London Shopping Stressful? Try Virtual Oxford Street

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Near London's virtual interface of the Oxford Street shopping district in central London.

London's West End is one of the world's great shopping districts. Its two main arteries, Regent and Oxford streets, and its capillary-like maze of side streets, are crammed with some of the biggest and trendiest names in retailing. But shopping in the West End can be downright exhausting: sidewalks heaving with humanity; the constant din of noise; traffic fumes; foul weather. Ugh.

That's why the creators behind Near London are betting that they can coax crowd-weary bargain hunters into the district via virtual reality. Near London is a 3D cyber-version of the West End that its developers say is the most realistic and accurate virtual recreation of a city center ever produced. Launched Nov. 30, it is indeed impressive-looking, thanks to a laser-scanning technology that picks up details down to one fifth of an inch (5mm) and faithfully depicts every brick and slab of concrete. Once users download the software (which is free), they can stroll — or teleport — themselves around the district to one store after another, no matter where in the world they really are.

Most of the West End's major retailers have signed on, including department stores Marks and Spencer and Liberty, as well as chains like Jaeger, French Connection and American Apparel. See something in a store window that you like the look of, say a red cashmere sweater? Click on it, and if the retailer is a Near London client, you'll open the appropriate page on that store's website. If you click on a retailer that's not part of Near, you'll open up that shop's generic website. Either way, you've got the opportunity to make a purchase. "For us, it's an opportunity to reach a new, slightly younger customer base," says Melissa Neill, Jaeger's e-commerce marketing executive.

It may also face some competition. Popular virtual world Second Life has let gamers visit reproductions of parts of London for several years. And German cyber-tourism site Twinty, which lets people visit a virtual Berlin and Singapore, is also preparing a London launch. But, unlike Near London, shopping isn't the prime focus of those sites. Instead they're about setting up a cyber-life for your virtual alter ego, or avatar, complete with its own apartment and wardrobe.

Near London shuns humanoid avatars; visitors are instead represented by a colored shaft of light. "If you give them bodies, it gets in the way of the experience," says Alex Wrottesley, founder of Near Global, the firm behind the London site. Because you're shopping for yourself, not your avatar. Moreover, he adds, humanoid avatars "really don't look very good." You can also access Near London through Facebook, which means friends can browse and shop together in real time. (Talking to strangers is not allowed.)

Nick Gibson, an analyst and virtual-world expert at London's Games Investor Consulting, calls it "an interesting idea." But he cautions that the main driver for online shopping "is price and convenience, rather than the social aspects of it." Most consumers, Gibson says, go online to buy something specific, so it's uncertain if they'll find causal shopping and browsing appealing.

Wrottesley, of course, believes they will, and he's already planning additional features to this beta version. He'll be adding New Bond Street to Near London early in 2010, and there are plans to recreate other London shopping zones, including Knightsbridge and Kensington. The site will also soon feature advertisements on billboards, buses and taxis, up-to-the-minute headlines on newsstands and even simulated weather that will mirror real-time conditions. Movie theaters, hotels, restaurants and bars could be part of the mix, too. Click on a theater, and you might watch trailers of what's on; visit a restaurant and check out the menu or, perhaps, book a (real-world) reservation. "We'll be making this more and more dense," Wrottesley promises. "We'll keep adding more and more content."

Near Global has invested around $16.5 million in its London site. Wrottesley expects a quick return. Some revenues come from fees paid by client retailers. But all retailers, clients or not, also pay for clicks to their sites, and Near Global also earns a commission on all items sold. Advertisements will generate additional income. Little wonder that Near Global is talking to a potential partner about doing virtual versions of major U.S. cities, starting with New York. A virtual Tokyo is also high on the to-do list. Soon you might be able to enjoy a shopping spree that takes in Regent Street, 5th Avenue and Ginza from the comfort and relative peace of your own home.