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Astronauts have dubbed it the “overview effect”—the transcendent moment when the curve of the Earth comes into view from space, this fragile ball of life hanging in the inky void. I am watching this very thing, and during a solar eclipse, as the sun slowly disappears behind the planet, leaving an ephemeral scimitar of light. I realize that I can reach out—godlike—and spin the entire planet with my right hand. This should be a profound moment of shifting perceptions, but what I actually feel is sweaty, nauseous, and strangely hollow.
I’m at Otherworld, a virtual-reality experience in an archway near London’s Victoria Station. Ten minutes earlier, an earnest young man wearing eyeliner, dressed in a white robe as if for a bout of futuristic judo, had briefed me on how to use the various headsets and handsets before pointing me toward a dark vertical pod.
Before exiting the virtual stratosphere, I fly through the glitchy innards of skyscrapers in Hong Kong and the striated columns of Bryce Canyon in Utah, then spend a minute or two in the Google Street View mode, essentially a 3D version of what you can see online. There I stare at my family home in the United Kingdom—looking at my mother’s old Fiat convertible, noting that my stepdad was still alive on whatever day this particular photo was taken. This twinge of grief is the only tangible human emotion I feel through the whole experience. After a minute or two suspended in space, idly spinning the globe, I feel carsick and am desperately trying to figure out which button will get me out. A voice sounds in my headphones: “Toby, are you okay?”
During the first COVID-19 lockdown, when virtual travel was all the rage, I climbed Everest through a V.R. headset, gave up on a digital tour of the Louvre, and tried the educational mode of the Assassin’s Creed video games, concluding that ancient Greece and ancient Egypt were more fun when I could stealthily slit the throats of rival knights. I decided that virtual travel, unlike video games, remains largely a gimmick. Yet increasingly people are asking what the buzzwords of the digital future will mean for travel: the metaverse, Web3, cryptocurrencies, non-fungible tokens (NFTs), artificial intelligence, virtual and augmented reality, and the rest.
One answer is that, of course, new digital technology will create ripples of change. We’re already seeing the beginnings of A.I.-controlled stays like DistrictHive’s “human recharging pod” in Grenada, Spain, an off-grid glass space where an A.I. system manages energy consumption and changes the sounds or smells in the space depending on external conditions; crypto-driven travel agencies like Travala.com, through which NFT holders receive membership loyalty perks; and V.R. and A.R. experiences in hotels, including Ascott’s Lyf One-North Singapore, a co-living property where guests can trade digital artworks and play one another at virtual tennis. The futurist Ian Pearson has told me that he sees a near-future trend for bare concrete airport terminals and hotel rooms, ready for us to “design” with A.R. projections from contact lenses. In the more distant future, he sees us connecting our brains to servers so that we can inhabit humanoid androids in different countries, effectively transcending the limits of our puny human bodies. Whether or not we are eventually subsumed by robots, it is inevitable that travel will change along the way.