How 'Avatar' could be for real
History’s highest-grossing film has revived an interest in three-dimensional experiences that should inspire corporate site managers, David Bowen says.
|Virtual Farmers Market||Second Life|
|Buckingham Palace virtual rooms|
Is it time for 3D to come back to the serious web? When I wrote a book about ‘multimedia’ in 1993, a lot of it was about virtual reality – how we would all be wandering around in cyberspace, doing this, that and a bit of the other.
But I was talking theory. I did not have to bother about things like computer power or bandwidth, while the real world soon discovered that two dimensions were a lot easier to handle than three.
Not that developers gave up on the possibilities. I loved this one, described in a press release in June 1996: “Beginning today, people from around the world can explore a scientifically accurate, 3D model of Stonehenge from a Pentium® processor-based PC… users can navigate Stonehenge in 10 different eras from 8500BC to 2000AD”. Marvellous it was to fly through the stones; sad it is that we cannot any more.
Some people believed e-commerce would be based on virtual reality. If you could re-create the experience of walking down a supermarket aisle, that would surely be more powerful than a dull two-dimensional page.
But neither took off. Instead, virtual reality flew in different directions, most notably towards online games. My son used to be addicted to Runescape, an online world, and pretty much lived there. I saw him asking a dragon about his homework once.
Then Second Life came along. Many of us downloaded it, wandered around a bit, and got bored. A game without games – what was that about? The excitement evaporated, and the bandwagon moved Twitter-wards.
So why am I now intrigued by the Virtual Farmers Market, a 3D enterprise that seems wonderfully old-fashioned? Because it has a real business use – it is designed to make money – and because it is in sync with the current wave of third-dimensional excitement. Seen Avatar in 3D yet?
The software, downloadable from the Virtual Farmers Market website, comes from Unity Player which, as far as I can tell, is otherwise exclusively used for games. The Farmers Market opens in its own window, not web, and you move around with simple game-like controls, wandering between the stalls and turning to have a look at them. It is not much like reality, because you have to go forward, spin, go forward – more like Dalek than human movement. But it is quite engaging and you get a reasonable idea of what is on offer.
If you are interested in a stall, click and transfer to an e-commerce site selling upmarket food for home delivery. This is standard, though with one extra feature that links back to the virtual display: most pages have a ‘Meet your producers’ video, where the baker of cakes or brewer of beers tells you about his of her product. The reason, according to a video by the market’s founder, is that when people go to a real market they like to hear about the background of the products – so in that sense the video is an add-on to the virtual market. Most of the producers could do with coaching in how to make their delicious fare sound less than dull, but that’s detail.
Why is this of any interest to people who manage big web estates? Because it brings back to life the concept of virtual reality for business, and should make them think about ways to exploit it.
At the moment we have the virtual market in one window and video and e-commerce in another. There is a temptation, having jumped to the 2D website, to stay there. But what if they were integrated into the same window? Not so long ago, if you wanted video from a website you clicked and it appeared in a new window. Now, largely thanks to Flash, we expect it to appear seamlessly on the page. Let’s do the same with virtual reality.
Okay, so, we can incorporate virtual reality panels into our corporate website (let’s talk theory here). Why would we do that?
Drawing on the better bits of Second Life, here are some ideas.
The ability to move around a three-dimensional space can add spice and life. What about providing a virtual tour of your research headquarters or factory? The UK’s Queen has something close to this on her website (look at the virtual rooms in Buckingham Palace), though there you are rooted to the spot like a broken-down Dalek. Better to wander, or even fly.
Also for careers (I know HR people like to experiment) you could have meetings where jobseekers can go and ‘chat’ to your staff. I have seen this in Second Life. One advantage is that the avatars are anonymous, or at least disguised, so you can ask the silliest questions.
Let’s have live press conferences. I was a journalist for many years and got many tips by talking to the person next to me, while still listening to a speech. Not possible in a webcast, but it is in a virtual world.
Maybe we could do something similar for analysts – and while we are at it, we can give them three-dimensional charts. I have seen these on esoteric financial sites, but it could help to have a third axis when displaying simpler data: profit, share price, executive bonuses?
The world of marketing can apply its imagination to the third dimension. From straightforward e-commerce to demonstrating sophisticated machinery… whatever. Of course, virtual reality is used already, but not on the corporate site.
Finally, a third dimension could provide a new way of navigating. Maybe carmakers could let visitors drive around their sites and aircraft makers could give them planes. Here, it seems to me, we would need some sort of ‘immersive’ experience, Avatar-style. But maybe, thanks to films, we will all have 3D glasses, so it’s not such a big deal.
I’m having fun thinking in terms of theory without the bore of practicalities, as I did in the early Nineties. But theory turned into reality then; it can again.
First published on 24 February, 2010