SAIC/Forterra acquisition: what it means for the enterprise immersive software market

On February 1, 2010, Science Applications International Corp. (SAIC) announced that it had acquired the OLIVE product line from Forterra Systems. Terms of the deal were not disclosed. SAIC had been working with Forterra on and off for the past six years and SAIC had been working with OLIVE internally for the past year and a half. Moving forward, the company plans to offer OLIVE solutions to customers, as well as to use it internally.

On February 4th, we spoke with executives at SAIC about the acquisition. Our takeaways are:

  • SAIC’s industry focus for OLIVE will be government, energy, health, and other commercial markets. SAIC’s focus on these industries closely mirrors the industry focus Forterra had — so we don’t expect the OLIVE customer mix to change much in 2010. SAIC also says it will continue to work with channel partners with whom Forterra had relationships. Forterra had regional resellers in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia, as well as associations with companies like ACS Learning Services, Lockheed Martin, and Carahsoft.
  • The primary internal and external use cases will be training and business activity rehearsal. SAIC has a long history in modeling and simulation, going back two decades. The company’s primary customer, the US government, has been putting increasing training emphasis on the interpersonal realm. OLIVE fills a gap in SAIC’s existing modeling and simulation offerings: strong support for interpersonal interaction. OLIVE gives SAIC a collaborative, multiuser 3D immersive environment. SAIC has already integrated OLIVE with systems like the US Army’s OneSAFTM (One Semi Automated Forces) simulation solution. The company is likely to integrate OLIVE with additional systems moving forward.

What it means for business decision makers

As we have detailed in the past here and here, the enterprise immersive software market is still emerging and 2010 will be a year of churn. We see the acquisition of Forterra Systems by SAIC as a positive step in the maturation of the market. While it is difficult for those who are personally involved, the industry will benefit from having a smaller number of stable, well-capitalized technology providers.

  • OLIVE just gained momentum in government and military and has promise in health and energy. Now offered by SAIC, a Fortune 500 company, OLIVE has a better shot than ever of penetrating the government and military sectors. If SAIC chooses to fully develop market opportunities in the energy and health sectors, OLIVE will remain a formidable competitor to products like American Research Institute’s PowerU, Linden Lab’s Second Life Enterprise, Teleplace’s Teleplace, and ProtonMedia’s ProtoSphere
  • As with any acquisition, change is inevitable. Given that the acquisition just closed this week, many open questions remain. Existing and prospective OLIVE customers should keep an eye out for changes to product pricing, packaging, and status (e.g., Meeting Labs was a new hosted offering from Forterra and its future is unclear), as well as SAIC’s relationships with Forterra’s channel partners (some of which compete directly with SAIC).

ThinkBalm publishes immersive software decision-making guide

Today ThinkBalm published The Enterprise Immersive Software Decision-Making Guide, a powerful tool for business decision makers selecting immersive technology for use in the workplace. To view or download a PDF version of this 29-page report, click this link or the image below.

Enterprise immersive software is a collection of collaboration, communication, and productivity tools unified via a 3D or pseudo-3D visual environment. In this computer-generated environment, one or more people engage in work activities like meetings, conferences, and learning and training. The software provides a shared, interactive, multichannel experience through presence awareness, voice chat, active speaker indication, text chat, and many other features, often including avatars.

The Enterprise Immersive Software Decision-Making Guide is a use case-based guide designed to aid business decision makers in the enterprise immersive software selection process. In this report, we present “if/then” scenarios and highlight good-fit vendors for common situations, with a focus on the most prevalent use cases: meetings, conferences, and learning and training. The report offers guidance on how to: 1) ask core business questions to frame the discussion, 2) choose a research-and-demo, do-it-yourself, or combination approach, 3) identify requirements based on your use case, and 4) filter your options based on important limiters.

