akamike (2007-2010)

The Future of Internet Shopping - Virtual Worlds? I Think Not

Chix0r over at Pure Narcotic linked to an article about Shopping 3.0. The article states reasons for why Second Life will never be good for retail. I agree with that point, I believe that Virtual World Retail (VWR) will not succeed. However, I disagree with their reasons, and have a "better" explanation.

First, let's dissect this article.


First, the graphics in Second Life are not good enough for most retailers. If you can't see what something looks like, how likely are you to buy it? Second Life's graphics are about the equivalent of top end computer games in the late 90s which means that you can't see a realistic version of the object you want to buy.

Graphic quality is low in Second Life, however it still lags on many recent spec machines. The dynamic world versus our current connections speeds means we need a compromise between load times and quality. I would much rather be able to walk a while without stopping than to have to stop every step for each detail to be checked and downloaded. Anything can change at any time, unlike traditional MMOs where the players are confined to what everyone else already has, only being able to alter their avatars or cast spells. My machine has a spec of 2.2Ghz, 512MB RAM, 128MB GFX, it can run CS:S at a decent FPS rate (for me) but lags terribly all over Second Life, PC and connection.

But this can be remedied. As connections get faster and people buy more high-end machines, Linden Lab will be given the opportunity to improve the graphics technologies. I agree that retailers will not buy into VWR at the moment because they can't showcase their products, but will when things improve.


I doubt it because the online world's search system is seriously underpowered. Imagine searching the Amazon database using the system currently available in Second Life. If customers can't find the items they want to buy, how are retailers to do business? Linden Labs will need a much better search partner before these kinds of stores can become popular.

Yes, the searching capabilities are pretty bad right now. Yes, they do need a better search partner. But didn't the start of this article state the word "never"? I think that's a bit negative! Who's to say search and advertising giant Google, known for their many web 2.0 acquisitions, will not buy into this in the near future? It's another medium for them to generate revenue from sponsored results, "Wacky Joe's Car Emporium - New and Used cars from ALL OVER the REAL WORLD - Teleport NOW!". A better Second Life map powered by Google Maps, for those of us who want to take our virtual car for a digitally scenic spin, with various VWR shops marked out along the way.

Again, I agree that search is lacking currently, but never say never.

From the Real World to the Virtual

Finally, there's the problem of importing 3D objects from the real world. At present, everything in Second Life has to be built inside the world using the tools provided by Linden Labs. So if you want to sell your fridge, you need to build an online model from scratch before anybody can interact with it. You could post a photo but then, why not use Ebay?

3D modelling is not particularly difficult when it comes to it's primitive objects, but yes it is awkward to ask Joe Smith to model his sofa so he can sell it online. However, if a company though the time and money put into recreating their product virtually was worth the income, they would do it. They would probably even have their own division to do it with every new item as it comes, in fact the manufacturer could even make and sell the models to resellers and make even more money.

Now, how about technology that can scan a real world object, build up a virtual copy, and allow you to add details like "this button makes the flashy lights come on!" or whatever your product does? Quick and easy. In fact, we already have 3D scanners. Again, fair enough, we can't ask Joe Smith to splash out on one of these in case he has more sofa's to sell in the future.

OK, I think I may be going a little far here. I've probably mixed a few things up, the article is specifically about Second Life and why it will never be good for VWR. However, my point still stands that all these problems are subject to change. Saying never is too negative, it is possible for all this to change, given time. My goal with this post is to extend beyond Second Life, to the future of online retail in virtual worlds. As far as Second Life goes right now, it is a testing ground for the future.

Not Practical

A user walking around a virtual shop is not as practical as pulling up a company's web page. If you want to look around, go to a real shop. With a web page, you don't have to worry about bumping into other customers (particularly griefers), you don't have to worry about them eyeing up your purchases, or even knowing you are in a certain dodgy shop. "Eric is ONLINE in Soho, DigiLondon". One of the benefits of online shopping is privacy, you in your own home buying what you want without anyone knowing. Your focus is on the product and it's details, whether that's the cost, picture/video or functions, you don't have the distractions of irrelevant things (Note: Ads are a problem on web pages if they are not relevant and are flashy, but good stores will know to move away from that kind of thing).

End of The World

Not the real world, the virtual one. Take out the world and give us the interactivity. Provide 3D models that can be interacted with (via Flash?) on the web page, transitioning into videos of common practices smoothly. I have no problems with current online shopping, but if people want more then the answer is not virtual world. The answer is a more rich multimedia experience that builds on the simple e-commerce methods we have, sell and buy faster while improving the experience. The retailers biggest interest is how many users they can convert into buyers, not how many users can find their way round their digital store and play with things.

Already There

I admit that it may work if the world is already there, like Second Life, if the users spend most of their life in the virtual world. Some people might enjoy being able to take a short break from their role-playing or gaming to wander over to a virtual store and buy something, without having to close it down to load up the browser, then load back up their game again when they are done. If companies find there is a market there then they will go there, my views on the subject is mainly how these virtual shops will not replace your web page.

But then again, I am sure we all look forward to "virtual dial-up" in our virtual homes, so we don't have to leave them, to access e-commerce sites within them.



I tend to agree that the current SL application isn't sufficient for most retail applications; however, I've previously posited ( http://blog.rebang.com/?p=1027 ) that part of going fully open source is a new application - an SL 2.0. There are a number of issues they could resolve that they're probably having difficulty with now; asset server being one.

I recently posted about the NY Times' article ( http://blog.rebang.com/?p=1299 ) if you're interested. Given some of your comments, you might especially enjoy reading the other post I mention at the end as it goes further than anything I've yet read. Hope you find it worth your time.

All the best.


I still can't see beyond the fact that there is absolutely no point in going to a 3rd party virtual retailer when most companies provide their own webstore.

Working for dA Prints, I'd be really pissed off to see shitty quality renders in a second world 'dA prints' rather than the high end browsing which our native store offers.


csven - Thanks for your links, I didn't know some of these things about SL (like the plans to release it to open source). They were very helpful!

chix0r - That's one of my points exactly! Why go to the trouble of reproducing something that is hardly practical, when a company could simply enrich their site with better media.


You're both aware that people can surf to a website from within Second Life, yes? Currently it only opens the browser, but the intent is to bring the browser *inside* SL, so sites will be viewable within the virtual world.

Linden Lab has actually gotten some of the Mozilla code in, but apparently they'd not solved bringing all the webpage content types into the client. I expect they'll solve this soon enough. VRML has had the capability for years, and Croquet has not only the ability to bring in a browser, but *any* application (i.e. if you run an app at home and p2p with a friend elsewere, the two of you can enter a Croquet space and you can load your app into it and they can control it from within the space).


Well that's fair enough, but that's not an evolution of e-commerce, since they are just accessing the same sites as before. My post is more about the lack of practicality of virtual shops that you can walk around in and look at products.
But yes, running a browser within SL would be much better, being able to interact with the virtual world while accessing a web site (or application) is much better. :)