Know when to fold ’em

With my background in genetics, protein biochemistry was never my favorite class. There was always a friendly rivalry between genetics and biochemistry, and it didn’t help that the biochemists always had prettier molecules than we did in our DNA and RNA.  So leave it to a team of biochemists to rub it in with the introduction of Fold-It (see Figure below). Sour grapes aside, I downloaded and played the game. It’s fun – the game aspects, ease of use, nice visuals, rapid play and positive feedback and rewards engaged me. The protein structures are rendered in bright colors and the sum total is enough to get you to forget you are doing (yawn) chemistry.


You might expect that the scientific community is using a game to try to educate students and entice them into the field, but what makes this story so interesting is that is not actually the stated goal of the game developers at the University of Washington. In fact, the main idea behind the game is to reach out into the larger world and access the imaginations, creativity, and brain power of more people than the scientific community would normally have access to, in order to solve complex problems. Many more people. This is important because:

  • There aren’t enough scientists or powerful enough computers to figure it all out. If you assume that any given protein folding problem is probably only looked at in earnest by dozens or even a couple of hundred people worldwide, you place a lot of pressure on these individuals to visualize complex folding patterns. Computers can’t do it this visualization as well as people can, so the game is an effort to bring new sets of eyes and the brains behind them to solving the puzzles.
  • Solutions may come from unexpected sources. Extending the workforce from maybe a couple hundred scientists to perhaps tens of thousands of interested individuals will bring the time required to find a solution way down, tapping into visualization geniuses who may never have studied chemistry in school.  This is an exceedingly cool solution to a limited-resource problem, which is a central inhibitor to nearly all scientific research.  It illustrates the potential of using a global, multi-user 3D environment to increase the pace of drug discovery, and it creates a fun game for people who may not have any interest in biochemistry to really help the cause, if only by accident.

The big question looming in my mind centers around the intellectual property that may develop out of this game.  An often joked about lawsuit, Antonio Hernandez vs. Internet Gaming Entertainment Ltd., in the massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) sector, could point at the center of the issue: do players have any IP rights to discoveries made in the game environment? This may not be the particular legal case that decides the matter, but when you are talking about potentially discovering something that is turned into a diagnostic tool or pharmaceutical, be assured there will be legal wrangling. But threats of lawsuits should never hamper innovation. So I’m heading back to my desk to fold some more proteins. Come join me!

MMORPG guild leaders: Gurus in the midst

One of the strengths of virtual worlds like Second Life and massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs) like Dungeons and Dragons Online (see figure below) is a facility to create user-defined groups and for people to self-organize into teams, or guilds. In game environments, player groups form around performing a mission: a challenge created and pre-defined by the content provider. All players in a MMORPG pay the same fees and have the same level of access and the same tool sets at their disposal. You’d think that players joining a group would all have a similar goal in playing the game. A common assumption people have when they group up in a virtual environment is that all participants in the group share a common agenda and values and have similar knowledge of the environment and desire to succeed.

In Dungeons and Dragons Online, one of the games I play, players join a virtual world in which brave heroes do battle with monsters, dragons and otherworldly spirits. Each individual chooses a role that should fit nicely into a self-organizing group. A balanced group has powerful sword-wielding fighters, wizards that can control the battle field, and priests that channel divine power to protect the group. Players know these roles and, in an ideal setting, perform their roles for the benefit of their whole group. BUT – and it’s a big but:

  • It can turn out that people in the group don’t necessarily share values, skills, or much else. What you end up finding in game environments is a wide variety of players who, as they develop a particular skill set, vary in skill level, overall outlook, and fit with the group’s culture. Some players are highly experienced and impatient with novice players, often leading to friction in the group. Other players don’t subscribe to the game to be entertained, but to make real-world money harvesting virtual money and objects to be sold (illegally) online. Language barriers and time zone variances can lead to significant communication problems. And some players don’t use the communication tools (e.g., voice, text chat) that the game provider offers so coordination among group members can be difficult.
  • An individual’s skills have a big impact on their own and other players’ enjoyment of the game. The skills an individual develops and brings to the game environment make a huge impact on how the game is played, and the quality of the experience the group has playing the game. Unfortunately, only a basic system is in place for players to qualify potential group members, and often player groups pick up unknown members, which can lead to high variability in the game experience, ranging from thoroughly enjoyable to absolutely soul-sucking.
  • It’s up to guild leaders to build the right team and help players develop needed skills. Successful groups self-organize under the banner of one or two individuals who establish a guild. These self-appointed leaders take responsibility for assembling the group, selecting members, and making sure members have the skills they need for the group to complete its missions. Successful guild leaders provide a much better in-game experience for the players in their groups, avoiding many of the aforementioned problems through acts of community-building. And good MMORPG guild leaders inspire real world loyalty and emotion in their teams – just like good managers might in the office. But in many cases, guild leaders are not the same type of leader you would see in a typical office setting. Introverts tend to thrive in virtual worlds and MMORPG environments, where they develop tangible and valuable leadership skills without formal training.

