VR, AR. Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past few years, you’ve heard of virtual and augmented reality, technologies that have made the leap from sci-fi to smartphone. And now they’re transforming every stage of the travel experience.

First, let’s recap: VR refers to a computer simulation of an environment that you can experience through the senses – principally sights and sounds but there’s more to come – and interact with. Doing so requires a headset, which is sometimes paired with more exotic forms of interface such as sensor-laden gloves. AR works differently, superimposing digital information on a user’s view of the world through a device such as a smartphone, thus adding an extra layer to reality.

A traveller wearing a virtual reality headset © Anton Chechotkin / Alamy
Is this the traveller of 2019? © Anton Chechotkin / Alamy

After years of predictions about these technologies eating the world, followed by a few false dawns (hello and goodbye, Google Glass), it does now feel as if we’re past the point of no return; the tentacles of VR and AR reach well beyond the limits of geeksville, ensnaring not only the entertainment industry, but also domains as diverse as retail, healthcare and manufacturing to name but three. And then, of course, there’s travel.

Armchair travel has entered a new golden age thanks to an explosion of apps offering immersive 360-degree content: just slip your smartphone into a headset, or don a more powerful standalone version, and you can tour destinations, attractions and hotels without ever leaving the house. Heck, you can even visit NASA’s Curiosity rover on the surface of Mars if you feel like it (alas, you can’t book a weekend break on the red planet just yet).

But the potential of VR and AR becomes even more brain-liquefying when you ponder how they might enhance a trip as it unfolds.

A lone man on the side of and empty road looks at his smartphone © Joshua Resnick / 500px
Your virtual reality app will not conjure up a taxi, unfortunately © Joshua Resnick / 500px

Bringing history to life

Good storytelling is what makes a great museum, so no wonder cultural institutions have embraced the potential of VR and AR, the next best thing to time travel.

Washington, DC, USA: There’s nothing fusty about the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History’s 1881 Bone Hall. Examine the exhibits there by using the Skin & Bones app to see skeletons escape their mounts and extinct species come to life.

Waterford, Ireland: Meet the mighty warlords who founded Ireland’s oldest city, thanks to a magic combination of real-life actors, holograms and VR at the King of the Vikings experience at the Waterford Museum of Treasures.

Darwin, Australia: Relive one of the darkest days in Australia’s history in real time at the Royal Flying Doctor Service attraction in Darwin. It features a spectacular VR re-creation of the February 1942 bombing of the city’s harbour, as well as a 55-seat hologram cinema.

A woman looks through a Timescope VR viewer on a street in Paris © Photo courtesy of Timescope
Get a glimpse of the past in Paris © Photo courtesy of Timescope

When worlds collide

Bringing history to life doesn’t have to happen in a museum, of course. You’ll also find examples of these technologies in the open, where they add a whole new dimension to a trip.

Paris, France: Fancy a peek at Paris the day after the 1789 revolution? Gawp at panoramic, historically accurate views of the city as it once was through a pair of VR-enabled telescopes, or Timescopes, installed near Pont d’Arcole and Place de la Bastille.

Spain and Greece: Join a guided walking tour of Seville, Barcelona, Athens or Ephesus with Past View to try a pair of smartglasses that superimpose re-creations of historical scenes on the locations where they actually happened.

Sites across England: Conjure up virtual guides and unlock intriguing stories at a dozen heritage-heavy sites, from Durham Cathedral to Chester Roman Amphitheatre and Maritime Greenwich, with Explore England’s Historic Cities app.

Parallel universes

There are one-off uses which demonstrate that, just like AR and VR, the human imagination knows no bounds.

Dubai, UAE: Vertigo-proof visitors to the 125th level of Dubai’s Burj Khalifa – the world’s tallest building – can embark on a virtual climb to the top wearing suction gloves, then freefall 828m to the ground.

Tokyo, Japan: Whereas other carriers use VR soberly to showcase their network of destinations, First Airlines has a more radical approach: it ‘flies’ headset-wearing passengers to New York, Paris, Rome or Hawaii without leaving Tokyo.

Virtual reality gamers at The Void © Photo courtesy of The Void
Gaming taken to the next level at The Void © Photo courtesy of The Void

VR as the star

Though these technologies are about enhancing reality, they’re often used to escape it entirely. These attractions make VR the star, offering cutting-edge immersive experiences.

Virtual rollercoasters, worldwide: VR has colonised theme parks in various guises, but none more spectacularly than the virtual rollercoaster, which pairs physical thrills with fantasy worlds. You’ll find them at Six Flags throughout the US, Legoland in Malaysia, Germany and Florida, and many others.

Out-of-home VR experiences, worldwide: Companies such as IMAX VR, The Void and Zero Latency are rolling out a new class of entertainment venue: warehouse-like spaces designed solely for state-of-the-art, free-roaming, multiplayer VR games. All three businesses have growing global networks.

Discover more travel trends for 2019 or explore our selection of the best places to go over the next 12 months.

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