Telepresence puts the 'browse' back in your web browser

Friday, July 7th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

While there's no denying e-commerce is one of the major forces driving of the Internet, but it's also true that the many people who visit e-commerce sites don't buy anything. Why not? Some may only want information; others might have misgivings about using their credit cards online; and others may simply be curious.

Some analysts, however, say it's because many e-commerce sites are little more than online catalogs. Hence, e-shopping isn't 'shopping' at all; it's online ordering. What's missing is browsing, the happenstance of random items catching your eye or the impact of other stimuli which prompts you to make a purchase, planned or otherwise.

Well, if Paul Cooper has his way, shopping online will soon be just like shopping at the mall, because that's exactly where you'll be -- or what you'll see, anyway. Cooper says shopping via robotic cameras really is the next best thing to being there.

Cooper runs a company called Perceptual Robotics Inc. (PRI), an Evanston, Illinois-based company that puts web cams in retail stores to give shoppers a real-time view of the goods. Rather than provide continuous video, PRI's "TrueLook" technology lets visitors look around distant locations by viewing JPEG images generated by user-directed web cams. All you need is a web browser and a dial-up Internet connection. Users can click to pan, tilt, and zoom the cameras without additional software or plug-ins. "The overall feel takes advantage of the interactivity of the Internet; it's the difference between looking and watching," Cooper says.

The flagship location of PRI's TrueLook technology is the website of Gallery Furniture Inc. PRI has installed 48 interactive cameras throughout the Houston furniture retailer's 35,000 square-foot showroom. "We're letting retailers with an investment in bricks and mortar get leverage off their investment and compete effectively on the Web," says Cooper.

"It's not clear whether 'look and buy' is going to make somebody buy something today," says Donna Hoffman, professor of management at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. "But it gives you a glimpse of the future."

Cooper believes the future is now. "Even if companies already have an established e-commerce site it doesn't preclude them from upping the ante on their web site by adding look-and-buy to enhance the visitor's experience," says Cooper. PRI's customers include Microsoft, IBM, Ford, Harley-Davidson, and CNN, and PRI systems have been used to enhance the websites of special events such as the Grammy awards and the NBA basketball finals.

Technically, PRI's TrueLook is part of what scientists call telepresence, which includes everything from the NASA space cams to camera-guided robotics that will allow surgeons to perform operations thousands of miles away. When you think about it, it's pretty remarkable. In just a few years, we've gone from hearing live events described to us over the radio, to seeing them unfold on television, and now, to viewing them on our computer screens, using cameras we aim ourselves.

Face it. Sooner or later, there just isn't going to be any reason to leave the house. I'll leave it up to you to decide whether that's good or bad.

Sites to check out

Perceptual Robotics Inc.
PRI 'Look and Buy' sites
PRI 'Get in the Game' sites
PRI 'Go Places' sites