Tourists lost in virtual chaos
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.secondlife.com. David Carroll’s column on new travel technology appears monthly in Travel&Indulgence.