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January 08, 2009

Nortel's 3D Virtual World Technology Powers New Lenovo Shopping Lounge

A Toronto-based company that IT insiders say is already far ahead of the industry in its development of virtual world business application announced today that the product is being used in a virtual store as a way to ease e-commerce for consumers.

Officails at Nortel Networks Corp say that Lenovo, the world’s fourth-largest maker of PCs, is using their so-called “web.alive” software application in an “eLounge” that allows shoppers to brows, demo and interact with other consumers, as well as Lenovo (News - Alert) workers, in a real-time, three-dimensional environment.
According to Ajit Sivadasan, the vice president of global eCommerce at Lenovo, Nortel’s web.alive technology could lay the foundation for an online shopping experience that is very similar to a person walking into one of his company's physical stores.
“Customers can even organize online shopping events with their social networks or attend online Lenovo seminars and product demonstrations,” Sivadasan said. “The implications of this technology are significant if customers find it easier to make informed decisions on their purchases online.”
As TMCnet has reported, though it has faced some financial struggles that now are common in the telecom space, Nortel reportedly is far ahead of the curve in 3D virtual world technology, which market analysts say is poised to gain traction over the next five years.
Generally speaking, virtual worlds are computer-based environments that simulate reality so that users can move around and interact, using avatars. One popular example of a virtual world is the Second Life. Launched in 2003, Second Life is an advanced social networking virtual world where users can explore, meet others, participate in activities and even create and swap services or items.
In business, virtual worlds already are being used as a cost-effective way to advertise. Apple (News - Alert), for example, created an online store within Second Life.
Business also may use virtual worlds as gathering places, and, as TMC President Rich Tehrani (News - Alert) reports in a new, graphics-filled blog entry, Nortel – the largest telephone equipment maker in North America – appears to be taking the Second Life model and turning it into a secure enterprise virtualization environment.
With “web.alive,” Nortel apparently has sketched a vision for future business communications that includes workers (avatars) gathering for meetings and informal conversations, roaming company “halls” to view Microsoft (News - Alert) Powerpoint presentations, entering lecture halls for seminars and even sit for telepresence meetings. Part of the technology includes high-definition voice features that function as they do in real life, where people become louder the closer they are to each other, and avatars can overhear snippets of conversations around them.
Here’s what a departmental meeting could look like for workers physically located, say, in different field offices:
The use of web.alive by Lenovo – a company which, as TMCnet reported, announced today that it’s laying off about 11 percent of its workforce, or 2,500 employees – is being unveiled this week at the International Consumer Electronics Show.
On its site, Nortel says that web.alive is directly embedded within a Web page, so that users don’t have to leave the site to launch their virtual worlds.
“Combining stunning 3D graphics and unparalleled in-world realism, web.alive also contains industry revolutionizing 3D spatial audio,” company officials say. “With a feature-set designed specifically for the enterprise, web.alive integrates with your existing network, security and existing business software tools in order to enhance your communication, collaboration and employee or consumer engagement.”
With the new Lenovo eLounge, company officials say, shoppers can create personalized avatars to walk around the 3D virtual store and browse through products while interacting with other shoppers and sales staff from around the globe. They can also attend product demonstrations or tutorials given by the virtual store staff, build social and virtual shopping communities and groups and host online shopping get-togethers with their network of friends, family and associates – a concept defined as assisted e-commerce or social shopping.
“Customer service online is taken to an entirely new level as customers do not need to e-mail, click to call or deal with hundreds of pages of forum based questions and answers,” officials from Nortel say. “If a customer has a question, they can simply log on and walk up to a customer service representative or ask another customer with a high feedback rating.”
Users apparently have total control over how their avatars look.
Here’s a screen shot of one virtual world character – in this case, sleuth Maxwell Smart – that shows how users can select vital statistics, facial characteristics, hair and other features:
Web.alive is set to be available in Canada and the United States in the first quarter of 2009, according to Spencer Callaghan of Nortel’s media relations department.
As TMCnet has reported, one Dallas-based IT research firm that focuses on the digital and home connectivity segments say that 3D virtual worlds have evolved into a sustainable industry.
Officials from Park Associates predict that 33 million users will register for virtual worlds by 2013, drawing a wide variety of providers and companies to the relatively new technology.
According to Yuanzhe Cai, the firm’s director of digital media and gaming, 3D virtual world platform companies, full-service agencies and operators form a viable base that provides services to businesses, media companies, advertisers and consumers.
“But content and application developers and service providers are becoming increasingly important,” Cai said.
During his own tour of web.alive, Tehrani and his hosts were followed into different rooms to speak with the people I was communicating with.
“Get this – they realized their coworkers were dressed up (due to the meeting with me) so they knew not to interrupt,” Tehrani writes. “Pretty cool.”
For Tehrani, the virtual world technology, and its use, could more than ephemeral fads.
Though it may take too many years for Nortel’s technology to make enough money and reverse the company’s financial fortune, it’s still far ahead of its competitors.
“I have yet to see Cisco or Avaya show me something similar, so I have to say in the area of B2B virtual worlds being promoted by communications companies, Nortel is the company to watch,” Tehrani said.
According to Arn Hyndman, the web.alive chief architect, Nortel, eCommerce today consists of a single user clicking through an online catalogue of product pictures, user reviews, and possibly a flash demonstration.
“Nortel’s web.alive application allows businesses to interact and collaborate virtually with their customers, partners and employees over the web, in real-time,” Hyndman said. “It combines the best elements from the online world with the brick and mortar experience to empower hyperconnected shoppers through a more social, robust and immersive online shopping experience.”

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Michael Dinan is a contributing editor for TMCnet, covering news in the IP communications, call center and customer relationship management industries. To read more of Michael's articles, please visit his columnist page.

Edited by Michael Dinan

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