The following vendors are covered in this report:

  • A World for Us (Assemb’Live)
  • Altadyn (3DXplorer)
  • American Research Institute, Inc. (ARI)
  • Amphisocial
  • Avaya
  • Forterra Systems (now part of SAIC)
  • IBM
  • InXpo
  • Linden Lab
  • ON24
  • Project Wonderland
  • ProtonMedia
  • ReactionGrid
  • Rivers Run Red
  • Teleplace
  • Unisfair
  • VastPark
  • VenueGen
  • Virtual Italian Parks (Moondus)

 

To develop this report, ThinkBalm analysts held structured briefings with nineteen enterprise immersive software vendors and conducted interviews with fifteen early adopters who were involved in the technology selection process. Some of the briefings took place directly in the vendors’ immersive environments. We combined our insights from these discussions with our hands-on experience using immersive software and our interactions with our clients and members of the ThinkBalm Innovation Community. The ThinkBalm Innovation Community currently numbers more than 400 Immersive Internet advocates, implementers, explorers, and technology marketers.

This research was made possible by sponsorship from Linden Lab, ProtonMedia, Teleplace, and Virtual Italian Parks.

Highlights from “Learning in 3D” book: steps to successful adoption

Karl Kapp, professor and consultant at Bloomsburg University, and Tony O’Driscoll, professor of the practice at Duke University, have a new book out titled Learning in 3D: Adding a New Dimension to Enterprise Learning and Collaboration. ThinkBalm contributed an essay to Chapter 8, which is all about steps to successful enterprise adoption. We’d like to call out and comment on a few points from this chapter.

First: mainstream adoption is not a matter of if, but when. Kapp and O’Driscoll write, “There was a time when computers themselves were thought of as toys or novelties; now these devices are indispensable business and education tools. There was a time when the Internet was not a part of our daily lives. It’s hard to reach back and remember the time before these technologies became ubiquitous — when the same type of implementation and adoption concerns existed for those technologies [as for the Immersive Internet].” ThinkBalm’s prediction is that in three years’ time, adoption of immersive software in the workplace will have reached the early majority adoption phase. (See the November, 2008 ThinkBalm report, The Immersive Internet: Make Tactical Moves Today for Strategic Advantage Tomorrow). To be sure, the path to mainstream adoption is marked by barriers — but early adopters are finding springboards for overcoming hurdles. (See the September, 2009 ThinkBalm report, Crossing the Chasm, One Implementation at a Time.)

Second, Kapp and O’Driscoll offer great advice to early adopters in this chapter and we’d like to call out a couple of highlights:

  • Focus on compatibility with existing technology and modes of work. In a discussion about how to make immersive technologies attractive to target stakeholders and users, Kapp and O’Driscoll say, “Positioning virtual immersive environments as a natural extension and convergence of existing technologies such as synchronous learning tools, video games, Web 2.0, and social networking — and not as a science-fiction-dream-come-to-life will go a long way toward the concept of compatibility.” Think of immersive software for meetings or learning and training as expansions of the worker’s toolkit. Immersive software will extend the reach of current investments with new features and functionality. One of the ways this will occur is through integration with existing communication and collaboration tools. (See the January 6, 2010 ThinkBalm blog post, “Immersive software for meetings will expand the information worker toolkit.”)
  • Choose the right group of people to participate in a pilot. An immersive software pilot project is a test run during which people conduct real business activities in the environment and report feedback about their experiences to the project team. Kapp and O’Driscoll offer good advice about how to assemble the right pilot group. They recommend choosing a relatively small group; creating a mix of people who are comfortable with technology and those who are less comfortable; involving people from IT as well as legal and regulatory departments from the beginning; selecting people who are interested in the potential of virtual worlds; and focusing on people who will be willing to share their feedback with the project team.

This blog post is part of the Learning in 3D blog book tour. Book publisher Wiley is offering a 20% discount to blog book tour attendees. There will also be a book summary published very soon, which I recommend for further reading.

