Extending Reality

For decades, recreation, travel and hospitality have been all about real-life experiences in the moment. In the future, we will transcend the here and now into new and exciting versions of reality.


Imagine enjoying the best experiences the world has to offer—without actually needing to go anywhere. Don a pair of extended reality glasses, and that comfy recliner suddenly becomes a dogsled mushing through the Arctic night. Want to play 18 holes at St. Andrews? Instead of flying to Scotland, you can drive to the nearest VR sports center and play the same course there, with the cry of seagulls in your ears and the smell of North Sea mist in your nose. And rather than traveling to Athens to see the Parthenon, why not strap on a headset and go back in time to check it out before it became a ruin?

Travel will always be about new experiences, but the industry is also prepping for a future in which at least some of those experiences redefine the term “real.” The future is tech-enhanced IRL (in real life) moments you can see and touch, mashed up with extended reality that amplifies sensory inputs. This creates an immersive experience that is inimitable, intriguing and intoxicating on multiple levels, redefining exploration and diversion as we know them, forever.

VR experiences will be particularly important for promoting vacation experiences. Just as consumers pore over photographs and videos before booking a vacation, travelers will soon expect VR tours of attractions and amenities before commiting to an itinerary.

Stealth-stage companies are exploring some interesting amalgamations of these trends. Oakland startup Ethereal Matter is developing a robotic VR-enabled machine that will allow users to fly across Tuscany and other spots around the globe as they exercise their arms and legs. The company expects these machines will populate malls, gyms and airports in the near future.

“These sorts of interactive virtual experiences won’t replace travel but will become critical to the industry.”

—Scott Summit, founder of Ethereal Matter


Augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR)—known collectively as extended reality (XR)—are changing the face of recreation, travel and hospitality. The company formerly known as Facebook made waves with its abrupt pivot into the metaverse, broadly definable as the sum total of all digital worlds, from existing videogames to emerging XR properties. The extended reality market is predicted to expand from $42 billion in 2020 to $333 billion by 2025.

Consumers are going places with XR already. The Xplore Petra app leverages AR to give users a 3D mockup of the ancient Jordanian city they can tour in real time. Lights over Lapland, a Swedish travel company, has created a VR app that brings the aurora borealis across the world. Add to this VR lodging previews, no-touch digital interfaces and hybrid online/real-life conferences, and the possibilities are just about endless. Even amusement parks are embracing this reality; many have at least one or two VR attractions, and most are planning to add more in the coming years. Disney is leading the charge with the debut of its Star Wars Galactic Starcruiser hotel in 2022, essentially a landed cruise ship styled entirely as a starship that, with the help of XR technology, will hurl passengers through space and time.


“Immersive simulations” blend extended reality with additional sensory modifications to create something even bigger. FlyOver Las Vegas is one such attraction. Riders buckle into a row of seats that extends out in front of a 52-foot-tall hemispheric screen. From there, the seats jostle up, down and all around as high-definition helicopter shots on the screen create the sensation of flying over the American West. When riders appear to zip over fresh snow, they get dusted with wet, cold flakes. When they are made to believe they’re flying through an old-growth forest, they feel a breeze and smell pine.

VR is also becoming critical in selling destinations to travelers. By donning a headset, prospective travelers are able to walk a tropical beach, tour a faraway fish market’s hawker stalls or see the views from a 106th-floor observation deck—all without leaving the comfort of their own homes. As the tools become more sophisticated and prevalent, they will be particularly important for travel to developing countries, areas recovering from disasters, or other destinations that people are hesitant to visit. Studies have shown that a VR experience makes travelers more comfortable with the idea of visiting unfamiliar destinations in real life.

“When you think about the convenience of virtual golf, the fact that you can drive 15 minutes to a local simulator and play a quick round of nine holes on a simulation of any course in the world—you just can’t top that. Golf on a course with clubs and carts and caddies is intimidating; golf in a simulator on virtual courses in the comfort of your own community is welcoming.”

