Experientialization vs. Visualization in Immersive Development

July 12, 2009

I recently assisted ThinkBalm with their experiment in immersively displaying their recent business value of immersive technology study. They wanted a “tour” experience structure, requiring the displays to be “stations” along a path that participants traveled.  It was quite a challenge (and a ton of creative fun) developing stations that clearly, quickly, and interactively conveyed the core message of the result topic, while also attempting to maintain a thematic visual and conceptual strain throughout.  Here are a few thoughts & bits of learning from the experience:

Immersive displays require thinking experientially, not merely visually:

Quickly in the process of ideation and development I realized, this was not merely data visualization (as most people refer to this type of project).  The builds needed to be not only visual, but also possess dimensions of position, ordering, presence, interactivity, and consideration of self in relation to others (considerations not typical when developing webinars, visualization graphs, or powerpoint summaries of results).  True, participants would need to gather a large amount of the total message at a glance, so the visual was important.  But, more importantly, we had to explore & answer questions to address these additional immersive dimensions.  Questions such as:

  • From what position (Avatar & camera angle) would participants view the display?
  • Would different angles of view convey different meanings?
  • How many would be experiencing at a time?
  • How long do they need to remain to assimilate the message?
  • What would they converse about when cooperatively interacting with the display?
  • What do we want them to talk about?
  • How will what they experienced before impact how they interpret and experience what follows?

Early development sketch of the Barrier Gauntlet (ThinkBalm Data Garden display)

Know the core messages:

For every display, it is critical to identify the core message/primary take away.  For the Deploy-2-Save game, it was that businesses chose immersive tech over alternatives to reduce costs and increase engagement.  Every other creative decision/possibility was guided by this prime.  Ideas on shape, color, scale, position, transparency, rigidity, interactivity, automation, etc should be accepted or rejected based on whether it makes the core message easier or more difficult to understand.
TB Experience-Barrier Gauntlet 1

With text, less = more:

A picture is worth a 1000 words.  So avoid text when possible.  Use constructs that convey concepts, and then use them to replace text when appropriate.

Participants, not viewers:

An experience is worth a 1000 pictures.  So, in pulling reports, data, information, presentations into immersive environments, focus on what the participant will experience to insure the correct takeaway.  Also, remember to consider how that experience will be impacted/changed by collaborative participation.
Interactively display in ThinkBalm Data Gardens

Use textures to make colors accessible to colorblind:

I used a lot of color throughout to differentiate, communicate, and establish thematic throughlines.  During one of our first shakedown tours, one of the participants was red green colorblind, which dramatically impacted his experience. Sam (ThinkBalm) brilliantly applied a specific texture to each color of prim, allowing those participants with visual color disability to easily distinguish a “red” display element from a “green”.  It’s a great practice I will continue for all future builds.

If you would like to visit the experiment yourself, go visit the ThinkBalm Data Gardens in Second Life.  If you haven’t yet immersed yourself into Second Life and still want to see the results, watch the video tour.

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Designing in 2D for 3D Adoption

April 7, 2009

Sounds confusing and counter-intuitive, but sometimes designing virtual collaboration tools in 2D can lead more to 3D thinking & adoption.  Hear me out…

A few months back, I worked with multiple clients to run a brainstorming event within Second Life® using the Ideaographer mindmapping tool.  When we demoed it for them, they just didn’t “get it”.  They asked if we could flatten it so they could see it better.  They wanted something familiar, like a whiteboard they use in physical world sessions.

My lesson…never underestimate how overwhelming a virtual environment can be for a new user.  Sometimes having a bit of familiarity in the environment and the tools can breed comfort and ease acceptance.  These new users couldn’t effectively navigate the space, they couldn’t ALT+Click to control their point of views, and they were relatively unfamiliar with the client interface.  They lacked the skills necessary to benefit from the use of the 3D tool.

Please don’t misunderstand, I am not saying that to be new-user friendly, tools must always be 2D.  But for broader adoption and ease of acceptance among new users, I’ve found using a somewhat familiar 2D approach is effective.   (However, never allow your design to be limited by the 2D.  Always identify the core need and working outward from that, pushing the envelope of the expected and commonplace.)


