Virtual Tourism

It seems like many things are going digital as they gain importance. Banking, commerce, personal communications, and more have already taken the plunge. When it comes to seeing a corner of the world where you’ve not yet been there are already a few options available. Let’s take a look at the growing possibilities for virtual tourism.

Have you ever chatted via webcam? Did you think it was a suitable substitute for a real life face to face sit-down? Not many people do. However, there is a greater sense of understanding and a heightened sense of connection when compared with traditional telephone conversation. The purpose of the technology exists to link people to one another when it is impossible to be near one another in real life. Similarly, watching television is a way for us to “be there” in a way we couldn’t with radio. You see where I’m going with this? Let me say that seeing in real life is not the same as seeing on a screen or through a medium of any kind. However, when real connections aren’t possible, technology can step in and offer up a more meaningful way to interact than was previously available.

The internet is constantly improving upon technologies like these. Take Google Earth, for instance. I can now zoom in on most locales of interest across the planet’s surface. I can count individual cars in Barcelona, or find my old college library from above. That is something I wasn’t able to do until Google Earth (and Microsoft’s Johnny-come-lately Virtual Earth) came out. Until that point it was reserved for spies on TV. Now people use this technology to map their jogging routes. Cool? Yes. Score one point for Google. By the way, to see the island on which I live, click here. To see a chunk of the city to which said island belongs, click here. See? It’s like you’ve been there. But you haven’t. (Well, ok, some of you have.) But you might not have been to the Waseda Central Library on the West Campus! (Ok…again…some of you have.)

The point is, emerging technologies are replacing and overpowering traditional methods of cartography and information sharing. It is more meaningful for you to see a red-roofed library than to hear a name and associate a latitude and longitude, is it not? One gives you an idea of the size of the building, the type of architecture, its proximity to other buildings, etc. One doesn’t. If you think that’s cool, then check this out. I found a site called Tokyo VR Project! It appears to be a work in progress, gathering QuickTime virtual reality captures of various sites in Tokyo. Why is this cool? Well…

Once upon a time, during my crazy college years, I made a video of some birds flying in circles. I took this video outside of 高田馬場駅 (Takadanobaba Eki) and put it up on my study abroad journal. Now, I can link you to a VR file of the outside of Takadanobaba Eki, and you can get a better feel for the location. The signs still match up after 2 years. Cool. Maybe I’m the only one who gets a kick out of it, but it is cool to me. Don’t take that away from me. :-) For a location more interesting to your average tourist, try to match up these two: my video of Asakusa and the VR of the 雷門 (Kaminari Mon) there. (Note, my video is past the first gate and down the shopping street. The VR has 360 pit stops all down the boulevard. You have to advance a few to find the same vantage point. Sweet.)

Anyway, the last thing I wanted to talk about is on the horizon. For those of you like me who photograph stuff during your travels (mundane and incredible alike), this might pique your curiosity. Microsoft has developed a technology called PhotoSynth that is potentially very exciting to people like us. Basically, working from a networked pool of photos (perhaps a submission system on the net, or even a photocrawler bot’s database), this program works to reconstruct a 3D representation of the area along with isolating every single photo’s vantage point into vectored frames. That sounds boring and technical. In reality, it will be amazing if it’s realized. It reminds me of a Minority Report technology, or Blade Runner technology, where zooming in and out do not diminish the quality of the image you’re looking at. Please do yourself a favor and watch some of the videos. Microsoft’s site, while hosting higher quality videos, tends to drag its feet while loading. You can view YouTube versions of the good ones here, here, and here. And for a really seminar-esque explanation, including some really neat tech demos, check this one out too. The last video seems to be related to this Oh Gizmo report about Photosynth.

Anyway, all of this begs the question – will virtual tourism become more popular? I for one believe it will, but I also believe that it can’t possibly be a substitute for real travel. Of course, there are shades of gray there, so I’m all for providing some wiggle room. However, I’m just stoked about using these technologies to find things that I want to see. But I still plan on seeing them firsthand. How about you? :-)

Also…you may take your geek hats off now. This post has finally come to a close.

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  • greg

    Of course, you left out my most excellent use of Google mapping – tracking my runs with a GPS enabled phone.

  • Deas

    Ha ha – good point, Greg. Gotta love GPS Google Mapping. Lets me feel like I’ve stalked you every time you take a run…because I have stalked you…virtually. ;-)

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  • Nick Ramsay

    I’m a bit late with this comment, but I think virtual tourism is going to become a huge industry in the future. I’m a big fan of Second Life, and would love to be able to throw on some VR goggles and run rampant through the virtual world. Or how about getting live video feeds from real life destinations that are beamed into those same goggles? Perhaps more likely in the near future is a combination of Google Earth and Google Lively. During your real-life coffee break, you could virtually zip over to a New York coffee house and chat with the locals for five minutes. Of course, the real power comes from hooking up with your friends and family in one virtual destination – an amazing feeling when you’re so far apart in your offline life. Video conferencing is one thing, but interacting in a virtual room is a whole new world – literally! Deas, have you dabbled with Second Life? It’s got a steep learning curve, but is well worth it.

    Hmmm, I’ve talked more about interaction with other people than sightseeing, but it’s all part of tourism. If you didn’t know, I’m blogging with my brother on Virtual Tripping, where we use Google Earth, Wikipedia and Panoramio to learn about new places.

    Virtual Tourism rocks! I love the possibilities! I want to put on some Bermuda shorts, crank up the air conditioning so it’s really hot, make myself a cocktail, put on surround sound headphones and listen to waves while watching the view from a beach in Hawaii with VR goggles… all from my sofa! :-P

    Nick Ramsays last blog post was: Introducing the JapanSoc Community Blog