High speed digital communications could transform the travel industry

Written by David Tebbutt, MacUser Sep 1989 (guess) - scanned

It's time to think about summer holidays again. Time to dream of all those faraway places. If only we could be there now, instead of sniffing and snivelling our way through another English winter. (Mind you, ever since we heard about that global warming business, the winters down south don't seem half as bad.)

Brochures litter your floor and you're probably planning to spend hundreds, if not thousands, of pounds just on the strength of a few posed photographs and an imaginative write up. Wouldn't it be nice if you could actually go to the places you fancy, before parting with your cash?

Well, to coin a phrase, we have the technology. Do you remember a Horizon television program some years ago which dealt in 'surrogate travel'? The particular system it showed was (I believe) videodisk-based, and it allowed the operator to 'drive' around the town of Aspen, Colorado. You could literally joystick your way around town. Whenever you changed direction, the disk head moved to the new street and advanced you down it until you turned into a new one.

I have no doubt that the system was jolly expensive when it was shown on television and merely showed the potential of videodisk technology. Now, things have moved on apace. Surrogate travel could soon be back on the agenda at a very affordable price. Rumour has it that the SAS already uses surrogate travel products to familiarise themselves with strange territory before being sent in. I've no doubt that the Army can afford to stump up the readies for its systems, but we all know that the price for these multimedia products is dropping all the time.

Perhaps the next step will be for travel agents to install these systems in their shops. It will be like the old days of record buying. Then, you could go into a booth and hear a track or two of whatever record you were interested in buying. Our local shop used to have three booths and trying to get in them on a Saturday was a complete waste of time. The shop couldn't make enough money from this approach to selling records and it soon faded out. But travel is a different matter. Travel agents have considerable incentive to give people a quick tour round San Francisco, for example, before taking a booking worth thousands of pounds.

The disks could all be stuck in some sort of jukebox arrangement, so all the travel agent has to do is jot down some names and addresses, make sure the holiday's available and take the deposit. No need to pretend to advise people any more. Come to think of it, the system could easily be extended to take the booking as well. You could go into the shop, choose a vacant booth, travel around your preferred destinations, slip your credit card in a slot and bingo, your holiday's booked. The trouble with this approach is that you actually have to go to the travel agent. And there is a danger it will stock up with disks and 'forget' to change them as the resorts become more built up, or the beaches get washed away. If the tour operators supplied the disks, this would ensure they were up-to-date. The trouble with that is that every operator would have to produce a tour of each resort. You want to go to Marbella? Choose from a hundred different tours. No thanks. Perhaps the Association of British Travel Agents could do one for each resort. No, I can't see that working either.

The answer, surely, is for each resort to produce its own surrogate walk material. All it needs then is to deliver it to the tens of millions of people who might be interested. Hmmm. That poses a bit of a problem. Keeping track of an ever-changing network of travel agents is no easy matter. And imagine the cost of making and delivering all those optical disks.

Perhaps this is where the personal computer comes in. By the time the resorts have got their acts together, personal computers will be almost as common as electric motors. The convergence of television, computing, communications and all that stuff will be advanced, and we'll think nothing of using our computers to access all sorts of remotely stored information. At the moment, we use them mainly for getting text out of databases or for sending messages and files to each other.

With all this talk of multimedia, it seems only sensible to find ways of increasing the capacity of telephone cables, so they can carry video information. Why rely on your own or your travel agent's CD-ROMs or videodisks when, with some serious thought, the communications industry could deliver at least 100M per second to your doorstep? Compress all the 'walkabout' data so that it can arrive at your computer in 'real-time', decompress it on the fly and, lo!, you could take a surrogate walk from your living room.

The 'walks' could be stored on Tourist Authority databases in each country. Walkabout authenticators could ensure that the material does not mislead. Then people all over the world will be able to explore foreign parts from home. Some will probably adopt this form of travel as a hobby. British Telecom would be delighted. Many will decide to go places they'd never dreamed of. The Tourist Boards would be thrilled. Hotels and restaurants will put themselves into the databases. Observers such as Egon Ronay won't miss an opportunity to pontificate on the facilities offered. And, to cover the costs of maintaining these databases, everyone who puts up data could get royalties when their data is accessed.

Never mind multimedia on compact discs and videodisks. The really huge potential opens up when we have a communication system which will support distributed multimedia.