Over the last year, the internet, in its uniquely hollow way, has often had to satisfy essential human needs – entertainment and communication, for instance, quickly took the hellish form of the online quiz.
Travel has been no different. New apps have sprung up to cater to our wanderlust, while old apps, imbued with a new purpose, have seen downloads skyrocket. Radio Garden, for instance, lets you tune into thousands of the world’s radio stations; Drive and Listen lets you do this while cruising down foreign streets.
WindowSwap lets you peer through a stranger’s window – to drink in some calm desert in Texas, perhaps, or to hear birds chirping on a Brazilian balcony. People have filmed their perspective as they walk through bustling Tokyo; Virtual Vacation has packaged together geography guessing games and driving tours.
Even the travel rituals we once moaned about now seem precious – the dawn rise to brave the timeless zone of the airport, the captain reciting the weather forecast as you gaze out the window and guzzle your 10am alcohol. Several people have recreated this view by placing their iPad in the washing machine.
Though they cannot substitute for the real thing, the best of these experiences capture, in a palpable way, the distinctive details of being in another country. “You go to this different city, you’re in the taxi, and the taxi has the music on, and straightaway you’re into the local culture,” says Jonathan Puckey, one of the creators of Radio Garden.
The site had been chugging away long before Covid-19 – it started as a commission for the Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision, completed in 2016. Visitors to the site see the Earth, spinnable on its axis, its continents peppered by the green dots of radio stations. Practically any station is welcome – they just have to fill out a submission form – but they must be able to stream online, a limitation for some countries: the Netherlands is a rash of green, for instance, while sub Saharan Africa is sparsely populated, and China blocked entirely. Radio Garden started with around 7,000 stations; now it has more than 31,000. And the number of users has shot up during the pandemic, often correlated with the severity of a country’s lockdown: last year, Italians began to flood the app – Puckey says they received emails and pictures from hospital staff, thanking them. This year, he says, they’ve seen a rise in visits from people in the UK and US.
Sonali Ranjit and Vaishnav Balasubramaniam, the creators of WindowSwap, call this attraction “travel without moving”. In contrast to Radio Garden, they started WindowSwap because of lockdown, while stuck in their single bedroom apartment in Singapore, just one of them allowed out of the house at a time.
“We scrolled past this Instagram story of a friend of ours from Barcelona, and he had posted a picture of his gorgeous view from his house, and was complaining about having to look at the same view every day,” says Ranjit. “At this point, Vaishnav and I were joking about how we wished we could swap windows with him.”
Ranjit and Balasubramaniam asked 16 friends, dotted around the world, for ten-minute videos of the view from their window. “We wanted the whole experience, along with any kinds of sounds that might be you might hear in the background. So it could be like your dog barking or like the clinking of forks, or bird song or even traffic,” says Ranjit.
Within three weeks, windows had been sent in from all over the world. Their intimate, almost voyeuristic, allure was immediately apparent. “You’ve got an intimate view of the backyard or side alley or just the kind of views that you don’t see in travel magazines or on the internet or influencer photographs – these are real, unvarnished looks into people’s lives,” says Ranjit. “It’s the kind of thing that an Airbnb lover or real intrepid traveller would love to look at, this unexplored side of different countries.”
These subtle details, they explain, seem to calm people. Some leave WindowSwap running all day, imagining they are working somewhere else; some take ten minutes out to stare while their thoughts wander. They have received messages from patients in hospices, saying the windows have carried them away from their beds. “Somewhere along the way, I think we managed to create some space that’s opposite to, say, a TikTok experience, like the constant rush of dopamine,” says Balasubramaniam.
“It’s a place where you take a minute to daydream, to reflect for a bit and get lost in your thoughts,” says Ranjit. “A lot of these windows, though they are beautiful, after a while your mind wanders and instead you get lost in your thoughts – that’s a kind of centring experience for a lot of people, I guess.”
It’s easy to be cynical about travel – aeroplanes poison the planet; we visit and Instagram landmarks because someone else visited and Instagrammed them. But these online experiences seem to capture something different, and realer – the way some vivid detail can jerk us toward the future, or restore lost memories. “I do think the sound of the radio in foreign countries is very linked to our collective memories to going on holiday,” says Puckey.
His intention, he explains, was always to capture the “magic” of this “escape”. When making Radio Garden, he played with old world receiver radio sets, with the city names printed on their dials. He was enchanted by the idea that, with the turn of a knob, you could tune in and almost travel to these places. The internet, he explains, retains this magic, but we often forget it.
“Funnily enough, the internet is more magical than ever – you can go anywhere you want to and communicate with anyone you want to, but somehow it feels less magical,” he says. “This might be because we’re used to it. So we thought it would be nice to trigger that magic again – to feel not only that you are in touch with somewhere else, but that you can actually also appreciate that distance while it is not possible to go there, but you tune in and are transported to that location.”
Ranjit and Balasubramaniam have been thanked by homesick people all over the world – one discovered a window in her grandfather’s town; another recognised a hill near their parent’s home. They have received messages from environmentalists, bird watchers, artists and musicians, who have responded to the landscapes in their own ways. They’ve now started WindowSwap Artist, where they spotlight art inspired by window views.
“A lot of people have told us that this has given them travel inspiration, helping them to figure out where they want to go, or discovering places they hadn’t heard of, or giving them a new perspective on places,” says Ranjit. “For example, I think I had a very different picture in my head of Iran. And then through WindowSwap, it’s become one of the places that I’d be quite interested in visiting.”
One Radio Garden listener explained how the app has helped them find new music: they’ve learned that they enjoy traditional middle eastern stations. Tuning into Japanese stations, on the other hand, is helping them learn another language. In other words, they aren’t interested in travel per se, but the deeper reason we travel at all – to seriously immerse ourselves in another place; to broaden our minds. “Our dream is to go to those places after lockdown,” says Balasubramaniam. Until this can happen, we will have to make do.
Will Bedingfield is a culture writer at WIRED. He tweets from @WillBedingfield
More great stories from WIRED
🌍 Bill Gates has a plan to save the world. Will the world listen?
🇦🇺 Facebook did the right thing. Here’s what its fight with Australia is really about
🖥️ Working from home? These are thebest computer monitors you can buy
🔊 Listen to The WIRED Podcast, the week in science, technology and culture, delivered every Friday
👉 Follow WIRED on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and LinkedIn
Get WIRED Daily, your no-nonsense briefing on all the biggest stories in technology, business and science. In your inbox every weekday at 12pm UK time.
Thank You. You have successfully subscribed to our newsletter. You will hear from us shortly.
Sorry, you have entered an invalid email. Please refresh and try again.