Tourism organization Destination British Columbia wanted to take a new approach to helping people imagine visiting or hosting events in British Columbia, so it created and launched “The Wild Within,” a series of immersive tours through the most gorgeous locations in B.C. It’s a site-selection trip of sorts that planners and vacationers can take by donning any virtual reality headset or by watching the videos on YouTube.
Last year, the Seattle Mariners and sponsor Pepsi brought the fuzzy and popular team mascot, the Mariner Moose, to life as a rear projection onto a screen. They stationed him on a deck at Safeco Field to interact with fans and promote Pepsi products. The digital moose was equipped with motion sensors: When individuals approached to greet him and take a photo, he responded.
These are two examples of how the hospitality industry is experimenting with virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR). While still in its infancy, the technology has a lot of potential, says Corbin Ball, a Bellingham-based consultant specializing in meeting technology.
Destination BC was the first destination marketing organization in North America to take the VR plunge, launching its 360-degree tour in 2014. The award-winning campaign was initially geared toward travel media and trade, showcasing the province’s beauty at industry events in Canada, the U.S., Australia, China and Europe. Eventually its use extended to tourists, allowing potential visitors to experience British Columbia as if they were there.
The film was shot over five days, and most of the locations featured were accessed by a commercial whale-watching boat or helicopter. All of the footage was captured by a series of seven high-definition GoPro cameras affixed to a custom-designed spherical rig made using a 3-D printer. The rig was mounted to either a hexacopter drone or a backpack. In April 2016, the organization produced a new virtual reality video showcasing spring skiing at Whistler Blackcomb.
“Virtual reality has proven a great fit for tourism marketing, and Destination BC was proud to be a pioneer in its use with our 2014 Wild Within VR Experience, which brought our stunning rain forest to life—and resulted in a potential reach of over 65 million impressions. Now, as the technology becomes more widely available, we are finding new ways for our travel trade, media partners and consumers to experience our destination,” says Marsha Walden, Destination BC’s CEO.
The technology, says Ball, is a “means of engaging people, showing them things they couldn’t see.” One practical use of the technology is for event planners to utilize it for venue inspections. A large-scale example of this is Shangri-La Hotels and Resorts, which has created virtual tours of its hotels. The tours can be viewed via Web browser using a mouse to control the 360-degree view, or they can be downloaded and viewed via Oculus Rift.
PRSONAS, the firm responsible for creating the Mariner Moose, specializes in a different type of virtual reality: creating customized holographic personas for such service roles as virtual receptionists, product specialists and concierges. President and CEO David Rose calls PRSONAS’ work “mixed reality,” encompassing both VR and AR. The goal of creating the moose was to essentially give fans more opportunity to interact with the popular character, which could only physically be in one place at a time. The virtual greeter created more presence, fan buzz and photo opportunities, as well as extended the Mariners’ branding reach.
While the Mariner Moose is a fun example of what PRSONAS can program into its virtual characters, there are plenty of serious benefits to the concept. For example: A virtual persona can communicate with customers in any language, including American Sign Language, and can also easily pronounce challenging words. One of PRSONAS’ earliest projects, says Rose, was for a pharmaceutical company with many hard-to-pronounce product names. “They liked [the VR] because they’re never going off script, and they’re always going to pronounce [a word] right,” he says.
Customers connect better with a virtual person—and by extension, the company the VR represents—rather than a machine, says Rose. “We’ve done a bunch of trade shows and events. It allows the brand to look like real people, and it is actually an interactive experience.”
That increased communication allows a company to collect customer analytics: what they respond to and what they do not, how many visited the trade show booth and at what time. “That’s a pretty unique mechanism that a hologram can deliver,” says Rose.
According to Ball, facial recognition, biometrics and sentiment analysis can also be used to measure mood, engagement and demographics, and will happen in the next two–three years. Companies can use this vital information to better target customer needs.
BENEFITS & CHALLENGES FOR PLANNERS
One of the biggest selling points of VR and AR technology for planners, says Ball, is that it helps with the challenge of getting more people involved and connected in meetings. He adds that gamification—think Pokémon Go, in which an augmented reality is layered over real scenery—has great opportunities for creative use.
The current applications of virtual reality technology are the result of years of companies pouring money into research. Now that it’s taking off, Ball says, it’s still too early to tell how customers will ultimately react to it.
And there are a few challenges. For one, as with any early-stage technology, it’s still expensive, and tools that are important to the full immersive VR experience—such as Oculus Rift—aren’t ubiquitous yet. But as more companies take the plunge into VR and AR, the technology will become cheaper and more accessible.
Holograms pose a different type of challenge, Rose says. Developers have to be aware of the so-called “uncanny valley” concept: the hypothesis that the technology of something simulating a person can create discomfort in a certain percentage of the population. Thus far, it’s hard to tell how much that will play a role in its acceptance as a marketing or communication tool, although Rose thinks it is a small number of people. Toward the other end of the spectrum, sometimes people interacting with a character set the bar too high, says Rose. “The expectations of visitors are ahead of the technology a little bit,” he explains
That technology is likely to catch up fast, however. Whether to help meeting and event planners scope out an event site or to allow companies to extend communication and branding opportunities at trade shows or public events, VR and AR provide a new way for companies and organizations to reach out and engage their target audiences.