As illustrated by the intricate inlay and pietra dura work on the walls of the marble mausoleum, the Taj Mahal is the ultimate expression of the elegance of Mughal architecture and craftsmanship. Considering the hordes of tourists that it draws, it makes one wish to become a bird, so that they can fly above the masses and study the decorations closely. Or take the Statue of Liberty for instance, who wouldn’t want to see the distinctive skyline of New York city from the giddying heights atop the crown? Sadly, the cost of tickets alone would be prohibitive in realizing that wish. In Egypt, though the pharaohs have been entombed for an eternity, the stupendous Pyramids of Giza are living testaments to the skilled craftsmanship of the ancient Egyptians. What if you wanted to explore some of the inner chambers of the pyramids? Not possible, as these chambers are inaccessible to the public because they lack oxygen. However, there is an exciting and entertaining solution to all of the above problems, virtual tours! It is now possible to travel around the world with a VR headset.
Virtual Tours: A Very Short History
The origin of the term ‘virtual tour’ dates back to the year 1994. One of the first users of a virtual tour was Queen Elizabeth II, who officially opened the visitor centre for Dudley Castle in England. Designed by Colin Johnson, this system became an early prototype of a virtual tour. The term ‘virtual tour’ was an amalgamation of ‘virtual reality’ and ‘royal tour’. This early virtual tour was an interpretive tour for museum visitors, comprised of a ‘walk-through’ of a 3D reconstruction of Dudley Castle in England, as it was in the year 1550. The system was in continuous use from 1994 to 2005.
Virtual Voyages: An Introduction
The technical definition of a virtual tour is a simulation of an existing location, usually composed of a sequence of videos or still images. It also incorporates the use of other multimedia elements such as sound effects, music, narration, and text. Virtual tours are broadly educational, points out J. Michael Spector, whether informally for the general public or in institutions of learning. Whether you are a student, a curious traveller, or a history buff, virtual tours are for everyone.
- For students who may not get a chance to physically explore some of the majestic world heritage sites of historical and cultural importance, possibly due to financial, geographical, or temporal constraints, virtual tours offer an engaging and economical recourse to such situations.
- For tourists and travelers, virtual tours can prove to be a boon, in helping them do a recce of the place before setting out on their journey, avoiding being hassled in places where they do not speak the language, and avoiding crowds while learning more about the place that they are going to visit or have already visited.
- For libraries and museums, virtual tours can offer a richly experiential mode of learning opportunities for their visitors, and help them reach many more people around the world.
- For governments, virtual tours of monuments and other sites of historical, cultural, or archeological importance can help in enriching the overall tourist experience in these countries.
The innovation driving the growth of these virtual tour modules (click on the link to watch a trailer) goes far beyond striving for a vividness of visuals, or achieving verisimilitude in terms of the geography of the location. The focus is on making virtual tours a stimulating learning environment in order to provide an enriched touring experience and a more visually appealing and holistic approach towards learning about other places and cultures. From providing users with the history of architectural wonders like the Lotus Temple in New Delhi, to delving deep into the details of Mayan culture with a tour of the Chichen Itza, virtual tours also present an effortless way of quenching our collective wanderlust.
Life is not just to live, but to experience, and why wait until you have saved enough money to buy a ticket halfway across the world to go to the Hagia Sophia? Your journey can start from the comfort of your own home or school. Visit popular tourist destinations without the hassle of having to wait in long snaking queues for tickets, or wade through throngs of tourists. Research the place before you visit, or tour the place if you cannot visit. Explore at your leisure, pause, consider, learn, and then continue on your discovery.
The Making of a Virtual Tour
As Thomas Hohstadt elucidates in his book, The Age of Virtual Reality, ‘Through VR, we contemplate the unknown more than the known, the awe more than the ordinary, the mystery more than the mundane.’ Hohstadt further writes that VR, as a simulated environment, stimulates a participant’s senses and provides the feeling of being in a different place and time. Virtual tours, therefore, allow us to ‘see the world reborn’ through the use of technology. From the storyboard to its manifestation in (virtual) reality, a virtual tour travels a long way to come to fruition. Research is of critical importance in conceiving, visualizing, and crafting these tours. Virtual tours are designed with a view to create something very near to the real and give the user a palpable sense of reality.
