Buying Real Products in a Virtual World

Our city just bought a new sign making machine to replace the old heat press antique that we had to make signs, and over the last couple weeks, our crew has been learning and becoming more familiar with this computer-based system. Now we are ready to begin our city-wide updating of our street and traffic signs. As part of this effort, one of our first steps is to purchase the materials necessary to make the signs, so I told our crew to search on the internet for the materials and get some prices. They came to me yesterday frustrated that they had spent two hours searching and in the end could only find some of the materials and could not find any prices. They felt that they had invested a lot of time and didn't accomplish much.

I knew exactly how they felt. Many times during design I spend way too much time searching and navigating Websites to locate the right product for my project. There are usually no prices listed on the site so an e-mail or phone call must be made just to get a budgetary price. This often then results in having to meet with a salesman in my office or worse having to travel to a trade show to be able to view and compare products and brands. Few of us have this kind of time to spend on picking out a piece of equipment or product. This method also results in not finalizing a product choice until weeks later.

But because I do this type of product research all the time, I did offer to sit with my crew and try to locate these products myself. They watched as I managed to find a few of the items, but only because they were offered through a state contract that we located on our state's Website. And although that took relatively little time, we ended up spending a total of about an hour on the internet because in the end we could not find aluminum sign blanks.

Frustrated, I told them my dream of a time when I can log into Second Life, search for a sign store, teleport to that location, touch the product I want, and either get the purchase information or purchase it there on the spot. Because they have not seen Second Life, I decided to demonstrate to show them what I meant.

We logged on, and I went to search and typed in "signs." I scrolled down to one of the sign stores and teleported to that location. There were all the signs available for purchase. I explained to them that if this was a real company that had the capability to set up a purchase and shipping agreement with the city allowing my avatar to purchase materials, we could have bought that sign, and it would be on its way to us with a click of the "buy" button. They saw how any materials could have been displayed at the store in a manner that would allow us to find them so much more easily than on a Website. They also saw how a salesperson could have been there or available through IM to provide assistance.

The whole process of logging in, searching, and "purchasing" could not have taken more than 5 minutes. They agreed this method would be so much better and had several good questions including how would we know that this company would ship to us. I told them I thought we could have a state or location associated with our avatar, and when we tried to purchase something, this information would be transmitted so that if the company does not ship to my location, it would not allow me to purchase the product. Instead I would receive a message telling me they do not ship to my area. This information could also be provided in the search or through a notecard or sign at the store.

They also asked about comparison shopping so I explained how you can save landmarks to places you visit and how there are other tools to track where you have been so you could note the prices at each location and return to the one with the lowest price or best product. I also thought the amazing scripters in SL would probably come up with some type of tool to make this easier.

This crew also takes care of the city's fleet, and they told me how they are often frustrated in having to navigate through parts manuals to find the right part to order. How much easier it would be to go to the International Truck virtual "store" and go up to the virtual truck of the make and model they are working on and "touch" the part that they need to order, and then "buy" it. The company could also have a record of your ownership to make sure you are not ordering parts for vehicles you do not own.

As most of us who are involved in the "business" community of SL know, the potential of this virtual world is incredible, and it is available now if only real life companies would catch on and open shop.

Until then, our crew will be spending more time looking for sign blanks, and the rest of us will continue to waste time searching through endless pages of Websites, attending meetings with salespeople and suppliers, and driving or flying hundreds of miles to trade shows, all the time knowing there is a better way.

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Cyber Trade Shows

Ok, I have finally attended a 3D virtual trade show related to the engineering industry. Unfortunately it was not held in Second Life. One of the attendees at our weekly engineering meeting, Kelvin Glimmer, brought up this Website where he had seen the trade show advertised. Since this is something that I have been waiting to see implemented, I definitely went to the site and signed up for the free registration so that I could attend the show.

This trade show, which covers the coatings industry, is being held from Oct. 15th through the 26th and can be accessed by signing up at: http://www.cybercoatingshow.com/

I attended on the night of the first day (having been outside on construction all day long at work). Attendance required me to download a client software. Upon launching the software, I appeared to enter the 3D virtual world of Active Worlds. However, this software seems to only bring you to the trade show, and it does not appear that I can go off to explore the other areas of Active Worlds.