Enterprise immersive software trends for 2010

Enterprise immersive software is a collection of collaboration, communication, and productivity tools unified via a 3D or pseudo-3D visual environment. In this computer-generated environment, one or more people can engage in work activities such as training, rehearsing business activities, delivering or attending presentations, collaborating on documents, brainstorming, visualizing data, building or testing prototypes, and attending conferences and trade shows. The software provides a shared, interactive, multichannel experience through presence awareness, voice chat, active speaker indication, text chat, and many other features, often including avatars. The software can be installed behind the firewall, delivered on a hardware appliance, or accessed via a software as a service (SaaS) offering.

The term “enterprise” in the category name indicates that solutions are suitable for use in the workplace, as opposed to recreational use (e.g., consumer video games and recreational virtual worlds), and are scalable, secure, and stable enough for at least some work-related use cases. Because the enterprise immersive software market grew out of four distinct ancestral origins (virtual worlds, serious games, business applications, and learning simulations), the software products in the category vary widely in features and functionality.

ThinkBalm’s predictions for 2010:

  1. The market will remain in the early adopter phase. The enterprise immersive software market has passed through the innovator phase, when nearly everyone who was experimenting with the technology was a technologist or virtual world enthusiast. In contrast, the bulk of the attention today is from early-adopter business people in functions like sales and marketing, human resources, and learning and training, as well as IT. We expect the market to remain in this phase until approximately 2013, when it will transition to the early majority adoption phase. This transition and timing assumes the industry is successfully able to “cross the chasm,” in Geoffrey Moore’s parlance.[1]
  2. Cash will be king. Enterprise immersive software vendors made significant strides in 2009 in features and functionality, scalability, and stability of their offerings. New and updated products emerged every quarter. While vendors will continue to improve their offerings in 2010, a focus on financing may curb the pace of change temporarily. Many of the vendors in this small, volatile market are actively seeking outside funding. Not all will receive the investment they require to reach their target customers or even continue operations. Executives will be out on the road, raising money and trying to encourage customers to move pilots to paid-for production deployments.
  3. The year will be marked by churn. We expect 2010 to be a busy year, with new entrants, mergers, acquisitions, and even some business closures. Most of the enterprise immersive software vendors are small. Avaya, IBM, and Sun Microsystems are larger players, but their immersive software project teams are no bigger than those of the small vendors in this space. In 2010, new vendors will enter the market and some vendors that are undercapitalized will exit, often through acquisition. Product life-cycle management (PLM) vendors are keeping an eye on this emerging market as a natural extension of computer-aided design and prototyping. Unified communications (UC) vendors are also keeping an eye on — or getting involved in, in the case of Avaya — the market. For UC vendors, immersive software could be a new way to deliver unification of services.
  4. Implementations will break out of the experiment-and-pilot ghetto. In April of 2009, we conducted a small survey of Immersive Internet advocates and implementers and found that about 2/3 of projects in 2008 and the first quarter of 2009 were what we call pre-production: early experiments or pilots.[2] In the same survey, nearly 75% of respondents (47 of 64) said their organizations either might or will increase their investment in immersive technologies in 2009 and 2010. In 2010, we expect to see more large-scale production deployments follow on the heels of 2009’s trend setters. In September of 2009, Cisco Systems held its annual sales kickoff meeting online using a virtual event platform, with 19,000 attendees.[3] IBM’s CIO office has a vision of deploying immersive technology to the entire workforce — that’s nearly 400,000 people. And BP extended its 2009 Game Changer program, which has been focused on the Immersive Internet, for an additional six months because the company was seeing so much value from it.
  5. A wave of products will move from alpha and beta into general release. While some vendors could emulate Google and offer beta products in perpetuity, most of the vendors that have early-stage products will take a more traditional route and move their enterprise immersive software products from alpha or beta into production this year. In 2010, we expect to see generally-available (GA) products released by A World for Us, Amphisocial, Avaya (assuming the company moves forward with web.alive, which it has acquired with Nortel), Linden Lab (Second Life Enterprise), VastPark, and VenueGen. We may also see a GA release of Meeting Labs, if Forterra Systems moves forward with this new hosted offering.
