E-Commerce Yet to Embrace Virtual Reality

FRAMINGHAM (05/03/2000) - Imagine being able to sell everyday items via the Web by presenting them in 3-D form so buyers could turn them at any angle inside a virtual-reality store.

It's not a dream, because there is a grab bag of technologies available to do this. Web authoring tools supporting Virtual Reality Modeling Language (VRML) 2.0, Microsoft Corp.'s DirectX and Sun Microsystem Inc.'s Java 3-D APIs can all be used to build and display 3-D rendering of images. And there are "near 3-D" technologies, such as Macromedia Inc.'s Flash and Apple Computer Inc.'s QuickTime Virtual Reality, good enough to be called "2-D and a half."

Even though virtual reality has worked well for online games and military training (the British army trains its bomb-detection squad using 3-D visualization), the technology has yet to catch on among e-commerce sites, which remain a flat land of two-dimensional photos.

One drawback to 3-D technologies for e-commerce companies is that online shoppers might need a special browser plug-in to interactively view images, as is the case with VRML or QuickTime Virtual Reality. Also, e-commerce sites can't count on shoppers being willing to download anything.

Microsoft's DirectX is also a problem. The online shopper's operating system has to have a DirectX control component buried within, and Windows 95 - which doesn't have it - crashes when an attempt is made to download the component.

If a commerce site were built using Sun's Java 3-D APIs, the situation would still be ugly. Neither Netscape nor Microsoft browsers include the APIs, so the online shopper would have to download them. Fat chance of that, observers say.

And "fat" is part of the hefty APIs' problem. Critics claim Sun's approach to 3-D is fine for large file visualization applications used for training, but it's too clunky for e-commerce.

Sun, which offers a free 3-D viewer for download, doesn't agree that its APIs are not well-suited for business-to-consumer e-commerce. Michael Shulman, Sun's Java 3-D product manager, acknowledges that the APIs are finding the most use in Java-based CAD/CAM applications. He notes that Palo Alto start-up Webscope makes a Java 3-D-based application for collaborative design.

IBM's answer

IBM Corp. avoids some of Sun's problems with its own Java-based HotMedia tool kit, which doesn't use Sun's APIs but requires the Web visitor to have a Java-based browser. IBM's technology shows Java can be used to deliver a 360-degree panorama with combined audio-visuals.

With HotMedia 2.5, an object can spin on its axis, but the rotation stops short of true 3-D.

"It's a work in progress," says Jai Menon, IBM's director of Web content management solutions. Menon says IBM has shown in a lab that it can combine 3-D VRML with its technology to deliver 3-D imaging to a Java browser.

Though not officially announced, the next version of HotMedia appears likely to support VRML, delivering it through IBM's data compression technology for use over low-bandwidth connections. VRML will be part of the upcoming MPEG 4.0 multimedia standard.

Sore point for e-comm sites

IBM and others, including London's Superscape, have developed data compression technologies to shrink 3-D files for download to online shoppers. But the issue of bandwidth-hogging 3-D files remains a sore point for some e-commerce sites.

Sports clothing retailer Boo.com started this past year as a 3-D virtual dressing room so online shoppers could try on clothes.

But "this was only compelling at 56K bit/sec and above," says Jay Herratti, the firm's president of North American operations. Two months ago, Boo.com launched a second version of its site, minus the 3-D effects it had developed using Macromedia's Flash technology.

"We had invested a lot of money to make each item three-dimensional, so you could spin and zoom," Herratti says. But it proved not to be all that practical, he says.

Acer Inc. recently abandoned an extensive trial of several Web 3-D technologies for e-commerce, including the hosted 3-D service from Graphic Gems. This image-hosting service converts two-dimensional images into 3-D based on the rendering engine in Microsoft's DirectX 7.0 software developers kit.

For Acer, combining 3-D images with e-commerce shopping carts was not a smooth mix, however, and 3-D was blamed for causing Acer's Web server to crash frequently.

Another online merchant, Dynadirect.com Inc., is using the Graphic Gems' hosted 3-D imaging service successfully to sell consumer electronics online.

"The images and 3-D program are hosted on the Graphic Gems servers, and we only need to reference the location of the images with a Java pop-up script," a company spokesman says. However, Web visitors with Windows 95 computers will find that their computers crash when downloading the technology to see 3-D images.

Special skills needed

Even without the crashes, 3-D and near 3-D take special expertise. Edmonton's cybermall Canadashop.com uses IBM's HotMedia to deliver a panoramic view of the inside of a shop called The Plate Connection, which sells its goods online at the cybermall. HotMedia can also fold in audio-visuals or streaming audio.

"They wanted a virtual tour of the store, with a 3-D rendering of some of the plates," says John Putters, Canadashop.com's president. "But there's little customer feedback. I'm not sure it's changing people's buying habits." It takes a minute or so for the 3-D Java applet to run, adding a slight delay to the visitor's viewing time.

Creating 3-D takes special care. A Sony digital camera will deliver a JPEG file that IBM's HotMedia tool kit can render as 3-D. In addition, there are cameras, such as Dimension 3D, that create 3-D images. Canadashop.com discovered it's necessary to have flat, even lighting when an item's picture is taken.

Otherwise, the item doesn't even look the same in 3-D when it's rotated.

Despite its difficulties, virtual reality has many fans who hope to see its use spread from games and training to e-commerce.

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