The Coaches Centre pilot: 14X revenue generation, travel costs reduced by $1M CAD

The Coaches Centre is a new immersive environment for sports coaches and coaching education professionals worldwide, in affiliation with the International Council for Coach Education (ICCE). The ICCE’s mission is to create awareness of sports coaching as a profession, standardize coaching education requirements around the world, and provide insight and advice for rules committees and sports-related organizations. The mission of The Coaches Centre is to cultivate sport coaches around the world via a unified destination and foster collaboration and knowledge sharing across the spectrum of sport coaching disciplines.

The Coaches Centre has the potential to modernize the sports coaching profession. Initially, sports coaches and coaching educators will use the immersive environment to deliver self-paced learning, 3D real-time interactive collaborative learning and training, and face-to-face meetings and events. Coaches and coach education professionals will be able to deliver theoretical, practical, and physical coach education — the latter typically requiring a coach educator to travel on-site, today. The Coaches Centre has plans to ultimately turn the immersive environment into a major online destination for a huge swath of the global sports coaching economic ecosystem.

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The Coaches Centre will enter broad-scale pilot with 4,000 to 6,000 participants in March of 2009 and the ICCE has plans to take it global by the end of 2009, with premium for-fee services. This pilot will include three courses: one collaborative synchronous education program called “Making Ethical Decisions” and two asynchronous 2D self-paced training programs called “Plan A Practice” and “Nutritional Development for Athletes.” By the end of 2009, The Coaches Centre intends to deliver premium services like sports management, registration, and collaborative training services like coach-to-athlete, coach-to-coach, coach-to-parent, and coach-to-organization education programs.

Preliminary pilot results show tremendous business value

In mid-February, we spoke with The Coaches Centre president Peter Meli about the business drivers behind his decision to make a massive Immersive Internet investment (we’re talking several million dollars Canadian U.S.). To test and document business value, an ICCE The Coaches Centre  executive team ran a pilot in Canada comparing a two-day coach education program delivered in person with the same program delivered via the Immersive Internet. With the immersive environment, the ICCE was able to evidence a 14X greater return in income to sports association partners (Canadian national sports federations and territory partners) while saving participating coaches in aggregate of $1 million Canadian, compared to the traditional two-day program.

Now keep in mind that Canada alone has 1.7M sports coaches, from local schools through national and international teams, roughly 120,000 of whom go through the education process annually (which amounts to about $60 million Canadian in transactions). Now, picture more than 40 countries involved. The ICCE currently consists of 53 national member groups with an estimated 60 million coaches at all levels from volunteer youth coaches to scholastic and elite level coaches. If the numbers from this initial pilot hold true when The Coaches Centre goes into production, the economic impact could be staggering.

Keep your eye on this project

The Coaches Centre is well worth following for any advocate of the Immersive Internet at work because of the project’s potential to deliver:

  • Innovative solutions to the challenges of working with people in far-away places. As even small-town coaches are given access to the broader world via the Internet, the way they do their jobs is changing. New professional networks and an opportunity to develop personal brand will elevate individuals to new star players. Coaches and coach educators will be able to learn from each other and share best practices, no matter where they are based. Athletes will be able to interact with coaches, peers, and even competitors without getting on planes and leaving home. Lessons learned from this effort apply equally well to people in banking, architecture, IT, or pretty much any other sector — people who need to work together on projects or teams across industries and geographies.
  • Lessons learned that will be applicable to other sectors. As the Immersive Internet goes mainstream, early adopters will leapfrog competitors by learning from others outside of their core industry and geographic region. The Coaches Centre has challenges ahead; its target market may not be the most technically savvy — and certainly not in a consistent way across all 40 nations in which it has members. Not everyone who wants to participate may have a computer that can run a non-browser-based immersive environment at an acceptable performance level. And — very importantly — how well will the technology scale? (Pearson Learning Solutions built The Coaches Centre on the Nexus technology developed by Engineering & Computer Simulations (ECS).)