  6. Customers will demand more integration with existing systems. Some of the vendors already provide interfaces to various back-end business systems. Several vendors provide lightweight directory access protocol (LDAP) integration: Altadyn, Avaya, IBM, Forterra, Linden Lab (with Second Life Enterprise), ReactionGrid (with Harmony), Sun Microsystems, and Virtual Italian Parks. ProtonMedia and Teleplace also integrate specifically with Microsoft Active Directory. Another common integration point is office productivity software. A World for Us, Amphisocial, Avaya, Forterra Systems, ProtonMedia, Rivers Run Red, and Teleplace allow users to upload or drag and drop Microsoft Office, OpenOffice.org, Google documents and spreadsheets, or other types of files into the environment. American Research Institute (ARI), Forterra Systems, and ProtonMedia commonly integrate with their customers’ learning management systems. Amphisocial, InXpo, ON24, Unisfair, and VastPark provide integration with external social networking tools, like LinkedIn and Twitter.
  7. The base feature set for the most common use cases will begin to standardize. Because the enterprise immersive software market grew out of multiple distinct ancestral origins, the software products in the category vary widely in features and functionality.[4] Despite this, we are starting to see a standard feature set emerge for small, presentation-style meetings, which is the simplest use case. All of the products that address this use case provide meeting spaces, local text chat, and either file sharing or screen sharing. Most also provide 3D meeting spaces, 3D avatars, and local voice chat. In 2010 and beyond, vendors will coalesce around a richer set of features for this use case and fairly standard sets of core capabilities for other use cases, primarily small, collaborative meetings, large meetings and conferences, and some forms of learning and training.
  8. Pricing models will go through a transformation. To date, most immersive software deployments are pilots – not large-scale production deployments. Most customers are not yet making large, strategic investments. As a result, vendors have not yet received much feedback from the market about pricing, and lots of experimentation is under way. Some products are open source and therefore free, if you don’t include the cost of building applications and supporting the environment. Some vendors charge based on number of concurrent or named users, while others charge per user, per hour. Some charge per month, others per year, still others per virtual event. Some charge a traditional up-front license fee plus an annual software maintenance fee. As the market evolves, pricing strategies will also evolve to align more closely with customers’ expectations of enterprise software, whether it is installed on-premise or delivered via a hosted service.
  9. Early attempts at mobile device support will focus on a subset of features. With a few exceptions, enterprise immersive software products do little to support mobile users. A few vendors (like ARI, Forterra Systems, and Sun Microsystems) provide telephony integration so mobile users can join immersive meetings and training sessions via voice. Several third-party vendors have created iPhone apps (e.g., Sparkle IM and Touch Life) that are slimmed-down Second Life clients. VastPark is working on apps for the iPhone and Android. Other vendors are likely to provide mobile device support for their products, as well. The mobile applications will not likely have all the same functionality as the full apps, but at minimum will provide presence information text chat, and voice chat. With the rise in the tablet computer format in 2010, which will have a larger display than mobile phones and will have built-in support for broadband Internet and Wi-Fi, we expect to see some exploration into this new hardware category, as well.
  10. New alliances will form, creating new value. We hope this is more than wishful thinking on our part. But wouldn’t it be nice if . . . enterprise immersive software vendors partnered up with unified communications vendors and virtual event platform vendors? We see many crossovers already between enterprise immersive software and unified communications. (See the January 6, 2010 ThinkBalm article, “Immersive software for meetings will expand the information worker toolkit.”) Imagine an immersion layer that presents a simple, natural user interface that truly unifies communication and collaboration among information workers. Also imagine alliances between vendors that offer 3D environments and those that offer pseudo-3D environments for large-scale events (e.g., InXpo, ON24, and Unisfair). You’d be able to augment the unfettered access provided by pseudo-3D environments for large-scale events with the collaborative power of 3D for smaller breakouts and training sessions.

