Hear From A Panel Of Virtual Worlds Entrepreneurs

September 30, 2010

On September 24th, FountainBlue held its annual virtual worlds conference.  This year’s event was hosted on Cisco’s campus in Milpitas, CA.  In the afternoon, a panel of virtual worlds entrepreneurs spoke about new developments in the industry.  The panel was titled “Entrepreneur Panel: The Tools, The Goods, The Immersion Experience”:

  1. Facilitator Nina Gerwin, The NRG Group
  2. Michael Gold, CEO, Electrotank: virtual world & virtual games development platform
  3. Steve Hoffman, CEO, Rocketon: virtual world for tweeners
  4. Albert Kim, CEO, Zenitum: Augmented reality with 3D displays
  5. Jim Parker, President, Digitell: SaaS 3D immersive virtual events and virtual training

I covered some of these entrepreneurs’ businesses in a separate posting about virtual worlds technologies to watch.

Adapting your business

Each panelist was asked to describe the genesis behind their business.  As is customary with web startups today, no one is working against their original business model or vision.

For Digitell’s Jim Parker, business began by assembling content for online libraries.  Then, he was struck by the notion of allowing consumers of the library content to meet and collaborate in real-time.

Zenitum’s Albert Kim experiments with a number of different technologies.  When one set of technologies differs enough from the core set, he looks to spin that out into an independent company.

Online gaming

Online and social gaming may be the hottest trend on the web today.  So of course the topic arose with Electrotank’s Michael Gold and RocketOn’s Steve Hoffman.  Gold and Hoffman highlighted technologies available to game makers today:

  1. Flash
  2. HTML5
  3. Objective C
  4. Unity

Note: Unity’s David Helgason spoke on the Trends Panel at this event.

According to Gold, HTML5 has its benefits, but you can’t yet develop a game using it.

Note: Michael Gold posted the following clarification:

“I just want to make a quick correction on a statement about HTML5 that was attributed to me in this blog post. What I said on the panel was that HTML5 is not yet practical for developing *virtual worlds* but has great potential in a few years.

Virtual worlds and MMOs present unique technical challenges that are distinctly different than those presented by the majority of social and casual online and mobile *games* Thus in my opinion it is completely possible to develop *games* using HTML5 at the present time. There are several developers focusing on these games right now. In fact, Zynga recently purchased one – Dextrose, a German development studio. I actually believe you’ll see a significant number of HTML5 games on the market a year from now. Just not so many virtual worlds or MMOs.”

Virtual worlds and engagement

An audience member asked how virtual worlds can track engagement – so that in a corporate setting, the meeting host can measure whether the content is hitting the mark.  Digitell’s Parker notes his clients often use his system for accreditation.  The system uses an idle timer – it renders a “click to continue” message and if the user does not click within 10 seconds, “you don’t get accreditation.”

Studies have shown that viewers of webinars often lose attention and multitask.  A virtual world forces users to remain engaged.  Parker notes that for some sessions, the instructor leads the “students” on a guided walk.  “If Jim doesn’t follow the rest of the group, then you know he’s not paying attention.”

Conclusion

Believe it or not, it’s not a bad time to be a virtual worlds entrepreneur.  As the panel demonstrated, the key is to be nimble and adapt to a changing marketplace.  Next year, it will be interesting to see how these entrepreneurs evolved – and, to see what new entrepreneurs appear on the scene.


3 Virtual Worlds Technologies To Watch

September 26, 2010

On September 24th, FountainBlue held its annual virtual worlds conference.  This year’s event was hosted on Cisco’s campus in Milpitas, CA.

The event was attended by entrepreneurs, intrapreneurs, investors and virtual worlds practitioners.  Several virtual worlds entrepreneurs spoke on the scheduled panel discussions and a few set up stations to demonstrate their technology.

I’d like to highlight 3 virtual worlds technologies that caught my attention.

RocketOn: A virtual world layer on top of the entire web

Presenting executive: Steve Hoffman, CEO

RocketOn takes my “Best in Show Award” for most innovative virtual worlds technology.  While Facebook and Twitter have propelled social networking to mainstream adoption, surfing the web is still a solitary experience.

While many web sites have added community features (e.g. membership, comments, Facebook social graph integration, etc.) – it’s still the case that when I browse my favorite content sites, I have no idea who else is reading the same page at the same time.

