Beaming up to the grocery store
© Copyright 1994-2002, Rishab Aiyer Ghosh. All rights reserved.
Electric Dreams #14

I shop therefore I am, is the credo of consumers everywhere. It is no wonder, then, that producers of goods aim forever to make this basic act of our existence more pleasant than ever before. From department stores to the yellow pages to booking orders through the telephone, marketing managers spend their time deviously coming up with new ways to use better technology for the shopping convenience of buyers. In pre-industrial times people chose their favorite items from the wandering salesman. Then there were the gigantic shopping malls. Now will be the age of tele-shopping in virtual arcades.

Tele-shopping is one of those dreams that attracts all the huge computer, communications and entertainment companies falling over themselves in a frenzy of mergers, mega-deals and over-hyped experimental projects. These otherwise sensible corporations, which include the likes of IBM, AT&T and Time Warner, are intoxicated by what is called, aptly enough, 'convergence'. Convergence, that is, of video, audio, communications and games wrapped up nicely in sophisticated information processing. While it is still far from clear that there is anyone out there who wants five hundred channels of endless soap-opera reruns and dial- a-movie services, the aspects of convergence that have received the most media attention, the more realistic and achievable benefits could be in multimedia teleconferencing, medicine ('tele- doctoring'), and yes, shopping.

Shopping arcades adapt easily to the communication provided by convergence technologies. The basic acts of shopping are: browsing through a range, making a selection, and purchasing it. Indicating a choice and making an order are easily done, and have been done through ordinary post for decades. Tele-shopping is, in fact, just an extension of the idiom of mail-order shopping, exemplified by the Sears catalogs. The only difference is that technology will hopefully make it much closer to a visit to the store, with all the implied interactivity involved in making a choice.

On-line services such as CompuServe have always offered some form of remote shopping. In the electronic market forums various products are described, and an order can be made by simply filling up an electronic form along with a credit card number. Products are not limited to computer equipment, and include everything from real estate to flowers. Services such as this, while offering the convenience of a quick, electronic purchase, are hardly arcades, as there is little or no feel of the product itself. Even with pictures of the product, this is no more interactive than a catalog on paper. And a catalog on paper looks better.

Now a virtual arcade would be something else altogether. You would be able to see a product from various angles, possibly choosing your own perspectives with a twist of your VR (Virtual Reality) goggle-covered head. You might not be able to smell or touch it, but depending on what it is, you could manipulate it. If it's an item of clothing, you could, thanks to a camera that transmits your image to the 'shop', see how it looks on you. Looking for something would be made easy by fancy intelligent searches through a galaxy of goods. To order it, you could just reach out and grab it, through your datagloves.

Together with authentication systems to prevent digital forgery (broadcasting credit card numbers is really not secure) and improving VR and communication technologies, tele-shopping could become a reality, allowing us to finish with it quickly and spend more time choosing between hundreds of TV channels. On the other hand, independent of salespersons and with no fixed working hours, virtual arcades could become the havens of a new 'convergence' addiction!

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