The Strange World Of 3D E-Commerce

Second Life experimentation aside, major retail chain Tweeter is wondering if 3D E-Commerce might prove to be practical and a major advance for shoppers.

When discussing the possible future intersection for E-Commerce and 3-D interactive environments with realistic avatars, the line between Web transactions and science fiction gets decidedly blurry.

But consider this scenario. A consumer shopping for a home entertainment system accesses a 3-D CADCAM representation of his home and drags it to an entertainment E-Commerce site. This large digital file, however, is much more than a mere architectural depiction of the consumer's home.

It includes window placement and the times of day—during different months—that the sun shines through various windows and at roughly what intensity and for how long. Someone has entered the style of thickness of the rug and wall-coverings and a database lookup has associated those with their likely sound-dampening characteristics.

In a surround-sound speaker purchase, the image depicts a light coming from each speaker, with a progressively lighter shade representing the weakening sound as it travels farther away from the speaker. That representation has been updated to factor in the various acoustical properties of the room.

When the customer selects a time and date, it approximates glare, to try and suggest the best placement of a monitor, given the times of day it will usually be viewed. Moving furniture around the room is a simple point-and-click.

Does this scenario drift too far into science fiction? Maybe, but Mark Stearns, the director of E-Commerce for home entertainment chain Tweeter—with more than 2,400 employees in more than 100 stores in 18 states—thinks it might happen. After all, he's paid to envision the future of home entertainment shopping.

The way most home entertainment shopping is done today has its pros and cons. Stores like Tweeter's have demonstration rooms set up to showcase their equipment. The downside is that such rooms may be unrealistically created and might deliver a sound and visual show that is unlikely to be replicated in the typical consumer home. The upside is that no PC screen or speaker is likely to accurately depict how a high-resolution screen looks or what an expensive speaker will sound like.

But if that room could be setup exactly like a typical consumer living room, it would only be like the living room of one kind of consumer. The only fair way to evaluate such equipment is with a room as close to identical to that consumer's living room as possible.

In Stearns' view, that will ultimately be done with a combination of the in-store and potentially a 3D Web experience.

But how could that sophisticated representation of the consumer's home be cost-effectively created? Tweeters is already sending employees into customers' homes. Once there, a digital camera could capture the core information about the rooms and their dimensions and window placement. A physical inspection—plus the asking of a few questions to the homeowner—could fill in the missing pieces about the carpet material, thickness of the walls, etc.

Presumably, the homeowner would be very happy to help. From the retailer's perspective, once such a digital representation was created, that customer would have a very strong incentive to shop with that retailer as the shopping experience could potentially be so much more accurate.

This is especially useful as Tweeter doesn't focus on the living room nearly as much as it does the entire house. "We'd have to be measuring out all of the sonics in the whole house," Stearns said.

Such shopping could also be practical. Which cable connectors will we need? How many? Will that 5-foot cord reach the electrical outlet on the South wall? Do we need more outlets? An extension cord?

What if the customer wants to remodel the room? Such an application could allow him to see what impact such movements would have on the surround sound system.

In the early stages of E-Commerce, e-tailers were content to replicate the functionality of in-store. Amazon's look-inside-this-book feature—intended to reproduce the in-store book browsing experience—was a good example.

But does the 3-D shopping world have the potential for sharply improving the shopping experience? Not just in terms of making it more enjoyable and easier, but with actually helping consumers make more intelligent purchase choices?

John Butler is the CEO of Kinset, which is the 3D company that Tweeter is working with. Butler said the Tweeter 3D purchase scenario is possible, but there are many hurdles that would have to be overcome.

"Going from the video to a 3-D representation that they picks up sound-reflecting characteristics of the space—whether that surface is sound-absorbent--is a tricky set of steps," Butler said, although those obstacles could be overcome in time.

Of more nearterm 3D value, Butler said, are mere size issues. For example, when shopping for a washing machine or a refrigerator, a 3D depiction could answer the question, "I like this model, but will it fit in my space? Will it fit through the door?"

"There's a lot of work that still has to be done on capturing and synthesizing 3D," Butler said.

But he argues that there is a bigger potential issue with 3D shopping. It's more "immersive" and it can force consumers "to get their brain moving into the space." Rather than create the consumer's home on the screen, why not create the retailer's storefront?

If successful, it can have a brand-reinforcing capability when that online consumer visits the store "and has a déjà vu moment," thinking that he/she has already been to the store.

"It toys with their neurological reality" and monkeys with their mental point of view, he said. "It uses different parts of your brain and it creates different memories."