Based on findings from the initial Canadian pilot, the cost savings and revenue generation potential for The Coaches Centre is huge. But the potential benefits don’t end there. With vast quantities of performance data and research available to ICCE members who use The Coaches Centre, the coaching process and coach development could be improved. The ICCE says it will put 90% of the proceeds from The Coaches Centre back into each country’s coaching system, which will help countries better identify athleticism at a young age and monitor athletes’ development. Creating a hub for coaching could also create a whole cottage industry of affiliated businesses. This is just conjecture on ThinkBalm’s part, but imagine collective bargaining groups forming to secure lower prices on equipment and sports services. And direct communication among national sports organizations could pave the way for larger international clubs and leagues. We’ll be watching The Coaches Centre closely as it moves forward.

Meet the ThinkBalm Innovation Community expert panel

A few members of the ThinkBalm Innovation Community have black graduation caps among their badges and have reputation scores of 100%.  This is our expert panel. Our experts:

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The InnovationSpigit(tm) expert badge

  • Have agreed to help to review and promote ideas through the idea lifecycle. Before an idea on the ThinkBalm Innovation Community Web site can graduate from one phase to the next, an expert must review and approve it. Each of our experts has responsibility for one or more idea categories like Events, Future of the Immersive Internet, and Business Value / ROI. If you’ve got an idea moving through the system, don’t hesitate to ask for an expert review. You’ll need it, and it is a great way to keep an idea moving forward.
  • Are hand-picked by ThinkBalm co-founders and principals. We have had great experiences working on idea teams and sometimes other projects with each of the ThinkBalm Innovation Community experts. Each of them is a die-hard Immersive Internet advocate and truly stands out in his or her field.
  • Are a living panel. Unlike serving as a U.S. Supreme Court judge, the expert panel isn’t a lifetime commitment. People are busy. They change jobs. Their availability fluctuates. And as our community grows, we’ll need more experts. You’ll see the names on the ThinkBalm Innovation Community’s expert panel change over time.

ThinkBalm Co-Founders and Principals

You’ll see that ThinkBalm co-founders and principals Sam and Erica Driver are on the list. We don’t pretend to be experts in all idea categories, but we keep tabs on all the ideas percolating in the system and are involved in most if not all of the idea teams. We are industry analysts and strategy consultants who have operated the ThinkBalm Innovation Community since August of 2008, held dozens of immersive events, and written many reports and articles about the Immersive Internet, all accessible from www.thinkbalm.com.

  • Erica Driver, co-founder and principal at ThinkBalm. Erica is a leading industry analyst and consultant with nearly 15 years of experience in the IT sector. She is quoted in mainstream and industry trade press including the Boston Globe, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, CIO, and Computerworld. Prior to co-founding ThinkBalm, Erica was a Principal Analyst at Forrester Research, where she launched the company’s Web3D coverage as part of her enterprise collaboration research. She was also the co-conspirator behind Forrester’s Information Workplace concepts and research. You can contact Erica for help or guidance in any idea category on the ThinkBalm Innovation Community site. Link to Erica’s LinkedIn profile.
  • Sam Driver, co-founder and principal at ThinkBalm. Sam is an inventor and entrepreneur whose take on the Immersive Internet is heavily influenced by science, game theory, and science fiction. At the University of Massachusetts Medical School, Sam was part of a team that discovered RNA interference (RNAi) which was awarded the 2006 Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine. He founded QIK Technology to develop intellectual property (IP) holdings in functional genomics and co-founded a small Rhode Island-based residential real estate investment partnership. He also founded and operates Evil Minions Games, an IP and product development company, and established and runs a regional gaming organization. He’s also an instrument-rated private pilot. Sam earned his BS at Ohio Wesleyan University and a masters in genetics from the University of Massachusetts Medical School. You can contact Sam for help or guidance in any idea category on the ThinkBalm Innovation Community site. Link to Sam’s LinkedIn profile.

