How AR and VR Could Change Tourism in New York

Tourist itineraries in New York City are predictable enough to be b-roll cliche. Tourists are easy enough to spot: they move in flocks through Central Park, take selfies at the Statue of Liberty, stare in awe from their slow-moving tour buses at the Empire State Building, and — of course — purchase “I Heart NYC” t-shirts from overpriced carts. The New York that visitors enjoy is predictable, yes, but also vivid, exciting, and well-packed with familiar landmarks; each new day offers wide-eyed tourists the chance to experience famous sights firsthand.

But what if the tourism experience could span more than a well-walked map of landmarks? What if visitors could peel back the cliches of New York’s touristy exterior and delve into its rich history? Augmented and virtual reality technologies may provide a means to do just that, revolutionizing the way visitors experience both the city and its history.

VR and AR’s entry into the tourism sector isn’t all that surprising, given its growing popularity. Analysts for Goldman Sachs estimate that the market for both will overtake $1.6 billion by 2025. Figures from Statista further indicate that as of 2018, 117 million people worldwide were active VR users — a notable leap from four years before, when only 200,000 actively used the technology. Both AR and VR are well-known for their ability to create immersive digital experiences; they empower consumers to delve into their favorite fantasy gaming worlds, experience movies in near-overwhelming sensory experiences, and even virtually “trial” products before buying them in a brick-and-mortar store. With tourism, virtual- and augmented reality technologies promise to add another layer of immersion to an industry that already centers on creating memorable experiences.

VR Expands Tourism Possibilities

Every pre-planned walk or guided bus tour has its limits. Tourists can’t duck under the metaphorical velvet rope to explore their favorite attractions; they have to stay within set, guide-approved bounds. With VR, those limitations are less constricting, offering virtual access to the tourist without compromising the security of the site itself.

As Dr. Nigel Jones, a senior lecturer in information systems at Cardiff Metropolitan University noted for a recent article for the BBC, VR provides “something that’s more tangible to the [tourist]. They can see where they’re going to go, see what’s happening in that location […] The other advantage is to give people an experience that they can’t do. You could take them to a place that’s off limits — like a dungeon in a castle.”

New York City might be running low on castles, but it certainly has no shortage of historic attractions and digitally-explorable landscapes. Consider Governor’s Island, a popular tourist hotspot that sits just East of the Statue of Liberty. Today, the island encompasses several historical sites and a national park — but centuries ago, it was a seasonal fishing spot for Native Americans and an outpost for English and Dutch settlers. The island’s history is rich — and relatively inaccessible for most tourists. However, recent AR innovations have begun to allow tourists to walk through history as they traverse the island.

Inventing America is one such tourist-centered tool. Made publicly available in 2018, Inventing America uses an AR-powered app to transport visitors into a 17th-century, post-colonial version of Governor’s Island. The app provides users with the opportunity to delve into storylines, characters, and history even as they explore the real-life Governor’s Island on foot. Experiences in the app are inextricably tied to physical exploration, ensuring that the AR game complements and supports, rather than replaces, a tourist’s real-world experience on the island.

Of course, not all VR- and AR innovations are quite so based in game and narrative. Others, like the New York City-based tour provider The RIDE, use VR and AR experiences to provide tourists with more information as they drive past popular city hotspots. The RIDE melds traditional tour bus routes with augmented reality technology; each of its buses sport 40 LCD TVs, surround sound, and LED lights. This structure, the company notes, allows facilitators to provide “deeply researched audio/visual support conveying the history and growth of Manhattan” during their tours, thereby superimposing a tech-powered view of a past New York onto the view tourists see beyond the bus’s windows.

Emerging virtual tools promise to add all-new layers to New York’s tourism experience, sweeping away the tired tropes of tourist cliches — and we will be all the better for it.

By |2019-07-15T20:51:17+00:00May 30th, 2019|Culture, Technology|

If We Live in a Simulation, Let’s Hope We Never Prove It

Odds are, you’ve pondered off-hand the nature of our shared and individual reality. Am I real? Is anything real? To most mature, sober adults, the consideration seems absurd. But there are some that think this a possibility not only worth pondering, but investigating. Believe it or not, many philosophers, physicists, and futurists think there’s a good chance the answer to both queries is “no.”

