Digital travel – defying distance and reality?

John Waterworth and Ingvar Tjostheim look to the future…

Travel is important for many people, but the more people travel, the higher the consumption of fossil fuels, and the greater the chances of diseases spreading over distances. The Covid-19 pandemic, and the restrictions on physical meetings and travel that have come with it, have resulted in a shift in behaviour and attitudes towards replacing physical encounters with digital ones. Are we on the cusp of a step change in how practical, acceptable and convincing these experiences are? 

Ulla was born in 1950 and has always lived in the same small town. She’s enjoyed many vacations, often to foreign countries, but now she doesn’t travel much or far. Her husband died years ago. Her children and grandchildren live far away. For her 80th birthday, they bought her the Complete Spanish Holiday package from Virtual Vacations.

In 2028, her son Mikael had installed a nice computer system in her living room. Because of arthritis, she finds a mouse hard to use, so now uses a gaming chair that detects her posture. By leaning forwards, backwards or to the side, she can glide around a virtual place and zoom in or out. She also has a head mounted display, which gives a vivid sense of being physically present in places like the Louvre. She attends the medical centre the same way, for regular check-ups, and follows a couple of exercise classes, all without leaving home. 

The Spanish itinerary was tailored to Ulla and her memories of places in Spain, especially Valencia, where she studied as a young woman. Amongst other activities, she visits churches, parks and bars of the old city, her favourite area. On guided tours of the Museo de Bellas Artes and other tourist centres she is sometimes joined by two of her best friends from her knitting circle, from their homes, or she can choose a personal bot guide.

Her son and his children are also holidaying in the same virtual region, and they meet up now and then to do things together. Mikael has opted for a virtual diving experience off nearby coral reefs and wrecks. He wears a body vest that accurately senses his body orientation and breathing, and a head-mounted display; he ‘swims’ by controlling his posture and breath. If he breathes in and holds his breath, his virtual buoyancy increases and he moves upward in the water, and the opposite by breathing out. This provides a strong sense of being there, floating weightlessly amidst the underwater world. His teenage children have chosen virtual road racing through the streets of Valencia, complete with pedestrians and other vehicles, some driven by other players in this game world, others by bots.

After several days vacationing in her favourite city, Ulla looks back on vivid, enjoyable and memorable experiences that she can later share with others. A complete digital record is included in the price of the trip – which is surprisingly reasonable. More importantly, Ulla has relived and added to her stock of wonderful memories of Spain. For Ulla, it was a real holiday.

No sense of place or travel

Even before the pandemic, videoconferencing and similar technologies were quite widely used in business and as a way for families and friends to keep in touch, and such use has expanded enormously in the last couple of years. However, these kinds of technology-mediated meetings do not convey a strong of actually being in another location. They occur in a placeless media-space. Sense of place in modern communication media is important, because it frames the social behaviours of the people interacting within and through them (Meyrowitz, 1985).

The pandemic has led to many more kinds of social events taking place without physical travel; for example, concerts, school and college classes, sports events, academic and other conferences, training and personal development courses, and medical consultations. These can be seen as rather weak forms of digital travel; they give participants a sense of being with distant people, but not of as-if-physical embodiment in a shared virtual place. Perhaps for this reason, they also quite often give rise to psychosocial problems for some participants. Edward Relph, author of the seminal text in human geography Place and Placelessness (Relph, 1976) recently commented on the widespread ‘digital disorientation’ produced by the characteristics of participatory and globally-networked communication media (Relph, 2021).

Social interaction norms are sometimes violated, and often left unsatisfied, by online encounters with others. Face-to-face digital meetings are not really face-to-face in the sense it is normally meant; only the face is seen, the rest of the body is out of view, whereas in physical meetings our whole bodies participate to provide non-verbal cues that help people communicate. Bailenson (2021) identified four main reasons for ‘Zoom Fatigue’ in terms of what he calls ‘nonverbal overload’. Firstly, with the typical configuration used for such meetings, people experience too much, very close, eye contact, often with people they don’t know well. Secondly, seeing oneself during social interactions is unnatural, and can result in increased self-monitoring (and in some instances self-dissatisfaction), which is also fatiguing. Thirdly, we move less, and bodily movements normally aid our cognition and sense of comfort. Finally, because of the absence of natural nonverbal cues, video meetings are more cognitively demanding and therefore tiring. A recent study by Fauville and colleagues (2021) found that women generally suffer more Zoom fatigue than men, partly because they tend to have longer meetings and shorter breaks, or perhaps because they might be more sensitive to seeing their own video image in this social context. 

