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Trying out British Columbia's The Wild Within VR Experience

Domini Clark/The Globe and Mail

Imagine a German woman visiting a travel agency, looking for vacation ideas. As she flips through the usual glossy brochures, an agent offers her a virtual-reality (VR) headset. She slips it over her eyes and ears and, within seconds, finds herself on a skiff in the middle of British Columbia's Great Bear Rainforest.

A "wilderness guide" welcomes her and asks her to choose with a click which trip she'd prefer. One takes her on the skiff through pristine waters alive with growling Steller sea lions. She selects the second option, which guides her on a walk through a misty ancient rain forest to waterfalls. She's instantly immersed; as she looks up, down and behind herself at the landscape, she hears birdsong and drizzling rain.

Will she be inspired by The Wild Within VR Experience to explore B.C.'s wilderness in person? That's the hope of Destination B.C. The provincial corporation was the first in North America to use the new technology to market B.C.'s natural beauty to the world, says Maya Lange, vice-president of global marketing.

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VR seemed ideal, Lange says, to "help bring destinations to life in a completely new way." After scouting locations, a 15-person team went to the northern Vancouver Island wilderness to capture two treks in 360 degrees. They used seven HD GoPro cameras strapped to a custom spherical rig, which was either lashed to a backpack or mounted on a hexacopter drone.

After the shoot, specialized software was used to integrate the digital video footage from the cameras' memory cards to form two seamless VR narratives.

The process cost close to $500,000, about the same as making a TV commercial, Lange says. But she says there's a stronger, more emotional connection when the viewer feels as if he or she is actually a part of the landscape.

VR started gaining traction last year when Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg purchased pioneering firm Oculus VR for $2-billion (U.S.). Destination B.C.'s The Wild Within films were first presented using Oculus VR's Rift headsets at U.S. trade events meant to pique the interests of travel writers. It attracted unprecedented lineups and international media ink. Destination B.C.'s VR experience was then chosen by Samsung to demonstrate its own virtual-reality headset at a tech conference in Las Vegas.

Viewing options for The Wild Within are rapidly expanding as VR technology catches fire.

"In the last six months, it's become available via iPhone, Android and, most recently, Google adapted YouTube to profile 360 videos," Lange says. "So we quickly jumped on that and turned it around and have [the VR video] now on YouTube 360, so you don't even need a headset."

Destination B.C. had provided its videos and Samsung VR headsets to tour operators in Britain, Germany, Japan, China and Australia in June. When Google introduced Google Cardboard – an ingenious fold-out mount that turns a smartphone into a VR viewer – the reduced cost allowed the B.C. organization to expand its VR reach to 1,500 more key operators and buyers.

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Other travel industry players are also entering the virtual space, which has been dubbed the Metaverse. Marriott Hotels uses VR to transport potential guests to a Hawaiian beach, the Andes Mountains, a Rwandan ice cream shop and the streets of Beijing. British Airways sets prospective customers atop Texas broncos, while Qantas gives some first-class passengers a dip in the Great Barrier Reef. Edmonton's Life Before Work Travel, aimed at students, jumps them off a cliff in Vietnam.

Though Destination B.C.'s use of VR has elicited some 65 million "impressions" – views of or about it by individuals – it's difficult to measure what impact the footage has had on B.C. tourism, Lange says. Nevertheless, she thinks this is the future of destination marketing.

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