Category Archives for Blog Articles

What makes a virtual environment immersive?

What makes a virtual world or campus, immersive learning environment, or 3D business application immersive? Immersiveness isn’t all or nothing. It’s not determined by whether the software used is a Web browser or thick client. Instead, it’s a continuum that is determined by 1) the degree to which the user’s senses are engaged, and 2) the desirability and meaningfulness of the activity in which the user is participating. Below is a description of factors that make virtual environments or experiences more or less immersive: visual, tactile, auditory, and collaboration and interactivity (see Fig. 1). A virtual environment doesn’t need to score high in all of these areas to be immersive, but the more “highs” it gets, the more immersive it is (see Fig. 2).

 What makes a virtual environment immersive?

Fig 2: The Immersiveness Continuum

Factor Low Immersiveness High Immersiveness
Visual
Rich graphics The environment looks cartoony or avatars look strange or move in a disconcerting way. Realistic-looking lighting, shapes, textures, avatars, plants, etc. At the high end, graphics are photorealistic. Or, for abstract experiences (e.g., chemistry and mathematics) the visuals contain a high level of detailed information.
Avatars Users do not have graphical representations of themselves in the environment. Users have configurable or customizable avatars with which they identify.
3D environment Much or all of the environment comprises 2D images. The environment uses three-dimensional representations of geometric data. Avatars and objects take up and can move in 3D space.
Ability to control viewpoint The user’s viewpoint into the environment is static or limited to a few pre-selected perspectives. The user has full control over their visual focus in the environment. They can zoom and pan in all directions.
Physics No physics engine, or a very basic one A sophisticated physics engine that simulates properties like mass, velocity, gravity, friction, and wind resistance. The environment weather and collision detection.
Size of display The display fills only part of the user’s computer screen The display fills the user’s entire computer screen
Tactile
Haptics No support for haptic devices The user experiences the environment through the sense of touch, via a controller or input device. Through a handheld device, glove, etc. the user feels vibrations, forces, pressure, or motion. An example of this is the Wii controller.
Auditory
Voice No built-in voice over IP. Or if the system has VoIP, it is not spatialized; instead, it sounds similar to a phone call. Spatialized, 3D audio. When an avatar is standing to your avatar’s left, you hear that person’s voice in your left speaker. Voices of those whose avatars are closer to yours are louder than those who are farther away. At the high end, voice colorization allows users to modify the way others’ voices sound to make it easier to differentiate among speakers.
Non-voice sounds Sound is mono. Sounds are stereo and spatialized.
Collaboration and Interactivity
Integrated collaboration, communication, and productivity tools The environment lacks functionality like built-in voice, screen sharing, collaborative document editing, etc., requiring people to leave the environment (e.g., using the ALT-TAB key combination on a PC to switch applications) to get their work done. Within the environment participants can communicate with each other via public or private voice chat, local or group or private text chat, messaging, document and object sharing, screen sharing, etc. The applications and information the user needs to complete a task (e.g., have a meeting, deliver a presentation, collaborate on a model) are accessible from and can be displayed within the virtual environment (e.g., via screen sharing or real-time document editing).
Gesture and emotion Avatars do not lip sync. Ability to express emotion visually is limited. Gestures are basic. Avatars lip sync while users are talking. Users can express emotion visually through their avatars. Today this usually is done by clicking on a menu of icons but in the future it will become more natural through the use of cameras, which will project the user’s movements and expressions onto an avatar.
Interactivity Objects in the environment are static. Using the mouse or other input device, the user can click on an object to display an item or change the way an item behaves). The user can flip switches to rev up a turbine, sit in the driver’s seat and operate a vehicle, etc.

The v-Business Grid: A vision of the future Immersive Internet

IBM has soft-launched a new community called the v-Business Community. This community’s objectives are three-fold: 1) promote the use of immersive technologies – particularly those that are OpenSim-based — for business, 2) provide an environment for businesses to showcase immersive products and services, and 3) provide a “sandbox” environment for early adopters to experiment with immersive technologies. The community currently has about 10 named member companies, all of which offer hardware, software, or  services related to government, education, and business use of immersive technologies.

