As the travel and tourism sector sets about inspiring people again post COVID-19, could this be the time for the promise of Augmented Reality to be finally realised?
South African gaming and animation firm Sea Monster believes so, and is looking to create a virtual world that can be used to fire the imaginations of the next generation of travellers.
Glenn Gillis, chief executive of the Cape Town-based firm, predicts AR will become the medium that gets people into the idea of travelling the world to explore new places.
He says the Pokemon Go phenomenon of a few years back was “no fad” but a “clue to the future of tourism” with AR-enabled personal devices guiding users around the real world.
“Telling stories are what helps us make sense of the world and what fires our imaginations. They are why we travel and how we hear about where we want to go,” he said.
“And, for us, using games is one way humanity has always made sense of interactions. They give us rules and feedback. AR is just that.
“While Virtual Reality is just coming out of the disappointment curve, AR is a mature technology. Today there are one billion AR smart devices in the world.
“COVID-19 brings into stark relief what the future looks like and how DMOs, airlines or travel firms will have to build a digital community to share stories.
“And how they inspire people about what’s possible beyond just some watching some YouTube clips and looking at pictures.”
Sea Monster, named after the ancient tradition of placing sea monsters on the edge maps to denote the unknown and scary, has created a virtual Cape Town to showcase its vision.
It is available to download on the Destination AR app in the Apple and Google Play app stores.
The concept evolved from the firm winning a project for Air France which wanted to do something more interactive with its in-flight entertainment system.
As well as offering something more entertaining for flyers than staring at an in-flight route map, Sea Monster sees many potential applications for AR in destination marketing.
For instance, during the recent COVID-19 lockdown many parents and teachers could have used it when putting together remote learning plans for kids stuck at home.
But for any travel and tourism company, using AR to engage clients while gleaning vital data about their likes, dislikes, desires and plans could offer a vital edge as travel resumes.
“If I’m reading stuff online, bringing it to life through images and words, as I grab it off screen and bring it to life in front of me, that’s a magical process. It’s sensual and emotive.
“We know the tourism industry is looking for ways to reinvent itself, and it’s always been our passion to see what we could do to make that happen,” said Gillis.
“When COVID started we thought we have to get out there. We have to spark the imagination of DMOs, airlines, tourism operators. We have to rebuild this industry.”
Gillis said all travel organisations need to work out how they are going to “fight the next and not the last war” when it comes to the future of marketing, engagement and content.
And he said to remain relevant to a digitised audience they will have to find way ways to earn the trust of consumer more than ever before.
“If you go to a travel retailer you know you could buy everything cheaper yourself, but you trust that they are going to curate for you.
“When Thomas Cook collapsed we asked is this really the end of an era? Which travel agent is going to survive without reimagining what they are. How do you earn trust?”
A virtual version of the world is being constructed on the web and in computer games, and Gillis says it remains to be seen who controls access and the rights to it.
“This is a call to action for every destination out there to think about what their digital version looks like and who is going to own that,” he said.
“Let’s build this world now and let’s focus on the user and given them a great story, a game, a toy. It’s about the human connection and exploring the world around us.”
Sea Monster expects to open its first overseas office in London next year having put plans for international expansion in 2020 on hold due to the COVID-19 crisis.
Gillis said the firm “sees London as a natural base” due to its vibrant creative industries and affiliation with travel and tourism.
“COVID-19 has forced us to go back to basics and understand things that were always true, that stories are what inspire us to travel. That’s been true forever,” he said.
“AR makes it possible to deliver those stories in an engaging way into people’s lounges. We are big believers that games can be good or bad, but we prefer to focus on the good stuff.”