IBM Brings Sears to Second Life at CES

IBM brings Sears to the virtual world of Second Life
Your Sears kitchen in Second Life

IBM, which recently set up a business group to explore possibilities in virtual worlds — and earmarked millions of dollars for the effort — is now bringing mega-retailer Sears to the virtual world of Second Life in a project to be announced today, 8 January, at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. SL resident Ultravox Freeman, aka Mike Rowe, a senior project manager on IBM’s digital convergence team, was kind enough to give me a tour of the Sears build over the weekend.

Though the build is still a work in progress, Rowe said, each of the floors will present different possibilities for taking advantage of a 3D online world like Second Life for showing off Sears products and giving consumers more functionality than they could get from a flat Web page. Furthest along seemed to be the Kitchen and Appliances floor (pictured above), which currently allows visitors to re-color and re-texture the various appliances and surfaces of the virtual kitchen on display. The plan is to allow a customer to import their own kitchen design to the virtual space, fit it out with Sears products, and be able to move around in it as they would a real kitchen in order to get a feel for how the products would work in their kitchen at home.

“It’s currently one kitchen layout, but ultimately you’ll be able to bring in your own kitchen from Google SketchUp or another application,” Rowe said. “You’ll be able to place Sears products in the kitchen itself, change the countertops and cabinet facings. Ultimately, the entire Sears catalog will be available. We want to allow Sears’s customers to get the feel of what their kitchen is really going to look like, and then walk around in it.”

(That’s actually pretty impressive, when you think about it: a 3D representation of everything in the Sears catalog — which itself was big step forward in making the market for farm supplies and household goods more efficient in the late 19th century, by publishing a consistent set of prices for its products, where customers had formerly been at the mercy of the fluctuating prices of local stores.)

IBM brings Sears to the virtual world of Second Life
Watch out for flying virtual screwdrivers!

The Garage and Automotive floor of IBM’s SL build for Sears offers similar possibilties for 3D visualization. It’s hard to see in the hasty screenshot above (which was taken before some of the signage had completely rezzed), but when we teleported to this floor, there was a jumble of tools on the shelves at right and on other surfaces. Rowe (wearing what I think was a coonskin cap) clicked a set of Craftsman cabinets, and the tools performed the neat trick of flying through the air to politely arrange themselves on the cabinet shelves. Again, walking around the garage allows a potential customer to see what they could make of their own space. Even if they don’t own a Mustang, presumably.

An Entertainment and Electronics floor provides similar functionality. IBM also wants to work out ways to incorporate positional audio so that customers would be able to get a feel for different speaker arrangements and the like. This is again something a 3D world lends itself to that a flat Web page wouldn’t be able to handle nearly as well. It’s one thing to look at a 2D rendering of a garage or a living room; it’s quite another to walk around a 3D rendering of the same space and start to get a feel for what it would be like to inhabit in the real world.

IBM brings Sears to the virtual world of Second Life
Relax in the virtual den

“We want to give people the opportunity to get a feel for what things would be like in their own environment,” Rowe said during our tour. The project is intended to explore the virtual space with Sears and help the company understand how they might use it to enhance their current offerings. “We want to find new ways of representing how you can use their products, in your space with your stuff,” Rowe said.

The project will continue to take shape even after its opening on Monday. One nice aspect of the project is that IBM is taking advantage of native Second Life talent, furnishing some rooms with furniture bought around Second Life, and working with residents on portions of the build. There are also plans to solicit feedback from residents on how the experience could be improved.

Another interesting aspect is that the demo of the Sears build at the Consumer Electronic Show will be the first time in about a decade that IBM will be “notably visible” at the show, Rowe said. Indeed, having IBM demo a virtual world project at the CES should get such spaces on the radar screens of a number of people who aren’t already aware of them.

IBM’s virtual world aspirations, of course, do not end with Sears and Circuit City, with whom they already have a project in Second Life. As their Sears press release puts it:

IBM is working with dozens of clients to experiment and help them understand and apply virtual worlds to their business. While IBM is prototyping and developing in Second Life, it has a bigger strategy to collaborate with a community in an open source fashion to build out the next generation Web, which IBM calls the 3-D Internet. IBM also aims to build a platform for internal use, including 3-D Intranets inside of a company firewall where private and confidential business can be conducted.

Will such projects fly in practice as well as in theory? That remains to be seen, but getting clients like Sears to bite on virtual world retailing might push a large number of consumers toward such projects in a way that could make them quite sustainable and, as a corollary effect, introduce more users to virtual worlds. It could be that such commercial projects have a salutary effect on the populations of such places by feeding people into their non-commercial regions and thus driving adoption. Time will tell.


  1. Rik Riel

    Wow, that is actually pretty impressive. So many times I’ve been to Ikea looking at shelving or a couch and wondering if it would fit in my apartment. Having a virtual version of my apt uploaded to a home furnishings store and being able to walk around it with furniture from the store would be tremendously helpful.

    And having an in-world salesperson on hand to answer questions or suggest other options would be really cool.

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  3. Mark Zohar

    It’s interesting that this announcement is being heralded as a ground breaking initiative. View22 has been offering Web 3D “v-commerce” applications to large retailers and manufacturers like Williams Sonoma, John Deere, General Electric, Bayer Diagnostics, Masco, Kohler, HGTV and others for several years. Unlike Second Life, our applications are not deployed as part of a complex and largley inaccessible metaverse for a mass audience, but rather are fully integrated and branded with our clients’ website and eCommerce systems. Our clients have realized significant improvements in their key sales and marketing metrics by deploying our interactive 3D applications. Watch for a series of new initiatives which we will be launching this year which extend our core technology into areas of interest to this blog’s readership. Our website is

  4. bluesapphire

    Hi Mark, I think you miss the point.

    The fact that IBM are utlisiing a common platform like Second Life, is the story here. Also, does your product allow for a persistent presence? It would be neat to see other peoples designs, collaborate with people over distance or just drop into the development area to be inspired.

  5. Mark Zohar

    Hi bluesapphire,

    Yes, I understand that the story here is IBM’s utilization of the Second Life platform. I’m not taking anything away from that and I believe that Second Life is doing great service for all of us who are interested in developing interactive 3D experiences and applications on the Web. The real question is whether the SL platform is and will remain best suited to meet the multichannel needs of large retailers and the usability and privacy requirements of online consumers.

    With respect to your other questions, yes, our platform allows for real-time collaboration, sharing and persistence. What’s more and unlike SL, our platform supports standard non-proprietary file formats and integration with various 3D datastores.

  6. Ace Albion

    I wonder if they built the stuff according to measurements (meter to meter) or according to the reality of over-tall SL avatars. It’s the kind of thing that’s just annoying when you’re building in-world (my friend Molly was working on a realistic 1930’s house, and the 2 meter tall doors like real ones meant she was hitting her face on the frame).

    Basically SL meters are more like yards labelled differently. When you have people checking how furniture etc looks compared to their avatar (which is one advantage of SL as demonstration platform) you have to convey that their 6’6″ stacked blonde avatar in 8″ heels isn’t totally representative of how they themselves, in the real world will occupy the same space. :)

    I’m called “shorty” by my friends in SL. My avatar (female btw) is 5’8″ measured against prims. You have to account for that change of scale I think when presenting real goods in virtual space.

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