Standing in the hypergrid teleportation area choosing our next destination

This week I visited the community’s OpenSim grid, called v-Business Grid, to meet with Peter Finn. Finn is an IT architect who has been responsible for v-business (virtual business) strategy at IBM in the past and is leading the v-Business Community charge from the IBM side. I walked away from this meeting realizing I’d seen a compelling vision of the future Immersive Internet: a universe of virtual worlds and campuses, immersive learning simulations, and 3D business applications and tools that are connected together to greater or lesser degree. The v-Business Grid, which is currently in alpha:

  • Is a sandbox for Immersive Internet advocates, implementers, and explorers. The initial work on the sandbox is being done by members of IBM’s Virtual Universe Community. The initial use cases Peter Finn is focused on are retail, marketing, and events. Initially, the tech provider members of the community will use the grid as a meeting place and demonstration ground for their products and services. Finn’s hope is that within a year, when the OpenSim platform goes “gold” (becomes generally available) large retailers will begin to use the technology to create immersive 3D product showrooms of their own.
  • Runs on OpenSim, in grid mode. IBM is a huge proponent of open source technology overall and is a big believer in the OpenSim open source enterprise immersive platform. The v-Business Grid runs OpenSim in grid mode. This allows individual OpenSim servers to be connected together into a bigger virtual world. In grid mode, avatars can walk, fly, or teleport from one connected region to another in a relatively seamless fashion.
  • Utilizes hypergrid technology. The v-Business Grid uses an OpenSim extension called hypergrid, which allows multiple OpenSim-based virtual worlds to be connected together. With this extension, avatars can now travel not just among regions but across virtual worlds. The snapshot above shows my avatar and Peter Finn’s standing in a hypergrid teleportation area. I used my mouse to click on the red arrow on a heads-up display and scroll through our options. As I clicked, the display around us showed fuzzy images of the various virtual worlds available to us. When Peter said, “This is a good one – let’s visit here” we flew right through the display into another virtual world. It was like passing through a portal in the sci-fi show Stargate (see the image with the blue background on this MGM Web page).
  • Will be increasingly integrated with the 2D Web. The v-Business Community is already leveraging the Web. I created my v-Business Grid account on the Web. And during my tour, one of the ways we switched from one grid to another was via the Gridhop Web site (see snapshot below). Peter Finn’s vision is that the 2D Web and the 3D Internet will become tightly integrated over time. For example, in the retail scenario, shoppers will go to a retailer’s Web site and then seamlessly click on a link to go to the 3D showroom.

 

Gridhop.net, a Web site that can be used to transport an avatar from one virtual world to another

IBM’s v-Business Community presents a great opportunity for Immersive Internet advocates, implementers, and explorers to learn about available technology options and experiment in the v-Business Grid sandbox. One of the questions that remains unanswered by this early V-Business Community effort is how IBM’s vision of an interconnected 3D Internet will play out in a world of heterogeneous, non-standards based technology. While IBM and Linden Lab have demonstrated that it’s possible for an avatar to travel back and forth between OpenSim and Second Life, these are just two among dozens of enterprise immersive platforms. For IBM’s vision of an interconnected Immersive Internet to play out, one of two things must happen: open standards emerge that multiple vendors adhere to, or one platform rises up as the de facto standard, forcing others to integrate with it. The jury’s still out on this one.

ThinkBalm announces kickoff of new research study: tech selection guide

Coming this fall, ThinkBalm will conduct research on how Immersive Internet advocates and implementers involved in the technology selection process successfully picked the right solutions for their organizations.  The result will be a tool to assist organizations in the evaluation process. We are currently seeking sponsorships for this research. Several potential sponsors have already expressed interest. They worry that the complexity of the buyer decision-making process is a roadblock to adoption of immersive technologies in the workplace and they believe ThinkBalm is the right analyst firm to produce this report. Would you like to join our sponsor list?

About the project

  • Timeframe. We are currently working with our business agent Valley View Ventures to secure sponsorships for this research study. We plan to kick off the research in early October and publish the report in late November.
  • Objective. The primary question we will set out to answer for business decision makers is, “How do I choose the right enterprise immersive technology for my organization’s needs?” We will research and analyze good practices in making the right enterprise immersive technology selection.
  • Scope. This report will not compare particular software or service offerings against each other or recommend one vendor over another. Rather, it will be a use case-based guide designed to help business decision makers ask and begin to answer the right set of questions for their particular situation. We’ll focus on use cases like learning and training, meetings and conferences, business activity rehearsal, collaborative design and prototyping, collaborative 3D data visualization, remote system and facility management, and human resources management.
  • Report. The final report, which will be targeted at business decision makers, will be approximately 25 pages long including graphics. For an indication of style and format see the ThinkBalm Immersive Internet Business Value Study, Q2 2009. The report will be freely available.
  • Methodology. The early-stage nature of the market and the broad applicability of the technology favor an experience-based analysis. We will develop this decision-making framework based on:
    • Analysts’ knowledge gained through client engagements and interactions with members of the ThinkBalm Innovation Community, which currently number more than 330
    • A minimum of 15 focused interviews with Immersive Internet advocates and implementers who were involved in the technology selection process in their organizations
    • Briefings with enterprise immersive technology vendors
    • ThinkBalm analysts’ first-hand experiences using a wide variety of immersive technologies on a daily basis.

