Thinking About “Avoiding a Short Shot”

I’d earlier stated that at some point I’d re-post on this blog a piece I’d written elsewhere. Now seems like an appropriate time to do that. So here it is… minus the blockquote tags:

Avoiding A Short Shot

{Preface: I originally wrote this in June with the intention of submitting it to This was prior to the Second Life Relay for Life event when I was giving some thought to the role technology – and virtual world simulations in particular – would play in our lives. Yesterday I posted an entry over on the Core “Software & Technology” blog that is relevant to the point I was making below. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I can hardly wait to interact with some of the people mentioned in the article I reference in that entry. In any case, I had second thoughts about posting this long entry, but that article reminded me that it may still be worth posting. I hope my rambling, verbose style doesn’t interfere too much with the message.}

Until recently I’d not closely followed developments in Product Life-cycle Management (PLM) software, even though as an industrial designer I’m very much involved in product development and use software created by a large PLM developer. However, a few recent press releases have snapped me quickly back to attention. It started with news of Dassault’s acquisition of ABAQUS and ended with BusinessWeek’s article on UGS’s impressive software offerings (independently picked up and blogged by both Jerry and I). After the features and capabilities sank into my grey matter, I had a kind of mini-revelation: we’re potentially on the verge of “something wonderful”.

Not so long ago high-end 3D graphics of the kind those PLM programs are now leveraging was the exclusive domain of U.S. DOD military contracters and a relatively small clique of multi-nationals. It was cutting edge stuff. As recently as seven or eight years ago those of us using the tools could only dream of actually owning them. That is until videogames and the hardware necessary to power them tapped into the mass market and fueled their rapid development; the companies behind them developing so much market muscle they simply swallowed the old guard. As someone interested and involved in both product design and videogame/virtual world modding, I had perhaps a rather unique perspective observing two communities first colliding in competition and then merging.

As the saying goes, it’s deja vu all over again. The situation is similar, I’m just observing now from a slightly different perspective… one which includes time interacting within Second Life. And this is what I see. On the one side are the well-heeled PLM software companies with their full spread of offerings, and on the other side are the relatively small virtual reality software companies hungry for success and eager to innovate. This looks familiar. And is there really any doubt of the eventual outcome? Is there any question that in the near future all the capabilities (and more) in the corporate arsenal will not find it’s way into the toolbox of the average person? that what amounts to a collection of applications which links people for the primary purpose of creating and managing corporate “product” won’t find it’s way into every facet of our lives much in the same way iPods and blogs have become tools for everyone from goth kiddies to CEO’s? I think there’s little doubt that it will.

Comfortable in that prediction, let’s forget about hardware and software. It may be fun, and those details may seem especially important to the engineer in me, but there’s little doubt in my mind that those issues are becoming increasingly secondary. Truth is, it’s taken this supposedly forward-thinking geek overly long to realize that social networking [and collaboration] is the real prize now. Time for everyone to get on board… and here’s why.

Imagine future PLM/virtual world/blog tools/social networking apps as a train – a public vehicle on which people from all walks of life come together to move forward toward a more-or-less common destination. Typically the media focuses on big stories like successful open source applications or gee-whiz technology; and the fun, sometimes unexpected ways people use these things. It’s easy to package those stories for consumption. It’s good business when there’s so little good to report in today’s world. As a result it feels to me a little like the train is still being viewed from a corporate news satellite. And not just by the broadcasters, but by most of us who tune in to their future vision of the world. But all they’ve really done is refocus their lens on the outside of the train (and you only have to read some of the poorly written articles on videogame and virtual world developments to get a sense of how underqualified some journalists are to report on these things). The truly interesting stories seem to me to be what’s happening inside the passenger cabin – between the people.

At this point I want to shift to something seemingly unrelated (I like doing that sort of thing and I guarantee I will do it again). I want to apply the same kind of “history” regarding videocard technology as discussed earlier to social networking software. Now for all I know this exercise has been done, documented, discussed, and debated to death in academic circles about which I have no clue and/or to which I have no access. I’m no social networking guru. Truth is I barely leave my Second Life virtual plot of land. No matter. I’ll assume this is new for some others out there.

Let’s start by taking a look at the people in that passenger cabin (people using the new social software): the corporate executive using PLMware, the blue collar laborer playing team-based videogames, the student documenting their life on a blog, the drop-out connecting with other people via the latest web-based social app, the statistically-documented middle-class soccer mom running a virtual business in Second Life, etc ad nauseum. Wait a sec… to some degree, there’s already a kind of “creative abrasion” taking place; the kind which Nissan Design Chief Jerry Hirshberg wrote of in his book “The Creative Priority” (and here’s a nice article on how Mr. Hirshberg employs this method). And that’s mostly a good thing. People communicating thoughts and ideas is important for everyone because even if we don’t realize we’re learning, we are. And it’s happening in profound ways even if the mainstream media doesn’t quite understand and communicate that aspect of the interactions taking place. But that’s not the melting pot I’m now thinking about.

Shift again. The cool thing about having a gameboy-playing mother who’s old enough to collect social security is that when I explain concepts like augmented reality and PLM software and rapid prototyping, I have to give relatively straightforward explanations (unlike this post), and have to search for everyday analogies. During a recent phone conversation, as I flailed about attempting to find analogies to teach her some geek concept related to all of the above (someone send her gifts for exhibiting patience above and beyond the call of motherly duty), two names came up in the conversation: Stephen Hawking and Steve Jobs. Amazingly to me, she wasn’t entirely sure who they were. And in the course of talking about these two extraordinary individuals I realized that there were people entirely missing from her perception of the world. Shift back to that passenger cabin.

The significant juxtaposition isn’t between those on the train; it’s between “Us” and “Them” in a much broader context. There are people missing from our general perception of the world. Us being everyone actively involved in the world, and Them being all those who are, for whatever reason, excluded from actively engaging with the world. They’re the poor, the disadvantaged, the challenged, the terminally ill… just to name a few. We need to get them on board. And this isn’t a justification for giving charity, although that’s the format in which it’s often presented. In fact it’s even smart business. Imagine how many brilliant minds are out there. Imagine how much those of us already on the train could learn from those still at the station; it doesn’t have to be a one-way relationship (which I naively suggested in an earlier entry {re-posted earlier – reLink}). There’s the obvious: just one more Stephen Hawking would be an immeasurable find. But there’s also the less obvious: like those who are confronting or have faced death who can remind us all (as Steve Jobs did recently) of something far more important than all the software and hardware and corporate product we engineer, manage, distribute and/or consume.

It’s not about the hardware or software anymore. Let’s not short shot this.

{Original post: Second Life Future Salon blog, 13 September 2005}

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