Hate Those Pesky Security Lines?

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By Daniel Greenberg
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, January 6, 2008

As I surf the legendary waves of Australia at dawn, the rising sun glints off the peaks of the Sydney Opera House. Four jet skis zoom past, toward a colorful coral reef. Two riders on horseback lope up to the water and plunge in. Their matching white horses spread their wings, then rise majestically into the air.

Just another day in Second Life, where your travel options include surfboards, flying horses and even teleportation.

Second Life ( http://www.secondlife.com) describes itself as a "a 3-D online digital world imagined and created by its residents." Sign up for a free account and you're considered a member of the community, which claims more than 11 million registered users. And now the popular "online world" is attracting real countries and travel providers, complete with embassies, events and official greeters.

On Second Life, you begin your travels by looking up names of places in a search engine or by panning over a massive map. Click on a location you want to visit and it appears on your screen. Your onscreen character, called an avatar, is teleported there. You can walk along the streets, interact with other visitors, even fly over rooftops like Superman.

Many popular real-world travel destinations have digital counterparts in Second Life. Dozens of locations pop up in response to "Paris," for example. (But not one for "Rockville.") But these versions of the City of Light are hardly realistic: One area places Notre Dame next door to a gigantic lingerie shop. Although the cathedral is good for sightseeing, the lingerie shop is ultimately more useful, since you can buy outfits to dress up your avatar there or make an appointment for a personalized, full-avatar makeover. Payments are made in Second Life's own currency, which you can buy using a credit card.

For a more realistic cityscape, try "Dublin in Second Life," complete with entire city blocks that model the real thing. Or you can admire the Victorian architecture in a simulated Galveston, Tex., although it's still a work in progress: During my visit, one of the 3-D buildings had come free of its foundation and was hovering in midair.

Across the Gulf of Mexico, you can explore the Mayan pyramid of El Castillo. Wander through a lush rain forest with detailed archaeological ruins in a virtual Yucatan Peninsula, investigate an eerie underwater sinkhole littered with ancient artifacts, or go salsa dancing in a complimentary Mayan warrior or princess outfit.

This elaborate educational playground was built by Mexico's Tourism Board to promote the Chichen Itza ruins. Does it bring in real tourists? Using the game's text-chat system, I "talked" to a Spanish couple who were exploring the ruins. "Bubujita Babii" and "The Vendetta" said they found the digital version so enchanting that they've decided to renew their wedding vows at a Mayan ceremony at the real-world Chichen Itza. They said they were on their third visit to the digital pyramid, on a kind of virtual wedding rehearsal.

Other countries are looking to capitalize on Second Life's popularity -- including Sweden, which has set up a virtual embassy online.

Second House of Sweden, a modernist building that looks like the real Swedish embassy in Washington, offers a diplomatic presence online as well as an information portal. It's supposed to have live representatives in avatar form on duty more than 40 hours a week, but I didn't see any when I visited. I did, however, take in the Raoul Wallenberg exhibition and a photo gallery, and even picked up some free virtual Ikea furniture, which I could use if I decided to create a Second Life area of my own. And I chatted with a visitor from Finland, who said he thought the embassy needed more interactive elements, such as stores selling 3-D items. But he also admitted that he wished Finland had something similar online, adding that Finland and Sweden compete "all the time in every level of human life."

Smaller embassies with less ambitious designs also have appeared in Second Life. For countries such as Macedonia, Malta and the Maldives, an archipelago in the Indian Ocean, it offers a chance for exposure at a relatively low cost. Two months ago, foreign ministers from the United Kingdom, Malta and the Maldives held a "joint virtual press conference" in Second Life to "draw the world's attention to the devastating impacts of climate change on the world's Small Island States." And when Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) had to stay in Washington during the climate change summit in Bali last month, he was able to address the United Nations conference and take questions through his Second Life avatar -- a kind of 21st-century satellite hookup.

Estonia is the latest nation to build a Second Life embassy, opening last month. Its ultramodern building represents the high-tech aspirations of a nation trying to make rapid technological progress. Daniel Vaarik, managing director of Hill & Knowlton Estonia, which designed the building, said the virtual embassy was a "logical step," adding that the intention is "to reach outside of Estonia and find people who are interested in . . . e-technology and e-governance, to create a discussion ground for e-services, communication in virtual environments."

Travel agencies, too, have found a home in Second Life's digital landscape. The youth-focused STA Travel has a substantial presence, including an orientation center to teach newcomers how to master Second Life. It also offers travel discussions and tours of Second Life, teleporting participants to interesting areas. But its main service is live operators who can book travel packages in the real world.

Like many real-life travel destinations, Second Life can be overwhelming. The sheer number of locations makes finding what you want a complex task. And when you do arrive at your location, the profusion of images takes time to download. It can be disconcerting to watch the details of your new location appear on the screen after your arrival. Plus, the controls can take time to master.

Second Life also suffers from some of the same pushy over-promotion that infests the rest of the Internet. The first place I tried to visit was the dubiously titled Welfare Island, which I selected because it was the most popular destination at the time, with recent traffic at 145,000 residents -- all apparently attracted because the island was offering free handouts of "$$$."

Except I couldn't get there: An error message said, "The region you are attempting to enter is currently full." The next two most popular sites, Hippiepay and Neva Naughty, were also full. When I finally arrived, I found they were merely places featuring the kind of surveys most people try to avoid taking online.

In the end, I was glad to return to my "first life," where the beaches may not have flying horses, but they do have flavors and textures and crisp, fresh breezes. When it comes to Second Life, it isn't the buildings I'll remember as much as the residents. You can meet interesting people with different worldviews, share a laugh and discover things you never knew before. Just like traveling in the real world.

Daniel Greenberg is a freelance technology writer and a frequent contributor to The Post.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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