Economic slowdown will spur enterprise Immersive Internet adoption

A question echoing around the Immersive Internet technology community is whether the current global financial situation will have a big impact on this emerging technology market.  The short answer is yes.  What might surprise some observers is that the impact is likely to be a net positive.  Why? Immersive Internet technology is perfectly suited to helping organizations cut costs and increase efficiency.

Organizations are cutting costs left and right to combat the economic downturn. On October 22, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics announced that in September of 2008, layoffs reached their highest level since September of 2001. In the last couple of weeks alone, eBay announced it will lay off 10% of its workforce; Lear Corporation announced a 12-month, $150 million operating improvement program; SAP issued a hiring freeze and is trimming costs like travel expenses; and Yahoo! Inc announced it would reduce its current annualized run rate by $400 million before the end of 2008, laying off 10% of its workforce in the process. Numbers like these suggest that we are likely to see across-the-board spending cuts.

As a result, ThinkBalm expects to see investment in Immersive Internet technology as a cost-saving measure.

  • CIOs are focused on business process improvement to cut costs and increase productivity. Survey data from CIO Insight Research’s October 2008 study, “BPI: The CIO’s Secret Weapon” shows that reducing costs and increasing productivity are the leading drivers of business process improvement efforts. Seventy three percent of IT executives surveyed say that in an economic downturn they are focused on business process improvement to improve productivity and 69% say they do it to reduce costs. The top-priority business processes targeted for improvement are strategic / business planning, sales and marketing, financial, and IT management. Also, 36% of respondents said that collaboration tools, including groupware, are among the top 3 contributors to business process improvement. As the next generation of collaboration technology, Immersive Internet technologies have a prime role to play here.
  • Immersive Internet implementations demonstrate hard cost savings. With Immersive Internet investments, organizations are achieving cost savings in areas like business travel, meetings and conferences (e.g., renting hotel conference rooms, serving food), and data center and facility operations. For example, Microsoft found that virtual marketing events cost about 1/3 that of physical events.  (See the related ThinkBalm article, At Microsoft, cost of virtual events about 1/3 the cost of traditional events.) In another example, Accenture found it could cost-effectively find tech savvy employees using Second Life and the company’s investment in its Second Life island paid for itself after 5 or 6 in-world recruiting-oriented events. (See the related ThinkBalm article, Accenture recruiting in Second Life cost-effectively targets the “Facebook audience.” And in a third example, Implenia has found that remote facility management can result in savings of 20% over traditional methods.

Think of the Immersive Internet as a giant cost savings generator

Immersive Internet technology can be used to generate cost savings in many areas (see Figure 1). Some use cases are more common than others. The most common work-related use of Second Life, as an example, are teaching and/or learning, collaborating with others to get work done, holding or attending scheduled meetings, and visualizing information in 3D. (See the related ThinkBalm article, Second Life survey says: “Try it for work — you’ll like it.”)

Our recommendation: pick a key business process or activity that is impacted by cost reduction measures in your organization and apply Immersive Internet technology to it immediately. The technology can be relatively inexpensive (depending on which products you implement) and the payoff can be significant and immediate — especially in areas like increasing workforce productivity while reducing business travel, and increasing workforce proficiency gain at a lower cost than with traditional methods of training.

The ThinkBalm Innovation Community brainstorms in 3D!

Last Friday the ThinkBalm Innovation Community held its second community brainstorming session. The objective for these sessions: to collaboratively find solutions to problems associated with enterprise adoption of the Immersive Internet. The benefit: address challenges individuals are dealing with while gaining hands-on experience with a variety of immersive environments. One of the ThinkBalm Innovation Community members — Jeff Lowe, an Oklahoma-based consultant and project manager who writes the The Immersive Life blog — “founded” the original idea to hold this brainstorming series. Other community members hopped on board and self-formed an idea team to help evolve Jeff’s original idea. ThinkBalm’s intention is that ThinkBalm Innovation Community members who benefit from these sessions will take the practices they learn and experiences they have back to their own organizations.

For Brainstorming Session #2, eleven community members gathered in Second Life to discuss and propose solutions to a challenge one of the members submitted. The challenge can be summed up as: “What does a ‘believer’ need to do to convince colleagues that the Immersive Internet has business value? What can we do to get through the resistance / dismissiveness some people have to it?” Participants were all affiliated with different organizations. Most had never met each other before this session.

We began the session by introducing ourselves and familiarizing ourselves with a 3D brainstorming tool Jeff Lowe built and an interactive polling tool he provided for our use. We moved through the discussion, communicating with each other via a mix of voice and text chat and adding nodes to a 3D mind map (see Figure 1). As we talked, text chats and entries people were making into the mind mapping tool scrolled by on our screens. By the end of the hour the 3D mind map had about 3 dozen nodes bearing names like “orientation experience,” “games = not work” and “risky training scenarios,” some of which included additional notes.