ThinkBalm Innovation Community Members

  • Jeff Lowe, project manager for the University of Oklahoma Center for Public Management. Working for the outreach division of the university, Jeff partners with a variety of public and private organizations to enhance their employee development programs, orchestrate their events, better engage their clientele, and improve their operations. In serving his clients, he takes on the following primary roles: video producer, event planner, public relations consultant, social media consultant, collaborative technology consultant, virtual tool developer, and web developer. You can contact Jeff for help or guidance on ideas in the “future of the Immersive Internet” category on the ThinkBalm Innovation Community site. Link to Jeff’s LinkedIn profile.
  • Kyle Gomboy, Owner, G Squared (G2). G2 was founded over a decade ago to blend data with visuals online. G2 founded and operates the OpenSim grid ReactionGrid. With the creation of tools such as Second Life, OpenSim and others G2 has been able to combine its ASP.NET and SQL Server database technology with 3D visuals to help companies and individuals network and educate themselves and others while having some fun on the way. Kyle was US Navy trained to repair any type of electronic system while at sea without spares and/or technical documents & tools. He specialized in Poseidon and Trident SSBN Ballistic Missile Submarines & Los Angeles Class Fast Attack Submarines. He had training in Ticonderoga Class Aegis Radar Systems and his DoD security clearance was the highest available for NATO shared documents. You can contact Kyle for help or guidance on ideas in the “technologies” category on the ThinkBalm Innovation Community site. Link to Kyle’s profile on the community site. Link to Kyle’s LinkedIn profile.
  • Philippe Barreaud, Chief Enterprise Architect at Michelin Group. Philippe has 19 years of experience managing both IS/IT and business functions in Europe, Africa, Middle East and Asia. Prior to joining the IS team at Michelin to lead the Enterprise Architecture initiative for the group, Philippe was managing Michelin’s operations in China. You can contact Philippe for help or guidance on ideas in the “business value / ROI” category on the ThinkBalm Innovation Community site. Link to Philippe’s LinkedIn profile.

So if you’re a member of the ThinkBalm Innovation Community who’s working on an idea and want to see it evolve, feel free to call on one of the experts in your idea’s category. Experts can help you figure out how to make your idea more actionable or more bite-sized. They might have recommendations for other community members you could invite to join your idea team to further the idea along. The InnovationSpigit™ software our community site is built on allows you to contact experts (or any community member, for that matter) by visiting their profiles and clicking “Email User.” If you’re not sure who to reach out to, you can always email ThinkBalm principals Erica Driver and Sam Driver at info@thinkbalm.com. If you’re not yet a member of the ThinkBalm Innovation Community, we hope you’ll consider joining us. Happy innovating!

Virtual office: A window looking in on my world

Last month I ran a little experiment. For about two weeks I stayed logged into ReactionGrid to see if it would lead to valuable serendipitous interactions. (I wrote about this in the related article, Lightbulb moment: for serendipity, stay logged into the immersive environment.) What I found: staying logged into my virtual workplace made me feel like I have a window looking out on my world — rather, looking in on my world. And yes, staying logged in did lead to new and deepened relationships.

By staying logged in I connected with at least 10 people who already were — or now are — members of the ThinkBalm Innovation Community. I got to know things about people and tell them a bit about who I am and what I do, thereby building up the all-important foundation of trust. I learned about projects other people are engaged with and went over to visit works in progress. And I had a conversation with someone who happened to stop by that is on the way to turning into sizeable business for ThinkBalm. I learned a couple of other lessons, as well.

Having two monitors really helps balance the pros and cons of interruption

I have a monitor on my desk above my laptop and I left my Hippo OpenSim viewer running there. Usually, nothing happened in my view. I focused my attention on my regular work done, on the lower monitor, looking up only when out of the corner of my eye I saw an avatar fly into view. Without the dual monitor, I wouldn’t have that sense of awareness of people coming and going unless I ALT+TABbed to Hippo, in which case I’m no longer focusing on my regular work. Sometimes I would see avatars walk or fly by on their way to somewhere else. Other times, they approached me to start a conversation. It’s  the virtual equivalent of seeing colleagues walk down the hall past your office.

 

Having an “I’m busy” space required more effort than it was worth

If I’m looking at my screen I can see who comes by my space while I’m busy, even if they choose not to leave me a message. But I don’t really like the space I originally created (for a picture, see the related article, Here’s a way to communicate “I’m busy” in immersive environments). While the circular wall was translucent, it still felt like a wall and I didn’t like having the image of my avatar sitting inside the space up on my screen. More importantly, it turns out the “I’m busy” space may be more trouble than it’s worth. I had to remember to park my avatar there when I was interrupted or going to be away from my desk. And in ReactionGrid, which is based on OpenSim and therefore works very similarly to Second Life, when someone doesn’t interact with the environment for some period of time — say, 5 minutes — their avatar looks like it’s fallen asleep standing up (see Figure). If someone stumbles across my sleeping avatar they can always send me an instant message. I don’t think I need much more than that.

