Via Geekzone comes news of a
3D shopping mall, called The Mall Plus, that has
just been released in New Zealand. After seeing this, memories of the mid to late 90’s
came flooding back to me – a time when websites built on real world metaphors filled the
Web landscape. For example the very first ISP I used, back in the mid 90’s, used a
virtual town as its metaphor (if I remember correctly). For further background about
those days, here is how I described it in an article Joshua Porter and I co-wrote a while
ago for Digital Web

“During the early years of the Web, before content had semantic meaning, sites were
developed as a collection of “pages.” Sites in the 1990s were usually either
brochure-ware (static HTML pages with insipid content) or they were interactive in a
flashy, animated, JavaScript kind of way. In that era, a common method of promoting sites
was to market them as “places”—the Web as a virtual world complete with
online shopping malls and portals.”

So I have to admit it is surprising that the virtual shopping mall, as a
concept, is alive and well in 2006. Lately we’ve heard that, an infamous 3D shopping website of the late 90’s, is making a comeback later this year. But one that has actually launched already is The Mall
, where users navigate a virtual shopping mall in a 3D environment. All of the shops
are a part of the The Mall Plus, rather than being external sites. Geekzone quotes The
Mall Plus CEO Nigel Kirkpatrick as saying it’s “the next generation of retail, through
a virtual environment”.

The Mall Plus was discussed on the NZ 2.0 mailing list and the first comment was spot
on: do people really want to shop online like it is a real shop, or do people want to use
the internet as a tool to make the shopping experience better? Right now the answer is
that people use the Web to enhance their shopping experience – e.g. to find out more
information about products, or the best price. e-commerce sites like Amazon and eBay are
obviously huge success stories, but neither mimics the real world. Both Amazon and eBay
are Web native services that utilize the best characteristics of the Web – collaborative
ratings, personalization, many-to-many auctions, etc.

Perhaps if you could interact with other shoppers in The Mall Plus, then that would be
a killer feature – e.g. if it became like a social networking / shopping experience. But
currently the 3D people inside the mall are “lifeless and static”, as one NZ 2.0
commenter noted. Another point made on the NZ 2.0 list was that virtual 3D shopping
actually slows down the user experience – whereas with Amazon and other e-commerce
sites, the idea is to make online shopping as efficient as possible.

I can actually see a long-term future for 3D virtual shopping, so I applaud The Mall
Plus for tackling this. However I don’t think it’s a viable idea right now, as the likes
of Amazon and eBay – along with new meta services like uGenie – are much more Web native in the year 2006. But in
2016? Who knows, maybe it will be a 3D virtual shopping world. What do you