Apple and Snap Offer Augmented Reality That Paints a Vision for Travel’s Virtual Future

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Snap, Apple, and Questo have joined other technology companies in taking further steps to popularize the use of augmented reality. New hardware, software, and partnerships may make it more common for travelers to use devices to look at destinations in fresh ways.

For years, marketing hype has touted augmented reality — which mixes the virtual and the real on a smartphone screen or other digital device. Yet it has taken time for hardware makers to catch up to the promise. Today’s augmented reality offerings continue to lack immediate appeal or widespread adoption.

But the future potential for augmented reality seems straightforward. Travelers rely on their devices during trips, and travel brands need to watch how travelers’ virtual interactions in today’s social media and phone apps may reshape their expectations at destinations tomorrow.

Snap, a social media company and a camera maker, this month debuted a novel test of augmented reality at London’s Carnaby Street, a shopping and nightlife district. People standing anywhere along Carnaby Street can open the Snapchat app on their phones, view the streetscape via the camera lens, and then virtually spray red and blue paint above the shops. Users essentially uncover graffiti murals that the app developers have created.

Users of Snap’s feature can see how others virtually spray paint and can duel with each other to cover the shops. Until now in augmented reality, the actions taken on one phone user’s device hasn’t typically been readable by another person’s phone, such as with the Pokemon Go game from a few years ago.

Snap’s test of its “city painter” tool is part of an effort called Local Lenses that aims to map physical structures of major landmarks to make it easy to overlay a shared virtual world on them via devices. That could make uses of the tech more popular than today’s static, fixed uses. Snap said in June that only about 170 million people a day use its augmented-reality tools based on the old, gimmicky model. You can appear to be a talking potato during a video chat, for example.

One headwind for augmented reality tech is that many people still lack the tools to make use of it.

Apple Adds Tech to iPhones

Apple last week took a step toward reducing those barriers by adding LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) scanners to its Pro line of iPhone 12. The phones will shoot beams of lights that will help their computer chips gain a sense of the depth of surrounding objects. That data will help make augmented-reality experiences more realistic.

During Apple’s iPhone presentation, Snap showed off some augmented reality tricks it intended to make available to consumers via the new Lidar capability, such as overlaying a virtual garden on a woman sitting in a kitchen, complete with flying birds disappearing behind the person’s head.

Demonstration of the use of Apple’s Lidar technology to power augmented reality by app developer Snap during Apple’s iPhone 12 launch event. Screenshot by Skift.

Snap makes its own hardware, and in November 2019 launched a third version of its video-recording sunglasses. Snap’s Spectacles still aren’t for everyone, though. They’re pricey, selling at typically $380 a pair. Their power-hungry displays also drain batteries too rapidly for convenience.

But the latest generation of Spectacles has added a second camera. Better computer processing also enables more realistic virtual experiences. The devices are beginning to find compelling ways to overlay virtual simulations on real-world objects as seen through the lenses.

Travel Brands Advertise on Snap

Snap isn’t profitable but its second-quarter revenue rose 17 percent from a year earlier to reach $454 million.

Snap’s users are mostly young and not spending a lot on travel, but some travel brands have chosen to target them via Snap anyway.

Madinat Jumeirah snapchat ad source snap

A backdrop of Dubai helping to promote the Madinat Jumeirah Hotel as seen via a Snapchat augmented reality ad. Source: Snap.

A handful of travel brands have been seeking out the younger users to establish their brands via what some view as a cost-effective advertising platform.

Dubai’s tourism authorities, for instance, used ads on Snapchat to appeal to about 9 million users in the UK and France during April and May, the height of pandemic-related travel restrictions.

Dubai Tourism created augmented reality “lenses” that let users photograph themselves against the landmarks including Burj Khalifa, Burj Al Arab, Al Seef, and the Dubai Frame.

Hopper, an online travel agency, wanted to get more young people to use its tools to track flights and find the best time to buy tickets. It launched an ad campaign on Snap. The campaign tracked downloads of Hopper’s mobile app and how many users signed up for notifications to track airfare changes.

It targeted Snapchat users with ads showing flight deals relevant to their nearest airport. With a swipe of the ad, a user could download the app and go on to track fares on the route or book a flight on Hopper.

Hopper said Snapchat users who clicked through were four times as likely to book tickets as those from its other main digital acquisition channels and that the local ads cost half as much per download of its app as its other primary channels.

Questo’s Game-Based Approach

Questo suggests one direction augmented-reality could take in travel. The Bucharest-based travel startup tries to turn walking and bus tours into games.

Questo has invented games for tourists to play in more than 80 cities via its mobile app. Players can pretend to explore cities in the guise of major figures, such as traveling around Zurich as Einstein and listen to stories about local history in exchange for earning points in a game.

Pandemic-related health precautions may also give a boost to interest in augmented reality via self-guided travel. Tour operators such as Discovery Pisa, Destination Asia in Thailand, JTB in Japan, and Arabian Adventures in Dubai, partner with Questo to provide content and reach travelers seeking self-guided tours of destinations.

“After Covid-19, we realized that we needed to find a way to reach all the people that might avoid regular walking tours,” said Andrea Dominguez, the founder of Discovery Pisa, in explaining the decision to work with Questo.

“These are people who prefer to explore the city on their own, afraid of group tours, but who still want to learn about the history and curiosities of the city.”

For more context on augmented reality and other emerging tech, Skift Research subscribers can read the report Emerging Tech in Travel 2020.

Photo Credit: A user of Snap’s new technology at London’s Carnaby Street. It’s a proof of concept for travelers using augmented reality routinely. Snapchat and Apple are rolling out hardware and software that improves the usefulness of augmented reality in travel, including for cheap advertising. Snap

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