Our journey this morning begins above the New York skyline as we take a walking tour of the Water Tank Project’s most spectacular street art. Then we’ll go on a guided stroll around the ancient ruins of the Temple of Zeus, Sicily.
Finally, we’ll take an informative, fully-immersive trip back in time to the foundations of Hong Kong with a walk through the famous Blue House. By then it’ll be around noon and you can raid your own fridge for a snack, because we’re not leaving our own homes.
All those virtual walking tours are currently available online through Google’s Arts and Culture project, and you can take one by strapping on a pair of Google Cardboard goggles. However, on our futuristic tour we’re going to improve on this pre-recorded, one-way form of communication by merging it with the latest 3D live stream technology and video conferencing. On our trip you’ll be able feel the energy of Hong Kong’s streets, and stop and chat to a local street chef outside the Blue House.
Google Cardboard to Coachella
It takes three steps to get from Google’s clunky virtual tours–the movement on these things is no better than the rapid, one block at a time zoom of Google Maps–to an authentic, real-time tour that takes in all 360 degrees of a location. Our three steps are concept, evolution, and final leap.
The concept of user-guided virtual tours has been around for a few years, and has been stretched beyond the museums and buildings of the Cardboard kind to include any location terrestrial and extraterrestrial.
The glorified slideshows are able to create user-controlled exploration in the same way Google Cars map the streets of America. A single multi-lens camera capable of capturing up to 16 simultaneous angles of the same scene is gently rolled through the destination of choice. The images are then stitched together to play every angle at the same time and the user gets to move between recorded shots by intuitively moving their head, or clicking on the appropriate arrows.
The evolved version of this tech has made its biggest splash in the entertainment field. The producers of music festival Coachella took the pre-recorded Google concept and made it live. The result is a 360 degree live stream direct from the pits at the heart of the festival’s biggest acts. The viewer watching at home via YouTube can manipulate the stream to cast their virtual eyes across all angles of the live crowd, or stare straight up into the night sky. If you missed your chance to see it live you can recreate the experience on YouTube. Just click the arrows in the top corner to shift your gaze. Or you could try the more intuitive click-and-move version Disney used to live stream the world premiere of Beauty and the Beast.
From there we take one final leap toward our walking tour of the future by adding two-way communication to the form of video conferencing.
Making Virtual Online Tours Live
There are two main obstacles to putting a real-world tour guide on front of a panoramic camera and having them lead you through the Sistine Chapel, Yellowstone Park, or the streets of Tokyo.
The first is the easiest to clear, and that’s giving them the power to see and hear their guests via video conference. It could be as simple as strapping a smartphone to the front of the existing camera array, or parking a small webcam and screen under the central lens and running it through the processor that currently sends out the live stream.
The second is, literally, a heavier problem. How do you shrink down these 16-lens cameras so they can be comfortable carried by a tour guide? Well, video conference rooms already feature panoramic camera arrays that fit atop a standard TV screen, and new all-in-one products, such as the (still) anticipated Owl offer 360 degree viewing in a unit about the size of a thermos. With a portable, live streaming option in place, all that’s left is to settle on a destination.
3D Video Conferencing Live Tours
The virtual tourist under this arrangement would meet their on-site guide online and be able to rotate their view through 360 degrees as the camera is carried with, hopefully, the ease of an umbrella.
One viewpoint would be permanently focused on the guide so the tourist could ask direct questions, while the others would indulge their wandering eye. As the guide is actually making footfalls through a live scene, all the realities and hustle and bustle daily life on location could be fed back to the remote tourist. The guide could even aim their two-way link at some of the locals for some real-world interaction.
The tour could serve as a preview for an in-person visit, or be an interactive window on the world for those with mobility or financial constraints. Or it could become the solution for anyone who wanted to take a trip around the world in 80 days…or even 80 minutes.
Robot Tour Guides
Just to round the concept off, there’s a clear future here in the possibility of replacing the tour guide with a telepresence robot. The streets of New York may be too hostile an environment for these video screens on wheels, but they could be given access to priority pathways around enclosed attractions such as the ruins of Pompeii.
This way both the tour guide and the tourist can stay in the comfort of their home and enjoy the virtual walk together. They could be linked within a group video chat arrangement that lets the tourist control the 360 degree camera held by the robot, while it narrates the significance of the surroundings.
The tech could even be added to self-driving cars, allowing people to take long, guided tours of entire stretches of coastline, go on live safari without risking attack, or enjoy some of the world’s most famous streets.
It’d be like having your own private Google car to cruise the winding streets of Monaco.