Customer Interface: Multidimensional Marketing

Internet surveys show one big, happy audience, but here’s what you really need to know about Do Web-based 3-D tools have a place in the marketing department?

I’ve always been a strong detractor when it comes to chat for business purposes. Nobody types fast enough to hold my attention, and what’s created on the fly during a mangled, seven-way conversation is hardly worth reading. Chat is fine for 13-year-old boys who want to have adult conversations with 19-year-old girls who turn out to be other 13-year-old boys. But for business, it’s a bore.

I felt the same way about using virtual reality for marketing until I wandered around the Fall Internet World conference in New York just before Christmas. Maybe it was the holiday effect, but suddenly there were serious tools such as bubble pictures and zoom-in photos for making 3-D worlds.

Virtual Selling Space

Products like VRCom from ExoVision Technologies Inc. and 3D Webmaster from Superscape are what you might expect from a genetic cross between Walt Disney and Netscape Communications Corp.’s Marc Andreessen. Think Tim Berners-Lee in Toontown: blocky graphics, swirling movement and awkward controls in a reasonably representational environment. I had no trouble recognizing the virtual store or the shelves or the products on display.

In all of the virtual worlds I visited, I could walk around the “city” and find the stores and walk inside them. I could rotate a camera and see what the back of the store looked like. I could look through the viewfinder and click on the components of products to get lists of features and reams of specifications. But drawings are still drawings. I wanted photo-realism. I found it in the next aisle at the eVox Productions booth.

Say Cheese

There was such a crowd at the eVox display that I had to look over the shoulders of the people eyeing the company’s efforts. A service company, eVox uses tools like QuickTimeVR, RealVR, Oliver and a host of others to create a 360-degree panoramic view of the inside of cars on the Microsoft Corp. CarPoint site, a virtual tour of the operating rooms at Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles and even a CD-ROM that Warner-Brothers uses to describe how licensed characters like Bugs Bunny may and may not be reproduced. You end up with a photograph you can turn around in and view from all sides.

The company also creates images that can be turned and zoomed for closer inspection. Nifty. Now you can get a very close look at that Ferrari you have your eye on. The combination of 360-degree backgrounds and photographic objects you can fly around is powerful. Even nicer is the library of royalty-free VR images that eVox provides. The technology’s possibilities start the little gray cells in a marketer’s head working overtime.

But there is one drawback: eVox’s images are only 21/2-D. If you want to show off the fabulous five-story atrium interior of your new hotel, you’re stuck. You can’t look up unless you wander over to the next booth. I was stopped in my tracks at Interactive Pictures Corp. when I saw the image in the browser go from the horizon to the zenith and down the other side.

It was hard to keep my balance. I wondered how many pictures had been stitched together to make that spherical image. Turns out the answer is two 35mm, fisheye snapshots are used to create a photo-realistic, look-any-which-way-you-want image.

But I still wasn’t satisfied. I wanted more. So I went to the keynote speech given by Pepsi dropout and Apple kickout John Sculley.

Feature Applause

Sculley brought out a demo of several products from his Live Picture Inc. venture. The demo featured a full-motion video. Sculley stopped the video and zoomed out, revealing an image of the video playing on a TV set in a room. Then Sculley zoomed out again to show that the TV set was in a room of an apartment, and we were looking down the hall into the room with the TV. Once again Sculley zoomed out, showing that the apartment was on the 40th floor of a building in the middle of a city. Then the city was in a frame on an easel in the middle of a desert. He panned left and right.

On the right another TV set showed a video of a fashion show. Sculley clicked on one of the models walking down the runway and up popped information on the articles of clothing she was wearing, including pricing and a purchase form. The audience applauded. Me too.

Still, the whole thing seemed sort of empty. It was just me, wandering around in a make-believe world with rendered and photographed images. I was lonely. And I wasn’t really convinced that VR could be an effective marketing tool until I went to a milk factory in Iceland.

The Emerald City Was Never Like This

The only people who would establish an office in a refrigerator in an old milk-processing plant in Reykjavik are the kind of people who see things from a different angle. The people at OZ Interactive Inc. see things from different angles for a living. They make Web-based, 3-D, interactive, multiperson, chat-world software.

With multiuser capabilities and point-to-point audio communication, OZ Virtual allows your cartoon to do the talking and the walking. OZ Virtual is a 3-D interactive home where droids and avatars–the virtual representations of humans–play.

You can create your own avatar and not only type your thoughts through it but imbue it with an array of gestures. You can nod, shake your head, jump for joy or play air guitar if you think that will help you get your point across.

And how can this be of interest to marketers?

A farmer wants to see a head-on, 3-D rendering of the $100,000 combine he’s thinking of buying. He wants to point to the engine compartment and have the door lift away, exposing the workings inside. He wants to see what it’s going to take to switch from a 30-inch row cutter to a 23-inch row cutter. We could do all that with products on display at Internet World, but the farmer may also want to chat with some of the other farmers who are taking a look at it and get their opinions.

Your product is not as complicated as all that? The Swedish telecommunications company Ericsson has decided on the OZ solution for a virtual private trade show.

Ericsson Goes Mobile

The Ericsson World is more than a place to shop. It’s a multichambered world with different types of products in each room. Wander in and point to a specific mobile phone, and set in motion a multimedia extravaganza describing your voice communication device of choice. Confused? Lost? No problem, just call on the “angel” hovering nearby. Based on a text-analysis artificial intelligence engine, the angel becomes your guide. “Where are the smaller phones?” “Where are the PCS phones?” “Can I use this GSM phone in the United States?” These and other questions turn the angel into a consultant.

Direct answers, advice on where to look next and the ability to suggest contacting a human make this droid a true guardian angel. When it is time to talk to a human, you can actually talk; the conversation is no longer text only. In a virtual room full of avatars, you can hear the buzzing of conversations around you, but you can’t quite make out what they’re saying. You move a little closer to one group. Their voices are soon loud enough to hear, and you can join the discussion by talking through the microphone on your computer. Virtual conference, here we come.

Will 3-D virtual worlds replace trade shows? Sure! Just as soon as radio puts newspapers out of business, television kills theater and the Web is the only way people get information. Keep your fingers crossed but don’t hold your breath. In the meantime, marketers have a new arrow in their quiver, and it will be interesting to see whether these new tools increase sales or merely entertain the crowd around a booth at trade shows.