The Subtle Humanity of Virtual Travel

New tools, technologies, and media are driving an under-the-radar flourishing of virtual travel, and opening doors to experiences that are novel and meaningful for even the most well-traveled.

I’ve always enjoyed virtual travel. For decades I “google vacationed” around the globe, exploring from the comfort of my home remote and mysterious destinations that few get to see in person. It’s easy to fall down the rabbit hole and spend hours bouncing around the world, spurred by each new curiosity to a new place you never had the opportunity to fully appreciate before. 

 

It’s great for trip planning, of course. As an urban planner it’s an invaluable workplace tool. But virtual travel also offers a much deeper fulfillment. There’s a certain unfiltered honesty about dropping into a random street corner in a random country on a random continent somewhere far away. You get a little peek behind the curtain at a slice of life that is not curated, packaged, or sanitized. For me, the experience nurtures the same kind of kinship or connection to others that people often highlight with in-person travel – a recognition that there is far more that we all share in common than separates us.

 

Street View - Ouro Preto, Brazil

I understand this is not exactly a new or revelatory phenomenon. Art, literature, and photography have been transporting and immersing people in far off places and cultures for centuries. And at first blush, a story about virtual travel might seem better suited for the lockdowns and quarantines of April 2020 than April 2022. Covid protections and travel restrictions are evaporating across the globe, and with them many of the barriers that have kept people from traveling in person. Restaurants are open, public venues filled, and the great outdoors are always there calling to us. Why bother with a virtual substitute when the real human experiences we have been craving are again within our grasp?

“Diving deeper and needing more from virtual travel than ever before, I discovered a richness of experience and immersion that I did not expect.”

I have unfortunately learned the hard way that there are more barriers to travel than wise public health policy. As long-covid has over the past two years systematically stripped away many of the core aspects of my life and person, virtual travel has for me transformed from an amusing pass time to a lifeline of sorts, helping me cling for all I’m worth to basic human experiences as they gradually slip away. And in that context, diving deeper and needing more from virtual travel than ever before, I discovered a richness of experience and immersion that I did not expect. That is mostly what I want to share with you in this story – new (to me) tools, technologies, and media that I would suggest are driving an under-the-radar flourishing of virtual travel.

A (Virtual) Walk in Someone Else’s Shoes

At its worst, my long-covid keeps me bedbound, with bone crushing fatigue and a whole bundle of body-wide symptoms exacerbated by the smallest physical or mental exertions. In this state, even passive media and entertainment can be overwhelming. Sounds are too loud. Images are too bright. Words are too fast. The smallest amounts of stimulation and engagement drain the life out of me. Imagine the comforting routine and fluffy format of a Rick Steves episode but experienced as a fast-cut explosion-filled summer action blockbuster and you have some idea of it.

 

Enter the magic of high-definition, long-format Youtube walks. No plot. No message. No soundtrack. No jump cuts and edits. There is sound – the crunching of gravel underfoot, the rustling of leaves in the wind. Barking dogs and laughing children. Or perhaps waves crashing on a beach. There is movement. A slow meander through a distance place that rewards as much attention as you have to offer.

 

When the brain fog is thickest, the experience can be authentically meditative. The details of street signs or trail makers, market wares or wildlife, drift away. But nothing is lost in the experience. The walks become a restful and restorative experience that calms the psyche and resets the sympathetic nervous system, easing the body into a state of healing.

When the body and mind are more cooperative, these walks yield much more. I am continually blown away by the quality and detail of video that is available. In the past, I think I have been a little too blasé about the potential of high-definition video. We are always getting new technologies. Screens are always getting better. But video is video, I thought, and there is not much new to get excited about. I share this because I imagine you, reader, might also not fully appreciate the tipping point we have crossed. During my recovery, watching high-definition 4k (and even 8k) footage on screens designed to make the most of it has been transformative. This is not yesterday’s video, peeking through a hazy window as a detached observer. The rough texture of stone on a wall, the buzzing of tiny inspects in a meadow, the wood grain on a building timber felled centuries ago, the scattered light reflecting off the breeze-rippled water of an alpine lake, rain drops slowly giving way to gravity and sliding down the window pane. These details layer and build and compel your senses to believe you have been transported to the place on screen.

“Virtual travel was no longer a substitute for the real world. It was a road back to it.”

This is an experience for everyone to enjoy. But I know that I have appreciated it more than most. In the months that my illness kept me housebound and bedridden, when my physical body could not take me away to new experiences, when my brain could not tolerate bringing new experiences near to me with reading, watching television, listening to music, or even holding a conversation, these virtual walks returned the world to me. Virtual travel was no longer a substitute for the real world. It was a road back to it.

 

I am amazed by the depth and realism of these virtual travel experiences but I am equally impressed by the prolific coverage. The quality of equipment available to amateur content producers means that there are people all over the world recording the sights and sounds of their cherished places in exquisite detail. Whether we are daydreaming a future vacation, scouting for a move abroad, or reliving favorite travel memories, my partner and I have been able to enjoy a unique familiarity with places across the planet that I used to think was only possible in person. Usually that is via virtual walks. But trains, bikes, boats, gondolas, and more offer a similar satisfaction.

 

Not only are people everywhere recording their corner of the world in high definition, they are also attaching cameras to amateur drones that are capturing scenes that are impossible to see in person. It is stunning to witness mountain peaks, rocky shores, jungle waterfalls, towering high rises and more from above. For someone like me with a body that is mostly uncooperative, the sensation of leaving my physical form on the ground and soaring free above the landscape is also quite liberating. With the flexibility of drones, this type of virtual travel is able in some ways to expand and surpass what is possible to experience through traditional in-person travel.

