This study aimed to illuminate some exciting aspects of immersive technology in tourism research. Immersive technology offers enormous potential in this domain. Given the specified inclusion and exclusion criteria, 88 peer-reviewed articles (see Appendix) published over the last nine years were relevant to this research topic. This review categorises the immersive technology from the selected articles into AR and VR based on the technology’s characteristics. Referring to Fig. 1, the technology used in several studies (Kasinathan et al. 2017; Nisi et al. 2018; Raptis et al. 2018; Hammady et al. 2020) might qualify as AR despite being referred to as MR. As seen in Fig. 3, AR has been a common immersive technology used in tourism research. In 2018, 15 articles on tourism research using AR were published, the highest number of articles to be published in the field in one year. In 2019, the number of articles on VR usage in tourism research peaked with ten articles published.
Table 5 shows the nature of the study in each of the selected articles. Design research and qualitative studies were dominant at 40.9%. A quantitative method, proceeded by experiences in immersive technology, was the most common data collection approach to capture participants’ experiences with and perceptions of the technology. The remaining articles were qualitative (8.0%), conceptual (5.7%) and mixed method (4.5%).
Table 6 focuses on the research locations of 47 empirical studies. Most research on immersive technology in tourism during the time defined in this study took place in Taiwan (14.9%), followed by the United Kingdom (12.8%) and the United States (10.6%). Four out of 47 empirical studies compared immersive technology usage in more than one country.
Most of the articles listed in Appendix focused on tourism destinations and attractions, with few articles on immersive technology usage in tourism support such as hotel (Bogicevic et al. 2019; Israel et al. 2019; Zeng et al. 2020) and cruise ship (Yung et al. 2019) promotions. Some other tourism sectors, such as travel agencies (Bush 2022) and airlines (Emirates 2022), have been using VR to promote their products, but we did not find any articles within the selected literatures. A possible explanation is that some tourism sectors see the value of immersive technology, such as VR, as showing destination or location instead of the journey to the destination. Otherwise, there is still little or no research covering immersive technology usage in those tourism sectors.
We subjected the selected articles to the review process to better understand immersive technology in tourism and discover potential future research. The following sections elaborate on the selected articles' findings to answer the proposed research questions.
The current state of immersive technology usage in tourism research (RQ1: What characteristics of immersive technology are used in tourism research?)
Augmented reality features in tourism research
Table 7 shows all the devices used in the selected AR-related articles. Mobile devices (smartphone or tablet PC) were the most common device used (76.3%). This is not surprising given that mobile devices are convenient to carry during travel and inexpensive compared to the other AR devices such as Microsoft HoloLens, Google Glass, or Meta One glasses.
AR combines a virtual object with the real environment in real time. The user can interact with the virtual object that blends the real world in three-dimensional perspectives (Azuma 1997). An AR system works in the presence of a trigger, which is a stimulus that initiates it to begin the virtual object augmentation on the device screen (Edwards-Stewart et al. 2016). Triggers can be a QR code printed on paper, an image, a real object, or a device location. Location-based AR was dominant in 37.3% of studies (see Table 8), while a trigger using a camera sensor, either markerless or marker-based, was present in 18.6% and 13.6% of studies, respectively. Four studies (6.8%) used AR with camera and location sensors as the trigger.
Some studies have built on the AR system’s capability to improve the user’s experience while exploring a location or object. Object recognition (markerless or marker-based) with geolocation feature addition is one example. The combined use of object recognition and geolocation provides spatial information for tour route decisions (Chu et al. 2012), improves the AR system’s accuracy, and makes it easier for the user to correctly recognise the object or place of interest and use that information in the future (Santos et al. 2017). Location-based AR uses a global positioning system (GPS) or beacon as the trigger. However, a beacon is preferable for indoor situations because building structures might block the signal used by GPS (Neumann et al. 1999). The combined AR trigger helps users explore a particular cultural site (Nisi et al. 2018; Gimeno et al. 2017) or city (Han et al. 2018; tom Dieck and Jung 2018).
