3-D simulation: Coming soon to a Net near you

Virtual reality video games may have snagged most of the 3-D and simulation spotlight, but a steadily growing interest in using the graphics technologies for business has many companies looking to loosen the entertainment world's hold on the best simulation technology.

Companies are combining improved graphics technology with advances in compression technology to make 3-D and simulation applications useful in business scenarios, such as improving e-commerce and online catalogs and kicking up training and customer service programs.

"These simulate the real experience -- you could see what the product looks like, turn it over, examine it, take it apart if you had a 3-D application of the product," explains Rikki Kirzner, research director for application development and deployment at IDC, in Framingham, Mass. "For most people, information is much more effective if it's transmitted with a visual component."

According to Lori Dustin, president of Virtue3D Ltd., a 3-D application provider in Nadick, Mass., the technology can help cut tech support costs, because a good online simulation can show a customer how to fix a problem or program a just-bought device.

"I think humans are much more willing to see a video or an animation in 3-D than pick up a manual that's 500 pages and read through the text," she says.

The applications' large file sizes -- some files can easily reach more than 5MB in size because of their graphics-intense nature -- previously kept many businesses and consumers from seeing 3-D as anything more than a connection-clogging toy. Despite the evolution of the industry, Kirzner believes that ultimately, bandwidth "is going to be the bottleneck."

No limits on the Web

The idea of providing a more realistic experience online with simulation programs, coupled with the fact that the Web is not limited by physical boundaries, have companies banking on analysts' predictions that high-speed connections will soon become much more common in homes and businesses.

"I think 3-D technology is going to be the future way that people really interact with the Internet, whether it's shopping or playing a game or visiting different sites," says Miki Racine, director of Internet and e-commerce at LimitedToo.

With a primary target of 7-to 14-year-old girls and a secondary target of those who shop for them, Columbus, Ohio-based LimitedToo has a catalog, a brick-and-mortar business, and LimitedToo.com, which launched in February 2000 as a content-only site before adding e-commerce in May.

After adding 3-D technology in July, Racine says the site has seen about a 30 percent increase in time spent on the site and page views. Since the younger girls aren't able to buy online, 3-D technology gives them a fun way to look at clothing and entertainment products but also provides a service for older shoppers, without slowing Web performance.

"My sense is that kids, when they're online, would get frustrated if things took tons of time to download, not to mention the adults," she explains. "I really didn't want to get into it until I thought it was going to be almost immediate, if not automatic, and the downloading and work the user has to do would be minimal."

This reasoning led Racine to Virtue3D, which, according to Dustin, can compress large files into files "as small as 20K" and has a light viewer that downloads in 1 to 2 minutes at 56.6K, faster with a cable or DSL connection.

"We don't think 3-D is going to add a lot of value to selling books or CDs, but with those high-ticket or more complex items, we think 3-D adds enough value that consumers are willing to install the viewer by waiting a few seconds," she says.

Your simulation service

Several companies are offering to deliver simulations of products so that a company need not develop the technology internally. Kirzner believes these companies "potentially could fire this market up if their price points continue to be acceptable to end-users."

Newton, Iowa-based Maytag jumped on the simulation bandwagon in September 2000 with their Neptune washer and dryer, which have new, and potentially confusing, digital displays.

"With that digital interface, we were saying, 'We've got to find some way to demo this and display it on the Web,' " says Ken Boyle, vice president and general manager of Maytag's e-commerce team, adding that research indicates that about 70 percent of consumers who buy products in stores first research those purchases online.

Using e-SIM's simulation and LiveManuals technology, Maytag allows users to "test-drive" the interface online. e-SIM also lets users create training simulations or troubleshooting programs to answer questions.

"Consumers in general are not hesitant to spend more money if they understand what they're getting," says Bill Sims, president and CEO of e-SIM's LiveProducts division. "But [often] the interaction they get when they intend to make the purchase is not satisfactory and they end up [deciding] on price rather than the product itself."

Maytag will soon implement a "collaborative commerce strategy," partnering with retailers so a consumer can view a simulation and buy the product right away, Boyle says.

"If the Web is going to evolve to the next stage of its development, giving you personalization [and] a more realistic experience simulating shopping, it has to go this way," says IDC's Kirzner. "It would really give online shopping the kick it needs to fulfill the promise we've talked about for the last year and a half."

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