Heritage Key comes online as Second Life for Indiana Jones wannabes

Virtual worlds can create a good deal of controversy, with some critics suggesting that the format is detrimental to real life and learning, with the emphasis tending to be on gaining virtual possessions and snogging other avatars.

We spoke to Jim Himoff, CEO of Rezzable (a virtual world operator with involvement in the likes of Second Life and Steam Fish) regarding its latest project - Heritage Key - that lets users create avatars before exploring virtual reconstructions of the most impressive historical sites from around the world.

You may not have heard of Heritage Key just yet, but the site - currently in alpha - is set to grow rapidly over the coming year offering wannabe Indiana Jones a virtual, historical world to explore from the comfort - and affordability - of their arm chair.

"Unlike Tomb Raider where they make everything up, all the information is as accurate as we can get it, sometimes we even present conflicting points of view to try to present both sides - our foundation is in accurate information", says Jon Himoff, promising a way to learn as you enjoy an online, virtual experience.

Users can choose to consume Heritage Key content in a very flexible way, but those that want to throw themselves into the experience can begin at The Time Travellers Bureau where they can start their journey before heading back in time and role-playing in various historical settings such as Stonehenge, King Tut's tomb, and among the Terracotta Warriors.

With robot tour guides on hand to engage with you, Heritage Key is all about getting (virtually) involved in the past - seeing the sights, getting a sense of the locations and picking objects up and examining them.

"We think where the Web is headed is towards an idea of participation. Is it more fun to watch Indiana Jones do something, or to role-play that and be active rather than passive?" asks Himoff.

"It is about the sense of exploring", explains the CEO. "King Tut's tomb has already been discovered for 100 years but you and I have not personally discovered it yet".

While Himhoff accepts that there's no substitution for the real thing, Heritage Key offers a solution to see ancient sites that's both environmentally friendly in terms of air miles, and nice to the sites in terms of hoards of tourists trampling over them - as well as offering more information at your fingertips than you'd likely have at the actual location.

"These are ways to have an approximated experience, in some ways better, in some ways not the same to the real one, but the cost is basically zero and the damage to the environment is much less", says Himoff.

"The world has a list now of almost 3000 ancient world sites - it's unlikely you will visit all of them, so for some the only way to visit Machu Picchu is online".

As for what we can expect in the coming months there appears to be a whole host of new content on the horizon, as Himoff himself puts it:

"Ancient World in London is an interesting concept we've launched recently. It’s a web event that mixes real world and virtual activities, allowing people to discover the secrets of London's past through a series of challenges, competitions, quizzes and quests".

Himoff also highlights a recreation of the Roman Temple of Mithras, discovered in London in 1954 and says "we're also working on some exciting upcoming projects with the British Museum".

Heritage Key is a mix of "edutainment", as Himoff himself puts it, virtual tourism and time travel with a little bit of Second Life thrown in. Although with a historical theme, the site's use of contemporary virtual world tech means there's something for both armchair historians and online gamers alike which could make for an interesting mix in the future.