MELBOURNE - An Australian company on Thursday launched a free tool it says offers web browsers a world-first opportunity to view the Internet in three dimensions.
Melbourne-based ExitReality said its application allows users to turn any regular website into a 3D virtual environment, where an avatar representing them can walk around and meet other browsers viewing the same website.
Founder Danny Stefanic said that previously only specialised websites such as Second Life and World of Warcraft allowed users to enter a 3D environment.
"ExitReality goes far beyond that," he said. "It allows you to view not just one website but the entire World Wide Web in 3D."
Browsers can use the tool to turn their social networking pages on sites such as Facebook and MySpace into a virtual apartment, where photographs are displayed on the wall and links to friends are "doors" leading to other apartments.
Users can customise their flats by "decorating" with 3D versions of couches from stores such as Ikea or downloading an e-jukebox to play music clips stored on their personal page.
Similarly, using ExitReality on video-sharing website YouTube creates a virtual cinema, where the browser's avatar sits next to other users also logged on to watch the clip they have selected.
Stefanic said the tool transformed the web from a solo experience into one that could be shared with friends and other users interested in the same content.
"The user can see and share experiences with their friends while chatting with them and other people at either their own website or another billion web pages," he said.
Stefanic said there was a wealth of 3D content on the Internet that conventional web search engines ignored.
He said ExitReality made use of this content to render regular websites into 3D.
A regular two-dimensional news site appears as a 3D streetscape, with stories and photographs highlighted as billboards, while sections such as sport and business are virtual lanes that the user can navigate their avatar to.
The banner advertisements that normally sit atop the top of websites appear in the virtual sky, trailing from digital aeroplanes.
Stefanic said such effects made the website more interesting for users, meaning they were more likely to spend more time browsing the page.
"Users would normally spend no longer than a couple of minutes on a 2D website," he said. "In a 3D environment, this time can extend to half an hour, creating a huge potential for the website owner to maximise user engagement."
The tool, a 3.5 megabyte Internet plug-in that takes about 20 seconds to download, is available for free.
Stefanic said ExitReality would make money in a similar manner to Google, by generating a mixture of "sponsored" links paid for by advertisers and "organic" non-commercial results when browsers use the search engine.