Virtual reality is a strange activity to offer in a hotel. If you're halfway around the world for a vacation or a business trip, you're usually there to go outside for one reason or another. Sightseeing, attending meetings, that sort of thing, not slapping a headset on and losing yourself elsewhere. But then, Marriott isn't like most hotels -- many of its branches in the UK are in the business of selling luxury, no expense spared accommodation. Here, guests want a special stay, and like an expensive cruise, that means increasingly elaborate activities and facilities. If it's done correctly, VR experiences could be a glamorous and unique add-on, just like ordering a back rub or late-night room service.
Or at least, that's the thought process behind Marriott's new "VRoom Service."
VR is in a strange place right now. Everyone is waiting for the first set of premium VR headsets -- the consumer Oculus Rift, the HTC Vive and Sony's PlayStation VR -- to be released to the public. They're all scheduled to come out next year, and in the meantime everyone is making do with developer kits and smartphone-powered models like Google Cardboard and Samsung's Gear VR. Most of the focus has been on VR-compatible video games, which is hardly surprising given Sony and Valve are backing two of the most promising headsets. But to have a broader mainstream appeal, VR will need to go beyond gaming. We've already seen a number of VR experiments in this vein, including 360-degree music videos, documentaries, and an animated short film called Henry.
Marriott has been tinkering a few ideas of its own. Last year, it created "Teleporter" booths that took you to a Hawaiian beach or the top of a London skyscraper. The walk-in capsules used the Oculus Rift, wireless headphones and a range of nozzles, vents and heat lamps for 4D effects. Marriott says it was more of a "thrill ride" though, and wanted to follow up with something more subtle and inspirational. That work led to VRoom Service, a portable VR kit that guests can use to watch exotic, 360-degree travel videos.
On a gloomy Monday afternoon -- perfect weather for a short VR vacation -- I venture inside the Marriott hotel on London's Monopoly-famous Park Lane. For the moment, it's one of only two sites that offer the VRoom Service kits. (The other is the Marriott Marquis in Times Square, New York.) After a brief elevator ride I step inside Room 238, where a steel briefcase is waiting on the double bed. Normally, you'd need to pick up the hotel room phone or use the Marriott mobile app to request one of these to be sent up. Hidden inside is a Samsung Gear VR headset and a Samsung Galaxy S6 (which acts as the display), a matching pair of Level On headphones and some basic instructions for VR newbies. Within a couple of minutes, I'm set up and ready to leave London for Marriott's VR snow globes.
Immediately, the Gear VR's display springs to life and three small icons appear in front of me, hinting at different destinations. Marriott calls these "VR Postcards." Each video is a few minutes in length and takes place in one of three locations: the Andes mountains in Chile, the crowded streets of Beijing, or an ice cream shop in Rwanda. I decide to do them in order, which means tilting my head to the left to move the centered reticule, before poking the touchpad on the side of the headset to confirm my selection.
After a few seconds of loading, I find myself on top of a mountain, gazing out into the distance where a misty haze envelops the horizon line. To my right, the craggy peak falls away into a sloping decline; without thinking, I widen my stance to make sure I don't lose my footing. I'm left with my thoughts until a hiker walks into view, picking their way through the rocks and launching into a monologue about the joys of travelling. It sounds very scripted, but the underlying sentiments seem genuine enough to hold my attention. I swivel my head to see what's directly behind me, but I can't stand up and move around -- that's because the entire video was shot from a static position. It's probably for the best, given I'm sat in a room chocked-full of furnishings I can't afford to replace.
This short glimpse of Chile fades to black and I'm soon catapulted back to the home screen. Up next: Beijing. The structure of this VR "postcard" is the same, although the landscape couldn't be more different to the Andes mountains. It's a tight, bustling street teeming with motorists, pedestrians and a few roadside chefs. I'm sat at a table to one side, directly in front of a restaurant. Another traveller launches into an inspiring speech, but by this point my interest is starting to wane. I stop listening and focus on the ambient noises instead, tracking cyclists and vans as they pick their way through the urban jungle.
My final stop is Rwanda. In the Southern town of Butare, it starts with a line of drummers performing to a small group of locals. The expressive dancing and general positivity is infectious, so I can't help but tap my foot to the beat. I'm sat in front of "Inzozi Nziza," the country's first ice cream parlour. Alexis Gallivan and Jennie Dundas, the founders of New York chain Blue Marble Ice Cream, helped set up the place in 2008, leading to a documentary called Sweet Dreams in 2012. Here in the VR world, Gallivan suddenly starts speaking behind me, so I instinctively whip my head around so as not to appear rude. She explains how, for her, travelling is about meeting new people, making friends, and returning home a different person than before. It feels like the most candid speech of the three, and I'm a little disappointed when the screen fades to black after a few minutes.
Fortunately, Gallivan is waiting for me in another part of the hotel room. (The room is actually many rooms joined together -- go figure, it's the Park Lane Marriott.) She's clearly happy with how the video came out. "I feel like the VR space right now is dominated by gamers," she says. "The people that are looking for really intense, adrenaline-pumping experiences. Which is great, there is a time and a place for that, but, especially in a commercial setting, I really appreciated how gentle [Marriott] were with the topic and just allowing it space. Not only for the subject, the travellers, to talk about their own perspectives, but for the viewers to exist in that space, free from lots of distractions, guns and whatever else is going on in those crazy games." While I disagree with some of these gaming generalisations -- many VR titles are combat-free -- I know what she's getting at. Some of the best VR experiences are slow, deliberate affairs, giving you time to absorb and examine the environment.
It's hard to tell how seriously Marriott is taking VR, and whether VRoom Service will ever be expanded to more than two hotels. The company says it's gathering feedback from guests and will use that data "to inform how VRoom Service is rolled out more broadly in the future." While not a definitive statement, I wouldn't be surprised if the service remained small in scope -- buying thousands of Gear VR headsets isn't exactly cheap, after all.
As it stands, VRoom Service is little more than a novelty. It's a fun distraction, and will appeal to people that are yet to try VR. If it's included in the price of your hotel room, or you have half an hour to kill before dinner, there are worse ways to spend some free time. But as a deep, engrossing VR experience, it doesn't quite hit the mark. I like the underlying idea -- raw footage can be a little boring for VR explorers, so the speeches provide some narrative and context, like a traditional travel documentary. Unfortunately, most of the travellers' monologues are short, shallow and plain uninteresting. Perhaps if they were grander and more factual, like David Attenborough's VR project, they would be more engaging.
Nevertheless, it's interesting to see how peripheral companies like Marriott are experimenting with VR. The hotelier isn't a traditional software developer, but its early efforts show promise; who knows, in a few years I might want to check into a hotel and VR-preview the sights before deciding where to explore on foot.