Brainstorming Immersively: Of Streams, Position, & Coordination

August 30, 2009

Friday was the 8th installment of the ThinkBalm Innovation Community‘s Brainstorming series.  I’ve consistently found ThinkBalm immersive events incredibly beneficial, particularly in refining my understanding of enterprise use of immersive technologies.  This one was no exception.

It was a focused, vigorous 1 hour discussion lead by Erica Driver & Sam Driver (ThinkBalm) on the topic of “How to write an immersive technology business case.”  We used my newly released BrainBoard version 1 as our primary collaboration orchestrator.  At the close of the session, Erica gathered evaluation feedback from the participants by using the Attitudometer.

Brainstorming Area

Here are some observations & thoughts from my experience:

I saw some fascinating non-verbal problem solving and coordination

Erica & Sam structured the discussion agenda with 3 points.  Thus, contributions appearing on the board were placed under one of the 3 points.  The initial setup was to use the 4 quadrants on the main board to sort the user generated notes for each of the 3 points.  Any miscellaneous notes would be sorted into the 4th quad.  The supplemental board was placed on the side just in case we needed more room.  Well, we needed it.  Due to the sheer number of user notes, we quickly moved the 3rd and miscellaneous points to the supplemental board, leaving the main board for the 1st & 2nd point notes.  I bold & italics “WE” for emphasis…All this was conducted without verbal coordination.  It happened organically (or digitally, I guess).  Several individuals visually observed the need for more room, and coordinated a solution using visual observation and interaction.  And all this without breaking the momentum of the ongoing discussion.

Simultaneous voice & text = better discussion communication

My computer was not playing nice that day, thus I could hear participant voices, but no one could hear mine (a fact that my wife humorously pointed out might have been a good thing).

However, the curse was actually a blessing.  I was reminded yet again that although voice is a powerful & flexible communication tool, it is inferior to text for synchronous multi-person contributions.  I found myself following the stream of voice discussion, while simultaneously contributing relevant thoughts & ideas into notes on the BrainBoard.  I could see several others doing the same thing, their thoughts popping into existence onto the board.  This visual/textual discussion stream at times tracked the vocal, qualitatively and quantitatively expanding & enhancing it.  At other times, it branched away from the vocal, following the rabbit-like course of thought in a separate exploration of the core discussion topic.

This approach to brainstorming allows multiple contribution roles

Brainstorming Main BoardI also found the way in which I contributed to the discussion changed over the course of the hour.  It seemed that in the first half, I followed the voice discussion rather closely, contributing many textual notes to the board without too much concern for their position on the board (or position relative to other notes).  My role seemed to be primarily to add thought.  As we moved into the 2nd half, I found myself spending more time reviewing & sorting the notes.  I started grouping similar notes together, looking for patterns that would inform the ongoing discussion.  The act of positionally sorting the notes during the discussion seemed to help me connect the concepts together into a working, developing understanding of the overall context.

I would be fascinated to learn what impact the repositioning/sorting of the notes had on other participants’ understanding of and contributions to the discussion.

Immersive/virtual environments enable positional relevance in discussions

Utilizing voice and text simultaneously enabled multiple discussion streams to which participants could contribute.  Having these streams in an immersive environment, where the participant contributions exist disparately and spacially as notes on the BrainBoard, allowed for their position to become relevant.  For example, you contribute a thought in a note.  You move that note to a position on the board.  As more contributions are added, someone moves your thought next to another thought.  Seeing the two thoughts placed closely together causes an insight in yet another person, who notes their contribution on the board.

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.

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.


Immersive Brainstorming: The Tool We Need

September 29, 2008

Friday afternoon I helped conduct the first in a series of brainstorming events organized by members of the ThinkBalm Innovation Community. Our goal with the events is both to develop and refine a best-practices approach to conducting brainstorming within virtual environments and to provide opportunity to experience the collaborative brainstorming capabilities of various immersive platforms (such as Second Life, Open Sim, and 3DXplorer to name a few).  I’ve also been developing a simple brainstorming note-taking tool for use in Second Life.  So, the process of brainstorming has been on my mind lately.

The Challenges of Brainstorming

These common challenges face any group, whether they meet physically or virtually, that seeks to produce ideas on a specific topic in a short period of time (aka brainstorming):

Effectively Communicating Concepts: Voice is arguably the most flexible and familiar tool. However, it is easy to misrepresent or misinterpret, especially if you do not have visual nonverbal cues to support (like physical posture, hand gestures, facial expressions). And even when you do have those cues, they sometimes can be misinterpreted, skewing the meaning of your contribution. Using visual elements can play a large role in helping to convey complex concepts (a series of photos, a flowchart, even a sketch on a whiteboard or napkin).

Time Limitations: There never seems to be enough time to thoroughly explore a challenge or problem, yet we are often expected in short brainstorming sessions to “step out of the box” and generate truly innovative game-changing ideas. Time is the most precious commodity to often overworked staff, so making the most of the scheduled time is of extreme importance.  A major limitation with voice is that it is asynchronous. It does not allowing for multiple simultaneous contributions.

Getting and Staying Focused on the Core Topic: Having too broad of a topic to focus upon inhibits the discussion from the beginning, since no one knows where to begin. It also rarely leads to significant ideas since the discussion is so broad and variable. On the flip side, having too narrow of a topic restricts participants creativity.  Although, chasing those rabbits down paths that seem to lead nowhere can often lead to some of the most creative and innovative ideas.

Recording the Exchanges: It’s always tough to capture the ideas and rationale in discussions for practical future use. Audio recordings and transcripts of sessions are one way, but who has the time to dig back into these?  Human notetakers are extremely useful, however must interpret and synthesize much of what is expressed.  It often falls on them to bring order and structure to the chaos of the discussion.  But if they misunderstand some key element or concept, much is lost in the translation.

Establishing and Maintaining a Safe Environment: Stepping out and expressing that bizarre idea takes courage.  You have to trust that the other participants will accept the contribution and not think you mad.  Having a safe environment should not be underestimated.  One strongly critical comment could shut down participants and inhibit truly creative expression.  But establishing trust, particularly among strangers and in short periods, is a difficult challenge.

The Ideal Virtual Brainstorming Tool

So, any tool built to facilitate brainstorming in a virtual environment must somehow address these basic challenges.  Here are my thoughts on the key elements needed in an immersive brainstorming tool:

Must be Quick: During a vigorous discussion, ideas come fast.  The tool must respond quickly to user input, or it becomes a roadblock to the rapid ideation process.

Allows for Synchronicity: Voice is useful, but an attention hog.  The tool must allow multiple users to both input as well as review ideas and thoughts synchronously.

Easy to Use: If you barely have the time to conduct the brainstorming meeting, then you certainly don’t have the time to spend on training people how to use yet another tool.  It must be intuitive to operate, especially for those new to virtual worlds.

Exportable Results: Sometimes it may not be possible to return to the virtual environment to review the results.  The compiled results must be easily brought into the physical world for use.  This may mean exporting via text, image, 3D construct, or some other method.

Add Unique Value: If it can be easily replicated in the physical world, then why bother with an immersive solution?  The tool must provide unique value that is difficult or impossible in the physical realm.  Perhaps that is providing a unique construct where differing perspectives reveal different meanings, or a “place” for distributed participants to meet to deposit and review contributions.

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.”