On my way back from some real travel last week, I saw a brief article in Newsweek about a new trend in travel - virtual tours of synthetic places.
One place offering to be your guide on such trips is synthravels.com, an Italian company that promises that:
...the new frontier of travel is out of our world. It is hidden in the invisible geography of the cyberspace. In a few years, this geography has been expanding, broadening in every direction, configuring new territories, inhabited by new societies.
In virtual worlds you can find everything, the good and the bad, the poor and the rich, sumptuous castles and futuristic space bases, luscious women and rough warriors.
But, most of all, you can find many lands to discover, extraordinary places to visit, that will ravish your imagination.
Well, in the real world, you can also find the good and the bad, the rich and the poor. Why just last week I was in Germany, where I had good and bad food, good and bad train rides, good and bad weather. If I'd wanted to, I would have been able to see sumptuous castles. All that would have been missing is the futuristic space bases. Luscious women and rough warriors I wasn't looking for. But there are some things I wouldn't have found in the boring old real world:
Traveling in these territories will be like dreaming: you will see exotic landscapes where among prehistoric trees break out bizarre surrealistic architectures, strange fantasy regions where the elves built astonishing temples, synthetic deserts covered with post-atomic ruins, seas of pixels where float ghostly vessels, organic architectures that conceal undercover avatars.
Synthravel tells us that it's actually not so easy to find and enjoy these virtual worlds. "You must pass many hours in front of your monitor, accomplishing weary tasks."
It is an understatement of several orders of magnitude to say that I would not be willing to pass many seconds in front of my monitor to accomplish the weary task of finding a place where elves built astonishing temples, where synthetic deserts are covered with post-atomic ruins, and where ghostly vessels float in seas of pixels.
Nor would I pay Synthravel to get me there, either. Talk about the Tour from Hell. ("If it's Tuesday, this must be the post-atomic synthetic desert.")
But for those adventurers who don't want to put their three ounce bottles of lotion in one quart Ziploc baggies, don't want to crane their necks to look up at cathedral ceilings, and don't want to "go native" in any way, Synthravel, my friends, "is the answer," offering "a complete guide service to all the people who want to make a tour in virtual worlds without knowing these new realities, even if they have never put their feet in these strange, synthetic grounds."
(I actually think that Synthravel is talking about putting eyeballs, not feet, on "strange, synthetic grounds," but since they're talking about virtual feet, it really doesn't matter.)
If I want to limit my virtual travel to Second Life, I can sign up with SL Tourguides. Unlike Synthravel, which seems aimed at the individual armchair tourist, SL Tourguides "aims to give businesses an immersive experience in the Second Life virtual world so that they can have informed discussions about how their business may use this environment.
Here is the fastest and most powerful way for business people to come to grips with Second Life, the virtual world that is also a commercial platform.
You will learn the lingo, learn the protocols, ask questions as you go and find the places/experiences you need to know about.
Once you’ve done a tour you will be better placed to decide whether you want to do business in SL.
Maybe I'm in denial, but I'm guessing that I'll be able to finish out my business career without having to "come to grips with Second Life". I just don't see all that much demand for virtual B2B technology.
SL Tourguides also offers Second Life training courses, that will "teach you how to communicate discretely, look around corners, take photos, search the classifieds and store the locations you visit."
This would come in especially handy, I suppose, if you wanted to take a Second Life sex tour, since I read somewhere that a lot of the business that gets done in Second Life has to do with the sex trade, starting with un-neutering your personal avatar.
SL Tourguides makes sense, I guess, for anyone who feels the need to find out more about Second Life without having to really jump in, create and avatar, and start "living" the life.
Synthravel makes a lot less sense.
I guess you could save money over what it costs to take a real trip. But there's already so much that's ersatz in our travel portfolio - think Las Vegas, think Disney World, think Busch Gardens, where you can "experience" faraway places with strange sounding names without actually having to deal with food that's not chicken fingers, people who don't speak English, and custom's officials.
Why do we need more fake stuff in our lives?
Whether you're traveling to the next town over or getting on a plane and flying 10,000 miles, travel is not just about seeing something different, it's about fully experiencing something different. Yes, in the virtual world, you can see different stuff (luscious women, rough warriors). And you can probably hear different stuff that sounds pretty close to the real thing (for those synthetic travel sites that actually are real places). But until the technology improves quite a bit, you won't be able to fully experience a real or a synthetic place on line. You can't experience the taste of chicken breast stuffed with liverwurst and spinach. Smell the diesel fuel on the train to Dresden, or the beeswax votive candles in the Dom. You can't get jostled in the Sunday crowd on Unter den Linden. Have someone mistake you for a native and ask you for directions. Close the hotel door at the end of a long day and flop onto new bed.
I'm strictly a real world kind of traveler, myself.