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3D or not 3D. Is this the question?
by Juan C. Dürsteler [message nº 21]

To have a web site with 3D capabilities seemed to have a bright future until just a few months ago. Today it's not so clear.

For example, Mark Vernon, in his article "The third dimension finds an online niche" commented last April 28th that an item for sale through Internet was 10 times easier to sell if seen in 3D than otherwise.

The same article said that, after Forrester Research, in 18 months having 3D capabilities in an e-commerce site in Europe would become a must. As examples of companies using this technology, boo.com and autobytel.com were proposed.

The situation as of December 2000 is not so bright regarding 3D technology in Internet. Boo.com went bankrupt by mid 2000. What remains at boo.com doesn't presents any item in 3D; only still images in which you can select the colour at most.

Autobytel don't use nowadays this technology either. The photos are static, and you can't even see the colours of the cars. On the other hand I didn't manage to find the source of the study that made the assertion saying that it was 10 times easier to sell things through Internet if seen in 3D. Probably it's completely true, if you get to see it, of course.

For, in order to buy something in 3D you have to see it first, i. e. Download it. With the current bandwidth, only 2% of the U.S. connections and 1% of the European connections could download the images of boo.com in a reasonable time. (Cyberp@is mensual nº 2 pág. 10)

It would be naive to think that this was the only or even the main reason of Boo.com's bankruptcy (see for example the article of Tristan Louis), but probably the decisions made on this aspect were part of the problem.

On the other hand, functionality has to be considered. In the real world 3D graphics are indispensable in CAD systems, surgical planning, medical visualisation, architecture and molecule design in chemistry. Even in this cases the interface is typically 2D.

There's not yet a popular and widespread interface, be it graphic or otherwise, which really uses 3D. The PC keyboard, Windows and Mac GUIs and even the mouse have essentially flat, 2D, User Interfaces in terms of design and use. Body gloves and other advanced data input hardware still belong to very specific fields.

It's difficult to think that this type of interfaces will become widespread in Internet when they are not common in the real world, where the bandwidth is comparatively huge.

Nowadays where 3D representation is a must is in video games and in MUDs as we commented last week. Maybe this is because in them the 3D experience is part of the product itself, as it's demonstrated by the large amount of money that video games move.

The main problem with 3D representations is that, like every tool, it needs a goal. If you can get the same result with greater simplicity and speed with a 2D representation, there's no point in using 3D.

Nevertheless, there's still very promising work on 3D visualisation. An interesting example is Magic Book* , a system that merges normal vision, augmented reality and virtual reality in order to interact with other participants through an interactive book.

So, we have to avoid confusing the goal with the means. Technology for its own sake is insufficient because it lacks the fundamental thing, the reason to do it that way.


* I owe the Magic Book link and the inspiration to write this article to Cesar Martin Ibañez, from Unified Field, NY

Links of this issue:

http://www.ft.com/specials/sp864e.htm  
http://www.boo.com/  
http://www.autobytel.com/  
http://www.tnl.net/newsletter/2000/boobust.asp  
http://www.hitl.washington.edu/magicbook/index.html  
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