Virtual tours have got to be one of the lamest things ever invented: Sit at your computer, squinting at some never-quite-good-enough photos of a place you'll never go to while clicking impotently with your mouse to "move" around. But touch interfaces, tablet devices, and augmented reality have changed all that. A company called Tour Wrist has one of the most spectacular virtual-tour user experiences I've seen: their free iPad app lets you hold the device up like a magic window and pan it around in physical space to reveal a totally different location — many quite exotic. This video gives you a sense of how it works:
Users will soon be able to move forward and backward "into" the scene.
"If you've ever played with Google Earth, you zoom in and get this sensation of being able to go anywhere — but eventually you stop going back because it doesn't let you do anything," explains Tour Wrist CEO Charles Armstrong. "Our goal is to give you the opportunity to actually explore these places." At the moment, Tour Wrist only offers 360-degree panoramas — although "only" is an uncharitable way to describe the fluid experience of using them. But soon the company will roll out a feature called Hot Spots which will make Tour Wrist quite Google-Earth-like indeed: users will be able to "look around" in all directions and move forward and backward "into" the scene, much like Google Street View. "Our interface is always in a constant state of improvement," says Armstrong.
Tour Wrist is plenty appealing for taking a quick pretend-vacation, but Armstrong wants Tour Wrist's intuitive, 360-degree visual interface to become "a new way of communicating" in general. Compared to typing or clicking, it certainly maps much better to our hardwired intuitions about spatial memory and physical affordances. The idea is to make the term "touring" so open-ended that it can apply to almost any kind of visual communication or demonstration: for example, Tour Wrist already lets you "tour" vehicles as well as cafes, hotels, and museums. Imagine getting a physical sense of the interior of that Range Rover you've been eyeing up without ever leaving your Barcalounger.
The Tour Wrist API, rolling out this week, is a big part of Armstrong's vision to turn his platform into a ubiquitous, sharable form of digital communication much like YouTube, Flickr, or Twitter. Six companies that offer panoramic photo products are already on board to use Tour Wrist's API. What does that mean in non-dorkspeak? "Say you're a realtor or just the guy who always finds the hot new place in town," Armstrong explains. "When you go into this place, you just wave your phone around to 'paint' the environment with the camera, and upload it to Tour Wrist." From there, TourWrist generates an embeddable link that can be emailed or pasted into blogs and other social media. "We've really modeled ourselves after YouTube," Armstrong says. "We give people tools for sharing this experience without forcing them to download the app."
Will the Tour Wrist experience be as ubiquitous five years from now as YouTube is today? Will 360-degree augmented reality party shots from the Playboy mansion (or news events!) someday go viral like so many cat videos? Tour Wrist isn't there yet, but it's an ambitious vision, and given how engaging the experience already is, it doesn't seem out of the question.