When I planned my week-long trip to London late last year, I didn’t rely on brochures or websites to make the final call on where to go or what to do — I used virtual reality.
With only a week to explore one of the greatest cities on earth, I found myself on TripAdvisor asking “Would this be worth my time?”
Then I remembered the Google Cardboard on my desk — a low-cost virtual reality viewer that you slot your smartphone into — courtesy of my mom’s New York Times subscription. The Times gave a free Cardboard with each issue of its Sunday edition back in November, hoping to encourage its subscribers to use its new VR app.
The NYT VR app is well worth checking out, but what helped calm my pre-vacation jitters was Google’s own Street View app. Street View is a VR version of the Google Maps street view feature, which lets you look around from inside a 360-degree photo of an area Google has mapped out.
On a computer, phone, or tablet it’s impressive, but in Google Cardboard it’s incredible. I typed “Big Ben” into the search bar, selected the location, put my phone into Cardboard and I was there.
Having a first-person 360-degree view gave me a sense of what the view would be from the corner across the street, and although it paled in comparison to actually being in that corner a week later, it was still very impressive. I used Street View to virtually “check out the sights” ahead of time. This is how I decided the London Eye didn’t look too interesting, but Westminster Abbey and Buckingham Palace sure did. It also gave me a sense of the neighborhood I would be staying in, since it wasn’t in the heart of the city.
After a half hour in Street View I wasn’t as stressed out about missing out on any of the “must-see” locations, which freed up both my mind and time around the city. A majority of what I saw in London didn’t come from my Street View experience: Little off-the-beaten-path shops, side streets, and a number of pubs, but I can’t stress enough how helpful virtual reality was as a planning tool.
I’ll never visit a major city again without taking a quick pre-trip spin around town.