MindBullets 20 Years


It's the end of call centers as avatars provide the human touch

With the launch of the new OmegaWorld virtual reality browser, shopping is much more of a ‘real’ experience. Stroll down the virtual high street, and all the stores are at your fingertips. Simply touch a door marked Amazon or eBay, Nike or Ferrari, and you enter a vast world of products, helpful sales assistants and friendly cashiers – all of course in the form of great-looking ‘avatars’ .

Now you can ‘go’ to the biggest bookstore in the world, walk around the bookshelves, browse books, sample music, and see who else is there, stop and chat to other shoppers, even meet a friend. Even banking is returning to the value of human relationships and the new virtual worlds make shopping a social experience once again.

All these avatars need people to create and develop them, so there are jobs in OmegaWorld too. Just look for the ‘help wanted’ buttons and have a virtual job interview online, avatar to avatar. Soon you’ll be one of those helpful assistants or store managers.

Of course, your bank manager is always available for a ‘face-to-face’ chat over a virtual cup of coffee, without either of you having to brave the rush-hour traffic.

Doug Vining, a guru in FutureWorld’s global think tank says: “This is just the beginning of a new growth phase for e-commerce. The opportunities in V-commerce are limited only by your imagination.”

(Read the full story of how to do business in the virtual world in the detailed Analysis/Synthesis section – for subscribers only)

ANALYSIS >> SYNTHESIS: How this scenario came to be

The Virtual World is Real Business

Now that virtual worlds have made the leap from entertainment medium to commercial environments, e-commerce has taken on a whole new reality. No longer do you have to contend with a screen full of text, menus and product images; you can actually walk into the store and view the products from different angles, while checking out the customers and chatting to the store clerks, all without leaving your PC.

All of this is virtual, but improved 3D modeling, higher bandwidth and integrated digital personalities have made virtual reality as commonplace as making a phone call. Instead of dealing with a faceless call center agent, you can click on the service provider you need and virtually teleport to a walk-in center, where you can actually talk to a real person, even though you can only see their avatar.

In fact, now that avatars can be easily made from body-scans of real people, and products can also be scanned and accurately represented in the virtual world, it’s hard not to think of it as a real world, where things are just available at internet speed. A major driver in making this a commonplace business platform was the introduction of a universal VR (Virtual Reality) user interface or browser. Just as Netscape made the World Wide Web accessible to all for information and sales, so OmegaWorld makes the wide world of virtual environments easy to visit and navigate.

But best of all, not only can you go shopping in the virtual world, you can also go to work; every virtual store needs accomplished virtual workers and managers to run things smoothly and keep the customers satisfied.

2005: Virtual world, real profit
Second Life becomes the first virtual world to spawn real-world business revenue, as people join up to earn an income from providing various in-world services. So popular is this alternate lifestyle, that by the end of the year there are 54,000 people churning US$ 150,000 per day in this environment.

Not only that, but the freedom to construct digital artifacts and collaborate with real-world personalities makes this an ideal platform for insinuating real digital products and services into the global virtual market. Soon there are active businesses using this virtual world as a medium for conducting trade – in tourism, leisure services, shopping advisors and wedding planners – you name it.

A big boost to currency trade in these worlds is the ability to easily change ‘game’ dollars for real US dollars. Several websites run actual markets in this trade, and money can be virtualized and returned to the real world at will, via mainstream online banking. This opens a big opportunity for funds transfer and money laundering, as the cost of moving cash into the virtual world and out in a different country and into other hands proves to be far less than via traditional bureaucratic banks.

So integrated into the virtual world of avatars and artifacts is the currency conversion, that there are virtual ATMs in these online worlds, where by simply touching the ATM graphic the user is presented with a visual interface resembling a real ATM, and entering a credit card number and withdrawing or depositing cash is as simple as it is in reality.

The first businesses to jump on this bandwagon are naturally those that exploit the anonymity of cash – gambling, money laundering and sex workers are soon pervasive in the virtual world. They have been for decades on the internet, but avatars and graphics make it so much more persuasive and appealing.

On the other hand NeoPets, recently acquired by MTV Networks, owns and operates Neopets.com, a leading online world aimed at kids. Neopets.com, consistently ranked among the top-10 ‘stickiest’ sites on the Web by Nielsen/NetRatings, has over 25 million members and generates more than 5 billion pageviews per month worldwide. McDonalds cashes in with ‘Happy meal’ promotions linked to Neopets.

2006: Google Earth virtualizes real cities
Google Earth digitizes the streets and buildings of 150 major cities of the world. Now you can ‘fly’ to your favorite shopping capital, drop down to street level and walk in the doors of the world’s most famous stores.

Google lets you search for a place or service, see where it’s available, and then go and check it out. Soon you’ll be able to click on the services you need and order online from the same interface. If you are a business, you can register your location on Google Earth, for a fee of course. Places of interest can be registered for free, like a virtual travelogue.

