A model of virtual reality

I have come face-to-face with my virtual self. I want him to put some clothes on.

With what may be one of the most compelling applications to hit the business-to-consumer e-commerce market since Web retailers started hanging their online shingles, I have effortlessly created an Internet alter ego. He’s my height, 5′ 11″, has my hair (or what would be my hair, if I hadn’t recently dyed it blonde) my eyes and even a fairly accurate depiction of my build. The process took less than five minutes.

The brainchild of Montreal’s My Virtual Model Inc., I first came across the application at Comdex Fall 98 in Las Vegas, where a boothperson demonstrated how the models could be used by progressive retailers as a way of allowing clients to “try” clothes before they buy. It looked gimmicky, too time-consuming, and just another pointless attempt to bring virtual reality into the mainstream. I was wrong. As some recent sales data by one of its long-standing customers shows, the concept is making great strides in converting the customers of Land’s End from browsers to shoppers.

Though it took me until today to try My Virtual Model for myself, it was by no means my first brush with virtual reality. I have probably spent as much time acting out in front of a blue screen as Christopher Reeve did in his Superman days. Three years ago I visited the Star Trek exhibit at the Ontario Science Centre, where I was “beamed” into other worlds and got to watch a blurry image of myself on a large screen after standing in line for almost an hour. I have visited SMART Toronto’s offices where I saw the inside of an ancient cathedral, the camera zooming in on painted walls that are rarely open to the public. In a story I once wrote on the video game market, I played volleyball against virtual opponents, and battled against sharks in an underwater scenario.

My penultimate virtual reality experience, however, was a wedding between a performance artist and her new media groom. We watched them take their vows on monitors while they acted out behind the blue-painted screen. We did not throw virtual rice.

The reason these technologies have seldom found a place in mainstream culture is that they rarely recreate an experience that is not more valuable — and enjoyable — when performed in the real world. For the most part, they are extremely high-priced novelty items that generate lots of press and then fade from memory as soon as the camera stops rolling.

My Virtual Model is different in two major respects. It’s fun — instead of an elaborate setup that involves video, the application uses a quick survey to gather information about your features and then presents the results in a pop-up window. It can all be done from the desktop. Like high-school yearbooks, which are chiefly sold to students who want to see themselves in various milestones from the academic year, the application appeals to the “me factor” in a way that few other virtual reality programs do.

More importantly, the application takes a traditional activity — shopping — and makes it more like an experience to which we are accustomed. In fact, it improves it. As someone who typically hides in the changeroom while a salesperson prowls outside waiting to judge my appearance, I have plenty of time to see, in complete privacy, how well Land’s End’s reversible down jacket would look on me. Instead of trying to build a better shopping cart, My Virtual Model lets you do what most people do online — investigate.

Mark Foote, man behind Canadian Tire’s portal strategy, once told me that most of their customers use its Web site to research product information, not buy it. After spending time with my virtual model — and the accompanying style advisor — I would be almost guaranteed to visit a Land’s End store if one existed. A virtual model is perhaps the best alternative to a dressing room for the catalogue clothier.

Though I can’t independently verify Land’s End’s claim that its use of My Virtual Model has coincided with a 26 per cent increase in conversion rate, I can certainly see how companies like J-Crew, Abercrombie & Fitch or even Sears could make good use of this technology. The infancy of the business-to-consumer e-commerce industry has been about desperately trying to get the online sale. What it needs to do is realize what browsing really is, in the shopping sense of the term: an exercise in imagining a relationship with a product. With these kinds of online catalogues, powered by the likes of My Virtual Model, there will be nothing virtual about their success.

sschick@plesman.com

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