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Virtual Reality isn't just for movies anymore

By James Hanback Jr.

FEBRUARY 8, 1999:  Ever lie awake at night wondering whatever happened to the mainstreaming of virtual reality? It was a term that became household in the early 1990s, especially when the film The Lawnmower Man hit the screens.

Although the film presented virtual reality as a warrior training ground or, as its introduction indicates, a form of mind control, the anticipation of the general public was that we would all eventually be able to work and play inside virtual worlds. We would not only shop and conduct business via the Internet, but we would actually be able to interact with each other as personalities, our avatars--or animated personifications of online citizens--cavorting carelessly in a wondrous new cyber-universe.

Virtual reality has come to pass, in a way. Computer simulations are used in some types of training, for one. Likewise, the Internet has made it possible to conduct everyday business from opposite ends of the earth.

For many, there seems to be something rather anti-social about it. While some online Christmas shoppers last year reveled in the opportunity to sit comfortably at home and avoid the crowds, others maintained that they would miss the social aspects of shopping.

Now Marc Shaffer, the Nashville CEO of Commerce City, an online community currently focused on Internet shopping, says all that is about to change. The community is located on the World Wide Web at http://www.commercecity.com, and features a regular HTML shopping portal as well as a new "virtual reality" portal. The virtual reality version not only allows one to adopt an animated avatar, but also allows that avatar to interact with other avatars in the same area of cyberspace. It may not have the head gear and cybersuit of The Lawnmower Man, but Shaffer says it's as close as you can get thus far to socializing in cyberspace.

Commerce City officially opened for business Jan. 21. Through partnerships with top e-commerce sites and the use of Fujitsu's WorldsAway technology to create avatars, Commerce City created what Shaffer calls a "unique" shopping experience for online consumers.

"We successfully combined e-commerce and an online community with fun-filled personal interaction to create powerful business opportunities," Shaffer explains. "We're kicking e-commerce and online community to the next level.

"We're a bit of a complex project. Part of what we do is community development. When you enter Commerce City, you become part of an online 'neighborhood.' Another part of what we do is to create a unique experience for online shoppers.

"E-tailing up until now has been a paper catalog online," he continues. "With Commerce City, businesses can sell products in a personal contact environment."

The use of avatars is not new on the Internet. Various chat rooms allow people to communicate via animated personalities. Shaffer hopes to take virtual reality online communities far beyond basic chat, eventually including education, corporate meetings, and even conventions.

"Right now, if you want to attend a convention you often have to make plans to get on a plane and go there," Shaffer says. "Imagine not having to do all that, but going to the convention in virtual reality."

Aspirations aside, Shaffer's Commerce City has already attracted quite a few partners in building a virtual reality online community. Among them are: Amazon.com, Spiegel, Newport News, Philips Extended Service, GEICO, ValuPage, Bean Central, the University of Ohio Bookstore, CompuBank, eToys, and PC Flowers. Also connected to the Commerce City online community is Children's Playplace, a site Webmastered by Shaffer's 10-year-old son Paul.

"Everybody's designing places for kids, like they really know what kids want," Shaffer says. "When we decided we wanted to put up a site for kids we pretty much gave Paul free reign in what would go on there."

Shopping, play places, education, conventions--all could be virtually connected so that people can stay at home and still interact with each other the way they always have. For Shaffer, it's a dream come true.

But for those of you who like the anonymity of the Net, Shaffer says the new virtual community he's developing won't stand in your way.

"We provide the straight HTML version of our portal, too," he explains. "That's for the power-buyer, who just wants to get in, make a purchase, and get out."

Getting prepared

The Federal Emergency Management Agency is planning to kick off its first series of regional Y2K Preparation & Consequence Management Workshops agencies in Atlanta in mid-February. In addition to FEMA, participants will include state and local emergency managers, state fire marshals, state Y2K coordinators and regional representatives of key federal agencies. (The Y2K bug is the computer glitch that may cause some computers to interpret the year 2000 as 1900.)

There are 10 workshops planned across the country through the end of March. They will provide a forum where emergency officials can discuss initial Y2K compliance assessments, potential consequences of Y2K disruptions and the coordination of necessary response.

According to FEMA, the workshops will pave the way for a national-level Y2K consequences management exercise to be held in Washington, D.C., in June.

The Y2K workshops will be held in Atlanta, New York City, Boston, Philadelphia, Dallas, Chicago, Kansas City, Seattle, San Francisco, and Denver.

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