We have assembled a high-value set of deliverables for our project sponsors. Please contact ThinkBalm’s business agent Valley View Ventures to learn more about these deliverables and to discuss sponsorship opportunities. Of course, please contact Erica or Sam directly to get answers to questions about the research, methodology, and scope. We’re at info@thinkbalm.com.

Results from spring brainstorm on choosing immersive technology

In March and April of 2009 the ThinkBalm Innovation Community held two brainstorming sessions on the topic of choosing the right enterprise immersive platform. We held these events in the then-beta version of IBM’s Virtual Collaboration for Lotus Sametime (then called Sametime 3D). More than 30 community members participated in these two discussions.

Brainstorming topic 1: What should go on a requirements list?

In a total of 20 minutes – ten minutes each brainstorming session — participants came up with nearly 50 items that should go on a requirements list for enterprise immersive platforms. Participants submitted their ideas and then voted on the ideas submitted. The items that received at least one vote were:

  • Avatar and identity
    • Better gestures, more natural avatar behavior
    • Pre-made, customizable avatars
    • Non-human avatars to reduce fashion show workload
    • Interoperability for avatar assets
    • Detect or ask gender and set avatar gender automatically
    • Option to load photo onto in-world profile
  • Communication
    • Spatialized (positional) voice
    • Reliable media streaming
    • Back channel for audio and text support
    • Admin controls like muting voice, muting text, etc.
  • Integration: Import data from external sources and feed it back out easily
  • Ease of use
    • Easier navigation (e.g., “auto-follow” feature)
    • Browser-based clients
    • Minimized learning curve for new users, with easy orientation area
  • 3D assets
    • 3D object visualization for sharing component designs
    • 3D data visualization
  • Platform support
    • Support for multiple operating systems (e.g., Linux, Mac, Windows)
    • Thin client for mobile device access
  • Security
    • Granular access control over spaces
    • Public / private (firewalled or not)
  • Scalability: Maximum number of users

Brainstorming topic 2: What are generic “must-have” features?

During the two sessions, we generated more than 30 “must-have” features. You’ll see there is lots of overlap between these items and the items that should go on a requirements list. The must-have features that got at least one vote from participants included:

  • Communication and collaboration tools
    • Multi-user whiteboards
    • Drag and drop PowerPoint support
    • Session recording and playback
    • Voice and media work across firewalls
    • Dial-out support for including participants who just have a phone
    • Chat and voice, both group and private
    • Web camera support
  • Ability to launch from Web browser
  • Globalization (e.g., multi-language support, translation)
  • Ease of use
    • Camera stability and ease of use
  • Cost: reasonable acquisition and operational costs
  • Integration
    • Content management systems and document repositories
  • Standards support
    • Scripting in Java

Brainstorming topic 3: How do you choose in an emerging market?

During the two sessions, we generated more than 40 thoughts about how to choose an enterprise immersive platform in an emerging market. The items that got at least one vote from participants included (in order of number of votes, then alphabetically:

  • Cost
  • Demo the platform for your target users
  • Ease with which you can get people into and using the platform
  • Focus on concepts first, not technology
  • Choose open source
  • Community of IT experts
  • Reference customers
  • Size of vendor
  • Try as many of the products as you can in realistic situations
  • Business case
  • Capability maturity in relevant areas that integrate with the immersive platform
  • Customer service
  • Features
  • Hold off on investment until a stable, out-of-box solution is available
  • Look for vendor that has long history of offering collaboration apps
  • Match features with needs
  • Number of apps that are integrated with it
  • Out of box templates and processes
  • Use case and requirements
  • Vendor has security clearance experience

The outcome of these brainstorming sessions is just the tiniest tip of the iceberg. These lists may be helpful to the enterprise immersive platform vendors, as well as to Immersive Internet advocates and implementers trying to make a technology decision. The enterprise immersive platform decision-making process is a complex one that should always start with, “What are you trying to do?” At ThinkBalm, we are now in the planning stages of a comprehensive research study that will result in a guide to making the right technology decision. Stay tuned for more info!

ThinkBalm Data Garden public tour schedule for June

We are pleased to announce our public tour schedule for the next few weeks for the ThinkBalm Data Garden on ThinkBalm Island in the virtual world of Second Life. Think of this tour as a next-generation webinar where you’ll learn about our findings and analysis from the ThinkBalm Immersive Internet Business Value Study, Q2 2009, which was published on May 26, 2009. The core question we set out to answer in this research was, “What is the business value of using immersive technologies in the workplace?” We’ll take you on a tour through a memorable, interactive data visualization experience.

ThinkBalm Data Garden public tour schedule for June

All times listed below are Pacific Daylight Time (PDT), which is the same as Second Life time (SLT). Here is a link to the Time Zone Converter Web site, should you need it. Admission to the tour is first-come, first served so it’s a good idea to arrive a little early.

