Apple patents virtual stores

April 21, 2008 | 12:26

Tags: #mac #patent #second-life #store #virtual

Companies: #apple

The guys over at the Mac News Network have published an interesting story about Apple's latest patent – a patent that may reveal plans to introduce virtual Apple stores.

The patent in question was filed in September 2006, and is described as a process involved in “enhancing online shopping atmosphere”. In the patent Apple describes online shopping as feeling “sterile and isolating,” and that customers relying on a web presence for their shopping may “be less likely to have positive feelings about the online shopping experience, may be less inclined to engage in the online equivalent of window shopping, and may ultimately spend less money than their counterparts who shop in physical stores.

So, what does Apple intend to do to engage shoppers in the same way online as they do in-store? According to the patent, the solution is a virtual environment not a million miles away from Second Life – a three-dimensional world in which your avatar can wander and browse its little digital heart out.

The patent talks about simulating day and night cycles along with “different colour schemes during the fall season or winter holidays.”, and branding digital visitors with Es or Ns to demonstrate their Expert or Newbie status to help the virtual salespersons pick the most gullible mark. I mean, to pick the person most likely to need assistance with their purchasing.

An interesting addition to the patent is the idea of filters – that salespersons can be categorised according to their particular area of expertise, and then the virtual shopper can choose to only display the avatars of the salespersons knowledgeable about the particular item they're interested in.

Another rather curious part of the patent is in the virtual store's equivalent of user-generated content: there are several sections where Apple is clearly hoping that the Experts will voluntarily help the Newbies without a virtual salesperson needing to be involved at all. While co-operation is often the byword in multiplayer online games, I'm not so certain I'd be spending my free time helping to sell Apple products without wanting a cut of the proceeds.

While the idea seems plausible enough – especially given the popularity of virtual environments like Second Life amongst other companies, many of whom don't feel complete without an avatar-filled presence in the ephemeral world even if they're not sure what to do with it – it is just a patent, and it wouldn't be the first to have been filed speculatively and shelved pending the date when a competitor does something similar enough for Apple to launch the attack lawyers. Still, as an extension to an existing ecommerce site it's an idea that could well have merit.

What's your take: is Apple likely to launch a virtual Genius Bar, or is this another patent destined to moulder on the USPTO shelves? Share your thoughts over in the forums.
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