We’ve learned a few lessons along the way

  • IT security concerns are preventing people from gaining valuable experience. Due to IT security restrictions, not everyone can access Second Life (or other immersive environments – sometimes even Web-based ones, if even a small Java download is required) while they’re at work. No matter which immersive environment the ThinkBalm Innovation Community has used for our meetings, there is always someone who can’t participate for this reason. And sometimes even when people can access the immersive environment, they can’t use voice over IP because IT has shut it down. We can always resort to the telephone but this means participants can no longer see who is speaking during the meeting — a benefit of integrated VoIP. And we can always resort to text chat, but this can negatively impact the quantity and quality of communication.
  • People without voice communications are at a disadvantage in in-world meetings. While we use voice over IP (e.g., Skype, Second Life, or Microsoft Office Live Meeting 2007) for most of our in-world meetings, we sometimes run into a problem where some participants can’t fully participate because they don’t have microphones, don’t know how to configure their system for VoIP, use Macs (which Microsoft Office Live Meeting 2007 doesn’t support for voice), or have IT organizations that have locked down the use of VoIP. These participants are relegated to the virtual worlds equivalent of the remote meeting attendee who dials in via phone and is represented by the gray box on the meeting room table. They can be forgotten by the meeting participants who are together in a room together (in the physical world) or who have access to VoIP (in the virtual world).
  • You think multitasking is bad now . . . It is common for information workers to be talking on the phone at the same time they are taking notes, viewing presentation materials, checking email, or IMing. Our experience during this brainstorming session is that while an immersive environment increases engagement many times over compared to a traditional teleconference or Web conference, the multi-tasking can also be more intense. Participants were listening to the conversation and participating via voice or text chat, navigating their avatars around the room, typing into the chat field to interact with the brainstorming tool, zooming their camera in and out to see the nodes on the mind map more easily, and occasionally viewing a poster containing instructions. This is bound to be easier for people who have played multiplayer video games; but for those who haven’t it can be a real challenge.
  • A big question: how to preserve the artifacts of collaboration. Our plan was that after the meeting we would click on each node in the mind map to expand the notes associated with it, and manually create from this a Microsoft Word outline of the meeting for each participant to have. Not a straightforward task. We also took snapshots during the session (see these pictures on Flickr) and one participant made a short movie. Jeff Lowe also created a “read-only” version of the completed mind map for all participants to take away with them. All this is a lot more complicated than simply distributing a Word doc upon conclusion of a traditional meeting. But it was a lot easier to collaborative create our 3D mind map than it would have been to try to have 11 people contribute to the same Word document in real time.
  • It’s a big challenge when avatars don’t share peoples’ real names. For this brainstorming session we used Second Life. Second Life residents (with rare exception) do not have the option of having their real names appear over their avatars’ heads. This causes huge problems in the business context when people aren’t familiar with each others’ avatars and avatar names — and can even be an issue when some participants are familiar with each other. Part of the Second Life culture is that people refer to each other in voice and text conversations by their avatar names, which can cause a sort of “split personality” problem in business meetings. In this brainstorming session, the eleven participants had to try to remember not only the real names of the other people in the meeting, but which avatar name matches which person’s name. This distraction detracted significantly from the meeting experience compared to meetings we’ve held in OpenSim, for example, where avatars can share the user’s real name.
  • Being able to visualize the conversation helped guide the conversation. At least some of the participants frequently referenced the 3D construct to quickly see which topics were trending and getting the most attention and which were needing more focus and then contributed accordingly.  Most of the time, the construct lagged the voice conversation, but there were times that the contributions to the construct led and redirected the voice conversation.
  • 3D brainstorming is a worthwhile way for busy people to spend an hour. At the end of the session we did a quick poll asking for feedback on the session, using the interactive polling tool (see Figure 2). We asked participants to click on the red square to indicate their feedback was “excellent,” the green square for “pretty good,” yellow for “needs tweaking,” and blue for “poor.” As you can see by the red and green columns standing next to the polling machine, all participants felt their hour was well-spent. Here we were, a collection of unaffiliated people with a common interest in progressing enterprise adoption of the Immersive Internet forward. Using an immersive environment and experimental 3D brainstorming tool, real work got done. We generated lots of good ideas that each of us can use in our own work. (For one participant’s experience see this blog article by Richard Hackathorn, Brainstorming virtually.)

Second Life survey says: “Try it for work — you’ll like it”

The non-profit Social Research Foundation recently announced the results of its Second Life Annual Survey 2008, a Web-based survey of 1,258 Second Life residents who are part of the organization’s First Opinions Panel™. Thanks to Social Research Foundation, ThinkBalm was able to contribute a few questions about work-related usage of Second Life. Here are some findings from the survey, which was fielded in September of 2008.