IBM Lotus approach to Immersive Internet: partnering and professional services

IBM Research is a big proponent of the Immersive Internet, especially in the Digital Convergence business unit. But what about the IBM Software group – in particular, Lotus, which produces IBM’s enterprise collaboration software products? ThinkBalm’s theory about the enterprise immersive platforms market is that ultimately software companies that provide information worker infrastructure (like IBM) will deliver an immersion  layer that integrates with existing communication, collaboration, and content systems (see Figure). In search of validation (or invalidation, as the case may be) of this theory, this week I attended IBM’s Lotusphere conference in Orlando with one primary question in mind: Where does the Lotus group stand with regard to the emerging Immersive Internet market?

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Searching for insights, I met with director of Lotus strategy Doug Heintzman, Lotus new business development executive Gopal Gupta, IBM Digital Convergence business unit marketing executive Karen Keeter, and others. I stopped by the innovation lab for a demo of Sametime 3D (see YouTube video below), which features collaboration spaces built in OpenSim and integrated with Lotus Sametime. In the innovation lab I also saw a demo of Olympus, a 2D Web overlay technology to add simple avatars to Web sites (in particular, Web conferences) in a similar vein to ROCKETON or Weblin. I wandered the show floor and visited Forterra Systems in their booth for a demo of the latest version of OLIVE and OLIVE integration with Lotus Sametime.

My takeaways after a couple of intense days at Lotusphere:

  • Lotus is focusing on partnerships with third-party ISVs. Lotus is in the process of opening up APIs to products like Lotus Sametime so partners can integrate their products with IBM’s. The Lotus executive team is closely watching customer implementations of partner products like the Forterra OLIVE . Joint customers are just now beginning to drive adoption of each others’ products. Early indications are that IBM will initially evolve toward delivering an immersion layer via a partner ecosystem — though ThinkBalm’s take is that eventually (in 5-7 years) many aspects of immersive technology will go the same route as collaboration services (e.g., presence, instant messaging, calendaring, email, etc.) and find their way into an enterprise platform offered by large vendors like IBM.
  • Lotus is keeping an eye on IBM Research developments.  In September of 2008, IBM Research announced that it was doing work to integate OpenSim with Sametime in a project code-named “Sametime 3D.” Sametime 3D includes collaboration spaces for meetings, brainstorming sessions, and presentations. Sametime 3D does a good job of using 3D technology to do things that can’t be done using flat 2D technology – like brainstorming and then prioritizing ideas collaboratively. This week at Lotusphere, IBM made public that  IBM Lotus and IBM Research are now offering an expanded version of Sametime 3D to customers that want to run Immersive Internet pilots, with plans to announce an IBM Software Service for Lotus (ISSL) offering later this quarter. Until this time, IBM’s Sametime 3D pilots had been internal-only.

IBM as a whole is taking groundbreaking steps with the Immersive Internet. And ThinkBalm expects that eventually large IT providers like IBM will offer an immersion layer that integrates with enterprise systems. (For more on this see the Aug. 13, 2008 ThinkBalm article, Information work is going immersive.) But this is a long-term vision. Don’t expect Lotus to develop an enterprise immersive platform on its own during the next 2-3 years. Instead, Lotus will expand relationships with Immersive Internet ISVs with which it partners, and work with those partners to integrate the immersive technology ever more deeply with products in the Lotus communication and collaboration portfolio. As the business value of the Immersive Internet in the enterprise becomes clearer and more widely understood over time, IBM will be right there in good position to capitalize on the growing opportunity.

Lenovo pilots Nortel web.alive for innovation in customer experience

Nortel web.alive is an enterprise immersive platform currently in beta (general availability release date not yet announced). Nortel is targeting three use cases in large enterprises: enterprise collaboration, eLearning, and what it calls “assisted community eCommerce.” The company recently announced that PC manufacturer Lenovo is doing a web.alive pilot to support the sales process (see figure).