The AR system’s integration with other technology is another option to enhance the user’s experience. This is more adaptive than a basic AR system and brings more relevant information to match users’ profiles and interests. Other people’s opinions also influence decision-making. For example, a person can obtain information from social media platforms such as Twitter about a tourism destination based on someone else’s opinion (Balduini et al. 2012, 2014). Social media might influence a person’s interest in visiting a tourism destination.
Several of the selected articles adopted cloud technology in the AR system. García-Crespo et al. (2016) proposed a framework for cultural entertainment centred on a smart city with AR that employs cloud-based technology. Moreover, two studies used cloud computing for media storage (Lee et al. 2017) and speech-based query processing (Lin and Chen 2017). Rodrigues et al. (2019) used an AR system that provides experiences through the five basic human senses. While the AR system delivers visual and audio representing two senses (sight and sound), the attached physical mobile device stimulates other senses: touch, smell and taste. It allows the user to have an immersive five-sense experience during object observation.
Spatial marking offers a different immersive level in AR. Four studies employed Microsoft HoloLens (Raptis et al. 2018; Hammady et al. 2020) and Meta One glasses (Pedersen et al. 2017; Oh et al. 2018). These devices take the immersion of AR a step further by overlaying digital objects without a trigger. Instead, the devices track through the user’s environment and anchor the digital object to the real environment on display. Little research exists in the tourism area regarding using these devices, and there are many related academic research opportunities.
Virtual reality features in tourism research
VR typically immerses the user in a computer-produced or alternative environment. The VR experience becomes realistic as the virtual environment blocks the user’s real-world view. Users immerse themselves in the experience and have a sense of belief that they appear in the alternate world through the help of devices such as head-mounted devices (HMDs) or ‘cave’-like rooms (Hobson and Williams 1995; Ghadban et al. 2013). An HMD unit is a device worn on the head, covering both eyes. HMDs can be low-cost and use a smartphone to show the virtual environment or more advanced, such as the Oculus Rift or HTC Vive. Alternatively, the user can experience VR in a room with a virtual environment projected onto all walls. When VR uses space in this way, it is called cave automatic virtual environment (CAVE).
As illustrated in Table 9, HMDs were the most popular devices (66.7%) in the reviewed articles. HMD is ideal for experiencing VR since the user’s view of the real-world is blocked entirely and replaced by a virtual environment. In some of the selected articles, VR was used to restore objects and the environment by generating a virtual environment to simulate a specific situation in the past (Kersten et al. 2018; Errichiello et al. 2019; Ghadban et al. 2013), for marketing (Lin et al. 2020), and for additional entertainment during visitation (Puig et al. 2020). Interestingly, more than half of the selected VR-related articles used VR with 360O technology content (see Table 10). Although this meets VR’s characteristic of immersing the user in another world, it is not a computer-generated environment, and no user interactivity is involved. Instead of interacting with the virtual object, the user can only view the surrounding environment from a defined specific point of view. The 360° technology is a new form of photography and filmmaking recorded with a special camera. However, this has been widely known by most people as VR, due to the large amount of such content on YouTube and Facebook. Nonetheless, the 360° VR content might benefit market tourism destinations by simulating the real environment of a location. Hence, significant potential use of VR remains in certain aspects of tourism, such as planning and management, marketing, entertainment, education, accessibility, and heritage preservation (Guttentag 2010).
Immersive technology applications within the tourism area (RQ2: To what extent does immersive technology play a role in the tourism visiting experience?)
Immersive technology offers academic and tourism stakeholders numerous opportunities in many tourism areas (see Fig. 4). Immersive technology usage has potential to improve tourism by increasing the number of visitors. It is also expected to increase awareness of lesser-known tourism destinations. This might be relevant because people are currently not travelling as much as before the global pandemic, and they might be interested in learning of new places. In this review, the tourism areas found in AR-related studies included AR for tour guidance, navigation, education, marketing, heritage preservation, entertainment, and accessibility. Previous studies also used VR for marketing and heritage preservation. The following section details the findings of each of the categories.