Microsoft improves MSN Virtual Earth and Amazon’s A9.com Blockview tries to provide a different angle on interactive browsing of the real world, but Google Earth’s 3D terrain mapper wins the vote of millions and soon dominates the market.

2008: Moving up the value chain
Digital businesses that deal in music, movies, and information-based services start to proliferate in the virtual worlds. It’s easy to sell someone an overseas tour, when you can take them for a quick virtual look at the delights of foreign destinations, complete with avatars controlled by people living there to make the interaction authentic.

Real real-estate (as opposed to the virtual kind) and downloadable music, art, financial products – these can all be sampled in a convincing simulated environment. In fact, when it comes to digital products like music, it’s not even simulated, just sampled.

This leads to boutique service businesses that are only available in the virtual world. Remember those dot.com businesses that were ‘only available on the web’? Well, obviously, if the platform costs are borne by the virtual world, it becomes possible to compete in a niche fashion with services tailored to the online environment.

Soon there are designer clothes, customized cars and other specialized packages that can only be cost-effectively sold in the virtual world, even though they are ultimately delivered in the real world.

2009: A universal interface arrives
The biggest problem with online games, virtual worlds and other 3D environments like Google Earth is that they all require specialized ‘client’ software loaded on your PC to enable you to interact with the server landscape. This software is usually proprietary, but those games with a common ‘graphics engine’ and modifiable maps soon prove to be the most popular by far.

The first attempt at a common user interface arrives in the form of MmorgView, an open-source 3D browser that navigates most of the more popular online games. A battle of standards erupts, with the VRMLC (Virtual Reality Markup Language Consortium) backed by Apple vying for support with the VWCIG (Virtual Worlds Common Interface Group) backed by Sony. Google and Microsoft are seen to be supporting both groups.

2010: OmegaWorld opens the virtual universe
OmegaWorld launches the first version of its multi open standard virtual worlds browser. Now it’s possible to visit Second Life, World of WarCraft, or EverQuest from the same window.

The response is immediate. Within months, Macy’s Online and WalMart World are piloting VR shopping sites. BBC Interactive goes completely virtual, hosting job interviews, production training and even auditions in a virtual environment. There is a big demand for photo-realistic avatars, and their studios are ideally placed to generate large volumes of these at low cost.

The European fashion industry is transformed as celebrities send their avatars for a fitting and get tailor-made clothing in return.

2011: Virtual reality from your smartphone
OmegaWorld for smartphones is launched.

Scanning camera phones generate 3D models on the fly. This allows people to create realistic avatars of themselves or accurate models of products with only four clicks of a phone keypad. Smart displays and headsets give you the full visual experience of the virtual world via your phone, so you can be there whenever it suits you.

Of course, it takes a bit more ingenuity to build a fully functioning simulation of the latest sports car for your avatar to take for a test-drive, but video-game programmers have been doing that for decades, and they are better at it than ever.

Siemens launches AvCenter, a call center suite populated entirely by avatars and compatible with OmegaWorld. Using AvCenter a business can have a manifestation of a customer center where customers and company representatives can interact, deliver and receive service in a convincing three-dimensional environment. Costly call centers become redundant as graphic artists can re-design and upgrade the AvCenter at will, while agents and customers can access it from anywhere with their smartphones.

2012: E-commerce giants all accessible with OmegaWorld
OmegaWorld is the new internet. This is the Virtual Reality equivalent of the World Wide Web. Anyone with a VR-capable smartphone or tablet can stroll the high streets of virtual commerce and enjoy the full shopping experience. Amazon, eBay, PayPal and the banks are all accessible. Experience a product demo. Scrutinize that antique on auction. Have a conference with your bank manager, boss or girlfriend. Wander down to Virtual Wall Street and get in on the trading floor action, or teleport to V-Las Vegas for a bit of high-rolling.

Google Earth works with OmegaWorld. Search for your favorite store in any city, fly there, drop to the sidewalk. Switch to avatar view, walk in and start shopping. Just remember, the other shoppers you bump into aren’t real…or are they?

The Swiss Banking Association opens BankWorld in Zurich. The most comprehensive range of international banking services available to the average virtual world explorer, in a variety of languages, cultural expressions and customer-empathetic avatars.

Microsoft announces that the next version of Windows for MediaPad and SmartPhone will be bundled with VirtualWorld Explorer, compatible with OmegaWorld.

Anything that can be done on the internet and can benefit from an enhanced VR experience is now the norm. V-commerce is here, and it’s a trillion dollar business.

Warning: Hazardous thinking at work

Despite appearances to the contrary, Futureworld cannot and does not predict the future. Our Mindbullets scenarios are fictitious and designed purely to explore possible futures, challenge and stimulate strategic thinking. Use these at your own risk. Any reference to actual people, entities or events is entirely allegorical. Copyright Futureworld International Limited. Reproduction or distribution permitted only with recognition of Copyright and the inclusion of this disclaimer.