Advances in virtual reality (VR) technology exert increasingly influential impacts on tourism. Drawn upon a presence approach, this research aims to explore the effectiveness of VR technology in enhancing theme park visitors’ experience and behaviors. Data was collected from 396 theme park visitors who had experienced VR roller coaster at a theme park in the past twelve months. Results of stepwise regression analysis suggest that users’ sense of presence is predominantly driven by their feeling of control, followed by participation, effectiveness, curiosity, vividness, temporal association, and enjoyment provided by VR system. Results of simple linear regression analyses reveal positive impacts of sense of presence on visitors’ overall theme park experience and intentions to revisit and recommend. Further sensitivity tests are performed using Hayes’ PROCESS model to examine the impact of two individual factors (i.e., personal innovativeness and VR familiarity) on the results. Rich theoretical and managerial implications are presented.
Keywords: virtual reality; consumer experience; sense of presence; theme park
Technological innovations have tremendous impacts on tourism industry, creating more immersive experience for consumers and enhancing their overall satisfaction (Guttentag, 2010). One emerging sector of technology advancement is virtual reality (VR), which is increasingly being applied to diverse areas including entertainment, marketing, and education (Guttentag, 2010). VR has changed the way tourists experience a destination or an attraction, enabling them to have a more interactive and diversified experience (Han, tom Dieck, & Jung, 2018). As a significant tourism attraction, a growing number of theme parks around the world have begun to adopt VR technology as an innovative way to revitalize their original properties to attract more visitors (Jung, tom Dieck, Rauschnabel, Ascenção, Tuominen, & Moilanen, 2018). For instance, Legoland Florida has invested and retrofitted its original roller coaster Project X using the VR technology. Equipped with a VR headset, it becomes The Great Lego Race, providing visitors a whole new experience (Bevil, 2018).
In order to better understand consumer attitudes towards VR applications as well as their intentions to use VR technology, a number of prior studies have employed Technology Acceptance Model (TAM) to identify potential influencers (e.g., Huang, Backman, Backman, & Chang, 2016; Huang, Backman, Backman & Moore, 2013). Another group of studies have stressed the importance of the concept “presence” or “tele-presence” on explaining the effectiveness and consequence of VR technology (e.g., Jung, tom Dieck, Lee, & Chung, 2016; Tussyadiah, Wang, Jung, & tom Dieck, 2018).
While previous studies have made important contributions to VR literature, this paper has identified two major research gaps from current VR research.
First, whereas abundant VR studies have been conducted in diverse settings such as e-commerce (e.g., Li, Daugherty, & Biocca, 2001), education and training (e.g., Merchant, Cifuentes, Keeney-Kennicutt, & Davis, 2014), and psychology and therapy (e.g., Powers & Emmelkamp, 2008), relatively limited VR research has been conducted in the hospitality and tourism industry with a few exceptions (e.g., Han et al., 2018; Hyun & O’Keefe, 2012; tom Dieck, Jung, & tom Dieck, 2016).
Second, the past few years has witnessed an increasing number of studies examining the effectiveness of VR technology in improving user experience at museums, cultural heritage sites, shopping centers and art galleries (Han et al., 2018; Jung et al., 2016; tom Dieck et al., 2016). However, as a critical tourism destination attraction, theme parks have received scarce attention and there is thus a critical need to study theme park visitors’ experience and behavioral intentions associated with VR applications.
To overcome the past research negligence and to enrich the current understanding of VR technology at theme parks, this research aims to explore the effectiveness of VR technology applications on theme park visitors’ experience and behaviors. A presence approach has been adopted as the theoretical bedrock to further examine the role of sense of presence in the relationships among theme park visitors’ perceived functional and experiential quality of VR roller coaster, overall satisfaction, and behavioral intentions.
More specifically, the researchers proposed the following research objectives:
(1) to examine theme park visitors’ evaluation of the functional and experiential quality of VR roller coaster,
(2) to test the relative importance of functional and experiential quality of VR roller coaster in influencing theme park visitors’ feeling of presence, and
(3) to investigate the power of VR technology in improving visitors’ satisfaction with theme park as well as their downstream behaviors.