3 Virtual Brainstorming Best Practices

March 1, 2009

I recently moderated a brainstorming session with two large clients in Second Life.  It seems like everytime I attend or conduct a virtual event, I always learn something new.  To share some lessons, here are 3 best practices to consider before conducting your next in-world brainstorming session:

1. Conduct A Participant Orientation

If you are planning a virtual event, particularly one involving high levels of interaction, you must insure all participants know the basics of the virtual environment.  By basics, I mean how to move their avatar, how to participate in open chat conversations, how to send a private IM, how to adjust their camera angle, and effective voice management techniques (like don’t leave your Talk button engaged & move your speakers away from your mic to reduce echoes).  Never underestimate the knowlege and skill needed by those new to virtual environments and the time it will take to convey it to them.  The most successful approach I’ve found is to have a separate participant orientation session, well before the day of the event, to insure all can successfully operate their virtual environment interface.

2. Rehearse, Rehearse, Rehearse

Broadway performances require numerous rehearsals to insure consistent, expected outcomes…same applies to virtual events.  Sure, this takes more time for the clients and all parties involved, but it is essential in clarifying expectations and identifying potential problems before they happen.  At minimum, you should walk through the entire agenda as if you were actually conducting the event.  Use the tools, display the information, and travel to the locations planned for the event…and look for potential problems so you can proactively address.

For example, we conducted 3 separate rehearsals for the recent client brainstorming event.  Since I was the moderator capturing and inputting discussion points into the BrainBoard while a facilitator guided the voice conversation, it was vital for us to coordinate effectively.  The facilitator had to know the capabilities/limitations of the virtual tools being used & how the information discussed would be displayed.  And I needed a clear sense of the agenda flow, what elements of the discussion were vital to display at what times, and when to engage certain features.  A rehearsal allowed us to fine-tune our approach to the event and even develop outlines used to pre-populate the boards.

3. Increase Engagement With Distributed Collaborative Input

Whenever possible, use tools and techniques that allow participant contribution and interactivity.  The death of many virtual meetings (and physical meetings for that matter) begin with a talking head presentation and a powerpoint show.  Sure, there may be small segments (like a quick Industry Overview) that a power point-like slide show would be appropriate, but keep those to a minimum!  For brainstorming, it’s all about the interaction.  Our clients chose for voice to be the nearly sole vehicle for discussion, and for a single moderator to input the discussion information into the BrainBoard.  While this allowed participants to focus solely on the voice discussion, I believe it limited their engagement in the discussion and thus resulted in less than optimal results.  True, they saw their ideas eventually appear on the board, but it was based on what I heard via their voice discussion and what I typed.  Allowing participants during brainstorming events to input their own ideas/suggestions, edit theirs/others, & rearrange/reorganize contributions helps to engage more of their senses, to utilize more of their reasoning centers, and to feel that their contribution is valid and appreciated.


Tools of the Trade: Google Apps as a Production Planner (part 1)

August 30, 2008

The Background

I produce a monthly satellite broadcast show for one of my clients focused on informing, developing, and motivating their statewide employees (see some production shots at my flickr site). The final showreel is assembled from segments and stand-up shoots developed by multiple producers. We end up interviewing roughly 10 different employees, highlighting multiple divisions & programs, and visiting roughly 6 different locations during the month’s production. Naturally, sharing information quickly, timely, and effectively is key to keeping everyone (Client, Production Crew, & myself) on schedule, on budget, and focused on producing a cohesive and high-quality end product.

The Story

My first step to improve coordination of the production for the client was to develop a Google Apps site. I learned a few tricks from my own personal projects on how to setup wikis, schedules, simple databases, and published documents using Google Apps, so I was eager to apply the knowledge.  We needed one central location to store and display all information relating to each month’s production. It also needed to be easily accessed and updated by all involved with the production. So, I began development.

I started by brainstorming a running list of features that I knew from experience the site could provide and that were relevant to the production needs.

  • Multiple Calendars with customized viewing and updating features
  • Centralized communications platform allowing message posts, comments, idea log, and concern record.
  • Online location for documents (Word, Excel, Powerpoint, PDF)
  • Ability to web publish and update simple spreadsheet databases

Of course, the site will not meet all needs and will never replace traditional communication tools, but it addresses some of the key challenges of coordination and rapid information sharing.