Visiting a Virtual Reality

When my partner and I cancelled a summer full of travel plans in early 2020, we redirected some of our refunded hotel deposits and airline tickets to an entirely different kind of experience – we purchased a virtual reality headset. I’m not sure what I expected, but what I found was another virtual travel revelation. For starters, free-to-use Steam VR and Google Earth VR offer a fully immersive three-dimensional planet to explore. As I mentioned above, I have been a heavy user of Google Earth and Google Street View since their inception. Ultimately, travel videos or desktop Street View are constrained by the two dimensions of the screen on which they are displayed. The 3D modeling and 360-degree photography of Google Earth are a perfect fit for virtual reality. There is something new and powerful about having a snapshot of the world rendered in all directions around you, no matter where you look or where you choose to go.

Google Earth VR helpfully curates a list famous landmarks and stunning landscapes around the world to visit, but unplanned strolls through random cityscapes have become a favorite stay-in date night for my partner and me. When I use the virtual reality headset my partner (who is a bit more prone to VR motion sickness than me) is with me in the room, seeing what I see on a TV or monitor. It’s kind of like taking a road trip together. I am the “driver” while my partner is the navigator or guide, looking up interesting facts about what we are seeing, or suggesting what route to take. In the real world, getting lost can be stressful, but when travelling virtually getting lost is always a delight. Working our way through Cassandra Overby’s fantastic Explore Europe on Foot, we have also begun undertaking longer distance, multi-day virtual treks.

 

Google Earth VR - Ronda, Spain

The expansive coverage of Street View offers all sorts of unique virtual experiences. We have climbed Mont Blanc and wandered the halls and gardens of Versailles. We’ve rafted the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon and dogsledded the route of the Iditarod. And it feels like we are barely scratching the surface.

“There is something new and powerful about having a snapshot of the world rendered in all directions around you, no matter where you look or where you choose to go.”

Of course, Google Earth is not the only way to travel in virtual reality. The same ecosystem of amateur videographers producing high-definition Youtube videos of walks and drone flights are also venturing into full 180- or 360-degree video. Whether you are perusing the ruins of Pompeii or lights of Times Square, VR video wraps the sounds and motions and energy of a place all around you. Some of the curated VR travel experiences have also caught my attention – I virtually explored the fire-damaged interior of Notre Dame, for example, and trekked to the South Pole.

 

With virtual reality, our travel experiences are no longer limited to the surface of the planet. With an eerie sensation of zero gravity, I have floated through an incredibly detailed VR experience of the International Space Station.

 

Taking a virtual space walk with Mission: ISS

Advanced photography from NASA’s various Mars rovers makes it possible to render a three-dimensional version of Mars. The sensation of walking around the rocky landscape of the red planet is profoundly moving. Almost overwhelming. It’s a real place. A place that can be visited and experienced. And thanks to the inspiring accomplishments of the scientists and engineers who delivered rover cameras and instruments to Mars’ surface, this alien world can be brought to me where I stand in my living room, even though in reality I can barely circle the block near my house.

 

Steam VR Destination - Mars

Dream Vacation

Once we’ve left the planet, where else can virtual travel take us? Let me suggest to you that the “reality” component of virtual reality is unnecessarily limiting. If we can render an immersive 3D model of the real world in VR, then we can as easily render immersive 3D models of fictional places. Locations of fantasy and science fiction. Dream cities and historical recreations. If you have access to a virtual reality headset, anyone can do this now with two free tools. First, we need a way to create 3d environments. Sketchup is an intuitive and versatile tool if you want to design your own fictional destination. But it is also great because of its crowdsourced 3D Warehouse, where users can upload and share their creations. This means you don’t need to have any design or rendering experience (or patience) to visit fictional worlds. Just select a user-submitted creation of your choosing and you ready to go.

 

SketchUp 3D Warehouse

Paid versions Sketchup offer VR functionality, but you can manage with the free version as well. Through Steam VR you can access a program called SYMMETRY alpha. It’s designed for architects and engineers to view their professional designs in VR, but we can use it for virtual travel to far off futures and fantasy kingdoms. Now you can wander the streets of ancient Rome, or visit the sets of your favorite sci-fi movie. Perhaps you want to tour locations for your next role-playing game, or walk through the rooms of your new dream house. The options are limited only by your creativity.

 

SketchUp - Ancient Rome's Forum

Virtual travel is more immersive, expansive, and accessible than it has ever been, and it is opening doors to places and experiences that are novel for even the most well-traveled. It can be a path back to the wider world for those who are separated from it, or an escape from the every-day to distant times and settings. Virtual travel can supplement our real travels as a planning and scouting tool, or support our rehabilitation when our brains and bodies fail us. As new technologies emerge and become more affordable, the quality and quantity of virtual travel content is increasing at a dramatic pace. Whatever your interests, there’s a virtual travel experience out there for you. So what are you waiting for? Go get started on your next virtual travel adventure!

 

I have included a list below of videos and resources to help you get started. What are your top destinations for a virtual visit? What motivates you to virtual travel? Share in the comments!

Virtual Walks, Rides, Flies, and Floats:

While I’m sharing virtual walks, I want to give a shout out to some of the virtual walkers in Haute Savoie who helped my partner and me get to know our new home all over again before our move:

Travel by Drone:

360 Degree Virtual Walks:

Interesting Street View Travel Destinations:

Virtual Reality Experiences:

SketchUp and SYMMETRY alpha:

You can learn more about SketchUp at their main website: www.sketchup.com.  But the full free version of the software is tucked away in the help documents here.  Select the “SketchUp Make 2017” version.

 

SYMMETRY alpha can be found on steam here.  If you are able to connect your VR headset to your computer, you can access SYMMETRY alpha through Steam VR.

 

SketchUp 3d Warehouse Models:

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