VR in tourism
Virtual Reality (VR) is defined as a computer-generated 3D environment that simulates intricate real-life situations and contexts, allowing people to immerse, navigate and interact (Diemer, Alpers, Peperkorn, Shiban, & Mühlberger, 2015; Guttentag, 2010). With the emergence and innovation of VR technology, various VR applications have been widely used in hospitality and tourism industry, helping consumers gain more interactive and diversified experience, as well as generating more business benefits for firms (Jung et al., 2018; Tussyadiah et al., 2018). InterContinental Hotels Group (IHG) in China provides their guests with in-room VR experience including gaming, entertainment and interactions in a fully immersive digital generated environment, delighting their guests as well as enriching their travel experience (IHG, 2016).
VR has also become increasingly popular for tourism destinations, such as San Francisco, as a marketing tool, enabling their potential tourists to engage and interact with the destination or attractions (Gidley, 2017). As an emerging technology, VR applications have started to be employed by theme park operators and managers to create immersive experience for their visitors (Jung et al., 2018). For example, six flags theme park has revolutionized its roller coaster ride, superman, by providing a wireless headset for delivering a VR world to its visitors (Six Flags, 2016).
VR has gained a mounting attention from tourism industry practitioners and researchers; a growing number of recent tourism studies have examined the effectiveness of VR technology in improving user experience at museums, national park, shopping centers, and art gallery (Han et al., 2018; Jung, tom Dieck, Moorhouse, & tom Dieck, 2017; tom Dieck et al., 2016). For example, Jung et al. (2017) conducted a case study to explore tourists’ virtual experience by using VR headset in a national park context and found that a fully immersed VR experience positively influenced tourists’ intentions to visit the destination in the future. Tussyadiah et al. (2018) investigated user experience during a VR walkthrough of a tourism destination and how VR may change consumers’ attitude towards this destination.
Their empirical findings showed that a well-designed VR technology allows tourists to engage and interact with destination, which improves their satisfaction. On the contrast, research investigating visitors’ VR experience in the context of theme parks remains in its infancy. To bridge this research gap, the present study adopted the presence approach as its theoretical foundation to delineate how the use of VR technology applications at theme parks may influence visitors’ experience and behaviors.
A presence approach
The concept of presence has been applied as the key to investigating the effectiveness of VR, especially in terms of human experience rather than technological hardware (Steuer,1992; Tussyadiah et al., 2018; Witmer & Singer,1998). In a virtual environment, presence is defined as the subjective experience of being there in the technology-mediated environment rather than in the actual physical world (Slater, 1999; Steuer,1992). The level of presence in a virtual environment depends on the degree of one’s feeling shifting from existing in the physical environment to being immersive in the virtual environment (Witmer & Singer,1998).
In order to explore the effectiveness of virtual reality and augmented reality (AR) in shaping consumers’ attitudinal and behavioral responses to virtual stimuli, some tourism research has adopted the notion of presence to illustrate the role of VR (Lepouras & Vassilakis, 2005; Tussyadiah et al., 2018) or AR (He, Wu, & Li, 2018) in enhancing visitor experience. In this line of research, presence describes the feeling of “being there” in VR or AR environments which involve virtual resemblances of real environments and actual consumption.
Previous literature has sought to elucidate what contributes to the formation of sense of presence. Sheridan (1999) suggested that users’ sense of presence results from a continuously mental mode of a virtual environment. A user would perceive a higher level of presence by experiencing and interacting with a virtual environment, which is designed with a perceptual and functional similarity to a physical environment. Bystrom, Barfield, and Hendrix (1999) proposed a conceptual model to determine which factors affect the sense of ‘‘being there’’ in a virtual environment. They postulated that the physical characteristics of the virtual environment system and technology (e.g., the visual resolution) or the display device would influence the level of presence.
This model also indicates that enhanced users’ immersion and sensory perception would improve the sense of presence. Therefore, it is presumable that visitors’ sense of presence can be influenced by both the functional quality and the experiential quality of a VR system. The next section will delineate that in the context of theme parks, what functional and experiential aspects of VR technology applications may influence theme park visitors’ perceived presence.
