Why is online shopping still so linear?

Sunday, February 19th, 2006

Many moons ago I remember playing Pathways into Darkness, a Mac-only game from Bungie that begat, eventually, Halo.
At the time I wrote an unpublished letter to MacFormat, or MacUser or someone suggesting that if it’s possible to run round corridors killing people and picking up items, why shouldn’t it be possible to run down corridors picking up tins of beans and bags of carrots? (I suggested too that you could still kill people with wonky trolleys and parents who scream at their kids, if the gaming element helped.) I even started to build a ‘Dark Forces’ level based on my local Morrisons at one point just to show what I meant.

At the time, remember, ‘virtual reality’ was The Next Big Thing but whenever it was featured on TV it included images of people wearing odd headsets and gloves. And really bad graphics. Yet the games world – though a long way from what it achieves today – was miles ahead of that. Why weren’t the two sides talking to each other?
It also has to be remembered that the idea of shopping via computers was also a bit of a pipe dream at the time.

But two things happened to me this weekend. First, I ordered an organic fruit and veg box from a local supplier and added items to it via a drop down menu. Easy enough, except that the way the site was organised wasn’t particularly logical. Oh sure, it was logical to the site owners, but it wasn’t logical to a customer. We expect cheese to be near margarine and milk, but on the site, they’re in three different categories.

Internet shopping is still, for all the metaphors that are used, a database-driven experience and that means it’s linear. But we don’t shop in that way in reality. And while in reality we might intend to buy one thing but then see an alternative, or spot something we’d forgotten we needed, online the opportunity for accidental discoveries and alternatives is pretty limited.

The second thing that happened is that I was playing World of Warcraft a moment ago and looked at the clock to see that I have a few minutes left to get down to the shop and buy some cat food.
Why couldn’t I let my Paladin go do the shopping for me? I could finish slaying this basilisk and then pop to the shops, just behind the Arena in Stranglethorne Vale. It could be like a dungeon instance, except that the cheesy piped music would start and I’d get a trolley to push around the aisles, pointing at things on shelves and adding them to my temporary 100-slot basket. Get to the check out and authorise my payment, then get back to the game.

Okay, so it’s lazy and bizarre but it got me thinking back to that idea I had all those years ago. It isn’t unrealistic to imagine a large retailer – Walmart in the US or Asda here in the UK – using a games engine to produce a virtual store with different departments and sections where you can select products and drop them in a trolley. Realised as a Mac/PC program or as an XBox Live ‘game’ I’d bet loads of people would use it. A company that either created such an engine or modified an existing one, that could be used by online retailers large and small, would surely be on to a good thing.

I’d insist on being able to attack parents who don’t control their kids, though. Perhaps that could be the ‘Hot Coffee’ hack…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: