With only 25 shopping days left until Christmas, there are few more uncomfortable places to be at the moment than Oxford Street in London. So today's launch of a virtual version of the West End retail mecca couldn't have been timed better.
NearLondon brings Oxford Street to life on the web with a perfect 3D replica of the iconic shopping precinct. It's the latest marketing salvo in the high street's battle against purely online suppliers and a whole new media channel for interactive advertising. The site uses computer gaming technology to place users inside a virtual world where they can walk through the streets and enter stores; the real-life buildings have been scanned in using laser technology and the 3D world has been modelled with techniques used by special-effects designers in Hollywood
The idea is that you can visit stores such as John Lewis, Marks & Spencer and Liberty from the comfort of wherever you perch your laptop. No rain, no crowds, no bags to lug home. Though when I say no rain, I mean you won't get wet; the weather in virtual Oxford Street will be modelled on Met Office forecasts each day, so if it's pouring in the real world, it will be online, too.
The pursuit of the authentic West End experience doesn't stop there. Newspaper billboards will carry headlines from that day's news and advertisers will be able to buy virtual poster sites and in-store promotional messages. So the Near concept will also be run as an ad medium, offering advertisers many of the traditional promotional tools that exist out in the real world.
At this point you might be thinking "Second Life". Though probably not. After the hype, who remembers Second Life? There's no doubt that NearLondon has a commercial edge over its predecessors, even though it does not offer the same opportunities for casual virtual sex (not yet, anyway).
For high-street retailers, the Near concept is about trying to secure a greater share of web commerce. Of course all the major players already have their own e-commerce sites. But NearLondon reckons its sophisticated technology and ability to replicate the traditional browsing experience not only within a store but also through an entire virtual shopping centre will drive increased (virtual) footfall and create a richer user experience which will ensure consumers keep coming back for more.
They might be right because as the Near system develops, the idea is to overlay the commercial application with a robust social network that edges closer to the community and social elements of the city centre location. So in addition to shopping, users will be able to watch movies, chat with friends, or hang around virtual street corners with their mate who lives at the other end of the country.
The NearLondon site launches in Beta today and next week shoppers in central London will be handed the application on a disc to upload at home. Oxford Street, Regent Street and Bond Street are already up and running, with Covent Garden and Knightsbridge in the pipeline. And the plan is to expand from London's West End to major cities around the world; so you'll be able to shop Fifth Avenue or Tokyo's Shinjuku from your living room.
Doomsayers worry that if virtual shopping rocket-fuels online buying, it could have a significant impact on the real-life high street.
Some shops could find their in-store sales declining to the extent that they cannot continue to justify prime real-estate rents, while the shops that do survive could become more like sampling centres, offering opportunities to interact with brands before purchasing from the web at home. Our city centre retail environment is already nudging that way with concept stores such as Nike Town and the Apple Store. Starbucks will probably take care of the rest.
Think about that as your avatar's queuing in the virtual rain for the January sales.
Best in Show: McCain (Beattie McGuinness Bungay)
If the idea of oven chips offends you, don't let your children watch the new McCain TV commercial from Beattie McGuinness Bungay. It brings a thoroughly delightful whimsy to the otherwise rather functional job of processing potatoes, and it's gorgeously seductive.
There's more than a token homage here to the fantastic contraptions of Heath Robinson as the potatoes work their way from field to plate, via tickling feathers to make them smile and garlicky gloves that give them a hug. The result is a commercial that manages to entertain and engage even after several viewings.