Just to break away from my normal coverage of Second Life, I thought you might be interested to hear about Brookstone, a gadget retailer in the US, who have just unveiled a 3D e-commerce website. The site has been built by Kinset, whose own website describes them as "a leader in the development of 3D immersive online stores. " The stores carry all the major characteristics sought in a virtual world: "Shoppers can chat with store clerks, and shop with friends. It is designed to appeal to shoppers who enjoy shopping, and prefer shopping in stores to shopping on web pages."
To access the 3D immersive online store you will need to download a client component from the Kinset website. Unfortunately, probably due to firewall constraints at work, I have not been able to use the client, as it is unable to access the "asset server." So, for the time being at least, I am not able to comment on the user experience. Instead I will have to rely on the observations in StorefrontBacktalk, an excellent blog about technology in retail. Evan Schuman, the blog's author invited a number of friends and associates to have a go, then pulled together their observations. Apologies for the large slab lifted verbatim, but I think it makes an interesting read - and will no doubt be very familiar to Second Life residents!
In summary, this is a very impressive first effort. That said, the interface needs considerable work. Most of the help screens are not especially intuitive, leaving people with questions such as 'how do I move forward?' Turns out you can use the arrow keys or certain keyboard letters, but both will be blocked apparently if your mouse gets grouchy.Interesting eh? I don't know what underlying technology is being used here, but it will be interesting to see how this evolves over the coming months. Kinset have included a number of machinima movies on their website to give you a feel - here's just one of them:
The display does show images of a very long list of items. But the images are small enough that they don't mean anything until the customer is right on top of them and zooms in. The intended effortless walking through the aisles where an attractive product catches your eye isn't working here.
Those were the core complaints, namely that it was difficult to use and, even when it worked, it didn't seem to deliver any advantage compared with the retailer's traditional Web site. Some complained that the site simply didn't work, with mouseclicks ignored. I experienced several of those myself.
The navigation seemed to be the biggest problem. Said one colleague: "Looking at the floor (so I could move around the store) gave me a virtual pain in my neck."
I found that my character would apparently accelerate out of control periodically, giving me no option but to deliberately crash him into the wall to get him to stop. This was simultaneously frustrating and enjoyable, in a Gomez Addams model train set kind of way.
One especially astute observer went through the site and she had the ultimate big picture objection: "My initial take was: what is the point? It's faster to do a text search or browse a category than to browse through this store. You can't see the items until you are on top of them anyway, so there's no advantage visually. It's hard and frustrating to navigate. The rise of the web has contributed to my short attention span. I didn't have the patience to play with this for more than a few minutes."
What Brookstone is attempting is an order of magnitude beyond what any other large retailer has tackled. They should be commended for trying and for reminding the industry what the future of E-Commerce might look like.
Indeed, I won't even suggest that Brookstone and Kinset got it wrong. This is extremely dicey stuff they're struggling with and there are no models out there. The problem with being a trendsetter, a true pioneer, is that it's easy to criticize even though they are lightyears beyond what anyone else has done.
Remember how clunky the initial Web sites were? I remember painfully trying to navigate SEC Edgar records—back around 1993—on this new thing called the Web, working with a text browser. Graphical browsers were still many months away.
So maybe Retail3.D is not so far away.