Architectural Innovation in Immersive Virtual Worlds

What a year so far!  Lots of great Unity3D and jibe projects, a pair of OpenSim builds, and even some Unreal and Web Alive work.  This year has been all about platform diversification, and some of the biggest and technologically innovative builds I’ve had the pleasure of working on.

Yet it seems somehow fitting that the ‘dream come true’ project brought me full circle back to Second Life, with a project for a Fortune 500 firm to design and prototype the  firm’s physical retail spaces.  This project truly raised the bar for architectural brainstorming and collaboration around physical architecture and the built environment.  Jena Ball (Startled Cat) and Jeffrey Philips (OVO Innovation) touch on some features of the project, and the advantages of innovation and collaboration in their paper,  “Immersive Virtual Worlds as Innovation Platforms:  http://www.innovationmanagement.se/2011/05/26/immersive-virtual-worlds-as-innovation-platforms/

The full white paper describes the concept in greater detail.  Here are a few of my favorite quotes:

“More recently, the authors of this paper worked with a Fortune 500 firm to design, prototype and model both the look and feel of the firm’s physical retail spaces and the experiences the firm wanted customers to have in retail establishments.  To accomplish this task we immersed the team – clients and consultants – in Second Life, building new retail establishments and interacting with those retail spaces using avatars.  We believed that working as avatars in an infinitely malleable 3D environment would not only spark their creativity and encourage experimentation, but be quicker and more cost effective than trying to do the same work in a sterile conference room.

“As we developed the retail spaces, their avatars moved through the spaces, recommending changes and generating ideas on the fly in a setting where rapid prototyping was exceptionally simple.

“Working with trained innovation facilitators and a “real” world architect specializing in virtual world development the firm’s participants generated more ideas, a much larger range of ideas, in far less time, at a fraction of the cost than in previous attempts.  We were also able to create a significant number and wide variety of prototypes for consideration.  The immediate feedback and ability to modify the prototypes in real time while participants watched and commented significantly increased the speed and effectiveness of the prototyping as well. We easily tested dozens of ideas based on the architecture, technology, allotted space, traffic flow, the needs of customers, and the skills of the firm’s retail personnel.  It is important to note that all of this work was done with a team whose members were distributed all across the US and never met face to face. All interaction and prototyping was conducted in Second Life.”

“Immersive technologies force innovators into new experiences and environments. These in turn provide new and/or alternative perspectives, and have the potential to spawn new ways of thinking.”

“Virtual worlds allow rapid, iterative prototyping in three dimensions with little cost.  Architects, for example, can quickly and easily create mini or even full-scale models of homes to show to their clients.  Likewise, it is quick and easy to make adjustments based on client feedback in real time as it is given.  This kind of iterative prototyping not only speeds up the development process, but encourages idea generation and out-of-the-box thinking as well.  Rapid, iterative prototyping is so natural in these spaces that you’d think the virtual worlds were designed for this purpose alone” (bold emphasis mine).