—Chuck Frizelle, VP Client Success, Full Swing and Topgolf Swing Suite


Sports is another area of recreation where consumers increasingly are embracing extended reality—both as players and as fans.

Perhaps nowhere is this more evident than with the rise of virtual golf. The golf simulator market is expected to cross the $3 billion threshold by 2031. This doesn’t only account for VR technology that enables you to “play” St. Andrews in Des Moines; it also includes revenues pulled in by recreational attractions using the technology, such as World Golf Tour and the Topgolf Swing Suite. Executives at Topgolf expect the brand to grow exponentially in the next decade, fueled by new installations at malls and at sporting venues where fans are looking for new game-day diversions.

Covid accelerated virtual fan presence when the NBA teamed up with Microsoft to place fans courtside in a virtual experience during live games in a biosecure “bubble.” The league used AI and the Microsoft Teams collaboration tool to segment fans’ faces and shoulders and display live reactions via screens arranged around the court. Neither fans nor players found telepresence attendance equal to the in-person experience, so don’t expect a return of this hybrid any time soon. The virtual fan experience will have to wait for its rebirth in a high-definition metaverse edition, circa 2030.


Gaming resorts are cashing in on virtual action as well. In the name of reducing overhead, casinos are replacing dealer-driven table games with automated contests. Many of these options come in the form of stadium-style game pits where one dealer manages action at the front of an area and up to 50 or 60 players can wager on individual-but-linked computer terminals around them.

Casinos also are embracing new technology of cashless gaming—where players fund a digital wallet, then receive a QR code they can bring to a slot or table game to use like cash. (In the case of table games, a dealer scans the QR code and gives the player chips.) Today, this technology exists in real life at Resorts World, the newest casino on the Las Vegas Strip. Other casinos are experimenting with credit card terminals that allow for cash withdrawals at the gaming tables. Bill Miller, president and CEO of the American Gaming Association, predicts casinos will be mostly cashless by 2030. While this trend will likely benefit casinos, it also suggests players may soon be gambling—and losing—more.

Of course casinos and gambling will also move into the metaverse, enabling players to drop in on virtual replicas of some of the most famous casinos in the world and bet whenever and wherever they like. Put a white tuxedo on your avatar and push chips across the felt of a baccarat table at the Casino de Monte-Carlo in the comfort of pajamas at your kitchen table. The experience is not too far away.




Cash is old news. With the rise of cryptocurrency, a growing number of hospitality outfits are making moves to accept bitcoin and other forms of digital money as forms of payment. As more of these providers accept crypto, the entire point-of-sale experience could disappear and give way to cloud-based payment processing triggered by the wave of a watch or ring.

The casino industry has been a trailblazer here, too. Casino magnate Derek Stevens rolled out a bitcoin ATM at the D Las Vegas in 2018, and began accepting bitcoin in restaurants, gift shops and at his hotels immediately thereafter. Other travel industry entities have followed suit. Today consumers can pay for excursions from activity booking site GetYourGuide with Dogecoin, and Travala.com, a blockchain-based aggregator, has reported 70 percent of all bookings being done in digital coin. More vendors will offer this option over the course of the next five years, with Gen Z and Gen Alpha driving these trends. In a decade, there’s no question cryptocurrency will be accepted everywhere. Travel and hospitality companies that can embrace it seamlessly stand to gain greater traction among consumers across the board.


The digitization of travel has even impacted the way consumers commemorate their experiences away from home: just as social media has replaced the written travel journal with tweets, posts and Instagram pics, so too have snow globes and shot glasses given way to nonfungible tokens (NFTs), digital snapshots of a moment in time.

NFTs are here to stay, and decades from now they will exist in other forms and likely will have other names. Souvenirs will look different, too. Instead of trinkets you place on a shelf, they’ll be digital images, videos or experiential VR clips you play on a screen, project on a wall or view in a headset to relive the moments as if they were happening all over again. The next few years will see the rise of the digital concierge—people affiliated with attractions, travel destinations and hotels who help consumers cultivate and curate digital mementos of their experiences, whether those experiences are virtual, real or something in between.