At the 2017 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) — held in Las Vegas in January — virtual-reality (VR) technology was ubiquitous, with hundreds of booths demonstrating a slew of VR experiences debuting this year. Attendees reportedly showed strong enthusiasm towards the new technology. In fact, according to the U.S.-based Consumer Technology Association, 77 per cent of U.S. consumers are interested in purchasing VR equipment now. What for decades was considered a premature technology destined for an unknown future is rapidly becoming a reality.

The term ‘virtual reality’ has been popping up in tech-related conversations for the past couple of years, as companies such as Sony, HTC, Samsung and Facebook propel the technology to the cutting edge. But what is VR, for the many who’ve yet to pilot the new technology?

Virtual reality is a computer technology that combines specific hardware and software to generate realistic images, sounds and sensations in order to immerse the user in a simulated three-dimensional environment. Using a headset that projects an image through goggles, a user is able to move his or her head and see the projected image from a full 360-degrees. Built-in headphones provide accompanying audio and traditional joysticks let users virtually interact with and manipulate the images they see. Some joysticks also provide vibrations and other haptic feedback as users interact with the virtual objects in a VR simulation.

Virtual experiences can be utilized in video games and other forms of interactive entertainment such as movies, but also as a marketing medium. Major motion picture studios — including Sony, Disney and Paramount Pictures — are already using VR for marketing campaigns. Paramount Pictures, for example, partnered with production company Framestone in Oct. 2014 to create a VR experience using the Oculus Rift headset — produced by a division of Facebook. The experience was a tie-in for the film Interstellar and was available at select AMC Theatres.

Today, as VR products make their way into a variety of markets, the hotel industry is embracing the new technology. In the past year, Marriott Hotels and Resorts, Best Western Hotels & Resorts, Holiday Inn Express, Carlson Rezidor Hotel Group, Shangri-La Hotels and Resorts and Airbnb have all incorporated VR into the guest experience in some way. Marriott Hotels & Resorts launched a VR-based guest service in 2015, dubbed VRoom Service, which allows guests to order virtual-reality experiences to their rooms. VRoom Service — created in collaboration with Samsung — offers guests a Samsung Gear VR headset and accompanying headphones delivered to their room. The hotel chain has also released VR Postcards — a series of immersive travel stories that can be experienced in 360-degree 3D via a virtual-reality headset. VR Postcards are available to guests partaking in VRoom Service, as well as to the general public via Samsung Milk VR premium video service. “Travel expands our minds and helps push our imagination,” says Matthew Carroll, VP of Global Brand Management, Marriott Hotels & Resorts. “Our guests want to be in inventive spaces that help foster their creativity and thinking. VRoom combines storytelling with technology, two things that are important to next-generation travellers.”

Last May, Best Western launched its VR experiences at all 2,200 of its North American properties as part of the company’s brand refresh. For the past three years, Best Western has been working with Google to create 360-degree photos of its properties using Google’s Street View technology. Its new VR experience is an effort to take its existing offerings one step further and create a truly immersive experience, explains Dorothy Dowling, SVP and chief Marketing officer at Best Western. “This is going to allow customers to have an experience before they get to wherever they’re going and really qualify and quantify that experience in terms of what they want to do when they get there.” Best Western’s VR technology takes the company’s accumulation of 1.7 million Google photos and adds music, customized narration and 360-degree videos to create a virtual reality that, when viewed through a VR headset, will place users in a simulated Best Western hotel. “To me, as a consumer, I think it’s quite an amazing experience,” Dowling adds. “The first time I was [using VR], I was looking at the nap of the carpet and it was a really shocking realization to me that I was looking at the nap of the carpet like I was in the room — that I could actually see that degree of texture and get that sense of size and scale. I think, for consumers, that’s really going to redefine the game.” Best Western’s VR experiences are available through the company’s branded channels as well as on Facebook and Google.

Hotel virtual experiences are spreading through the hospitality industry like wildfire as each ensuing brand finds its own way to incorporate the technology into its guest offerings. Carlson Rezidor Hotel Group debuted its VR BluPrint in April 2016. The tool allows investors and developers to get a better understanding of the design process that’s involved in the company’s Radisson Blu hotel brand. In that same month, Airbnb — in partnership with California-based Matterport — introduced a VR tool that allows hosts to post 360-degree videos of their listings. The feature first became available to members of Airbnb’s Sonoma Select pilot program. A month later, Holiday Inn Express released a VR video starring the brand’s creative director Rob Riggle, promoting the hotel’s “power shower” experience.

There’s no denying that VR is making a big mark on the hospitality industry, but where is the technology headed? Virtual reality as a whole is still very much in its infancy. As a young and fledgling technology, the full extent of its utility has yet to be seen. In many ways, VR is comparable to what smartphones were when the iPhone was first gaining traction in the mobile-phone market; standalone headsets are still too expensive for mainstream use — with Facebook’s Oculus Rift priced at $800 and HTC’s Vive at $1,229 — so they remain novelty products at demonstration booths or as part of a paid hotel experience.

In the not-so-distant future, however, we can expect to see people carrying around personal VR gear much the same way everyone now has a smartphone. “Head-mounted displays are about to really hit the mainstream,” says Adrian Slobin, Global Initiative lead at Boston-based tech marketing and consultancy firm SapientNitro. “They’re going to get cheaper and be given away with cell-phone contracts. Pretty soon it will just be one more piece of gear in your life. Where consumers are, brands are going to go.”

In such a landscape, the hospitality industry will need to adopt virtual reality as yet another medium through which to communicate with potential guests. Those hoteliers who can create meaningful and original content for consumer VR owners, will be the brands that will stand out from the rest.

Volume 29, Number 2
Written by Eric Alister 


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