Virtual Travel

None of us is able to travel as much as we might like. (Okay, okay, some people do have to travel way more than they like for business or whatever, but that’s not discretionary travel to a desirable location in search of pleasure or satisfaction.) Whether our (desirable) travel is limited by cost, time, inconvenience, obligations, disability, or whatever, the simple fact remains that each of us would at various times dearly love to experience some other location than the one we are currently situated.

Whether sitting bored at home, in the office, in a waiting room, or even on a plane, train, or bus traveling to a highly desirable locale, we would dearly love to experience someplace other than where we are listening to the clock tick or staring out the window or daydreaming about wherever else we would prefer to be.

I call the ability to experience another place virtual travel. Technically, it is virtual presence, but in the spirit of “it’s the journey, not the destination”, we focus on the visceral and mental experience of the transition from here to there rather than just the there per se. And we also focus on the ability to easily and quickly jump from one destination to another, so once again it is the jumping (travel) that provides us with satisfaction, not the desire to remain forever at some single, final destination. Okay, if I really wanted to get technical I would call this Non-Linear Presence, but I think Virtual Travel is a bit easier to get your head around.

The advent of advanced modern technology, particularly high-resolution video cameras and broadband networking present us with the opportunity to make virtual travel a reality.

Just to be clear, I’m not using virtual travel to mean virtual reality with the bulky goggles and treadmills and all of that baggage. In my vision of virtual travel you are really looking at the real thing via live video and audio, recorded video and audio, and recent photographs, not some sort of digital animation or 3-D rendering. Not to denigrate the value of modeling, animation, rendering, and virtual reality, but it’s just a completely different experience and discussion topic.

What is virtual travel?

I don’t really have a fixed, solid definition of exactly what constitutes virtual travel, just the intuitive concept of experiencing being at another location, primarily in terms of sight and sound. (Maybe smell, taste, and touch can be added as well, but that’s well beyond what even I am interested in focusing on for the moment.) And chatting with others as well — maybe you could think of that as reading their minds or they could think of that as planting ideas in your head.

You should be able to see exactly what you would see if you were there in person. In living color, as they (used to) say. You should be able to hear exactly what you would hear if you were there in person.

Granted there are limits to fidelity, whether it be the resolution of the camera(s) or sensitivity, multiplicity, and positioning of the microphone(s).

3-D would be great, but I’m not insisting on that as an immediate requirement. Stereoscopic viewing is a real possibility, but not a mandatory requirement for version 1.0. Surround sound is also highly desirable, but also something that can be phased in.

Control is a tricky issue. Clearly you would like to be in complete control, moving and turning the camera exactly as you please in every moment, but there are practical and cost issues as well. My gold standard would be a rent-a-robot where you can personally direct the robot as you please, but fixed cameras, simple remote-control cameras, and cameras on tour buses are very interesting possibilities that can be more practical and economical than high-end virtual travel. And whether you are renting a mechanical robot or hiring a person to walk around with a camera is an interesting option. And sometimes just sitting back on a tour bus or pretending to be in a taxi meandering around may fit your mood better than being a purposeful adventurer.

Details, how to make it work

In truth, I think most of what’s needed for my vision of virtual travel is already commercially available and the it’s just a matter of putting all the pieces together. Granted, commercial success stories such as Amazon, Google, and Apple involved a little bit more effort than simply putting all the pieces together by pulling them off the shelf, but the point is that it’s not like we need to wait for physicists to discover how to do time travel and matter transmission.

Yes, I’ve thought it through to a lot finer level of detail than I let on here, but this piece is intended to focus on an expression of the vision rather than a detailed blueprint.

Genesis

How exactly did I get started on this virtual travel kick? Years ago, actually decades now, vintage 1983, the idea of traveling to Antarctica popped into my head. I just thought it it would be really cool (ha ha!), but thoroughly impractical in terms of technical feasibility, cost, time, convenience, and comfort. Instead, I thought that sending a remote-controlled robot with video cameras would be so much more effective.

An amused colleague chuckled and belittled my great idea by suggesting that my robot’s reaction to traveling to Antarctica would be to say “Jack, it’s cold here. Can I come home now?”

BTW, this was long before the advent of the Internet, Web, broadband, and cheap video cameras, or even (mass market) digital cameras of any sort.

Google Street View

Google Street View is awesome and I love to use it to visit a place I’m about to travel to so that I don’t feel so lost when I get there, but still only achieves a tiny fraction of the desired level of experience of virtual travel. It’s not video. There’s no sound. It’s not real-time. And the user experience… sucks.