Immersive technology as a marketing tool
Marketing is one of the tourism areas where immersive technology was implemented in the selected articles. The technology can serve as a promotional tool or facilitate research focusing on users’ intentions to visit the tourism destination. This review identified four studies that used AR as a promotional tool. Jung et al. (2015) observed the impact of marker-based AR system quality on the intention of visitors to Jeju Island to recommend others to use the AR system. They argued that the quality of the AR that covers the information content, system quality and service quality positively influences the user’s satisfaction, leading to the intention to recommend the AR system. This view is supported by Chung et al. (2015), who stated that the visual appeal of the AR system, with the support of adequate technical support, influences the user to use AR and visit the tourism destination. Other studies focused on how AR features promote tourism destinations, such as Lin and Chen (2017). They found that users engage more with the AR system if they feel that the videos of attractions that they post online can help other users. The next challenge is how the tourism provider persuades visitors to revisit the tourism destination. Lee et al. (2017) explored how mobile AR can increase tourists’ motivation to revisit a destination by exploring the post-travel experience using the entrance ticket as a scannable souvenir through the AR system.
VR as a marketing tool in tourism research was more common than AR, specifically pre-visit tourism destination promotion. When potential tourists decide to visit a destination, they are likely to search for information about it or consider whether it is worth visiting. VR adoption in tourism creates opportunities to promote destinations (Cheeyong et al. 2017; Tussyadiah et al. 2018b; Adachi et al. 2020; Lin et al. 2020; Lin and Chen 2017). A qualitative study by tom Dieck et al. (2018c) reported that VR influences tourists to use the application, revisit the destination, recommend it to others and experience the destination from a different perspective (e.g. observing it from a helicopter instead of from the street). One of the characteristics of VR is a sense of presence. The users feel that their presence moves from the real world to the virtual world. VR provides a better sense of presence than AR, leading to increasing destination image formation (Yung et al. 2019), which leads to visit intention (Tussyadiah et al. 2018b). Experiencing VR with a HMD was also found to be a better promotion tool and provide better sensory stimulation and a more immersive experience compared to other systems (Flavián et al. 2019), such as a computer (Adachi et al. 2020), photographs (Yeh et al. 2017) or two-dimensional videos (Wagler and Hanus 2018). As a marketing tool, VR should provide content that represents the real conditions of the tourism destination. The tourism provider needs to ensure that the visual perspective of a destination they offer is genuine and as realistic as possible from the user’s perspective (Israel et al. 2019). However, the VR developer should consider the length of information if the content includes video (Marchiori et al. 2018). Additionally, in a recent quantitative study, Zeng et al. (2020) stressed that VR could add promotional value as an extension to online reviews.
Immersive technology for heritage preservation
One usage of AR and VR systems is reconstructing an object or environment since these systems produce computer-generated objects. AR systems enable the user to experience a three-dimensional virtual object based on the real heritage object, which might no longer exist in one piece or be possible to access. This way, the user can imagine and understand the object’s shape without looking at the real object.
Four of the selected articles used AR for heritage preservation. Madsen and Madsen (2015) developed a three-dimensional visualisation of a castle chapel. The visitors experience the digital cultural heritage using a tablet connected to a large TV screen or a tablet PC. The authors argued that the AR system should provide more information and storytelling elements since the visitor only spends a short time using the AR system and does not fully explore the chapel. Another study by Gimeno et al. (2017) examined mobile AR for Casa Batlló, a landmark building in Spain. The AR system uses two approaches. First, it uses the gyroscope sensor and Bluetooth to trigger virtual objects to blend with the real world. As a result, the AR system augments the virtual modelled elements or furniture and blends this with the real world captured by the camera. Second, the user can scan the building’s physical model using the camera to see the virtual building on the screen, including detailed representations of the interior of each room on every floor of the building. Roongrungsi et al. (2017) designed a marker-based AR system to augment the Wat Phra Sri Rattana Mahathat temple. Panou et al. (2018) discussed the software architecture of an outdoor AR system that enables the user to experience virtual historical buildings around Chania, Greece. The system implements a gamification concept to let the user engage and interact more with cultural information.