In order to assess the functional performance of a VR system, this research conducted an extensive review of the past literature and identified a set of criteria that are not only widely adopted by prior research in the area of information technology but can also be applicable to the VR technology application in a theme park context, including efficacy, efficiency, effectiveness and vividness of a VR system (Babin & Burns, 1998; Kounavis, Kasimati, & Zamani, 2012). Efficacy, efficiency and effectiveness have been proposed as a set of criteria by Kounavis et al. (2012) to assess the performance of mobile AR application system.
Efficacy measures whether the VR system works correctly (Kounavis et al., 2012).
Efficiency assesses whether the VR system’s technologies and facilities work smoothly (Kounavis et al., 2012).
Effectiveness evaluates the degree to which the VR system provides better tourist support (Kounavis et al., 2012). Additionally, another dimension was identified in this study as one of the functional qualities of VR rollercoaster, namely vividness.
Vividness has been espoused as a major dimension of evoked imagery and this dimension focuses on intensity and clarity of an individual impression (Babin & Burns, 1998). It is thus added to the present research to measure the clarity of the imagery of VR system (i.e., whether the VR imagery that occurred was clear/detailed/well-defined).
Prior studies have provided empirical support for the importance of the above-mentioned functional attributes in influencing one’s technology experience (Han et al., 2018). These findings offered great insight into the conceptualization of how the functional quality of the VR system may influence one’s sense of presence at a theme park setting. The authors proposed that, when a VR roller coaster operates correctly and smoothly (i.e., efficacy) with high-quality technological system support (i.e., effectiveness), the visitors are more likely to feel immersed in this virtual environment. Prior research also found that a user’s feelings of presence can be influenced by the audio and video quality of VR experience, namely VR sound system or graphic condition (e.g., Gutierrez & Thalmann, 2008).
In a theme park setting, the experience is hedonically-driven and entertainment is a major drawcard to attract visitors. Thus, the audio and video performance of VR roller coaster system plays a critical role in visitors’ ride experience. As such, it is reasonable to propose that, when the VR hardware system is more efficient in providing authentic and appealing video/audio materials (i.e. efficiency) and when the imagery is visually clearer and detailed (i.e., vividness), the visitors will feel more engaged in this VR environment. Therefore, we proposed Hypotheses 1a-1d as follows:
Hypothesis 1: (a) Efficacy, (b) efficiency, (c) effectiveness, and (d) vividness of VR rollercoaster system have positive effects on visitors’ feeling of VR presence.
On the other hand, the concept of cognitive absorption, an intrinsic motivation related variable (Agarwal & Karahanna, 2000), sheds light on the conceptualization of the experiential aspect of VR in this research. It is a key antecedent to salient beliefs about a technological application. Cognitive absorption focuses on consumers’ experiences of interacting with technology and has been adopted to understand the evaluation of individuals’ usage of virtual technology (Lin, 2009). It describes a state of deep engagement with information technologies, exhibiting through five dimensions: temporal dissociation, focused immersion, heightened enjoyment, control, and curiosity (Agarwal & Karahanna, 2000).
Temporal dissociation is defined as “the inability to register the passage of time while engaged in interaction” with the information technology (Agarwal & Karahanna, 2000, p.673).
Focused immersion refers to the state of full engagement (Agarwal & Karahanna, 2000).
Heightened enjoyment describes the pleasure and fun from the interaction (Agarwal & Karahanna, 2000).
Control indicates an individual’s perception of being in charge of the interaction (Agarwal & Karahanna, 2000).
Curiosity represents the user’s sensory and cognitive curiosity aroused by the use of technology (Agarwal & Karahanna, 2000). This research added another experiential dimension, participation, to examine one’s VR experience.
Participation represents “the degree of interaction between consumers and products, services, or environments during consumption” (Kao, Huang, & Wu, 2008, p.166).
Drawing upon the definitions of the experiential dimensions of VR system as identified above, this research proposed that these factors have significant impacts on one’s VR experience at theme parks. Murray, Fox, and Pettifer (2007) explored the relationship between a number of psychological characteristics and the sense of VR presence and found that an individual’s experience of VR presence is positively correlated with dissociation and locus of control. According to Baños, Botella, Alcañiz, Liaño, Guerrero, and Rey (2004), the sense of VR presence depends mainly on immersion and interaction; the ability to “do there” leads to the sense of “being there”. Tussyadiah et al. (2018) also provided empirical evidence that, the more authentic and immersive the users feel in a virtual environment, the stronger sense of presence will occur.
