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Virtual Travel: From hotel lobby to a Hawaiian beach in seconds

One second you're in the lobby of a hotel, the next you're on the serene beaches of Hawaii. Marriott Hotels is trying to make that possible with its new Virtual Travel Experience.

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Marriott Hotels partnered with MTV host and international lifestyle expert Louise Roe to surprise newlyweds exiting New York City Hall with a 4-D ‘virtual honeymoon,’ on Sept. 15.

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In the middle of the Boston Marriott Cambridge's lobby is a tall white and black cylinder. Cassandra Grey-Sautelet stepped inside and strapped on a headset and earphones. And she is off, out of the hotel lobby and onto Hawaii’s Wai’anapanapa Black Sand Beach in Maui. As she watched the waves and listened to the sound of birds, she was sprayed with a light mist. Just as she settled into the serene scene, she is shuttled off to the top of Tower 42 in downtown London. She laughed as she was tipped forward and looked over the urban precipice. 

As Ms. Grey-Sautelet, a resident of Cambridge, Mass., stepped out of the machine, she raved about the experience. 

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"I was expecting a video game, but it wasn't. It was awesome!" she says. "It felt like being there. I kept feeling like I could reach out and touch things, which was really neat."

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What Grey-Sautelet was experiencing was Marriott Hotels' new Virtual Travel Experience, a so-called 4-D experience that allows user to virtually travel to far of lands. The attraction is a partnership with Marriott Hotels; the marketing firm Relevent; and Framestore, a visual-effects company that worked on the movie "Gravity." The experience uses an Oculus Rift, a virtual reality headset that many say is changing virtual reality.

“We are at the beginning of a really exciting time for using virtual reality,” says Jeffery Jacobson, a virtual-reality consultant who is not involved in the project. He says virtual reality is becoming cheaper – the Oculus Rift kit for programmers is $350 – and it's becoming easier for people to buy. 

"It’s been used a little bit in a lot of different industries, but mainly for very expensive high-dollar projects," Mr. Jacobson says. "But suddenly because of Oculus VR, it is available to everyone."  

Grey-Sautelet says she hopes to see this technology more. A self-acclaimed weird-destinations traveler, she says she never had a desire to go to London or Hawaii.

"[When I was in Marriott's booth] I was like 'I need to go here,' " she says. "Just feeling like I was there makes me want to actually travel there."

And that's exactly what Marriott is hoping to use this technology for in the future. 

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"We want to give customers [the chance] to experience a place before they travel there," says Sara Steffenauer, the public relations manager for Marriott Hotels. "We can get customers excited about a place before they travel there."

"Virtual reality isn't the real thing, but it's great for the travel industry," Jacobson says. "You can see the Taj Mahal, and then you want the real thing."

The Virtual Travel Experience is part Marriott's new initiative, Travel Brilliantly. Customers submit their ideas about how to innovate travel. As part of the initiative, the hotel is unveiling a number of ideas, including an app called Six Degrees, which allows hotel guests to find other guests with similar interests using LinkedIn accounts.

“Marriott Hotels is pioneering the use of innovative technologies that will transform the guest experience to heights unseen in the current reality experience in unprecedented ways,“ Michael Dail, vice president of Marriott Hotels brand marketing, says in an e-mailed statement. “Marriott seized on virtual reality and teleportation to give the next generation of travelers the clear cut notion that more amazing travel experiences are coming...."

Both the Virtual Travel Experience and Six Degrees were unveiled at the Marriott in Kendall Square, located near the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Alan Smith, the hotel's general manager, says his hotel is a great place to push the limitations of travel technology.

"We are right in the center of the tech world," Mr. Smith says, "and we can be a testing ground for innovation."

The Virtual Travel Experience is on tour around the country. It's already made its way to New York and Boston, and is heading to Washington, Atlanta, Dallas, San Diego, San Jose, and San Francisco.