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While ThinkBalm’s focus is on enterprise use of the Immersive Internet, rather than B2C use cases like Lenovo’s, we think this announcement is an important one because:

  • Web.alive marks the entry of a big vendor into this emerging software market. The future of Nortel is in question as the company files for bankruptcy protection. But this doesn’t diminish the significance of a multi-billion dollar IT and telecom vendor entering the Immersive Internet platforms market with a commercial product. (For analysis on this market see the Nov. 17, 2008 ThinkBalm report, The Immersive Internet: Make Tactical Moves Today For Strategic Advantage Tomorrow.) Web.alive, formerly code-named Project Chainsaw (still the name used for Nortel’s internal implementation of the software), is an enterprise immersive platform that runs in a Web browser as a thin client plug-in. It provides highly rendered, realistic visuals and positional audio. Under the covers, Nortel is using Epic Games’ Unreal Engine. Rather than provide lots of built-in business collaboration tools for things like document collaboration and brainstorming, customers or system integrators could integrate web.alive with Web-based tools and arrange them in the browser alongside web.alive. An important set of features for enterprise immersive platforms, web.alive can run behind the firewall and provides integration with enterprise directories for security and identity management. Web.alive can be integrated with other systems, as well, like CRM; Nortel says that anything you can do in web.alive can be called via JavaScript. Some functionality — like avatar selection and configuration — is Flash-based.
  • Brand new Lenovo eLounge pilot already exceeds the company’s expectations. Lenovo eLounge is an immersive environment in which sales professionals interact in real-time, in 3D, with customers and prospects. On January 13th, 2009 we spoke with Ajit Sivadasan, Lenovo’s VP and GM of global eCommerce, about the business rationale behind this pilot. Lenovo’s investment in web.alive was driven by the need to reinforce its brand promise: innovation and exceptionally engineered PCs. To decide where to focus its initial Immersive Internet foray, Sivadasan looked for complex issues that are difficult to address with the flat 2D Web. He selected a narrow scope and objective for the initial pilot: improving the experience for customers who are browsing for information about notebook computers. So far, thousands of people have been through the Lenovo eLounge experience and enough of these are legitimate sales leads that Sivadasan considers the experiment a success already.

We think this is just the beginning

What’s next step for Lenovo? The company is planning to train 15% to 20% of its sales force to be able to interact with customers and prospects via Lenovo eLounge. The end goal: a higher conversion rate and, ultimately, increased sales. Lenovo’s Ajit Sivadasan said that the typical conversion rate for phone-based sales is 25-30%, meaning that about one out of every three people who call buys something. He suspects that the conversion rate for Lenovo eLounge will be higher than this and could even reach 40-50%. This is purely speculation on our part, but given the quick early success Lenovo is seeing with Lenovo eLounge, we wouldn’t be surprised to see the company start using the technology in additional ways — like internal training (especially for sales people using the environment to interact with customers) and customer training and support.

ThinkBalm Storytelling Series Issue #2: “End Death-By-Lecture: Tours, Not Speeches”

The ThinkBalm Innovation Community has been experimenting with a new form of immersive event: the “un-lecture.” An un-lecture is a 60- to 90-minute event during which four or five community members each deliver a 10-minute demo, tour, or presentation about something enterprise Immersive Internet-related that they have done or are working on. The purpose of the community’s new un-lecture event series is to spread the wealth of knowledge and experience that exists in the community, strengthen bonds among members, create opportunities for serendipitous interactions, and collectively master how to move beyond traditional, often unexciting presentations to deliver high-value interactive experiences. Participants can move their avatars around in 3D space and interact with environments and objects. They can talk with the presenter and each other via voice, group text chat, or private text chat. In our view, participants in an un-lecture event walk away with an experience, not just a few bullet points and a set of printed-out PowerPoint slides.

On December 1, 2008 the ThinkBalm Innovation Community held its first un-lecture event. We structured the event as a four-stop tour that included:

  • A presentation by Claus Nehmzow, entrepreneur and advisor with Alcus International Ltd., on CIGNA’s use of Second Life for healthcare education
  • A hands-on demo of Jeff Lowe’s 3D mindmapping tool project — Jeff Lowe is a project manager at University of Oklahoma Center for Public Management
  • A presentation on the Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI)’s use of Second Life for marketing and R&D by John Kinsella, VP in charge of educational curricula and products at PADI
  • A tour of Michelin’s island for training IT pros on enterprise architecture concepts by Philippe Barreaud, chief enterprise architect at Michelin

With the help of six ThinkBalm Innovation Community members who attended our first un-lecture event — Barbara Schwarz, Claus Nehmzow, Eilif Trondsen, Jeff Lowe, Leslie Pagel, and Santi Garcia — we wrote ThinkBalm’s second issue in the Immersive Internet Storytelling Series, titled “End Death-By-Lecture: Tours, Not Speeches.” For a PDF of the article click this link or click the image of the article’s cover above.

