As the New Year begins, it is traditional to review key events from the last year and make predictions for the coming one. I followed that tradition a year ago when I chose Reflections on Blogging as the theme for my last blog entry of 2005. I had started this personal blog in May of that year, so a year ago blogging was still a relatively new experience for me - as well as for most people.
What a difference a year makes! The sense I get from blogging now, - for me personally and for the world in general, - is that it has achieved liftoff and taken off, no longer a novelty but a part of the environment in which we live in, important for some of us, irrelevant for many. This is not unusual. New technology-based capabilities often go from relative obscurity to market acceptance in one short year, - from being used primarily by leading edge adopters in research labs and universities, to being embraced by a wider marketplace.
At the beginning of 1996, for example, most people were trying to understand the implications of the Internet and World Wide Web. What was surfing the Web all about? Why would anyone other than teenagers with time in their hands want to do something so silly? But, by the end of 1996, a big shift had taken place. In rapidly increasing numbers, people around the world were going on-line, and more and more companies were starting to formulate e-business strategies to avoid being left behind by the growing number of new and existing companies already leveraging the Internet for business value.
So, let me start the year by commenting on a key trend that I believe will similarly take off in 2007 and become more widely accepted in the marketplace as the year progresses. I believe that highly visual interfaces and virtual worlds will become increasingly important for interacting with applications, communicating with people and engaging in commerce, - what we in IBM have started to call v-business.
Many are still baffled, perhaps even a bit put off by their belief that virtual worlds are primarily associated with games - especially massively multiplayer online games like World of Warcraft, and by the use of avatars as the way to immerse people into virtual worlds. Much the way we were once bewildered by surfing the Web, people are wondering if there is any value beyond entertainment in hanging out in virtual environments like Second Life.
Perhaps the reason I take this all so seriously is that I don't associate highly visual interfaces and virtual worlds with games, but with supercomputing simulations and visualization in science, engineering and medicine. For many years now, I have seen researchers in those fields develop increasingly sophisticated visualization capabilities to be able to absorb and interact with the results of supercomputing simulations. As the power and costs of supercomputers have drastically improved, a lot more information is being generated, thus driving the need for ever more sophisticated visualization capabilities.
Video and online games have clearly taken simulation, real-time interactivity and visualization to a whole new level. I view that as an opportunity. We can apply these technologies and capabilities to a whole new range of applications beyond games and entertainment - not only in science, engineering and medicine, but increasingly in business, learning and training, and other disciplines.
Okay Irving, some might say, perhaps highly visual, interactive interfaces do indeed have a role - but how about those silly looking avatars? How can you take applications involving avatars seriously?
Good question. I think that avatars represent two important new aspects in human-computer interactions.
The first has to do with immersion. In many scientific applications, researchers have known that rather than keeping people outside the picture, it is often better to immerse them in it. For example, let a person "walk through" the virtual design of an airplane or building to get a better sense of what it will feel like when built. Let surgeons get inside the body of the patient they are scheduled to operate on, to explore what they are likely to find ahead of the actual surgery.
In the early 1990s, CAVEs (Cave Automatic Virtual Environments) were developed to provide such an immersive experience. CAVEs consist basically of a fairly large room, in which images are projected to simulate a virtual environment and thus enable people to walk into the environment and interact with it. While CAVEs are useful for a variety of applications, they are expensive and time-consuming to build and modify.
People have been experimenting with ways to provide immersive environments that are less costly and more practical than the original CAVEs. Rather than having to build a special physical room that can surround people with a simulated environment, you can suggest that same kind of immersion on a laptop or HDTV by representing the person as an avatar. People can then navigate through the environment and interact with it in as realistic a way as possible, at much lower costs and with much more flexibility. Today this is mostly done through a keyboard, but a number of experimental technologies let people's control their avatars through their physical movements.
The second has to do with the increasingly social nature of the Web. Typically, you interact with whatever information is being visualized in order to better understand the application being simulated. On the Web, however - and in online games - you are interacting not just with information, but with other people, often tens and hundreds or thousands of them.
It is important to remember than behind (just about) every avatar, there is a real person. This is one of the main attractions of virtual worlds - they enable people to interact with each other and communicate in ways that for many feel more "human" than phone calls or instant messaging, especially when there are multiple people involved.
Clearly, virtual meetings are not a substitute for physical meetings, but that is not the choice we usually face. In IBM, as in many companies, we spend a lot of our day in conference calls with people all around the world. The choice is not whether to have those meetings in person - but how to make the meetings more effective. As many have been discovering, virtual world meetings might be one of the ways of significantly improving the quality and "feeling" of such meetings involving multiple people in remote locations.
In the end, the market acceptance of virtual worlds, - as that of any other technology-based trend, - depends on whether it brings real value to whatever it is people want to do and are willing to pay for. In a keynote speech at the Internet World conference in December of 1996, former IBM Chairman and CEO Lou Gerstner addressed this question head on, talking about the then increasingly popular Internet.
"I'm often asked by IBM customers where the Net is headed. I tell them: clearly, connectivity is important - but it isn't the real issue. Let's say soon there will be 1 billion ways to get on the Net. Then what? What will these connected millions do? What will they want to do? What will they value? And what will they be willing to pay for? The answer is - all the things they do today. Buy and sell; bank; follow legislation; work together; access entertainment, earn a college degree, renew a driver's license. In other words, they'll want applications . . . interactive, transaction-intensive, networked applications that let people do something meaningful."
I believe that this answer applies as much to virtual worlds and v-business in 2007 as it did to the Web and e-business back then.