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Interview with Ian Hughes on Virtual Environments and Gaming for Product Development

Virtual environments can be a rich form of communication usable to develop products in situations where people cannot easily get together physically. They can meet virtually to brainstorm, share and discuss ideas, or collaborate on a virtual version of a product. Such environments can also add a new dimension to customer interaction, to increase the understanding of customer needs as part of a lean startup initiative. Games can be used to simulate situations, as an enhancement for learning and teaching complex problems.

Ian Hughes, who calls himself “Epredator”, talked about mixing the physical world and the virtual world at the GOTO Amsterdam 2013 conference. He showed how games are helping us to learn new skills and enhance the ones we already have, and how virtual technology enhances the way people communicate and collaborate. “Blended reality is really a mix of technologies, physical and emotional experiences” said Ian.

InfoQ did an interview with Ian about what is happening with virtual environments and gaming, and how you can use them in product development.

InfoQ: Thanks Ian for doing this interview. Can you tell us what virtual environments are?

Ian: Virtual environments or metaverses that I talk about are shared multi user online spatial environments. Metaverse was a word coined by Neal Stephenson in his book Snowcrash. Users log on to a system and are presented with a view of a world, generally they are represented in that world by an avatar that they can move around in the 3d space interacting with other people and objects in that space. It is the same sort of technology and concept that is used in online games. There are more analogous to the physical world. If you are present somewhere in an office, in a park, you can be seen and heard. Where you are makes a different to you and those around you. That does not mean they have to stick with real world analogies but it is the easiest one to start off with.

InfoQ: You talked about mixing the physical world and the virtual world. That can initially be confusing to people. Are there ways to learn how to mix them, and use them in your daily work?

Ian: Virtual worlds are not a stand alone part to the puzzle. They are often considered in that way, as an application you head off to separate from anything else.  If we want people to be able to communicate with one another in a better way that we currently do, we have a huge number of ways of interacting, of data being collected (they are the emerging interfaces and social media etc). 

All those different forms of expression, of logging and presence online and in the physical world can be represented and shared and explored in virtual environments, as they can take those as inputs and immerse people in ideas and concepts. Likewise we can augment the physical world with that same virtual expression of the data; the most extreme of those is making the digital physical again with 3d printing, which puts new physical objects in the world. Those in turn form part of the loop that feeds into the digital expression again. I use an idea of playing a game of Harry Potter online with some people, winning a new magic wand, getting that printed out as a real game reward that I then use in the next game which may well alter the way I play as it is captured back into a digital environment. 

Another form is inspired by a pub in Dublin. It has a virtual replica that people attend in Second Life. It was a bit of an activist’s hub a few years back. I got to visit the real (physical) one with all the people I had met virtually over the years. There was a band playing Irish folk music. That music was also being streamed into the virtual version of the pub. Now the future bit.... What if I wanted to join in playing a penny whistle, but I did not have one with me. I could enter the virtual pub, talk to some people and maybe buy a virtual version of a penny whistle, print that out in the pub on a 3d printer. Play it with the live band, but the playing is streamed back into the virtual pub too. 

This is not such a far fetched nor impossible case, but I use it as it shows a path and a loop of real and virtual, in an entertainment context.

InfoQ: Very interesting how virtual and real words can be mixed in entertainment. But what about product development, can you also use virtual techniques for that?

Ian: Yes, you can, in a business context, this pattern (with or without the 3d printer) still applies. If you are trying to understand a physical product, working on a virtual version of it with the designers who may be the other side of the world, immersed in the product where scale and laws of physics and time can be altered to explore possibilities, your understanding is going to be greater than a quick phone call or looking at blueprints or brochures. 

It does not work with all products or all ideas but mixing visual and audio in simulated environments with people interacting (with or without avatars) fits more with the human brain.

InfoQ: For which kinds of products would virtual techniques be suitable? What about products where the functionality is largely implemented in software, would the use of virtual techniques give advantages, for instance when comparing them with agile sprints and frequent sprint reviews?

Ian: It is not just the type of product but the type and distribution of a team. Anything that people are working on where they are not able to easily get together and talk through ideas has the potential to be represented in a more memorable and interesting way, that can be experienced and shared. Software and function is often represented in architecture diagrams and various types of diagram notation. There is no reason that these elements cannot be explored and shared amongst a team in a more beneficial way. That does not mean everything has to be in a virtual world but a live shared experience whilst communicating is much quicker than sending powerpoint or documents around.