RocketOn seeks to change that.  Using a Flash layer placed on top of web pages via an i-frame, RocketOn users can create their own avatar and have them walk atop any web page.  They can then see other RocketOn users who may be visiting the same web page.

Perhaps you’re reading a movie review and happen to bump into a friend, who’s reading the same review.  You decide to visit a site that hosts a trailer for the movie, so you both navigate to the trailer site, watch it there and continue your chat.

A Foursquare for the entire web

One of the captivating features of Foursquare is the ability to see who else is at the same physical location as you.  RocketOn has built a similar feature for the entire web.  While the service is focused on a consumer audience initially, imagine how this technology could be used in a corporate setting.

Browsing your company’s intranet could become much more productive and engaging.  Now, water cooler conversations could occur online, as you bump into colleagues at the employee directory page (rather than the kitchen).

Additional Information

  1. The “About Us” page for RocketOn
  2. More details on the RocketOn platform
  3. Neat 2-minute video about the RocketOn service

Zenitum: Bringing virtual worlds into the real world

Presenting executive: Albert Kim, CEO

I admire technologies that flip conventional models upside down.  While we visit virtual worlds from the real world, Zenitum seeks to have virtual worlds elements visit us in the real world.  CEO Albert Kim receives the “Jetsettter Badge”, having attended the conference from Zenitum’s home base in Seoul, Korea.

When publicly released (later this year), Zenitum’s technology will be supported on iPhone, Android and Symbian.  Zenitum will provide their app and an SDK (software development kit) for free.  They are encouraging widespread adoption of their technology – consumers use their app and device manufacturers develop services using their SDK. Zenitum will monetize their service via advertising (“augmented advertising”, perhaps).

Our reality will forever be augmented

When you run the app, your smartphone scans your surroundings, attempting to recognize images.  If it finds a match, Zenitum overlays a 3D animated object on top (or around) the real world object.  For example, let’s say a comic book publisher is running a campaign and loads an image of a comic strip into the Zenitum platform.

The same image is on a billboard on a city street.  When I walk down that street with the app running (and my smartphone positioned properly), Zenitum detects the comic strip image.  It then inserts animated 3D objects (perhaps other characters from the comic strip) around the real world object.  As I move my phone left, right, up and down, the animated objects adjust their positions accordingly.

Possible use cases

Imagine the use of this technology at a museum – as you walk past a painting, its “virtual artist” could appear on your phone and speak to you about the inspiration behind the work.  At a trade show or conference, walking down an aisle could cause executives (virtually) to spring up and give you a brief pitch about their product.

Neat stuff – I hope we’re able to keep the distinction clear, though, on what’s real and what’s virtual!

Additional Information

  1. Zenitum’s “Company” page on their web site

Digitell: Bringing a global audience to your next meeting

Presenting executive: Jim Parker, President

Digitell uses the ActiveWorlds 3D platform to bring you hybrid meetings, virtual events, virtual communities and webcasts.  Jim Parker, Digitell’s President, notes that a common client of his service is associations, who want to extend the audience for their annual meetings.  Parker notes that the immersive experience of Digitell makes attendees “feel like they’re there” (at the physical event).

Parker’s clients who run these hybrid events often charge the same amount on virtual attendance as they do for the on-site event.  In this way, the common objection of cannibalization goes away, as the virtual component generates additional audience – and additional revenue for the meeting organizer.

Dispelling the notion that virtual worlds are for the younger generation, Parker notes that the average age of a Digitell user is 44 (wow!).  Users are so passionate about the experience that they often comment, “when’s the next event, I want to use my avatar!”.

Parker has created 3D replicas of museums, which allows students (across the globe) to visit and experience the museum’s works, without having to be “bused” to the physical building.  Imagine how easy it would be to have a virtual guide take students on a tour of the museum’s main works, any time of day, with students participating from all over the world.

Additional Information

  1. More info on Hybrid Meetings from Digitell

Conclusion

While the term “virtual worlds” has a negative connotation in the minds of many, it hasn’t stopped innovative entrepreneurs from developing new and exciting services.  It will be interesting to watch each of these technologies to review their adoption, growth and monetization.


Top 3 Ways To Improve Virtual Event Experiences

July 30, 2010

We need to create better and more engaging virtual event experiences.  We need to better approximate the valuable face-to-face encounters and experiences that physical events create.