  • Wednesday, June 10th from 8:00-9:00AM PDT
  • Wednesday, June 17th from 8:00-9:00AM PDT
  • Wednesday, June 24th from 8:00-9:00AM PDT

Please join us!

ThinkBalm Data Garden tour for our friends in Asia-Pacific region

We are pleased to announce our public tour schedule for the next few weeks for the ThinkBalm Data Garden on ThinkBalm Island in the virtual world of Second Life. Think of this tour as a next-generation webinar where you’ll learn about our findings and analysis from the ThinkBalm Immersive Internet Business Value Study, Q2 2009, which was published on May 26, 2009. The core question we set out to answer in this research was, “What is the business value of using immersive technologies in the workplace?” We’ll take you on a tour through a memorable, interactive data visualization experience.

thinkbalm-data-garden-tour-6-8-09_005

ThinkBalm Data Garden public tour schedule for June

All times listed below are Pacific Daylight Time (PDT), which is the same as Second Life time (SLT). Here is a link to the Time Zone Converter Web site, should you need it. Admission to the tour is first-come, first served so it’s a good idea to arrive a little early.

  • Wednesday, June 10th from 8:00-9:00AM PDT (in the past)
  • Wednesday, June 17th from 8:00-9:00AM PDT (in the past)
  • Wednesday, June 24th from 8:00-9:00AM PDT (in the past)
  • Just added: Monday, June 29th from 6:00-7:00PM PDT — scheduled especially for our friends in the Asia-Pacific region of the world. Above is a link to the Time Zone Converter Web site.

Please join us!

The ThinkBalm Innovation Community is expanding to LinkedIn

Since its launch in August of 2008, the ThinkBalm Innovation Community has evolved into a mix between a social network, a collaborative laboratory, and a guild. The mission of this community, which currently has more than 280 members, is to propel work-related adoption of the Immersive Internet forward. With the ThinkBalm Innovation Community, ThinkBalm industry analysts Erica Driver and Sam Driver are fostering a productive, marketing-free zone where professionals can collaborate and communicate about the Immersive Internet, sharing experiences, collaborating on experiments, and identifying best practices that advance work-related adoption of immersive technologies.

Professional networking is a hugely important aspect of life in the community and lately we’ve fielded lots of requests to create a LinkedIn group for the community to make it easier for people to get and stay connected. The people have spoken, and a ThinkBalm Innovation Community LinkedIn group is now live. It is available from the groups search function at LinkedIn, and we’ll be sending out invitations to current ThinkBalm Innovation Community members. We encourage anyone with an interest in work-related use of immersive technology to request membership in the group.

Here are links to some ThinkBalm articles and reports that reflect ThinkBalm Innovation Community activity:

Join us for public tour of ThinkBalm Data Garden

We are pleased to announce a public tour of the ThinkBalm Data Garden on ThinkBalm Island in Second Life on Monday, June 8th from 11:00AM-noon EDT, which is 8:00-9:00AM PDT and Second Life time. Here is a link to the Time Zone Converter Web site, should you need it. Think of Monday’s tour as a next-generation webinar. Via an interactive data visualization experience, ThinkBalm analysts Erica Driver and Sam Driver will share with visitors the findings and analysis from the ThinkBalm Immersive Internet Business Value Study, Q2 2009, which we published on May 26, 2009. We think we’ll have room for about 20 guests, so please arrive early

thinkbalm-data-garden-tour-6-3-09_007

ThinkBalm Data Garden is live!

ThinkBalm has launched a new experiment on ThinkBalm Island in Second Life. The ThinkBalm Data Garden is a data visualization experience built around the ThinkBalm Immersive Internet Business Value Study, Q2 2009, which we published on May 26, 2009. The ThinkBalm Data Garden was designed as a proof of concept for the next-generation “webinar.” Creation of the data displays was a collaborative effort between the two of us and several members of the ThinkBalm Innovation Community, including Jeff Lowe and Jonas Karlsson. Please come visit!

thinkbalm-data-garden-tour-6-3-09_005

 

thinkbalm-data-garden-tour-6-4-09_001

ThinkBalm Innovation Community leaderboard is in 3D

One of the elements of the InnovationSpigit(tm) software that ThinkBalm uses to run the ThinkBalm Innovation Community is a leaderboard. The leaderboard displays the leading ideas, prediction markets, and community members (see Figure 1). Because the ThinkBalm Innovation Community is all about immersive environments, we recently hired OpenSim guru Chris Hart, CTO of ReactionGrid, to bring three of the most important elements of the leaderboard into 3D (see Figure 2). Our 3D leaderboard displays the top ranked ideas, the users with the highest reputation score, and the most popular posts. The leaderboard, which updates hourly, is on display on the ThinkBalm region on ReactionGrid. Come check it out!

leaderboard-on-the-web

 

elements-of-leaderboard-are-in-3d