The world at your fingertips

Hakim Hayat

In his late twenties and working in private sector, Mohd Amir bin Jalani said he has travelled to more than 20 countries in the past eight years, including in the three years of his undergraduate studies in the United Kingdom (UK).

He always had a hunger for adventure. One way to fulfil this is by travelling, experiencing different cultures, sights, and food.

“The last country I visited was Laos in February this year.”

But as the world fight to contain the COVID-19 pandemic, travel restrictions and lockdown orders are the norm now, and all his travel plans this year have been hampered. “Ever since the virus broke out, I was already anxious to travel. I made the decision to travel to Laos after considering that there were no cases in the country that time and it seemed everything was under control.

“I also took precautionary measures like practising hand sanitising while I was travelling,” he said.

For someone who loves to travel and considers it as a passion in life, Mohd Amir is disappointed that he cannot fulfil his travel plans for this year but said that health and safety is more important.

“I spend most of my time working from home now and go out for my weekly jog and sometimes go to hiking trails.

“I’ve been coping well and I think going on adventures in your own country is not bad at all.

“There are so many things I have yet to discover in my own country. At the same time, this is also a blessing.”

Mohd Amir is a perfect example of one who loves to travel but has been left in a limbo as the world grapples with COVID-19.

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) released updated analysis showing that the COVID-19 crisis will see airline passenger revenues drop by USD314 billion in 2020, a 55 per cent decline compared to 2019.

As of early April, IATA said that the number of flights globally was down 80 per cent compared to 2019 in large part owing to severe travel restrictions imposed by governments to fight the spread of the virus.

During these times, the idea of online anything is necessary. Families experience first-time conference calls, while musicians around the world perform online for locked-down audiences.

Travel, too, is just a click away, thanks to Virtual Reality (VR).

Although not new, from 2010, with the advent of Oculus and Google’s interactive 360-degree Street View, exploring the world virtually has become more viable.

There are plenty of 360 videos to escape into.

Press play and drag to move the scenery with no headset required or utilise the affordable Google Cardboard, moving your actual head to immerse yourself.

Many of the world’s most popular tourist destinations are being recreated on Google’s Arts & Culture platform.

It touts views from the top of the Eiffel and Tokyo Towers.

You can enjoy the walks around Taj Mahal, Machu Picchu and the pyramids at Giza. Much of the content, including 360-degree videos, is available on a traditional website, but there’s also an “augmented reality” (AR) smartphone app in which the images respond to the movements of the phone, giving the sensation of moving around and within these digital places.

A more high-end option is Google Earth VR, which gives you the chance to fly around the world in virtual reality — from the streets of Tokyo to the Grand Canyon (available on VR headsets Oculus Rift and HTC Vive). YouTube channel VR World Travel has been providing 360-degree windows into global wanderings since 2016.

Many governments are also responding to the decline in the tourism sector by shifting to VR. For instance, the Austrian government’s tourism site suggests we “explore the world with our minds”. The site’s VR service allows tours inside some of the country’s main tourist attractions. Many destinations in Japan, some off-beat, are now accessible courtesy of 360 Panorama’s Japan VR Tour.

It offers high-resolution imagery of various slices of Japan.

And if you feel like a tour of Buckingham Palace, that is possible too. A 360-degree tour of the palace is available via the Royal Family YouTube channel.

Think VR is out of reach? Don’t have a headset or expensive computer to experience it? Well, you don’t need one.

Although headsets made by Oculus, HTC, Samsung and other brands may offer more immersive experiences, the most basic thing to get you started today is your smartphone.

At a minimum, you can get the ‘VR Light’ experience using an android phone with any browser, the YouTube app, or even Facebook’s app to watch 360 videos. When watching such videos on your smartphone, you can “look around” by swiping the view around, or even hold the phone in front of you and move it around like a small window into an alternate dimension.

iPhones are a little different. Apple didn’t jump on board with VR till later in the game, and so you’ll need a dedicated app to view them. So even if you are stuck at home, the adventures don’t have to stop.