It has been a slow and often painful journey, but large companies are starting to embrace concepts and technologies that many of us take for granted: gaming, virtual environments, and gestural interfaces. The backdrop to many of these concepts is openness: the willingness of people, and other companies themselves, to share ideas, developments, products, and distribution methods that actively encourage open participation, and the means to experiment.
Where experimentation happens is where you'll find Ian Hughes. A self-proclaimed "Metaverse evangelist", Hughes is actually something of a polymath: commentator on social technology, software developer, frenetic researcher, co-host of children's tech show Cool Stuff Collective, and a consultant to companies that want to know what lies at the edge, and what they will need to factor into business planning – and business culture.
As Chairman of the BCS Animation and Games Specialist Group, Hughes plays something of the shuttle diplomat: promoting the games industry and its technologies to the BCS, while providing professional development opportunities to the industry through BCS activity. He sees gaming as a sector which can provide tremendous knowledge to others. Gestural interfaces can clearly be applied to other sectors, as can the infrastructure developed to support games such as World of Warcraft. He acknowledges that bridge-building between an established Society and the gaming community is not going to take place overnight, and perhaps the application of game technologies into other business sectors will be the way to do achieve the understanding that's needed.
Hughes is unquestionably convincing in the way in which he encourages his own clients to apply gaming concepts and technologies within business. Gone are the days when a briefing equates to a slide-heavy Powerpoint; what's required to convince the less-aware is a mix of psychology, persuasion, theatre... and a spoonful of fear: the fear that they will be left behind.
"Software in a corporate environment is really about the next version, and how it's going to automate some sort of process. It's what you think software does. But, when it's about people interacting with one another and it's the fabric of your business - your people - it suddenly gets more complicated. It's not the tech that's the difficult bit, it's the people that's the difficult bit. It's quite complicated to say that people are going to be happier, or share more, or are more likely to invent more. People like definite boxes. As soon as you get something more expressive such as with virtual environments, you can see people making choices about how they represent themselves... then you look at how to understand their peers, and who to go to in an organisation, and how that social network works, then you know that now, it's not just who you know, but who you see that you know."
In working with larger businesses, the essence of what Hughes is doing is similar to what many have done (or, at least, tried to do) over a period of around 15 years: to convince risk-averse senior management that social technology is going to make a reputational difference, and hopefully an economic one. While evangelising about virtual worlds can make one seem rather peculiar to a group of business leaders, it's no different to selling the benefits of a website, an Intranet, a blog, or a Twitter account. The complex, yet multitudinous benefits lie in a level of adoption which is not entirely controlled from the centre, becoming reliant on the strength of the network (colleagues, customers, stakeholders) for it to exist. Virtual worlds, whether highly visual environments such as Second Life or mass-media services like Facebook, all start with one proposition: they ask historically rigid businesses to consider the need to change.
"Businesses are often corporate, hierarchical, and structured, and don't want people [being in virtual worlds], because they think in some way it breaches their reason to exist. All the stuff that we do now is a threat to business. If they treat it as a threat and try to squash it, they will die. Businesses will need to absorb it, to understand what it is. I try to bring that under the covers of virtual worlds to people - you start off with something quirky and say 'doesn't that look funny', then you talk about the social change that communicating in these ways will bring about. Try and inspire and interest people, get them to want to look at it in some way - as a threat, as an open field for them to explore."
The parallels with the initial period of web adoption are clear. Hughes gives an example of the corporate behaviour of desktop PCs without sound cards, an exercise as much to do with culture as cost, which ended up coming back to haunt companies as VOIP became mainstream. The behaviour which he would like to see more of is "open test and learn" - to put ideas and products out into the ether, to colleagues or customers. While this is de rigeur in the more artistic disciplines of digital technology, such as graphic design, Hughes notes that it's actually quite threatening for programmers to consider such a culture, as their work ethic is based on the manufacture of a complete product – a piece of software. Although open source may challenge this, it is as much to do with a change in the personal approach as much as the increasing scope of technological possibilities.
