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What virtual reality postcards can tell us about the future of travel

Would you put on a headset to see your friend's selfie in the Andes?

The question of travel is integral to discussions of virtual reality. Travel, at least for middle-class Americans, is the prototypical "experience" — something exclusive and unpredictable that exists outside the normal ecosystem of physical products and consumable entertainment, requiring active participation to really matter. Structurally, VR is just a 3D, 360-degree visual representation of a sophisticated movie or video game. But it's described in similar terms, as a way to experience "really being there" and build empathy with other people. The idea of sufficiently advanced VR calls into question where the benefits of travel actually come from, particularly when fans of telepresence promise to make them available from the comfort of a couch and at a fraction of the cost.

Maybe that's why Marriott seems so fascinated by it.

The hotel chain launched a "teleportation" advertising stunt last year, putting visitors in a standing booth with a VR headset and environmental effects that simulated Hawaii. This week, it's going in the opposite direction and debuting what it calls "VR postcards." Instead of pretending that they're literally visiting somewhere else, visitors to Marriott's New York Times Square and London Park Lane will soon be able to order up a Gear VR headset through "VRoom Service." Along with the rest of Samsung's virtual reality content, Marriott has added three spherical video clips from the Chilean Andes Mountains, a Beijing street scene, and an ice cream parlor in Rwanda. A traveler in the scene narrates each one as something between a short documentary and a very long wish you were here.

Marriott VR

It's not hard to imagine VR stands next to tourist trap postcard racks

The hotel headsets are impressively official: they come in square metal briefcases bearing the Marriott logo, holding a foam cutout with the Gear VR, an accompanying Samsung smartphone, and a pair of headphones. Visitors can keep them for up to 24 hours. But the fact that they're only in two locations for an initial test run of two weeks suggests that it's more of a publicity effort for the videos' release on Milk VR, where anyone can watch them. These aren't postcards so much as well-produced ads — don't expect to be receiving one from anyone you know, unless they're with a professional filmmaker. "The technology in cameras isn't there for the average person," says Marriott marketing VP Michael Dail. "But certainly if they could, that would be amazing."

The technology is improving quickly enough that it could easily democratize if VR sticks around. Google is pushing to make 360-degree video more mainstream by adding support for YouTube and establishing the Jump VR video ecosystem, which GoPro released a camera rig for this week. Granted, that camera rig costs $15,000, but it's not impossible to imagine tourist destinations setting up VR stands next to the postcard racks, given the medium's novelty appeal.

Marriott VR

VR is still essentially a better vacation slideshow

So the real question is, would they be any good? The biggest difference between Marriott's VR postcards and their physical inspiration is that you could probably read half a dozen of the latter in the time it takes to watch one of the former. Postcards are fun because they're directed at a single person — not generally posted on Facebook or Instagram — but don't demand more than a quick read-through. A vacation Snapchat message is closer to the mark. Right now, even very simple virtual reality involves putting on bulky, relatively complicated hardware and closing yourself off from the rest of the world.

Marriott specifically mentions and derides the stereotype of sitting in a dark room with a projector full of vacation photos, but present-day VR is essentially just a better projector and a darker room. It's not that VR video wouldn't be more visually compelling than projected photos. It's that very few people's vacations are fun to watch for long periods of time with no other distractions, even when they're exotic.

But the ultimate vision of VR isn't headsets, it's full "presence." In an ideal future, you could be someone during their vacation, not just watch them. Being able to feel the wind in the Andes or taste dumplings in Beijing would offer something close to a real event, not just documentation of one, and receiving it directly from a friend would let them talk about the scene or show you things they found particularly interesting.

At that point, you'd get something completely new, a weird space between travel and travel photography. You might be able to feel everything a friend can, but they're the ones setting the scene — they're the ones who could walk higher up the mountain or start a conversation with a street food vendor, with you along for the ride. In a world of truly immersive VR, the hallmark of real travel won't be seeing, feeling, smelling, or tasting new things. It'll be agency.