Virtual tours have become something of a hot topic in recent years. With the rise of virtual reality and 360°VR , the definitions of what makes a virtual tour have shifted, and the applications of virtual tours are now wider than ever before. Whether you’re a videographer or budding explorer of virtual reality, our rundown of all the ins and outs of virtual tours will ensure you’re on top of your game.
What is a virtual tour?
In a general sense, the term “virtual tour” has traditionally been used to describe a form of tourism where a person may experience a setting or place without actually being there.
One of the earliest uses of the phrase "virtual tour" was in reference to the 3D imaging of Dudley Castle, West Midlands. As part of a visitor centre project, users were able to from 1550.
The imagery might evoke memories of old 3D gaming landscapes – a DOOM level, a castle in Super Mario – but the exactness of the recreation of Dudley Castle architecture, down to the very scaling of the rooms, displayed the huge potential of virtual tours as an accessible, inclusive method of historical tourism. So much so that when the project launched in 1994, Queen Elizabeth II was the first user of the tour, and thus the very first patron of a virtual tour in the world. Fun fact!
Modern virtual tours are still seen as a huge potential in tourism. Visitor centres, tourist boards, and national heritage sites have all been quick to follow the trend set by Dudley Castle.
With recent advancements in technology and the availability of video hardware and software worldwide, virtual tours are a staple of digital marketing and promotion, and increasingly utilised by universities, governments, public buildings, private businesses, homeowners, estate agents, landowners – just about everyone who wants to advertise a place or setting.
Virtual tour or VR tour? What’s the difference?
The concept of virtual tours has been hugely popular since its creation, and with changes in technology they have evolved from basic 3D landscapes with minimal textures to include full video and 360° imagery. Changes in camera technology over the last 24 years – such as digital image processing, improved lenses, and panoramic cameras – have led to "virtual tour" becoming an all-encompassing term, not specific to any one mode of photography or videography, or in the case of Dudley Castle, 3D-image generation.
Any method of experiencing a place and ‘travelling’ through a setting can be considered a virtual tour, be it a castle, supermarket, or a home. To that end, and paradoxically, the term has fallen out of popularity in recent years. Google Trends reports that interest in 'Virtual Tour' has decreased by almost 50% since 2013.
This is possibly explained by the rise of a different, though not altogether exclusive, term, that of the 'VR tour' or 'Virtual Reality Tour'.
Virtual reality typically utlises headsets to generate realistic images and in turn create the sensation that a user is in an entirely new environment. It’s only natural that this would be eventually married with the idea of virtual tours.
Suddenly, an entire world of possibilities opens up; while virtual reality typically places users in unreal or ‘virtual’ environments, a true virtual reality tour has the potential of placing a user in any real-world location. On-demand, wherever they choose.
Who are virtual tours for?
Whatever term you choose to employ for the concept, in 2018, to embark on a virtual tour is to utilise virtual reality technology to transport yourself to another real-word environment.
The heavy terminology may be off-putting to some, but don’t worry. Queen Elizabeth II may have been the first virtual tourist, but the sustained popularity of virtual tours in the past two decades tells us that this is not something that should be reserved for the elite, the rich, or the particularly tech-savvy.
With the growth of VR tech came new possibilities for virtual touring. In recent years it’s proven hugely popular in the real estate sector, offering buyers the opportunity to experience properties first-hand without actually being there. Virtual tours are also adaptable – like Dudley Castle, it’s possible to use state-of-the-art 3D imaging to take users on tours of buildings that haven’t yet been constructed using their specs and blueprints.
Virtual tours are massively useful for consumers as a whole; many are already seeing the benefits of being able to visit a hotel, bar, shopping centre, gym, sports club, airport (etc.) first-hand before visiting. And naturally, its popularity within tourism is only growing as the tech continues to improve.
Many tourism boards and attractions are even employing virtual tours through cameras placed on drones, offering users a view from the sky rather than the ground. Perspectives are not limited to the usual or mundane, and there’s no limit to the creativity of VR videographers.
Who can access virtual tours?
Right now, virtual reality tours are restricted to those with access to VR tech. However, this is a much, much wider demographic than most initially assume. While the current hardware for VR is often costly (the high-end and sets run for many hundreds of pounds), budget versions do exist. Microsoft has made its own entry into the sector with its cheaper line, and devices such as Google Cardboard can transform almost any smartphone into a VR-ready device.
There are even budget, third-party versions of the Cardboard device on the market right now, some on offer for as little as £3-4. As with any other mass market technology or product, the more the market for the devices grows, the prices of the hardware comes down. Many estimate that , virtual reality devices will be commonplace in households, so embarking on a virtual tour will be as simple as accessing Google Maps today.
How I can I view them?
As mentioned, a suitable piece of virtual reality technology is required to experience a virtual reality tour in its full sense.
It is worth taking a moment here to dissect some of the terminology surrounding virtual tours. A ‘360°VR tour’ denotes a full virtual reality tour, most often a filmed video where a user is able to look or scroll around their environment in 360 as the video progresses. 360°VR tours may even be still images, similar to Google Maps, where users can click to the next location at their will. The chief focus is that a user is able to look around their entire surroundings at will.
Some virtual tours still employ the traditional meaning of the phrase, which is essentially a filmed video or still imagery of an environment where a user is restricted to a traditional field of vision. These are not true VR tours, and while they are still easily viewable on most devices, do not translate well to virtual reality hardware.
If you’re a user of virtual reality technology seeking out virtual tours, be sure to look for the 360 video stamp to know that you’ll be experience the tour in full, immersive quality, just as it was intended.
How are they made?
Early forms of virtual tour, as mentioned, were often basic run-throughs of environments in an easily-accessible, pre-packed video never more than a few minutes long.
360° video has developed somewhat alongside mainstream virtual reality, though the hardware underpinning it is still somewhat clunky and complex. Most forms of 360 video involve a camera on a stick, with 6 different lenses capturing images from various angles at once. These are then ‘stitched’ together in post-production to create a seemless 360° view of an environment, much like Google Maps. Matterport is perhaps the best known product for this 'stitching' technique.
Of course, where Google Maps is concerned, 360° still imagery is a form of virtual tour much simpler to achieve than full 360° video. In the case of the latter, special considerations must be made to ensure that no part of the camera crew or equipment are in shot, and that the video is captured as smoothly as possible to allow for better post-production stitching. For these reasons, 360° videography is usually captured by a single cameraman holding the equipment on a large stick, to ensure minimal disruption.
Even now, the technology continues to improve at a fantastic rate. Some forms of video capture remove these considerations entirely, such as the . Essentially a cube with lenses on each of its six faces, the device comes with specialist apps and post-production software to allow editors to easily and seamlessly blend the video into a full VR experience ready for to be viewed on a headset. Like other devices of its kind, they are compact, are able to capture video underwater, and can be fitted to drones for 360°VR aerial tours.
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