Most residents surveyed don’t use Second Life for work

Only about a sixth of the 1,258 survey respondents (16%) say they use Second Life for business purposes related to their primary occupation (see Figure 1). The vast majority (84%) say they do not. And use of Second Life for professional activities including training is down slightly in 2008 vs. 2007 (see Figure 2). While 16% of the 1,258 respondents say they are doing more professional activity in Second Life this year compared to last year, 19% say they are doing less.


But of those who use Second Life for work, more than 1/3 indicate they use it mostly for that purpose

More than 1/3 (71, or 36%) of the 198 respondents who use Second Life for activities related to their primary occupation say that more than half of their time spent in Second Life is job-related (see Figure 3). Of these, 29 (15%) say they spend half to three quarters of their in-world time on work-related activities and 42 (21%) say they spend three quarters to all of their in-world time this way. Most respondents (125, or 63%) spend half or less of their time in Second Life working.

The most common work-related uses: teaching/learning, collaboration, and meetings

The most common professional uses of Second Life are teaching and/or learning, collaboration, and meetings (see Figure 4). These findings reflect what we have seen anecdotally, and not just in Second Life. These are the most common enterprise Immersive Internet use cases regardless of technology used.

  • As was expected . . . Of the 198 survey respondents who say they use Second Life for work-related purposes, 114 (58%) say they use Second Life for teaching and/or learning and 32 (16%) use it for a related purpose: to rehearse or practice business activities. Eighty six (43%) say they use it for collaborating with others to get work done and 81 (41%) say they use it to hold or attend scheduled meetings.
  • But there were surprises. We are surprised to see that as many as 70 respondents (35%) are using Second Life to visualize information in 3D. 3D data and concept visualization will emerge as killer apps for immersive technology in 2009 and 2010 because they allow us to do things we simply can’t in the physical world or with flat 2D technology. We were also surprised to see that as many as 34 (17%) respondents are using Second Life for recruiting or interviewing and 23 (12%) are using it to manage real-world systems. We expected these numbers to be much lower.

People who do use Second Life for work expect to keep on doing so in 2009

Ninety nine (50%) of the 198 respondents who use Second Life for work-related purposes in 2008 expect to spend more time on work-related activities in Second Life in 2009 (see Figure 5). Another 60 (30%) expect the amount of time to remain about the same. Only 18 respondents (10%) expect to decrease the amount of time they spend working in Second Life in 2009.

What it means for Immersive Internet advocates and implementers

  • Deliver first-hand experiences to new users whenever possible. People who get hands-on experience using an immersive environment for work tend to see the value in it, and plan to use it more in the future. This highlights the importance of providing first-hand experiences to prospective users as part of the evangelism effort. Without actually using an immersive environment to get real work done, it’s hard for many people to comprehend its impact. You can always start with the common use cases, like learning & training and meetings and collaboration.
  • Remember: this survey data is only about Second Life. This data does not show us what is going on with experimentation and adoption of other enterprise immersive platforms. (ThinkBalm is tracking about two dozen enterprise immersive platform vendors.) While the question of which enterprise immerisve platforms an organization is using isn’t addressed at all in these survey questions, we’ve seen anecdotal evidence that sometimes an enterprise project team experiments in Second Life and then uses another platform, one designed for enterprise use, for bigger pilots or production projects.
  • 2008 is a landmark year for enterprise adoption of the Immersive Internet. While self-reported overall use of Second Life for work-related purposes dropped slightly in 2008 compared to 2007, expected use is going up — a lot. While the industry is currently in the “seedling” stage of adoption, ThinkBalm foresees that enterprise use will be mainstream in five years (see Figure 6). The main reasons for this area 1) convergence of hardware, software, and network bandwidth, which make immersive technologies accessible on a widespread basis, 2) the prevalence of social networking, which allows Immersive Internet experts and advocates to find each other and share ideas, learnings, and best practices, and 3) an economic downturn, which will favor IT investments that result in hard dollar cost savings.

ThinkBalm Innovation Community’s list of Twitterers worth following

Twitter has become an invaluable tool for me and many Immersive Internet advocates and implementers. It’s a great way to share information and insights and learn about projects others are working on. The ThinkBalm Innovation Community put its heads together and over a few-day period of time came up with a list of Twitterers we follow. We’ve posted the list on the ThinkBalm Web site. V1 of the list is below. The Principals at ThinkBalm will update this list over time so let us know if you have any recommendations for Twitterers to add or you come across a link that no longer works.