Another issue with digital interaction with distant others is lag – a delay introduced by the communication network. Even though the time lag between digital conversational turns is generally much less than was the case with traditional long-distance phone calls, it may still affect the user’s experience. A perceptible delay in a person’s responses can give the impression of hesitancy, even dishonestly, and has a measurable negative effect on social presence (Cui et al., 2013). Lack of synchronisation between audio and video is also often a problem, with video ‘freezes’ not being uncommon. Time and synchronisation issues add to the increased cognitive load of digital meetings, along with low fidelity or distorted sound and vision. 

This ‘weak’ form of digital travel does, however, begin to signpost broader possibilities, which could begin to genuinely defy distance and reality. Representing kinds and degrees of digital travel can help psychologists build up a richer picture of the reality and possibilities, to improve people’s interactive experiences while avoiding the problems of moving around in the real world.

Our journey

Our recent journey into the nature of digital travel (Tjostheim & Waterworth, 2022) started by examining the sense of being in being there. We cannot have a sense of being present without being somewhere, and this is naturally and normally the place in which our bodies are located. How can technology provide us with the means to escape our bodies, in some sense, and be there – where ‘there’ is another place, feeling our own presence? Waterworth et al. (2020) defined this sense of presence as the feeling of being located in a perceptible external world around the self, and suggested that varying degrees of presence reflect the extent to which attention is focused on the external environment, whether this is physical or virtual. This is part of a theoretical framework that sees the sense of presence having a linking role between intention and action in the world (Riva et al., 2011; Waterworth & Riva, 2014). An inability to carry out actions in a digital world will tend to reduce our sense of being present there.

Effective virtual worlds are perceived as existing outside the body and require well-timed actions for intentions to be enacted. In digital interactions there is often a lack of clarity about how to carry out activities. For those of us not brought up on computer games and finger-based phone gestures, this can be confusing and frustrating – can we do what we want to do, how do we do it, and how do we undo what we didn’t intend to do? In current ‘digital travels’, the body is only very slightly integrated into interactions, hence ‘Zoom fatigue’ and other discomforts arising from the lack of truly as-if-physical embodiment in virtual places.

Creating that telepresence feeling of being there is a key part of creating a convincing digital travel experience. We examined it using a video game environment to facilitate sightseeing behaviour amongst participants in two empirical studies, in digital but very realistic versions of Los Angeles and Las Vegas, using available game environments in ‘tourist mode’ (Tjostheim & Waterworth, 2022). Many participants reported experiencing presence and a sense of place (assessed using separate measures), with perceptual realism and a convincing narrative being important determining factors. A significant subgroup of our participants reported sensory experiences of the place (e.g. feelings of touching, smells) in addition to the audio-visual simulation that was actually in the game environment. As predicted, perceptual realism scores were correlated with scores on an affordance test that reflected the sense of being able to carry out actions in the environment.

We later conducted a detailed online survey, involving over 200 Norwegian citizens, of attitudes to both physical and digital travel in the present and in the foreseeable future (Tjostheim & Waterworth, 2022). When planning for future physical travel, people like to explore a place and see what a destination has to offer. This points to the potential of digital travel as a pre-taste of a visit to a destination, rather than always or only as a substitute. The Covid-19 pandemic was, not surprisingly, a major influence on people’s willingness to use digital media instead of physical travel. More unexpectedly, 68 per cent of participants indicated that they would be willing to pay 10 per cent of the price of a physical visit for a digital replacement, and about half that number would be willing to pay 50 per cent. A small segment of participants, 10-20 per cent, indicated full acceptance of the idea of using digital travel products in place of in situ experiences. We named this group ‘digital travellers’. For a minority of users, digital travel is already acceptable and may even be preferable to physical travel, if it is effectively implemented. However, the majority were not convinced that digital travel could ever serve as a substitute for actual travel, even if potentially useful as a pre-taste. For most people, even if our devices can help us defy distance, they do provide convincing digital travel experiences. They do not allow us to defy reality – at least not yet…

Innovations

Two recent strands suggest the way digital travel might develop. The first is social telepresence robots and drones, the second immersive VR and the use of holographic representations.

Social telepresence robots have been described as ‘embodied video conferencing on wheels’ (Tsui et al., 2011). The remote person can move around a place (via the robot), observe people and things from different viewpoints, visit and speak to different people – for example people in different offices or hospital beds – and be seen and heard by the people there, via screen and speakers embedded in the social telepresence robot. Their use represents a set of approaches that stress the need for a proxy physical presence in the distant location, but downplay the need for a strong sense of psychological presence there. They have their roots in remote manipulation systems that provide both views of, and the capacity for surrogate action in, a remote location. Social telepresence robotics is an expanding field, although not many evaluative studies have been conducted as yet. Robots that can be controlled remotely and carry out complex physical movements are expensive to produce and currently confined to specialist applications such as bomb disposal, but this is likely to change. 

