Picture: HOBERMAN COLLECTION/UIG via GETTY IMAGES
Picture: HOBERMAN COLLECTION/UIG via GETTY IMAGES

In the run-up to what used to be the Argus cycle tour, a buzzing little market sprang up under Cape Town Stadium in Green Point last weekend: "The Cape Town Cycle Tour Expo".

Between the lycra gear and the cycle tech, the stand of Cape Town Tourism featured two additions to its marketing arsenal. One is Thando (3), the city’s third mobile "tourism info centre", equipped to show and sell the city from anywhere in SA. The other addition takes the form of three new virtual reality (VR) headsets, ready to transport their wearers to the top of Table Mountain or the lawns of the Kirstenbosch botanical garden.

It is the first time Love Cape Town (aka Cape Town Tourism) has used VR in this way, according to CEO Enver Duminy. He says it was a "no-brainer" when the organisation started to ask how it could get someone who has never been to a destination to "experience" it in a realistic way.

It took less than a week to get the project together for the expo. Supervisor of the mobile team, Rayaan Roberts, approached five companies, which all turned him down due to the tight timelines, before contracting Envisio (envisio.co.za), a three-person local start-up that filmed and edited the material just days before the event.

Envisio business director Matt Esof says having the latest technology gave the company the agility to complete the project in a short time. Envisio used a single camera with two fish-eye lenses to produce the 360° video, rather than older VR rigs with many cameras that create multiple videos that need to be stitched together. For virtual tours (where users can "walk through" a building or space) a six-lens rig equipped with infrared is suitable. It measures the space precisely as it captures it, so that even accurate floor plans can be generated automatically after filming.

Though the company launched less than a year ago, Esof believes there is huge potential for VR. The business is targeting clients in the tourism, hospitality and film sectors.

Some of the world’s top tourist destinations have employed this kind of tech to transform the visitor experience. In London, for example, the Natural History Museum offers visitors a behind-the-scenes virtual tour guided by David Attenborough. At London’s Tower Bridge tech is used to provide a view of a layer that shows visitors the bridge’s history and construction.

By using augmented reality (AR), a sister tech to VR, digital layers or objects can be inserted into the view that a headset provides.

An everyday example of this is Snapchat lenses, which add various "props" and distortions to a live selfie.

Top-end phones are now often shipped with AR applications already installed; or you can download third-party apps that let you bring the digital and virtual into the space around you — if only on a screen.

Dinosaurs Everywhere (iOS, free) or Dinosaurs Among Us (Android, free) allows viewers to experience a T-rex in their own kitchen, garden, school or street — as the names suggest.

VR is more immersive than AR, seeming to replace the real world with a virtual one on the screen, and works best with a headset so one can block out everything but the virtual world.

There are many of these on the market, ranging from the premium (cushioned and fitted to your face, featuring stereo sound and noise cancellation) to the basic (foldable cardboard frames that cost a couple of dollars each).

The next step for Cape Town Tourism and other enterprising tourism marketers is to introduce other experiential elements to the VR experience. Duminy says the organisation is already looking at ways of stimulating other senses, such as the smell of spices during a virtual "cooking safari".

This is a key tactic of VR for extreme sports, explains Esof, and can take the form of standing on a wobble board while VR-surfing or using electric fans to simulate the rush of air while VR-bungee jumping.

VR is a powerful marketing tool, says Roberts: "We had a visitor to the stand who put on the VR headset, and he is headed up to Table Mountain right now; we sold him the ticket then and there."

It’s another way to potentially grow the tourism industry. In Cape Town, tourism employs about 150,000 people, and the city is keen for this to grow significantly, according to alderman James Vos. "We want to be a town of ‘tourism-preneurs’, and we see tech and innovation as a key way of enabling this," he says.

In combination with the mobile info centres, VR presents a potential solution to a relatively new problem destination marketers around the world experience — the declining use of information centres. Google Search now dominates research and booking for travel. The most asked question in an average info centre today is: "Where is the toilet?" says Duminy.

"People don’t want to walk into visitor centres anymore, but everyone is using tech.

"The team came up with the [mobile visitor centre] concept, and I was happy to back them. I’ve also shared this idea with the national department of tourism, and we hope it will take the concept on board and maybe get other destinations to do the same.

"Technology is part of our daily lives, and any destination needs to understand that and embrace it," Duminy says.