Virtual Tours: the secret ingredient
Updated: Sep 3
During the Covid-19 lockdown much has been made of virtual tours being a potential opportunity for tourism allowing guests to virtually visit a location or an attraction safely, but is this being driven purely by technological availability and if so what does that do to creativity?
Tasked with creating virtual tours on limited budgets, many attraction may consider a DIY approach, which in itself sounds straightforward enough but there are numerous technical hurdles to be traversed just to produce the media required without even considering how to inject creativity into what is at it's most basic a series of linked images.
VIRTUAL TOURS - THE TECHNICAL CHALLENGES
The initial challenge facing anyone considering DIY producing their first virtual tour is usually mastering the hardware and the associated learning curve in creating the requisite 360-degree imagery to a high enough quality. Although it is often simple enough to shoot a static panorama with a modern smartphone, does this really produce the quality of panorama required? Or is a consumer or commercial grade 360 camera a viable option within your budget? For optimal still image quality a DSLR with a specialist 360 mount will deliver superb high resolution results, albeit with a considerably more challenging shoot and post-production requirement.
All-in-all this can be pretty daunting. For professional shoots even a proficient photographer may struggle to get their head around the concept of shooting a multiple image panorama, the image stitching and a completely different approach to post-production editing. A simple retouching task on a flat photograph can suddenly take on a vastly different aspect when facing an equirectangular panoramic image.
Once the 360 imagery is shot, stitched and any post-production undertaken there is then the choice of selecting the most appropriate virtual tour software vendor/platform.
The sheer number of software vendors is astounding – a simple search for “virtual tour software” will provide the inquisitive user with 50+ software options – ranging from “free” to many hundreds of dollars per month. Each package has different features, strengths and weaknesses, and needs to be carefully considered for longevity too considering the number of vendors involved – they can’t all possibly survive, so spending time selecting and mastering one needs careful consideration of all factors involved.
Once the “which software” hurdle has been leapt, the chosen application has to be mastered – and to create a high quality virtual tour, it’s no mean feat to master a software package that has variables in 360 degrees.
Anyone facing this scale of technical challenges in getting a virtual tour off the ground could feel so overwhelmed by the basics, that creativity may be the last consideration. Sadly, any lack of creativity could negate all the technical effort and deliver a virtual tour that simply does not engage the end user.
VIRTUAL TOURS - THE CREATIVE CHALLENGES
The creative challenges of producing engaging virtual tours is much the same as producing any type of creative content. It has to grab the user instantly and entertain, enlighten and engage them.
For users, simply being able to spin around a picture and click from place to place doesn’t really add that much in engagement – that’s like making a feature of a scroll bar and hyperlinks for viewing a picture gallery. Nice pictures, but little more (unless it’s a tour of the Sistine Chapel perhaps).
VIRTUAL TOURS - CREATIVE SOLUTIONS
So, consider how you might better engage a user? Adding a narrative flow to create a more engaging user experience would be one possible route worth considering. This could enhance the user's experience and engagement levels by introducing a reason for the user to move from space to space. Perhaps following a storyline as it unfolds, following the characters exploits from one location to the next? Think of this as a virtual experience, a plot unfolding in the virtual environment, not a tour of a physical location.
Take for example the murder of David Rizzio in The Palace of Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh. This could be narrated by an embedded video character in period dress as we move from the vast public rooms to the intimate inner sanctum, the grizzly tale unfolding to its horrific end in Mary, Queen of Scots' private supper room. Whether re-enacted in all its historic grandeur or simply narrated by a single character this type of approach allows the 360 space to come to life and engages the viewer in a human drama as it unfolds. Imagine then the same sequence where you simply navigate from room to room – it loses the engaging narrative to become a technical navigation of a space, an almost purely architectural study of the rooms.
Whilst it may present some concerns to visitor attractions in providing a virtual experience online that might be viewed as "giving away" their content and that this may then reduce interest in physically visiting their attraction, it should be remembered that good promotional media doesn’t dissuade guests from visiting – in fact quite the opposite, this will engage guests to want to "feel" the actual location. No-one ever gave a trip to Egypt to see the pyramids a miss as they’d already seen a film of it. The experience of standing in a real environment where real historic events took place can never be replicated. Even in VR, when done well, which provides the most plausible immersive experience, cannot compete with standing in the real place.
Using the same argument though creating a dull and un-engaging virtual tour online could be counterproductive and even damaging. This could suggest to potential guests that this is it: a series of rooms to move through – in this case it would be better to simply not create a virtual tour at all.
USING VIRTUAL TOURS IN MARKETING
Used in a creative manner virtual tours can provide a powerful promotional tool, one that pre-engages guests, enthusing them with a taste of what the actual environment and experience may feel like.
In today’s market we all know that every little bit of extra consumer awareness helps, and a well-considered, high quality virtual tour could well put you top of a visitor’s list of must see attractions.
Andrew Murchie is a creative technology consultant and award winning filmmaker based in Edinburgh in Scotland. He has written, produced & directed 360 Virtual Reality content for Scottish clients including Menabrea Birra (Tennent's Caledonian Breweries), Seafood Scotland, Highland Spring, Glen Scotia Distillery (Loch Lomond Group) & The Real Mary King’s Close.