3D Animation Workshop: Lesson 95: From Sci-Fi to E-Commerce | 2 | WebReference

3D Animation Workshop: Lesson 95: From Sci-Fi to E-Commerce | 2

Lesson 95 - From Sci-Fi to E-Commerce - Part 2

Rob Rothfarb, Blaxxun's Technical Evangelist in San Francisco, explained the company's mission in terms of the three C's - Commerce, Community and Collaboration. The centerpiece of their product line is the Blaxxun Community Platform – multi-user client-server technology that allows many visitors to share the same 3D space. In a working manifestation of the classic sci-fi VRML vision, visitors to a site running on the Blaxxun server are represented by avatars. Each visitor sees through the "eyes" of his or her avatar, as it is navigated through the scene. (You can even step back and watch your own avatar from behind.) As your avatar approaches another visitor, you can engage in conversation using different variations of standard chat technology.

Blaxxun offers alternatives on the client side, but the primary one is Blaxxun Contact. This is a free plug-in application that provides a 3D VRML viewer with accompanying text display. There is also a "text-to-speech" feature that vocalizes the message typed in by visitors, and which I found remarkably effective - although the absence of different voices can get confusing. The plug-in client offers excellent hardware acceleration, critical for navigating easily through large spaces.

The graphics quality was surprisingly good, especially considering the speed. I was most impressed with the Virtual Paris project. Navigation was effortless and the environment was remarkably convincing—although it was obviously low-resolution geometry supported with very extensive texture mapping that takes a good long time to load on a dial-up connection. The following screenshot from the region of the Arc de Triomphe is characteristic.

It was rather exciting see (in text) and hear the different languages being spoken by the other visitors to the virtual Eiffel Tower when I was there. In this kind of business model, the site is a public attraction, and the payoff comes from banner advertising and from the positioning of "stores" in the landscape. You can't perform sales transactions right in the scene, but that is coming soon, according to Rothfarb. Real commerce on these kinds of sites will be the ultimate payoff, presenting the possibility of virtual shopping malls with the appeal of a visit to the City of Lights.

Most of the big Blaxxun projects reachable through their Web site are for European firms, but the most famous is run from San Francisco with a plainly American feel. Cybertown has been around for many years, and belongs to Blaxxun. The company has grown it into the model virtual community. The graphical look is still consistent with its origins the cyberpunk culture, but it's definitely a contemporary business endeavor. With 380,000 members who spend an average of about 40 minutes per visit, Cybertown is a serious property in today's Web business universe. Rothfarb talked of new techniques for gathering marketing data that can track whether, and for how long, objects in Cybertown remained within a user's view. Right now, Cybertown can only offer marketing messages, but it is preparing for a true transactional environment through experiments with a kind of "play money" economy. Members can buy virtual objects (models) that they can take back to their own spaces within Cybertown. Readers who are familiar with Active Worlds, a well-known non-VRML technology for virtual communities, will find many parallels.

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Created: June 18, 2000
Revised: June 18, 2000

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