  • Berci (Bertalan Mesko)
  • DrManhattan (Project Manhattan)
  • dStrawberryGirl (Chris Hart)
  • Epredator (Ian Hughes)
  • EricaDriver (Erica Driver)
  • Fleep (”Fleep Tuque”)
  • Futurelab (Stefan Kolle)
  • GoldieKatsu (”Goldie Katsu”)
  • GwynethLlewelyn (”Gwyneth Llewelyn”)
  • Hackshaven (Eric Hackathorn)
  • Immersive (”Immersive Education”)
  • Keystone (Jon Brouchoud)
  • LaBlogga (Melanie Swan)
  • Malburns (Mal Burns)
  • Metanomics
  • OnderSkall (Caleb Booker)
  • PeterQuirk (Peter Quirk)
  • Reubstock (Reuben Steiger)
  • RichWhite (Rich White)
  • RobinG2
  • Rooreynolds (Roo Reynolds)
  • SamDriver (Sam Driver)
  • Saurili (Suzanne Aurilio)
  • Seilerj (Joey Seiler)
  • Semper (Brian Regan)
  • Slhamlet (Wagner James Au)
  • Swords (Jon Swords)
  • Ugotrade (Tish Shute)
  • Xianrenaud (Christian Renaud)
  • Zainnab (Zain Naboulsi)

The ThinkBalm Innovation Community has launched!

We are pleased to announce that today the ThinkBalm™ Innovation Community went live! The ThinkBalm Innovation Community is a new community dedicated to advancement of the Immersive Internet. The community, built on the Spigit™ serious game engine, is focused on work-related use of the Immersive Internet ― virtual worlds and campuses, immersive learning simulations, and 3D interfaces to business applications. This community, made up of bright minds and passionate Immersive Internet advocates, will have an opportunity to positively influence the evolutionary path of an emerging technology market, for the betterment of all.

The Big Idea (XXL)

We are undertaking this effort as a grand experiment in collaborative innovation and idea sharing. Innovation can come from anyone, anywhere, and the more people contribute the more powerful the innovation machine becomes. Large organizations have figured this out and launched internal innovation communities that extend the responsibility for innovation beyond a select few employees to the entire workforce. However, these communities permit only a single organization to benefit from the innovation process. In contrast, the ThinkBalm Innovation Community allows participants who work for many different organizations ― not just one ― to enrich and benefit from the innovation process.

How The ThinkBalm Innovation Community Works

Through continuous feedback and discussion, ThinkBalm Innovation Community members collaboratively refine raw ideas into clear, vetted innovations from which all members of the community can benefit.

  • Community members pose solutions to problems as entries in the Spigit system.
  • Other members can vote on or comment on ideas and, once ideas reach a critical mass of member interest, use the built-in stock market-like functionality to “invest” in ideas they find appealing.
  • Members earn investment capital through activities like posting and commenting on ideas, winning contests, buying “stock” early in ideas that become popular, and investing wisely in prediction markets.
  • In this community, reputation is the most valuable commodity, although participants can also exchange points they accumulate through participation in the community for items listed in the community store.

The ThinkBalm Innovation Community presents a unique opportunity for IT managers, information and knowledge management professionals, software developers, and technology marketers to help shape the future of the Immersive Internet. Members get a focused venue for sharing knowledge and getting feedback on their ideas, access to the experiences and ideas of thinkers and doers outside their organizations, and a means of building and enhancing their reputations as Immersive Internet professionals. Membership is by invitation or referral only. There is no cost to members to participate. ThinkBalm also offers technology marketers an opportunity to sponsor Idea Hunts in the community for solutions to marketing challenges, insights into customer requirements, and ideas for product names. Contact us at for information on becoming a member or for Idea Hunt pricing information.


Accenture recruiting in Second Life cost-effectively targets the “Facebook audience”

Global management consulting, technology services and outsourcing company Accenture has 180,000 employees and offices in 49 countries and brings thousands of new employees on board every year. As you might imagine, recruitment in a professional services company this size is a mission-critical business process. Accenture is already quite successful with new college grads — BusinessWeek named the company #8 in “Best Places to Launch a Career in 2007.”  To even more effectively reach what the company thinks of as the “Facebook audience,” in March of 2008 Accenture launched a careers island in Second Life.

The island features fairly traditional-looking reception and meeting spaces designed to “feel like Accenture” and effectively represent the corporate brand in a way that is appropriate in Second Life. Accenture uses the island to network with prospective employees, answer questions job candidates have, and meet candidates that recruiters couldn’t easily get together with otherwise (e.g., students in universities Accenture couldn’t visit on a road show).  The Accenture Careers island also offers a series of interactive games to engage peoples’ minds (e.g., memorize as many details about a complex picture as you can, or calculate the counterbalance required to catapult your avatar onto a landing pad) or encourage teamwork (e.g., balance your avatar on a disk while not knocking other avatars off their disks). Signage is available in six languages. To help Accenture marketing and HR folks easily leverage the island for their recruiting and networking events, the project team developed and distributed “how to” tools, templates (e.g., for marketing communications), and best practices information. There may also be Windows solutions for the above.