It is therefore reasonable to assume that, in a theme park setting, when riding a roller coaster equipped with a VR headset, if visitors are deeply absorbed without realizing the passage of time (i.e., temporal dissociation); are able to block out other distractions beyond the virtual world (i.e., focused immersion); feel happier, aroused, and more enjoyable (i.e., heightened enjoyment), and in control of this VR ride experience (i.e., control); become more curious and engaged in imagination throughout the experience (i.e., curiosity); and participate wholeheartedly in the interactions with both this VR environment and their companies (i.e., participation), their sense of being in the virtual environment at that very moment would likely to increase. Therefore, hypotheses 2a-2f were put forward:
Hypothesis 2: (a) Temporal dissociation, (b) focused immersion, (c) heightened enjoyment, (d) control, (e) curiosity, and (f) participation during a VR rollercoaster experience have positive effects on visitors’ feeling of VR presence.
The notion of presence has been widely used in understanding consumers’ attitudes and future behavioral intentions in various AR and VR contexts. For instance, Jung et al. (2016) have investigated the impact of VR/AR presence on visitor experience of integrated VR and AR environments in the context of museum. Their results showed that VR/AR presence has a positive impact on visitors’ education, esthetic, entertainment and escape experience. Tussyadiah et al. (2018) have identified several positive consequences of sense of presence in VR tourism destination experiences; enhanced sense of presence in a VR environment leads to a higher level of preference, liking, and interest in the tourism destination.
Other researchers suggested that the feeling of presence generated through using VR technologies positively affects tourists’ overall satisfaction, intention to revisit and recommend in the context of cultural heritage sites and museums (Chung, Lee, Kim, & Koo, 2018). Considering the central role of rollercoaster experience in a theme park experience, the authors proposed that visitors’ feeling of presence in a VR rollercoaster experience would positively influence their overall theme park experience, as well as their future behavioral intentions towards the theme park. Hypothesis 3 was formulated as follows:
Hypothesis 3: Visitors’ feeling of VR presence during a VR rollercoaster experience has a positive effect on their (a) overall theme park satisfaction, (b) intention to revisit the theme park, and (c) intention to recommend the theme park.
Sample and data collection
A survey methodology was employed to test the proposed hypotheses. An online questionnaire was distributed via Amazon Mechanical Turk (MTurk) in February of 2018. MTurk is widely recognized as an effective platform that coordinates the supply and demand of assignments for participants (Paolacci, Chandler, & Ipeirotis, 2010). In addition to the convenience and efficiency provided by this platform, the present research selected MTurk also because that participants of assignments via MTurk were found to be more demographically diverse than a standard sample from the Internet (Buhrmester, Kwang, & Gosling, 2011).
Buhrmester et al. (2011) further provided empirical evidence that an online questionnaire using Amazon MTurk and a paper-based survey yielded similar results, suggesting MTurk as a valid and reliable source for data collection. In the present research, only participants who were 18 years or older and who had experienced VR roller coaster at theme parks over the past 12 months were qualified to fill out the survey.
Questionnaire and measurements
At the beginning of the questionnaire, a textual description of VR with a pictorial example of a VR roller coaster at a theme park were provided to participants. Then, participants were asked to recall their most memorable experience of riding a VR roller coaster at a theme park in the past twelve months. They were instructed to refer to this experience as they filled out the remaining questions.
The main body of the online questionnaire consisted of five parts. The first part collected the background of participants’ most memorable experience they recalled, including the name of the VR roller coaster, the date of the recalled visit, the name of the theme park they visited, and the location of that theme park. These questions were prepared for two reasons: (1) reinforcing participants’ memory of the recalled experience to ensure the reliability of data, and (2) filtering out poor quality data when participants were not able to recall such information.
