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.
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.
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 thinkbalm.com for information on becoming a member or for Idea Hunt pricing information.
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:
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:
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.
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).
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:
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:
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!
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).
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:
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 3DVIA.com 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:
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!)
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:
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!
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:
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:
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:
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.