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How Virtual Reality Will Transform Heritage Tourism

Toronto’s Fort York National Historic Site is preparing to launch an ambitious virtual reality experience that will help tourists visualize what the Toronto waterfront looked like over the past three centuries. The 3D adventure strips away the current Gardiner Expressway and wall of condos to reveal what life was like for indigenous peoples as well as soldiers during the War of 1812.

This project has been five years in the making. Srinivas Krishna, who founded AWE Company Ltd. to specialize in immersive, interactive, augmented and VR experiences for mobile audiences, took his ideas to Fort York in 2011. Since then, he’s worked with the Fort, Ryerson University, the University of Ontario Institute of Technology, and others. The project has shifted gears a bit thanks to the pace of change in smartphones, apps and beacon technology, not to mention the introduction of Google Cardboard only two years ago, which is making VR more accessible to a wider consumer audience.

Once it’s up and running, the Fort York project will allow visitors to time travel back to as many as eight historic events that took place on the 43-acre site, including cannons fired during the Battle of York in 1813, and public protests to save the Fort in the 1950s. The experience also includes quizzes and other interactive games.

 

Challenges
AWE and Fort York are in the process of working out logistics. For example, should Fort York offer user-ready VR headsets for rent to visitors? Or should people download the app to their smartphones and just pop their phones into a Google Cardboard viewer?

The latter is ideal, but just how many people actually own a newer model smartphone? Research by Catalyst and GroupM Next found just over 33 per cent of smartphone owners bought their first device between two and five years ago. The good news is that Canadian smartphone penetration continues to grow, and those older phones will soon need replacing.

If you build it, will they come?
Last fall, the public was invited to give a beta version of the Fort York VR experience a try. Exit interviews with 105 participants revealed that people are curious and excited about VR adventures, and they’re willing to pay more for the experience. Here’s what they said:

90% would pay double the current admission price to try the experience

95% would recommend it to friends

96% found it very engaging

97% found it educational

98% found it entertaining

If people can get this excited about Toronto history in the context of a VR experience, it’s good for Fort York and it’s certainly good for city tourism in general.

 

A bold opportunity
VR holds promise as an exciting, multilayered new tool to boost tourism. That includes new visitors as well as Torontonians who crave new adventures within their city.

This is only a starting point for Krishna, who envisions bringing VR adventures to many other local attractions. For Fort York, and indeed all historic attractions, it’s a potential new revenue stream as well a new opportunity to grow heritage tourism.

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