Saturday, May 28, 2022

Is the Metaverse here to change travel as we know it?

The future is here and whether we like it or not, it is a virtual reality where artificial intelligence, augmented reality, virtual reality and 3D avatars will form the means of communication and sharing information.

The last two years, when restrictions on travel and community mobility kept everyone indoors, people turned to technology as a travel substitute among other things. It saw a rapid development of Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR) as its ability to simulate real-life experiences opened doors to a wide range of virtual experiences and virtual travel, especially when actual travel was not possible.

The idea of a virtual world or Metaverse is not really new. In 2003, Second Life, an early version of Metaverse or immersed virtual space was launched. It allowed users to create virtual representations or avatars of themselves and interact with places, objects and other avatars as they live and explored in their virtual world (also known as the grid).

Today, thanks to companies like Microsoft to Meta (Facebook), who are putting technology together to build the Metaverse, interest has piqued again, although in very early stages. The technology will likely combine aspects of social media, cryptocurrencies, augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR) and online gaming so users can act and interact virtually.

Metaverse is the version 2.0 of the internet, one that will allow you to immerse in it rather than merely look at it. A world that can allow you to walk, interact and perform activities like buy and sell things, make friends, form communities, have meetings,  play games and so much more.

Metaverse’s primary goal is to allow users to interact virtually, overcome the limitation of devices (such as smartphones or tablets) and immerse themselves in a new, virtual world where the line between what is physical and what is digital are increasingly blurred.

Facebook’s own definition of Metaverse, the ‘successor to mobile internet’ was ‘embodied internet in which people can have a presence’ to do anything, including work, play, make cinema trips, game, go to concerts, play sports, and hang out.

Metaverses won’t be limited to one platform. It allows for your avatar to move from a virtual reality (VR) environment to 3D applications on a flat-screen monitor or TV, to AR apps on your mobile phone, allowing for a continuous user experience in the metaverse. The whole concept is a long way to becoming fully realized but it is here to stay.

But what does the arrival of this new 3D, augmented-reality, mean for the future of travel in reality? Are we really ready to give up the chaos of an airport and long-haul flights and settle to discover the streets of Milan or watch the Northern Lights ‘virtually’? Can this actually replace man’s desire to travel and experience the real world?  If anything, the pandemic showed us that a transition into virtual living was possible and acceptable. But where does one draw the line?

While Metaverse can bring immense benefits to the ‘process of travel’, will it directly be detrimental to the actual process of traveling, is left to be seen. Swapping hour-long flights and a huge travel budget for a VR headset may sound easy but people aren’t jumping on that boat yet.

Augmented reality and virtual reality have been around for years now and surely Metaverse could take those experiences to a new level, making users feel as though they’re genuinely sitting in a café in a cobbled European street. But can it compete with the ‘real experience’ of smell and taste and real human interactions, that we missed incredibly over the last 2 years. Unlikely.

What it most definitely could do, is enhance our travel experience and better prepare travelers for their journey. What it could also do is inspire the traveler to experience something new, inspiring and previously considered out-of-reach.  

Amadeus recently announced a partnership with Microsoft to tap into the ‘Metaverse’. This was primarily with the goal of better sharing of passenger data among travel suppliers. For example, it would provide hotels more visibility of the entire booking and itinerary of their guest, which has become even more relevant in the current post-pandemic travel scenario. The hotel will be in the loop in case of any changes in the guest’ itinerary, changes to their onward flights – be it delays or cancellations , and would allow the hotel to automatically offer the guest a late check-out or extension, as required.

The Metaverse also has huge potential to bring back the personalized travel agent-experience that will allow them an immersive browsing, booking and payments process. It could allow customers to chat, ask questions and make special requests and pay in a more convenient way – all from a safe and familiar environment. This ‘almost-human’ connection will also allow for better customer service during and after their trip.

It will also allow agents to go beyond, when it comes to delivering bespoke experiences like meet-and-greet with celebrities or personalized tours at art shows or museums and so much more. 

Metaverse also opens doors for those seeking sustainable tourism to try-out destinations especially when visiting historic sites, or destinations that have faced the brunt of over-tourism and in need of conservation.

The Metaverse can also inspire you to travel.  VR and AR tech will play a large role in helping the travel and tourism industry recover by whetting tourists’ appetites for new locations, helping travel agents book flights and hotels, and making travel more pleasant.

Things may be a little different for business travel where a 3D platform that allows companies and their employees to stage meetings, events, showrooms, and training sessions in a virtual space, may be preferred to worrying about catching flights, jet lag and office spends, but how long before the need for a human connection takes over? Also with employees choosing to combine their business and leisure trips, the need to get out is real.

Tourism companies can use this space as an advantage to accelerate recovery with VR in marketing campaigns and add value to their brand image in a post pandemic market. How uniquely they make use of this space, will give them their edge over competitors.

Few people believe that the Metaverse will ever fully replace travel, but instead the same virtual reality tech can contribute to the recovery of the travel industry. It is a slow journey and most likely one that will unfold as new technologies and innovations come to light in different products and services.

The future is imminent and the potential unimaginable.

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