Manufacturers in Virtuality

Posted on Monday 5 November 2007

fuj01

Generally, I don’t follow the news of every company entering the virtual space. I just don’t care if Levi’s creates their own branded virtual world and, other than the advertising and marketing community, I don’t know who does (though I don’t doubt there are consumers out there who do care). Instead, I pay attention to those companies which might do something interesting on the product development side of things. That’s why Coca-Cola’s VirtualThirst competition was of interest, and it didn’t disappoint (reLink). It’s why Pontiac’s effort is more interesting to me than Mercedes’; one embraces the DIY/customization mindset while the other seemingly just wanted to push product. And even though it was very much a sales pitch, I couldn’t help but appreciate Dell’s fab-factory solution (reLink)

For that reason a few product companies dipping their toes in virtual worlds (and by that I’m excluding videogame worlds) have gotten my attention recently and I thought I’d mention them here. These are all in Second Life, but I’m hoping to read more news about companies trying Kaneva or one of the new Chinese worlds; anything that isn’t essentially a heavily controlled, conspicuously branded marketing platform.

Philips Design

Philips has actually been in Second Life for about a year now, though their low-key presence makes their entry seem more recent. They’ve been so low-key, in fact, that I don’t think most users are even aware Philips is involved in Second Life. A bit odd considering they had so many custom-named “Philips” avatars at one point. Of course from my own previous checks, many of those avatars apparently went unused (which is, I assume, the reason the “Philips” avatars are now mysteriously missing). This curious involvement on their part is what made something I read not long ago particularly interesting.

Via the “Putting People First” design blog entry provocatively titled “Philips Design claims to have found the key to understanding Virtual Worlds“, I made my way to the Philips press release provocatively titled “Philips Design finds the key to understanding Virtual Worlds” (Link). How can you not want to read what they have to say? From that enticing press release come these amazing insights:

Dialogue between Philips Design and the so-called ‘Philips Design Friends Group’ shows that Second Life residents have a greater than average interest in interactive participation and co-creation activities.

and

“One of the most sticking insights working with Philips Design Friends was that even though Second Life is sometimes considered a virtual game, in fact it is a very serious extension of peoples lives. People spend many hours online and invest energy, time, money and even passion into it,” says Slava Kozlov, Senior Research Consultant with Philips Design.

At this point one has to ask: Where have these people been? Hard to believe that it took them a year to figure any of this out. Had they simply immersed themselves into the online community instead of using SL as a form of virtual focus group, they’d have come to those same conclusions within a matter of weeks. Heck, they could have read Henry Jenkins’ book Convergence Culture (especially the chapter on Star Wars, which I just finished reading) and learned more about “interactive participation and co-creation activities” than they’ll get in two years of private group chat inside Second Life.

That’s not even the sad part. Just watch, there will be other manufacturers popping in and doing the Exact. Same. Thing. to learn something that is now generally common knowledge to those involved in this technology. Let’s just hope they don’t title their press releases as laughably overstated as Philips has (guess I can forget about having my request to join their group approved, eh?).

Electrolux

Instead of studying the Second Life virtual world through a group of interested and willing participants, Electrolux tackled a problem near and dear to my heart: how do you translate the business of everyday products like vacuum cleaners into something of worth to people who aspire to having flying Bugatti’s and butlers? They don’t actually solve that problem, but they do at least skirt around it in admirable fashion. From the developer’s blog entry discussing the solution (Link):

What emerged from this process was a virtual building dubbed the “Innovision Hub.” A place to recognize the achievements of real life innovators as well as the budding ones inside Second Life.
.
To demonstrate their appreciation and recognition of the emerging in-world innovators, Electrolux opened their building with a special ceremony to recognize and celebrate the most creative and exciting inventors in Second Life. The Innovision Awards were held at the top of the light bulb shaped building in a quirky and fun pavilion. The biggest and brightest names from around the community came out to participate. In addition to the awards given out to the 10 innovators, Electrolux also held a discussion panel with everyone gathered to talk about the unique challenges and issues Second Life inventors deal with.

While I think something like that is a nice solution, especially when there are virtual fashion shows which effectively promote those content creation efforts, I did notice at least one name missing from the awards list: Kermitt Quirk, the avatar behind the grid-shaking game Tringo. The game that at one point was so popular it was hard to avoid and garnered complaints for that very reason. A game-within-a-game (I know, I know. “It’s not a game!”) that became a central component to inworld marketing efforts for virtual products. A game which has been ported outside Second Life for license on other electronic devices. A game invention that garnered the attention of the Wall Street Journal (which is what prompted me to register), Wired, BusinessWeek, CNN and many other well-respected magazines.

Yes, I know. The competition required submissions so it’s likely Mr. Quirk didn’t bother to enter. But to not recognize the impact of it and perhaps other solutions is a real shame, imo. If nothing else, the Electrolux judges could have chosen an honorary award winner, because sometimes it’s not enough to rely on submissions. Maybe next year.