1: Create a stronger feeling of “there”

There’s nothing like walking into an over-crowded trade show floor and hearing the buzz of attendees and exhibitors.  It’s similar to walking into a popular restaurant or bar.  The buzz permeates the environment.  If I were to login to the world’s most popular virtual event, there’s hardly an indicator to tell me so.

The closest thing we have today is a list of avatars (also known as profile images) in a given event area.  If I see a long list of other attendees listed, then I know the area is quite popular and there must be something going on (e.g. perhaps there’s a live chat session occurring).  Beyond that, it’s hard to tell that “there’s a ‘there’ there”.

To address this, event platforms and event planners should consider augmenting the experience with sensory stimulation.  The two relevant senses are sight and sound.  With sight, one could imagine  “heat maps” that signal to attendees where the action lies.  Or, animation to direct users to a popular area – or, that something is important is happening in a given location.

Incorporating sound can be a challenge in a B2B environment, since many users mute their computer speakers while at work.  So perhaps one uses visuals to encourage attendees to enable their sound.  Then, platforms could “inject” show floor chatter into the environment, adjusting the level of intensity based on the amount of activity or people present.

Better yet, platforms could allow attendees to speak into a common audio channel.  If I’m in the Networking Lounge, I’m then able to converse with others (via audio) in addition to text chat.  Perhaps the system allows for comment moderation, so that one person is enabled to speak at any one time (a challenge that takes care of itself when folks assemble in person).

2: Create stronger person-to-person interactions

Text chat is great, but virtual events need to go beyond text to create richer and more engaging person-to-person interactions.  That means audio (as outlined above) as well as video.  Bandwidth availability varies depending on where you’re located – but if you have sufficient bandwidth, virtual events should allow you to network and connect with others the “old fashioned way” – with a smile, a greeting and a hello.  Not with a “LOL” or a smiley.

In addition, virtual event experiences need to better enable a community to form.  This is done with effective tools to connect like-minded individuals – and, applications to encourage and foster person-to-person interactions (e.g. blogging, status updates, etc.).

3: Use imagery to strike a deeper emotional connection

In any event experience (whether physical or virtual), imagery can be used to strike a deep, emotional connection with attendees.  In a virtual event, we all too often create this effect:

That is, the imagery that may create that emotional connection is covered by functional elements overlaid on top.  What you’re left with is edges of the “pretty picture” – that is, the small segments that are not covered by the functional elements.  A few options to address this:

Combine imagery and function

Build the functional elements into the imagery.  For Flash-based platforms, the images and the functional areas occupy the same SWF.  There are cost and “repeatability” considerations in going this route, so other options can be considered.

Determine function element placement up front

Before the creative team designs an image, determine what functional elements are included in the event area.  Size these elements (by pixel counts) and then have the creative team design around that.  For instance, if you’re designing at a width of 1024 pixels and you embed a chat window 512 pixels wide, then you have 256 pixels on each side of the chat area.

Have your designers make the most of each 256-pixel segment, rather than designing an elaborate image that has its most compelling 512 pixels covered and never seen.

Conclusion

I’ve listed 3 ways that virtual event experiences can be improved.  Drop a comment below to let us know how you’d improve virtual events.

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How Vendors Should Evolve Their Virtual Event Platforms

July 10, 2010

The following is a collaborative posting by Miguel Arias, Steve Gogolak and Dennis Shiao.

Content creation and collaboration was facilitated by a PBworks wiki – the wiki page can be found here: http://allvirtual.pbworks.com/How-Vendors-Should-Evolve-Their-Virtual-Event-Platforms

To evolve their platforms for enhanced experiences and broader adoption, virtual event platforms should consider the following:

Make it easier to experience

Most virtual event platforms are easy to use – on a first-time visit, users tend to grasp the overall user experience and can figure out where to go (and how).  That being said, for wide scale adoption, virtual events needs to be as easy as Facebook.  That is, our grandmothers need to be able to access the site and figure things out.  On Facebook, grandmothers can update their profile, read their “friends” posts and write updates to their Walls.  Can a grandmother login to a virtual event, update her profile and participate in a group chat?  We’re not so sure.  Similarly, navigation and interactions need to be easier.  Most virtual events are intuitive to navigate (e.g. Lobby, Auditorium,  Lounge, etc.) – but may not be so intuitive with regard to message boards, chat, blogging, rating, etc.

