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Virtual Tours: Some Place Else

Virtual Tours: Some Place Else
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First Published: Tue, May 15 2007. 11 57 PM IST
Updated: Tue, May 15 2007. 11 57 PM IST
The tour was a whirlwind—dancing at a beachside discotheque in Spain surrounded by scantily clad women, grabbing a seat at a lively pub in Dublin, flying in a small aircraft above a lush, tropical forest.
Time elapsed? Less than two hours.
With no tickets required, no money spent and no need to leave your seat, touring in the virtual world of Second Life holds a certain appeal for travellers willing to delve deep into the Internet to find their escape. Visitors need only download a free programme, then log in.
With the help of elaborate 3D locales designed and built by the world’s residents, tourists can watch their online embodiments—known as their avatars—lounge at the beach, dine at a romantic restaurant, or go out dancing at a crowded nightclub.
As in the real world, it’s easy to get lost. Long-time inhabitants of Second Life are creating automated tours, opening virtual travel agencies and even publishing travel guidebooks modelled after those seen in the hands of confused tourists.
Of course, there are some glaring differences between your average Frommer’s guide and The Unofficial Tourists’ Guide to Second Life, published in April by St Martin’s Press.
“There are sections on how to fly and how to hover,” said co-writer Paul Carr. But despite such necessary adjustments, he said, “It’s very much like going to a foreign country.” With the ability to fly and even teleport from place to place in Second Life, which hosted more than one million visitors in April, a vacation does not need to be a lengthy affair.
As they travel to virtual Roman neighbourhoods and fantastic worlds, visitors can interact with other participants from all over the (real) world. About a quarter of the users are from the US. The rest are mostly from Europe, Brazil, Canada, Japan and Australia.
In Second Life, even language difficulties are a thing of the past. Visitors can pick up a free translation programme and carry on typed conversations with others, speaking any of nine languages.
For those looking to get their bearings, one option is the guided tour. Virtual travel agency Synthravels seeks to match up tourists and volunteer guides in 27 different online worlds, including Second Life and World of Warcraft.
On one recent tour of Second Life, Synthravels founder Mario Gerosa led the way to a virtual representation of the Spanish island of Ibiza, stopping first at a shop selling traditional flamenco garb, then at a disco surrounded by sand and sea where, with the click of a mouse, avatars can dance.
Next stop is Midnight City, where a flight above the skyscrapers shows the moon’s light reflected on the ocean’s waves.
Nearby, a simulation of a solar eclipse allows Gerosa’s avatar, Frank Koolhaas, to walk right up to a blazing sun, standing on the fabric of outer space.
Also on the tour: Dublin, a popular hang-out among Irish users, and an island called Svarga, where a flying pod carries avatars above what appears to be a rainforest filled with huge trees and giant mushrooms.
As with any guided tour in Second Life though, this one carried its own inherent difficulties. With both leader and led under their own power, it was quite easy to get separated. Several times, Gerosa’s avatar lost some of its clothes.
As in the Vatican at the height of tourist season, Second Life locations tend to get especially crowded when it’s evening in the US or Europe, and the resulting computer lag time can make navigating cumbersome.
And finding a guide can be a challenge in itself. The Synthravels site has connected guides and tourists more than 200 times, according to Gerosa, but for now, it does not charge visitors or pay guides, and finding a tour depends on the sometimes fickle interest of volunteers. But with some persistence and a willingness to just walk up to knowledgeable avatars and ask, there are guides to be found, Carr said.
“There are quite a few people in Second Life who will offer a tour in exchange for a few Linden dollars,” said the writer, referring to this world’s currency, which can be bought and sold for real-world cash.
Those having a hard time securing a personal tour can turn to a number of automated options.
Many site creators post vehicles near arrival points and programme them to give visitors a tour of the location.
By heading to The Guided Tour Company of Second Life, where automated tour vehicles ranging from hang-gliders to flying carpets are sold, avatars can access a programmed tour of tours.
By clicking on the free guide, users can teleport to Icarus, where a giant dragonfly carries them to a romantic dance floor surrounded by twinkling stars. Clicking again brings them to Venice Island, where a gondola takes them to an old church adorned with Renaissance paintings and an ornate, carved pulpit.
Another click leads to Cocoloco Island Resort, where a white hot-air balloon ferries them around what looks amazingly like a Caribbean resort—beach chairs, thatched cabanas, and a pool that, with a few mouse clicks, allows visitors to float on their backs for hours.
At least for now, few people are charging visitors for such travel services. Even a stay at Aloft, a recently reopened virtual hotel of Starwood Hotels and Resorts Worldwide Inc., is free. But the many entrepreneurs of Second Life may yet find a way to make travel pay, said Jeska Dzwigalski, a community developer with San Francisco-based Linden Research Inc., which runs the virtual world.
She said she has seen the tours and “travel agencies popping up that help people and give them an experience they might not otherwise find. ... As we’ve grown, that became a potential business for people.”
Karen Hemmes has seen the demand first hand—or at least through the eyes of her avatar, Sierra Sugar.
A Gainesville, Florida, nurse by day and a DJ at Second Life events by night, Hemmes received a virtual hot-air balloon as a gift, and started taking friends for rides.
By the end of many of these tours meant for two, her balloon was packed to capacity with passers-by who had asked to join in, she said.
Visitors can even capture a few photos or home videos to remind them of their trip. Screen grabs of a virtual Times Square and videos of avatars surfing are easily found on image-sharing sites around the web.
For those planning to go, though, Carr suggests visitors don’t follow his example.
“If you want to retain friends and not kill yourselves, then you need to take lots of breaks,” said Carr, who holed himself up in a London apartment with co-writer Graham Pond in the final days of their research, subsisting on tinned goods and bottled water.
When Second Life gets crowded, your avatar might seem sluggish and there might be a delay before elements of the world pop into full view. So you may want to consider visiting in the off-season. Creator Linden Research Inc. says that’s usually before 4pm Eastern Daylight Time (EDT is 9.30 hours behind IST) and after 7pm EDT.
Visit http://www.secondlife.com, download the free Second Life software and pick your avatar’s name.
A graphics card and a computer that meet the software’s technical specifications. See http://secure-web9.secondlife.com/corporate/sysreqs.php.
Fly, teleport or ride a hot-air balloon. Plan on spending some time on an orientation island while you’re figuring out how to navigate.
Synthravels bills itself as “the first online virtual travel agency”: http://www.synthravels.com.
The Guided Tour Company of Second Life offers a free, automated tour of tours: http://slurl.com/secondlife/Mocha/228/85/32/.
Until next month, you can find a room at the virtual Aloft hotel, a Second Life model of Starwood Hotels’ new brand, to be launched in the real world next year: http://slurl.com/secondlife/Aloft%20Island/132/100/39/.
The Unofficial Tourists’ Guide to Second Life, published last month by St Martin’s Press, costs $9.95(Rs408)). Also the Wired travel guide to Second Life: http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/14.10/sloverview.html.
As with many sites on the Internet, sex is everywhere. Those under 18 years should stick to Teen Second Life, and everyone else should be forewarned: You might run into something you wouldn’t see at Disneyland.
(Write to us at businessoflife@livemint.com)
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First Published: Tue, May 15 2007. 11 57 PM IST
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