Other researchers have adopted VR to simulate heritage objects or buildings. A lab experiment by Ghadban et al. (2013) showed VR as an interactive environment to explore Hisham’s Palace in Palestine. The critical challenge of rebuilding the model was the remains of the physical building and the building’s limited history; both need to be right to ensure that the virtual, three-dimensional object is similar as possible to the real object in its time. Another example is a study by Kersten et al. (2018) that discussed a virtual model of a wooden model of Solomon’s temple at the Hamburg Museum using a VR system. The system enables the user to virtually experience the temple’s environment despite never visiting the temple in real life. Errichiello et al. (2019) observed the user experience in a past environment, particularly a ship launch during the Grand Tour of Naples and listening to music at San Teodoro Palace Hall Music. They argued that VR might be an effective way for visitors to enjoy a museum tour to obtain comprehensive information from different perspectives. The result showed that the users had a high intention of reusing the VR system and sharing their experience over the Internet. A mixed-method study by Puig et al. (2020) analysed the impact of a VR simulation of the Neolithic settlement of La Draga. The VR system provides a visual reconstruction of La Draga, where the user can interact with virtual Neolithic and non-Neolithic objects.
Immersive technology for education
This review categorises the usage of immersive technology to improve knowledge learning during visitation to a tourism destination. A crossover study by Sommerauer and Müller (2014) examined AR’s effect on gaining mathematical knowledge in an informal environment such as a museum. The authors concluded that AR could be a useful learning tool in formal and informal environments. A quasi-experimental study by Chang et al. (2015) observed mobile AR’s effectiveness in promoting learning performance at heritage sites in Taiwan. The authors stated that AR-guided participants acquired more knowledge about the heritage site than audio-guided and non-guided groups. Pendit et al. (2016) evaluated how AR might improve people’s enjoyment of learning about cultural heritage. The findings showed that the respondents enjoyed the AR’s cultural heritage learning experience. Tan and Lim (2017) implemented gamification in an AR system to improve visitors’ interest in exploring and learning about a historical place, Kellie’s Castle, in Malaysia. A study by Oh et al. (2018) used AR with Meta One glasses to observe how they can help users at a science museum learn about light refraction. The authors concluded that those who experienced game-based performance followed by non-game simulation performed better than a group who experienced these activities in the opposite order. A qualitative study by Yoon et al. (2018) observed an interactive AR used to learn about different types of scaffolds in a science museum.
Immersive technology as tour guidance
AR enhances the tourism experience in that the interactive virtual information overlays the real world. Our review found that tour guidance studies exclusively adopted AR technology, and it does appear to be the most appropriate technology to adopt when the user is physically located at the tourism destination. AR also provides additional interpretation resources to enhance user engagement with the observed object during visitation, significantly impacting the experience (Damala et al. 2013). The previous studies identified two types of devices for AR tour guidance: mobile devices and wearable devices (e.g. smart glasses).
Augmented reality with smart glasses
Smart glasses are wearable devices similar to regular eyeglasses equipped with a processing unit, various sensors and transparent lenses. The information displayed on the screen is integrated onto one or both lenses in front of the eyes, as if, from the AR user’s point of view, the digital information overlays the physical environment (Hein et al. 2017). Several studies employed wearable devices such as Google Glass (Mason 2016; tom Dieck et al. 2016; tom Dieck et al. 2018b; Tussyadiah et al. 2018a; Han et al. 2019a), HoloLens (Hammady et al. 2020) and Meta One (Pedersen et al. 2017). Using wearable devices reflects the relationship between the human body and technology, where the user senses the device as part of their body (Tussyadiah et al. 2018a). As a result, compared to an AR system that uses a mobile device, smart glasses offer a more immersive experience to the user, attractive and a balanced focus between the physical object and the device screen, while exploring tourism destinations (Mason 2016). Users were found to spend more time exploring the environment and engaging with the observed objects compared to without smart glasses (Hammady et al. 2020). On the other hand, tom Dieck et al. (2018b) found that some participants, on their first experience using smart glasses, tended to have a stronger recollection of the information provided by the device than the paintings because they tended to pay more attention to the device than the environment.