Many groups at Accenture had been dabbling in Second Life since the fall of 2006 – like Accenture Technology Labs, the Accenture Media Agency in Milan, and recruitment marketing teams in both France and the U.S.  The Global Recruitment Marketing team, another early experimenter within the company, began to see a pattern in all the little successes and took the lead on assembling the necessary funds and talent to launch an island that could be used company-wide. In late July I spoke with Suzan L. Raycroft in Accenture Global Recruitment Marketing, who shared some insights into why Accenture considers this investment a success so far:

  • The centralized investment in the Second Life island paid for itself after 5-6 events. While the company doesn’t disclose the specific results of its marketing programs, it has found “a decent number of” hires through events held in-world. The investment in the island paid for itself after just 5 or 6 networking and recruiting events. (See the related ThinkBalm article, At Microsoft, cost of virtual events about 1/3 the cost of traditional events.) If you think about recruitment at Accenture taking place in 49 countries, and each of these countries using the Accenture Careers island rather than building its own, the cost savings really start to stack up. Also, recruiting becomes more standardized across the regions as people start to use the same materials and processes.
  • A critical success factor: a multi-faceted support program for internal users. Accenture has found that most recruiters are not yet comfortable going in-world, finding the candidate they’re supposed to meet with, escorting him or her to a private table, and having a successful text chat. So Global Recruitment Marketing put a lot of effort into making it easy for recruiters to use Second Life. The team holds meetings, calls, and tours with recruiters and created a guide on how to sign up in Second Life, create an avatar, walk, sit, chat, etc. The team sends out regular emails featuring best practices and alerting recruiting staff to new programs or tools. The department’s internal portal has a section dedicated to Second Life where the team posts what countries have done, results, what worked and didn’t, etc.

Accenture, like many other companies, has high hiring targets for tech-savvy people. Candidates display at least a modicum of technical skill if they can create Second Life accounts and relatively professional-looking avatars, find their way to the Accenture Careers island and the specific meeting location, and communicate with the recruiter via text chat or voice. And Second Life allows Accenture to interact with a geographically wide pool of prospective employees. Digital metrics provider comScore found that in March of 2007, 61% of active Second Life residents were from Europe, 19% from North America, and 13% from Asia Pacific.

While not a replacement (yet, anyway) for traditional recruitment techniques, Second Life as a recruiting and interviewing tool is a great enhancement for Accenture. In essence, the company is pre-qualifying its recruitment leads by ensuring that candidates have the needed technical skill and gaining insight into personal style and communication and social skills once a candidate reaches the island. And Second Life allows Accenture to leverage its global resources, recruiting and interviewing around the globe and around the clock.

A realism model for Immersive Internet apps: Part I

Some of the vendor briefings we’ve participated in during the last six weeks have led to some pretty intense philosophical discussions. How is “virtual” different from “real?” How is “real” different from “realistic?” These questions are important to work through not as ethereal brainteasers but because 1) many people call this category we cover “virtual worlds,” 2) and many people tend to distinguish virtual worlds from “the real world,” and 3) virtual worlds and the physical world are converging. The way we see it:

  • “Virtual” and “real” are not opposites. We think a better way to make the distinction is “virtual” vs. “physical.” Why? It’s all real. Meeting with one colleague in Second Life is no less real than going out for a coffee break with another colleague. (Well, perhaps this depends who your colleagues are, right?) Think of a financial analogy. Depending on what you do for work, chances are you get your paycheck electronically deposited into your bank account. You likely see numbers on a bank statement (possibly on your bank’s Web site) (“virtual money”) and you trust that when you put your plastic card into an ATM machine and enter the right numbers, cold hard cash (“real money”) will come out. Just because you aren’t paid in cash doesn’t make your income any less real.
  • Virtual and physical worlds are converging. During the next 3-5 years, the realism of the Immersive Internet will increase and interface devices (the mechanisms we use to interact with virtual environments –- like mouse, keyboard, computer screen, and haptic devices) will become more natural and less intrusive to use. And virtual environments will be integrated with an increasingly large array of external data sources. Together, these developments will make virtual worlds and the physical world increasingly difficult to tell apart.

Two axes of Immersive Internet realism: visual and data

Realism is a very important Immersive Internet consideration. (See our June 30, 2008 article, “First life” versus “fake life” – When realism is important in the Immersive Internet.) It’s also confusing because there is more than just one kind of realism. We’ve boiled it down to the two most important axes:


  • Visual realism: accurate representation without idealization. The dictionary definition of the word realism refers to what we think of as visual realism. According to Merriam-Webster online the definition of realism is “the theory or practice of fidelity in art and literature to nature or to real life and to accurate representation without idealization.” In our view this term applies not just to art and literature but to media (e.g., movies, TV, commercials) and the Immersive Internet. Note the word “representation” ― visual realism is a representation of reality, not reality itself. At one extreme, virtual environments can be very light on the visual realism; they can be cartoony, or video game-like. (Think Google Lively or ROCKETON.) Virtual environments that have a high degree of visual realism look as if they could be real; they can be photorealistic,  or movie-like. Think Forterra OLIVE or Virtual Heroes HumanSim.
  • Data realism: the virtual environment uses current, accurate information. Virtual environments that have a high degree of data realism use accurate and correct or real-time or near real-time data such as: weather, tracking (e.g., flight, fleet, cargo, package –- from, for example, radio frequency ID (RFID) or global positioning systems (GPSs)), system status (e.g., computers, engines, HVAC, security), or bills of materials (data about an object from a product lifecycle management (PLM) or computer-aided design (CAD)system). We think of the data realism continuum as being fiction on one end and non-fiction on the other. Some Immersive Internet applications will require a high level of data realism (non-fiction) ― for example, aerospace or automotive design simulations, in which engineers need to know not just how an object looks but exactly how it would work in the physical world. A training simulation to teach fast food restaurant employees to wash their hands for a full minute before returning to the food prep counter might require less data realism; non-fiction is adequate.

Based on these two axes, we draw on analogies from the book, movie, and video game worlds to describe four main categories of Immersive Internet applications: non-fiction video game-like, fiction video game-like, fiction interactive movie-like, and non-fiction interactive movie-like. For a discussion of these four categories see the July 21, 2008 ThinkBalm article, A realism model for Immersive Internet apps: Part II.

At Microsoft, cost of virtual events about 1/3 the cost of traditional events

In late June I spoke with Microsoft Developer Network (MSDN) evangelist Zain Naboulsi about how Microsoft is using virtual worlds to strengthen the company’s relationships with customers via its technical communities. Microsoft has about 700 members in its MSDN developers group and about 150 members in its TechNet group. MSDN is for software developers while TechNet is more for system administrators, networking engineers, database administrators, and other technical folks. IT professionals use these communities to get answers to questions, share their expertise, and simply hang out with each other (virtually, for the most part, via Web-based forums and discussion groups).

Microsoft product launch event in Second Life. Source: Flickr user G2 Virtual Worlds-Microsoft Launch 2008

Naboulsi and his team initially had the goal of holding virtual events and user group meetings in an immersive environment.The team experimented with Blizzard Entertainment’s World of Warcraft massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) for a while before co-opting and then adopting a pre-existing Microsoft island in Linden Lab’s Second Life virtual world. Lo and behold – IT professionals began to show up for in-world user group meetings and small events. The tipping point took place in April of 2008 when Microsoft launched three new product releases: SQL Server 2008, Windows Server 2008, and Visual Studio 2008. The company launched these products not only at the usual press conference and subsequent customer events all across the US but at a three-track conference in Second Life. (Tish Shute talked a bit about this in her Ugotrade blog post “Microsoft Dev Community In OpenSim/realXtend.”) The “in-world” product launch event was very successful as measured by:

  • Lots of warm bodies – well, avatars. About 150 people (avatars) registered for the launch event in Second Life and Microsoft wound up with 220 actual participants – nearly a 150% attendance rate.  This doesn’t include the estimated more than 270 avatars that just dropped into the event for a small portion of it. While I don’t know how many people attended the traditional launch events, two hundred plus participants is more than tend to show up at comparable traditional physical-world events. I’ve done dozens of presentations at vendor events like these – Microsoft’s and others — and I’d say that on average the audience size tends to be in the 30-50 range. A really top-notch sales district might come in at a few hundred attendees but it’s a rarity.
  • Most attendees devoting their entire day to the event. About 90% of attendees stayed for the entire day – a stickiness ratio pretty much unheard of at traditional vendor sales and marketing events. At traditional events, attendees tend to start dribbling out after the first couple of presentations and trickle out even faster after lunch. Technology vendors (not just Microsoft) try to keep people in the room for as long as possible with high-quality presentations and tasty food and by offering non-trivial raffle prizes at the end (say, a PDA or digital music player or a software package worth a few hundred bucks). Naboulsi’s explanation for the low dropoff rate: people came and stayed because they were learning.
  • Attendees reporting quality hands-on learning at the in-world event. Participants could go through examples alongside the presenter, if they had a second PC or ALT+TABbed back and forth between the event going on in SL and a copy of the Microsoft software on their machine. They could practice, say, virtualizing a Windows server. Contrast this with a traditional event, where audience members may passively watch a presenter do a demo — a far cry from being able to get their hands on the software themselves and have a go at it.
  • The company’s costs being a lot lower than for traditional events. This in-world launch event cost Microsoft about $4,000. The company didn’t have to rent a meeting room, cater in food, or pay for airfare and hotel room for speakers coming in from out of town. The company didn’t have to buy raffle prizes and other promotional items (how many pens, pads of paper, and thumb drives do you have from attending vendor events)? And now that Microsoft has built many of the assets it needs for in-world events (e.g., meeting spaces, presentation screens, etc.) the company is able to run in-world events at about 1/3 of the cost of doing comparable physical events – and as you scale up the number of attendees at in-world events the cost per attendee drops down even lower.