The second part was about participants’ subjective experience of riding the VR roller coaster they recalled in Part 1. Previous research on information technology and AR/VR offered implications for the operationalization of the functional qualities of VR systems (e.g., Chung et al., 2018; Han et al., 2018; Jung et al., 2015), namely efficacy (3 items; Cronbach’s alpha = 0.802), efficiency (3 items; Cronbach’s alpha = 0.794), effectiveness (3 items; Cronbach’s alpha = 0.765), and vividness (8 items; Cronbach’s alpha = 0.601). The experiential aspect of VR systems was measured by temporal dissonance (3 items; Cronbach’s alpha = 0.668), focused immersion (5 items; Cronbach’s alpha = 0.728), heightened enjoyment (4 items; Cronbach’s alpha = 0.870), control (3 items; Cronbach’s alpha = 0.739), curiosity (3 items; Cronbach’s alpha = 0.790), and participation (3 items; Cronbach’s alpha = 0.639). The seven-item scale of sense of presence was adapted from Tussyadiah et al., (2018) (Cronbach’s alpha = 0.912), such as “I felt like I was actually there in the VR environment”.
The third part of the questionnaire measured participants’ overall theme park satisfaction and their behavioral intentions. The scale for the overall theme park satisfaction was adopted from Kao et al. (2008), consisting of 4 items such as “My experience at this recalled theme park goes beyond my expectations”. Behavioral intentions included revisit intention (3 items adapted from Jung et al., 2016; Cronbach’s alpha = 0.768) and word-of-mouth intention (3 items adapted from Jung et al., 2018; Cronbach’s alpha = 0.825). Part four of the questionnaire concerned individuals’ familiarity with VR technology (1-item scale adopted from Rauschnabel and Ro, 2016) and personal innovativeness (3 items adopted from Agarwal and Prasad, 1998; Cronbach’s alpha = 0.783).
These two variables were included because individual difference variables such as consumers’ familiarity with a technology and their interests in new innovative technologies were found to be associated with consumers’ attitudes and behavioral intentions towards technology (Rauschnabel & Ro, 2016). Since they were not the focus of the discussion in the present research, these two variables were only included for further sensitivity tests.
All items were measured by a seven-point Likert-type scale, ranging from strongly disagree (1) to strongly agree (7). The order that all items within a construct appeared in the questionnaire was counterbalanced to avoid the potential order effect. The last part of the questionnaire collected the participants’ demographic information, including their gender, age, education, marital status, combined annual household income, and ethnic background.
A total of 396 usable responses were included in the data analysis. Approximately 63.1% of respondents were male and 64.9% aged 26 to 35. About half were married (51.8%) and held a four-year bachelor’s degree (54.3%). This sample also demonstrated a diverse range of occupations (see Table 1).
>>>>Insert Table 1 Here<<<<
Stepwise regression was used to differentiate the contribution of each individual variable (Tsang, Ho, & Liang, 2004). It is a hybrid forward selection and backward elimination procedure, which is a good computer assisted model building method (Jennrich, 1995; Wang, Zhang, Zang, & Ouyang, 2005). Its capability of selecting subsets of variables for researchers to consider is particularly useful for this study due to the exploratory nature of the current research.
The predicted model contained seven of the ten predictors (i.e., effectiveness, control, curiosity, participation, vividness, temporal dissociation, and enjoyment) and was reached in seven steps (Table 2 and Table 3). Three variables were excluded – efficacy (H1a), efficiency (H1b), and immersion (H2b). H1a, H1b and H2b were thus not supported. The model was statistically significant (F(7,383) = 117.39, p<.001) and accounted for approximately 68% of the variance of presence (R2 = .682, Adjusted R2 = .676). Presence was primarily predicted by control (H2d), and to a lesser extent by the rest of predictors. Control received the strongest weight in the model followed by participation (H2f), effectiveness (H1c), curiosity (H2e), and vividness (H1d). Temporal dissociation (H2a) and enjoyment (H2c) received the lowest of the seven weights. The unique variance explained by each of the variables indexed by the squared semipartial correlations showed that control accounted for about 5% of the variance of presence, participation accounted for 2%, effectiveness and vividness accounted for approximately 1%, and curiosity, temporal dissociation, and enjoyment accounted for less than 1% of the variance respectively.
>>>>Insert Table 2 Here<<<<
>>>>Insert Table 3 Here<<<<
Next, a simple linear regression was calculated to predict Overall Experience, Intention to Revisit and to Recommend based on presence. The results indicated that presence is a significant predictor of overall experience (β = .68, t = 18.22, p<.001, R2 = .46), revisit intention (β = .63, t = 16.17, p<.001, R2 = .40) and recommendation (β = .64, t = 16.37, p<.001, R2 = .41). H3a, b, c were thus supported.