Along with a simplification of interfaces and the use of usability and navigation conventions, many customers and users seem to be demanding more immersive environments. While presenting a brand and hosting an interactive experience in a convention centre, it seems an interesting field to add some real-time rendered environments using engines like papervision3D or Unity3D. This said, it is unlikely that avatar-based real time rendered environments will make it to a mainstream audience. Key considerations (or obstacles) are plugins or applets downloads, system performance and learning curve barriers.

Make it easier to find

The typical “location” of a virtual event is quickly becoming outdated – microsite with registration page, with no ability to experience the event prior to completing all mandatory registration fields. The registration page serves as a “wall” not only to potential attendees, but to search engines as well.  Virtual event platforms need to move “outside the wall” and expose their technology on Facebook, on blogs and on publisher web sites.  Platforms should widen their distribution via widgets, embed code and application programming interfaces (API’s).  Facebook is not limited to Facebook.com – it has Facebook Connect, Facebook Open Graph and much more.  Virtual events platforms, on the other hand, seem to be restricted to “VirtualEventPlatform.com”

Make it easier to access

The most relevant virtual event platforms will introduce, or already have, Facebook Connect and Twitter API, and they will need to move to even wider standards like OpenID.  For public events, ease of registration is a must.  Using open methods for registering and/or connecting social networks have three-fold benefits:

  1. Registration is faster because basic information can be provided by services like LinkedIn, Facebook, etc.  Shorter registration forms increase completion, period.
  2. Intelligence gathered by the platform about the user’s existing social graph can enhance the experience within the event by automatically creating connections with other attendees based on that user’s connection outside the platform.  This will lead to more networking and awareness of actual people within the environment.
  3. Users opting into connections at the point of registration allows platforms to create publishable actions that can be spit out to twitter and facebook news feeds that can increase viral awareness of the event.  Marketing automation at its best.

On the other hand, desktop or mobile widgets to control your stand usage, statistics and reporting will be a must. Lastly, the platforms will have extensive APIs to manage their integration with various social networks, corporate databases, physical event managing software, etc.

Make the experience available on more devices

Most virtual event platforms support Windows, Mac and Linux.  They need to support more platforms, especially mobile.  On the mobile front, it’s important to consider iPhone/iPad, Android, BlackBerry, Symbian, Windows 7 Phone and WebOS (listed in our order of importance).  To start, we don’t believe the entire virrual event experience needs to be “ported” to mobile devices -rather, vendors should determine the most critical features for attendees and exhibitors – and prioritize based on importance.  For instance, chat is an important element of virtual events, so why not make a mobile app that allows exhibitors to staff their booth via their smartphone.

The entire 3D environment does not need to be supported on a mobile device, but the networking tools (visit card managing, real time conversation, etc) and the reporting tools certainly do. On the other hand, it will be interesting to see what happens with Flash and Apple, and see which vendors will try to develop their platforms using HTML5.

One of the key areas where mobile can play a huge role is the “reminder” needs that come from tons of scheduled activities within virtual events.  If attendees have the ability to build out a personalized agenda before the event and opt-in to either SMS reminders or download some kind of app that will push notifications at them throughout the day, it would be much easier to create a flexible agenda.  Currently we’re cramming so much into the shortest amount of time because we’re afraid of losing people.  If only we had better planning and reminding tools, driven by devices that never leave our pocket!

Make the platform more adaptable and flexible

Related to our point about mobile support, platform vendors have important decisions to make regarding the development platforms.  Virtual event platforms today are based on Flash, Flex, Silverlight, Java and JavaFX.  Are those the “right” platform technologies for the future – or, should platforms move in the direction of HTML5?  Does a combination off HTML5, Javascript and Ajax create a more adaptable and flexible platform?  What do we “lose” by shifting away from Flash, Silverlight, etc.?  And what are the mobile implications with the chosen direction?  All good questions for the platform vendors to consider.

Make the platform more adaptable for different customer needs and different usage

There are so many different kind of virtual events: trade shows, conferences, job fairs, corporate events, webinars, congresses… that vendors should decide in which market niche they are going to play. We will see generic platforms and other vendors delivering a tailored solution for one or many of the previous choices. It will become more and more complex to provide physical event managers with the features they need to handle their hybrid events at the same time as the platform is able to cope with the extensive data handling of the virtual job fair, or the networking tools of a professional tradeshow.