Social drones are in some ways a more flexible approach than the use of robots, but they are even less human in appearance and so, perhaps, provide a less realistic experience for those at the distant end. Shakeri and Neustaedter (2019) reported on a prototype system called Teledrone, which combines a drone and controlling interface with what is essentially a teleconferencing system. Drones have the advantage of being able to travel over difficult terrain and bodies of water. In principle, this kind of approach can be used anywhere with network connectivity, and even with the drone moving indoors or into confined spaces, although there will be safety issues when drones are used in this way. Apart from directed movement in a location, action by the drone is even more limited than is the case with robots.

Full-body immersion has many advantages in terms of producing a sense of presence in a digital world, and it is possible for a very rich sense of being in another place to be conveyed. But action in the remote place is problematic unless the place exists only virtually. There are inherent difficulties in using immersive VR from a variety of locations, especially public or social locations encountered in everyday life. While people are happy to escape from a dull situation into their phones – waiting for a bus or riding on an underground train – the same is unlikely to apply when wearing a head-mounted display and full-body suit. 

Immersive VR is, however, likely to become increasingly popular as an effective way of experiencing a distant place and events presented there, from a fixed and secure physical location… in the privacy of a home office, for example, or in specialised ‘virtual travel centres’. Body tracking and immersive displays can also be combined with technologies such as robots or drones, allowing digital travel to actual places, though this needs to be carefully regulated because of the obvious safety concerns.

Holograms have been predicted to be the next big innovation in teleconferencing for some time. Two or more locations are linked, as in a conventional teleconference, but participants in different locations see each other as life-size 3D holograms displayed in a specially-equipped booth (see, for example, www.wired.com/story/google-project-starline). But they are restricted to special, generally small, and expensively-equipped rooms (large booths, really) at both ends. Clearly, this is not compatible with flexible digital travel, either in terms of where one can be while travelling, or where one can travel to.

Rethinking digital travel

Real travel implies a journey, which involves a departure, passage, and an arrival (Leed, 1991). In touristic trips, and other types of temporary visit, there is travel from home to another, distant place, and then a return home again. Before travel, there is preparation and anticipation; after travel, recollection and sharing. When applied to designing digital travel, this is the ‘home-away-back-home’ metaphor, but this does not do justice the many new possibilities of travel in virtuality. It is too ambitious because far from everything about physical travel can be adequately simulated. At the same time, it is limiting as it does not build on the fact that digital devices transcend the restrictions of the physical (for example, with instant changes of location and lightning fast searches of vast amounts of information). 

The many possibilities that are opened up by digital travel may not be entirely benign. Nor do they always go one way, with the physical influencing the virtual experience. Some people are overwhelmed by awe when they visit a place they have read about in a novel, seen in paintings, or experienced in virtual reality. On the other hand, the opposite effect is perhaps more usual; the carefully selected and presented glimpses of places experienced in digital promotional media may lead to the visitor being disappointed and less able to enjoy the real possibilities of an actual place. There may also be a kind of ‘inverse presence’ (Timmins & Lombard, 2005), in which the actual place does not seem as real as a digital version. Physical places without internet access (there are still surprisingly many of these) may seem less relevant than other places to many visitors, because they cannot share their experience of the place in the moment with distant others. 

Digital travel also opens up new worlds beyond what is possible physically for many, for example the housebound (due to age, illness or disability, fear of flying or crowds, etc.), and those with binding commitments that tie them to one place (such as caring for dependent others). We can be instantly ‘teleported’, avoiding crowds and queues, getting a better view of the location and events of interest – whether this is a visit to an historical site or a premier league football match, and leaving whenever we want. Perhaps relying too heavily on digital technology may lessen the opportunities to stumble on something rewarding, by chance; perhaps it opens up even more opportunities to explore the unknown and dangerous.

So, could you be a future digital traveller? The ubiquitous smartphone already allows us to always escape, mentally, from where we physically are (Miller et al., 2021). The technology to provide a richer digital travel experience – one that truly defies distance and reality – is proliferating. The continuation of travel restrictions, as well as heightening awareness of the environment impact of physical travel, may make more convincing digital travel increasingly desirable. Will our devices help us to leave home, navigate, discover and experience distant digital worlds; worlds that we experience as reality? Or will the distinction between home and digital worlds disappear, as we carry with us the means to access distant people and places at any time, and from everywhere we go?

- John Waterworth is a Chartered Psychologist and Professor Emeritus in Informatics at Umeå University, Sweden.[email protected]. Ingvar Tjostheim is a Senior Researcher at the Norwegian Computing Centre. Their book, The Psychosocial reality of digital travel: Being in virtual places, is published by Palgrave and available as a free download

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