The runaway popularity of virtual reality (VR) is undeniably real. Hotels are using it to showcase rooms on their Web pages, and three-dimensional maps will soon point to virtual meeting spaces, virtual rental cars, and virtual destinations.
Equally undeniable is the rash of virtual overkill that promises to afflict travel sites-the proverbial VR for VR’s sake.
This won’t be as easy to fix as the ubiquitous flashing letters that were once in vogue or the thoughtlessly large graphics that continue to weigh down many Web pages. This is a different kind of overkill, because there’s more at stake than cosmetics-programming a VR site is a comparatively expensive undertaking.
“VR, like any other medium, can be overdone,” says Joe Dysart, editor of Virtual Reality Monthly, a Newbury Park, CA, industry newsletter. “But when used judiciously, I personally believe VR will come across as a perk on virtually any Web site. There are just too many players-manufacturers, software writers, users-madly rushing to make PCs 3D- and VR-capable to think otherwise.”
It is precisely this scramble for VR supremacy that makes rational thought so difficult for travel suppliers. If users can access VR through plug-ins that are downloaded with a Web browser, so the argument goes, why not introduce 3-D to a site?
But executives are well advised to look before leaping. A decision to use VR is certain to cost at least $10,000 and to force some tough decisions. For example, which VR?
Two languages are used to create VR effects on the Web. Virtual Reality Modeling Language (VRML) defines a set of objects in a 3-D “world” and is ideal for applications using spatial relationships, such as floor plans. The strength of QuickTime VR, the second option, is in the realistic, high-resolution images it can deliver. Movement within QTVR is more limited than in VRML.
Mark Pesce, who co-authored VRML and currently works for San Francisco-based Big Book, an online directory, says, “If you’re helping someone plan a convention, you want to be able to let them walk through the exhibits, to give them an idea of what it will look like.” Bud Smith, a marketing executive for Apple Computer, which licenses QTVR technology, says QTVR “gives users an idea of what to expect [at a destination]. It’s the next best thing to being there yourself.”
No matter which system is used, there’s one final and central challenge to the VR equation-hostile users, particularly those who have been VR’d to death. When users get annoyed with an unreasonably long download, they simply click away.
“If you try to represent every part of the property in VR, it won’t work, and there won’t be a cost benefit to you,” says Les Ottolenghi, director of emerging technologies for Holiday Inn Worldwide. His company is among the QTVR trailblazers.
Other user turnoffs include using the wrong VR language to show a venue and sloppy programming. VR isn’t something that can be dabbled in, like HTML.
VR alone is not bad. But VR for VR’s sake is. Web users are savvy, and they know the difference. Unless Web developers learn to discriminate between appropriate and inappropriate VR use, they’re sure to alienate more users than an enormous graphic or a flashing font ever did.