HOW MUCH DO you know about Virtual Reality (VR)? You’ve probably heard of it at least.
Well, full-immersion-experience headsets are set to be big, big news in the near future. With a lot of technology reaching the limits of how we can interact with it as humans, the wholly immersive nature of VR has been earmarked as the next big push for our attention – Facebook supremo Mark Zuckerberg is pouring resources into it at the moment if you need convincing.
And plucky old Irish tourism is getting in on the action while the iron’s hot.
Ireland can sometimes feel like it’s years adrift from how other countries approach things, but in recent times you couldn’t tar Fáilte Ireland with that brush.
The Wild Atlantic Way, a co-ordinated effort regarding tourist destinations the length of the Atlantic coast, has been a revelation for the tourism industry here.
Now the whole thing has gone virtual – and TheJournal.ie got to try it out first-hand.
This morning Fáilte Ireland officially launched Virtual Reality Tours of the Wild Atlantic Way at their headquarters in north Dublin.
The whole tourism team present were all a bit giddy with excitement – this is a project that has been pulled together quite quickly – in the space of just over a month. Although it’s likely that none of Fáilte Ireland’s digital team have slept once over the course of that month. This sounds like one full-on workload.
In short – four 360-degree VR videos have been produced using drone and other sophisticated cameras showcasing some of what the Wild Atlantic Way has to offer – horse-riding on Streedagh Strand in Co Sligo, cycling through the Burren, surfing beneath the cliffs of Moher, and sea stack climbing in Co Donegal.
So once the tourism guys have given their welcome spiel – head of marketing Noel John McLoughlin describes the VR launch as “an absolute gamechanger for tourism in this country” – the demonstration begins.
If you’re not familiar with VR here’s a quick explainer – at its most basic, you can use a headset like Google Cardboard in combination with your smartphone and a relevant app and presto – full immersion in a different world (a great [free] example of such an app is the New York Times Virtual Reality – be warned, while excellent, it will eat your phone’s free storage like nobody’s business).
So, we don one of these things, fitted with a Samsung S6 phone running the Wild Atlantic Way software, and off we go:
You use your head as a sort of mouse and click on whichever video you want to view by tapping the headset. And this is what you’ll look like:
But from there it’s hard to describe what the experience is like unless you’ve used the likes of Oculus Rift (a Samsung version of whose device today’s demonstration took place on) before.
Each of the videos is a couple of minutes long. And you’ll spend that time spinning around in your chair or twirling your arms like you just don’t care:
First up is Streedagh Beach – we start up in the air about a hundred feet – then we hear the thunder of a horse galloping. Next thing we know we’re riding the horse and looking all around us. It’s beautiful and actually quite relaxing.
Cycling in the Burren, Co Clare, is next. It’s a very similar experience to the horse-riding, you start from above before appearing in the saddle with Patrick O’Regan from Burren Way Mountain Bike Tours and a few friends. The scenery again is awe-inspiring – this was all filmed in February 2016, you remind yourself.
The first two videos are very impressive, but it’s the surfing off the Cliffs of Moher that really shows you what this experience can do – it’s absolutely brilliant. For any terrible wannabe surfers who’ve ever stood miserable and waist-high in seawater while being relentlessly bashed over the head by an errant beginner-board off Lahinch strand – this is how it’s done.
In climbing on board with champion wave-rider Ollie O’Flaherty, the experience is really something else. You’re standing on the board one minute, then you turn and find yourself facing a wall of green as an enormous breaker towers over you. Then you’re surfing, at speed along the length of the wave’s crest. It’s breath-taking, and when Ollie eventually falls from the board into the depths it feels like you’re there – not bad when you remember you’re sitting on a swivel chair in an office.
The final video is a bout of mountaineering up a sea stack off the Donegal coastline. This is one not best experienced if you suffer from vertigo – the view from the top of the stack is something else. Possibly the most effective part of this entry is when the boat you’re in floats under the arch of the stack itself and everything turns to gloom – it’s quite special.
“A project you can believe in”
As you’ve probably gathered, we thought the experience was pretty cool. So what happens next?
Virtual Tours of the Wild Atlantic Way was first displayed last week at the ITB tourism fair in Berlin, and it seems to have gone down a treat. While VR isn’t particularly new, this tourism application for the technology only has one real comparison – with Tourism Australia.
You can see the happy reactions of the punters in the video above, but a common evaluation is: “I never knew you could do that in Ireland, it was amazing.” Which sounds promising.
Developers Sinéad McCarthy and Vanessa Lawrenson are particularly enthused. It’s their team, together with creative agency Big O Media, who have developed this project in little over a month.
“We haven’t slept to be honest with you,” says Vanessa.
“But it’s been a totally infectious experience too,” agrees Sinéad.
Right from the start, we got in touch with established operators who were used to working with us – but when they heard what we had in mind they were like ‘whoah… this is very different’.
But when you see it put together – it’s just so satisfying. We even composed all the music, it’s a project we’ve taken ownership of.
The software behind the virtual reality tours will be out on Android by the end of this month. Yes, that’s right, unfortunately iPhone users won’t get a look in.
The videos will also be released as 360-degree tours on YouTube. In all cases they’ll be completely free. But you can take it from us – the best way to experience this is via a headset. As sales officer with Fáilte Ireland Amanda Horan says: “you can get them in Penneys for less than €20. And people don’t really know what they are. But they will.”
Whether or not the marketing works only time will tell. But as a sales ploy it seems to be a good one.
“The reception we received in Berlin proves that this interactive technology can open up great potential for Irish tourism,” says Horan.
We’re already planning how we can incorporate it into our tourist office networks as well as into the many trade fairs and industry platforms where crucial travel decision making takes place.