The world on your desktop
Image credit: Dubai Film
We virtually visit ten popular holiday destinations you may be tempted to head for this year.
Where are you going on holiday this summer? The answer is: probably nowhere! With the arrival of Covid-19, our vacation planning has been put on hold. To replace our annual fortnight of rest and relaxation, tour companies and tourist boards have been rushing to create virtual breaks. At the heart of enabling these experiences are technologies that allow us to escape from the confinement of lockdown to another part of the world. Some of this technology is tried, tested and relatively cheap. But the ways in which we virtually travel is rapidly expanding and improving.
Here are some places armchair travellers can virtually explore.
Miami, US, by webcam
You won’t need to smother yourself in suntan lotion to stroll along the iconic Art Deco sidewalks of Miami’s South Beach, or watch the world go by while sipping on a Cuba Libre in Little Havana. ‘See Miami’ uses the latest webcam technology to bring the street life of Florida’s most famous waterfront in to your home.
"Over the past two decades we have gone from webcams that take minutes to update to live streaming in HD and now 4K, but the camera is the easy part," says Katherine Donoghue of ‘See Miami’ webcam providers EarthCam. "The trick is keeping thousands of cameras streaming across platforms seamlessly. Creating reliable, robust technology to transmit imagery over long periods of time in all kinds of environments is the challenge. Our cameras feature intelligent 'self-healing' and diagnostic systems to keep them online and operating and we have robust infrastructure on the backend in storage and datacentre technology." Where next for virtual travelling? "The future is higher-quality live streaming, edge recording and AI-powered services," she says.
‘See Miami’ webcams
KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, by Sound Library
A grazing white rhinoceros, the call of a black-backed jackal, the coo of a Cape turtle dove, and a mother cheetah gathering her cubs. The chirps, barks and roars of African wildlife are brought to the safety of your sofa in ‘Safari for the Senses’ created by Thanda Safari, a private game reserve.
Thanda’s resident wildlife photographer and sound recordist Christian Sperka extracted the sound from iPhone 7 Plus and iPhone Max videos supplemented by a Rode Video-Mic Me-L directional microphone. He was learning on the job, but the technology was not his biggest challenge. "The wind and the difficulty in getting close enough to the animals for good recordings are the bigger issue," says Sperka, who worried about the constant risk of disturbing the wildlife he was recording as microphones have far shorter ranges than camera lenses.
Listen to the safari sounds [Warning: you might need to turn the sound down for the roars!]
Longleat Safari Park, UK, by Virtual Tour
If you go online at the same time as this Wiltshire wildlife attraction would normally open, you can take a virtual tour encountering tigers, cheetahs, wolves and the park’s famous lions. The 30-minute adventure, narrated by wildlife TV presenter Kate Humble, uses a mixture of audio commentary, video footage and still images.
"We’ve combined the existing Safari Park audio commentary by Kate, which visitors use when driving through the park, with video footage and photos to try and replicate the actual drive-through experience," says James Bailey, Longleat’s marketing director. "The tour also features drone footage and video which gives viewers unique new perspectives into the park and its animals."
Longleat’s safari shows that there’s a huge appetite for online travel experiences. The first free tour was watched by a over half a million people over a three-day period, with virtual tourists travelling with from as far afield as Australia, New Zealand, America, India and the United Arab Emirates. Many decided to experience the drive-through Park as authentically as possible. "Some decided to watch it in their parked cars," says Bailey. "Others transformed their living rooms into mini safari parks with animal toys."
To join the tour, go to www.longleat.co.uk or any of Longleat's social media channels at 10am on Saturdays
Efetling Theme Park, Holland, by POV Video
Thrill-seekers can tingle with the adrenaline rush of riding a roller coaster without any fear. On Efteling’s YouTube channel, there’s a collection of POV (point of view) videos filmed from the front carriage of the rides of this fairy tale theme park in Kaatsheuvel, south Holland, including water coaster De Vliegende Hollander (The Flying Dutchman) and a 360-degree view of double-track wooden racer coaster Joris en de Draak (George and the Dragon). For the brave, there’s the Baron 1898 dive coaster, which plunges 37.5m in to a mineshaft at 90kmh. There’s also a less nail-biting walk through of the recently-opened Fabula, the 4D film adventure created in collaboration with British studio animators Aardman.
