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ELECTRONIC EXPLORER

Preview Where You're Going, Onscreen in 3-D

April 08, 2001|LAURA BLY

Yes, cybertravelers, it has come to this: Thanks to the wonders of Web technology, you can now take a virtual spin in a Chevy Impala, courtesy of Avis at http://www.avis.com.

Whether you really need or want a 360-degree view of the interior of a rental car-especially a view that could take more than half a minute to load on your computer screen-is another matter. But in the escalating battle for the eyeballs and credit cards of online travelers, interactive panoramic images are cropping up everywhere.

At least a third of major hotel chains and 60% of cruise line and cruise booking sites offer virtual tours of some sort, says Krista Pappas, senior travel analyst at Gomez, an Internet research firm. And because they don't necessarily require high-speed Internet connections, panoramic photos are becoming more popular as a way to showcase a travel destination or product.

"There's clearly a demand for visual information that goes beyond static pictures," says David MacLaren, president of MaxVR.com at http://www.maxvr.com, a company that incorporates panoramic images with destination maps. "You can see whether a beach is small or expansive, whether it's lush and green or more desert-like, whether the sand is yellow or white. And ... you can explore the scene at your own will."

To be sure, those explorations aren't always seamless. Critics complain that many panoramic images remain geared to the estimated 7 million Internet households with cable, DSL or other high-speed connections, while dial-up users encounter grainy resolutions and lengthy download times.

Others note the need to download special software before viewing some versions. Moreover, even high-speed users risk running low on memory if they don't shut down other applications before downloading panoramic shots.

"Good interactive panoramas only sit comfortably on CD-ROMs," says Dave Pitchford, an Internet consultant whose own site, http://www.pitchford.com, includes a gallery of his 360-degree travel photos. "On the Web, the forced waits often detract so much from the experience that expectation rarely meets reality-and when the 'gee-whiz' period passes, the viewer is disenchanted."

One intriguing example in Pitchford's gallery: a scene from Sarajevo's Avatar Cafe, whose clientele includes "disaffected aid workers, war heroes, bullnecked soldiers, New York bankers, spies and homeless writers."

Assuming you have a speedy Internet connection-or a willingness to wait for what can be eye-popping results-here are a few more examples of sites that offer a screen with a view:

* Canada.com, http://www.canada.co m/travel/virtualtours: Supplies in-teractive, map-based tours of more than a dozen cities and regions worldwide, including Cuba -with no plug-ins required on most browsers.

* Travel Channel, http://www.travel .discovery.com/tools/gallerypages/ip ix/ipix.html: Earth-to-sky views in more than four dozen locations, from Petra, Jordan, to Beluga Point, Alaska.

* California Assn. of Bed and Breakfast Inns, http://www.innaccess .com/maps. Can't stand the idea of staying in a B&B with teddy bears and ruffled bedspreads? Check out a room before you check in via virtual tours of 195 member inns.

* Dizzycity, http://www.dizzycity.com: This virtual slice of the Big Apple features more than 2,500 full-perspective panoramas and 20,000 close-up shots of restaurants, hotels and other points of interest, all integrated with street maps.

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Electronic Explorer appears once a month. Laura Bly welcomes comments and questions; her e-mail address is http://LSBly@aol.com.

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