Kinset: “Straight Retailing” 3D VR

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 by: C. Sven Johnson

I’ve just given Kinset, a 3D virtual shopping application, (Link) a spin. Before I offer my opinion, let’s start off with what it’s supposed to be. From the website:

Kinset is for those of us who like to shop. Stroll down an aisle with hundreds of items on display. Pause when something catches your eye. Browse and linger while discovering new things. That’s what real shopping is about, and that’s what makes Kinset the first online shopping that’s truly enjoyable.

Also, because it came up in the above interview, let’s get a sense of how Kinset is intended to compare with what is arguably (if only in mindshare) the major player in the virtual world space, Second Life. According to Kinset CEO John Butler (from the above video):

Second Life is a kind of hobby space; people who enjoy Second Life are people who spend – usually devote – hours to figuring out how to move around, dress themselves… and then it becomes a social hobby environment. Something where you turn up for those sorts of satisfactions.
[Kinset] is straight retailing. Basically, this is about creating high-fidelity retail spaces; that is, stores that look and feel like real stores and that you can go into and use within 30 seconds.

So now that we know what Kinset is supposed to be about, what’s the verdict?


As Kinset is supposedly a “high-fidelity” 3D virtual shopping application, my first interest is in what it looks like, so let’s start there.

First, if the goal is “high-fidelity”, Kinset fails miserably from my perspective. They don’t come close to looking “just like real stores”. In truth, the quality of the real-time 3D is lower than what one might find in Second Life, and the lag is (for me) a bit worse. Considering both rendering quality and lag are sore points consistently raised by Second Life detractors, Kinset needs to at least achieve something closer to their professed goal.

Second, and a bigger disappointment, was that the products were only pictures on boxes; not at all what I was expecting given the “high-fidelity” boast. Worse still is that these boxes aren’t product packaging but product images slapped onto geometric primitives (I suspect the images are coming from Flickr, btw; something to consider given the recent Virtual Earth/3DVIA news – reLink).

As I walked around I happened to come across a product which I helped to develop, a Black & Decker Ergo Chopper (larger screencap here: reLink). I’d just joined the corporate design department when the initial design effort, by now-defunct Anderson Design consulting, was completed. I was tasked with finishing some of the details and delivering a toolable 3D CAD file to our OEM.

With Second Life’s “sculpties“, I could probably model this relatively well, and there’d likely be no appreciable impact on the client’s performance since the geometry is based on offsets derived from an image file. If Kinset has any normal- or displacement-mapping capability, it’s not apparent. And as a triangle data set Kinset would almost certainly choke worse than it already does. And it does choke… especially when walking through all the DVD boxes crammed together (I may “capture” the geometry and investigate it since I suspect it’s not as optimized as it could/should be and would run better if it were).

In short, Kinset doesn’t look very good.

Okay, so that’s a rough idea of what someone will see. Now let’s talk about the User Experience.

With regard to the low-level basics, while the user interface may be simpler than Second Life’s, it’s not especially elegant. I personally don’t like having to hit the ESC key to prevent every object that falls underneath the “hand” cursor – no matter how far away it is – from popping up an advertising/sales sidebar. And with just the arrow cursor, my mouse functionality changed so that I couldn’t navigate as easily as with the “hand” cursor functionality. Supremely irritating.

On a higher level, as far as I’m concerned, Kinset’s more “real” shopping experience is non-existent. I’d rather browse pages of 2D images than walls of 3D images like those in Kinset. While I won’t argue with the reasoning that browsing 3D is in some cases more efficient than using 2D, I don’t see it being especially efficient as implemented.

Furthermore, I take issue with the use of the term “immersive”. This is not immersive. I don’t get the sense of being inside a store. Kinset has neither the visual fidelity nor those other qualities that facilitate user immersion. Hate to say it, but this amounts to being not much more than dancing 3D baloney; exactly the sort of example anti-3D people reference on academic sites like Terra Nova.

I could go on but you get the picture. Kinset needs some work.

For what it’s worth, I confess to having a problem with Kinset right from the start because I disagree with the assertion that opening a 3D application and browsing images on boxes “avatar free” is “what real shopping is about”. Real world shopping in brick-and-mortar stores is, if anything, a social experience; either enjoyed with friends and family or endured with strangers (or vice-versa). Casually stripping out the social element makes no sense to me, but Kinset CEO Butler seems to believe people will be satisfied opening a lonely 3D application and walking down uncrowded (read: empty) aisles. Right.

I tend to think it feels like shopping after the Apocalypse. Only you still have to pay. What a drag.

Is it possible that the folks behind Kinset haven’t been paying attention to all the social applications making the news? I noticed their CEO is on LinkedIn, but does he use it or did he sign up because it was the “in” thing to do? The whole approach to Kinset suggests the latter.

I think some of the assumptions that went into Kinset need to be reconsidered.

In conclusion, Kinset doesn’t seem to me to offer anything to retailers other than a PR blurb… and a virtual island isolated from an uncontrollable virtual mainland; a technical/security advantage which may evaporate in the near future and which seems to me to be akin to foregoing a mall filled with shoppers for a spot in the middle of the Sahara. But not too close to an oasis. It might get crowded.

For more coverage:

“Kinset Announces First Technology for High Fidelity 3D Immersive Retail Stores” (Link) – Kinset Press Release

“A shopping trip, aisle by virtual aisle” (Link) – Boston Globe

“Kinset Launches 3D Web-Based Stores” (Link) – Mashable

{Screenshots taken from Kinset application; Copyright © 2007 Kinset, Inc. }

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