E-Commerce has yet to embrace virtual reality

On-line shopping can be a tough sell, as it is often difficult to evaluate products through the medium of a flat CRT.

But if goods are presented in 3D form, buyers can turn them to any angle inside a virtual-reality store, and this is becoming more practicable as a grab bag of 3D-enabling technologies are moving onto the market.

Web authoring tools supporting Virtual Reality Modeling Language (VRML) 2.0, Microsoft Corp.’s DirectX and Sun Microsystem Inc.’s Java 3D APIs can all be used to build and display 3D rendering of images. And there are “near-3D” technologies, such as Macromedia Inc.’s Flash and Apple Computer Inc.’s QuickTime Virtual Reality, which are often called “2-D and a half.”

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

One drawback to 3D technologies for e-commerce companies is that on-line 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 on-line shopper’s operating system has to have a DirectX control component buried within, and Windows 95 – which doesn’t have it – can crash when an attempt is made to download the component.

If a commerce site were built using Sun’s Java 3D APIs, the situation could still be ugly. Neither Netscape nor Microsoft browsers include the APIs, so the on-line shopper would have to download them. And there’s slim chance of that, observers say.

Also, some critics claim Sun’s approach to 3D is fine for large file visualization applications used for training, but it’s too clunky for e-commerce.

Sun, which offers a free 3D viewer for download, doesn’t agree that its APIs are not well-suited for business-to-consumer e-commerce. Michael Shulman, Sun’s Java 3D 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 3D-based application for collaborative design.

IBM’s alternative

IBM Corp. has worked to avoid 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 3D.

“It’s a work in progress,” said Jai Menon, IBM’s director of Web content management solutions. Menon said IBM has shown in a lab that it can combine 3D VRML with its technology to deliver 3D 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

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

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

But “this was only compelling at 56Kbps and above,” said Jay Herratti, the firm’s president of North American operations. Two months ago, Boo.com launched a second version of its site, minus the 3D 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 said, but it proved not to be all that practical.

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

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

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

“The images and 3D 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 said. However, Web visitors with Windows 95 computers will find their computers crash when downloading the technology to see 3D images.

Special skills needed

Even without the crashes, 3D and near-3D require 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 on-line at the cybermall. HotMedia can also fold in audio-visuals or streaming audio.

“They wanted a virtual tour of the store, with a 3D rendering of some of the plates,” said 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 3D Java applet to run, adding a slight delay to the visitor’s viewing time.

Creating 3D takes special care. A Sony digital camera will deliver a JPEG file that IBM’s HotMedia tool kit can render as 3D. In addition, there are cameras, such as Dimension 3D, that create 3D 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 3D 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.