When you first look at 3D Mailbox, it almost seems like a joke, or an article from The Onion. "The world's first 3D e-mail client!" the Web site proclaims. Well, there's a reason for that. Most of us struggle with too much e-mail these days. Taking the time to add 3D animations to each message seems ludicrous...and it is!
3D Mailbox delivers almost exactly what it promises. It creates a 3D world in which your e-mail messages can live...and walk, shower, swim, or even shuffle about aimlessly. When you receive mail in 3D Mailbox, a 3D character representing each message walks in the front gate and talks to the bouncer (who decides if he or she is spam).
By default, the gender of the new avatar is determined by the (supposed) gender of the sender (it thinks Vladimir is a woman's name), and any questionable senders default to female. If the bouncer lets him or her through, the 3D character for each message takes a disinfecting shower, then walks extremely slowly over to the pool, climbs the high-dive platform, jumps in the pool, and swims laps until you decide to read it.
After you open an e-mail message, the 3D character (very slowly) swims over to the ladder, steps out, and takes a seat on one of the 16 lounge chairs situated around the pool. It will sit there and occasionally shift position until you either delete it--which sends the 3D character to "Trash Alley"--or put it in a new folder, in the form of a 3D cabana.
Don't worry. It gets weirder. The bouncer at the front desk uses a spam filter to classify messages as either "ham" or "spam." The spam filter seems to be fairly effective, labeling each message with a spam rating from 0 to 100, and remembering your settings for specific senders and subject types. However, the 3D representation of spam is completely ridiculous.
Once you manually mark a message as spam, little yellow stars erupt from the ground near the 3D character for that message, and your once-svelte avatar is magically transformed into an obese, androgynous figure with the word "SPAM" tattooed on his bare chest. This jiggling bowl of goo will then waddle out to the beach and have a seat in the sand, while a large family of sharks waits offshore. Unfortunately, even if you mark a message as spam immediately after it clears the bouncer, it often will still shower, climb the high-dive, swim in the pool, and briefly take a seat on a lounge chair before it walks back toward the bouncer, transforms into the obese guy, and heads out to the beach. The whole process can literally take two or three minutes.
Spam messages collect on the beach, sitting there like bumbling idiots, until you decide to delete them. That's where the fun should start, but the effect is a little underwhelming. When you delete them, your messages start swimming a backstroke in the ocean (despite the fact that there are obviously 20 to 30 sharks swimming in shallow water). Soon enough, your fat spam message will be wriggling inside the mouth of a hungry shark. Delete more than one at a time and you'll see a genuine feeding frenzy, but it sounds a lot cooler than it looks.
Messages that the bouncer cannot label as "ham" or "spam," are placed on ice, literally. An ice rink will hold all of the unknown messages until you take action. Of course, rather than actually skating around or doing something cool, the avatars for unspecified messages will simply shuffle around aimlessly on the rink.
Therein lies one of the major problems with 3D Mailbox. Aside from its ability to suck all of your system resources, it's cheesy. The animations aren't horrible, but the characters don't compare with bargain-bin PC games, and their movements are stiff and awkward. Any avatar climbing out of the pool puts his head completely through the wall. Characters climb steps without moving their legs. Female avatars dive off the platform and swim laps while wearing 5-inch stiletto heels. It makes for some funny pictures, but it's awfully cheesy.
Also, the free scene for 3D Mailbox (Miami Beach) suffers from scale problems. Obviously, the designers had to make the virtual 3D space very large to manage numerous e-mail messages, but the process of moving an avatar from one location to another is interminable. Deleting a message--moving an avatar from a pool chair or cabana to "Trash Alley"--takes more than a minute, mostly composed of the avatar walking very slowly from one place to another place far away. It's also inconsistent. Moving an avatar from a pool seat (in-box) to a cabana (folder) or moving one from the ice rink to Spam Beach occurs instantly.
What's even worse is that are only 16 pool chairs. If you have more than 16 messages in your in-box, guess what? Those extra avatars (the older messages) simply disappear. Meanwhile, approximately 20 to 30 other chairs sit empty on the other sides of the pool. I suppose those are just for decoration.
You can navigate through your in-box, spam, trash, and custom folders using tabs at the bottom of the screen, or you can jump to any of the eight locations (bouncer, showers, high-dive, pool chairs, cabana, ice rink, Spam Beach, and Trash Alley) using a graphical interface with a sun in the middle in the bottom-right corner of the 3D interface. Each spot has eight different points of view that you can cycle through by clicking repeatedly on each icon. Holding down the left mouse button will let you rotate scenes in 360 degrees, but there is no panning available. Zooming is limited and accomplished by clicking the sun icon in the middle of the graphical interface.
Back to the system resources for a second. 3D Mailbox uses a lot. You will seriously be hard-pressed to run any other applications at the same time. It starts at a little under 200MB "private bytes" (according to Process Explorer), but with only 20 messages in my in-box and a handful in one folder, it is using 314MB of private bytes with a virtual size of 508MB. The majority of the time it uses about 85 percent to 95 percent of my CPU on my midend desktop (2.4GHz CPU, 3GB RAM, GeForce 7800).
You can defray some of those system requirements via the 3D Mailbox settings. Go to Tools -> Options -> 3D Preferences -> Engine to select "Normal PC" instead of "Multimedia/Gaming PC." Even on the lower system setting, however, you'll need 128MB of video RAM and 3D Mailbox will still use about 200MB of memory. To be fair, I've seen some system requirements for 3D Mailbox on other sites that call for a minimum of 3GHz processing power, but that's not included in any of the actual product documentation.
3D Mailbox includes free and premium service plans, with a few additional goodies for sale. The Miami Beach level comes standard with free registration, and you can buy an additional Los Angeles International Airport level now, with levels for "Outer Space" and "Ancient Rome" in the works.
I had trouble sending messages with 3D Mailbox due to a conflict with my McAfee antivirus protection, so I'm still experimenting with some different port settings. If you do choose to use the free version of 3D Mailbox, however, all of your outgoing messages will be tagged with a 3D Mailbox watermark that includes four creepy 3D avatars, including the beastly spam figure.
Aside from all of the issues already mentioned with 3D Mailbox, the whole concept is the biggest flaw. Interactive 3D online worlds make sense when gaming (see World of Warcraft and Second Life) or chatting with friends (see IMVU), but when the 3D animation is purely decorative, it seems rather pointless. The avatars in 3D Mailbox don't do anything aside from move from location to location, swim in the pool, or get eaten by sharks. They don't talk, they don't dance, they don't play with each other...so what's the point again?
Honestly, the main point of 3D Mailbox seems to be representing your e-mail messages as scantily clad 3D women. If you're that desperate for risque cartoon characters, there are a million better places to look. 3D Mailbox will only suck up your time, patience, and system resources for virtually no payback.
For more information about 3D avatar software, check out this feature from Jessica Dolcourt and Neha Tiwari.