Navitaire, a reservation system for low-cost carriers that travel technology giant Amadeus acquired in 2015, is debuting a “proof-of-concept” of how travel searching and booking could work using virtual reality headsets.

The transactional focus of this virtual reality (VR), or 3D immersive tech, makes it stand out. Almost no experiments have been publicized in how picking a flight or rental car and paying for it might work in virtual reality in a way connected to today’s reservation and payment systems, giving the Amadeus-owned company an apparent head start over competitors.

Until now, travel companies have mostly been interested in how they can use virtual reality to help consumers choose a vacation spot. Examples include Marriott’s pop-up VR booths that let consumers try wraparound video views of exotic locales and the meetings-and-events industry’s slate of new virtual reality offerings.

But there doesn’t seem to be enough money to be made in inspiring buyers. It is difficult to say if a piece of marketing, such as virtual reality content, causes a consumer to buy. That “attribution problem — plus the expense of VR — has led travel brands to only create a handful of good examples of VR travel content

Yet “mixed reality” may become popular within a few years’ time. Companies like Avegant, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, HTC, Samsung, and Sony are vying to create the headsets that could become consumers’ primary computing tool. They all want to deliver immersive experiences, either by simulating reality with graphical representations or by augmenting reality with digital images and information shown alongside real objects.

Amadeus’ technology isn’t yet dependent on any particular headset to work. It’s more of a “proof of concept” that generates reservations on the test servers of Navitaire’s reservation systems.

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Amadeus virtual reality payments VR

Shopping with gloves on

In a demonstration exclusively for Skift, Justin Wilde, a user experience developer at Navitaire, showed off the proof-of-concept. As is often the case in these virtual reality prototypes, Amadeus’ proof of concept has users feel as if they are standing in an open-air room. By pointing with electronically connected gloves, a user can select or grab objects, manipulating them (such as by picking dates on a calendar to buy a trip) or making purchases (such as by tapping a virtual card on a virtual scanner).

A video illustrates the experience, though not as fully:

In the simulation, there’s an oversize globe, with planes flying around it. By clicking on flight routes or destinations, users can see the prices for tickets. If they want to see the difference between various seats in the aircraft’s cabins, they can pick it up and manipulate it — zooming in to inspect the product.

When it comes to booking, they can pick a credit card out of a floating wallet and use it to buy. If users are shopping for more than one traveler, they can choose seat assignments by dropping an avatar of each passenger in a different seat on a 3D seat map.

The demonstration also offered the option to book a rental car. Consumers could step inside a graphical representation of an Audi or a Lamborghini before booking. Wilde believes travel brands will be eager to let travelers test drive in a virtual simulation their high-end products. “If you let a consumer test a product, the more likely you will be able to convert them into buying,” says Wilde.

Rashesh Jethi, head of R&D in the Americas for Amadeus, believes that virtual and augmented reality will be blended along with real-life imagery. “In the short- to medium-term, user-generated content will be used to augment reality in these virtual settings. Today, consumers look at what other passengers have had to say about seats on an aircraft on TripAdvisor-owned SeatGuru or via RouteHappy. But the information is presented in a 2D format…”

“What if you can see the reviews annotating specific seats with proportional dimension in a 3D model of the aircraft you’re going to fly? Technology will help democratize information about how to shop smartly for travel and present the information in more intuitive and contextual ways.”

It is impressive that the simulation is connected to Navitaire’s reservation systems and could theoretically result in actual ticketing.

But Amadeus needs to fill out the 3D models with textures and lighting as well as make the user interface less clunky and like the movie Tron, circa 1982.

Wilde claims that “VR makes key details about travel shopping more obvious and transparent.”

On the one hand, he may have a point that it’s easier to appreciate the difference in a flight experience between the Emirates first class cabin and Ryanair’s basic offering if you have 3D modeling to look at. Or even more simply put, a visual model helps a traveler instantly see the difference between a jet and a turboprop.

That said, visuals like that also seem of limited usefulness. Why would choosing among airplanes on a 3D route map be more efficient than today’s 2D process?

Wilde says that visually seeing route maps would make it intuitively obvious to consumers that one flight is nonstop while another has a layover. Perhaps. But on most itineraries, there are too many possible combinations to be presented in a visually comprehensible way — at least given current VR capabilities.

Jethi also claims that travel agents should see virtual reality as a sales assistant rather than a competing channel. “VR is good news for travel agents that have physical presences where they meet with consumers. There will be a slow adoption curve of the best quality VR headsets, so agencies can invest in them — letting them have the first cool new thing on the block — to help convert travelers to booking.”

Maybe. But if virtual reality goes mass market via headsets that consumers use at home, and if companies like Amadeus make purchases easy via virtual reality, then the new tech might really into eat into agency sales and not just cannibalize the online travel agency business.

Jethi insists that it’s virtual reality-like tech will boost, not cut, traditional travel agencies.

“The go-to-market strategy is with the traditional players, namely, the agencies that already have relationships with both consumers and the best operators and suppliers. They can let consumers don VR headsets and take virtual tours — and then book via the agency. Keep in mind: the agencies are the ones with the relationships. If you want to do African safari or see the northern lights, they know how to build out the full itinerary.

“Ultimately it depends on how the adoption curve materializes, which depends on the price points the headsets debut at. I can see airlines creating package vacations with air, hotel, car, and experiences bundled up, where they work in partnership with destination marketing organizations to leverage VR content in the most cost-effective way.”

Photo Credit: Amadeus is prototyping what it would be like to find and book a flight using virtual reality headsets such as PlayStation's. Sony PlayStation VR