Your next vacation may be virtual


  • TECH
  • Wednesday, 16 Oct 2019

The ageing of affluent societies is both inhibiting physical travel and creating demand for alternative ways to experience the world and stay connected to others. — Bloomberg

Japan's biggest airline is betting that the future of travel isn't travelling at all. For the last month, a married couple in Oita Prefecture has been interacting with a robot – called an Avatar – that's controlled by their daughter hundreds of miles away in Tokyo.

Made by ANA Holdings Inc, it looks like a vacuum cleaner with an iPad attached. But the screen displays the daughter’s face as they chat, and its wheels let her trundle about the house as though she’s really there, and even join her parents at the dinner table.

It may seem like an odd gambit for a global airline. But as populations age, tourism hotspots get more crowded, and overseas travel becomes less sustainable, ANA and its competitors are betting that they can make money by keeping would-be travellers happily at home.

"Virtual travel” is nothing new, of course. Storytellers, travel writers and artists have been stimulating the senses of armchair tourists for centuries. It's only in recent decades that frequent, safe travel – especially overseas – has become available to the non-wealthy, thanks in large part to low-cost airfares and home-sharing services.

In 2018, the travel-and-tourism business grew by nearly 4% and accounted for more than 10% of global GDP. Yet even as the world's middle classes climb out of the armchair and into economy-class seats, there are hints of a post-travel society emerging.

Concerns about sustainability – and movements such as "flight-shaming" – are taking a toll on carbon-intensive airlines, and could spread to other forms of travel. The tourism boom is stressing popular destinations, and forcing them to look at ways to limit visitors.

And the ageing of affluent societies is both inhibiting physical travel and creating demand for alternative ways to experience the world and stay connected to others.For the travel industry, virtual reality offers a tantalising response to these trends.

First Airlines, another Japanese company, now lets customers sit in a mock-up of an aeroplane in Tokyo, where they’re served fancy meals before taking VR tours of select destinations.

The company is targeting elderly travellers who don’t want the hassle of a real-life trip, and "flights” to cities such as New York, Paris and Rome are frequently fully booked. ANA is thinking bigger.

It wants to use robotics, haptic technology, and fast communication to create a "new mode of instantaneous transportation" that lets people carry their "presence, consciousness, knowledge, and skills" to remote locations.

In less-lofty terms, the idea is to make the VR experience more immersive by stimulating multiple senses, including touch. For example, video-conferences might soon be enhanced by letting participants shake hands, while other technology could one day simulate the feeling of walking on a far-off beach or a mountaintop.

Japan's space agency even hopes to use the company’s Avatars for lunar exploration. Of course, far-out technologies encourage far-out claims.

ANA doesn't plan to start selling Avatars until next year, and the initial versions will be decidedly crude. Profits, too, will probably be elusive: By one estimate, the global market for this kind of technology will be worth only about US$300mil (US$1.25bil) by 2023.

By contrast, ANA’s traditional travel business brought in more than US$19bil (RM79.7bil) last year. But if the business case for virtual vacations is still weak, the market for technologies that bridge physical distances between families and co-workers seems likely to only expand.

Over the past two decades, cheap video-conferencing apps have changed how families and companies around the world communicate. Inexpensive robots that let them interact physically are a natural next step.

ANA's robots may not replace its aeroplanes any time soon, but they’ll almost certainly be a part of travel's high-tech future. – Bloomberg

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners. Adam Minter is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is the author of Junkyard Planet: Travels In The Billion-Dollar Trash Trade and the forthcoming Secondhand: Travels in the New Global Garage Sale.

Article type: metered
User Type: anonymous web
User Status:
Campaign ID: 1
Cxense type: free
User access status: 3
Join our Telegram channel to get our Evening Alerts and breaking news highlights

ANA; airlines; VR; travel

   

Next In Tech News

Tencent resumes WeChat signups as gaming concerns persist
Vodafone Idea shares slump 24% as billionaire Birla exits
Zalando lifts profit outlook as ecommerce boom continues
SG teen learnt how to hot-wire motorcycles from YouTube to steal them
TikTok tests disappearing stories clone of Snapchat, Instagram
China should scrap gaming sector tax breaks, state media argue
Siemens to buy rail software company Sqills in 550 million euro deal
US senators pitch more targeted crypto measure in infrastructure
Drunk-driver detectors for cars part of US infrastructure bill
Facebook sparks row by cutting off researchers

Stories You'll Enjoy


Vouchers