POV footage has existed since the first cameras were mounted in early airplanes and cars with the purpose of giving viewers the sense of what it was like to see things first hand, through the operator’s eyes. Dick Barrymore, an early action filmmaker, experimented with film cameras and counter weights mounted to a helmet and discovered he could ski unencumbered while capturing dramatic footage of scenery and other skiers, in early wearable technology. Numerous companies have developed successful POV designs since, from laparoscopic video equipment used inside the body during medical procedures, to high tech film and digital cameras mounted to jets. Still, wearable technology continues to face challenges of stability and quality of image.
To feel the thrill, go to Efetling’s YouTube channel
Galapagos islands, Ecuador, via Google Earth
Trek through the Galapagos and witness the islands’ volcanic activity up close. Google Earth Outreach teamed up with the Charles Darwin Foundation and the Galapagos National Park to produce the online platform that allows visitors to learn about Darwin’s work on the islands in 1835 as if they were on an expedition themselves. His visit was crucial in the development of his theory of evolution.
Via 360-degree panoramic images stitched together and the first-person street view mode, you’re taken on a modern-day mapping expedition as if you were the Victorian explorer himself. The Galapagos are home to a large number of endemic species, including the famous Giant Tortoise. You can also dive down underwater to discover the islands’ marine life, such as the Marine Iguana found nowhere else in the world, through the Catlin Seaview Survey, a scientific survey creating a baseline record of the world’s coral reefs in high-resolution 360 degree panoramic vision.
Dive down and explore the Galapagos
Dubai by 360 Panorama
Visit the Etihad Museum, covering the history of the United Arab Emirates, wander through the restored Al Fahidi Historical Neighbourhood or even enter through the luxurious doors of one of the city’s opulent hotels.
Dubai 360 (screenshot shown above) is an online platform that offers panoramic video and photographic content of sites of interest across the Emirati city state - the only 360 city-wide virtual tour in the world, with individual photographs, videos, and time-lapse panoramas. Creators Dubai Film, the first company to put 8K resolution 360 videos on Youtube, used the latest DSLR cameras and lenses, as well as custom made rigs for all still photos, time-lapses and hyperlapses. "It was important to get the highest resolution possible, on average around 200-megapixel solutions, compared to Facebook's 75 megapixels maximum, with panoramas up to 45 gigapixels," says Michael Essey, producer at Dubai Film. "The tour has around 6,000 photos and dozens of 360 videos connected to over 32,000 hotspots. The 360 editors, with relevant coding and 360 stitching capability, also play a huge role.
"The 360 VR solutions will soon become common occurrence as we continue to evolve in the digital age and we as a company will either have to adapt or disappear into irrelevancy. Each day, new devices, new technologies and updated software are available in the market. In the future, as VR goggles become more mainstream, we will eventually see Virtual Reality (VR) amalgamate with Augmented Reality (AR) for an added dimension."
San Francisco, USA, by Zoom background
We may be working in isolation, but we’re keeping in touch through video conferencing platforms like Zoom, GoToMeeting and Ryver. We can also insert backgrounds images over the green screen of our laptops to disguise and cover over our messy bedroom offices, placing ourselves anywhere in the world.
San Francisco Travel Association is offering seven free backgrounds that can be uploaded to Zoom, including the West Coast city’s iconic historic cable cars and the Golden Gate Bridge. "Naturally, we wish everyone could visit San Francisco right now, but until things change we want to give people a way to look like they're having a virtually great time in our city," says Joe D'Alessandro, president, San Francisco Travel Association.
Zoom’s virtual background feature allows you to display any image or video (including your own holiday snaps) as a background during a meeting. It works best with a green screen and uniform lighting, to allow Zoom to detect the difference between you and your background (if the feature is used on an iPhone 8 and later models, instead of computer, no green screen is necessary).