The researchers further ran a sensitivity test by including individuals’ familiarity with VR technology and personal innovativeness as covariates. The results remained consistent. Again, the predicted model contained the same seven predictors (i.e., effectiveness, control, curiosity, participation, vividness, temporal dissociation, and enjoyment) and was reached in seven steps. Five variables were excluded – efficacy, efficiency, immersion, familiarity, and personal innovativeness. The model was statistically significant (F(7,375) = 114.13, p<.001) and accounted for approximately 68% of the variance of presence (R2 = .681, Adjusted R2 = .675).
Additionally, we used Hayes’s (2013) procedure to test whether there is a moderating effect of familiarity such that the seven predictors identified above may have different impacts on presence for the ones who are familiar (vs. unfamiliar) with VR technology. More specifically, Hayes’ (2013) PROCESS procedure (Model 1) with the recommended bias-corrected bootstrapping technique (number of bootstrap samples = 5,000) was used. Results indicated that familiarity moderates the effect of effectiveness (B = .06, t = 2.21, p<.05) and enjoyment (B = .08, t = 3.09, p<.01) on presence, but not for other IVs (Control: B = .03, t = 1.41, p = .16; Curiosity: B = .01, t = .53, p = .60; Participation: B = -.01, t = -.52, p = .60; Vividness: B = -.06, t = -1.83, p = .07; Temporal dissociation: B = -.01, t = -.35, p = .72).
Effectiveness has a more significant impact on presence among people who are more familiar with VR technology (High familiarity: B = .85, t = 14.15, p<.001; Low familiarity: B = .68, t = 12.89, p<.001). Results of enjoyment showed a similar pattern such that enjoyment has a more significant impact on presence among people who are more familiar with VR technology (High familiarity: B = .83, t = 13.73, p<.001; Low familiarity: B = .61, t = 12.56, p<.001).
Similarly, the moderating effect of personal innovativeness was tested to determine whether the seven predictors have different impacts among people high on personal innovativeness (vs. low). Hayes’s (2013) PROCESS procedure was used (Model 1) with the recommended bias-corrected bootstrapping technique (number of bootstrap samples = 5,000).
Results indicated that personal innovativeness moderates the relationship between vividness and presence (B = -.11 t = -3.11, p<.01) but not for other IVs (Effectiveness: B = .04, t = 1.43, p=.15; Control: B = -.01, t = -.48, p=.63; Curiosity: B = -.02, t = -.56, p= .58; Participation: B = -.05, t = -1.71, p = .09; Enjoyment: B = .05, t = 1.57, p = .12; Temporal dissociation: B = -.05, t = -1.37, p = .17). Compared to people who are high on personal innovativeness, vividness has a more significant effect on presence among people who are low on personal innovativeness (High: B = .72, t = 7.21, p<.001; Low: B = .54, t = 5.09, p<.001).
Conclusions and Implications
This study made one of the first attempts to investigate the effects of VR on theme park visitors’ experiences and behaviors. The results suggest that the functional qualities and experiential aspects of VR systems significantly influence visitors’ virtual experience. In particular, one of the experiential attributes, namely feeling of control, turned out to be the strongest predictor of visitors’ sense of presence. This implies that in one’s VR experience at theme parks, the feeling of being in control of the VR environment contributes the most to one’s sense of being there virtually. This is presumably because visitors were provided with user guidelines or recommendations prior to their VR ride, which enabled them to quickly become familiar with the VR system and thus more easily and readily feel being part of the virtual environment. This finding extends prior literature on the impact of control among other experiential factors on individual’s attitudes towards virtual communities (e.g., Lin, 2009), by highlighting the dominant role of control in influencing visitors’ virtual experience in a tourism setting.
In contrast to prior studies advocating for the significance of efficacy and efficiency in technological experience (Han et al., 2018; Kounavis et al., 2012), the present research found no significant relationships between these variables and theme park visitors’ sense of presence in the context of VR experience. With the increasing popularity of technology in a daily life, consumers’ repeated exposures to technology applications in various forms delivering functional benefits may weaken their impacts on one’s virtual experience.