Lessons learned: how to get started

MSDN evangelist Zain Naboulsi has had enough success with the communities he has managed to build up and the events he has run in-world that he is now encouraging Microsoft to use Immersive Internet technologies more broadly, both internally and externally. He acknowledges that getting people to buy into the Immersive Internet vision can be a tough sell. He found a few things that really work:

  • Start with pictures. Pictures truly are worth a thousand words when what you’re trying to describe is hard for most people to imagine. Naboulsi used to lay down a thick layer of peer pressure along the lines of “Getting into virtual worlds is a good thing. You need to do it — everyone is doing it.” But he found that talking about it isn’t enough. Instead he accompanies stories about what he’s been able to accomplish with snapshots from the high-value events he has facilitated in-world.
  • Once people are comfortable with pictures, take them in-world. It isn’t until the second meeting that Naboulsi takes his colleagues into a virtual world to show them around. Why? Some of them don’t have adequate graphics cards or processors on their machines to provide a quality experience. And the learning curve (e.g., creating an account, selecting an avatar, moving the avatar around, navigating through menus) is a huge barrier for the uninitiated. Naboulsi and his colleagues will spend up to two hours with key people they want to help feel more comfortable with the idea of virtual worlds, educating them and teaching them some basic skills.
  • Demonstrate the business value. At ThinkBalm we strongly encourage Immersive Internet ROI discussions to focus on specific business process improvements. Naboulsi and his team have done just this. You see the numbers above, focused on drawing larger crowds to Microsoft events at a lower cost than before and increasing the amount of time attendees will spend at the events. The math must work or Microsoft wouldn’t keep doing sales and marketing events — quality face time with customers really does result in new and bigger software license deals.
  • Nurture the natural leaders who will rise to the top. In Naboulsi’s words, “Evangelism means fostering communities, not running them.” This means allowing natural community leaders to rise up out of the crowd. In the case of MSDN, one of the community leaders is Kyle Gomboy. Gomboy stumbled across the Microsoft island in Second Life and met Naboulsi there, alongside others like published author on Microsoft Christine Hart. Over time, Gomboy took on responsibility for helping to transform the Microsoft island to a social meeting place where technical folks can come and share their creations and have a good time with like-minded people – importantly, at little or no cost to Microsoft. (For more thoughts on leadership in an Immersive Internet world see our June 3, 2008 article, MMORPG guild leaders: Gurus in the midst.)

We didn’t get into it here in this article but the community, led by Kyle Gomboy, is hard at working developing a more heavy-duty virtual environment solution that incorporates Microsoft technology and runs on OpenSim. It will be more closely integrated with Microsoft’s office productivity and communication and collaboration tools than what is currently available with Second Life. Stay tuned for more info!

Heavy equipment manufacturer explores Immersive Internet for product prototyping

A couple of weeks ago I interviewed two enterprise IT architects at a US-based heavy equipment manufacturer about steps the company is taking toward the Immersive Internet. The company is funding the IT architecture group to try to find more effective, less expensive ways to design and prototype products, which in this case are complex and expensive pieces of machinery. The company has been steadily on the move to compress its product cycles from about 9 years thirty years ago down to six years a few years ago, now down to about four years today –- and shorter than that in the future.

One of the company’s executives believes that how well the company collaborates internally and externally will be a differentiator in the future. The company is global, with engineers all around the world. The engineers use the PTC Pro/ENGINEER (Pro/E) computer-aided design (CAD) software to develop their products and anyone who wants to interact with product models in a collaborative manner has to have the expensive Pro/E application on the desktop.

Initially, the manufacturer worked with a local state university to create a rapid prototyping system that utilizes augmented reality and the university’s Cave Automatic Virtual Environment (CAVE) (see figure for an example of a CAVE at the Univ. of Illinois at Chicago). 800px-cave_crayoland

In this environment, engineers and others could interact with each other and a 3D virtual prototype of a new product –- say, a tractor or backhoe or forklift. But the CAVE equipment is costly and to collaborate in this type of immersive environment all participants have to be on-site.

So now the manufacturer is working on porting the geometry of 3D product models from Pro/E into a virtual world built on Sun Microsystems’ Project Wonderland open source virtual world platform. They’ve gotten to the point where avatars can interact with, say, a virtual tractor in the environment –- fly around it, look inside it, fly into the engine. But they had to slim down the geometry and reduce the number of internal parts in the image, so users can’t at this time look at the internal wiring or other systems.

