During the Lenovo-hosted Ultimate Blogger Party at CES, I had a chance to visit Lenovo's eLounge, an online store built on a new 3D virtual world platform called web.alive. web.alive is a project of the innovation lab at Nortel and it looks like an interesting offering for corporations seeking a smart, secure, scalable solution (say that five times, fast) for integrating virtual world technologies into their digital mix.
Nortel's web.alive uses Epic Games' UNREAL Engine -- the technology under the hood of many of the most sophisticated video games on the market -- but applies it to power several practical business applications. web.alive is optimized for corporate collaboration, distance learning and assisted/social shopping. Lenovo eLounge uses the technology to offer buyers an immersive shopping experience that allows for real time interactions among shoppers and between shoppers and Lenovo staff.
This seems like a future-leaning (but not surprising) experiment by Lenovo, but the platform itself caught my attention more than the fact that a technology manufacturer is piloting virtual shopping.
web.alive offers all the standard virtual world stuff (customizable 3D environments, personalized avatars, etc.) but improves upon the old school Second Life model (zomg, did I really just write that?) in a number of key ways.
For starters, it's web-based and requires little more than a browser and a relatively light plug-in -- and it ran smoothly and without any hiccups on hotel broadband. This stands in stark contrast to the buggy, laggy Second Life experience we all grew used to. Being web-based also means that it can be integrated with a company's existing web commerce back-end. As I navigated through eLounge, I could not only interact with the virtual objects, but pull up the real world product specs and add items to a traditional shopping cart. SL can make browser calls and launch traditional web pages, but web.alive presents the (up to date and accurate) information within the same browser running the virtual environment.
web.alive is also secure, allowing users to be authenticated. Using linkages to corporate databases, registration systems and even traditional social networks like Facebook allow visitors to acertain that the avatar they're chatting with are really the people they claim to be. While anonymity is sometimes seen as a key advantage of virtual worlds (you can be who you want to be, rather than just who you are), anonymity in a virtual business setting can be problematic.
And then there's voice. The PC speakers were turned down and the music was turned up at the party, but apparently web.alive offers high quality voice chat, a feature that never really took off in the text chat-reliant Second Life community.
Overall, I liked what I saw -- especially in light of the fact that web.live is new and Lenovo is the first enterprise client to roll out a pilot. It will be interesting to see how the enterprise virtual worlds space evolves and how web.alive matures. Will technologies like web.alive represent the future of online shopping? How about a viable platform for online collaboration and company-to-company interaction, particularly during tough times when travel budgets are strapped?
Let me know your thoughts on the promise of enterprise-class virtual world technologies.