Tourists lost in vir­tual chaos

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel - David Car­roll

VIR­TUAL travel? Maybe it’s time to get a life. If you’re an ad­ven­tur­ous trav­eller with a de­sire to broaden the mind, then sooner or later you’ll be tempted to take a trip into the vir­tual world of Sec­ond Life.

Like many tourist des­ti­na­tions, Sec­ond Life is good at pro­mot­ing it­self as a won­der­ful place to visit.

But be warned: ex­cited by all the hype it’s easy for trav­ellers’ ex­pec­ta­tions to get a lit­tle out of touch with re­al­ity.

I’d rather spend my free time ex­plor­ing the real world and its con­sis­tently odd in­hab­i­tants.

Nev­er­the­less, there is no deny­ing that the vir­tual world is free, fast and re­quires no doc­u­men­ta­tion. All that’s needed is ac­cess to the in­ter­net and the abil­ity to down­load a piece of soft­ware.

On ar­rival you will find no long queues or nasty Cus­toms of­fi­cials.

You will be com­pletely dis­ori­ented and un­sure of how to move or com­mu­ni­cate, how­ever.

You’ll also have no money and be sur­rounded by equally con­fused strangers madly run­ning around in odd di­rec­tions.

Be­fore you can start look­ing around you’ll need to pull your­self to­gether by craft­ing your vir­tual self (or avatar), then learn how to walk and talk.

Mov­ing about in Sec­ond Life is an awk­ward and clumsy process to be­gin with, but with prac­tice it can be fun. You can fly high above the vir­tual ground any time you want and it’s easy to tele­port from one des­ti­na­tion to an­other.

Un­for­tu­nately, find­ing a des­ti­na­tion is not al­ways easy; in­deed, you’ll prob­a­bly spend most of your time hope­lessly lost.

And when you do come across a familiar pla­ce­name, don’t ex­pect to tele­port into a three-di­men­sional replica of the real world.

In­stead you’ll find your­self on an is­land, which can con­tain all sorts of colour­ful and imag­i­na­tively con­structed build­ings.

You’ll be free to wan­der around and meet other vir­tual trav­ellers. And on some is­lands you can even at­tend con­certs, take part in Triv­ial Pur­suit com­pe­ti­tions, have a game of ten­nis or at­tend church.

All of which is in­ter­est­ing, so long as you are the type of per­son who can sus­pend re­al­ity long enough to for­get that what you are do­ing is sit­ting at a desk, star­ing into a com­puter, spend­ing hours play­ing a bizarre game that in­volves in­ter­act­ing with strangers.

If that sounds like just an­other day in the of­fice, then maybe Sec­ond Life is not for you.

Ei­ther way, there is no deny­ing that the vir­tual world is an in­trigu­ing so­cial ex­per­i­ment. And some peo­ple find it lib­er­at­ing to take part.

Ac­cord­ing to a re­port in a re­cent is­sue of NewS­ci­en­tist, for ex­am­ple, Sec­ond Life is prov­ing a pop­u­lar place for peo­ple with an autism spec­trum dis­or­der. Re­lieved of the need to in­ter­pret fa­cial ex­pres­sions or make phys­i­cal con­tact, peo­ple with autism or Asperger’s syn­drome can find it eas­ier to in­ter­act in the vir­tual world.

Of course, where there are peo­ple there is com­merce. And ad­ven­tur­ous travel com­pa­nies are spend­ing real dol­lars es­tab­lish­ing a vir­tual pres­ence.

The best known is Star­wood, which late last year built the first ho­tel in its new Aloft chain in Sec­ond Life. Res­i­dents were asked for feed­back and Star­wood is us­ing their com­ments to help de­sign the first Aloft in the real world. More re­cently Costa Cruises si­mul­ta­ne­ously un­veiled its latest cruise ship Costa Ser­ena in Mar­seilles and in Sec­ond Life, com­plete with vir­tual fire­works.

STA Travel has even opened a clever, so­phis­ti­cated travel cen­tre in Sec­ond Life that in­cludes a res­i­dent vir­tual travel agent, Glo­be­trekkerBob, who is ready to or­gan­ise travel ar­range­ments for any avatar tak­ing a trip in the real world. Is that strange? I’m not sure any more. www.sec­ David Car­roll’s col­umn on new travel tech­nol­ogy ap­pears monthly in Travel&In­dul­gence.

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