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The future of ‘extended reality’ tourism is now, thanks to the pandemic

Students utilize TimeLooper’s Xplore augmented reality technology to digitally visit sites across the globe, such as this rendering that shows kids exploring the Grand Canyon’s south rim. (Ceren Gultekin)
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When the coronavirus pandemic shut down travel around the world, some natural, historical and cultural sites saw it as a call to redouble their efforts to embrace extended reality, both to let people tour these destinations from afar and to develop meaningful new ways for travelers to experience them on-site, in hopes of luring them back after the health emergency eased.

Extended reality is the umbrella term for technologies that allow the interaction of physical and virtual worlds, such as augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR). Each has opened up many possibilities for tourism. AR allows tourists at an ancient monument to experience its past glory, for example; VR, on the other hand, allows viewers to visit a historic site or museum remotely. A more intense focus on these technologies, experts say, will be a lasting legacy of the pandemic.

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“When covid-19 happened, every destination tried to offer an alternative way of communicating with its tourists,” says Suleiman Farajat, chief of the Petra Development and Tourism Region Authority in Jordan. Because Petra is a UNESCO World Heritage siteand Jordan’s most important historical landmark, officials at the destination had already been planning VR-based experiences. Thus, they were able to launch the Xplore Petra app in June 2020.

Made by TimeLooper, a tech company specializing in re-creating historical locations and events, the app gives users an immersive 3-D map of Petra at scale, with a bird’s-eye view of the entire ancient city and its landmarks. At points of interest — such as the amphitheater, monastery, royal tombs and treasury — users experienced life-size 3-D models and panoramic photos. “You can enjoy the site, regardless of your location,” Farajat says.

Several other creative remote options have launched since the pandemic started:

●The Faroe Islands’ remote tourism tool, with which users can interact live with a local and use the latter as their eyes and ears to experience the islands.

●A VR reconstruction of the Baalbek ruins in Lebanon, created by Flyover Zone Productions, the German Archaeological Institute and the Lebanese Culture Ministry’s Directorate General of Antiquities.

●The luxury tour company &Beyond’s virtual safari program live-streams from game reserves in South Africa. You can also book Zoom sessions with rangers.

●A VR-based northern lights tour by the Swedish travel company Lights over Lapland.

The New York-based TimeLooper has VR apps for numerous locations other than Petra, ranging from historical and heritage sites to famous parks and museums, such as the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, mining-era Breckenridge in Colorado, the Grand Canyon and a redwood canopy in California.

“In the pandemic world,” co-founder Andrew Feinberg says, “we have worked with our institutional partners to dramatically and quickly scale up their digital presence . . . which for many of these partners was nonexistent.” He has witnessed an increasing appreciation for the benefits of a digital presence — not only to attract tourists but to enable virtual field trips for schoolchildren, such as the one for Black History Month in February.

He sees great possibility for on-site visits, as well: “The ability to deploy 25, 30, 35 virtual reality headsets on-site at once for a synchronous experience for the visitor, that was impossible to do five years ago.”

Farajat’s vision is to have VR/AR as one item in a “digital buffet” served at historical sites, which would also include projectors, holograms and lighting. “Projectors can do wonders,” he says. In fact, he believes that projections could rival AR in delivering immersive experiences. An example would be work being done by LithodomosVR, using large-scale 360-degree projections supplemented with VR to bring ancient Rome and ancient Greece to life.

But while the pandemic has sped up the process, we are still probably at the very early stages of adoption of AR and VR, both in terms of the technology itself and its applications at tourist sites, says Ahmed Emara, a digital artist based in Alexandria, Egypt. “It’s promising, and it’s something that doesn’t have an equal, but [it] is not ready yet.” The technology needs to grow to a threshold of convenience to be viable, he adds.

For example, at an outdoor site with bright sunlight, mobile and tablet screens will be almost impossible to view, making AR apps useless, while moving crowds will “break” the AR experience. “In sites like the Valley of the Kings and all the tombs, it can get really crowded, [making it] a logistical hindrance to using this technology,” Emara says. Moreover, AR and VR applications are not socially shareable and are limited to just the person with the device, be it a pair of VR specs or a smartphone.

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Another challenge is deploying technology without making local guides redundant. “In a site like Petra, where we heavily rely on tourism, the current situation is not easy because the community has no income,” Farajat says. “It is very important not to make the tour guides fear that augmented reality or virtual tours, or even applications and audio guides, could take their jobs away.” To prevent that from happening, he hopes that eventually it will be the tour guides themselves who sell AR/VR experiences, so they can profit from it, as well.

“[If] you ask me where we see this going,” TimeLooper’s Feinberg says, “we believe that the hardware as it continues to evolve is going to ensure that these experiences are more and more accessible.” In the future, he hopes to develop tools that will allow archaeologists, educators and tourist sites to develop their own digital experiences. “That for us is where the next frontier will be.”

Dhar is a writer based in New Delhi. Her website is Find her on Twitter: @payaldhar.

Correction: A previous version of this article mistakenly referred to Beckenbridge in Colorado. In fact, it is Breckenridge. This version has been corrected.

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