Apple set to pimp online shopping?

Cupertino (CA) – Think online stores can’t be sunny? Think again. An Apple’s patent filing shows that the company may be working on a pimped-out online shop with social networking features, avatars, weather conditions, seasonal changes, times of day and other gizmos. The question, of course, is: Will a sunny virtual online shop make you spend more money?

Apple’s patent application number was filed back in September 2006 and surfaced last Thursday in the US Patent & Trademark Office database. The patent titled “Enhancing Online Shopping Atmosphere” describes a shopping environment that is reminiscent of some ideas we heard in the early stages of the dotcom boom and a scenario that could fit into virtual worlds such as Second Life.

Within the filing, Apple argues that today’s online shopping experience, despite the obvious advantages, feels “sterile and isolating”, noting that customers who shop online “may be less likely to have positive feelings about the experience”. That, in turn, can lead to a customer being less inclined to engage in the experience, thus spending less money compared to customers who shop in a real-world store.

The document published last week filing details real-life atmospheric and environmental conditions depicted by visual indicators. Apple imagines a shop as being “sunny”, amusingly explaining that if the avatar Alice visits the “Acme” website at noon, there would be a sun indicator included in the region.
Should Alice returns to a shop late in the day, a moon icon will be shown instead of a sun. Apple also proposes different color schemes to depict the different seasons throughout a year. Apple concedes that these ideas will not necessarily make consumers spend more money, but create a visually appealing environment.

Visitors of these online shops are represented by avatars, instead of generic icons. Avatars would include “an indication of the sophistication of that visitor” superimposed over the avatar image. Patent explains that if a user has an “N” superimposed over its avatar, it can mean that this is a new user (“newbie”). Similarly, an “E” could indicate an expert user, while a store’s support personnel might have “H” (as in “help”) superimposed over an avatar. Both visitor and employee avatars can have nametags with an arbitrary text describing the role of a person.

The patent also calls for a “Follow the Footsteps” option used in conjunction with ongoing promotions. Alice might be instructed to “follow the footsteps” of other visitors to receive a discount. Apple suggests that contextual menus called by right clicking on user’s avatars: For example, Alice may bring up a contextual menu for a user to “go where that visitor is going” or “see where they’re going”, without being taken there. Of course, Alice would also get tools to interact with other visitors, exchange real-time messages or see the content they share.