Even though I still think that a trade show held in Second Life would have been so much more realistic and frankly, just so much more awesome, I have to commend the person who set all this up. There were definitely big name companies and organizations from that industry exhibiting such as George Koch Sons, Dupont, The Society for Protective Coatings, Vulcan, and Sherwin Williams. These companies should also be commended for seeing that this delivery system for trade shows has great potential.

Although there were many differences from Second Life, one aspect that was disturbing to me was that there seemed to be many people there, but most were not real people. After being in SL, you get used to the fact that if you see someone, that person really is someone – not some computer-generated robot. At this show, I only saw about 3 or 4 real people. However, I did attend "after hours." The show coordinator told me he had seen about 70 people show up that day.

So because I am also attending the Illinois Municipal League convention in Chicago this week, theoretically I am in more than one place at the same time. Due to this technology, I can attend the municipal convention in Chicago and the coatings trade show in Active Worlds and still visit with my family at night in Second Life. Now if only these companies start to realize what could be done in Second Life.

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More Meetings

Well, we have managed to have a few more Tuesday evening meetings of those interested in engineering and SL. For now, the Tuesday nights at 4pm SLT seems to be working for everyone, and I have set up a meeting area for this purpose in the southwest corner of the sim around elevation 300.

Each meeting brings more good ideas to help develop an engineering community in SL. Last week we discussed settin up a mentoring program. This would involve putting together a booklet or listing of those who are willing to volunteer their time to mentor another in SL. This could be for the purpose of showing someone the ropes in SL or for engineering-related issues or matters in SL or RL. Anyone interested in becoming a mentor in this program, send an IM/Notecard to Jeff Brody – include your SL name and any specific skill areas in SL or RL engineering that you would like to focus on as a mentor. This resource, when finished, will be available in the welcome area that we will set up on the Public Works island.

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Engineer’s Meeting on Public Works Island

Well, I am back from APWA and back into the regular swing of things – pouring concrete, attending council meetings, upgrading our water plant, and still working on the Public Works sim in Second Life. This week a meeting was held on the island with a few members of the Second Life Society of Women Engineers group. We came up with a few organizational ideas for the island and for building a community of engineers in Second Life. We are hosting a meeting next Tuesday, Sept. 25 at 7pm EST on the island which will be open to anyone interested in the Second Life engineering community.

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Second Day at APWA

The second day of the APWA 2007 conference started out with a general session given by Jeff Salz – a man who has spent his life traveling all over the world on adventures. He talked of change and how we can no longer continue to approach each day with the tried and true. Instead we need to be open to change. He also stressed the importance of service to our fellow man.

After the general session, I had the difficult task of choosing which educational session to attend. There have seemed to be so many interesting ones this year that are relevant to many of the issues we all are dealing with. Eventually I chose to go to the one dealing with “smart growth” and creating livable communities. Two gentlemen spoke about the neo-traditional subdivisions that are developing in Colorado. We saw examples where roadways are only 16 to 20 feet wide. All I could think of was how upset our fire chief would be – he is worried about the old 24-foot-wide roads we have that were built in the early 1900s.

My main worry about these new developments is that all of the infrastructure is set up to be owned and maintained by the development and the homeowner’s association. I just know that eventually the people would get fed up with taking care of their own infrastructure and would approach their alderman and the city about giving it all to the city. And I know from past experience with certain types of politicians that there would be the chance that the city would take ownership. Some members of the audience said that they had these types of developments and that their city had been approached to take back ownership, but they had required all improvements to be built to city standards, and they had set up a special taxing district to pay for this. One of the speakers had said in his case, the city he dealt with refused to take on ownership when this happened unless the development rebuilt everything to city standards. I think the possibility of taking on the ownership of the infrastructure within these types of developments at some future date is important to keep in mind when passing related ordinances.

The next session I attended covered fleet operations. The speaker, Prab Rao, discussed methods and procedures that can be established to make your fleet department more efficient and accountable.

The third session presented three public works facilities that had been built in Illinois. The architect for each and representatives from these agencies discussed important features that were incorporated in each building. The speakers emphasized the following points when designing a new facility:

  • Consolidate everything
  • Build a modern equipment maintenance facility
  • Replace chaos with order
  • Consider your employees
  • Enclose your vehicle storage
  • Be a good neighbor
  • Play it safe

The final session of the day was given by Aarvid Veidmark, the owner of Specialized Services Company – an Arizona-based contractor specializing in trenchless technology. He presented the different methods used to install underground systems and discussed what factors must be considered when choosing the right method of installation.

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