October 23, 2008

The ThinkBalm Innovation Community brainstorms in 3D!

Last Friday the ThinkBalm Innovation Community held its second community brainstorming session. The objective for these sessions: to collaboratively find solutions to problems associated with enterprise adoption of the Immersive Internet. The benefit: address challenges individuals are dealing with while gaining hands-on experience with a variety of immersive environments. One of the ThinkBalm Innovation Community members — Jeff Lowe, an Oklahoma-based consultant and project manager who writes the The Immersive Life blog — “founded” the original idea to hold this brainstorming series. Other community members hopped on board and self-formed an idea team to help evolve Jeff’s original idea. ThinkBalm’s intention is that ThinkBalm Innovation Community members who benefit from these sessions will take the practices they learn and experiences they have back to their own organizations.

For Brainstorming Session #2, eleven community members gathered in Second Life to discuss and propose solutions to a challenge one of the members submitted. The challenge can be summed up as: “What does a ‘believer’ need to do to convince colleagues that the Immersive Internet has business value? What can we do to get through the resistance / dismissiveness some people have to it?” Participants were all affiliated with different organizations. Most had never met each other before this session.

We began the session by introducing ourselves and familiarizing ourselves with a 3D brainstorming tool Jeff Lowe built and an interactive polling tool he provided for our use. We moved through the discussion, communicating with each other via a mix of voice and text chat and adding nodes to a 3D mind map (see Figure 1). As we talked, text chats and entries people were making into the mind mapping tool scrolled by on our screens. By the end of the hour the 3D mind map had about 3 dozen nodes bearing names like “orientation experience,” “games = not work” and “risky training scenarios,” some of which included additional notes.


We’ve learned a few lessons along the way

  • IT security concerns are preventing people from gaining valuable experience. Due to IT security restrictions, not everyone can access Second Life (or other immersive environments – sometimes even Web-based ones, if even a small Java download is required) while they’re at work. No matter which immersive environment the ThinkBalm Innovation Community has used for our meetings, there is always someone who can’t participate for this reason. And sometimes even when people can access the immersive environment, they can’t use voice over IP because IT has shut it down. We can always resort to the telephone but this means participants can no longer see who is speaking during the meeting — a benefit of integrated VoIP. And we can always resort to text chat, but this can negatively impact the quantity and quality of communication.
  • People without voice communications are at a disadvantage in in-world meetings. While we use voice over IP (e.g., Skype, Second Life, or Microsoft Office Live Meeting 2007) for most of our in-world meetings, we sometimes run into a problem where some participants can’t fully participate because they don’t have microphones, don’t know how to configure their system for VoIP, use Macs (which Microsoft Office Live Meeting 2007 doesn’t support for voice), or have IT organizations that have locked down the use of VoIP. These participants are relegated to the virtual worlds equivalent of the remote meeting attendee who dials in via phone and is represented by the gray box on the meeting room table. They can be forgotten by the meeting participants who are together in a room together (in the physical world) or who have access to VoIP (in the virtual world).
  • You think multitasking is bad now . . . It is common for information workers to be talking on the phone at the same time they are taking notes, viewing presentation materials, checking email, or IMing. Our experience during this brainstorming session is that while an immersive environment increases engagement many times over compared to a traditional teleconference or Web conference, the multi-tasking can also be more intense. Participants were listening to the conversation and participating via voice or text chat, navigating their avatars around the room, typing into the chat field to interact with the brainstorming tool, zooming their camera in and out to see the nodes on the mind map more easily, and occasionally viewing a poster containing instructions. This is bound to be easier for people who have played multiplayer video games; but for those who haven’t it can be a real challenge.
  • A big question: how to preserve the artifacts of collaboration. Our plan was that after the meeting we would click on each node in the mind map to expand the notes associated with it, and manually create from this a Microsoft Word outline of the meeting for each participant to have. Not a straightforward task. We also took snapshots during the session (see these pictures on Flickr) and one participant made a short movie. Jeff Lowe also created a “read-only” version of the completed mind map for all participants to take away with them. All this is a lot more complicated than simply distributing a Word doc upon conclusion of a traditional meeting. But it was a lot easier to collaborative create our 3D mind map than it would have been to try to have 11 people contribute to the same Word document in real time.
  • It’s a big challenge when avatars don’t share peoples’ real names. For this brainstorming session we used Second Life. Second Life residents (with rare exception) do not have the option of having their real names appear over their avatars’ heads. This causes huge problems in the business context when people aren’t familiar with each others’ avatars and avatar names — and can even be an issue when some participants are familiar with each other. Part of the Second Life culture is that people refer to each other in voice and text conversations by their avatar names, which can cause a sort of “split personality” problem in business meetings. In this brainstorming session, the eleven participants had to try to remember not only the real names of the other people in the meeting, but which avatar name matches which person’s name. This distraction detracted significantly from the meeting experience compared to meetings we’ve held in OpenSim, for example, where avatars can share the user’s real name.
  • Being able to visualize the conversation helped guide the conversation. At least some of the participants frequently referenced the 3D construct to quickly see which topics were trending and getting the most attention and which were needing more focus and then contributed accordingly.  Most of the time, the construct lagged the voice conversation, but there were times that the contributions to the construct led and redirected the voice conversation.
  • 3D brainstorming is a worthwhile way for busy people to spend an hour. At the end of the session we did a quick poll asking for feedback on the session, using the interactive polling tool (see Figure 2). We asked participants to click on the red square to indicate their feedback was “excellent,” the green square for “pretty good,” yellow for “needs tweaking,” and blue for “poor.” As you can see by the red and green columns standing next to the polling machine, all participants felt their hour was well-spent. Here we were, a collection of unaffiliated people with a common interest in progressing enterprise adoption of the Immersive Internet forward. Using an immersive environment and experimental 3D brainstorming tool, real work got done. We generated lots of good ideas that each of us can use in our own work. (For one participant’s experience see this blog article by Richard Hackathorn, Brainstorming virtually.)

Erica Driver

Erica Driver was a co-founder and principal at ThinkBalm. She is a leading industry analyst and consultant with 15 years of experience in the software industry. 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. Prior to her tenure at Forrester, she was a Director at Giga Information Group (now part of Forrester) and an analyst at Hurwitz & Associates. She began her career in IT as a system administrator and Lotus Notes developer. Erica is a graduate of Harvard University.