If virtual reality is as successful as its proponents hope, hotel chain Marriott is playing a dangerous game. As of earlier this month, it’s touting what it calls the "first-ever virtual travel experience." Without ever leaving your home city, you can visit tourist hotspots thousands of miles away. You can have a beach all to yourself or stand at the very top of a tower without fear of falling. In other words, Marriott has decided to dip its toes into virtual reality with a demo that seems to defeat the entire purpose of hotels.
The day I step into its Times Square branch, that feels like a good thing, because it’s a terrible time to be stuck in a real-world hotel. Compared to the crystal-clear late-summer sky, the artificial lights inside are dim and yellow. They throw shadows around the hotel’s aggressively patterned carpet, its confusing strings of escalators and staircases, and the octagonal black-and-white pod that visitors are lining up to get inside — the one surrounded by black bands with the hashtag #GetTeleported. "Are you ready to get teleported?" the attendant asks. I say yes and sign one of the waivers that are gradually becoming standard procedure among businesses using VR, absolving Marriott of liability for dizziness, nausea, and any other possible side effects. Then she escorts me into the pod and fits me with a Rift headset and earphones, and I prepare for takeoff.
For a total of maybe five minutes, the travel pod takes you from this stultifying reality to a Hawaiian beach and London’s Tower 42. More specifically, it sends you to a classy virtual hotel lobby, where you fall through portals into London and Hawaii — even in VR, apparently, you need to book accommodations. While you could theoretically boot up the demo on any computer, Marriott’s pod is special because it’s "4D," incorporating fans, synthetic scents, and a platform that tilts and rolls to give you a sense of real motion. That’s actually a big difference. You could play a beach simulator on any Oculus Rift, but the 4D pod can separate you from reality in a way that a headset alone can’t. In Hawaii, a warm, vaguely tropical smell hides the ordinary hotel scent. In London, cold wind whips your hair back. When you fall through the portal, your body actually shifts forward. It’s all obviously artificial, but it’s close enough to effectively suggest a change of scenery.
"Your brain is just a collection of signals that it gets from your sensory organs."
Imaginary vacations were a fixture of pop culture long before the virtual reality boom. Ian Cleary, a VP for Relevent — which helped develop both the travel pod and the Game of Thrones Oculus Rift experience — says this project was inspired partly by Total Recall. "Your brain is just a collection of signals that it gets from your sensory organs. Whether those inputs are real or fake, at the end of the day it kind of doesn’t matter. If we can replicate them faithfully enough through these mechanisms, your brain believes that you went to these places and did these things."
It sounds great, right? Step into a booth and enjoy the ocean spray on an Indonesian beach or the view from the top of the Burj Khalifa. Take a quick trip instead of having to arrange a leave of absence at work. Feel like you’ve genuinely been somewhere you could never afford to visit. Be more comfortable saving your money instead of springing for that trip to the Bahamas...
Wait, says Marriott. Not so fast.
"People have such a love for travel, there’s really no replacing that cultural experience of being in the space, meeting the people, experiencing the food," says Marriott marketing VP Michael Dail. Cleary points out that current technology still struggles to render, say, human figures that won’t break the illusion of presence. "The technology may improve to the point someday where it can totally surpass that real experience," he says. "I don’t think we’re quite there yet." And, indeed, they’re not.
If you want to imagine VR that can replace actual travel, there are hints of it in Marriott’s synthetic world — at the very least, it provides a calming kind of sensory deprivation, a temporary escape from whatever you’ve been doing. The single existing "teleporter" is making an eight-city tour of the US until the end of the year. If VR entertainment takes off, the company could offer headsets in its rooms. If Marriott decides to keep working on virtual vacations, Dail says future experiments could take visitors to Costa Rican forests or Mt. Kilimanjaro — "people might say well, I don’t have the means or the funds to go there, but I would love to experience it through virtual travel." He suggests that travelers could take pictures of their experience and post them on Facebook or Instagram to "brag a little," although it’s hard to imagine a headset vacation provoking admiration and envy.
Either way, in this rudimentary state, the teleporter doesn’t so much sate your desire to go somewhere as whet your appetite. Which is, of course, just what a hotel company would want: virtual free samples for the travel industry. "I don’t ever see us getting" to purely virtual vacations, says Mike Wood, whose visual effects company Framestore also worked on the Game of Thrones project and Marriott’s teleporter. "But I see it as a way of showing someone just how breathtaking that place in Tibet or Hawaii might be, and [it’s] gonna make you think, ‘Wow, I really want to go and see that.'"
Virtual free samples for the travel industry
Because Marriott still needs physical guests, the creators of its "teleporter" are unusually likely to temper their praise for VR. Cleary says that "literally and figuratively, the sky is the limit," but he’s still quick to point out how far we are from a perfect experience. If the project ever becomes more than a marketing stunt, the team will have to tailor it to whatever devices people actually use for virtual reality — assuming it catches on at all. This hint of pragmatism leaves room for discussing interesting present-day technology. The pod’s 4D elements, for example, were developed by sending people to stand at the site with recorders, describing everything they felt so it could be replicated later. It’s a slightly low-tech supplement to the 360-degree camera’s cold and objective gaze, and the kind of thing that’s overlooked if we focus only on an ultimate, perfect future version of VR.
Instead of the all-encompassing alternate reality of Ready Player One or Snow Crash, present-day VR is increasingly showing up as a supplementary experience, whether it’s in movie special features or product tie-ins (even Mountain Dew has an Oculus Rift promotion). Virtual travel can’t compare to a few days walking through a foreign city, eating at restaurants and meeting new people. But today’s two minutes in Hawaii could be 2020’s whirlwind trip to see the Mona Lisa or the Leaning Tower of Pisa. If you’re going to be a tourist anyways, is it so much worse to do it virtually? It’s strange to see one of the most ambitious test cases of virtual reality — an idea that’s been predicted and speculated upon for decades — filtered through this limited, larval version. In some sense, it feels like we’re seeing the cracks in the dream before it’s even really arrived. At the same time, though, it’s becoming clearer what our foreseeable future could actually hold. Technology might not be advanced enough to sell people on Pisa right now, but by 2016, I’m at least looking forward to a perfectly immersive tour of the Louvre’s broom closets.