WebCams

WebCams are awesome as well, but once again achieve only a tiny fraction of the desired level of experience of virtual travel. The resolution is usually poor. The view is almost always from a distance. No audio. Yes, webcams are close to real-time, but frequently more of a sequence of snapshots rather than full-motion video.

Some webcams actually permit remote control, which is truly awesome, but it’s always rather clunky to use and doesn’t come even close to delivering the kind of smooth, flowing, natural user experience that true virtual travel demands.

Live streaming and crowd sourcing

Virtual travel is almost an ideal application for crowd sourcing. Live streaming almost hints at the applicability to virtual travel, but… still comes up way short. Still, hordes of people walking around with running video cameras and microphones is a lot of raw material that is simply begging to be organized, presented, and distributed in a manner that smacks of virtual travel.

It would be great to be (virtually) walking around, see a tour group — or any other kind of gathering of people — and then just click to tap into their audio… and video as well, and then resume your own (virtual) travel at a moment’s notice and without any of the logistical hassle of entering and leaving the group. Virtually jumping into — and out of — a group — my kind of experience.

It’s all about the user experience

Sure, user experience is a key component of the design of any modern software solution, but with virtual travel we are effectively taking user experience to the extreme. Granted, gaming and virtual reality do as well, but the point is that having all the raw technology pieces such as high-resolution cameras, high-speed networks, and advanced robotics will all be for naught if the user experience is not absolutely fantastic. Anything less than a super-fantastic user experience would leave virtual travel as a less than desirable activity.

User experience on steroids may sum it up best. Seriously, the point I am trying to get across is that virtual travel needs a whole new level of quality of user experience that doesn’t even exist today, anywhere. But given the raw appeal of virtual travel, I think there will be a dramatic demand-pull effect that stimulates innovation in user experience, and gets designers constantly and repeatedly leapfrogging over each other to be even better.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that we need special hardware or completely unimagined software techniques, but simply that the criteria for “good enough” in the user experience design for virtual travel will have a much, much higher bar than even the best of the best web sites do today.

That said, version 1.0 of virtual travel won’t need to have the final answer to the greatest user experience, just enough to allow people to feel at least remotely (ha ha!) comfortable with the experience. Besides, the early adopters, the so-called lunatic fringe for any technology, will tend to be fairly tolerant of quirks if the net result is still a quantum leap forward.

Yes, mass adoption will require a dramatic leap forward in user experience, but even there evolution is more important than imagining that we can invent the ultimate user experience from the get-go.

The important thing is that a very significant investment in user experience, both initially and ongoing, is absolutely essential to the success of the virtual travel venture/adventure.

Picture in picture

There will certainly be opportunities for traditional picture in picture (PIP) viewing of multiple locations or multiple angles, but we won’t limit multiple view options only to the simplistic traditional modes such as PIP and split screen.

Maps and guide books

A key component of the user experience for virtual travel are decent maps and guidebooks. Maybe (almost certainly) not is the form we have today, even online, but a much better method of navigating around. In particular, movement needs to be seamless and feel natural, whether you are simply walking down the street, going across town, or going to the other side of the planet (or beyond!).

Paths

Rather that endure the tedium of manually controlling the camera (or the robot or device or person holding the camera) every step of the way, you could map out an intended path — or select a path from a guidebook or map — and then simply pause/resume along that path, speeding up or slowing down as desired, as well as turning the camera while continuing on the path, or taking manual control when desired, and then resuming along the path when desired. Or even hopping from one path to another, as desired.

Your actual paths will of course be recorded, either for replay or sharing. You may pick a path recorded by a fellow virtual traveler, possibly based on likes or recommendations.

Translation

Even if we can indeed mimic physical travel and transcend all of the physical downsides of physical travel, there is still the need for language translation. I mean, imagine how lost a person from Texas would feel when wandering around the streets of Boston without somebody to translate.

Whether automated or manual, translations of the audio track and visible signage could be shared by all cameras or microphones in the same immediate location, both to reduce cost and to improve performance.

Hybrid mode

There is no reason to limit virtual travel to exclusively a remote experience. Guidebooks based on handheld mobile devices would also have embedded virtual travel images that can also act as windows into the full virtual travel experience.

For example, one might sit on a bench in a public square and then virtually travel into buildings that are literally right in front of you.

True high resolution

The intent is that the visual virtual travel experience will be as if you were really there, and not as if you were viewing the world through a screen door. Displays that have sufficient resolution to avoid pixelation are commonly available today. High resolution video cameras are technically available, although not yet as readily available as desirable, but coming on quickly.

Technically, the model of virtual travel envisioned here really needs high-resolution cameras to truly thrive, but version 1.0 should do just fine with the lunatic fringe early adopters.