Immersive software for meetings will expand the information worker toolkit

Immersive software can deliver a similar level of engagement as a physical meeting or high-end telepresence session, without the requirement to travel. Enterprise immersive software vendors have suffered something of a catch-22 as they built products that show off the potential of immersive technology. They added tightly integrated communication and collaboration features, even though these features are redundant with existing information worker infrastructure. Immersive software features that are also part of more established information worker software include voice services, messaging (real-time and asynchronous), presence awareness, team workspaces, video streaming and sharing, and document and screen sharing. As more organizations adopt immersive software, the time will come to tackle one of the second-stage barriers we’ve discussed before: integrating these new capabilities into their existing software investments? We anticipate that integration will be a major focus of early adopters in 2010.

Immersive software for meetings will:

  • Extend the reach of existing investments with new features and functionality. It is helpful to think about immersive technology as the front end of the wave of communications and collaboration tools, with an emphasis on engagement (see figure). Immersive software provides features other forms of information worker software don’t — like a 3D interface (in most cases), avatars (in most cases), unification of collaboration and communication services, more sophisticated non-verbal communication (e.g., gestures and animations), and a strong sense of presence. Immersive technology isn’t about replacement, but expanding and extending the toolkit. Immersive Internet advocates should try to position their investments in immersive software for meetings within the broader information worker infrastructure context.
  • Integrate with existing communication and collaboration tools. We are starting to see vendors design or add function to their products to achieve integration with existing systems. For example: Amphisocial has built direct integration with Google Docs and Spreadsheets. ProtonMedia has integrated with Microsoft Office SharePoint Server 2007. Teleplace provides drag-and-drop integration with OpenOffice.org documents (and can provide this for Microsoft Office documents as well). Several vendors (ARI, Forterra, and Sun Microsystems) provide the ability to call a telephone from within the environment. Sun and VastPark provide a session initiation protocol (SIP) interface.

Forterra Systems layoffs have implications for the enterprise immersive software market

Today I spoke with Robert Gehorsam, president of Forterra Systems, about changes taking place at the company. In light of what Gehorsam termed challenging economic times, the company has laid off nearly 50% of its workforce (not quite the 60% I had posted in my December 18th tweet) since November 20th, when Forterra briefed ThinkBalm for our upcoming report The Enterprise Immersive Software Decision-Making Guide. Many of the layoffs took place last week. Forterra now has 20 employees, which includes most of the core engineering team and others focused on delivering billable work to government and corporate customers.

Gehorsam said that the company plans to continue operations, fulfill its contracts, and meet its obligations. He would not confirm or deny that the company’s remaining assets were being prepared for sale. He did say this: “We are always looking for ways to accelerate growth and adoption of virtual world platforms in organizations. We will look at ways to do that the best. We haven’t decided anything. It might be acquisition, further partnerships, further investment from investors, or organic growth over time.”

My take and recommendations

  • Forterra’s position in the enterprise immersive software market has softened. Among those let go last week was Chris Badger, VP of marketing. Others who were in commercial sales and core R&D were also laid off. Without resources focused on selling and marketing OLIVE and Meeting Labs, Forterra will have difficulty maintaining its position in the emerging enterprise immersive software market. My take: in 2010, Forterra Systems’ revenue split will be weighted heavily toward professional services, with a smaller percentage coming from software license, subscription, and maintenance fees.
  • Forterra Systems is a prime acquisition target. Likely acquirers include defense contractors and consulting companies that serve the government sector, given Forterra’s strengths and history. We’ve already seen acquisitions like this occur. Lockheed Martin acquired 3DSolve (3D Learning Solutions) and Applied Research Associates acquired Virtual Heroes. Given this possibility, project teams evaluating immersive software for use in non-government and non-defense related organizations should approach Forterra with caution. Current Forterra customers on the commercial side should meet with Forterra’s executive leadership team to discuss the implications of recent changes and the company’s future direction. Current enterprise customers should put a contingency plan in place in case Forterra is acquired by a company that plans to take OLIVE in a new direction.
  • Expect more market churn in 2010. Many enterprise immersive software vendors are actively seeking outside funding. Not all of them will receive the investment they require to reach potential customers in this small, crowded market — or even to continue operations. We expect 2010 to be a busy year, with mergers, acquisitions, and even some business closures. This will be accompanied by new entrants getting in on the game. Within just the last few weeks we encountered new players Amphisocial and A World for Us (Assemb’Live). Organizations seriously evaluating enterprise immersive software can mitigate risk by speaking with reference customers (this is a must), using open source software (which doesn’t leave the custom dependent on any one vendor), escrowing the source code of products they license, or even making a financial investment in the company whose software they license.

