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.


Mind Mapping during Virtual Brainstorms

November 9, 2008

The ThinkBalm Innovation Community is doing incredible work advancing the use of the immersive internet.  As a member, I’ve thus far participated in three sessions of the virtual brainstorming series.  We utilize a 3D mindmapping tool I developed, a 3D instant polling tool, voice & text chat during the events.  After the last event, I successfully exported the 3D map of our discussion into a text outline and imported that outline into a MindMeister map…here’s the result.

how_can_i_get_newbie_professionals_started_with_second_life_1


Managing a Large Virtual Event

August 17, 2008

Recently, I assisted some of my Second Life contacts in preparing and running PeaceFest 08, their multi-location fundraising event.  Along with developing a LSL script for distributing the event schedule and calendar, I helped greet people and manage security at the main event sim location.  The following are suggestions (based on my observations of what worked and what needed improvement) for anyone planning a multi-location event in Second Life (focused on text chat only without voice).

1.  Security

Griefer attacks will happen at any well-publicized event.  You must have a plan to deal with this eventuality.

  • Prepare your frontline staff to identify possible griefers.  Be sure they know who to IM if they spot something suspicious.
  • Have adequate staff with the power to ban people from land ready to respond to frontline staff requests.
  • Lurkers, or avatars dancing or standing underwater or at corners of the sim could be griefers in waiting.  Ask if they need help.  If they don’t respond, warn them.  If they remain unresponsive, boot them from the sim for safety.
  • Watch out for the imposter leaches too, especially if you are collecting money.  While welcoming guests, someone arrived with a sign above them announcing, “give $1 here”.  Since our event had donation stations located around the area, they were obviously attempting to skim donations from the event.  After requesting them to leave (with no response) we eventually booted them.

2.  The Schedule

The schedule of events must be easily found, distributed, understood, and updated.

  • Make the schedule easily accessible.  All too often, event planners think in real life terms that limit distribution possibilities.  Put the schedule in a publicly accessible Google Calendar.  Staff can chat the calendar link to guests, which then need only click to access the schedule.  You can also script objects to chat the schedule link automatically, leaving the human staff to be more personable in their interactions with attendees.
  • I also scripted a simple calendar sign so that people could touch and receive the event main location and the link to the google calendar.  This automated approach helps for remote locations without welcome staff and to augment efforts of human staff.
  • Be sure to clearly communicate what timezone is used.  Since it is an online event, you will probably have worldwide visitors.  Either provide functionality in your schedule to display times from the viewer’s timezone, or stick with the SL time (PST).
  • The staff also placed their schedule on a notecard.  I noticed each time there was a change, the staff had to not only IM the new version to all the greeters, but also put the correct version in the automated schedule distributors.  It caused a bit of confusion and a lot of needless work.  Just like printed schedules for real life events, notecards are tough to update when changes happen.  Thus, they are probably not the most effective schedule vehicle.

3.  Getting the Masses to the Places

People need to know how to get to the event locations, and navigating in Second Life is often difficult, especially to those just beginning.

  • Establish SLURLS for the main locations in each sim you use.  Station human staff at those locations to greet and answer questions.  You can publish the SLURLS on the web (maybe in a Google Doc, Event website, or event blog) and list them in a notecard inworld.  Staff can chat the SLURLS to give guests instant clickable access (teleport) to the location.  The easier it is for the guest to get to where they need to go, the better.
  • Be sure to make it flexible enough so that when (not if) the location changes for an event, you can easily update everyone simply by updating one calendar, not multiple ones.
  • At the event, use signs judiciously.  Don’t overcrowd the area.  Arrowed signs work well, as do glowing or particle-emitting signs.

4.  Frontline Staff

Frontline staff are the face of an event.  They need to know the schedule, where things are, when they happen, and how to quickly explain this to multiple guests simultaneously.

  • Have frontline workers pull-up each visitor’s profile when they arrive.  Check for unusual names with numbers such as “sean874902 Hax” and for birthdates within a few days.  These may be disposable alt accounts that griefers will use for an attack.  Having a recent birthdate indicates this avatar was recently created.  IM the avatar and ask if they need any help, since you notice they are new (nice gesture if they are innocent, acknowledgement that you are watching if they have nefarious intent).
  • Equip your frontline staff with basic chat scripts for the anticipated repeatable statements, such as, “Welcome to PeaceFest 08,” and, “You can find the schedule at the following link:  http://tinyURL.com/PeaceFest08”.  This frees up time to be more interactive and personable.  Workers can copy and paste into chat to save time.  I used these today and trust me, with 20+ IM conversations occuring at the same time with guests, they were a lifesaver.  You could even use scripted greeter programs for this augmented by humans, but it does lose the personal touch.
  • Even if they are volunteers, take the time to do some basic training/orientation with the greeters.  It should at least cover all the numbered items in this post.

5.  Staff Coordination

Staff must have multiple back channels for effective communication to all levels of Staff.

  • Create a group for the Welcomers, Security Crew, and whatever other logical groups your events require.  Use the group chat to keep everyone within that group up-to-date on changes, problems, and status.  We utilized this to great effect to insure we balanced the appropriate number of greeters at each location, instantly moving staff to where the crowds needed them the most.
  • You can use Skype or in-world voice direct call when typing is just way too slow.

MetaHappenings: PeaceFest 08

August 10, 2008


Date: Friday, August 15th – Sunday, August 17th
Time: 10am-Midnight (CST)
Location: At over 30 different sims within Second Life

What: “A global, interfaith, cross-cultural effort to create lasting peace through mobilizing support for and learning with real-life peace organizations. All proceeds from PeaceFest ‘08 will go to benefit Amnesty International, UNICEF, World Conference of Religions for Peace, Uthango Social Investments, and Kids for Peace.

This event represents a true cross-over from real-life to Second Life and back again as we bring real-life speakers in-world to discuss peace-related initiatives in our global open and free SL forum. Musicians and speakers will be streamed into SL while panel discussions and performances are streamed back out.”

Personal Notes: I’ll be working at a few of the Saturday events. If you have a Second Life account, log-in and stop by. I believe this SLURL will get you there.


MetaHappenings: Diplomacy, Business, and Islam in Virtual Worlds

July 20, 2008

Date: Monday, July 21, 2008
Time: Noon SLT, 2pm CST
Location: Within Second Life (SLURL)

Metanomics is a speaker series sponsored by Cornell University and conducted within Second Life. Monday’s event, featuring Rita J. King and Joshua S. Fouts of Dancing Ink Productions, addresses, “the roles virtual worlds can play in globl diplomacy and business.”