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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, May 13, 2007

Around the world in 80 minutes

By Samantha Gross
Associated Press

Writer Samantha Gross takes her avatar sightseeing through virtual Dublin in the Second Life cyberworld, where you can chat with real people.

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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.

Touring in the virtual world of Second Life requires no tickets, no money and no need to leave your seat.

Visitors need only download a free program, then log in. In elaborate 3-D locales designed by the virtual world's residents, tourists can watch their online embodiments 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. So inhabitants of Second Life are creating automated tours, opening virtual travel agencies and travel guidebooks. "The Unofficial Tourists' Guide to Second Life" was published in April by St. Martin's Press.

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 others 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 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 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 a forest filled with huge trees and giant mushrooms.

Like any guided tour in Second Life, 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 at the height of tourist season, Second Life locales tend to get crowded when it's evening in the U.S. or Europe, and the resulting computer lag time can make navigating cumbersome.

Synthravels for now does not charge visitors or pay guides, so finding a tour depends on the sometimes fickle interest of volunteers. But some others in Second Life will offer a tour in exchange for a few Linden dollars, the virtual currency that is bought and sold for real-world cash.

Or you can turn to automated options. Many site creators post vehicles near arrival points and program them to give visitors a tour of the location.

At the Guided Tour Company of Second Life, where automated tour vehicles ranging from hang-gliders to flying carpets are sold, avatars can access a tour of tours.

By clicking on the free guide, users teleport to Icarus, where a giant dragonfly carries them to a romantic dance floor surrounded by twinkling stars. Clicking again carries them to Venice Island, where a gondola takes them to an old church with Renaissance paintings. Another click leads to Cocoloco Island Resort, where a hot-air balloon ferries them around what looks like a Caribbean resort: beach chairs, thatch cabanas and a pool in which the visitors can float.