There are constraints, however, in the VR environment. The visuals cannot be too detailed, otherwise the tour will not run on the applications. For now, developers are focusing more on the location, rather than in trying to achieve a closeness to reality. Charting out what path the person will take, mapping the real model, and checking the ratios for accurate scaling are some of the steps involved in fine-tuning the product. The final result is a combination of exhaustive research and thoughtful planning for the best user experience. And as with any technological tool, content has to be rich and detailed enough to capture the attention of its users, whether they are students, travelers, or businesses.
The Virtues of Virtual Tours
- With distance, time and expense being major factors in curtailing mobility, virtual tours can be considered a cost-effective alternative for students to travel around the world. From virtually touring UNESCO world heritage sites like the Valley of the Kings in Egypt to understanding the historical events that led to the abandonment of Petra in Jordan, all these voyages can be undertaken through virtual tours. Virtual tours are an experience that can be repeated, which especially helps in reinforcing learning for students. As Nicholas C. Burbules points out in his essay, ‘Rethinking the Virtual’, ‘An experience is interesting to us when it is complex enough to allow us to pick out new elements, even with repeated encounters. We can shift focus and notice things we had not noticed before.’ Thus, virtual tours offer a well-crafted, immersive and interactive learning environment for students to acquire knowledge in a visually interesting manner.
- Virtual tours can be a valid source of information for tourists and travelers. They are afforded a virtual experience of the locations and monuments that they wish to visit beforehand. Learn about Nabataean culture and their inimitable craftsmanship in carving the entire city of Petra out of a daunting red sandstone landscape. Or, embark on a virtual tour of the Acropolis, the crowning jewel of Athens, and sample the panoramic, close range, and bird’s eye views of different structures within the ancient Greek heritage site.
- Virtual tours have wide-ranging applications in a variety of fields including education, entertainment, recreation, advertising, and so on. Governments can integrate virtual tours with their tourism websites and provide more information to potential visitors than through simple, text-based links.
- Travel and tourism creates a huge carbon footprint and has ecological consequences. Virtual tours can help in promoting a sustainable mode of tourism while quenching one’s wanderlust simultaneously. By fostering increased awareness regarding historical, cultural, and natural world heritage sites, virtual tours represent a sustainable solution to the ill-effects of global tourism.
- For persons with disabilities, virtual tours can help overcome a number of accessibility issues. If the area is inaccessible, that is, too small to accommodate a wheelchair for example, or unadaptable to the needs of persons with disabilities because of the presence of historic buildings, or health and safety regulations, virtual tours can serve as an inclusive alternative.
Conclusion: Off The Beaten Track
Virtual tours are not a substitute for the original experience, but can help in recreating it if the user has already been to the site, bringing out different nuances in their experience, or to give them a taste of the place in advance if they have yet to go. The world of virtual tours is still fluid and evolving. A virtual environment, as Alison Byerly observes, essentially seeks to create a multisensory environment that can be so overwhelming that it dilutes the participant’s sense of a boundary between the self and the environment, resulting in a truly immersive experience.
Quality content that is well-researched and insightful will determine the future of virtual travel. In helping us save time and money, providing vivid aesthetic experiences, or making travel more inclusive, virtual tours are inarguably a valuable resource. Therefore, as Burbules asserts, the virtual is not a new fad or a gimmick, but a concrete way of rethinking the nature of learning spaces where creativity, problem-solving, communication, collaboration, experimentation, and inquiry are made possible. With virtual tours, get ready to set out on an epic journey of exploration across the vast expanses of the virtual topography of the world.
- Burbules, Nicholas C. ‘Rethinking the Virtual’. International Handbook of Virtual Learning Environments, edited by Joel Weiss, Jason Nolan, Jeremy Hunsinger, Peter Trifonas. Springer, 2007.
- Byerly, Alison. Are We There Yet?: Virtual Travel and Victorian Realism. University of Michigan Press, 2012.
- Hohstadt, Thomas. The Age of Virtual Reality. Lulu.com, 2013.
- Spector, J. Michael. The SAGE Encyclopedia of Educational Technology. SAGE Publications, 2015.