Ann All spoke with Steve Kramer, vice president and chief technology officer of iCongo, an award-winning developer of e-business systems and software that enable companies and organizations to effectively collaborate and communicate with their trading partners, market their products and services online, generate new business opportunities, and efficiently transact business over the Internet.
All: We hear a lot about the possibility of retailers using 3D and other interactive technologies, both online and in brick-and-mortar stores. How do you see this trend developing? What kinds of opportunities do retailers have now or will they have in the near future?
Kramer: iCongo has two divisions: an e-commerce division that specializes in e-commerce systems, including B2B, and a division called iCongo Live, that specializes in interactive 3D technology such as online events and online trade shows. From a retail perspective, our customers and other retail companies are very curious about (3D). They recognize the potential. A lot of them right now are trying to get their cross-channel strategies in line. Once those strategies are in place, we think 3D will become a popular interface for selling to customers. What we see from a retail readiness standpoint is this big push to create that seamless customer experience between the online and offline channels. We believe strongly that the 3D experience will become very appealing to retailers shortly after they get this sorted out.
All: Many retailers have both a virtual and physical presence, and there is a lot of discussion out there about how to get those two channels to work together more seamlessly. Some retailers seem to be trying to bring elements of their physical stores to their Web sites, and vice versa. I believe you call this the "endless aisle" concept. Can you give us some idea of how this will work?
Kramer: The endless aisle is a technology that, when you walk into a physical store location, you're able to order any product that is available across the entire retail chain, even if it is not available within the storefront. We believe there will be two different flavors of 3D retailing. First, there is the pure Internet. Customers from home can interact through 3D technology, through Flash technology, and browse products. Find product information, chat with sales associates, add to the shopping cart directly from the 3D experience.
Then we believe there are probably interesting opportunities in the store as well - not only from a shopping experience, but in areas like furniture, to have 3D kiosks that allow you to plan out rooms and get a different type of product information and customer experience than you have now. So you'd be able to walk into an IKEA and plan out your room, take items from the catalog and drop them into a room and so forth. So from traditional cataloging to different kinds of planning tools, we see lots of possibilities.
All: In the 1990s, startups like Superscape pitched the idea of 3D technologies to create more engaging Web sites and to facilitate e-commerce. Yet the idea never took off. What has changed between now and then that might suggest a brighter future for 3D?
Kramer: Number one, I think the technologies that support the 3D experience have evolved quite a bit. We've learned a lot from a couple of the early adopters, retailers who have launched 3D storefronts and other tools. Right now, we are at an interesting stage where we are seeing a lot of brainstorming among retailers and searching within their organizations to find out where they technology fits.
There are barriers, of course. 3D development is more costly and more complicated than creating a traditional storefront online. It requires a very high level of creativity from your staff, and a high level of interactivity in the coding. As a result, everyone wants to have a very branded experience online. But there is currently no 3D software development package that allows you to achieve that level of branding. So there is a lot of custom development involved. Another consideration for many retailers is whether their core e-commerce platform can support the integration in that type of an environment. So you might have an online storefront, but how do you connect this 3D experience into that? You also don't want to have to manage data in two different environments. Our iCongo e-commerce application has a full series of APIs that can be used in any kind of 3D development or other custom kinds of development.
All: As you've mentioned, your company provides solutions for both the B2B and B2C markets. What are the biggest differences in the two markets, and what are some areas in which they overlap? Are there any lessons they can draw from each other?
Kramer: On the B2B side, I think the application of 3D will be very different. A lot of what we do at iCongo Live, with our virtual events and our lead generation software, is geared toward B2B. It's about creating an online event where people can interact with business customers and really collaborate through means such as Webinars and live chat - very much like a physical event. The application of B2B technology is something that we started focusing on six years ago. As far as using catalogs and the 3D experiences on the B2B portals, I don't think we're quite there yet. We aren't focusing our efforts there. It's more about the collaboration and communication among business partners.
All: Those benefits sound similar to those often mentioned in association with videoconferencing. How does 3D technology compare to videoconferencing?
Kramer: We marry the two, because we think both are very important. We have video chats integrated into our technology, for example, as well as live and pre-recorded Webinars. It adds a reality factor to the virtual experience. These video technologies are used for new product introductions, new product training, employee training. The reality factor is what is important.
All: While retailers seem to feel they will have to adopt new technologies to stay competitive, they are also trying to deal with a shaky economy and sluggish sales. It's hard to make a hard ROI case for things like virtual environments and handheld devices for in-store employees. Any advice?
Kramer: Certainly from a retail standpoint, it's difficult for the early adopters. The business opportunity is around creating a very unique customer experience, driving traffic to your Web site, and differentiating yourself from the competitors. There are not a lot of metrics you can look at to determine the ROI, so it is going to take some forward-thinking retailers to be in that space right now.
From a B2B standpoint, though, I believe the business case for B2B is very simple. A lot of companies have big annual sales rallies or other events where they bring together a lot of their employees and business partners. They're very costly events. People have to travel. Our event platform, which is not a very big investment, is a very easy business case for people to sell internally. The virtual events don't have to be as branded as the interfaces where you are facing a consumer. So we are able to use a more generic application; it's very cost-effective.
All: Any other developments you think we should mention?
Kramer: The application of 3D for communication and collaboration has been used in B2B environments for the last three or four years. Right now, it's the large publication companies that are spearheading it. They organize these events for companies. But I believe we're going to see a big shift in that over the next 12-18 months. I think companies will take on more of the event management on their own. We've created tools that allow non-technical people to create an event on their own. And who better to create the event than the people who really know the business and the audience for it.