Gibbs' column: Virtualising business

Virtualising is one of the most important issues of the Internet era. Indeed, the idea has become a Hollywood staple: just consider The Lawnmower Man, the awful adaptation of Johnny Mnemonic, and the latest blockbuster, The Matrix. This translation of science fact into science fiction makes virtualisation as part of everyday life seem to be just around the corner.

But in the business world, things are much more complex. It is not always easy to translate our business services and functions so they make sense online.

Consider newspapers: The real-world version of a newspaper is made up of the text and graphic content expressed in ink smeared on crushed dead trees. The online version is the same content wrapped in data structures (HTML) and smeared on a display.

From this example, we see that the part of the product that is constant and portable when we virtualise it is the content, while the delivery mechanism is the variable. But that's not all there is to virtualising a product -- there are a lot of other dimensions of real-world business to consider.

In particular, the process of making a buying decision can be very different online. While this process is easily virtualised for products such as newspapers and CDs, selling clothing, for instance, is a completely different proposition.

In the real world, you go to the store, you look at clothes on mannequins, feel the materials, compare colours and indulge in all the sensory stimuli. Quite obviously, this is a different ball o' wax online.

Until recently, the experience of online shopping for clothes was not much different from shopping from a catalogue, but Land's End (http://www.landsend.com) has very cleverly added a whole new dimension to the process.

On the Land's End site you can go to "My Model" and define a virtual model with your general physical characteristics (narrow, regular or broad shoulders, for example) and a picture of what appears to be a computer-rendered mannequin is displayed.

But this only works for women. Land's End hasn't done the same for men, teens or children yet, and, to my surprise, doesn't say up front that the My Model service is for women only or note when the rest of us will be represented.

But if you are a woman, once you've defined your body type you can select clothes, place them in a virtual dressing room, go to the dressing room and see them modelled. Very cool.

I'm not sure why the intermediate step of the dressing room is needed rather than offering, say, a "model this" button. Land's End also offers a tailored shirt selector that uses a Java applet to provide a hierarchical style selector with virtual fabric swatches. When you've made all of your choices you are shown a picture of the final shirt -- also very cool.

This is the first time I've seen these things done quite so well. Of course, we could ask for more. For example, how about giving your actual measurements and a photograph of yourself so you can see what you'd really look like? How about having the virtual model rotate? What about having the model walk and sit?

And you know what? We don't have to ask, these things will happen soon enough. After all, one thing that virtualises extremely well is competitive pressure.

Actualities to nwcolumn@ gibbs.com or +1 (800) 622-1108, Ext. 7504

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