Take a hint from Apple and FaceTime

Video chat will, without a doubt, increase the effectiveness of networking.  It is the one key element that can be introduced that will get critics to come around to the idea that networking in an online environment can be as effective as the cocktail hour of a physical event.

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2010 Predictions For Virtual Events

December 3, 2009

Source: flickr (User: sassycrafter)

Back in August, I jumped the gun a bit and wrote a “year in review” posting about virtual events.  Now that we’re in December,  I think it’s high time to peer into the Magic 8 Ball and speculate on what’s in store for the virtual events industry in 2010.  Away we go…

Widescale adoption and integration of video conferencing

Virtual events have incorporated a lot of on-demand and live video – however, to date, the majority of attendee interaction has been via text (e.g. private text chat, group text chat, etc.).  Many platforms have enabled the use of attendee webcams (a la Skype) and that was a nice start.  In 2010, I believe that the virtual event platforms will integrate with third party video conferencing technologies in a big way – stirred largely by client demand for it.

Think about it – multinational corporations have adopted high-end video conferencing to encourage collaboration and save on travel costs.  They have the budget to invest in Cisco Telepresence or HP Halo.  As those same corporations look to adopt virtual events (e.g. for an annual virtual sales meeting), it’s only natural that they incorporate the video conferencing technology that they already have running.

To capture mid-market and small business interest, virtual event platforms will look to integrate with mid-tier video conferencing systems, such as Tandberg (whose acquisition by Cisco is pending) and Polycom.

Another interesting player is LifeSize Communications, an Austin-based provider of “mainstream telepresence” that was acquired by Logitech in November.  LifeSize recently launched an offering called Passport, which they term “a portable telepresence-quality system” that fits in the palm of your hand.

I see continued use of consumer-grade webcam technology in 2010 virtual events  – however, the game changer will be the incorporation of multi-party, HD video conferencing.

Emergence of global players

We’ve already seen the emergence in Europe of virtual event platforms – IMASTE in Spain and Ubivent in Germany.  I expect to see another European-based platform emerge in 2010, along with one or more in Asia Pac.  In addition, we’ll see services companies launch to capitalize on the demand (for virtual events) from publishers, corporations and event marketers.  The companies will provide both strategic and logistical services around virtual events.  You’ll see some start-up companies and you’ll also see physical event marketers spawn service offerings around virtual (or more logically, hybrid) events.

Industry consolidation

We’ll see the merging or acquiring of virtual event platform companies.  Some providers will look to acquire/merge out of platform capability gaps – while stronger players will look to complementary/synergistic technologies offered by the competition.  As the economic environment comes back around, companies (and their investors) will be more apt to combine forces to fuel the next phase of growth.  Lastly, larger and more established players in the “collaboration space” may look to acquire virtual event platform companies, to add a complementary piece to their product portfolio.

Decrease in “relative response rates”

Virtual events had a great run in 2009, but we’re now past the novelty, “wow, this is cool” phase.  In the B2B market, we now have plenty of users who have attended two or more virtual events.  If virtual event show hosts continue to use the same graphical templates, organize the same presentation agenda and re-create an identical experience to their last event, then “relative response rates” will drop – meaning, it will become harder and harder to recruit users to register and attend.

Decreased response rates are natural as any new “content type” grows beyond infancy – and the supply/demand ratio begins to tilt towards having more supply than demand (e.g. lots of virtual events).  Virtual event show hosts will need to consider the incorporation of gaming, the creation of affinity programs and more.  The solution to decreased response rates will be fun to watch – innovators will step to the table to find creative ways to engage and attract virtual event attendees.

Platforms take first step towards immersiveness

While virtual event attendees may not “require” the immersiveness of Second Life and other 3D virtual worlds – immersive capabilities provide real value in a B2B setting.  The most obvious use case is an immersive rendering of a complex product – consider the high-end video conferencing system, the high-end router, the latest luxury car model.  Instead of a 2D PowerPoint slide that highlights the capabilities of the video conferencing system, how about an immersive experience where attendees (aka prospects) get to experience the system and interact with it?

Client interest and demand will drive some platforms to add immersive capabilities in 2010.  I don’t expect a software download, however – it would serve platforms well to support the immersive experience within their existing framework (e.g. Flash, JavaFX, Silverlight).

