June 13, 2011
Humans love to go on vacations. But no one enjoys the high cost, the hassles of planes, trains, and automobiles, arranging for pet care, and so on. I wonder if scientists could find a way to replicate the good elements of a vacation without the bad parts. In other words, if you applied some serious science to the topic of vacations, could you create a synthetic experience that would be almost as good as the real thing but without the cost and hassle?
By now you are digging into your treasure trove of science fiction references and thinking about hallucinatory drugs and holodecks and that sort of thing. But I’m talking about using current technology and resources to cobble together a low-cost vacation-like experience without the problems of a real vacation. Is it something we could do today?
A scientist might begin by studying people’s chemical compositions before, during, and after vacations. Obviously a day at the beach creates a different set of chemical responses than kayaking. You could probably catalog the various types of vacations and how they change people. That would give you some sort of baseline to measure whether your artificial experiences are generating the same chemical results as the real thing. I assume scientists would be looking for changes in serotonin, oxytocin and other chemicals associated with relaxation and pleasure.
If you break down a vacation, it usually has some subset of the following elements:
1. Novelty – experiencing something different
2. Forgetting the stress of home and work
4. Learning about another culture
5. Challenge (e.g. hiking, climbing, etc.)
6. Physical beauty
7. Everyone is nice to you.
8. Shared adventure and memories with family and/or lovers
That’s not a complete list. But accept for now that a vacation can be broken down into its component parts, and that people will have different preferences for which elements they like best.
Now let’s assume we try to build a synthetic vacation experience within one hour’s drive from a major metropolitan area. Proximity eliminates most of the cost of transportation and simplifies the planning. Hotel rooms can be relatively inexpensive because they won’t be on a beach or other prime real estate.
We don’t want you driving home at night, even though you could, because that would get you back into your everyday head. So let’s say our fake resort has luxurious pet care facilities so you can take Rover with you in the car and see him as often as you like during the day while he plays with the other dogs in a nice grassy area.
Obviously we could design our fake vacation facility to include physical beauty, challenging activities, water, sun, and most of the other elements of a real vacation. And while nothing feels the same as being on the beach, perhaps some combination of massages, extraordinary food, and naps in a hammock will create a similarly pleasing chemical reaction. Remember, we’re not trying to imitate the specifics of real vacations as much as the chemical reactions they create.
The tricky part, I’m guessing, is reproducing novelty. While some people enjoy going to the same familiar vacation spots every year, many people need something new each time. They need mental stimulation. I was thinking about this after seeing Woody Allen’s new movie, Midnight in Paris. The videography of the Paris streets was so well done that it started to evoke the feeling of actually being there. I would estimate that seeing Paris on film was 10% as cool as being there in person, at least visually. I’ll bet you could get that percentage up to 75% if science were applied and the video and viewing rooms were created with that intent. Add 3D, headphones, maybe a wind machine and some smells, and you have an experience. You’d also want the user to control where he explores, and how quickly he moves, street by street. And perhaps you could add some video presence devices to a few foreign locations so users could literally speak with the locals, or simply sit in a British Pub, virtually, and people-watch. A novelty seeker could visit and interact with a dozen places per day, albeit at a lower sensory level. And all of this would be done using current technology. If you want a shared adventure, perhaps each virtual travel room could be family-sized.
I could also imagine having one of these synthetic vacation facilities outside every metropolitan area, each one staffed with a group of people from a particular culture. One facility might be staffed entirely by Mongols, another by Belgians, and so on. Every six months, the entire staff switches locations and brings their special flavor of service to a new location.
Let’s all agree that a virtual vacation will never replace the real thing. But we don’t always have the time, money, patience, and health for real vacations. I think the market for virtual vacations exists. If we could design the virtual vacation to be about 75% as good as the real thing, for 30% of the cost, we’d have an interesting business model.