Coupling a so-so video camera with a true high-resolution digital camera should also do a decent job of filling the gap until typical video cameras finally achieve photo-quality resolution.

Community

Virtual travel will be a truly awesome experience for individuals, but combine that with community, whether friends, arranged groups, affinity groups, or random, complete strangers, and you have a whole new level of experience.

In fact, Virtual Community might become its own category of experience, transcending virtual travel itself.

Piggyback

Granted, you may want exclusive control of your personal virtual excursion, but if others have nearly exactly the same expectations, it could be a whole lot cheaper and more convenient to just piggyback on somebody else’s virtual excursion. Technically, I call this factoring.

There would be no requirement that an entire virtual excursion be piggybacked or not. It could be a spur of the moment decision. In fact, the system could/should alert you to possibilities for piggybacking as they arise.

Whether the piggybackers chat and otherwise interact or simply go along for the ride would be their own choice.

Client platform

Although there does need to be fancy and expensive hardware on-location and behind the scene, the user client requirements for virtual travel will be minimal. Literally, even a typical desktop, laptop, tablet, or mobile phone will be sufficient to have a very decent virtual travel experience. Sure, a couple of large and curved screens would offer a truly incredible virtual travel experience, even you average laptop screen and cursor movement will still deliver a great virtual travel experience, assuming a decent UX design, but that’s a given requirement regardless of the client hardware.

Sure, maybe goggles, eye tracking, and even a viewing room surrounded with screens and speakers would provide a whole other level of virtual travel experience, but at this stage that is just icing on the cake that we don’t even have yet.

Augmented reality

Virtual travel begs for augmented reality. In fact, it may be the killer app for augmented reality.

At a minimum there would be a variety of on-screen indicators that could be configured (all optional of course), such as location, compass heading, street and place names, distance traveled, distance to intended destination, arrows to points of interest, and itinerary. And that’s just for starters.

Advertising? Awesome potential. Real billboards (in client language) could trivially be replaced with ads focused on the actual user. And they could be live video ads rather than fixed graphics. Sure, this stuff could quickly get out of hand, but there could be a variety of modes or levels that balance cost and experience.

There is also the potential for ads to actually enhance the user experience. For example, program in what time you want to eat and what types of food you are interested in, and presto, you get appropriate alerts at just the right time. Absolutely breathtaking potential.

Product placement, a cousin of advertising also has great potential. I mean, if you are going to be looking at parked cars, they might as well be appealing models that companies are trying to sell people like you. And this works both ways — you could click on a placed product and indicated that it doesn’t interest you. In fact, maybe this is an opportunity for virtual travelers to make money, providing product interest feedback to vendors.

Enough on the commercial angle already.

Availability of photos, reviews, and other commentary can also be indicated in the video image.

You could also look inside buildings that you see.

Disabled?

Virtual travel will be an absolute godsend for people with disabilities which make it otherwise difficult if not impossible for them to travel or to do so conveniently and in comfort.

Although the emphasis is on the visual experience, the augmented reality features would also enable the transformation of otherwise purely visual information into a variety of other forms that could be consumed by those who are visually disabled.

Drones and self-driving cars

Any physical object, especially those that can move are great candidates for participating in virtual travel as physical platforms for cameras and microphones. This includes drones and self-driving cars.

Virtual travel itself is neutral as to whether the user will directly control specific movements of the camera platform or whether the user will interact primarily by specifying a travel plan and then merely pause and resume as the plan progresses.

Other ideas

I have plenty of other ideas for how to make virtual travel a truly awesome experience, but I wanted to keep this initial vision statement as simple as possible, and maybe keep a little of my powder dry in case any startup or consulting opportunities do arise.

To be clear, I’m just an idea guy at heart. Ideas and concepts are my currency. The reality and implementation are far less interesting to me than working at the conceptual level.

Yes, I do indeed wish to participate in seeing these concepts come to fruition, but my role would be limited to strictly advisory consulting and not hands-on implementation.

What’s next?

Actually, for me personally, I’m done. I’m really just an idea guy and I’ve already traveled, virtually, in my head to this promised land, so I have no personal psychic need to see it all become a reality. Still, it would be nice to see some enterprising individuals turn my vision into a reality. I’m sure it will be a lot of hard and challenging but satisfying work that will reap them both financial and psychic rewards, but good for them since there will be carrying the burden of implementation and execution, burdens for which I am both ill-equipped and uninterested. Sure, I would love to advice them on implementation and execution, but that’s as far as I’d be interested in going.

I’m sure virtual travel will become a reality in the not too distant future. I look forward to it.