It’s no secret that I love to travel. See new places, experience different cultures, try different food and so on. At the same time I have to balance this against the ever increasing cost of air travel, hotel costs, tourist taxes and what have you.
But at a conference in Frankfurt a couple of years ago, one of the keynote speakers was Dr Robert Ballard who is a oceanographer and devotes his life to exploring the depths of our oceans . His big claim to fame is that it was he who discovered the wreck of the Titanic.
He talked about how technology now enabled him to explore deeper and for longer than ever before. By using robots backed up with high speed data communications, instead of flying out to a ship somewhere in the Pacific Ocean and then spending 2 hours slowly descending in a submarine to spend just 2 hours exploring before spending 2 more hours trying to get back to the surface without getting the bends, he can now do his exploration from the comfort of a university campus on the mainland.
Not only is this safer, but it means where as before he was limited to just 2 hours per day of exploration, he can now spend days and weeks at the bottom of the sea bed discovering new life forms as he goes.
But he had taken this one stage further.
Not only did he have a control centre for the remote sub in his office, he had actually managed to roll out a number of these control centres to a number of other universities, colleges and schools. We were shown a video of a group of 10 year olds not only watching live images from the bottom of the Pacific but they were actually in control of the submarine. Controlling the sub in much the same way as a PlayStation they were able to tell it where to look and where to go.
As you can imagine, the kids were hooked from that point on.
But the point made was that if you can virtually place a 10 year old at the bottom of the Pacific, then you could probably place them anywhere and thus the conversation around Virtual Tourism.
Scale this back a bit and whilst you have Dr Ballard exploring the depths, there are a number of commercial organisations who have been mapping and scanning the surface for a number of years. The most obvious example of this is Google with their StreetView project.
There are now a number of free services that really do enable you to be virtually there. To walk around, change your point of view and explore the world.
Earlier in the year, Google launched their 3D Photo Tours for more than 15,000 landmarks which takes the existing StreetView imagery and adds photos submitted via Panoramio and Picasa Web users taking the detail and quality to a whole new level.
And they haven’t stopped there.
As well as their StreetView camera cars, Google have also mounted their cameras on the backs of bikes and been cycling around places that were previously inaccessible from Stonehenge to Disneyland
Likewise Microsoft have introduced a similar idea into Bing Maps where you are once again able to walk along a street.
Indeed on some of these services you are not only able to walk along a street but actually enter the stores and look around there as well.
But what really caught my attention today was the launch of Googles World Wonders Project where they have collected a number of historical sites together for you to explore and discover all from the comfort of your arm chair.
So for my son Sam who is 9 years old, virtual tourism is here. Before we went to Budapest in the Spring I found him exploring the city using StreetView. He doesn’t have to wait for us to jump on a plane to discover what a new place looks like. He can do that today.
But it’s not the same is it?
These are still static images. You don’t get a feel for the place, the sounds, the smells the people. Sure I can visit a beach on StreetView but I can’t feel the sun on my face or hear the waves crashing on the sand.
But for a 9 year old, he is still able to experience and discover places I could only dream about when I was that age or had to read about in a book.
But there is something new on the horizon.
Project Glass. Again from Google.
These are a pair of glasses that recognise where you are and allow you to overlay computer generated information on the world in front of you
But remember that this is Google. And whilst a lot of what we see about Google is the content they give us, most of their business is built on the information they gather from us.
Here we suddenly have the concept of a roaming camera walking the streets and feeding data back to them. Suddenly StreetView can actually get right into your living room or kitchen and that whole virtual model they have of the world gets even more detailed. I am not sure however I would like to have my bedroom featured on the Internet.
But all of this technology allows you to roam around a virtual world that happened at some point in the past.
Thinking back to Robert Ballard, what he was doing was in real time. Using robots.
This technology is often referred to as TelePresence and there are a number of variations on this.
I have already mentioned how we can transport a 10 year old to the bottom of the Pacific but there are more down to earth applications.
Anybots is a company that can sell you a virtual you. A robot that roams around your workplace whilst you sit in your home office. It allows you to virtually walk around your workplace and actually see in real time what is going on. It has a screen on it so people can see you as well so in theory, you could virtually walk up to somebodies desk and have a face to face conversation with them
Applying this to tourism, maybe I could rent one of these online and then use it to explore a city from the comfort of my armchair. This way I could see the location in real time and see moving images and hear the sounds. You could even interact with the locals as they could see and hear you as well.
If however you think tourists on Segways are bad enough, wait until you see a herd of these coming down the pavement towards you when you are out buying a newspaper on a Sunday morning.
And then there are the Google self driving cars (yes really)
We now have a car that can drive itself on public roads so perhaps we could be all virtual tourists inside that car and go on a virtual road trip?
Personally I don’t see how this differs much from a coach tour where you pass through town after town and can only stare out of the windows as the real world passes you by. Maybe I could use it to transport my Anybot to the beach?
But the important point here is that all this technology exists right now. This is not science fiction. It is also not virtual reality where you have computer simulations of the real world.
This is reality it’s just that you are looking into it remotely.
So with the cost of travel rising and time becoming a precious commodity, is virtual tourism the answer?
I would like to say no but really can see where the technology plays it’s part.
For Sam who is learning about Egypt for a school project, what better way to learn that to spend a few hours walking around Cairo and the Pyramids?
And for those for who travel is just a dream due to age, ability or just a fear of flying it gives them a taste and gets them closer than they have ever been able to get before.
And of course as the political map constantly changes, there are countries today I would not travel to that only a couple of years ago were considered prime holiday destinations. For now this is the only way I can get to experience them.
So I think virtual tourism is real and to some people is the only option but until the technology allows me to see, hear, smell, touch and interact, my preference will still be to travel and actually be there.