December 19, 2000, 3:12 PM — IF YOU'RE GOING to promise customers that they can test-drive a car or try on clothes over the world wide web, it better be a true-to-life experience. That's why G.Wagen.USA, Lands' End and a growing number of businesses are experimenting with the rapidly emerging field of three-dimensional web technology.
For its part, G.Wagen.USA is developing a multidimensional website for the Gelaendewagen by Mercedes-Benz, or G-Wagen. The site's thousands of digitized images will enable visitors to view the sport utility vehicle from almost any perspective, says David T. Holland, president and CEO of G.Wagen.USA in Santa Fe, N.M. "Ultimately, we will have a virtual showroom that will allow people to view different colors and options, walk around, see what the vehicle's inside looks like-even test-drive an off-road course," he says. "It's a very good way of showing how the vehicle performs."
Yet while Holland and others are counting on 3-D to add new levels of excitement and realism to e-commerce websites, the technology is burdened with a disappointing history. From red-and-blue glasses to virtual reality modeling language, or VRML, nothing has helped to extend the reach of 3-D from the world of action games and niche applications to the business mainstream. Until now. "ATEOTD At the end of the day"Although development and implementation pitfalls remain, 3-D technology is helping e-tailers give online shoppers ways of viewing, testing and selecting products in ways that nearly mimic a real-world experience. Innovative tools-including server software, application development systems and browser plug-ins-combined with swifter internet access speeds, are finally transforming 3-D from an attention-starved teenager into a solid corporate citizen.
In the past two years, 3-D web development products have flooded the market. Market leaders include MetaCreations' MetaStream 3-D streaming format; Flatland Online's 3DML, a markup language similar to HTML; Play Inc.'s Amorphium graphics engine; Oz.Com's Fluid3D plug-in for RealNetworks' RealPlayer G2; and Cycore's Cult3D modeling application. There is also an array of specialty tools from a wide range of vendors. "Vendors are viewing 3-D as one of the web's next frontiers," says Vijay Kanabar, director of the e-commerce master's degree program at Boston University. "With bandwidth costs plummeting and technologies improving, retailers are finding themselves free to experiment with new, innovative technologies."