Armchair Traveling Goes Virtual

Imagine a reality in which you can be in San Francisco chatting with someone in Singapore, while hanging out by the Louvre in Paris. Well, it might look something like Journeys, a virtual "Planet Earth" where you can visit the world's cities and landmarks from the comfort of your chair.

Journeys provides a multi-user game-like environment that lets you interact with other travelers exploring this virtual world from their own chair halfway across the globe. Factor in the engaging, well-designed interface and great graphics and you have the makings of one cool site.


Characters, Castles, Hovercrafts, Oh, My!

The first thing you do after you register and log in on Journeys is to choose a character. You can tell your character where to go and have it interact with other players online.

You then choose a house for your home base, which doubles as a guesthouse for other players, and a vehicle to take you around the world. So if you've ever fantasized about flying around the world in a hovercraft à la Star Wars, or having your very own castle ... Me, I've always wanted to ride in a hot air balloon.


Virtual Globetrotting

On Journeys, you navigate a world map that's based on global NASA satellite imagery from Yahoo! Maps. Major cities are marked, as well as some popular sightseeing destinations, all accessible with a single click.

Journeys also helps players learn about different destinations. Clicking on a city or destination will bring up a brief description along with a photo.

You can land your vehicle at a number of famous sites, such as the Taj Mahal in India and New York's Central Park. Upon landing, a gorgeously photographed image of the landscape appears, and superimposed on top of the image is your character, which can walk around the screen as if he or she is really there. The fun part is having the ability to chat with other players if they happen to be checking out the same destination at that moment.

Although instant messaging with avatars is not a new concept, the character-to-character chat function, against the backdrop of exotic locations, really adds to the experience of meeting virtual globetrotters from different parts of the world. Plus, the graphics are neat and fun, especially the cute speech bubbles.

Lily, the Lonely GlobetrotterLily, the Lonely Globetrotter

You can also go on long journeys by selecting a trip from the "Journey Planner." Each trip consists of an itinerary of places relating to a particular theme, such as "Seven Wonders of the World" and "Survivor Shooting Locations." Strangely, and disappointingly, the trip takes place when you're offline, but you can track your progress when you log in. The site provides snippets of your adventures while you're on a trip, such as which character you met up with and whose house you stayed in. However, since these "adventures" are automatically generated, the site is not as immersive as I would have wished.


Looking Toward a Beta World

Journeys is still being developed at the alpha stage, so expect to come across bugs and errors. Some of the features (including a currency meter and guesthouse ratings meter) aren't available yet, and the number of places you can visit is very limited. Even with more destinations, it might be difficult for the site, as it is now, to keep people engaged and coming back.

According to the site description, Journeys gives players "the fun feeling of getting to exciting places through virtual trips," and enables them to interact with one another and trade tips. Other than the ability to add friends to a buddy list, send e-mails and chat online with other travelers, the site doesn't offer many tools that would encourage an open exchange of travel information, especially for those who aren't crazy about instant messaging complete strangers. Journeys in alpha functions more like an interactive travel gallery and instant messenger than a social networking site for travelers (see WAYN for an example of the latter). Also, the fact that virtual trips take place offline seems out of whack with the spirit of journeying to exciting places.

Personally, I'm hoping that Journeys in beta will have more interactivity and game features. For example, it might be fun for players to be able to share pictures of places from their own travels or to create journeys for others to partake in. The site currently offers a virtual travel journal in which entries are, again, site-generated based on places you've visited, but it would be more engaging to be able to write your own entry. This greedy armchair globetrotter would also love to see a panoramic view of the landscapes.

Lily at the Louvre, attempting a chatLily at the Louvre, attempting a chat

Overall, the site is easy to use, and the interface is intuitive and straightforward. The concept is cool, and the graphics help to make Journeys special. If this alpha site is anything to go by, then I can't wait to see what Journeys in beta will be like.

Of course, nothing beats experiencing a place firsthand. But if you have an itch to travel that you need to scratch and haven't the time and/or money to do it for real, you can check out Journeys for a nice change of scenery: breathtaking destinations around the world, right at your fingertips.