The Status

Thus far, I have deployed about 25% of the planned solution.  We are currently using a published spreadsheet to summarize each month’s production plan.  The client, producers, and crew can view the month’s plan from any browser.  Key production personnel can update the plan via a web form or a form embedded in an email.  The summary sheet automatically updates with the most current information.  This may not seem like much, but read below if you want to learn some of the challenges developing this deceptively simple spreadsheet solution.

Developing the Monthly Production Summary Sheet in Google Spreadsheets

Form used by clients to update production plan

Form used by clients to update production plan

In a nutshell, it was difficult.  I knew I wanted a summary sheet on the web that did not require my constant maintenance and updates.  I also wanted a solution that only a few key people could update, but viewable by many.  Here are some lessons I learned:

1.  Google spreadsheets allow only one form per file.

My initial plan was to use one file with sheets for each month and one master sheet showing a summary of the entire year.  Neat, clean, and simple.  Well…since only one form was allowed per file, the necessary update form would have been huge, thus I had to split it up.   Each month needed its own spreadsheet file saved in Google Docs.

2.  Google Forms are thus far not customizable

They are functional, but they do not look pretty, and currently you cannot customize the look or layout.

3.  Forms for updating and adding information to Google spreadsheets require their own sheet within the file.

Data inserted into sheets via a form require a horizontal orientation and are quite ugly.  I wanted my summary sheets in a more condensed readable format (vertically alligned).  So, I gave the form its own sheet.  When information is submitted via the form, it is added to the sheet in the lowest empty row.  The summary sheet displays only the most updated production information in the form sheet.

Production updates submitted via a forms into this sheet

Production updates submitted via a forms into this sheet

4.  The spreadsheet formula to display the last entry in a column should have been easier to develop (I blame both MS & Google)

So, in order for the Summary Sheet to display only the most recently updated information, I needed it to pull values from one row in the Form Sheet.  The cells in that one row needed to display only the most recently updated information in each column.  After a few hours of research & experimentation, here is the formula I developed:

=ARRAYFORMULA(OFFSET(A1,INT(MAX(NOT(ISBLANK(C3:C200))*(COLUMNS($B1:$IW1)*ROW(C3:C200)+COLUMN(C3:C200)))/COLUMNS($B1:$IW1))-1.0,MOD(MAX(NOT(ISBLANK(C3:C200))*(COLUMNS($B1:$IW1)*ROW(C3:C200)+COLUMN(C3:C200)))/COLUMNS($B1:$IW1),1.0)*COLUMNS($B1:$IW1)-1.0))

This formula is placed in each cell in the 2nd row of the Form Sheet (with some adjustments to each formula based on location).  It returns the last non-blank value in the column.

To Be Continued…

I will update you occasionally as I make more progress on this project.


Virtual Reconnaissance

February 10, 2008

It is my intention, in the coming months, to dive into as many different virtual worlds as possible. Thus far, I have a pretty good take on Second Life. I have recently dug into Dofus, Multiverse, and Active Worlds. Next on my list are Entropia, There, and somehow Forterra and Open Croquet. I’ve pondered getting into World of Warcraft, but I just can’t bring myself to commit to the subscription fee.
I really wish to answer the following:
Which will emerge as the leading business training platform?
What are their capabilities from a training and consulting perspective?
Which is the easiest and most cost-effective to enter?
Which captures my imagination and holds it the longest?

In a nutshell, what are my findings thus far?
Second Life:
+ The most potential, Very beautiful graphics throughout, Relatively good security and privacy features, Quick to pick up on the interface yet feature-detailed enough for the tech crowd, Good interaction and communication features, Strong micro communities throughout.
Depending on where you visit you can run into a lot of childish jerks, Oftentimes laggy (pieces of landscape, body parts, clothing, movement missing or slowed), Lack of “Quest” or “purpose” can cause frustration.

Dofus:
+ Silly clean RPG fun, Clever artwork, Mildy entertaining storyline.
This is pretty much a kids game, People in-world hardly ever communicate so no strong communities, Graphics are a bit lacking.

Active Worlds:
+ So far I have found none
– Orientation left me with no useful information, Communication better than Dofus but lacking in substance, Graphics much better visually than Dofus but far under those of 2L.