The future is here, and more and more, the tourism industry will witness the emergence of computer-mediated enhancement of the holiday experience, where technologies become an intelligence layer between the visitor and the surrounding environment. The question, says futurologist Valentina Doorly, is how much you want to engage.
If you think of how the digital revolution transformed and toppled all elements of the tourism industry — first by putting all information at our fingertips, then by partially making the brick-and-mortar booking intermediation redundant, then by exploding the access to destinations by revolutionising the air travel business model, before turning accommodation liquid, by which I mean penetrating the private realm of people’s homes with the sharing economy – then one last element clearly awaits its turn for reinvention: the holiday experience itself. And already an army of technologies is marching, ready to conquer and redefine the way we explore our holiday destinations, helping unlock precious content; enhancing experiences and bringing art, heritage and landmarks alive by turning them into unforgettable hyper reality. Every time we leave our homes, we abandon our comfort zone. We pack a fairly minimal survival kit and venture into environments we are not familiar with; different climates, different food, languages, different habits and cultures. Yet nothing is going to stop us. A sweet obsession of our times, more so for the younger generations for whom travelling takes minimal planning, it is indeed a normal feature of daily life, that unfolds in the constant pursuit of an “action” that always seems to beam elsewhere. The truth is, we keep exploring not only physical environments and different accommodations, but diverse ways of being, alternative ways of living, new standpoints on the reality of things. We visit museums, lie on beaches, dine al fresco on balmy nights to experiment with other ways of existing on our planet and enriching our own, personal collection of multi-sensorial experiences, imageries and behaviours. For those of us who entertain a stronger curiosity about different cultures and heritage, we like to receive this content in the most accessible and engaging way possible. By this measure, the paper tourist guide is very limited as a “dispenser of emotions” and stands out as a relic of the past, certainly in the context of geo-tagged Google maps and Cortana voice recognition AI answering our questions.
Fadó fadó. Tell me a story How many times have we stared, feeling a bit stupid perhaps, in front of the art world’s masterpieces, admiring shapes and colours, but scrambling for content, juice and a story that will actually tell us about this item, giving us the reasons why we should marvel at this wonder. Firmly in the black list of tourism industry offenders are those who, entrusted with the strategically important task of extracting and rendering the context of masterpieces and heritage to the general public, make their best effort to miss the points of the narration. Focusing on technical details of no interest to the poor visitor, they often turn important facts and the kinds of gripping stories that made up European society and history, into irredeemably boring recounts – what a sin! What a missed opportunity. The inner child is alive and kicking. We surrender to holiday time to reclaim brain space. We visit and explore ready to receive information and stimuli, yes, but in a format that is palatable, relevant, alive. Fadó fadó, tell me a story. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have a storyteller that pops up at topical visit moments to tell us the story of that masterpiece, that landmark and the people involved, bringing it back to life in a way that is meaningful and vivid in its contemporary relevance? Storyteller in flesh and blood or, alternatively, housed within a smartphone, or by the means of augmented reality with animation, on a tablet, or holograms that appear in designated places and moments. For countries with great heritage assets and all those willing to step into innovative media to facilitate consumer engagements with heritage content, the time is coming, and some technologies are taking the lead. Augmented reality: By augmented reality we mean the use of technologies that superimpose a layer of virtual reality to the physical environment we are looking at, adding information, animation and intelligence to it. You are probably using augmented reality every day, for example, if your car has a navigation system installed, showing the suggested manoeuvre to fit in that tight parking space and guiding your every move. By pointing your tablet to an image of the IKEA catalogue, the designated object could be rendered three dimensional and moved around on the physical environment of the room. Again, by pointing the tablet or smartphone at the Mona Lisa, a skilful animation appears on your screen and the character comes alive to tell her own story. Augmented reality has great application potential for heritage sites, museums and also commercial use for businesses.
VIRTUAL REALITY: VR refers to the use of software that delivers an immersive experience to the user, creating a convincing effect of full immersion, a lifelike experience, in a situation or an environment, thus tricking the brain into actually living that moment. Unlike augmented reality, virtual reality replaces the real world experience. It needs a hardware support in the form of a headset with visor. Used, for example, by the army to simulate rescue situations, where the trainee has to step out of the helicopter to jump, or the Tate Gallery in London to represent Modigliani’s room, or by tourism promotional bodies to recreate an immersive summary of the land’s feel and experiences. Also useful in commercial pitches to show the product in an impressively vivid manner.
