Shopping Goes Virtual: Browsing Brookstone in 3-D

11/26/07Follow @wroush

The “Cyber Monday” phenomenon is a baseless piece of marketing fluff crafted by the National Retail Federation—the biggest online shopping day of the holiday season actually falls somewhere between December 5 and 15 every year. But if virtual shopping floats your boat, today is a good day for it anyway: the novelty retailer Brookstone, based in Merrimack, NH, has chosen Cyber Monday to open its first 3-D online store using technology created by Marlborough, MA, startup Kinset.

If you’ve ever visited the virtual worlds Second Life or There, you’ll feel right at home inside the virtual Brookstone store. It’s a rough 3-D mockup of a real Brookstone retail outlet, fully stocked with the chain’s trademark so-cool-you-gotta-have-one gadgets, like the $70 iHome Shower Dock for your iPod or $30 White Microbeam keychain flashlight. You can saunter through the store using your computer’s mouse or arrow keys. If you see something you like, you can zoom in on it, pull up a text window for more information, and then add it to your shopping cart, just as if you were shopping at Amazon. (In fact, when you’re done, Kinset’s software sends you to Amazon to complete the purchase, which is then fulfilled by Brookstone.)

The Brookstone store is one of three adjacent stores inside Kinset’s 3-D shopping world, which was launched in beta form on October 22 and is accessible via a small Windows program that you download to your PC. Brookstone was attracted to Kinset’s 3-D retailing platform because it makes online shopping into “a deeper, more robust and interactive journey of discovery,” akin to visiting a bricks-and-mortar store, said vice president and general manager of direct marketing Greg Sweeney in a statement about the opening.

Virtual items in Kinset’s 3-D Brookstone StoreThat may be taking things a bit far. My own visit to the virtual Brookstone store—and to the demonstration bookstore and electronics store Kinset has built next door to it—didn’t feel terribly deep. It could be that I’m jaded, having spent more hours than I care to admit exploring Second Life and building virtual objects using that world’s extensive modeling tools. But I’d say that Kinset’s Brookstone store is a first, tentative step toward retailing’s 3-D future—a serviceable but not-fully-baked melding of 3-D modeling and navigation techniques with older e-commerce tools.

For one thing, Kinset’s default mechanism for moving around—using the mouse to jump from point to point—is awkward and disorienting; you really have to turn it off and use the arrow keys to understand where you’re going. And in the biggest departure from the Second Life model, you don’t have a personal avatar in Kinset’s world—the screen simply shows the first-person point of view from where your avatar would be standing, if you had one. That’s an understandable technical choice, since you don’t really need an elaborate Second-Life-style avatar to go on a shopping expedition. But the main benefit of an avatar is to orient you inside a virtual space, and without one I felt somewhat lost and, er, disembodied.

Perhaps even more surprisingly, the Brookstone store doesn’t contain any Brookstone gadgets—it’s a room full of boxes with photographs of the products pasted to the outsides. If you’ve been to Second Life, you know that it’s possible to build exquisitely detailed 3-D replicas of objects as small as flowers and teapots. That, frankly, is what I was expecting to see inside Kinset’s Brookstone store—not stacks of cubes covered with flat, 2-D pictures that I could just as easily have found in a Brookstone catalog or at the Brookstone website.

Shelves Stocked with Virtual Goods at Brookstone’s 3-D StoreEven without avatars and detailed 3-D objects, however, there is still value to the concept of arranging products in a three-dimensional space. For example, spreading products out the way they’re arranged in a real store and allowing the shopper to walk down virtual aisles makes browsing—and serendipitous discoveries—much easier and more natural than on a traditional e-retailing site.

There are other advantages as well. I wasn’t able to speak with Kinset executives for this story, but the company’s FAQ points out that many well-known retail chains—think Best Buy, for example—have spent lots of money honing the look and layout of their physical stores. Kinset’s tools make it easy to re-create the experience of being inside one of those stores more faithfully than any flat website could hope to do. The Web, as Kinset’s FAQ puts it, “introduced an alien visual vocabulary to merchandising;” Kinset’s 3-D spaces restore the more familiar vocabulary of bricks-and-mortar stores.

At the same time, transposing retailing to virtual worlds allows new kinds of interactions that aren’t possible in the physical world. Without having to leaving home, for example, shoppers in Kinset’s world can ask questions of virtual clerks. In the future, they’ll be able to rendezvous inside the world with friends who are also connected from their home computers, or attach notes for their friends to specific items.

I’ve talked with lots of people about the evolution of virtual worlds, which range today from social worlds like Second Life to gaming worlds like World of Warcraft and practical map-based worlds like Google Earth. It’s not clear whether there’s a demand for a dedicated Shopping World, or whether retailing will simply be a component of other types of worlds—but all of the experts agree that social shopping experiences will be one of the 3-D universe’s key pastimes and moneymakers. Providing the infrastructure to make that happen is where Kinset is carving out a lead. “If, in the future, you find a store via Google Earth, that’s fine,” the company’s FAQ. “When you want to go inside that virtual store and buy things, we will be about rendering the inside experience.”

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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