The IT architecture team is enthusiastic about the future and hopeful that the Immersive Internet will be able to deliver:

  • Better engineering collaboration. The company hopes that engineers located in different parts of the world will be able to work together on a digital model of a product or part — interactively and simultaneously. Never mind better collaboration –- how about mass collaboration. It’s one thing for a handful of engineers to collaborate on a design or concept. But it’s another thing to be able to say “I’m working on a proof of concept with twenty of my customers.”
  • New products that can be operated remotely. Imagine a factory fully decked out with radio-frequency identification (RFID) and global positioning systems (GPSs), where a forklift operator might be sitting not up in the forklift cab but behind a desk with a headset on, operating an unmanned vehicle remotely. Or operating several unmanned forklifts remotely at the same time. A powerful combination could be a 3D virtual environment with a real-life video feed from machines so the operator of the virtual machine can see what the real machine “sees.” Or think about a leader/follower scenario, where several tractors in a field might follow a lead tractor that someone is driving.
  • Reduced manufacturing and operations costs. At this company, a typical factory has 20 million square feet of space. One of the difficulties in a space this big is the company sometimes loses parts. They have to fly parts in from other locations via air freight because people can’t find the pallet they need. A virtual environment, RFID tags and a GPS system, and streaming video could be combined to reduce or eliminate this problem.

“First life” versus “fake life”— When realism is important in the Immersive Internet

At Dassault Systemes’ (DS) DevCon 2008 conference and industry analyst event in Paris on June 17th-18th one of the key themes was “life-like” or “first life” (which was a bit of a friendly dig against Linden Lab’s Second Life®) experiences in virtual environments – these are terms DS executives use to refer to hyper-realistic interactive experiences. DS is taking the concept of realism in virtual environments to a whole new level – to the point, in fact, where digital representations of real-world objects can actually work in virtual environments!

During one of the keynote sessions at DevCon, Dassault Systemes senior VP and general manager Lynne Wilson showed a demo of a digital camera being used in a virtual environment to snap pictures within that environment. Here’s a snapshot of the camera, with a few instructions embedded, and you can play with the interactive demo yourself by following this link to DS’s site. (You will have to download and install a media player plug-in to be able to experience it.)

It is not surprising that as DS develops new tools for creating virtual environments the company places a heavy emphasis on realism. After all, this is what DS as a computer-aided design (CAD) and product life-cycle management (PLM)vendor has been doing for many years – helping its customers create realistic digital models of products and parts. Realism is Dassault Systemes’ bailiwick. And it’s not surprising given the company’s background that DS executives today attach a greater value to virtual objects that could someday be manufactured in the physical world than to 3D objects that will never be more than digital or virtual. But as virtual environments become more common in the workplace, DS may find that its focus grows to include rich 3D digital models of products that are never intended to be manufactured into a physical product – their sole purpose is to function in virtual worlds, immersive learning simulations, etc.

Also, many virtual worlds today lack realism (not including mirror worlds like Google Earth or Microsoft Virtual Earth). A typical experience in a virtual world today is much more like attending a haute couture runway show than hitting a suburban shopping mall. High fashion clothing is (in my view, anyway) pretty much non-functional, fits only a select (skinny) few, and is terribly impractical. It is measured on style, not utility. In contrast, clothes you can buy in most real-world shopping malls are not nearly as radical (luckily for my conservative dress style), generally hold together and stay put (luckily for anyone who may see me in public), and have a broader appeal to the average Joe. In virtual worlds you can find lots of stuff that looks incredibly cool but is no more functional than wallpaper.

All this talk about “first life” and life-like experiences in virtual environments really got me thinking. Life-like virtual environments have their place, to be sure, but are not inherently superior to less realistic virtual environments. My recommendations:

  • Focus on realism when . . .  You work for a product company or retailer and want to get customer input and feedback before you ever build the first physical prototype. Or you want to create and use or sell virtual items for use in virtual worlds, immersive workspaces, and serious games — items that increase users’ sense of immersion in the environment through a high degree of realism. Or you want to use highly realistic 3D digital models in interactive advertising – for example, to allow customers to race a model of your new hybrid vehicle against your competitor’s digital model of its hybrid in a virtual world or video game.
  • Realism is not so necessary when . . .Making a virtual environment or object realistic means you’re not taking advantage of the qualities of virtual worlds, where anything is possible. Why walk down virtual city streets or drive in a virtual car to go shopping in a virtual mall, when you can just teleport there? Why replicate in a virtual world product or environmental qualities that came to be not because of good design or ergonomics but because it was the cheapest way to go? You don’t want the Immersive Internet equivalent of using workflow technology to automate a poorly designed business process. Another reason to focus less on realism is when you are creating a virtual environment that is focused on the social aspects of virtual worlds – such as enabling people to find each other and engage with each other, or express themselves through the appearance of their avatars.

The bottom line: don’t stick to common perceptions of reality just because it’s what you know or it’s easier or you’re afraid of what people might think. The Immersive Internet lets us actually improve on reality in some ways. (Hey, who hasn’t dreamed of flying  . . . in a virtual world, you can!)