Rome on the couch: why airlines believe in VR flights

Despite the fact that the tourism industry is actively developing, airlines suddenly began to invest in VR travel, which could ruin their core business. No matter how strange this move may look, the carriers are preparing for the near future.

Japan’s largest air carrier seems ready to bet that the future of the travel industry will do without … travel itself. For a month, a couple from Oita Prefecture talked to a robot named Avatar, which was controlled by their daughter, hundreds of miles from their parents, in Tokyo. The device created by ANA Holdings most resembles a vacuum cleaner with an iPad attached to it. But during communication, the face of the daughter appears on the screen, and the wheels of the robot allow him to ride around the house, as if the girl is really nearby and even joins the family dinner.

For a world-famous airline, this is a rather unexpected move. But the population is aging, popular resorts are crowded and barely able to cope with the influx of tourists, and long flights are increasingly criticized for being environmentally friendly. So ANA and its competitors bet that potential tourists will be able to get no less impressions just by staying at home.

Of course, in “virtual travels” there is nothing new. For several centuries, storytellers, writers, and artists have helped imagine faraway lands for people who could not afford trips. Only in the last decade (mainly due to low-cost airlines and apartment rental services) have trips become available to a wide audience. In 2018, the tourism market grew by 4%, and the industry made a 10 percent contribution to the global gross product.

But despite the fact that the middle class is actively transferring from its incubated home sofas to the seats of the economy class lounge, one can already see the first signs of the emergence of the post-tourism industry. Talking about non-environmentally friendly flights has already hit the airline business, and may soon affect other players in the travel market. Popular tourist locations are experiencing an invasion of visitors, and the authorities of such regions are seriously considering how to limit attendance. The aging of the population in rich countries, on the one hand, impedes the development of physical movements, and on the other hand, creates fertile ground for alternative ways of exploring the world and communicating.

As for the tourism industry, virtual reality would help to reconcile with new trends. And companies are already starting to master this technology. For example, First Airlines, another Japanese carrier, now allows passengers to sit in the cabin of an almost real airplane. The passenger does not actually fly anywhere, but the flight attendants serve delicious food, and after lunch you can take a VR trip along the chosen route. The company focuses on people aged who don’t really want to worry about the hassles associated with real travel, and “flies” to cities such as Paris, New York and Rome (planes departing for these places are almost always crowded).

ANA thinks more globally. The company plans to use robots, tactile technologies and operational communications capabilities to create a new “instant move” mode that will allow people to “transfer their consciousness, knowledge or skills” to the other end of the world. Simply put, the idea is to create the effect of presence with the help of VR technologies and add various, in particular tactile sensations. For example, participants in online conferences may soon be able to shake hands with each other, and travelers may have the opportunity to feel the heat of the resort sun or fresh mountain air. The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency is already hoping to use Avatars to study the surface of the moon.

Of course, high-tech solutions require perfect execution. ANA does not plan to launch Avatars on sale earlier than next year and, quite possibly, the first versions of the robot will come out raw. The revenue forecasts are still not impressive. According to preliminary estimates, the telepresence technology market will be $ 300 million by 2023. For comparison, the main business of ANA brought last year $ 19 billion.

But while virtual travel has weak prospects, the market for technologies that help colleagues and family members stay connected seems to continue to grow. Over the past 20 years, cheap video calling apps have changed the way companies and families communicate with each other. Inexpensive robots that allow people at a distance to interact physically look logical next round of development. And even if in the near future ANA robots do not force people to abandon flights, they will definitely become part of the high-tech travel future.

Graduated from Embry-Riddle Aviation University with a master's degree in aviation science. He began his career as an aviation researcher in local periodicals. Has a pilot license. Now are the author and developer of the Plane Worlds.