Those are my 2010 predictions for virtual events.  I’d love to hear your’s!


Increase Your Virtual Event ROI: 10 Tips and Tactics

March 22, 2009

Source: Flickr (Ewan McIntosh)

Source: Flickr (Ewan McIntosh)

If you recently exhibited at a lead generation virtual event, then I’ve got some tips for you.  While most exhibitors consider the program “complete” at the conclusion of the live virtual event, your work is just beginning.  Outhustle your competition and you’ll generate more ROI, beating them to the punch on shared sales leads.  There are two primary strategies for generating a higher return on your investment:

  1. Leverage your existing investment to generate net new sales leads
  2. Better convert your existing sales leads

Leverage Existing Investment

  1. Convince the virtual event host to light up the environment – most virtual events remain “on demand” for 3 months after the live show date.  During those 3 months, you’ll see intermittent activity – some attendees return to visit your booth – some new leads sprinkle in, 1 here and 2 more a few days later.  Your event organizer should be incented to produce another “live date”, in which past attendees are invited to return – and, new registrants are invited to participate.  After all, the event organizer has fixed costs as well – and lighting up the show again means more revenue.  The organizer will want brand new content to draw users in (e.g. compelling Live Webcasts, like they used in the original event) – and you’ll want to leverage the same amount of booth reps to interact with attendees.
  2. Convince the virtual event host to support portable booths – you spent a lot of time getting your booth just right – selecting the right logo and Flash movie, finding relevant White Papers and producing some case studies just for the event.  Your booth is a great marketing vehicle and should be leveraged elsewhere – how about placing your booth on its own microsite – or, embedding the booth on your corporate web site?  The eco-friendly practice of re-use applies here as well.
  3. Syndicate booth content – for the White Papers, podcasts, Case Studies, etc. that you placed in your booth, syndicate them with the event organizer and related web and blog sites.  This broadens the reach of your content – and allows you to generate more sales leads.
  4. Syndicate Webcast content – if you had a speaking slot at the virtual event, ask the show host for a copy of the Webcast – then, host it on your corporate web site and syndicate it with the event organizer and related web sites.  Any content generated for the event should be re-used – it can generate new sales leads with minimal overhead or cost.
  5. Syndicate the supplemental Webcast content (in different forms) – convert your Webcast into an MP3 audio podcast and make that available on your web site along with the Webcast.  Syndicate the podcast as well, in case your target audience prefers the convenience of a download over the viewing of a streaming presentation.  Take the Q&A of the Webcast and transcribe that into a PDF or HTML document – and place this on your web site as well.  You get the idea here – spread your wings, without thinning the pocketbook.

Convert Existing Leads

  1. Find those Top 10 leads – whether you have an automated system or need to do this manually, comb through the wealth of engagement data that a virtual event provides and find those Top 10 leads.  These are the folks who Sales must call now.  Perhaps they downloaded 10 of your White Papers – or, perhaps they did a text chat with a booth rep and requested that a sales rep call.  Either way, they need immediate attention.  If you know the sales reps who should handle these leads, don’t be shy about personally walking the leads over to them and providing the details as to why the leads as so hot.
  2. Get the basics right in your follow-ups – if Inside Sales is following up by phone with some leads, make sure the reps have a script that covers the correct name of the virtual event – and arm them with some important details of the event (e.g. date, topics, speakers, etc.).  For email follow-up, be sure to include the virtual event title in the Subject line.  Always be sure to reference the context of the event in all of your touchpoints.
  3. Build customized follow-up paths based on prospect activity – again, whether it’s automated or manual, factor in the prospect’s specific activities within the live event and tailor the follow-up touchpoints based on that activity.  Study the 5 White Papers they downloaded and recommend a 6th that brings it all home.  Study the chat transcript with your booth rep and send an email follow-up that ties up any loose ends.  Believe me, the prospects will appreciate the personal attention and the value you deliver to them.
  4. Use the virtual event platform to faciliate your follow-up – your show host is keeping the environment open for 3 months – so it would be a shame not to leverage it for all its worth.  When you do secure a follow-up appointment – consider complementing your phone call by meeting your prospect back in the virtual event.  There, you can do text or webcam chat in an environment s/he is familiar with.  And perhaps you place some additional content in the booth for your prospect to review.
  5. Send small prizes to highly engaged prospects – not everyone could win a prize during the live event – so, find those top 10 leads – or, top 10 most engaged users (in your booth) and send them a memory stick or webcam.  As discussed, reference the context of the event in your communications.  Perhaps the memory stick contains additional White Papers that may be of interest.  Just make sure the touchpoint is personalized – and don’t send the prize just for the sake of sending something.