Here’s a way to communicate “I’m busy” in immersive environments

Early today I published an article about a recent lightbulb moment: you’ve got to stay logged into the immersive environment where your tribe hangs out to get those serendipitous interactions that usually only occur when people are physically together in the same place. (See the ThinkBalm article, Lightbulb moment: for serendipity, stay logged into the immersive environment.) What I didn’t write about in that article is one of the challenges of staying logged in indefinitely: just because you’re logged in it doesn’t mean you’re available to converse with others.

In the physical world, you can be in the office and close your door when you don’t want to be disturbed. People can look through the window to see that you are meeting with someone or on the phone or knee-deep in paperwork. You can let phone calls go into voice mail. You can turn on your “out of office” message if you think it will be a while before you’ll be responding to email messages. But in an immersive environment, there is no standard protocol for letting others know you’re “sort of there” — you’re there but not available. The most common indicator is the head-down / arms-hung “AFK” pose that avatars take in Second Life and OpenSim when the user hasn’t touched the keyboard or mouse for a while.

So I took a shot at it. In the ThinkBalm Innovation Community space on ReactionGrid, an OpenSim grid, I created a simple space that serves as the immersive equivalent of a combined closed office door, voice mail box, and out of office message (see figure below). When I am logged into ReactionGrid but busy or away from my desk I’m going to try putting my avatar in this designated location, which is centrally located and easy to see. Partial walls are translucent so people can see that my avatar is in there. A sign outside says, “Hi! If you see Erica Driver’s avatar sitting here it means I’m on the phone or in a meeting. You can leave me a public text-based message by clicking here.” The visitor can click on the sign to go an EtherPad I set up on the Web. There they can leave me a text-based note, similarly to the way one might write a note on a whiteboard attached to an office or dorm room door. The EtherPad also contains my email address in case visitors don’t want to leave a publicly-displayed message.

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I am at the beginning of a one- or two-week experiment to stay logged into this immersive environment whenever I am at my computer in an effort to strengthen my relationships with ThinkBalm Innovation Community members and learn some new things about using this emerging technology in the work context. Things I’m wondering about right now:

  • There are so many technology options. I use various immersive environments for ThinkBalm Innovation Community activities and my work with ThinkBalm clients — not just ReactionGrid. And ReactionGrid is not the only place ThinkBalm Innovation Community members “pop in” — many also pop into Second Life. What is the impact of this fragmented market on my ability to benefit from serendipitous interactions with the people who matter most to me, or who I’d like to get to know better?
  • Managing another form of presence info might be tedious. Will it become too onerous to remember to move my avatar to my “I’m busy” spot when I’m no available? Given how hard it is to remember to set instant messaging presence information to “away” or “do not disturb,” or to turn or off email out of office messages, I suspect the answer might be yes.
  • Will I get enough value out of these unplanned interactions? Will the effort be worthwhile? I suspect the answer is yes, but don’t have evidence for that yet. We’ll see how it goes! I’ll write again about this experiment during the next couple of weeks. Do check back.

Lightbulb moment: for serendipity, stay logged into the immersive environment

Yesterday I kicked off a little experiment and it ended up being an extraordinary day: for the first time I experienced what it really means to have a virtual office where associates stop by and unplanned interactions occur. It’s no small thing. Nearly a year ago when I was an analyst with Forrester Research I wrote a blog post about the potential for virtual offices to bring serendipitous interactions back into the lives of geographically distributed workers. Yesterday I experienced it myself for the first time. It was one of those light bulb moments.

In an effort to strengthen my bonds with members of the ThinkBalm Innovation Community and to identify presenters for an upcoming community event, I wanted to talk in real-time with community members who also wanted a moment of connection. I didn’t want to schedule a meeting or send out an email or make a post on the community’s Web site. I didn’t want to look people up on Skype and engage them in a text chat. I wanted the feeling of bumping into folks and seeing what they are up to.