Zoom backgrounds have become a hugely popular way of travel: a recent survey showed that 57 per cent of users said the ability to change the background image is their favourite aspect of Zoom. Times Square in New York is the most used tourist attraction background image on Zoom, closely followed by the Eiffel Tower in Paris.
Australian wildlife by live stream
All you need is a smart phone to see the zookeepers feeding Elvis the saltwater crocodile at the Australian Reptile Park, Sydney, or have a chance to mingle with marsupials at Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary, Brisbane. Australian zoos and wildlife parks have jumped at the chance to bring online visitors behind the scenes, creating a network of live streaming into the cages, enclosures, fields and tanks where usually only keepers are allowed to tread. You can join the penguins for lunch at Sea Life Sydney and try to catch a glimpse of the snow leopard cubs at Werribee Open Range Zoo (they spend most of their time sleeping). BirdLife Australia Discovery Centre's EagleCam has a live stream of a resident pair of Sydney's white-bellied sea eagles. Citizens of the Great Barrier Reef, an organisation working to preserve reefs worldwide, are streaming real-time data so you can track the movements and location of tagged turtles, sharks and manta rays off the Queensland coast.
Watch Australian wildlife online:
Hawaii VR by app
Don’t just watch - take part in authentic local experiences, from hula dancing to ukulele performances, across the four islands of Oahu, Maui, Kauai and Hawaii. You can even take a ride on a catamaran as if you were sailing it yourself.
‘Hawai’I VR’ is the world’s first immersive Virtual Reality experience that combines interactivity with cinematic live-action footage. Using gaze detection and customised mobile headsets, armchair travellers select one of the four islands then float down, from a first person perspective, by paraglider to get a closer look. These absent adventurers hold up the two Vive controllers in front of them as if they were the handles of a paraglider and control the experience through a pair of stylized hands. As they approach the island, the visual experience fades in to a 360 live action experience where stay-at-home tourists can enjoy Hula in Hawaii, surfing in Oahu, sailing in Kauai, and wading through the waterfalls in Maui.
"Our brief from the Hawaii Tourism Authority was to transport people to the Hawaiian Islands and showcase the unique experiences in ways they never imagined. We've created an experience that allows our consumers to be part of the adventure," say Framestore Pictures, leaders in the field of VR, who created the app. They also worked on another far-off, if fantasy, land for Game of Thrones.
Download Hawaii VR: Let Hawaii Happen from the App Store.
Faroe Islands by Guided Virtual Tour
This remote nation in the North Atlantic – halfway between Iceland and Norway - can now be visited in real time through the eyes of a local islander. The local tourist board’s new Remote Tourism site, the first of its kind, allows those who can’t travel to explore the Faroes' rugged mountains, to see close-up its cascading waterfalls and to spot the traditional grass-roofed houses of this Nordic nation by interacting with a Faroese, who will act as their eyes, ears and body on a virtual exploratory tour.
The Faroese guide is equipped with a live video camera, allowing visitors not only to see the views from an on-the-spot perspective, but also to control where and how they explore by using a joypad to turn, walk, run and even jump. Just like a real-life computer game, the main player will control the moves of the guide. They can choose to explore on foot, horseback or by kayak. They can even go up in a helicopter to count the 18 islands’ 80,000 sheep, half as much again as the human population. The tours run twice daily, during which time any one visitor can control the tour for just one minute, although a limitless number can watch.
At the same time, Visit Faroe Islands tourist board team are on Instagram and Facebook Live to answer any questions. Guðrið Højgaard, director of Visit Faroe Islands, says, "This new platform enables those in isolation to take a walk across our wild landscapes, to regain a sense of freedom and to explore beyond their own four walls." The tourist board already has a reputation for innovative remote tourism: Google Sheep View saw sheep helping to map the island for Google Street View.
Sign up for a Faroe Islands tour
Sign up to the E&T News e-mail to get great stories like this delivered to your inbox every day.