So there you have it.  Don’t forget that your campaign doesn’t end at the conclusion of the live virtual event.  That signals the starting point of the important phase – the one in which you’re head to head with the competition.  So make sure you score a higher ROI than they do.


Interview With Nic Sauriol, Venture Lead on Nortel’s web.alive Platform

March 1, 2009

Nic Sauriol, Venture Lead of web.alive

Nic Sauriol, Venture Lead of web.alive

Related Links:

  1. Lenovo eLounge
  2. Project Chainsaw
  3. My review of Lenovo eLounge

Amidst great fanfare in January at CES 2009, Lenovo unveiled the Lenovo eLounge virtual environment. Powered by Nortel’s web.alive platform, eLounge allowed users to enter a 3D virtual world to learn about Lenovo Thinkpad notebook computers (with an option to purchase), interact with other visitors and “meet” with representatives from Lenovo and Nortel.

Nic Sauriol is the Venture Lead for web.alive (also referred to as Project Chainsaw).  Nic co-founded the project a few years ago with Arn Hyndman, the chief architect.  I sat down (virtually) with Nic to get his thoughts on web.alive, eLounge, enterprise virtual worlds and more.  Here’s the interview.

If you met someone on the street, how would you describe (or explain) the web.alive platform to him/her?

Nic: web.alive is a collaboration platform designed to integrate into an existing website much like flash. When a web site has web.alive and people visit that site, they can experience a rich and immersive environment and interact with other users – including the website’s employees/staff who are also on that site . They can interact in an immersive and fluid way thanks to real world positional audio. Fundamentally, web.alive is about bringing live, immersive and interactive communications to connect people in real-time via the web.

It’s designed to be a very engaging and entertaining experience – great for social networking efforts. A social experience of the web where a group of friends could meet up on Facebook or LinkedIn and then go visit a few stores like the Lenovo eLounge, watch some shows in Hulu and then comment on the news at Yahoo is what web.alive is about in this context.

web.alive also offers tremendous potential as a tool to facilitate collaborative learning.  Gone are the days of an instructor broadcasting content in one direction – today’s learning requirements call for more collaborative work between instructors and students.  web.alive provides engaging and collaborative environments to make this mode of learning a reality.

In the enterprise, web.alive offers a new world of opportunities to change in a positive way how people communicate. Moving away from calendar based meetings and formal phone calls, to a much more dynamic means of interaction. A place where employees from all over the world can go, bump into each other, exchange ideas, grab a meeting room to discuss and collaborate etc. Simply embedding the web.alive client into existing intranet web sites, integrating into a UC [unified communications] solution (visit Nortel if you don’t already have one) and suddenly your employees are collaborating as though they were collocated.

Nortel and Lenovo received quite a bit of buzz regarding Lenovo’s eLounge and its use of Nortel’s web.alive platform – what do you view as the successes of the launch – and, what were some of the challenges that you had to address?

Nic: The beta launch at CES of the Lenovo eLounge was a tremendous success from our perspective. We saw a great opportunity to help Lenovo take their customer service to an entirely new level. Significantly more users than we had expected visited the beta launch (articles and blogs like yours were a significant factor) and most importantly we saw the kinds of metrics we could have only hoped for. I personally assisted a number of customers who toured the eLounge to browse Lenovo’s laptops. What is most important is that these  – for the most part  – were purchases that otherwise may not have happened, at least not on a traditional retail web site. In addition, we have seen excellent retention rates. Even when users don’t make purchases, they spend a lot of time surrounded by Lenovo’s brand – over time this will also help conversions.

Obviously there are customers that go to the Lenovo web site that intend to make a purchase, and various tools facilitate that. While we are excited to help in that regard, what we always hoped would happen was that users would visit the site that did not have a specific intention of making a purchase, and would otherwise have bought from a retail store (likely helping a competitor to Lenovo) and instead they make the purchase from the eLounge as a result of an unplanned/informal conversation with a sales person or some other person like myself who just happens to be there.

