(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Japan's biggest airline is betting that the future of travel isn't traveling at all. For the last month, a married couple in Oita Prefecture has been interacting with a robot — called an Avatar — that's controlled by their daughter hundreds of miles away in Tokyo. Made by ANA Holdings Inc., it looks like a vacuum cleaner with an iPad attached. But the screen displays the daughter’s face as they chat, and its wheels let her trundle about the house as though she’s really there, and even join her parents at the dinner table.It may seem like an odd gambit for a global airline. But as populations age, tourism hot-spots get more crowded, and overseas travel becomes less sustainable, ANA and its competitors are betting that they can make money by keeping would-be travelers happily at home.“Virtual travel” is nothing new, of course. Storytellers, travel writers and artists have been stimulating the senses of armchair tourists for centuries. It's only in recent decades that frequent, safe travel — especially overseas — has become available to the non-wealthy, thanks in large part to low-cost airfares and home-sharing services. In 2018, the travel-and-tourism business grew by nearly 4% and accounted for more than 10% of global GDP.Yet even as the world's middle classes climb out of the armchair and into economy-class seats, there are hints of a post-travel society emerging. Concerns about sustainability — and movements such as "flight-shaming" — are taking a toll on carbon-intensive airlines, and could spread to other forms of travel. The tourism boom is stressing popular destinations, and forcing them to look at ways to limit visitors. And the aging of affluent societies is both inhibiting physical travel and creating demand for alternative ways to experience the world and stay connected to others.For the travel industry, virtual reality offers a tantalizing response to these trends. First Airlines, another Japanese company, now lets customers sit in a mock-up of an airplane in Tokyo, where they’re served fancy meals before taking VR tours of select destinations. The company is targeting elderly travelers who don’t want the hassle of a real-life trip, and “flights” to cities such as New York, Paris and Rome are frequently fully booked.ANA is thinking bigger. It wants to use robotics, haptic technology, and fast communication to create a "new mode of instantaneous transportation" that lets people carry their "presence, consciousness, knowledge, and skills" to remote locations. In less-lofty terms, the idea is to make the VR experience more immersive by stimulating multiple senses, including touch. For example, video-conferences might soon be enhanced by letting participants shake hands, while other technology could one day simulate the feeling of walking on a far-off beach or a mountaintop. Japan's space agency even hopes to use the company’s Avatars for lunar exploration.Of course, far-out technologies encourage far-out claims. ANA doesn't plan to start selling Avatars until next year, and the initial versions will be decidedly crude. Profits, too, will probably be elusive: By one estimate, the global market for this kind of technology will be worth only about $300 million by 2023. By contrast, ANA’s traditional travel business brought in more than $19 billion last year.But if the business case for virtual vacations is still weak, the market for technologies that bridge physical distances between families and coworkers seems likely to only expand. Over the past two decades, cheap video-conferencing apps have changed how families and companies around the world communicate. Inexpensive robots that let them interact physically are a natural next step. ANA's robots may not replace its airplanes any time soon, but they’ll almost certainly be a part of travel's high-tech future.
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Adam Minter is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is the author of “Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade” and the forthcoming "Secondhand: Travels in the New Global Garage Sale."
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