On Monday at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, the two companies intend to announce a partnership to explore applications designed to move real merchandise in virtual worlds. The first product of that collaboration is a Sears virtual showroom, located on IBM's island in Second Life, next to the virtual electronics store IBM is building for Circuit City.
"What we're trying to do is help businesses bridge the virtual and the real worlds to benefit their customers," says Michael Rowe, senior project manager for virtual worlds and 3-D Internet, a group IBM formed last December.
Rowe and his colleagues are working with some two dozen clients. Only Circuit City and Sears have been announced.
The Second Life Sears may evoke a sense of dj' vu -- it borrows the 3-D design tools found at Sears.com, such as the Sears Virtual Decorator, which presents a 3-D room with changeable design.
Rowe says that he hopes the virtual store will let customers do things they can't do in real life, such as create a 3-D model of a kitchen and plan equipment and finishes either from home or from a Sears store. The store prototype lets consumers visualize 3-D home theater installations, create customized storage units for garages, and model different cabinet colors.
Because Second Life is accessible from any PC with Second Life's client software, your significant other will have the opportunity to log on from afar and veto the vivid lime color scheme that the Sears sales associate was too polite to condemn.
While the IBM-Sears partnership manifests itself in Second Life, Rowe anticipates other worlds or "metaverses" will arise.
IBM is betting that a Second Life-style 3-D interface will become a popular alternative form of navigating both the Internet and corporate networks. It aims to be a major contractor in these virtual worlds. Though Virtual Reality Modeling Language -- a format for 3-D graphics on the Web introduced in the mid-'90s -- never really caught fire, perhaps IBM is on to something.
It's not clear, however, whether Second Life is ready to serve as a consumer-friendly platform for online commerce. In December 2006, Second Life residents launched a "griefing" attack that filled the screens of attendees of an in-game conference held by virtual real estate tycoon Anshe Chung with images of floating phalluses.
Rowe, however, notes that Second Life does provide various access-control tools and that such disruptions can be avoided through the use of private showrooms.
Then again, given the state of Internet security today, it's hard to be comforted by the promise of online locks.