Immersive Virtual Worlds as Innovation Platforms

Can you improve the innovation process as well as reducing the cost of engaging with users, developing new ideas and prototyping and testing solutions by making use of virtual environments? Jeffrey Philips and Jena Ball point the way.

Innovation thrives when creative people meet, exchange ideas in a relatively safe environment and quickly prototype their ideas with little cost. Immersive experiences like gaming platforms or Second Life offer exceptionally valuable innovation platforms for addressing these requirements and more. We recently completed an innovation effort to consider the expectations and requirements of retail spaces in the near future, and we used Second Life as a platform to generate ideas, rapidly prototype new concepts and to conduct role-play to test the results.

You can access a longer account of this process here.

What is an “immersive” experience?

An immersive experience, for innovation purposes, is any interaction or platform that allows an individual or team to meet in a virtual space. The most typical immersive experiences are gaming platforms, where the user plays a well-defined role, or Second Life, where the user has an “avatar” that represents him in the virtual space. Second Life is a hosted environment where anyone can create a virtual landscape – which can be any setting required to stimulate or test innovations (e.g. retail spaces, restaurant spaces, cityscapes, rural landscapes, etc.) and interact in real time with other people who are represented as avatars.

The avatar is, in short, a virtual equivalent of a person in real life, generally represented as a person with many of the person’s physical attributes. It’s not just a photograph but a 3D presence that can move, dress, shop, buy or communicate on behalf of the person who creates and owns it.

Second Life allows individuals from anywhere, in any time zone, to hold a meeting in a virtual space that they’ve designed and built specifically for their needs. This means a distributed innovation team can hold regular meetings online, in interesting, challenging virtual spaces, unlimited by time, physical constraints or budgets. This can lead to more meetings, more engagement and broader, more creative thinking.

What can immersive experiences offer innovators?

There are several advantages to making 3D immersive technologies part of your innovation toolkit. We have recognized several distinct benefits from using these technologies:

A distributed innovation team can hold regular meetings online, in interesting, challenging virtual spaces, unlimited by time, physical constraints or budgets.

  • Lower costs
  • Increased creativity and playfulness
  • Increased collaborative interaction and integrative thinking
  • Increased depth and range of ideas
  • Simplified rapid prototyping and customer research

Admittedly, the perfect innovation meeting will happen face to face, in a very interesting, engaging physical space with excellent facilitation. Immersive experiences offer the next best thing – interesting, engaging spaces designed for innovation with few physical barriers. Further, the team can meet anytime it chooses to, with greater flexibility and less time and cost.

Are immersive experiences being used for innovation in the “real world”?

Once considered frivolous games, immersive experiences are increasingly becoming a vital portion of many innovative solutions. More than 600 well-known colleges and universities have a virtual campus on Second Life, including Harvard, Stanford, Case Western and the University of the Pacific.

Once considered frivolous games, immersive experiences are increasingly becoming a vital portion of many innovative solutions.

Businesses, too, use Second Life for practical purposes. Palomar Pomerado Health, a new hospital that opened in 2010, was designed in Second Life. The virtual design and prototyping environment allowed the designers, doctors and administrators an opportunity to “enter” and test the building before it was built. The US Army uses Second Life to help rehabilitate wounded veterans.

The authors recently used Second Life to design new retail space and gather ideas and feedback from client personnel and customers.

To accomplish this task we immersed the team – clients and consultants – in Second Life, building new retail establishments and interacting with those retail spaces using avatars. We believed that working as avatars in an infinitely malleable 3D environment would not only spark their creativity and encourage experimentation, but be quicker and more cost effective than trying to do the same work in a sterile conference room.

While there was some concern about the viability of this approach, the client agreed to the use of Second Life and our team trained the client personnel on Second Life and developed avatars for each client team member. Within 30 minutes of the introduction to Second Life, the client team members were moving their avatars, walking and talking in a virtual world. As we developed the retail spaces, their avatars moved through the spaces, recommending changes and generating ideas on the fly in a setting where rapid prototyping was exceptionally simple.

The ability to meet virtually, demonstrate ideas quickly and rapidly prototype new concepts meant we were able to design dramatically new retail space in far less time than usual, with far more input and with many more ideas tested.

Every individual, group and organization is informed by and functions based on the principles inherent in his, her or its unique story. The more innovators are aware of and can help participants identify, understand and feel empowered to modify and improve their stories, the more dynamic and effective innovation becomes. Using 3D narratives to take participants into their stories is an effective way to encourage self-reflection, stimulate discussion, and generate out-of-the box thinking.

Conclusion

What many corporate teams have shrugged off as gaming platforms have much to offer corporate innovation teams. When people are distributed and time is of the essence, a virtual meeting space that everyone can access without travel is essential. Further, if that space is designed for creativity and innovation, and supports rapid change and quick prototyping, then the space simply enhances good ideas. Further, in a virtual space where the team controls the rules, any good idea can be tested and the typical barriers don’t apply, which encourages creative thinking.

We believe these immersive experiences should be part of any corporate innovation platform, based both on our recent client experiences and the successful deployment by other corporate innovators.

More on the Second Life project

By Jeffrey Phillips and Jena Ball

About the authors:


Jeffrey PhillipsJeffrey Phillips is VP Marketing and a lead consultant for OVO Innovation. Jeffrey has led innovation projects for Fortune 5000 firms, academic institutions and not-for=profits based on OVO Innovation’s Innovate on Purpose™ methodology. The Innovate on Purpose methodology encourages organizations to consider innovation as a sustainable, repeatable business process, rather than a discrete project.

Jeffrey is the author of “Make Us More Innovative,” a book that encompasses much of the OVO Innovation methodology, and blogs about innovation at Innovate On Purpose. He is a sought after speaker and has presented to corporations, innovation oriented conferences, and at a number of universities. In 2010 he chaired the Innovate North Carolina conference and was a keynote speaker at Queen’s University, University of the Pacific, UNC and several other colleges and conferences. Jeffrey has an MBA from the University of Texas at Austin and an undergraduate degree in engineering from the University of Virginia.

Jena BallIn her “first” life Jena Ball is a writer, educator, and storyteller who has tackled everything from technical papers and textbooks to features for national publications and personal essays. Her love of stories, told both in words and images, drew her to Second Life where she has been exploring how narratives connect us all. Ball is the Co-founder with Marty Keltz (Emmy award winning producer and Co-founder and President of Scholastic Productions, Inc.) and Doug Thompson (CEO of Remedy Communications) of Startled Cat, Inc., a studio for immersive storytelling. The Cats use 3D virtual worlds and social media platforms to create Story Quests designed to engage, educate and empower participants. For more information about Startled Cat, visit: www.startledcat.com.

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