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With the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) taking place this week, I wanted to explore how easy it would be for a developer to create a digital twin of Las Vegas that can be accessed from any computer with a quick download.
I’ve heard lots of hype about new no-code tools that allow anyone to rapidly create virtual experiences, but I’ve been skeptical that it can be done quickly by creative designers with no programming skills.
To test whether the reality lives up to the hype, I challenged Agora World CEO Ethan Berg to create a digital twin of Las Vegas in 20 minutes or less without writing any code. To be specific, I asked him to build an immersive experience that would place me at my hotel (the Luxor) and that would give me a virtual path I could follow from the hotel to the convention center. And, along the way, I asked him to toss in a few virtual elements that point out notable locations that I might be interested in.
Berg accepted the challenge, expressing confidence that he could create the digital twin in less than 20 minutes. He even offered to record a video of the creation process to show how it was done by a non-coder.
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I asked Ethan about his background, and he assured me that he has never studied coding and has followed a non-technical career path focusing entirely on the business side of virtual reality (VR). And yet, after only 10 minutes, he created the immersive experience and sent me the below snapshot.
Agora World is a no-code virtual world development platform allowing creative agencies to quickly design immersive experiences and put them online for major brands. Berg founded the company in 2019 because he believed it was much too difficult to create immersive content such as virtual showrooms, product demos and training experiences.
Like many in the industry, Berg is convinced that in the near future, most websites engaged in e-commerce will provide 3D experiences with their products and services. This means creative tools need to be usable and accessible by anyone. In addition to Agora World, other companies building no-code or low-code solutions for industry include MetaVRse, Spatial, Blockade Labs and Captic.io.
VR’s long cold winter over?
As someone who began developing VR experiences way back in 1991, I have to admit I’ve been fooled many times over the last three decades into thinking online commerce would soon go virtual. In fact, I was at CES 26 years ago pitching the promise of virtual showrooms with digital products you could not just see and hear online, but physically touch and feel using haptics.
It’s hard for people to appreciate this today, but VR was a hot technology in the early and mid-1990’s and the industry believed that widespread deployment of virtual commerce was not far off.
Instead, VR fell into a long cold winter in 1998 that lasted 15 years and drove most of the early startups out of business. Because of this history, I’ve been cautious about predicting the rate of adoption for mainstream applications like online shopping.
That said, I believe that CES 2024 is finally the right time for the industry to push the grand vision of immersive commerce. With Apple getting ready to ship their Vision Pro mixed-reality headset next month, and Meta aggressively pushing their new Quest 3 headset, I believe this will finally be the year that mainstream users, not just gamers, will start consuming online immersive content at scale.
To get a second opinion, I checked in with Alan Smithson, co-founder of MetaVRse and TheMall. He pointed to another important reason why immersive commerce is poised to gain ground on traditional ecommerce in 2024. As he put it: “You don’t invite your friends to go shopping with you on Amazon.”
In virtual worlds, however, friends and family can go shopping together — and have fun doing so. To leverage the vast potential for social shopping in virtual environments, MetaVRse is currently being used to build the world’s largest virtual mall (TheMall.io) which aims to be the premier destination for brands and agencies that want to deploy virtual shopping experiences for social groups.
I also checked in with my friend Alvin Graylin, the global VP of corporate development at HTC, for his perspective. He agreed that 2024 will be pivotal for the industry, saying: “VR/AR has been a four-letter-word the last couple of years. Now, with next-gen products coming to market from major vendors like Apple, Samsung, Google and HTC, and AI tools greatly reducing 3D content creation costs, 2024 is going to be a year when immersive computing sees a massive resurgence in the mindshare of consumers and businesses alike.”
Full disclosure: Alvin and I just wrote a new book, Our Next Reality, together. It provides a roadmap to our AI-powered immersive future, addressing the opportunities and risks ahead.
Immersive commerce brings new risk
On the topic of risk, immersive commerce will come with new dangers for consumers that require new protections from policymakers. This is because virtual showrooms will be populated by automated virtual spokespeople who perform sales, support and customer service through realistic conversational interactions.
While this will save significant labor costs for businesses, these friendly AI representatives could easily be designed with superhuman persuasive skills. In fact, these AI agents could learn over time what types of arguments are most impactful on each of us individually.
All this said, virtual showrooms are coming and will be filled with AI salespeople. This means that major brands need to start thinking about adding immersive content to their online presence. This will drive an increasing need for easy-to-use tools that allow marketeers and other creatives to develop compelling 3D experiences without hiring teams of programmers.
This is why tech companies like Agora World, MetaVRse and others are rushing to make the creation of 3D web content as fast and easy as creating traditional 2D content using tools like Wix, WordPress or Canva.
Rapid creation of digital twins finally achievable
This brings me back to the virtual Vegas challenge that I laid out above. Berg provided the video below to show how he created a digital twin of Sin City in only 10 minutes. One reason why this was so fast and easy is that last year Agora World was awarded a grant from geospatial company Cesium to enable rapid creation of digital twins using their extensive database of geospatial 3D data and content.
Watching the video below, I am convinced that rapid creation of digital twins finally lives up to the promise.
While creating a digital twin of a city is impressive, far more interesting applications will emerge when small businesses can quickly create an immersive replica of their location to support shopping, training or customer service.
Event Horizon Experiences is one company creating this type of content. It recently built a digital twin of a local Hyundai Branch in Corona, Calif., using Cesium geospatial data accessed through Agora World to recreate the real-world surroundings. Additionally, they are currently integrating Convai to offer AI customer service representatives as virtual avatars that are available 365 days a week, 24 hours a day.
“We rebuilt their location so customers can browse vehicles or talk with a representative from the comfort of their own home,” Event Horizon CEO Carlos Acevedo told me.
He, like many in this industry, believes web development is about to shift rapidly to immersive content because it increases engagement and makes online shopping far more natural than today’s flat websites.
As we kick off 2024, I recommend that marketing professionals start exploring the power of no-code tools to create digital twins and virtual showrooms. I also recommend that policymakers begin preparing for the next wave of online commerce, which will be far more immersive, interactive and AI-powered than today’s flat websites.
It may take a few more years before we reach critical mass, but I believe that virtual shopping will begin gaining real momentum in 2024 — and will never look back.
Louis Rosenberg is an early pioneer in the fields of AI and augmented reality. He founded Immersion Corporation and Unanimous AI and developed the first mixed reality system at Air Force Research Laboratory.
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