Re-visiting tourism in virtual worlds. Where are we going?

I’ve long been an advocate of travel and tourism marketing applications in virtual worlds. This is based on the ability of virtual spaces to educate and immerse people into real world places they’ve never been to before. In this context, using VW’s is a great example of the evolution from 2D (webpages) to 3D (environments) – moving from ‘Pages to Places’.

During 2007 we saw a rush of countries, regions and places setting up destinations in Second Life. These ranged from official embassies (such as Sweden and the Maldives), tourist boards (Tourism Ireland and the Netherlands) , hotel groups (Rixos, Crown Plaza and a little earlier Starwood) through to ‘city and region’ marketers (Munich City and Tuscany).

Other related companies in the sector also set-up virtual presences, including Costa Cruises, TUI, and Europ Assistance.

Here’s the latest example of virtual world tourism marketing – Visit Mexico, part two.

So, a pretty busy sector in terms of activities, rivaled only by Automobiles and Technology companies.

The last quarter of 2007/start of 2008 saw a slow-down in virtual worlds activities, caused probably by the seasonal nature of travel marketing (Summer being the key period for holidays). However, other companies outside of SL have been busy readying tourism-related VW applications, demonstrating the potential in this particular category.

The most noticeable entrant in this sector is Amazing Worlds, the self-titled ‘World’s 1st 3D Tourism Mirror World’. Here’s an extract from their launch press release:

‘From key tourism destinations, places of interest , historical sites to realistic full scale 3-Dimensional replicas of entire cities. This mirror world of our existing planet – Mirror World allows end users to journey through virtual words in the comfort of their homes ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú creating a brand new exciting marketing tool for tourism industry players like tourism destination operators, Hoteliers, Shopping Malls, Retail Outlets and more to showcase and sell their destinations and facilities to key markets around the world.

What sets Mirror World apart from other 3D environment developers in the market is its commitment to the recreation of reality. All images, environments, content and cityscapes are designed to be as life-like and accurate as possible to the real world’

Mirror worlds could be the key element to push this category even further during 2008 and into 2009 as standalone applications used by tourism-related companies and organisations.

There’s three key aspects which in my opinion are crucial to creating successful online ‘destinations’.

The first is realism – a point picked up by Amazing Worlds. The environment needs to be as close to reality as possible.

The second is community. What VW’s are able to create is a sense of context and location if the virtual venues have groups of people who frequent them – a virtual home from home. Just as other corporate venues in SL often lack traffic and appear empty, tourism marketing projects benefit greatly from seeing other people at the same venue you’re currently in. This may be the key challenge for Amazing Worlds – not just creating a lifelike destination but also working hard to get people in.

The third is interaction – being able to ‘do something’ of value either at/in the venue/place or even being able to change, augment or add to it.

Here’s an intro video of Amazing Worlds.

Other VW providers/developers are also recognising the potential of travel/tourism applications.One such is Multiverse, a company ‘aiming to become the worlds leading network of Massively Multiplayer Online Games (MMOGs) and 3D virtual worlds’. Whilst not strictly focusing on tourism, one of their first deployments in terms of demonstrating their technology is a virtual Times Square. Taken from the accompanying press release:

With its electric nightlife, captivating architecture and cultural significance, New Yorks Times Square makes for a truly engaging demo world, said Bill Turpin, CEO and co-founder, The Multiverse Network, Inc. Virtual Times Square eloquently demonstrates what our cutting-edge development platform is capable of delivering to anyone seeking to build high production-value worlds.

Built by a small team within Multiverse in just over two months, Virtual Times Square is the latest Multiverse demo world that highlights the companys comprehensive development platform. Newly integrated features include Flash and YouTube video support, web integration, and next-generation lighting techniques.

And here’s their video:

Another emerging platform is GeoSim and their first demo, GeoSimPHILLY:

‘Virtual Philadelphia is a leading 3D online virtual city mirrored off the Center City of Philadelphia, PA, full of historical landscapes and buildings, hundreds of years of culture and one of the most beloved US cities.
Today, Philadelphia is a vibrant city cultivated with restaurants, boutiques, museums, nightlife, modern residences and developed commerce ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú definitely a premier place to live in or to visit.

GeoSim compiles gigabytes of aerial photos, street images, laser scans and geodetic measurements of Philadelphia to build an accurate 3D city model, capable of providing a genuine life simulation of the physical streets, buildings and urban landscape with the “look and feel” of a real city.’


Let’s not forget the impact and role of UGC in this field.Moving back to Second Life, there’s a plethora of ‘destination’ based venues and projects created not by companies but by individuals and small groups.


Sure, there’s commercial reasons for doing this, but fundamentally it’s a love or affection towards a real world place that has been the catalyst. ‘Paris in the 1900’s‘ is an excellent examples of this. And there’s others too focusing on historic landmarks, modern-day cities, modern-day landmarks and even office buildings.

And we can’t ignore Google, or more accurately Google Earth either. Google is quietly adding additional functionality to this application and calling out to the masses to add-in the value. It started with simple tagging apps (similar to geo-tagging in Flickr) and has moved onto 3D buildings. The Google Earth blog is a great resource for more info. Google Map Street View is also worth exploring as well from a real world perspective. More musings on Google’s virtual world plans here.

So where are we going? I think the concept of fusing real world data into virtual environments is set for growth – using virtual spaces as a visualiser.This might take the simple form of using RFID feeds to show locations and then from here append other web-based geographical data into the environment. Clearly there’s uses here not just for travel/tourism but for people who live in the areas in question or even for tracking people – with their permission of course.

Graphics quality and the level of immersion facilitating by rendering should also improve massively in the near term. Whilst acting as a barrier removal in terms of assisting adoption of these apps, having near lifelike environments will also stimulate applications not on the drawing board at the moment.

The idea of being able to access real world places virtually in real time is also an interesting one. In this instance it’s not so much the static objects such as buildings that are the focus but rather the human interaction with these physical objects. News reporting is a particular little niche in this context that could led to further development.

So, the tourism and travel sector seems like an exciting place to be right now as technologies improve and converge with a net effect of allowing people to explore places they haven’t been before.

However, I can’t help thinking that ultimately it will not be the places that are important but instead the way people interact with other people in these spaces will be the reason for using geographically-based virtual worlds.