May 11, 2007
Virtual Trip: Travel in ‘Second Life’
By SAMANTHA GROSS
NEW YORK - The tour was a whirlwind: dancing at a beachside disco 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 travelers willing to delve deep into the Internet to find their escape.
Visitors need only download a free program, then log in. With the help of elaborate 3-D 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.
Like in the real world, it's easy to get lost. Longtime inhabitants of "Second Life" are creating automated tours, opening virtual travel agencies and even publishing travel guidebooks modeled 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 1 million visitors in April, a vacation does not need to be a lengthy affair.
As they travel to virtual Roman neighborhoods and fantastical worlds, visitors can interact with other participants from all over the (real) world - about three-quarters of users are from outside the U.S., 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 program 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,""World of Warcraft" and others.
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 hangout among Irish users, and an island called Svarga, where a flying pod carries avatars above what appears to be a rain forest filled with huge trees and giant mushrooms.
Like 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.
Like the Vatican in the height of tourist season, "Second Life" locations tend to get especially crowded when it's evening in the U.S. or Europe, and the resulting computer lag time can make navigating cumbersome.
And finding a guide, in of itself, can be a challenge. The Synthravels Web 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 the 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 program 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, thatch 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 by Starwood Hotels & 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 firsthand - or at least through the eyes of her avatar, Sierra Sugar.
A Gainesville, Fla., 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.
Tips on touring "Second Life":
WHEN TO GO: 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 "offseason." Creator Linden Research Inc. says that's usually before 4 p.m. EDT and after 7 p.m. EDT.
HOW TO GET THERE: Visit http://www.secondlife.com/, download the free "Second Life" software and pick a name for your avatar.
WHAT YOU'LL NEED: A graphics card and a computer that meet the software's technical specifications. See http://secure-web9.secondlife.com/corporate/sysreqs.php.
GETTING AROUND: Fly, teleport or catch a ride on a hot-air balloon. Plan on spending some time on an orientation island while you're figuring out how to navigate.
HOOK UP WITH A TOUR GUIDE: Synthravels bills itself as "the first online virtual travel agency": http://www.synthravels.com.
FIND AN AUTOMATED TOUR: The Guided Tour Company of Second Life offers a free, automated tour of tours: http://slurl.com/secondlife/Mocha/228/85/32/.
ACCOMMODATIONS: 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/.
GUIDEBOOKS: "The Unofficial Tourists' Guide to Second Life," published last month by St. Martin's Press ($9.95). Also the Wired travel guide to "Second Life": http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/14.10/sloverview.html.
AFTER DARK: Like on the Internet, sex is everywhere. Those under 18 should stick to "Teen Second Life," and everyone else should be forewarned: You might run into something you wouldn't see at Disneyland.