MIXED REALITY Or hybrid reality, refers to both augmented and virtual reality.
HOLOGRAMS: Holography is a permanent record of light projected on an object, and then presented as a beam projection that takes shape in 3D format, self-standing, arising from the projection point. Holograms can, for example, reproduce an actual-size person, offering information and directions on the surrounding environment, and capable of incrementally interacting with the visitor. Some holographic devices are being experimented in airports in Asia and USA such as the Newark Liberty International airport, where a hologram-virtual assistant supplies information to the arriving passengers.
Benefits and risks
The benefits of adopting new technologies to interact and engage with the visitors are many: Longer engagement time of the visitor, who, having found a source of interesting information plus the innovative experience of the technology itself, spends longer dwelling time in front of the point of interest. Better engagement with younger generations. Millennials and Generation Z feel totally at ease in conversing with the environment by means of a technological aid. Longer lasting memories because of multisensorial experiences: when information is delivered stimulating more senses and emotions, it forms a longer lasting memory.
SOUND BRAND-BUILDING EXERCISE: By adopting innovative technologies, your brand and business positions itself at the leading edge of tourism. Visitors will remember your dynamic attitude, and sponsors are also more likely to appreciate.
MARKETING CURRENCY: We all know that our visitors are our best marketing ambassadors. Offering leading-edge experiences immediately translates into great marketing currency, with guaranteed word of mouth and mouse effect.
Amongst the warnings we want to list however, are the following: beware not to overwhelm the item we are interpreting with the technology. This must remain at the service of interpretation, not outdo the point of interest on display. Try to make technological and content choices that will not become obsolete too fast. Hygiene is imperative – VR visors need to be cleaned very efficiently between users.
Visitor Attractions What makes a visitor attraction will be incrementally more defined, not only by the core content of the attraction, but the quality and innovation value of how this is rendered and brought alive. The fast pace of technological innovation will dictate a stricter schedule and larger scale of capital investments, in display and engagement solutions. Transiency and short life-cycles (2-3 years) for all products and concepts are the price that we pay to liquid modernity. The younger the audience, the more ruthless the demand for state-of-theart interpretative solutions. “Impress me” has always been the visitor’s demand when paying an entrance ticket to an attraction, more so if substantial. But whereas baby boomers are used to the pace, the boundaries, the appearance of real-worldreality, Millennials and generation Z are accustomed to a non-stop bombardment of images and special effects, where every effect must surpass the previous one, every colour must be more vivid than the previous one, every idea must be quirkier and more spectacular than the previous one. Whereas for the past eight centuries innumerable visitors have marvelled at the leaning tower of Pisa, its potential to impress may soon be under threat, with the future generations of tourists. Is it leaning enough? Is it tall enough to thrill and awe them? Will the Giant’s Causeway be gigantic enough, and the London’s Eye sufficiently round and majestic? The relentless show of impactful virtual content risks making the real-world-reality uninteresting and bland, when compared to the digitally produced dazzling images and special effects. Visitor attraction providers are continuously challenged to showcase their content, and its story, in the best and most engaging way, creating a narration that delivers a wow effect.
Hands up for innovation Many of us believe that the innovation wave necessarily starts in hot-spots of technology, where all the magic happens, and appropriately gets implemented there first. We will watch driverless cars gliding around Google headquarters in Mountainview, California, Amazon drones delivering to the households of Cambridge, England, where Amazon Prime Air is being tested. With the same logic, we expect to visit an Internet of Things connected city in Singapore and Seoul, and to experience an augmented reality animated museum in New York, not Killarney or Galway. Applying this thinking, many of us, located on the outskirts of the revolution, remotely hearing the thumps and roar of the change, are happy to sit comfortably at the back of the classroom, in the blissful conviction that we are not summoned to react and take action. Not yet. However, this is only partially true. The adoption and deployment of innovative solutions, is, by and large, an individual decision maker’s choice. When one knows that such innovation is available, viable, affordable and brings benefits to the business, it is merely a personal inkling to push the boundaries and excel, that dictates the choice between a wait and see or proactive attitude. It is the choice between being an innovator or a follower. Nothing stops the small museum, landmark or business from adopting the same technology. Examples of this are numerous and ever growing. Price is not an entry barrier any more; technologies are available to heritage centers in California as well as Munster. New-born providers are already in the market, eager to engage with the innovators in the industry. Being amongst the early adopters has many advantages. Once first, always first.