Fast forward: the future of travel tech
So your carry-on bag is a tangle of cables and your iPhone’s clogged with apps you rarely use? Take heart: the future of travel is lightweight and increasingly eco-friendly, with tips and itineraries beamed straight to your smartphone.
We asked experts at the sharp edge of travel technology to predict where they think the industry will transport us next.
Wearables get smaller and more chic
For many travellers, ‘wearable technology’ conjures up images of clunky Google Glass (now discontinued) and Apple watches, whose recognisable design screams ‘steal me’.
‘Wearable technology can be very conspicuous, which is the last thing you want while travelling,’ explains Dave Dean, founder and editor of travel tech website Too Many Adapters (toomanyadapters.com). But as wearable kit becomes more discreet, the possibilities for travellers are vast: especially when it comes to bridging language barriers.
‘In the next few years, it’s easy to imagine something like a pendant, watch or similar doing real-time two-way translation well enough to let people have a conversation without speaking the same language,’ says Dean. But he thinks more progress is needed before travellers can expect wearables to go mainstream.
‘I think the challenge for wearables is making battery life efficient enough,’ says Shawn Low, editorial director of trip planning and journalling mobile app Firef.ly (app.firef.ly). ‘If anything were to get huge, I'd love to see a wearable video camera with a battery that lasts at least six hours and shoots HD video.’
Trip planning goes live
Debates have raged for a while about how travellers build and book trips, but changes are already being felt, according to some experts.
‘We’ve seen Facebook and Instagram both add live features recently, but I’m predicting it will all be about “live” peer-to-peer chat,’ says Brian Young of G Adventures. ‘Instead of researching a destination on the internet for hours, people will just be able to “ask a local” in the destination, or someone who has been to the destination, for their opinion.’
Instant local advice is an exciting prospect. It remains to be seen whether live recommendations will eventually fall foul of the same criticisms – like partiality and fakery – as review websites.
Drones soar into the mainstream
Make room in your kit bag. As drone technology improves, aerial photography will be in easier reach of budding travel photographers.
‘Drones are going to peak in popularity as they become more portable, and as they ultimately become capable of self-flying and tracking,’ predicts Brian Young, managing director of G Adventures (gadventures.com). ‘This is already available on some drones, but as prices come down they will become more accessible.’
‘With the reduction in size and improvement in camera quality, these will push out the need for selfie sticks,’ says Young. Out with the forests of selfie sticks around major tourist sights, and in with swarms of hovering drones.
Seamless sightseeing services
Travel apps that streamline services are popping up everywhere, handling everything from booking functions to guide and map providers. Tech fans might want to look to the Nordic countries for an idea of how this could play out in a practical sense.
‘The most important app under development right now is the so-called MaaS ('Mobility as a Service'; maas.global) application which aims at improved intra- and interconnectivity between different transportation modalities,’ says Paavo Virkkunen, head of Visit Finland (visitfinland.com). MaaS aims to bundle together transport solutions, from bike shares to taxis, into a smart online service that shows the easiest way to get anywhere.
‘This would also enable seamless transportation solutions for remote and/or scarcely populated areas where touristic services are available,’ adds Paavo. Trialled in Helsinki under the name Whim, MaaS is poised to spread to new locations in 2017.
Air travel, for better and worse
Air travel also has its sights set on a sleeker user experience, particularly when it comes to in-flight entertainment.
‘Many airlines who have tested or instituted streaming entertainment have realized that passengers like it and can get by in many cases without bulky seat-back entertainment,’ explains Jason Clampet, co-founder of travel industry intelligence site Skift (skift.com). The plane of the future won’t have seatback TV screens, and the superior picture quality on your smartphone or tablet means you won’t miss them.
Meanwhile airport modernisations will have pros and cons for travellers, according to Dave Dean of Too Many Adapters. ‘Some will be quite intrusive,’ he says. ‘There will be cameras that track you throughout the airport, linked to automated security scanners that you'll be able to walk through without breaking stride or removing clothing’. Dean says others will be welcome changes, like being able to track your luggage at all times. The convenience of tracked airport experiences comes at the cost of submitting to surveillance.
Speaking of Big Brother, there remains a steep learning curve for travellers regarding data security. Many smartphones will automatically back up photos and other data to the cloud, and travellers can download an increasing new software and apps to browse the internet privately at public wi-fi spots. The technology is here – the trick will be making it sexier to travellers. As Dave Dean from Too Many Adapters put it, ‘Security is boring... right up until the point your phone gets lost or stolen.’
Eco-tourism teams up with tech
Green travel and new technologies have also made for an increasingly fruitful partnership.
Green Global Travel (greenglobaltravel.com), a sustainability consulting group, holds that eco-tourism is more important than ever. Managing partner and consultant Bret Love says the economic factors are just as important as environmental ones. ‘More people understand how essential sustainable travel is becoming in an era of tremendous wealth inequality and climate change,’ says Love. At the same time, it’s hard to cut through ‘greenwash’ (where travel companies pay lip service to eco-consciousness without following through). ‘We tend to do most of our research ourselves,’ he says, ‘but sites such as ResponsibleTravel.com and BookGreener.com can help.’
Apps are increasingly helping travellers green-proof their trips. ‘There are a growing proliferation of green apps designed specifically to help people travel greener,’ enthuses Sarah Reid, editor of Ecotravelist (ecotravelist.com). ‘A few I use are UNEP Carbon Calculator (unric.org), which calculates the habitat area needed to bind the emissions from your trip by car, plane or train; and Maps.Me (maps.me), which allows me to download maps I can use offline, so I don't have to buy one, or try to refold it!’
So the latest wave of technology can do more than transform your travel experience: it might have the power to save the planet.