ThinkBalm storytelling series issue #1: “Role-play redux: ‘Convince the curmudgeon’”

On December 4, 2008, fifteen members of the ThinkBalm Innovation Community gathered in an immersive environment for 90 minutes to try to convince our curmudgeonly “boss,” a role played by community member Christopher Simpson of George Brown College, that our fictitious organization should be making Immersive Internet investments. The group met in the community’s region on ReactionGrid, an OpenSim grid. We met at “The Precipice,” a simple meeting space ThinkBalm set up atop a cliff, designed to be conducive to risk-taking. We sat around a large board room table, with Christopher Simpson at the head of the table sitting up a little higher than the rest of us. Christopher started the conversation by stating some of his objections to enterprise use of the Immersive Internet, and then the rest of us jumped in and fired off a steady stream of arguments in favor of it.

With the help of seven eight ThinkBalm Innovation Community members — Alexander Casassovici, Chris Hart, Christopher Bishop, Donald Schwartz, Jeff Lowe, Leslie Ehle, Marc Sirkin, and Robin Gomboy — we wrote ThinkBalm’s first issue in the Immersive Internet Storytelling Series, titled “Role-Play Redux: ‘Convince The Curmudgeon:’ The ThinkBalm Innovation Community Shares Lessons Learned.” For a PDF of the article click this link or click the image of the article’s cover.

New video: The “global” un-lecture event

Today ThinkBalm published a new ThinkBalm Innovation Community work product: a seven-minute video titled, “The ‘global’ un-lecture: a ThinkBalm Innovation Community event.” This video is a record of an un-lecture event held on November 6th, 2009 in the virtual world of Second Life. The un-lecture event format consists of four ten-minute presentations, demos, or tours about work-related use of immersive technologies, held in an immersive environment. The theme of the November 6th event was “global.”

This video describes presentations by:

  • Dr. Yesha Sivan. Dr. Sivan is a senior lecturer at Shenkar College of Engineering and Design and founder of Metaverse Labs. Dr. Sivan shared insights into Immersive Internet adoption trends in Israel. Some of the barriers Israeli early adopters face are the same as those around the world: technology and perception. Other issues are specific to the region. Yet a handful of immersive technology efforts are under way in Israel and Metaverse Labs is hard at work on technology standards.
  • Sid Banerjee. Sid Banerjee is CEO of Indusgeeks, a virtual world development and services company based in Mumbai. Sid gave insights into adoption trends in India. A point Sid wanted to express was that India is an excellent test bed for immersive projects. He made this point: “If you can sell Immersive Internet in India you can sell it anywhere!”
  • Claus Nehmzow. Claus Nehmzow is managing director of ALCUS, in Hong Kong. Right now in Asia, the initial focus for immersive technology is on the consumer side, with a number of recreational public virtual worlds and games. Claus’s perspective is that businesses in Asia want to capitalize on the power of immersive technology but explorers are uncertain how to move forward.
  • Barbara Westmoreland. Barbara Westmoreland is founder and CEO of nTeams. nTeams provides consulting to help companies develop more cohesive, unified teams. The heart of Barbara’s presentation was a short demo of a part of nTeams Island, which her organization uses to help teams work through issues around values. At the end of the un-lecture event, Barbara and her team gave a magic carpet ride tour around the rest of the facility.

