The success of digital domains like Second Life and new trends in software development have created a ripple throughout the technology industry that has overhauled ordinary desktop mainstays into highly-graphical, web-connected entertainment and information products. One such program is 3D Mailbox, an interactive inbox that wraps normally stale emails into animated avatars that exist in numerous virtual worlds, such as a sunny beach or an airport. Opinions on the product have reached both extremes; a certain technology blog declared 3D Mailbox to be the “Worst. App. Ever.” but others called application a step into the future of offline email. The Escapist interviewed Robert Savage, founder of 3D Mailbox and World Market Watch, Inc., to discuss the convergence of videogames, virtual worlds and utility applications.
The Escapist: Do you see 3D Mailbox as more of a virtual world or email application?
Robert Savage: I designed it to be 50-50. But we need to be strict about our definition of virtual world, because 3D Mailbox does not attempt to be a Second Life or even a [The] Sims. I don’t want to spend time “playing” with my mail. I do want the mails to entertain me, though. And that’s the design. Every process-related thing you do with your mail (from receiving it, to classifying it, etc. etc.) has a corresponding action take place in the virtual world.
TE: As it says in your promotional trailer, “You know email. You know videogames. What you don’t know is that the two just hooked up.” How do you relate your program to videogames?
RS:3D Mailbox represents emails as animated objects in a videogame-like environment, and the user can interact with these objects in a videogame-like way. You can, for example, click on an avatar (which represents an email message) and chat with the sender of that message or move the avatar to a cabana (folder) or move it to the service alley (trash) behind the hotel or feed your spam to Great White Sharks.
TE: Can you describe the development process and technology used in creating 3D Mailbox?
RS: I had to assemble a multi-disciplinary team: People who could program a fully-featured email client that could compete with the email clients that have been on the market for years, people who were skilled in 3D game engine programming and artists adept at creating optimized art for 3D environments.
Coming off the development of VisitorVille … I already had the core team assembled, but in the end it took 40 people to pull it all off. I’ve financed the entire project with my own money, and it has been a lot of fun. I’ve been creating online services since 1995, and am fortunate now to be able to create whatever personally appeals to me.
We decided to go with a shader-based game engine for “forward-compatibility.” Rather than creating the game side of it with yesterday’s game engines, we wanted to build something that will be valid for years to come; an engine that could utilize both current and future video graphics hardware. This fits well with our plan to roll out many levels, each one a different environment, and thus each a different way to be entertained while reading and writing your mail.
TE: 3D Mailbox has received a barrage of criticism from major technology sites, including Download Squad and Techcrunch, over technical problems and the application’s apparent over-engineering for the task of reading email. Do you see some truth to the accusations, or are these complaints unfounded?
RS: Regarding the technical problems encountered, the core problem was that the ones who were unable to install it lacked shader support in their video cards. In addition, there are a couple of flavors of Vista that are, at the moment, causing a crash that we are working to correct. Finally, if you don’t accept the default 3-D option to force low textures, then you will end up using a lot of system memory to render the high textures. This is a function of the game engine we use and not of 3D Mailbox itself, and is a feature and not a technical problem. Interestingly, we got picked up by the media very quickly, as we only went live a bit over a month ago. The Vista problem is something that has only come to light through rapid and widespread usage.
I think it’s amusing that critics have picked up on and twisted the obvious, that we have gone in the opposite direction of thin clients by building something as audacious as a game engine inside an email client. To follow the same logic, you could consider Half-Life 2 an over-engineered version of Solitaire, because how much technology do you really need to entertain yourself? You could certainly use Pine to read email, but the goal of 3D Mailbox is not simply task-optimization: Its goal is to make you smile. There are many Solitaire and Pine fans who would consider Half-Life 2 and Halo 3 a “waste of valuable computer resources,” but nobody is holding a gun to their head to use either. It’s a matter of personal taste and preference, in the end.
Negative press gets a lot more attention than positive press. One Times of London writer called 3D Mailbox “genius,” but nobody has heard about that. What gets headlines is the tabloid-style piece that a guest columnist wrote there, which was in turn spun into more headlines by a notoriously cranky Australian writing for Techcrunch. Add to the mix an American woman whose political correctness branded men and women in bathing suits and a fat spam avatar as moral outrage. And what you have on your hands is a lot of buzz. What we are talking about here are a handful of people with very specific agendas, namely driving media traffic.
We also have a number of innovative features, such as the fully-integrated and user-friendly SpamBayes spam filter. We also introduced email-based IM/Chat and email status tracking (where you can see, if you and the remote party choose, the complete life of an email, from birth to deletion, and everything in between – including getting caught in a spam filter, which is particular valuable information).
TE: Is 3D Mailbox a profitable venture thus far? What percentage of users download the demo and are converted into buyers of the full product?
RS: As mentioned, we went live just over a month ago, so the product is in its infancy. Our plan has been to spread the word by having a largely free first level (Miami Beach). People who register Level 1 (for $29.95) have our watermark removed from their outgoing emails and have access to human tech support. That’s not a lot of incentive, and that was intentional.
But we already have a lot of people using it – many more than we could ever have expected in the first month of any product.
The business model will be proven as additional levels come out, which won’t be free. Level 2 is a full-scale LAX airport, complete with 60 airlines representing incoming and outgoing mail. It’s going to be great. Stay tuned.