You may have heard of simulation theory before. It’s been most notably depicted in the Matrix Trilogy, wherein Keanu Reeves’ Neo discovers that his reality is a computer simulation created by sentient machines that control humanity. Simulation theory is basically that, but without a robotic antagonist and human bodies in pods. If human consciousness can be simulated, the theory goes, we could be all be characters in a virtual reality and never even know it.

The case for simulation

Why on earth(s) would this be the case? This is where the sci-fi element gets a bit more plausible. The first rationality is statistical. Assuming it is possible for humans to simulate reality in the future, post-humans would have the ability to run countless simulations, potentially of their ancestors (us), all at once. Statistically, then, it would be infinitely more likely to be part of one of these simulations than not.

Considering the rate of improvement in video games and virtual reality—by which we’ve gone from “Snake” to photorealistic VR in half a century—it seems unlikely that humans won’t someday reach this point. If you are a technological optimist and think humans can and will create simulations down the line, you’ll have to accept the probability that it’s happened already, and here we are. This belief also lends itself to the theory of nested realities, by which people in simulations create more simulations, forming a chain of virtual worlds.

Some scientists have equated the realization (if it could ever be proven) with Copernicus’ discovery that the Earth moves around the sun. Once you get it, everything else becomes simpler. If we are indeed part of a simulation, it may explain why, against great odds, we evolved from ooze into conscious beings. If this rare and miraculous evolution happened just once, trillions upon trillions could relive it in simulations. It could also explain why the universe is based on mathematical laws, and why objects are only measurable once they are observed.

The hypothesis was first laid out by Oxford philosopher and futurologist Nick Bostrom in 2003, but has since piqued the interest of prominent scientists. Elon Musk, for his part, thinks that there is a billion to one chance we are living in base reality. He also says we should hope we are, because if not civilization could be near its end. NASA scientist Nick Terrile agrees. “If one progresses at the current rate of technology a few decades into the future,” he tells the Guardian, “very quickly we will be a society where there are artificial entities living in simulations that are much more abundant than human beings.”

Is it possible to test such a hypothesis? Two Silicon Valley billionaires, for their part, have enlisted scientists to try and figure it out. Some things to look for would be irregularities, finite points that prove the universe isn’t endlessly expansive, or evidence of a creator “cutting corners.” But perhaps the only real solution would be to succeed at simulating reality and consciousness. In this regard, we have a long way to go.

What it would mean—and should we worry?

The greater question is, if we are to accept simulation theory (or somehow prove it), does it even matter? Is it good for the world, or bad? The revelation might inspire a sense of purpose in some, causing them to do more to make things interesting for the game-maker. This seems like a stretch—personally, I can’t imagine a collectively positive reaction in today’s day and age.

Casting a tidal wave a doubt over the world’s religious billions, for starters, would the extinguish (or at least badly damage) the moral purpose of huge portions of the population. People would question the meaning of their day-to-day lives and struggles, and be embittered by the idea of a mortal creator watching for amusement. If there were concrete proof of a simulation, humanity would doubtless attempt to make contact, or cause enough of a commotion to merit intervention. This would be a recipe for mass anarchy.

Lest I end this on a dark note, it’s worth taking a moment to realize that whether or not we are in a simulation, the odds of us proving it any time soon are miniscule. And there are perfectly good reasons to disbelieve the theory entirely. Simulations rely on physical properties, after all, and it boggles the mind to think of the time, space, and effort necessary to create a perfect, mammoth simulation that grasps the minuscule details of reality so expertly. Think of it this way: if simulated water tastes and hydrates just like water, is it a simulation anymore, or just water? Further, there is no evidence yet that computation can replicate consciousness on any level.

There will probably be no real answer to this question in our lifetime, and simulation theory is in this way kind of like religion. If believing in it drives us to be better people, and strive for an improved, advanced humanity, I may still call it creepy, but I won’t knock it.

If the concept alone drives us to mayhem, well… it wouldn’t be the first time belief in a higher power led to war.

By |2018-10-31T18:11:36+00:00April 5th, 2017|Technology, Urban Planning|