About 25 people participated in this un-lecture event. Participants joined us from all over the US and from Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. In one hour’s time, we learned about the potential opportunity for adoption of immersive technology in emerging markets in Asia and the Middle East, as well as barriers to entry. We got a first-hand glimpse of the way immersive technology can transform how global teams work together. And we formed new or reinforced existing connections with other innovators and early adopters. If you’re interested in attending future ThinkBalm Innovation Community events, send us a request to join the community via our LinkedIn group.

When is Second Life Enterprise beta right for you?

[Edited Monday, November 9th, 2009 for content — correction and clarification of pricing model and definition of Web-based solutions]

On November 4th, Linden Lab announced that its behind-the-firewall immersive platform, Second Life Enterprise, is now in open beta. Think of SL Enterprise (formerly code-named “Nebraska”) as a micro-Second Life — except it runs on a hardware appliance that resides inside your organization’s data center, is integrated with your enterprise directory, and has been designed to be used for work. The beta version features a Web-based administration interface, professional-looking avatars, various meeting and collaboration spaces, and a couple of basic collaboration tools. Linden Lab also announced that in the first half of 2010 a Second Life Work Marketplace will become available, where customers can buy third-party tools, applications, and content to use with SL Enterprise. Fourteen organizations are currently participating in the SL Enterprise beta program including IBM, Northrop Grumman, Naval Undersea Warfare Center, and Case Western Reserve University.

ThinkBalm recommendations

We’re chin-deep in market analysis and vendor recommendations for client projects and a report we’re working on due out later in the year, tentatively titled, “The Enterprise Immersive Technology Decision-Making Guide.” In light of the fact that prospective SL Enterprise customers have nearly two dozen alternatives they could choose from (see a partial list here), here are some recommendations to put the SL Enterprise announcement in context:

Q: When should SL Enterprise be on my product short list?

A: The more of the following are true, the more likely it is that we’d recommend SL Enterprise to be on your shortlist. Your organization requires:

  • The ability to create and modify, at reasonable cost, custom immersive experiences like learning simulations, team-building scenarios, games, data visualization, and process design
  • The ability to create from scratch, and possibly animate, virtual replicas of your organization’s buildings, products, or other assets for acculturation, training, or prototyping purposes — without a seven-figure budget and legions of consultants
  • A solution that enables you to leverage existing Second Life building and scripting skills, and existing Second Life digital assets your organization already owns
  • The ability to hold company events during which 300-400 avatars can be in the same virtual space at the same time (such as for a keynote address)
  • Built-in, spatialized voice over IP
  • Built-in social networking (the ability to “friend” people, peruse users’ profiles, create groups, etc.)
  • Privacy for all content, data, and communication taking place in the immersive environment
  • Integration with the enterprise directory for access control and identity management
  • Access to a wide range of third-party content, tools, and applications (eventually, as the Second Life Work Marketplace launches and gains momentum).

And you have $55,000 to spend one time front on the appliance and software license for 100 avatars,  on the license fee every year, just to keep the appliance up and running, plus an annual recurring fee based on the number of users licensed (starting at $175/user with discounts based on volume), plus a per-user cost once you have more than 100 named users, plus any third-party applications or content and third-party custom development costs.

Q: In what circumstances might an alternative product be more suitable?

A: The more of the following are true, the higher the chances that an alternative offering might be a better fit.  Your organization requires:

  • The ability to reuse a portfolio of existing 3D assets, like computer-aided design (CAD) models, in the immersive environment
  • Direct access from the immersive environment to the diverse community that exists in public virtual worlds
  • A very low-cost solution
  • A solution that does not depend on IT involvement
  • A full-fledged set of business applications for meetings, learning and training, and other use cases, right out of the box
  • Easy-to-use, fully-functional document-oriented collaboration tools (e.g., drag-and-drop sharing, collaborative editing, and integration with enterprise document repositories)
  • A Web-based solution A solution that runs in a Web browser
  • Hyper-realistic graphics
  • A product that has been generally available for a couple of years.

