Emerging Technology

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."

This current crop of 3-D tools marks a major advancement over previous-generation products. "VRML-based software, for example, was cumbersome and slow," says David Schweitzer, G.Wagen.USA's acting CIO. The latest 3-D software, while functional at speeds as slow as 28.8Kbps, doesn't sacrifice quality for efficiency. "On our simulation, the windshields and the chrome reflect a desert landscape. As you drive, the reflections shift in perspective," says Schweitzer. "Photo realism really enhances believability."

Features Extract Steep Price

G.Wagen.USA is basing its 3-D presentations on Cult3D from Cycore in Uppsala, Sweden. The Cult3D rendering engine allows users to move through a 3-D image "CO-LO Short for co-location, as in outsourcing of websites"using their mouse as a controller. Animations can be embedded into any HTML page and viewed with standard browsers using a free plug-in that end users must download. Connections can be as slow as 28.8Kbps without losing interactivity or image quality.

But eye-catching 3-D features can come at a steep price. Creating a 3-D websitte is a tedious, costly and time-consuming process. The G-Wagen project requires five full-time digital artists, who are painstakingly creating a stream of images and data. Site development has taken at least three-quarters of a year. "The good news is that once you've assembled all the specifications, you can use the data in thousands of different ways. At that point, the time from development to deployment moves quite rapidly," says Schweitzer.

The 3-D Catalog

The complexity of 3-D development is driving some businesses, such as The Sharper Image, to outsource development and implementation work. The specialty-item retailer is using 3-D to create an online version of its storefront shopping experience. "It's hard to find people who are skilled in this quickly moving technology, so we decided it would be more cost-effective to use an external provider," says Meredith Medland, former director of the San Francisco-based internet division of The Sharper Image.

For the 3-D work, the company tapped Viewpoint Digital, a subsidiary of Islandia, N.Y.-based Computer Associates. Viewpoint generated 3-D images of more than 20 products. Using a free Shockwave plug-in and their mouse, shoppers can manipulate the products in an infinite variety of viewing positions. "Sound support allows users to hear sounds generated by each product, such as a CD being ejected from a player," says Sandeep Divekar, Computer Associates' senior vice president of visualization strategy.

Medland believes that 3-D technology has exerted a positive effect on The Sharper Image's website and bottom line. Since the technology was introduced to the site in March 1999, page views are up 300 percent, and there has been a 50 percent increase in time spent in areas of the site that feature 3-D images (although some of that added time may be the result of users with 28.8 and 56Kbps modems waiting to download images). Medland notes that The Sharper Image racked up $4.9 million in internet sales during 1998; she expects 1999 sales to reach over $25 million.

Clothe Me in 3-D

Lands' End, the Dodgeville, Wis., catalog and storefront clothing retailer, is using web 3-D technology to help shoppers evaluate garments on lifelike models before making a purchase. It is using My Virtual Model software from Public Technologies Multimedia in Montreal to allow customers to create a customized 3-D model that reflects their unique physical proportions as well as face shape, hair style and skin tone.

My Virtual Model is an application server that provides 3-D graphics to any standard web browser without the need for additional plug-ins. An object-oriented design and an open applications programming interface (API) allows the software to run alongside major e-commerce and legacy retail systems.

The site enables shoppers to find garments that fit properly and enhance their particular body type. "We wanted to solve the age-old problem of, 'What size am I at your company?'" says Elizabeth Ragone, Lands' End's e-Merchant. The female model can be rotated 360 degrees, allowing shoppers to view a garment from various angles.

Ragone says implementing the software took a dedicated effort by a team of staff and outside resources over the course of several months. Over the past year, it has become one of the site's most popular features, with more than 450,000 users creating models since its implementation in November 1998 through June 1999. The technology also helps Lands' End get a better understanding of its web shoppers, since styles, colors, sizes and other preferences selected by users are automatically stored in a demographics database. "It has turned out to be a big plus for the company and the site," she says.

Growing Pains, Future Gains

Pluses aside, potential adopters need to be aware of some pitfalls. "The biggest mistake organizations make when implementing web 3-D is not doing their homework," says G.Wagen.USA's Schweitzer. With so many options available, the best way to zero-in on a technology, he says, is to thoroughly test all likely candidates. "It's hard to rely solely on recommendations or impartial analyses, since a 3-D tool that's suitable for one type of website may not be right for your needs."

3-D overkill is another trap, says Amber Eaves, an editor at news giant CNN Interactive in Atlanta, who specializes in technology. CNN is using 3-D on its site to bring context and depth to complex news stories. "You really have to find a reason to use 3-D. Too many companies give no thought to placement and context and simply spread 3-D throughout a site," she says.

Yet despite current growing pains, 3-D's evolution into a major web force seems to be unstoppable. "In the future, we will see more and more retailers using 3-D technology as a way to attract customers," says Boston University's Kanabar. "I think we're looking at an important new way of using the web to generate sales."

This story, "Emerging Technology" was originally published by CIO.

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