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Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Virtual Reality Lets You Travel Anywhere—New or Old

Like many people, I was on the fence about using virtual reality for travel. However, tempted by the opportunity to experience places and things I could never visit without time, expense, and travel, I visited the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry (MSI) to check out their spacewalk VR Transporter.

Pro tip on museum expeditions: Book online and arrive early. If you have been barricaded in your house for months, museums can feel like they are amusement-park massive. I had to navigate through multiple exhibits before passing a height test and waiting in a short queue.

VR Transporter is an intimate experience you have with three other people at a time. Shortly after the headset hovered within grabbing distance, my own voice startled me when I blurted to the attendant: “I need a seatbelt!?”

Then the attendant explained that I couldn’t wear eyeglasses with the headset. I panicked at first, worried that I wouldn’t be able to fully experience VR without glasses—the way I had felt when I reserved the last row at the movie theater and came up empty after looking through my purse for my specs.

As I clipped my glasses to the front of my shirt, immediately I felt like I could sense the dynamic motion of being in outer space. I lifted my leg to avoid debris. I was strapped in a chair at a museum, but my brain and body responded to the heaving as if I was a spacecraft passenger.

The experience concluded with a gorgeous view of a rocket ship, and when the railing lifted, I emerged to a blurry nearsightedness. I was struck by how clear the VR realm was in comparison to the real world. VR Transporter ate every roller coaster experience I had for breakfast.

“MSI is planning to add a second VR Transporter experience because of its popularity,” says Julie Parente, director of public relations at MSI. VR Transporter’s creator, Pulseworks, makes it available in 20 locations nationwide, mostly in museums. Illinois has “free days for residents that waive entry to the museum and drive the typical cost of experiencing VR to as cheap as $10. While there are a variety of discounts on a typical day, entry plus a VR ticket costs $32. But while VR can take us places we’ve never been, it can also take us back to places important to us.

Lions and Zebras and Afrobeats

After getting my second Moderna shot this spring, I bolted to the airport for Accra, Ghana. As a thirtysomething remote entrepreneur and writer, it was the salve I needed after 14 months of Covid-19 isolation. Accra was the one place in the world I knew I could effortlessly follow the outdoor activity guidance the CDC suggested. For six weeks, I reveled in open-air markets by day and spent nights with my grandmother at her place that had views of Aburi’s lush mountaintops. I spent weekends visiting Accra’s free Arts Center, watching artisans chisel lifelike images into earth materials.

When I returned to Chicago, I longed for a way to hold onto the motherland beyond the clattering of my waist beads. After all your vacation days or travel money are exhausted, virtual reality may be the next best way to visit the destinations that have been lighting up your social timeline, or are on your bucket list.

As we move through the post-vaccine era, international travel and large events have both been slow to return, so Ceek, a streaming program for virtual events and experiences, aims to fuse wanderlust with concert ecstasy.

“We try to create an experience that takes people through time and space,” says Ceek CEO Mary Spio. While Ceek is headquartered in Miami, it also has offices in Ghana, where Spio was raised. Along with the work they do to simulate the communal experience of attending a live event, Ceek is designed to help people visit locations virtually.

What's novel about Ceek is how the platform combines technology to rethink concert experiences by giving Africa’s first-time visitors—or the nostalgic like me—a tour of their majestic sights and must-see monuments. The Ghanaian artist Sarkodie starts his show on Ceek by standing on the Black star on the Independence Square monument in Accra before descending onto the stage.

Referring to the Tanzanian Afrobeats artist whose show includes an experience with zebras and lions, Spio says, “Inside of the application, we have all these different venues. You can be in a safari with real animals around you watching a show from Diamond Platnumz.”

Spio explains that the combination of sights and sounds is important. “It’s like we are showering you in sound and you can feel everything.” Ceek’s VR approach uses customized, branded headphones that retail for $250, and a custom VR headset that retails for $99 and includes a three-month subscription to Ceek’s service. If you are not ready to invest in both, you can access the full-360 scenes on a smartphone. The subscription, which hosts Diamond Platnumz and Sarkodie’s content, is available for $10 per month. It’s surreal to know that I could reminisce about New Year’s Eve at Independence Square through Ceek on a smartphone for as little as 10 bucks.

Ceek also allows attendees to challenge their preconceived notions of a destination and to build their itinerary for future trips in and beyond Africa. “For some, their snapshot of Mexico is mariachi,” says Spio. “But by being in these environments and experiencing a different type of music with a different lens, you might say, maybe I want to visit a Cenote in Mexico or an EDM rave in Mexico and experience it for the first time.”

On Your Left

The past year and a half proved that a number of events and conferences needed better, more engaging ways to go virtual, and Venu3D is a VR platform that wants to help. Built to help event organizers host trade shows, conventions, and conferences, the aim is to make remote attendees feel like they are really at an event, while staying safely remote. “Back in March, our Covid Relief Tradeshow had over 800 attendees and more than 135 exhibitors.” says Jeremy Lam, CEO of Venu3D, of the event where virtual attendees hailed from US, Canada, Mexico, India, and Kenya, among others.

The Young Presidents Organization, which hosted the Covid Relief Tradeshow, made it free to all members. Other organizations make it free to all attendees and utilize features in Venu3D to prominently showcase event sponsors. Otherwise, ticket prices typically range from $50 to $500. Anyone can attend events on Venu3D by attending their free meetups.

Like Ceek, Venu3D’s audio is also accessible with or without a headset. The service enables participants to hear people based on proximity in the virtual world and attend virtual art exhibits, all to try and recreate that feeling of being in a space with real people you can interact with. When I saw the platform, I looked forward to the day when VR sees large-scale adoption. While visiting a virtual conference, I might see the works that captivated me at Accra’s free Art Center.

VR to the Future

The promise of VR is the opportunity it has to help us rethink what travel even means. “Traveling can be traversing cultures, traversing memories, and can be very internal,” says David Askaryan, CEO of the Museum of Future Experiences. Askaryan says MOFE’s VR venue and production studio create “an experience where the world around you just completely changes for 70 minutes.”

MOFE is less a traditional “museum” and more of a curated art studio that hosts events. Its current show, Liminality, allows users to think about the future world. Available in New York for $75 a ticket, Liminality’s Life Giver immerses attendees in a futuristic, post-apocalyptic Sweden where a family navigates the impact of global warming. “The show is designed like a dream or surreal trip to encourage reflection, interpretation, and conversation,” says Askaryan. The company has plans to scale to other cities soon.

Shows like these are only the beginning. Eventually, travel firms and similar art and experience “factories” will use everything from scent libraries to electrodes for taste, and an already-available array of haptic-feedback gloves and other clothing to activate all 5 senses for even more truly immersive experiences. There may be a time where I might be able to reap even more benefits from using VR to cope with the next pandemic-level threat.

I imagine a future world where anyone can use VR to visit Africa. From my bedroom in Chicago, I could throw on my headset and travel to Tawala Beach in Accra. As I walk, my feet feel the grainy sand and that unmistakable warm, piercing light of the sun. When I pass the kube wura—a coconut vendor—on the street, I taste the sweetness of coconut pulp. I smell the salt on my tongue wafting to me from the breeze off the Atlantic. I gaze at the waves and listen to the water as it gently tumbles into me and recedes, until I am soothed to slumber.

While I wait for this all-in-one experience, I’m planning my next VR trip: an underwater VR experience.

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