Virtual Immersive Environments: From Theory to Practice, Part 3: The View from IBM

March 22, 2010

[This article explores the impact that IBM has had on the use of VIEs in business. Today’s entry is the first of at least two that are based on an interview I did with Chuck Hamilton, one of the key visionaries responsible for IBM’s commitment to VIEs.]

When you talk about the use of Virtual Immersive Environments (VIEs) in the corporate world, you can’t help but talk about IBM. IBM has been one of the earliest and most fervent adopters of VIEs for various business uses. While other corporations are dipping their collective toe in the water, what made IBM dive into the deep end? To answer that question, I was fortunate enough to get some time with Chuck Hamilton, the head of Virtual Learning Strategy at IBM’s Center for Advanced Learning in Vancouver, BC.

Chuck works with a diverse and talented group at IBM. He shares, “We’re sort of the go-to people for learning delivery across IBM. We are very seasoned people with expertise in 100 different angles around the intersection of learning and technology. So we help the people with design, we help the people with delivery, we help the people come up with a new way of getting it done—whatever it takes. My particular expertise has always been where new media learning and technology starts to cross.”

With that sort of background, you might expect that Chuck would become interested in VIEs; what you might not expect is that it’s his architecture background that first got him interested: “If my first degree hadn’t been around design and architecture, I probably wouldn’t have been so fascinated about putting spaces together that I could put people in.”

But that interest quickly turned to the application of VIEs for learning: “IBM spends millions of dollars on learning globally, so it is something that is important to us, and Learning has became very important to me. I always find myself saying, ‘How can I take XYZ technology and make it work for people in a learning context?’”

Chuck was becoming increasingly aware of 3D worlds like World of Warcraft. “We started to say, ‘It’s quite interesting that there’s this parallel universe that’s being built almost next door to IBM, replete with economies and so on. Then we started talking to some of the people who were thinking about these economies and realized that some of these economies were bigger than whole countries—but were happening virtually. That’s what really tipped it for me.”

IBM’s participation in VIEs began with a Jam, a collaborative innovation process designed to bring together diverse mind to create innovations. “One of the focus areas was around virtual collaboration in a global setting. And the reason why that’s important to IBM is that there are 400,000 IBMers worldwide, another 100,000 contractors, and about 70% of those people live outside the Americas. 42% of people don’t have a traditional office. So we were a virtual company by nature, and increasingly having to come together on a virtual global basis.”

So Chuck decided to take the Jam team into the 3D world. “And all of a sudden, all kinds of people showed up and wanted to participate. We had these young, brand-new IBMers flying around next to executives, talking about how a World could be used. People were seeing that this had some real possibilities.”

The idea of using Virtual Worlds for collaboration proved to be the most popular idea to come out of the Jam that year, and the team earned substantial funding to build the idea out further.

[In the next post, we’ll look at how the concept of Affordances affect how we interact with 3D worlds.]

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