi, the  e-hailing app that has seven million users in 30 countries. 

Founded in 2011, the service currently has 155,000 taxi drivers on its books, 50,000 of which are based in Brazil alone.

In fact, most of the business is focussed in Latin America, where Easy Taxi holds the dominant position as a safe and reliable tool to hail a cab.

“Supply is plentiful in Latin America,” Pilo says. “There are enough taxis in Lima, in Mexico City, in Sao Paulo. So the question is, how do you pick the best? The solution we’re bringing people is: we give you a taxi fast, which is safe and which you can trust. And you can pay with a credit card. It’s all about safety and convenience.”

Users can also monitor where their taxi is and check that it has been dispatched.

The service benefits the drivers too. They can take safer passengers, work less hours and get more rides.

“No-one becomes a driver in Latin America without going to Easy Taxi and registering,” Pilo claims. “And they come to us for a good reason. We’ve managed to get them to work 30 per cent less and make 30 per cent more. So, for the driver, the benefit is marvellous. He doesn’t have to be sitting by the road waiting for somebody to show up or driving around empty looking for a fare.

“They might start the day going to their spot where they’ll pick up their first passenger. Most of the time, they never come back [to their spot]. They just drop the first passenger off, and turn on the app. We call this the ‘eternal ride’.”

The app also gives them the chance to handle company accounts that have largely gone to local taxi firms in the past.

“A big percentage of rides are paid by companies…There were a bunch of taxis that didn’t have access to those rides. Now we have an agreement with these companies and [they can access] our entire base of taxis. So taxis now have access to more demand.”

The key to Easy Taxi’s success is its ability to diversify itself to local markets.

“Taxi is not a country business; it’s a city business. So Abuja is going to be different from Riyadh, which is going to be different from Sao Paulo, which is going to be different from Lima. What we’ve been capable of is localising our business… It’s a process that we’ve been able hone and improve and learn from every city.

“One of the things we’ve done particularly well is allowing cash payments in our ecosystem. Because of the regions we are in, cash payments are still very, very relevant. Credit card penetration is not there yet, so you have to allow people to request taxis and pay in cash. That’s the only way you can massify the business.”

Easy Taxi is now available in 300 cities, but you won’t find it in Ireland any time soon.

“In terms of Latin America, we’re really focusing on strengthening our position. We are already in a very large region, so we’re focussing on getting all the supple. We are now in all of the capitals and most of the second tier cities in all of the countries — in Brazil we’ve even gone to third tier cities — so I think the expansion will come from maximising those cities. The penetration  of e-hailing is still limited. there is still a huge potential. The process now is getting the word out and convincing more  people to stop hailing off the street and instead going through the app.”

Read Travel Extra’s special digital pull-out, the Summit Supplement.