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Travelling in time and space – with the help of tech

If you’re stuck for ideas of where to go on holiday this summer, how about visiting a mythical world you once saw in a dream? Or how about spending some time on Mars? If you’re looking for something more earthly but can’t face a long-haul flight, why not visit the heavenly South Pacific – but without leaving the comfort of your living room?

Technology is changing the way we travel. One day, a visit to Vietnam's Ha Long Bay won't necessarily entail a long-haul flight for travellers from Europe. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

All of this, according to tech experts, will be perfectly feasible in the next few years, as travel becomes less physical and more virtual.

The Russian online travel market grew by 37 percent in 2016, and saw a more than tenfold increase during the past six years, according to recent data compiled by the Data Insight research agency. Online sales of travel services reached 740 billion rubles ($12.4 billion) last year, Boris Ovchinnikov, a co-founder of Data Insight, told the TravelHub 2017 conference in Moscow last month.

If for now, e-travel services mostly consist of online booking and aggregator platforms that allow travellers to compare destinations, prices, hotels, transport and other options online, the future looks far more adventurous, industry experts at Skolkovo’s Startup Village agreed earlier this month during a panel session titled “The Digital Transformation in Travel.”

One key trend already underway is for personalization: tailor-made offers for travellers designed according to whether people are travelling with children, what ages the children are, and so on, said Taras Kobishchanov, general director of the Russian Express travel agency. Information on the client from sources including social networks will be analysed by neural networks to create a virtual assistant who can offer them travel options that meet their individual needs and interests: work is already underway on this, he said.

Both Kobishchanov and Alexander Yermolaev, commercial director of Master Agent, which creates software for the travel industry, agreed that the travel agents of the future – both real and virtual – will become something akin to psychologists. With the growth of aggregators, apps and online services that help travellers to plan their own holidays, agents have to be proactive to ensure their services are still required, said Yermolaev.

EligoVision's project to introduce visitors to the Natural History Museum of Tatarstan in Kazan to Ice Age beasts. Video: EligoVision.

Virtual Voyagers 

In the world envisaged by EligoVision, a resident startup of the Skolkovo Foundation that creates augmented and virtual reality (AR/VR) systems and software, AR and VR will play an increasing role in travel.

“Now we use gadgets [such as mobile phones] when coming out of a London tube station to find a recommended pub, for example,” said Sergei Matveev, general director of EligoVision. One day, this function will be performed by AR glasses that will direct wearers to the pub by overlaying directions onto the person’s real vision, he said.

“As soon as they [AR glasses] become light, affordable and convenient, sunglasses will have this function, and you’ll have an assistant who will help you find the information you need,” he said. “They are already being developed: this is the present.”

There are already parks that transport visitors to another time and place, said Matveev, citing Russia’s Natural History Museum of Tatarstan, where visitors can get up close and personal with Ice Age animals, thanks to an AR solution implemented by EligoVision. In the future, some travel will be entirely virtual, eliminating the need for long-haul flights, he predicts.

“We can take you places where it’s impossible to go, like Mars,” he said. There are even two U.S. agencies – including NASA – working on technology to recreate people’s dreams, he said.

A screenshot from a CosmoCourse video showing the company's plans for space tourism. Photo: Sk.ru.

Casual Cosmonauts

This may sound appealing to those who dislike flying and are ready to embrace the world of VR, but it would be bad news for Pavel Pushkin, general director of fellow Skolkovo startup CosmoCourse, whose business plan relies firmly on physical travel. CosmoCourse plans to launch Russia’s first space tourist service by 2021, sending intrepid travellers up to an altitude of about 200 kilometers – about the same height at which Yury Gagarin orbited the Earth during the world’s first manned spaceflight in 1961.

The flights will cost about $250,000 and last for about 14 minutes, during which the travellers will spend five-and-a-half minutes in zero gravity.

“People have told me that VR will kill this market, but when there is an engine roaring and your heart is beating in time with it, that’s hard to replicate,” said Pushkin at the Startup Village panel discussion. “Plus, there will be an element of ‘I was there, while you only saw it,’” he added.

CosmoCourse plans to launch its space tourists from Russia’s Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, which has given Pushkin a new business idea closer to Earth – but still firmly rooted in physical travel.

While NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida attracts more than 1.5 million tourists a year and boasts public launch viewings, Baikonur has so far failed to live up to Kazakhstan’s plans to turn it into a tourist destination. Russia’s space corporation Roscosmos limits access to the site, which includes the main museum, and Russian-led trips to the cosmodrome to watch launches cost thousands of dollars. CosmoCourse is now in talks with the relevant authorities to operate its own launch tourism, said Pushkin.

Piligrim XXI's 'time machine' technology allows tourists to see how historic sites once looked. Photo: Piligrim XXI.

Divided Market

While some travel companies are looking to the future and embracing the possibilities offered by technology, others remain firmly focused on traditional formats, creating a certain asymmetry on the Russian market, says Maya Lomidze, executive director of the Association of Tour Operators of Russia (ATOR).

“Companies are trying to win over young people – because they are the travellers of the future – and they intuitively understand technology. The digital transformation of which people speak in the travel industry is not just inevitable, it’s the task of any business right now, in order to access that target audience. It’s essential,” Lomidze explained at the Startup Village.

“But only the same few leaders are doing that. Most people work according to the old model,” she said.

This asymmetry is, in her opinion, unsustainable.

“It will either lead to harsh natural selection, or those using old models will have to master technology,” said Lomidze. The use of global trends such as AR, booking systems and travel apps is more widespread among Russians aged 18-40 than most other countries, except for the U.S., which shows the sector has great potential, she said.

To boost the Russian travel tech sector, ATOR and the Skolkovo Foundation have launched a joint competition to find the best IT solutions – both B2B and B2C – for travel and tourism, and will then help to promote the winners, who will be named in an awards ceremony at the end of October. The winning projects and products will get expert support from Skolkovo, while ATOR will help promote and test the winners.

“ATOR and the Skolkovo Foundations have teamed up as leaders in their fields to support those who are always looking three steps ahead and are creating new solutions for the 21st-century tourism business,” said Lomidze.

Skolkovo startups changing the face of travel

Piligrim XXI describes its smartphone app as an augmented reality time machine, and is designed for use at historical sites. Used in conjunction with an augmented reality headset, the app transports travellers back to earlier eras by showing them an augmented reality vision of what the site they are visiting looked like at different times in the past.

Navigine helps people to navigate indoors, such as in large museums. It can generate interactive maps around the exhibits and provide personalized tips along the route, essentially taking on the functions of a tour guide. Users have the option of adding interactive functions such as quests and games. Navigine can also compile reviews and monitor the movement of visitors to sites to provide the venue with useful feedback. 

Vizerra creates 3D models of sites and interactive virtual excursions around them. The apps can be used by tourism authorities to attract visitors to their region.

ComfortWay has produced a SIM card that allows travellers to find and use the best mobile internet deal available where they are, without the need to buy a local SIM card. Users can browse and select available mobile data packages via a mobile app used in conjunction with CwSim.