When representing code and function it is possible to use space, visual and audio labels to understand the structure. The recent virtual hospital that I worked on had a distributed data model. As I built the code it was held in visual objects, their relative position, size and shape gave an indication of where function was, how the project was progressing. It let me bring the customer into a virtual environment to show the function layout visually and to be able to talk about various interaction points and processing blocks without having to drag them into the code.

So anything with layers of abstraction, that a varied and distributed team has to understand can be explored and shared in some sort of virtual environment.

InfoQ: You also talked about how some organization use games and game technology for their employees to learn new things?

Ian: We have all put our lives in the hands of people who have played on a game. Flight simulators are used to train all pilots, that is the only way they can put pilots in situations like loosing an engine or adverse weather without real physical risk. A flight simulator is a virtual world, with lots of physical feedback and a very complex controller. It also has the concept of someone outside the simulation controlling it to throw in those emergency situations. 

Imperial College London has a very extensive research group called Medical Media and Design Laboratory, who is looking into ways virtual environment and forms of practice can be applied. These have been things relating to virtual patients and training scenarios with treatment to disaster simulation to learn and rehearse procedures cross many disciplines. The tools used are not a replacement but an enhancement for learning and teaching.

They do not always have to be multi user environments. E.g. many people will look at Google street view of a place they are visiting to get a sense of where a hotel or venue is. It gives a greater sense of familiarity on arrival as you have already traversed the streets.

InfoQ: Can you give some examples of enterprises that are using virtual environments?

Ian: Company use of virtual worlds or different technologies for people took a bit of hit. Between 2006-2009 there were a lot of experiments. Not least within my former company IBM. Many companies are not publicizing what they are doing, in part because some of it is business as usual. It is not where is should be, but these things take time. One of the major companies using virtual environments is BP under the guidance of Joe Little part of BP's CTO office. 

The US Military have a large virtual training program to look at many of the different aspects and cost reductions in the approach. These range from the more obvious on the ground tactical training environments to ones that are designed to aid in post traumatic stress disorder treatments.

There is a problem with virtual environments and game tech that make people scared to try for fear of ridicule. That is what will hold some companies back, just as not using the internet, or embracing social media will in the long run.

InfoQ: What can be the business value of virtual environments for enterprises?

Ian:  Just on productivity and cost I published this little fact described below a few years ago as part of my corporate role

I like to ask people if they like telephone conferences, or if they find the first 5 minutes is a waste of time as people dial in, lots of beeps, not able to converse, or worse go off and do something else and miss the start. It is unproductive time and frustrating for people. The technology is regarded as the way to do things.

I calculated at the time the company had 330,000 employees, each doing 3 telecons a week and losing 5 minutes of dead time at the start of each call so 15 minutes per person per week. 

330,000 x 15 minutes = 4950000 which is 9.4 years a week wasted listening to telecons starting to beep in.

Now in virtual worlds people can see who is arriving, they tend to gather and chat pre and post meeting. That time is when a lot happens, as in a physical meeting. You can go off into a corner and have a private word just before the meeting starts while still seeing when everyone is assembled. It works, its cheap and it save 9.4 years a week of frustration and dead time in a large company? That is just meetings.

The trouble is that such a start is just too much for many people. They will cite the difficulty in learning to use a virtual world. In reality though it is 15 minutes of getting used to some keys, rather like the same objections people had to windows from green screens and mice or touch pads from just typing.

InfoQ: Go you have examples of virtual technology or games combined with lean startup, to lean about customer needs and drive innovation in product development?

Ian: Any process and loop that requires people to understand and communicate has the chance to use new ways to communicate and share. Virtual worlds do have a function in their own right, but they are also just a communication channel, a very rich one. Build, Measure and Learn all have facets where people need to be able to communicate with one another. However you also have the chance to build virtually, build a product or process as part of a virtual environment and then invite people over as part of the measuring process.

There are virtual environments that themselves were created under a lean process. It fits very well as many of the environments are ever changing ones. IMVU is known as a lean startup and Eric Ries has used them often as a case study.

InfoQ: You showed several form of augmentation Which are they, and how can they be used?

Ian: In the presentation I showed some of the commercial products that mix physical and digital. The concept that a physical configuration of components can alter what happens in a virtual environment. Examples such as Skylanders or Lego George cross these boundaries without people really realizing. Skylanders allows character selection by placing the physical character on a device which selects it in game. However the physical figure is also a storage device for things that have happened to that character. Already Skylanders is taking the next step in making characters out of two separate pieces. Mixing and matching those pieces creates different digital configurations of the characters in the game. That is regarded as a kid’s game, but the concept of physical to digital and back again is an important pattern.

