The notion that your customers are only 10 seconds away from your competitor’s web site still holds true. But while the server and network infrastructure needed to deliver a web site that stays up 99.999 per cent of the time is one aspect of delivering a good online experience, the phrase “content is king” is equally relevant, and just as important for customer retention.
Would a better way to engage customers be by spicing up that dowdy site with some visually stunning graphics, tied into standard e-commerce transaction middleware?
For visually stunning graphics, read virtual worlds, whose genesis can be traced back to the multi-user dungeon program MUD, which originated in 1978 at Essex University. But it was many years before what people now think of as a virtual world was realised – a 3D, immersive world, available 24/7 via a web connection.
So the question for businesses is how big is the opportunity to monetise commercial web sites by introducing a virtual world of online activity?
UK firm Rezzable is one company pushing the boundaries of virtual world technology, both technically and in identifying how such a business model could work.
“There is a convergence with content delivery that is creating a new opportunity, and a lot of effort is being focused on making this happen now,” says chief executive Jon Himoff.
Such content delivery will span the web, TV and mobile devices, and Himoff believes the internet is not a destination any more – just a place to engage with brands.
“We can see that all the content delivery pieces will come together, but currently it is very fragmented,” he says.
Such fragmentation is something Rezzable is addressing with the launch of its first brand, Heritage Key. This aims to draw together various content delivery mechanisms to see if such a virtual environment boosts visitor numbers.
Himoff describes Heritage Key as “the first solid example of a do-it- yourself immersive, virtual online grid”.
“We’re starting to deliver projects for customers that make the most of this technology and we’re hosting it for them as well,” he says.
The first site Heritage Key has worked on is a virtual museum that allows users to explore King Tutankhamun’s tomb in a digital Valley of the Kings (see http://heritage-key.com), which Rezzable had previously set up in Linden Labs’ Second Life environment.
Second Life is a 3D virtual world running on a compute grid that also offers “tools for business, educators, non-profits, and entrepreneurs to develop a virtual presence,” according to its creators.
Himoff says Rezzable previewed its King Tut Virtual area on Second Life earlier this year, but decided to move to its own grid infrastructure. He says the main reasons for the move were integration and costs.
“Second Life is a closed platform but we use OpenSim [a 3D application server used to create virtual environments] that is open source and free,” he says.
Himoff says this gave Heritage Key a lot of options when configuring the software, hosting it, and integrating it with the Drupal content management system, which is also open source.
“The costs are dramatically lower and we can host more concurrent visitors on our servers,” he says.
Heritage Key is the first of what Himoff calls a content-oriented community, bringing together differing content strands. This includes Flickr, for people to share pictures, and also Facebook and Twitter for people who want to interact with each other, as well as providing information about their own experiences in the virtual world.
However, the community will be focused around a type of content that Himoff admits site owners “will have to interest [users] in,” and which would become the foundation of that community.
“Within this picture, one of the things we find interesting is the migration of user-generated content, which has a lot of issues about copyright infringement,” he says.
“There is also all the management of this user-generated content into a kind of mature version of that, which we think of as community-inspired content.”
Himoff added: “We looked at this in terms of the marketing opportunity, because everyone wants to visit an ancient world site physically, but not just turn up and see a bunch of rocks.”
A common problem for popular ancient world tourist sites in real life is access and sustainability, which a virtual world helps to address – even if it can never entirely replicate the experience of actually being there.
In the case of the actual site of Tutankhamun’s tomb, Himoff points out that currently the tomb is closed, because wall paintings have been attacked by bacteria transported onsite by tourists.
“They are spraying these paintings with penicillin because they have this weird fungus on them,” he says.
“Remember – these places were never meant to be opened. They are extremely dry, and so when the tour buses show up and everybody sweats all over the place, the walls act like a sponge, since they have never been exposed to that much moisture.”
Himoff says that in 20 years’ time, the only way people will be able to see the tomb could be through some kind of virtual world.
A further example of Heritage Key’s thinking around community-inspired content is another virtual world it is working on, which will soon go live: Stonehenge, the prehistoric monument in Wiltshire.
Himoff says that a virtual site can build on the many theories about what functions the stones performed.
“It fitted with our idea of community-inspired content that needs a catalyst to boost site visitors and interactions between them,” he says.
“Our view is that there are three levels of content. First, traditional commissioned content. Then there is curated content, where you look at the web and pull back information. Finally there is computer-generated data and content, where all the content is put together.”
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