Some smart glasses have display limitations that might impact the displayed information. Participants in a study by Mason (2016) emphasised the difficulty in reading text on the Google Glass display due to length limitations. Hence, tom Dieck et al. (2016) stressed that the application content should provide detailed and suitable information to help users experience tourism. The information also needs to be delivered in real time to pique the user’s interest and allow an uninterrupted leisure experience (Han et al. 2019b; Choi and Kim 2017). Pedersen et al. (2017) supported the idea of implementing a reward system to lead users to more information and prompt them to proceed to the next object experience, thus making the visitation experience more enjoyable. Further, Damala et al. (2013) noted that the relevant content results from different stimuli induced during visitation rather than predefined content based on the user’s profile (e.g. adults, families).
Augmented reality using a mobile device
Modern mobile devices, such as smartphones or tablet PCs equipped with a camera, provide powerful computing to run AR-based applications. Because most mobile devices are less expensive than smart glasses, enhancing the tourism visitation experience is feasible. Given that so much information can be displayed on the device’s screen, observing how users divide their focus between the mobile device and the real object is interesting. A behavioural pattern study on painting appreciation by Chang et al. (2014) showed that users still enjoyed observing the real painting and did not look at the device’s screen excessively, although the AR system was considered a new technology for some of the study’s participants. Conversely, some participants in the Nisi et al. (2018) study reported feelings of isolation. The authors stated that the AR application indirectly made the users focus more on the smartphone screen than on physically interacting with the real object.
tom Dieck et al. (2018a) found that an AR system attached to a place encouraged visitors to engage more with the tourism destination. This view is supported by Nisi et al. (2018), who reported that the combination of storytelling and the observed physical environment stimulated users’ curiosity and willingness to explore that environment further, making the tourism experience educational and valuable. The information provided in the AR system is critical to providing a simple user interface with personalised information (Han et al. 2018) and interaction (tom Dieck and Jung 2018). Rather than shrinking an entire computer-based website layout to fit on a mobile device screen, the information must be adapted to suit a mobile layout (Chung et al. 2018). Interestingly, different cultural characteristics can result in different technological adaptations. According to Jung et al. (2018), people who live in cultures that prioritise the group over the individual and rely on social norms showed stronger dependence on social influence. Their decision to use tourism-based AR is likely based on the influence of friends and family.
Immersive technology as a navigation device
Some of the reviewed articles used immersive technology as a navigation device. We found that similar to the tour guidance applications, that navigation also exclusively relied on AR technology due to its connection to the physical realm. An AR system, such as those mainly used in smartphones, uses location sensors such as Bluetooth, GPS and compasses to pinpoint a specific location. Balduini et al. (2012) and Balduini et al. (2014) designed BOTTARI, an AR system that provides a point-of-interest recommendation in Seoul based on the social media community’s weighted opinions. The system continuously analyses social media streams and processes the information into personalised recommendations about places in the city. Chu et al. (2012) evaluated the Yehliu Geopark mGuiding system. The application implements AR using GPS coordinates from the mobile device. A study by Kourouthanassis et al. (2015b) examined eight mobile AR applications from prior studies to determine their design properties. A mobile AR application called CorfuAR implements Layar, an AR browser app, by following the design principles of the reviewed AR applications. The authors argued that the proposed design principles contributed to the mobile AR application’s high usability and performance, leading to better user–system interaction. A follow-up study by the same authors (Kourouthanassis et al. 2015a) confirmed that the functional properties of the application stimulate a feeling of pleasure, which leads to an increase in the intention to use the application. Siang et al. (2016) designed both the iMelaka 360 website and the iMelaka AR app to help tourists explore Melaka, Malaysia. Abidin et al. (2018) suggested an adaptive user interface for a location-based AR system to improve the tourist experience and ease access to Islamic tourism information, specifically in Malaysia.
Immersive technology adoption for other purposes
Another use of immersive technology in tourism was entertainment and accessibility support. A study by Shang et al. (2016) focused on using AR for post-visits. The mobile AR system used a postcard as a tourist souvenir to provide more information regarding the tourist destination that the user recently visited. Wu et al. (2020) investigated users’ behavioural intentions related to AR as part of the Avengers League World Tour exhibition in Taiwan. The users experienced the action from the point of view of the hero character.