The other example I used was how a willingness to get fitter got me to use the Xbox Kinect and an "exergame". This was by no means playing; my real physical activity brokered via the games console had a huge impact. It then led me to try a martial art called Choi Kwang Do. This modern martial art is based on a study of biomechanics and also neuroscience. The art is purely for self defense and self improvement. However it is willing to look at and use new technology to improve. I have become an Assistant Instructor in this martial art and also I am looking to bring the technology of the Kinect and other game elements to see if we can improve our individual capabilities. Once you use things like Kinect to capture the subtleties of body movements it can be used to play back as a recording for analysis, or it can be used to connect life with other students and teachers around the world. Not to replace physical activity but to provide more options to improve and learn. So a "game" has brought myself and now my whole family to an organization of like minded people.

InfoQ: What does it take for an organization to start with virtual and game technology?

Ian: I think there are evolutionary steps people have to take and have to go through and experience. This is a social and political change as much as a technical one, so it will take time. However allowing experimentation is important. Second Life is a great place to experiment, however running your own virtual world with something like Opensimulator is a relatively simple thing for any technically minded people to set up. This can be run on an intranet, and in secret if needed. It allows people to explore avatar and dynamic virtual world interaction. Usually this starts with creating a simple office space with chairs and tables and having a "meeting". Often with powerpoint slides and all sitting still. Everyone does this. When people start to realize that they can create and be immersed in concepts and ideas and that there are not the same restrictions as a physical meeting then good things start to happen. In stead of a formal meeting, a good example is a jam or innovation session, brainstorm etc. Often these are held in offices with whiteboards and post it notes. In the virtual environment you can create (from scratch or existing 3d clip art) things on the fly. When ideas flow and free association starts it is good to be able to have space and visuals to support them.

People also remember conversations and ideas by where they happened and what they were near at the time. We use visual metaphors all the time, "the elephant in the room", well if there is a problem that is the elephant in the room someone can rez (a term for bringing something into a virtual world) an elephant. Where and when the elephant appeared (which is not the sort of thing that happens with post it notes in a physical room) will remain part of the combined memory of the gathering. Who rezzed the elephant, who was stood near it at the time, etc, all become relevant. This may seem like a flippant non serious, non business line to be taking. In order to innovate and come up with new ideas humans brains need to break their routines. A digital elephant is not more expensive than a post it note. It can come and go in an instant and doesn't take up any physical room an office. Its position and relevance can be logged and minuted automatically. Replace the elephant with some other concepts, a visualization of a business process, and people may spot changes that will make a business more effective. So really the answer is just being willing to try something, it is neither expensive, nor complicated technically, but it can have a big effect on an organization.

I would like to add that there is an awful lot to go and discover and new things to be invented once people open up to these concepts. It doesn't all have to be digital and virtual. There is no reason business and work has to be regarded as devalued because an apparent quirky idea or technology is applied to it. The sort of objects to virtual worlds, to social media and to game theory are the same objects that were applied to the web in business 15 years ago. The web has then spawned some of the biggest serious businesses we have seen. Many companies missed out on the early web because they were scared of it, or could not see the point. Others took a look and experimented. Of course there were failures in experimentation, the dotcom bubble etc, but in general things went forward and grew. The games industry is massive in its own right but there is clearly place for it, powered by the connectivity of the internet and with social media as a global operating system to impact business as well as play. I have a fledgling startup that is based on a quote by Plato "You learn more about a person in an hour of play than a year of conversation". It is something many of us experience regularly so why shut that away in the world of business, which is after all about people?

About the Interviewee

Ian Hughes a.k.a epredator when online, is a Metaverse Evangelist and founder of Feeding Edge Ltd - Taking a bite out of technology so you don’t have to. In 2006, whilst at IBM, he led thousands of colleagues into virtual worlds like Second Life with projects such as Wimbledon. He has shown that leadership can be driven by the digital native and innovators can gather together regardless of geography or organization. Using creative expression online leads him to no longer be the programmer he grew up as.

He presented an emerging technology slot on the UK ITV kids show The Cool Stuff Collective as resident super geek, which has ran for 3 series series. On the show he brought many types of technology aimed as gaining the interest of kids and adults alike in science and technology. From open source physical computing to 3d printing, augmented reality to graphene. Ian is the chair of the BCS Animation and Games industry Group. You can contact him at or you can follow him on Twitter.

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