Applications and Tools, Business in Virtual Worlds, Collaboration, Second Life

ThinkBalm, the Immersive Internet and Collaborative Culture

Co-creation: From Prims to Ideas

A while back I was invited to something called the “ThinkBalm Innovation Community” and I suppose it was the word innovation: I’ll even open spam if it uses the word, and if I ever get an e-mail from some Nigerian with $5 billion in a bank somewhere who needs my INNOVATIVE help in getting that money out, I’d probably respond.

Turns out that ThinkBalm wasn’t spam, of course, but a community of like-minded individuals with a passion for the immersive Web, a bank full of ideas, and the moxy to actually make stuff happen.

Erica Driver is the driving force behind ThinkBalm (in all deference to her husband Sam, but Erica seems like the more ‘public facing’ of the two). My first exposure to Erica was at the Virtual Worlds Conference in LA where she interviewed someone from IBM – I can’t even remember who, really, it was Erica that impressed me, although I DO remember that he showed a Lotus Sametime/IBM integration thing which was pretty cool. Erica struck me as passionate, intelligent, and perhaps a wee bit consultant-y but hey, we need consultants, they’re good when you need someone to, um, consult.

Which is what ThinkBalm is about. Not the consultant-y part but the passionate intelligent part, because it has created a community of champions and advocates, helps facilitate the sharing of ideas, and as a result allows everyone to participate in an ecosystem of value-generation.

ThinkBalm’s Tools for Collaboration

One of the most impressive things about Erica’s work is the incorporation of virtual world best practices as part of the process for generating ideas. Their Flickr set of a recent brainstorming session gives an idea of how they use these tools:

ThinkBalm also uses an exceptional innovation engine called Spigit to manage community discussions, allow users to vote on ideas, and to form little teams to kick-start projects and ideas. ThinkBalm itself does an exceptional job poking and prodding but rarely “intrudes” on the flow of ideas, for which they should be commended – it allows a true sense of ownership in the community.

They’ve held role-playing sessions in-world (“convince your boss to invest in virtual worlds”, or “give a newbie a tour”) and have just generally been proving that virtual worlds can provide a rich tool kit of new approaches to idea generation and collaboration.

Mapping the Future
We’ve been playing with our own tools for collaboration. Turns out Jeff Lowe had built a similar application to help facilitate ThinkBalm sessions so we’ve started to bring the work together. (I should qualify here and say that the tool that Jeff had developed has a richer feature set than what we were doing!) But what I wanted to share wasn’t “look at what we did” but rather the experience of using it.

The 3D mind mapping tool is a way to facilitate in-world brainstorming, allowing participants to add nodes, much like you might do on a white board.

It’s a simple enough thing – although the math that goes into making sure the nodes don’t crash into each other is beyond me.

But here’s the thing: it’s one thing to see photos of these things, and one thing to read about them, and it’s another to experience them.

I’ve found the process of mind mapping in 3-dimensions, for example, to be intriguing in how powerful it is. The addition of a Flickr stream of images, for example, gives you a riffing off point for new ideas. But somehow it’s the sense of presence, the dimensionality of everything, that makes mind mapping in this way somehow RICHER than what you’d get in a board room with a white board (or maybe I’m just so jaded about white boards and meeting rooms, I’m not sure).

Images from a Flickr stream add an idea-generating resource

The challenge is, how do you explain this? And what metrics do you attach to it? These aren’t just BETTER ways to generate ideas, they’re also different, and, I think, they lead to a shift in thinking that will have profound implications for enterprise.

Increased Engagement
“One of the values of each of these technologies,” said Driver to the Boston Globe , “is that it offers an increased level of engagement.”

According to the Remote Viewer, though, Erica Driver is not alone. The construction of Library Park in Allston, Massachusetts was aided by a virtual site, Hub2, that allowed ordinary citizens – and not just planners and engineers – input into the project through workshopping.

“In the workshops, someone might say, ‘I’d like to see a fountain there,’ ” said Eric Gordon, Hub2’s codirector and an assistant professor in new media at Emerson, “and we could place one right there, in real time.”

The article also cites the recent grant given by the US federal government to the University of Florida to create a Second Life simulator to train diplomats and military envoys. The school already used Second Life to create a virtual Chinese city to prepare government workers for their work in China.

But the Globe is quick to point out that educators are more willing to pick up on virtual world advantages as they have more patience and trial-and-error time to deal with the glitches of a new technology.

“It’s the clash of work and the video games concept. A lot of these worlds are cartoony,” Driver said. “Business leaders often say, ‘This is not a work tool; get it out of here.”

In the more immediate future, companies will be able to save money on conferencing costs by holding them virtually, eliminating many of the periphery costs – hosting fees, plane tickets, etc. – associated with group events. But down the road, as instant messaging bridges the gap by working in virutal and real worlds, and as open source virtual 3D platforms become more available, business and IT departments will more willingly enter the new world of 3D environments.

In my own experience, and perhaps those of the ThinkBalm community, this isn’t just the addition of an application, this is the adoption of new mind sets. And if you’ve ever rezzed a prim you know what I mean – and if you’ve ever rezzed a prim WITH someone, and built your house with your partner, say, then you’ll REALLY know what I mean.


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