IBM Brings Sears to Second Life at CES (Consumer Electronics Show)
Monday, January 8th, 2007


IBM, which recently set up a business group to explore possibilities in virtual worlds — and earmarked millions of dollars for the effort — is now bringing mega-retailer Sears to the virtual world of Second Life in a project to be announced today, 8 January, at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. SL resident Ultravox Freeman, aka Mike Rowe, a senior project manager on IBM’s digital convergence team, was kind enough to give me a tour of the Sears build over the weekend.

Though the build is still a work in progress, Rowe said, each of the floors will present different possibilities for taking advantage of a 3D online world like Second Life for showing off Sears products and giving consumers more functionality than they could get from a flat Web page. Furthest along seemed to be the Kitchen and Appliances floor, which currently allows visitors to re-color and re-texture the various appliances and surfaces of the virtual kitchen on display. The plan is to allow a customer to import their own kitchen design to the virtual space, fit it out with Sears products, and be able to move around in it as they would a real kitchen in order to get a feel for how the products would work in their kitchen at home.

“It’s currently one kitchen layout, but ultimately you’ll be able to bring in your own kitchen from Google SketchUp or another application,” Rowe said. “You’ll be able to place Sears products in the kitchen itself, change the countertops and cabinet facings. Ultimately, the entire Sears catalog will be available. We want to allow Sears’s customers to get the feel of what their kitchen is really going to look like, and then walk around in it.”

(That’s actually pretty impressive, when you think about it: a 3D representation of everything in the Sears catalog — which itself was big step forward in making the market for farm supplies and household goods more efficient in the late 19th century, by publishing a consistent set of prices for its products, where customers had formerly been at the mercy of the fluctuating prices of local stores.)

The Garage and Automotive floor of IBM’s SL build for Sears offers similar possibilties for 3D visualization. Walking around the garage allows a potential customer to see what they could make of their own space. Even if they don’t own a Mustang, presumably.

An Entertainment and Electronics floor provides similar functionality. IBM also wants to work out ways to incorporate positional audio so that customers would be able to get a feel for different speaker arrangements. This is again something a 3D world lends itself to that a flat Web page wouldn’t be able to handle nearly as well.

“We want to give people the opportunity to get a feel for what things would be like in their own environment,” Rowe said during our tour. The project is intended to explore the virtual space with Sears and help the company understand how they might use it to enhance their current offerings. “We want to find new ways of representing how you can use their products, in your space with your stuff.” Rowe said.

The project will continue to take shape even after its opening on Monday. One nice aspect of the project is that IBM is taking advantage of native Second Life talent, furnishing some rooms with furniture bought around Second Life, and working with residents on portions of the build. There are also plans to solicit feedback from residents on how the experience could be improved.

Another interesting aspect is that the demo of the Sears build at the Consumer Electronic Show will be the first time in about a decade that IBM will be “notably visible” at the show, Rowe said.

IBM’s virtual world aspirations, of course, do not end with Sears and Circuit City, with whom they already have a project in Second Life.

IBM is working with dozens of clients to experiment and help them understand and apply virtual worlds to their business. While IBM is prototyping and developing in Second Life, it has a bigger strategy to collaborate with a community in an open source fashion to build out the next generation Web, which IBM calls the 3-D Internet. IBM also aims to build a platform for internal use, including 3-D Intranets inside of a company firewall where private and confidential business can be conducted.

Will such projects fly in practice as well as in theory? That remains to be seen, but getting clients like Sears to bite on virtual world retailing might push a large number of consumers toward such projects in a way that could make them quite sustainable and, as a corollary effect, introduce more users to virtual worlds. It could be that such commercial projects have a salutary effect on the populations of such places by feeding people into their non-commercial regions and thus driving adoption. Time will tell.

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