Club One explores immersive tech for delivering training

I first met Celeste DeVaneaux, senior IT manager with Club One, Inc., in September at the 3DTLC conference

in San Jose. Over drinks at a Linden Lab cocktail party, she told me about Club One’s experiments with immersive technology. Club One’s story piqued my interest because their innovations in the realm of fitness-related habit-changing are applicable to corporate learning and development efforts. In both cases, a trainer or coach is trying to change the behavior of the learner. In Club One’s case the learner is a member of the fitness club. In more common enterprise scenarios, the learner may be an executive, new hire, or employee learning a new process or learning to use a new piece of equipment. So in mid-October I followed up with a more formal interview with DeVaneaux, who is the creative director on the project, responsible for the vision, design, and direction of Club One’s products in this area.

Company and program background

Club One is a fitness club network with 18 branded clubs in California and more than 60 corporate worksite health and fitness sites and community centers across the country. Employees are located in 90 sites around the country. The company has more than 140,000 members. One challenge the company faces is helping its members break habits that negatively affect their health.

To address this, the company offers a 42-day program called Habit Changer. The Habit Changer is a system for changing habits, using gentle reminders and daily challenges delivered through email, text, and the web for 42 days.  It exposes the habits people have learned, helping make them aware of what they’re doing now and what they might want to do differently. Each daily challenge gets the participant to look at the decisions they make in their life from a new perspective, and provides them with the means to act in a different way.

A multi-phase approach to immersive technology

Club One’s work with immersive technology has been a multi-phase effort:

  1. Working with partner 2b3d to build a replica of a Club One fitness center in Second Life, to be used for sales and marketing
  2. Scripting animations and interactivity into the environment, and building custom avatars. With these, visitors can interact with objects like treadmills, yoga mats, and a swimming pool (see a video on YouTube — link is below).
  3. (Current phase) Creating a weight loss program to be delivered virtually by redesigning and incorporating Club One’s nutrition, exercise and Habit Changer programs and including a support group element to be delivered to distributed, remote participants
  4. (Future potential) Training the company’s 3,000 to 5,000 employees on everything from teaching exercise form to using equipment correctly to delivering personal training

Early lessons learned

Club One will be launching a pilot in January, during which three test groups of twenty people each will go through a 12-week program during which they will meet four times a week with nutritionists, exercise physiologists, and facilitators. Social interaction among the program’s participants, as well as learning through identification with one’s avatar, and concepts related to neuroplasticity, will be key focal points. The company is looking for a way to collect participants’ bio data (via scanning, measuring, or photos)  and upload that data  to generate an avatar that looks similar to the participant. Celeste DeVaneaux offers a few golden nuggets, based on her experiences so far:

  • Talk short timeframes and small wins. “Virtual world concepts are difficult for most people to understand so it helped to talk in terms of one phase at a time, DeVaneaux said. “If I had tried to sell my entire vision early on, they would have never bought it.” She presented one phase of her project at a time to decision makers while ensuring that each stage of the design would support possible future endeavors.
  • Choose your language carefully. As DeVaneaux talks about the work she is doing, she steers clear of words like “real” vs. “virtual.” She uses the term “carbon-based” or physical instead of “real,”  and “digital” instead of “virtual.” She steers clear of the term “virtual” as much as possible because it has many meanings, especially for people in IT. Instead, she simply refers to the virtual Club One as “Club One Island.” (See the related Sept. 28th, 2009 ThinkBalm blog post “To cross the chasm, we must close the language gap,” and the Sept. 23rd, 2009 report Crossing the Chasm, One Implementation at a Time.)
  • Look for creative ways to justify the investment. The company was considering having a physical 3D model built as a sales tool to be used during conversations with commercial real estate developers. To build Club One Island it cost about half of what it would have cost to build the physical 3D model. On top of that, Club One Island is interactive, collaborative, and can be used for many purposes. DeVaneaux found that what really grabbed the attention of the budget-holders at Club One was the possibilities for delivery of new services — and, potentially, new revenues.
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