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The ThinkBalm Innovation Community has launched!

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

The Big Idea (XXL)

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

How The ThinkBalm Innovation Community Works

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

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

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


A realism model for Immersive Internet apps: Part I

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

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

Two axes of Immersive Internet realism: visual and data

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lessons learned: how to get started

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

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

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

Heavy equipment manufacturer explores Immersive Internet for product prototyping

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Know when to fold ’em

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


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

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

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

MMORPG guild leaders: Gurus in the midst

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

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

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

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

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

A realism model for Immersive Internet apps: Part II

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

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


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


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

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