Virtual tourism gains momentum amid COVID-19 pandemic

By ZHOU SIZHAO / 04-29-2021 / (Chinese Social Sciences Today)

Sheng Dashi “Creek Mountains and Rain Clearing Picture” scroll Photo: TAICANG MUSEUM

Environmental aesthetics centers on appreciating the beauty of natural and man-made environments. With the rapid development of cloud computing, virtual reality (VR), 5G and other technologies, as well as the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, virtual tourism is gaining popularity in China, where it is often referred to as “cloud tourism.” “Cloud visiting the Forbidden City,” “cloud visiting the Potala Palace,” “cloud visiting Wuzhen,” “cloud viewing cherry blossoms,” and “cloud visiting China” have been trending concepts in the field of environmental aesthetics. 

As a new form of business, virtual or cloud tourism refers to a new non-contact immersive sight-seeing experience that is based on advanced technologies such as livestreaming, 5G, and VR, which enables tourists to enjoy scenic spots without actually going there. An environmental aesthetic appreciation of virtual tourism is a product of the digital age, and its realization involves three stages: livestreaming, cloud communication, and virtual appreciation.
Technological advancement 
Virtual tourism is the product of a specific historical stage. China’s unique aesthetic tradition, technical conditions, and social distancing have worked together to give rise to this new type of leisure across the country. 
The most prominent feature of cloud tourism is that viewers can enjoy distant scenic spots and natural landscapes without leaving home. This form of aesthetic appreciation has a long history in China, which is similar to the concept of “woyou”—an idea first put forth by the Liu Song Dynasty (420–479) representative painter Zong Bing in his Preface on Landscape Painting (Huashanshuixu). “Wo” literally means “lying down” while “you” means to travel in Chinese. Zong argued that if a landscape is well-painted, visually accurate, and aesthetically compelling, it can truly substitute real nature.
Under his influence, a number of painting named “woyou” were produced, such as Qing Dynasty (1644–1911) painter Sheng Dashi’s “Creek Mountains and Rain Clearing Picture” (Xishan Woyou Lu) and Cheng Zhengkui’s “Dream Landscape” (Jiangshan Woyou Tu), forming the unique Chinese tradition of appreciating landscape paintings as a substitute for real nature. This became a foundation for Chinese spiritual thought and aesthetics, which serves as the aesthetic theoretical support and reference for virtual tourism in the modern world.
As of now, human society has entered the digital era. With digital processing, the real world’s physical environment can be turned into streaming data, which can be transmitted via cloud technology to any user to be viewed and appreciated. At present, cloud tourism has become one of the ways for the public to entertain themselves at home, since the travel industry across China and throughout the world almost have come to a halt amid coronavirus fears.
Livestreaming is the production stage of virtual tourism. With the help of a digital lens, mobile phone lenses, and VR technology, various physical environments are digitized to form streaming data, enabling online live broadcasts. Nowadays, there are many live broadcast platforms featuring landscapes in China, and many network platforms have landscape broadcasts or outdoor broadcast channels. At present, there are three popular forms of landscape livestreaming: mobile live broadcasting, VR panoramic live broadcasting, and slow live broadcasting.
Mobile livestreaming is the most common form of landscape broadcast. Hosts carry live broadcasting tools with them and as they roam scenic locations, the live footage changes constantly, so that viewers can follow their footsteps to enjoy a variety of landscapes and scenery. At the same time, viewers can also interact with the broadcasters through streaming “bullet” comments, based on which broadcasters can adjust their lens and tour routes to cater to users’ personalized demands.
VR panorama live broadcasting is a combination of VR technology and landscape broadcasting, capable of recording a scene using a panoramic rig and broadcasting 360-degree stereo panorama videos in real time. With the help of PCs, mobile phones or VR headsets and other terminal devices, viewers can zoom up, down, left, and right to watch from any angle, to fully enjoy an immersive experience brought by VR technology.
Slow live broadcast is a form of live broadcasting without a host, and it does not include any production traces such as camera editing and music rendering. Instead, it applies fixed surveillance cameras to livestream landscapes for a long period of time. Though this type of live broadcast does not offer customized content, the sense of reality is impeccable. At present, many tourist attractions in China have adopted this form of slow live broadcast to display scenic spots.
For example, on March 16, the Douyin account of Mount Tai Evening News started to livestream the sea of clouds gathering on Mount Tai, Shandong Province. The same day, the Douyin account of People’s Daily Online had Qilian Mountain, Qinghai Province, on camera, and invited viewers to “join the search” for Chinese mountain cats, also known as the Chinese desert cat, who are said to be among the most mysterious wild animals.
Cloud communication
Cloud communication is a new type of information transmission born at the advent of cloud computing technology. Thanks to cloud computing technology, users can share not only digital information resources, but also hardware and software infrastructure resources. This means that the internet and the mobile internet are intertwined and merged into an “internet cloud,” on which massive digital information resources are stored, transmitted, and shared by all users. 
In the meantime, every user, as a network node, can enjoy a virtual supercomputer with supercomputing power which cascades through a large number of distributed computer networks. Cloud tourism requires cloud transmission, given that streaming data formed by landscape broadcasts is huge, and its storage and transmission needs the support of cloud computing and high-speed transmission technology, so that users can see landscape broadcasts in ultra-high resolution and with low delay. With the support of cloud communication, environmental visual information can be widely disseminated and shared to a greater extent.
Cloud communication is the circulation stage of virtual or cloud tourism, and it is the intermediate link between landscapes and viewers. Virtual transmissions of landscapes have four outstanding features: high resolution, low delay, strong interaction, and contextualization. 
First, 5G technology can guarantee users a 4K or even 8K high-resolution landscape live broadcast, with stability, fluency, and low delay. Strong interaction means that in the process of virtually transmitting a landscape, users interact with broadcasters and other users via comments, likes, sending gifts, and joining fan clubs in a timely manner. Finally, contextualization allows users to get a glimpse of the “here and now,” the real-time essence of each place, not what it was in landscape photographs or documentaries which recorded its past.
Aesthetic appreciation
Virtual appreciation is the consumption stage of cloud tourism. From the perspective of users, content, and the relationship between users and broadcasters, the aesthetic appreciation of cloud tourism is different in terms of immersion, panoramic view, and a sense of companionship.
Without leaving the couch, users can follow in broadcasters’ footsteps to enjoy landscapes with “zero distance,” thus achieving a strong sense of physical presence, visualizing, and imagining the spirit of different cultures and natural scenery.
Panoramic experience refers to a 360-degree view of the landscape online. In VR landscape live broadcasts, users can easily control what they see by turning their mobile phones or sliding the mouse, to embrace new landscapes in a three-dimensional visual world. 
Users get a sense of companionship and emotional support from watching live broadcasts of landscapes. Many viewers often continue with their own business, while watching landscape broadcasts casually in the background. When they are busy, they will put the scenic broadcast to one side, but when they are idle, they will carefully watch the landscapes and actively participate with comments or thumb-ups. In this way, users can communicate with each other, dispelling feelings of loneliness and boredom, and form an imaginary emotional community. 
In particular, live landscape broadcasts are slow with little alterations in the imagery and without dramatic plots, which integrates casual companionship with stunning visual landscapes, and subtly highlights the accompanying experience for users.
Whether a theory has vitality or not depends on whether it has explanatory power in reality. With this new wave of virtual tourism, the study of environmental aesthetics needs to follow trends of cloud technology-enabled visitation of landscapes and summarize it in theory, so as to promote the development of the industry and the discipline in the contemporary era.
Zhou Sizhao is from the School of Literature at Qingdao University.
Edited by YANG XUE