In a theme park setting, the commonly recognized functional attributes were found to be overridden by those sensory attributes (e.g., visual vividness) and hedonic features of VR systems, which mirrors the argument made by Wei, Torres, and Hua (2017) for the use of self-service technologies (SSTs) in hospitality settings. This research thus suggests that, in a hedonic-driven consumption context like theme parks, visitors likely migrate from using VR application for mundane functional attributes to using it for fulfilling their inner needs of control, pleasure, curiosity and disengagement from routines.
The second objective of this study is to investigate the effectiveness of using VR technology in increasing visitors’ satisfaction with theme park as well as their behavioral intentions. The benefits of theme parks’ adoption of VR technology are evident in terms of visitors’ greater satisfaction with the theme park as well as their increased intentions to revisit and recommend the theme park to others. Such positive outcomes were found to result from visitors’ sense of being in a virtual environment, which offers empirical support for the significance of considering the concept of presence in VR research (Jung et al., 2016; Tussyadiah et al., 2018).
Different from prior research, this study not only tested the antecedents to users’ sense of presence, but also examined its consequences in forms of satisfaction and behavioral outcomes, providing a more holistic framework as a foundation for future VR research.
Over the past decade, the majority of VR/AR journal publications centered on AR technology, while only a few were about VR applications. This research, therefore, yielded rich theoretical contributions to information technology (IT) and theme park literature in three aspects. First of all, as one of the first empirical studies on VR technology use at theme parks, this research examined how theme park visitors evaluated their experience with the use of VR technology applications. Following the lead of museums, art galleries, and other tourism destination attractions, theme parks have started to apply VR technology advancements to revolutionize their traditional roller coaster rides, in order to attract more visitors and to create innovative and immersive experience for their visitors (Jung et al., 2018).
Examples include Superman in Six Flags theme park equipped with a wireless headset and the Great Lego Race in Legoland Florida equipped with a virtual reality headset. However, this area has so far received scarce attention and remains in its infancy stage in comparison to other tourism attractions.
This research thus adds to the knowledgebase of VR experiences at theme parks, and offered empirical support for the effectiveness of using VR technology in enhancing visitor experience and promoting positive post-consumption behaviors. Moreover, the majority of VR/AR research over the past decade has been done in Europe (Germany, Ireland, UK, Italy, Switzerland, Finland, Greece) (e.g., Jung et al., 2016; Marasco, Buonincontri, van Niekerk, Orlowski, & Okumus, 2018; Rauschnabel, Brem, & Ivens, 2015) and Asia (South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong) (e.g., Chung et al., 2018; Kim & Hyun, 2016). Few studies were conducted in North America. This research, therefore, made a timely and meaningful contribution by studying visitor behavior and experience in the United States.
Second, this research advances the conceptualization of VR user experience in tourism. In recognition of the importance of both functional and experiential aspects of VR applications as suggested by Huang et al. (2013), the authors of this research included both in their proposed framework. The findings of this research provided unique empirical evidence for the respective impact of functional attributes and experiential attributes of VR application on theme park visitors’ experience. While the functional attributes of technology applications in various forms have been widely recognized in information technology literature (e.g., Agarwal & Prasad, 1998; Venkatesh, Morris, Davis, & Davis, 2003), this research showed that, in a hedonically driven context like theme parks, the experiential attributes of VR technology application, namely feeling of control, participation, and curiosity, predominantly drive visitors’ sense of being immersed in that virtual environment.
On the contrary, efficacy and efficiency of the VR application did not play a significant role. This study thus pinpoints a critical need to pay greater attention to the experiential attributes of VR technology applications. Additionally, this study did not only examine the intrapersonal level attributes (e.g., control, curiosity), but also considered a critical attribute at the interpersonal level – participation, which has been largely neglected in the extant IT literature. This factor measures a visitor’s engagement both with the VR application and with his/her co-consumption others, both of which were found to significantly influence how visitors evaluated their experience with the VR roller coaster. This study thus makes a meaningful extension to IT research and lays the foundation for future studies related to VR effectiveness in improving tourist experience.