In terms of challenges, there have been many. While the majority of users have had a smooth experience, some users encountered a variety of different bugs which we are fixing as they arrive (users send us e-mails at support@projectchainsaw.com with their bugs). Most users were able to get in and navigate without any specific help, but here have been some that required assistance, so we are working to make interaction even more intuitive and fluid. One really notable challenge was that Lenovo sales staff had to adjust their mode of operation. Call centers wait for a customer to call to initiate a dialogue, unlike the real world where we can reach out to shoppers.

We had to spend time honing that skill to get the right balance of support (i.e. not jump in someone’s face when they first arrive, but make certain that they know you are there and available to assist if you need help). The biggest challenge of all is that people want more, a lot more.

Have there been any new developments with eLounge since the time of the CES 2009 launch?

Nic: Yes, there have been a number of new developments, some deployed others coming soon. Most importantly, Lenovo has seen the positive metrics we had hoped for and have committed to coming out of beta and doing a full supported launch (coming soon!). Changes that have been deployed include a large number of bug fixes, a few new features in the client (like notification when new users arrive via a desktop balloon) with many more coming. While there have been a few minor content updates, there will be many more coming when the site launches out of beta.

Tell us about other enterprise use of web.alive?

Nic: There has been a tremendous interest in web.alive from an enterprise perspective. Whether it be as a global water cooler (e.g. as an enterprise, place web.alive on your global internal home page to enable informal/accidental collaboration and discussion between your employees) or as an alternative for internal meetings (in particular those that would require travel). We have been particularly happy with the tremendous support and pull from within Nortel and have slowly been rolling out web.alive for internal use. We have also been building a number of features to better support internal collaboration beyond just positional voice and slides etc.

Our ultimate goal is to find ways that we can make web.alive collaboration more effective than face to face. The seams ambitious, but there are a number of challenges with face to face communication, let alone current telecommunication technologies that we believe we can address. The simplest example is knowing who you are speaking to or who is talking – this is often a challenge even face to face. More exciting examples include detecting and displaying emotion – there are people who don’t communicate very effectively because they are not skilled at detecting emotion (in the extreme, people with forms of autism) – we believe that over time we can augment and provide that kind of information.

Has there been any existing or planned consumer use of web.alive?

Nic: We are actively working on models to support low-end deployments of web.alive. I have always stated as a goal that my mother in-law should be able to embed web.alive in her personal web site. While technically we support a simple embed tag (in theory she could embed the eLounge on her page), we have yet to deploy a single environment built for this purpose. Most challenging of course if establishing the right business model for this, which is something we are actively working on. We will have something this year that will support small businesses.

What are customers telling you they’d like to see in web.alive?

Nic: This is a really difficult question to answer because we have talked to so many people, whether they be casual users in the eLounge or companies that we have talked with. Common themes would include a higher degree of interaction (e.g. shaking hands, more fluid and realistic animation, taking apart laptops etc.); more audio controls like the ‘cone of silence’ for private discussions; means to invite friends and better ways of staying connected.

What’s on the feature roadmap for web.alive?

Nic: We will be working to further optimize the new user experience (from client optimizations in size and speed to usability etc.), enable small businesses, enhance collaboration and make the whole experience much more immersive and interactive. We are also looking to start rolling out our community (user and developer) in 2009 to enable more contribution and an eco-system of value co-creation.

What does the future hold for enterprise focused virtual environments?

Nic: There is no question in my mind that immersive positional audio will fundamentally transform how we communicate. I believe we will start to see the kind of connectionless (from a user perspective) communications that happen in web.alive that enable “accidental collaboration” to permeate how enterprise users interact with each other, their suppliers and their customers. Eventually, calendar based meetings will become significantly less frequent as issues are resolved on the fly. Ultimately, I am convinced that virtual environments will facilitate this way of communicating by enabling rich immersive and dynamic collaboration. Just consider how an enterprise could use web.alive to improve their brand awareness by letting their customers hold virtual events or get-togethers with their network of friends, family and associates.

The best part if that we have a number of surprises (well, if you’re a techie like me they are surprises 🙂 – features that have not been rolled out but that we have built and are playing with. I won’t expand on what they are just yet, but we will roll some of them out over the coming weeks and months, and I assure you they are exciting. These features will really help incentivize enterprises into taking the leap and jumping into this kind of technology by doing things that can only be done with the kind of architecture.


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