KOKOMO, Ind. — Feel like watching the sun set over the Seine in Paris, from the top of the Eiffel Tower? Or maybe viewing the pyramids in Egypt, from the back of a camel, is more your style. Perhaps you’d rather view coral and colorful fish deep under the sea? Or look up in awe at an intricate chandelier in Buckingham Palace?
In one Indiana University Kokomo class, that’s just a Thursday.
Heather Kennedy-Eden, assistant professor of hospitality and tourism management, demonstrated how, when the people can’t travel to the tourist destinations, the sites come to them. And using just a cell phone and a pair of cardboard goggles brings it all to life.
“We have to think outside the box right now in the tourism profession,” she said. “This is one way we can do it, with technology. It draws you in, and makes you want to come see it in real life.”
Kennedy-Eden’s class usually includes travel through the Kokomo Experience and You (KEY) program, which has a goal of providing students chances to connect with people and participate in real-world experience. Its intent is that every student have a travel experience within his or her major — but creativity is most important now because of COVID-19 restrictions. The program provided funding for the goggles so students could visit tourism hotspots virtually instead, taking 360-degree video tours of Paris, Cairo, Underwater National Park, and Buckingham Palace.
Students linked to each video on YouTube on their phones, which they placed in the goggles to watch. They could then see all around them – in front, behind, up, and to each side, for the closest experience virtual reality can provide to being there in person.
Toni Suster stood in his corner of the classroom, moving and turning to see all around him, occasionally reaching out like he was going to touch something he saw. He especially enjoyed seeing hieroglyphs up close in Cairo, and said that seeing things to scale was almost like being there in person.
“It added a real-world element that would not have been possible during a pandemic,” he said. “It added something that had been lost. It shows us the transition we’re making to more technology-based learning. And it’s available to many people, being so inexpensive.”
Hayley Ross admitted to a fear of the water, and had goosebumps on her arms during the underwater experience. Even with being a little scared, she enjoyed seeing baby turtles scamper by, and being able to look up to see the sun at the surface — all experiences she would not have had otherwise.
“It was really cool,” she said. “You’re not usually able to get that close to baby turtles, so that was amazing.”
For Jill Yotter, the Paris video took her back to her previous visit to the City of Lights.
“I got emotional watching it. I almost started crying,” she said. “It brought back so many memories.”
Kennedy-Eden asked students — those in the room, and those attending via Zoom — if the virtual experience would make them feel they already experienced these places, and would be less likely to go there when travel is possible again. Most said it made them want to go even more, with the videos offering a taste.
Kennedy-Eden said virtual reality could be a valuable tool for people working in tourism, to remind clients what it’s like to travel, so they are ready to go when they can.
“You can’t go right now because of travel restrictions, but you can experience it,” she said. “It speaks to different people in different ways, and it draws you in,” she said, adding that because of the low cost of the goggles, it’s accessible to everyone.
“It’s cardboard, it’s $6, and you can use it to tour the world,” she said.