Finally, this research extends prior literature on presence theory by applying it to a VR environment at theme parks. Social presence or telepresence is a critical concept in prior VR and AR literature, but the conceptualization of their roles is divided. One school of thought advocates that feeling of presence should be treated as a stimuli and the extent to which the user feels immersed in a VR/AR environment would lead to one’s flow experience (e.g., Huang, Backman, & Backman, 2012) and education experience, esthetics experience, entertainment experience, and escape experience (Jung et al., 2016).
Other researchers conceptualized one’s feeling of presence as a psychological state of mind, which serves as a component of users’ VR/AR experience (e.g., Hyun & O’Keefe, 2012; Kim & Hyun, 2016). This research offers empirical support for the second approach to feeling of presence. It further enriched prior literature by contextualizing both the antecedents (i.e, the functional and experiential attributes of VR applications) and consequences (i.e., visitor’s overall satisfaction and behavioral intentions) of feeling of presence in a VR environment at theme parks.
This research also has significant managerial implications for theme park management as well as destination marketing & management. First, the results of this research provide the theme park management with a better understanding of the impacts of VR technology on consumers. Despite the quickened pace of VR adoption in various tourism sectors, their perceived high risk of failure has discouraged some organizations, especially the smaller ones, from making large investments in these technologies as a proof-of-concept (tom Dieck & Jung, 2017).
This study offers empirical evidence for the opportunities to influence theme park visitors’ experience, overall satisfaction, as well as visit and word-of-mouth intentions through the adoption of VR technologies. Such information encourages DMOs and theme park management to incorporate VR considerations into their strategic plans and aids them in deciding how to take advantage of recent technological advancements.
The specific findings of this research provide practical guidance for the marketing of desired VR experiences and services, and attraction of return visitors with the use of emerging VR technologies. Results of the current study suggested that visitors’ feeling of presence in a VR experience is the factor that’s driving their overall satisfaction, intent to revisit and to recommend the theme park to their friends and families. Therefore, theme park practitioners promoting their services and products equipped with VR technologies should emphasize their capability of immersing the users and making them feel a great level of presence in the virtual world.
On the other hand, when selecting VR technologies with different features, theme park managers are recommended to prioritize those that are more likely to facilitate a sense of presence as well. For example, HTC’s Vive, the official VR partner for the movie Ready Player One, has features like redesigned face cushion and nose pad, which block more light and deepen users’ sense of presence while using it.
Additionally, our findings of sensitivity tests indicate that customers’ prior experience with VR technology (i.e., familiarity) strengthens the impacts of effectiveness and enjoyment on presence. For the group of customers who are more familiar with technology (e.g., Millennials), VR’s effectiveness and enjoyment would have a stronger impact on their perceived presence and downstream behavioral intentions. Therefore, theme parks targeting customers whose familiarity with VR technology is relatively high should emphasize on these two aspects while selecting or developing VR gadgets.
Moreover, our results indicate that one individual trait, personal innovativeness, could enhance the effect of vividness on presence. Thus, for theme parks which may host customers who are more innovative comparing to general mass markets (e.g., theme parks located close to technology companies such as California’s Great America near Silicon Valley), managers should focus on the vividness of their VR technology in both the design and promotion of their VR-mediated products and services.
Limitations and future research
The findings of this research should be considered with caution due to some limitations. First, during data collection procedure, the respondents completed the survey based on their recalled VR roller coaster experience. While the use of a critical incident technique by asking for respondents’ most memorable experience is a common method in experience studies, future research is recommended to be conducted on site, if such an access is possible and convenient, in order to better capture users’ emotional response while using VR systems and to avoid any potential memory bias.
Second, the respondents’ VR roller coaster experience may be influenced by the combined effects of the VR system and the original roller coaster. The characteristics of the original roller coaster (e.g., height, speed, entertainment) should be considered in the future research to provide a more holistic understanding of the phenomenon.
Finally, while the current research makes one of the first endeavors to examining the effectiveness of VR technology in enhancing visitors’ overall theme park experience, it will be theoretically interesting and practically significant for future research to test the stability of the findings across socio-demographic strata (e.g., age, ethnicity, and gender).Such research efforts will provide great insight into customized design and target marketing of VR technology applications.
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