As more businesses create immersive environments and utilize serious game concepts, guild leader skills will become important on the job. Lessons learned from game environments will have a tremendous impact on the Immersive Internet, and my experiences in the dragon-slaying business bring a couple of thoughts to mind:

  • Built-in reputation systems will be critical. It might be tempting to think that if peoples’ real business identities are mirrored in a virtual environment used for work, a rating and feedback system isn’t necessary. But these networks will grow rapidly to incorporate people who have never met each other in person, possibly from all over the world. In business environments just like in MMORPGs, people need tools to make it easy to form groups (e.g., by identifying people with needed skills or traits or availability) and rate and provide feedback on each other after completing tasks or activities or projects together (parallel in the game world: completing missions or quests together). Imagine a system like eBay’s, but with a more sophisticated grading mechanism.
  • Training is crucial — and you may already have a guru in your midst. Introducing new technology to the workplace doesn’t automatically mean an improvement in efficiency, productivity, or new ways for the business to succeed. Training and providing incentives to people on how to benefit from the immersive environments must be a central tenet of any implementation, and for help with this wise managers will turn to the guild leaders — the individuals who have risen up through the ranks in the virtual worlds they frequent, MMORPGs or other.

A realism model for Immersive Internet apps: Part II

In an earlier ThinkBalm article, A realism model for Immersive Internet apps: Part I, we went into a bit of detail about the two axes of Immersive Internet realism: visual and data. Visual realism is accurate representation without idealization. Data realism supplies a virtual environment with current, accurate information. In this companion article we build upon these ideas and use analogies from the book, movie, and video game worlds to describe the four main categories of Immersive Internet applications:

  • Non-fiction video game-like. If you want to collaboratively design and prototype a new engine part, you need high levels of data realism (e.g., measurements, specs for related assemblies). But you might not necessarily need as much visual realism (color, the way light glimmers off the surface, etc.). In another example, many aspects of molecular biology simply cannot be modeled with a high degree of visual realism because the subjects are far, far too small. Here, visual realism isn’t even relevant. For examples of non-fiction video game-like Immersive Internet implementations check out Daden Ltd.’s 3D airplane tracker (link to video is below), the Fold-It serious game (see the ThinkBalm article, Know when to fold ‘em), IBM’s 3D data center operations (link to video is below), and Implenia Global Solutions’ EOLUS One virtual facilities operations center (for a great write-up see the Ugotrade blog post, “EOLUS Makes Leap To 3D Internet On Second Life“).


  • Fiction video game-like. At first blush the words “fiction video game-like” may appear to have no bearing at all on real work. But don’t let it turn you off too quickly. Non-realistic looking virtual environments that don’t contain much accurate or current data are still perfectly relevant for some types of business applications – especially meetings, conferences and events, and conceptual training or business activity rehearsal. For examples check out Cisco Partner Space, Michelin Group’s enterprise architecture training for IT professionals (sorry, the only publicly-available write-ups we know of are in French), and the Microsoft Heroes Happen Here product launch (see the ThinkBalm article, At Microsoft, cost of virtual events about 1/3 the cost of traditional events).
  • Fiction interactive movie-like. Some immersive learning simulations and business activity rehearsal activities require that the experience look and feel as if it could be real, but doesn’t require real data underpinnings. Check out these examples: Hilton Garden Inn Hotels Ultimate Team Play, the I-95 Corridor Commission and Univ. of Maryland virtual highway accident training application, Stanford Medical Hospital student training, and the US Department of Justice National Institute of Justice Incident Commander training tool for homeland security.
  • Non-fiction interactive movie-like. If you are collaboratively designing a new pair of high-end in-line skates, you might need both data realism and visual realism. Or how about a just-in-time manufacturing process that requires the participation of a large, complex supply chain? Or the remote forklift operations scenario we briefly described in the ThinkBalm article, Heavy equipment manufacturer explores Immersive Internet for product prototyping. But attaining high levels of both visual and data realism is hard to do and we are not aware of production implementations made public just yet. Technologies that will enable non-fiction interactive movie-like immersive environments include mirror worlds like Google Earth and Microsoft Virtual Earth, computer-aided design (CAD) models, and simulators like Microsoft ESP. A particularly interesting example we saw recently is VoxVue/RE, a 3D data visualization solution for the commercial real estate industry.


It’s important to keep in mind that no one category is inherently superior to the others. Each has appropriate use cases. And use case plays an enormous role in making a sound technology selection because no virtual world platform on the market can be used to deliver all four categories of Immersive Internet applications.

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