So I logged into the ThinkBalm Innovation Community’s region on ReactionGrid, an OpenSim grid. I kept my Hippo OpenSim Viewer up and running on a second monitor that sits on my desk just above the height of my laptop display (see figure below). This dual display setup allowed me to get my regular work done — writing, phone calls, emailing, scheduling meetings, Twittering, interacting with the ThinkBalm Innovation Community on our Spigit site, etc. — and at the same time be available if anyone wanted to stop by my “virtual office.” I sent out a tweet to my Twitter network saying, “Trying experiment to build bonds with ThinkBalm Innovation Community members: staying logged into ReactionGrid whenever I can. Drop by!”

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And drop by they did! Throughout the course of the day, a half dozen or so ThinkBalm Innovation Community members dropped by. I made plans with one associate to review his slide deck later in the week. I helped a couple of newbies get out of their default OpenSim avatars (all female and all very weird-looking) and into some decent-looking freebie clothing and hair. I gave a tour of the ThinkBalm Innovation Community sim and talked about the community’s philosophy and activities. I chatted with one new community member about his transition from education to the private sector and about some of his experiences with the Immersive Internet thus far.

As the work day drew to a close, I had the feeling you get when you know you are looking at something great. I just got a glimpse into the future of work. Give it just a few years, and entire companies will have immersive environments. Departments and teams will have their own virtual offices and labs. People will stop by others’ workspaces to ask a question, prod a project along, share a design or plan, or just see what’s going on. By staying logged into the immersive environment, geography can become far less important than it is today. People who are affiliated by the work they do or their place of employment will be able to find each other and interact in ways that just aren’t possible without the Immersive Internet.

ThinkBalm releases its premier Immersive Internet report

Today ThinkBalm released its inaugural research report, titled “The Immersive Internet: Make Tactical Moves Today For Strategic Advantage Tomorrow.” This report is intended to help Immersive Internet advocates,implementers, and explorers decide if, when, and how to invest in Immersive Internet technology. Click this link or the image of the report cover to download the PDF.

Methodology

As an independent industry analyst firm, ThinkBalm has working knowledge of the Immersive Internet vendor landscape acquired through vendor briefings and demos, hands-on experience, user interviews, consulting work with our clients, and our work with the ThinkBalm Innovation Community, which currently has about 150 members. Nearly two dozen community members reviewed and contributed to this report prior to its publication. (Membership in the ThinkBalm Innovation Community is free. For information on becoming a member please email us at info@thinkbalm.com.)

Executive Summary

The Immersive Internet is a collection of emerging technologies combined with a social culture that has roots in gaming and virtual worlds. Virtual worlds and campuses, immersive learning simulations, serious games, and three-dimensional (3D) business applications deeply engross the user and give people experiences that are perceived as real even though they take place virtually. Properly implemented, this technology promises to uncover previously unheard-of dimensions in engagement, which will in turn increase workforce collaboration, effectiveness, and retention. When the Immersive Internet is used with the extended enterprise, it will have similar positive impacts on customer, partner, and supplier relationships.
Adoption of the Immersive Internet for work is still in the “seedling” stage. We expect adoption will progress rapidly toward mainstream during the next five years because:

A slow economy and the green movement are influencing business decisions
Early case studies demonstrate return on investment
We live in a video game culture
Large business technology vendors are jumping into the fray
Hardware, software, and networking technology have advanced rapidly
Social networking is a way of life, allowing advocates and implementers to find each other
Investment in short-term Immersive Internet projects in 2009 is both strategic and cash-conscious. Project teams can extract tangible cost savings immediately, influence the vendors in an emerging technology market, and build the expertise needed for making sound larger investments in the future. Look for opportunities to improve business processes in seven main areas: learning and training, meetings and conferences, business activity simulation, collaborative design and prototyping, collaborative 3D data visualization, human resources management, and remote system and facility management.

The enterprise Immersive Internet technology market is made up of three main sectors: platforms, packaged applications, and custom apps. This emerging market is populated primarily by small software vendors and open source projects, making technology selection difficult and risky. The market will undergo significant change during the next five years as startups and educational institutions invent and innovate, large business technology vendors get in the game, and platforms and applications diverge. This may render some early technology implementations throwaways, though the experience gained will prove invaluable.