Despite immersive technology offering many benefits to tourism, little research exists on immersive technology for disabled people. One design study by Baker et al. (2020) developed an AR tourism prototype for hard-of-hearing visitors. It is based on five conceptual elements: aesthetics, usability, interaction, motivation, and satisfaction. In a follow-up study, Baker et al. (2020) evaluated the prototype using groups of hard-of-hearing instructors, museum employees and experts. The prototype evaluation covered the interface, multimedia and interactivity.
The potential challenge in using immersive technology in tourism (RQ3: what are the potential challenges of developing immersive technology for the tourism domain?)
While immersive technology shows significant potential use in tourism, it also has several challenges (see Fig. 5). This section discusses the challenges identified in the selected articles.
First, a lack of interoperability exists across device platforms (Kounavis et al. 2012). AR cannot be used across all the operating systems, albeit there are many frameworks and toolkits to develop the AR application. Second, some AR applications require an Internet connection to retrieve data from the server (Kasinathan et al. 2017). Some tourists consider mobile Internet expensive, and not all tourism areas or cities provide free Internet access (Kounavis et al. 2012; tom Dieck et al. 2018b). The third challenge lies in the physical size of the AR devices. Participants in a study by Chang et al. (2014) complained about the thick, heavy tablet PC used for painting appreciation. They indicated that a smaller device, like a smartphone, would be more suitable to carry as a tour guide device. In other studies, the drawbacks of tour guides using wearable devices were battery life (tom Dieck et al. 2016) and the device cost (Hammady et al. 2020).
The fourth challenge is the AR tracking ability when using a camera as a sensor. Camera-tracking AR, whether markerless or marker-based, should consider the amount of light and at what angle the camera faces the marker, picture or object. System responses, or feedback, are the fifth challenge of AR. The system should notify users of feedback errors to indicate the system’s process (Kourouthanassis et al. 2015b) and create personalised navigation (tom Dieck et al. 2016). The fifth challenge is feedback from the AR system. Real-time feedback from AR systems influenced user-system interaction. Users might experience a lower attitude toward using the system if they feel uncertain due to no response from the system (Kourouthanassis et al. 2015a). Participants in a study by tom Dieck et al. (2016) concerned about crashing and inadequate response from the system. System designers might need to minimize the possibility of system feedback issues to ensure users feel a smooth experience while using the AR system. The sixth challenge is the application layout. The layout of the annotation system influences the user’s perception of the observed area (Yovcheva et al. 2014). One participant in a study by Mason (2016) argued that it would be preferable for information to be shown via smart glasses rather than a mobile device screen. The seventh challenge identified in AR for tourism is the user’s engagement with the real object or surroundings. In an experimental design study by tom Dieck et al. (2018a), participants experienced a new AR technology that caused them to focus more on the device’s information than the paintings they were observing. This means that the application designer should ensure that the information projected at a specific time is not overloaded and thus does not distract from the leisure experience (Han et al. 2019a). Finally, user privacy is another concern regarding the use of AR in tourism. The benefit of content personalisation or a context-aware system delivers more related content to the user. However, if the system increasingly requests more personal details about the user, the risk of this data being lost or misused increases.
The challenges posed by VR in tourism are different from those posed by AR. The first challenge of using VR for tourism is device familiarisation. Puig et al. (2020) argued that familiarising the user with VR devices could be time-consuming. Further, the authors proposed combining the essentials of VR environment design with natural hand–gesture interaction that offers sufficient time flexibility to obtain information. The second challenge lies in the relationship between physical information from the real tourism destination and the virtual information in the VR environment. Puig et al. (2020) claimed that using information gained from the physical environment should help the user further explore information in a VR environment. Equally, the information from the virtual environment could help users learn about related tourism objects or situations. The third challenge of using VR for tourism is data availability. When presenting a virtual object, environment or scenario from the past, making the image presented in VR as realistic as possible relies on data availability.