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10:03am EDT July 22, 2002

The World Wide Web may allow the world to learn about your products through the company Web site, but it doesn't mean they'll want to buy anything.

A product description, some nice graphics and a picture can go a long way, but for some items, that's not enough. It's just too hard to visualize how the product works or if it will meet their needs, especially if it's something like a large piece of equipment.

John Lofquist, president and CEO of Centrack International, an Internet-based advertising service for used heavy equipment, knows the value of pictures.

"There is more interest in equipment with photos," says Lofquist, whose site displays machinery used in construction, mining and forestry. "The problem is with dealers and small contractors, they don't have the time to take the photograph and submit is for listing. Anything visual like that is important in marketing."

Because equipment changes hands so quickly, video streaming for each listing doesn't make economic sense. Also, many of Centrack's customers-countries in Latin America, Asia and Africa-don't have the bandwidth to deal with video files. But Lofquist does see a few areas where video technology can enhance Centrack's services.

For some extended auctions, where the equipment will not change hands for 60 days, Centrack will be offering full video and audio streaming, allowing potential buyers to see what the equipment can do and what it looks like. Think of it as a sales presentation over the Web. The other area is having a sort of equipment encyclopedia online that would have video of the particular type of machine. A seller would post a picture of what was for sale, and a potential buyer could see what kind of condition it was in, read a description, then access Centrack's database to watch video highlighting that particular machine's key features and abilities.


Immersion technology

A new type of imaging technology has already revolutionized the way the real estate industry does business, and may be able to help you.

Interactive Pictures developed the IPIX system, which puts computer users "in" the picture.

Where as most photos are simply flat images of what the photographer thought was the best angle, IPIX is more like a fixed vantage point from which the user can look around 360 degrees. The system uses a $1,000 package of a digital camera, fisheye lens and special software to take the pictures. When the image is viewed on the computer, the user can turn and see what's in any direction, including up and down, and can also zoom in or out. (For a small software download and sample pictures, go to www.ipix.com.)

The real estate industry has already embraced it, because it allows potential home-buyers the ability to tour the house, looking at the features they want to focus on. From a picture taken in the living room, a buyer could turn to the left to see a big bay window, or to the right to see a marble fireplace. With a handful of photos, the real estate agency is able to present the entire house to a potential buyer.

"For years, people have looked at little square shots," says Jim Phillips, CEO of Interactive Pictures. "This has really reinvented photography. The big market is real estate right now, but the destination hotel chains like the Hyatt or Hilton are now shooting their properties with it."

Car manufacturers are taking pictures from inside the car, allowing people to look all around to get a feel for the interior without ever being there. John Deere is using it to provide immersive pictures for its heavy machinery.

Walt Disney resorts are using the technology to provide conference planners not only with immersive shots of hotel rooms, but also available restaurants and meeting facilities. Planners can get a feel for the ambiance of each without having to take the time to physically look at each one or make a decision based on a static brochure photo.

The good news for small business is the technology is based on existing hardware that continues to drop in price. Phillips is already working with the major digital camera manufacturers to bring this technology to consumers. Those static photos on your Web site can now be immersive. Potential buyers can look at your facility or a comparison of your product line.

"We believe that if the Internet grows to 140 million subscribers in three to four years as predicted, we will be a big part of changing photography as we know it," states Phillips.