Long term, think of the Immersive Internet as an area of strategic investment that enables transformation of the way we work as well as business model innovation. The Immersive Internet allows organizations to connect more deeply with customers, partners, and suppliers. It enables business leaders to nourish and harvest human creativity and increase workforce and customer engagement. Ultimately, organizations will go far beyond the seven use cases we outline here and the Immersive Internet will become part of everyday life.

Recipe for a great 3D brainstorming session

In late October the ThinkBalm Innovation Community held its third brainstorming session. Sixteen members of this vibrant tribe gathered to discuss a question one of the community members (Leslie Pagel, VP of Customer Experience at Walker Information) was wrestling with: “What can I do to get newbie professionals started with Second Life?”

Given that Leslie’s question was focused on Second Life, we met in the community’s brainstorming space in that virtual world  — had the question been about some other environment, we may have met elsewhere, like our OpenSim space. It is important to note that although this discussion was specifically about Second Life, our learnings from it apply to any immersive environment used for work.

To facilitate the session, we used an early version of a 3D mindmapping tool one of our community members built (Jeff Lowe, Project Manager, University of Oklahoma Center for Public Management) (see Figure 1). After the session Jeff exported the content of the 3D mind map to a 2D Web-based mind map. We also used a name tag tool he built (see Figure 2) and an interactive polling tool he modified for our use.

Focus on one of us, impact on all of us

While we were brainstorming solutions to one community member’s specific situation, the session was valuable for all of us. We know this because at the end of the session we asked participants to input their high-level feedback into an interactive polling tool (see Figure 3). Not only did we share and gain knowledge, we strengthened community relationships and gained valuable experience collaborating in an immersive environment. And as a result of this session, Leslie Pagel changed her target audience for Walker Information’s initial Immersive Internet foray, began to identify internal allies, and started a list of vendors and other organizations she could reach out to for assistance.

If you are ready for your own home-brew brainstorming sessions within an immersive environment, here is the ThinkBalm Innovation Community recipe:

Ingredients

  • A problem that can be moved toward resolution with brainstorming
  • A (virtual) room full of smart people
  • One hour minimum
  • A 3D mind mapping tool
  • Some mechanism for displaying participants’ real names with their avatars
  • Private 3D space in which to meet
  • Voice and text chat tools
  • An interactive polling tool (optional)

Instructions

Ahead of time

  1. Designate the following roles: challenger (person who has a problem they need solved), moderator (to keep the conversation flowing and on target), tech support person (to help participants use the name tag tool, 3D brainstorming tool, voice and text chat tools, etc.), and scribe (to capture ideas on the 3D mind map tool or via text chat).
  2. Optional: engage the participants in discussion about the topic to be brainstormed (e.g., via blog, wiki, discussion thread, etc.)
  3. Distribute information to participants about the issue to be brainstormed.

During the brainstorming session

  1. Gather smart people in a 3D virtual space that is free from unwanted visitors and excessive distractions.
  2. If the immersive environment cannot associate participants’ real names with their avatars (a Second Life-specific problem), provide participants with a virtual name tag that displays their name and, optionally, affiliation.
  3. Have all participants introduce themselves either by voice or text chat (approx. 5-10 minutes).
    Give a brief tutorial on how to use the 3D mind mapping tool. Give participants a few minutes to try it out (5-10 minutes).
  4. Have the challenger introduce the issue with which he/she is wrestling (5-10 minutes).
  5. Go at it! Have participants toss out suggestions for how the challenger could solve the problem and ask clarifying questions of the challenger if needed. Have participants add nodes to the 3D mind map throughout the conversation (30-40 minutes). Encourage not only voice but also text chat conversations on the topic.
  6. Have the moderator summarize the main points of the discussion.
  7. Optional: Ask participants to provide feedback on the session.

After the meeting

  1. Optional: Provide a copy of the artifact(s) of the meeting to all participants. Artifacts may include a copy of the text chat transcript or2D or 3D mind maps.
  2. Optional: continue the discussion, either with the 3D mind map or via a “flat” tool like blog, wiki, or discussion thread.
[For a write-up of an earlier brainstorming session we did see the related article, The ThinkBalm Innovation Community brainstorms in 3D.]