Going virtually where you’ve never gone before

Humans come fully equipped with curiosity and an irresistible urge to explore the next horizon. In 2018, that wanderlust added nearly $9 trillion to the global economy according to the World Travel and Tourism Council.

It’s been a different story for 2020 as pandemic travel restrictions crippled airlines, cruise ships, hotels, and Airbnbs with up to 90 percent fewer bookings overall. While it may take years for the industry to recover, the shutdown is proving to be an unexpected boon for the virtual reality market, which reports a big spike in interest.

Once the domain of video gamers, virtual experiences are increasingly popular with educators, ecotourism operators, retirement and care facilities, as well as would-be tourists who are bored and stuck at home.

VR technology and 360-degree video were already in use by a few airlines and travel agents as a vacation destination “try-before-you-buy” experience. Today, companies like Visualise and National Geographic give consumers a chance to virtually immerse themselves in the wonders of Machu Picchu, Cuba, the Great Barrier Reef, or even the horrors of war-torn Syria.

It’s all an educational goldmine for Andrew Perkins (’95, ’98 MBA), director of the Washington State University Center for Behavioral Business Research. The associate professor in the Carson College of Business runs a virtual reality laboratory where he studies the physiological and emotional responses that occur while someone is experiencing a virtual space.

One of his goals is to compare how people behave in real versus virtual retail environments.

Using an Oculus Rift VR headset and a specially designed computer, Perkins has participants don goggles and walk through a virtual art gallery, for example, while measuring their responses to changes in the layout and ambience.

“We invented a way to collect data in the virtual space,” he says. “For the experiment in the art gallery, they can walk into another room and use their controllers to answer survey questions in 3D right in front of them—just point and click.

“Figuring out how to get that to work was a tough nut to crack,” Perkins says. “Once you take someone out of the virtual space and hand them a clipboard and pen, the VR effects may vanish. So, we had to find a way to collect data while they are still in VR.”

Perkins says the virtual experience can activate the same emotional responses that, at least on some level, happen in the real world. He personally tries out each virtual environment before enrolling study participants and says the experience can be shockingly intense.

“I’ve done roller coasters, dinosaurs, and standing on a platform a thousand feet in the air,” he says.

An especially intense program was experiencing rock climber Alex Honnold free solo the 1,500-foot El Capitan wall.

“When you put on the headset, you are sort of floating in space as you watch him climb from bottom to top,” says Perkins. “I rock climbed for 20 years and I can’t even watch the entire thing. It’s that emotionally difficult and scary to watch him climb this incredibly difficult route.”

Perkins also had a graduate student try a virtual astronaut training program. “The kicker is that if something goes wrong, you go spinning off into space. You can be crawling along carefully fixing the space station when suddenly your rope breaks and you’re head over heels out of control,” he says.

“When the student exited the program, he’d sweated through his shirt, and the goggles and controllers were soaked—he was so viscerally a part of that experience.”

But while virtual reality can be incredibly immersive, Perkins says the technology has a long way to go before it can become an authentic travel alternative.

“The goggles are still heavy and large, and we use little hand controllers. It can be disorienting if the space is not well designed because, when you disconnect what you’re seeing and hearing from what your body is feeling, it’s like being on a roller coaster and can cause motion sickness. So, we have to be very careful how we design these virtual spaces.

“As good as VR looks now, it will look a million times better five or ten years down the road,” he says. “Some argue it will be indistinguishable from reality—with technology we can’t yet imagine.

“It could be that we’ll have the ability to increase the physiological response so that if you’re visiting a virtual beach, we can make you feel the warmth of the sun or feel like you’re actually skiing down the Swiss Alps.”

Perkins says although sensory haptic suits could provide some of those experiences, many futurists predict we will soon have computer technologies that interface directly with the brain.


Web extra

Travel the virtual world: A few VR experiences to try out