While giving a routine presentation is perhaps more of a process, a science, there is clearly an artistic element in persuading people and teams that virtual worlds can play a beneficial, yet functional, role within their business. Hughes sees it as either taking someone to a point where they start to feel threatened and to back off, or to come up with a completely different answer to the initial question. The latter is often tied up with social action. Sharing photos a good example where, for most people, it's less about the technology than the end benefit. Painting these scenarios is somewhat critical to the success of a project; will a virtual environment allow colleagues interact across departments? Will they be more productive through less travel? Will new colleagues be "onboarded" more quickly? While these softer benefits may not give immediate answers to cold, hard business questions, their cumulative power will certainly help to "bring the shields down", starting to dissolve some of the common resistance to virtual worlds that businesses may display.
Even popular MMORPGs can educate and coach people in business, and can be more like real life than the parallel universes that companies can sometimes produce for themselves.
"Eve Online is, basically, a massive corporate structure. My accountant plays it. It's spreadsheets in space. He's immersed in it, but he's also doing what he does for a living. I once told Business Link, why don't you just persuade new businesses to go on Eve Online? It's trade, industry, and you can also be being ripped off. That's business. People can actually see what it feels like to be double-crossed... it's a rehearsal. That's what we talk about with virtual worlds - the "what if" simulations."
"Constant rewards and feedback is not what corporates do. Every year, you have an appraisal - it's a game you play. They have a bell curve of ratings to give people, then jam that into a 'Let's sit down and talk about it' session. People don;'t work like that; it's onerous. But, in using something like Farmville, the company can see what you've been doing, and how successful you've been in [a common] context."
If MMORPGs offer the fundamentals of life, then the way in which we are interacting with them is also becoming more human, more natural. The more in which we use recognition, gesture, and movement within human-computer interaction, the more expressive people become in their gaming. Kinect is "doing AR into the virtual environment. You are the 'real thing' and it's augmenting you in a digital representation. We have whole great loop of interesting ways to interact." And, if gaming takes place in the workplace, then we are perhaps seeing a shift to behaviours being led much more by the employee than the employer. If virtual space is infinite and gestural interfaces are deeply human, then while they have the opportunity to really "be themselves" at work, it will be interesting to see where the parameters lie at work, and the boundaries between that environment and the one at home.
The problem is when something becomes "gamified" for its own sake, although business activities already have frighteningly similar qualities to contemporary games.
"Why should we assume that everything that we regard as work, is humdrum and boring, and why do people pay for World of Warcraft, when most of what you do is a grinding corporate-like existence, where you do the mission and gather the things in the guild for people that are a higher rank than you? There's a correlation - why not make work like that? It doesn't mean it's not hard and not difficult. Sport is hard and difficult, but it's not regarded as an easy option. The world of work can be changed to where people get interested in things."
"Gamification, however, is not about people - it's about badges or a scoring system. There's a short-sightedness when people assume 'that's it'. That's not good for games and that's not good for people. Yet done right, these games can be fantastic."
Hughes is almost overwhelmingly enthusiastic in the potential that businesses now have. Time will tell as to whether it will be a squandered opportunity for many, but at least some of the cultural elements - open source, testing and learning – can be adopted by businesses with even the most rigid culture. For those that move faster, and start to see value in game mechanics and virtual worlds, then it's going to be an experimental future – for employees, for customers, and perhaps for shareholders too. But, the reputational enhancement made by businesses at least trying what's out there, given the minimal investment in technologies such as the Kinect, could be immense.
"All this stuff, you can just try. It doesn't require a massive capital expense and R&D budget. All the stuff's there. That ability to experiment - there are so many interfaces, so much tech, so many outputs, so much data to process, so many social graphs to analyse... all those things are there to start combining. It's a really exciting time for hardware and for software."
Ian Hughes is Managing Director of Feeding Edge. He is @epredator on Twitter. Series 3 of Cool Stuff Collective will be aired on CITV later in the autumn.
His next talk, "Washing away cave paintings", takes place on 13/10/11. It is hosted by BCS Oxfordshire and takes place at the Oxford E-research centre.