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Put on a virtual reality headset and take a three-minute tour of Hoi An in Vietnam and Cairns, Australia. The clips feature between 10 and 15 locations in each city, enough to give customers a quick tour but not enough to make them feel like they've been there.

BT_20151211_ANFLIGHT11_8_2015704.jpg
Put on a virtual reality headset and take a three-minute tour of Hoi An (above) in Vietnam and Cairns, Australia. The clips feature between 10 and 15 locations in each city, enough to give customers a quick tour but not enough to make them feel like they've been there.

BT_20151211_ANFLIGHT11_8_2015704.jpg
Put on a virtual reality headset and take a three-minute tour of Hoi An in Vietnam and Cairns, Australia. The clips feature between 10 and 15 locations in each city, enough to give customers a quick tour but not enough to make them feel like they've been there.

The future of travelling

Virtual reality allows travellers to visit a destination before booking a holiday.
Dec 11, 2015 5:50 AM

HOW would you like to nip out to see Tokyo's famous Shibuya district during your lunch hour? What about the Great Barrier Reef in Cairns? There's actually enough time to fit in a trip to Vietnam's historic Hoi An before your colleagues even notice you're gone.

This is all made possible by Virtual Reality. Having been brought to the forefront by inventions such as the Oculus Rift and Google Glass, this technology was introduced to Asia's travel industry earlier this month by global travel company Flight Centre Travel Group and virtual reality production company TaKanto Virtual Reality.

The managing director of Flight Centre Travel Group, Suyin Lee, says: "This initiative enhances the dreaming and planning stage of a trip and inspires customers to interact with destinations they may never have considered. It's also a reason for people to come into the store and be able to interact not just with our people, but with the technology."

Customers can try out the technology for themselves at any of Flight Centre's three stores in Singapore. A virtual reality headset, worn like a pair of goggles, blocks outs all external light and tracks the user's head movements to align what they're seeing. It creates a 360-degree panoramic experience, making the user feel like they truly are in a different country altogether.

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Ms Lee, who was born in Kuala Lumpur and brought up in Australia, says: "It's immersive and it gives customers a teaser of what they can expect before booking their holiday. Travel can often be very expensive, and it's not something tangible so you don't always know what you're going to get. Virtual reality helps take some of the guesswork out of it."

The concept was first discussed at a Flight Centre management meeting in April. Ms Lee recalls: "Virtual reality came up in conversation, and we just thought, 'Wouldn't it be great if we could try that out with a few destinations?' We've often discussed how hesitant people can be in trying new destinations just on the word of a travel consultant or brochure, and this seemed like an exciting way to inspire people to be more adventurous."

Customers to Flight Centre's stores can view three-minute clips of Hoi An, Tokyo and Cairns via the virtual reality headset. The clips feature between 10 and 15 different locations in each city, enough to give customers a quick tour, says Ms Lee, but not enough to make them feel like they've already been there.

Once the initial surprise at being ensconced within a new world wears off and you're used to the feeling of shaking your head from side-to-side and up-and-down, the three minutes spent in Tokyo goes by very quickly. There are many sights to explore and with the accompanying sounds of each landscape, it isn't difficult to imagine you've been plucked out of sweltering Singapore and willingly deposited into cool Tokyo.

Some highlights are the Shibuya crossing, and a scene set at a shrine where a couple exchanges vows, and though the images are clear, you may need to re-watch the videos a few more times to get a complete sense of your surroundings.

Each destination clip takes about two weeks to create. TaKanto Virtual Reality's managing director Ariel Talbi explains: "We use between six to 12 cameras to capture images from a 360-degree perspective. Depending on the weather, light and other factors, it can take up to a week in one location to get the right snapshots. The processing afterwards involves stitching the images together, synchronising them, colour correcting them, and then compiling them onto a file compatible with the virtual reality headset. That takes an additional week."

Interestingly, the virtual reality technology was first developed more than 50 years ago. Mr Talbi explains: "It was first launched in the 1950s, and then again in the 1990s, but only over the last few years has the technology advanced in such a way that companies can actively use it. The images used to be grainy and computers didn't have enough power to support virtual reality the way they can now."

The technology was installed at Flight Centre's stores as part of a pilot programme, with plans to continue if there is a favourable response. It cost over S$30,000.

Ms Lee says: "The actual execution was seamless, but the challenge for us was in deciding if we wanted to spend the money on this pilot. We had to think about the logistics of it, with questions around how we would get feedback and how we would assess the success of it."

At present, everyone who tries out the headset is invited to leave their comments on a nearby tablet. Although the trial is set to last until the end of this month, Ms Lee shares: "Just from what we've seen so far, I think we'll continue to launch more destinations. There is a never-ending list of places in Europe and we'll probably expand to lesser-known Southeast Asian destinations like Sihanoukville in Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar as well."

She adds: "We can use it for much more than just destinations actually. We'd love to showcase what it would be like to be on a cruise ship or on a hiking expedition as well because those can cost thousands of dollars. It would really help take the anxiety out of the planning and purchasing decisions."

  • You can check out Flight Centre's Virtual Reality Experience at the company's three stores in CityLink Mall, Plaza Singapura and on Cecil Street.