Try Amazon, Airbnb VR tours amid COVID travel restrictions

I scared myself the other night on a Gangsters and ghosts Chicago walking tour.

The evening was freezing – a mud of snow and rain swirling through the air – and the eerie scene, a deserted alley along the Chicago River, dark waters lapping on the shore. My tour guide, Lauren, told spooky tales of abandoned lovers, murderous brains, and fires that killed hundreds as we moved from the river to other bustling downtown hot spots.

“Why do you like to tell such dark stories? ” I asked.

“I’m a history buff with a masters degree,” she said. “I love stories. And Chicago has a lot of scary ones.

Even though it was 28 degrees, I wasn’t cold. It’s because I was in my house in Southern California, not in Chicago. I was using a new live streaming service called Amazon Explorer. Sign up for a tour and take it one-on-one with a guide. It is a new form of virtual reality. It doesn’t just show videos of places and things; it allows you to interact with the place and its inhabitants.

Amazon Explore and a new Airbnb virtual reality service are hitting the market at the perfect time. When the pandemic struck and travel stopped, globetrotters felt deprived: they couldn’t swim with sea turtles in the South Pacific or laugh at spider monkeys frolicking in the Costa Rican jungle.

Some people said they hit a COVID-19 wall and felt like they would never travel again.

Step into new virtual reality services, which are cheap and fun, let you dream – and plan – where you’ll go when travel becomes safer. They are part of an evolving communication system that changed our lives in 2020, the year two-way video became our primary social channel. We zoomed in on parties, reunions, family reunions, and exercise classes. Why not some interesting places?

Video evolved even before the most recent advances in virtual reality. National Geographic, for example, offers stunning photography and virtual journeys in its 360VR series. the Okavango experience, in which users join researchers on an expedition through Africa’s Okavango Delta, one of the world’s last remaining wild places.

Among the other NatGeo 360 degree videos is a striking visit to Antarctic with photojournalist Paul Nicklen. (Don’t get seasick as the ship weaves its way through rough seas.)

360 technology offers viewers an immersive experience as they can look in different directions, thanks to the omnidirectional cameras used to film the scenes. Many destinations now have their own 360 videos. Oregon Crater Lake National Park, for example, has a 360 VR tour with singer-songwriter Dierks Bentley.

Webcams are another popular form of virtual travel. They can be fun to watch if your timing is right. You may be able to follow the sharks as they glide through the water at Monterey Bay Aquarium or watch the koalas eat bamboo at the San Diego Zoo. But if the koalas are dozing off in a corner, tune in can be disappointing.

I checked 10 webcams which would be some of the most popular in the country, but they were all dormant when I looked, including Yosemite Falls, which only has a trickle of water flowing at this time of the year.

Another type of virtual travel takes the form of VR headsets and is definitely not a snoozer. If you want to get lost in a breathtaking virtual world, this is the place. Headsets have been widely marketed to the gaming industry, but travel destinations are embarking on the adventure. i tried a new one Oculus Quest 2 and explored the savannas of Kenya, with a herd of elephants and a pride of lions. It was as if I could reach out and touch the wispy eyelashes of one of the baby elephants.

Of course, I couldn’t really do that. Or ask questions. But you can count on the new virtual reality tours from Amazon and Airbnb to provide entertainment and a human being who will answer your questions during a live tour.

Amazon Explore rolled out its platform in the fall, offering one-on-one, live experiences with guides, chefs, artisans, and traders from around the world. Take a Virtual rickshaw ride in Tokyo ($ 49), learn how to make mexican salsas ($ 39) or visit rescued wild cats at the Las Pumas Rescue Center in Costa Rica ($ 28). Want to buy souvenirs? There are sessions for that too. (After all, it’s Amazon.)

I checked on the The wild cats of Las Pumas in a session with Francis Taylor of Central American Tours, a family business in Guanacaste, Costa Rica. Taylor showed me around the sanctuary, which looks after jaguars, cougars, and ocelots as well as non-cats such as sloths, monkeys, and macaws.

Hundreds of injured animals come to the center every year, he said. Most are rehabilitated and returned to nature, in part thanks to funds collected from tourists. “But no one is traveling now. Amazon Explore tours keep us going, ”Taylor said. Another plus: “Online tours like ours are an inexpensive way to find a place you might want to go in the future.”

Earlier this year, Airbnb entered the market by launching Online Experiences. Zoom style tours offer a lot of variety; you can go to a flamenco lesson with a Spanish dancer in Seville ($ 13), learn to make gnocchi and dumplings with a Florentine chef ($ 36) or explore Barcelona, ​​Spain ($ 14).

I opted for the Barcelona tour. The guide was knowledgeable, but unlike Amazon’s Chicago tour, we weren’t actually exploring the city. We were in a room while guide Christian Heide showed photographs of various city highlights such as the Gothic Quarter and Gaudí’s Sagrada Familia Basilica. He gave food and drink recommendations and answered questions. There was also another couple on the online tour; my Chicago tour was private.

Do I feel like the Amazon and Airbnb tours have taken me to a new place? Either way, yes, but the Amazon walking tour helped me better lose myself in another world. It also allowed me to take photos during my tour using a camera icon at the bottom of the live stream.

Since Amazon’s product is new, there are some limitations. It is not yet adapted to mobile; You need a laptop or desktop, internet connection, speakers, or headphones, and a Chrome, Edge, or Safari web browser. Airbnb tours can be taken on a laptop, desktop, or mobile and can be set up for groups.

At the end of the line ? Online tours from both companies are inexpensive ways to take people when their mobility is limited. Or to help wheelchair travelers prepare for the day they can hit the road again.

Preview of the YouTube video The virgin delta of Africa in 360 – Ep. 1 | The Okavango experience

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