Reported in GigaOm that Apple has a patent aplication out that suggests that it is building a virtual store with an immersive 3d environment that is less “cold and sterile” than othe web stores. The rumour that accompanies this is that they plan to open this store in the near future.
While there are the obvious problems with defending a patent that will likely have many prior art problems, the idea itself could be a really good one if handled properly. I like the idea of virtual world style technologies making their way into the mainstream as a replacement for some types of web interactions.
The issue with some of the current offerings like secondlife is that the experience is contained within an application. I don’t mean to deride SL with this analogy, but it is a little like being on AOL when there is an Internet out there. Opening a store in SL is good if your main audience is there, but getting the casual user to install a heavy app and go through the learning curve of understanding how to use the program and find what you are after is not a good model for success.
There is power in virtual worlds as an interface option though, it is a different and more natural way to interact with data, provided that the representation of that data is logical. This is another way in which the SL destination world can fall down a little. By being ubiquitous it can do multiple things ok, but does not necessareily do everything perfectly. For example the building mechanism makes it able to represent almost anything, but makes it hard to make rendering quick. It is also very stuck in the “like person size” representation while it may be better for some data to be more flexible with the 3 dimensions.
The whole virtual store thing is firmly in the rumour stage at this time, but it will be interesting to see how it develops.