Now, where’s that solution to the bigger problem? There aren’t enough award categories for every manufacturer of mundane stuff to latch onto, y’know.

Fujitsu

Fujitsu is probably the most recent entrant into Second Life. Unfortunately I got the same vibe from their remote island outposts as I did from the Philips effort: primarily unengaged. I could be wrong, since most everything there seems to be in Japanese. Even so, based on the layout and the interface actions that pop up, their effort seems to me to follow the “put virtual versions of real products inside Second Life, insert code into those objects so that when someone clicks on it a browser opens to the product web page, then wait for people to show up… because they’re all just dying to visit the product’s web page”.

Perhaps there’s more to come. I did notice one of the devs apparently still working on the project, so I might give it another look some day. However, the length of this section of my post is indicative of my interest.

Next.

Alcatel-Lucent

This is actually the corporate entrant which prompted me to write this entry. Like the Electrolux effort this one is being handled by the Millions of Us development team. Unlike that effort this one has a more involved competition; one which – given all the interest in cell phone design among my ID peers – seemed like something worth mentioning to people on some of the design forums I occasionally haunt. From the MoU blog entry discussing it (Link):

In the spirit of user-generated-content, they’re actually seeking your help in designing the ultimate 4G gadget “by imagining what 4G will do for you in the Xtreme Innovation contest.”

Unfortunately, I’ve not read all the competition documentation since an important internet link was omitted from the notecard provided by Alcatel-Lucent’s virtual information kiosk.

I’ve asked for the link, so hopefully I’ll be able to append that information to this entry. In the meantime, for those IDers among you who might find this interesting, here’s a link to their press release – Alcatel-Lucent launches presence on Second Life® virtual reality site to explore the potential uses of next-generation technologies, including 4G mobile broadband networks (Link) – and a short excerpt from it -

Contest participants can enter one or several design prototypes for a functional device — gadget, heads up display (HUD), wearable communications device, video terminal, etc. — that makes Second Life or real life more enjoyable or productive. Entries – including designs, note cards, videos (flash, wmv, .Mov) or device prototypes, must be submitted (by December 1, 2007) to Alcatel-Lucent’s “Next Generation Design” submissions display located on the Main Plaza of Alcatel-Lucent’s SL site. All Entries will be confirmed within 48 hours and will become the property of Alcatel-Lucent.

No, the prize isn’t anything to instant message home about, and I expect their Terms will be lopsided, but the Reputation capital might be worth it to a few of you. And for those of you interested but unsure where to start, leave a comment and I’ll see what I can do to help.

  1.  
    11/6/2007 | 6:58 pm
     

    I dont agree with your opinion about Philips. Yes, perhaps for those who have been involved in Second Life for a longer while this might sound like an open door. However, I really feel that Philips Design is a front runner if it comes to corporate use of a virtual world. I feel they show they understand it much better then many other companies before and after them. They havent set up a copy of their headquarters, no empty island or useless socalled ‘viral competitions’. No, they understand that a virtual world is about interaction and conversation.
    I think they are doing more then just creating focus groups, they are actively inviting resitents to participate and show they are willing to listen to their opinions. Mind you, a big corporation like Philips works slightly different then an individual, things just need a bit more time. With all this negative publicity I am just plainly happy with such a huge company giving such a positive sound and actively participating in seminars and panel discussions.

  2.  
    11/6/2007 | 7:37 pm
     

    I’m not disputing whether Philips is a front runner; that’s actually implied in my comments.

    I’m also not saying they understand it less than “many other companies before and after(?) them”; which really wouldn’t be saying much at this point anyway.

    I’m also not faulting them for failing to set up what I would likely have considered a worthless corporate headquarters; I’ve not had many good things to say about companies that pursue such things and there’s no reason to think I’d change course now.

    I’m also not criticizing their lack of a “viral competition”; I’ve been fairly critical of most every competition – including Coca-Cola’s – so there’s no reason to believe I’d fault them on that point. As I think should be obvious, I appreciated Coca-Cola’s competition *not* for the competition itself, but for what happened as a consequence of their competition involvement: their approach to dealing with trademark infringement.

    My point is that while Philips issued a press release saying all the right (and painfully obvious) things, they managed to learn all those things in a particularly curious fashion, given the circumstances.

    As someone who’s spent plenty of time inside corporations, I understand how bureaucracy generally works. And business-as-usual is part of the problem, imo. Had Coca-Cola done the same, we’d not now have a precedent for how to deal with trademark infringement which breaks with the standard Cease & Desist legal approach.

    Thus, I’d make the case that while Philips might understand these things better than many companies, I don’t believe they understand better than Coca-Cola or those companies which are more fully engaged with the community and having to deal more immediately with the consequences of a convergence culture. Groups filled with people already interested in and supportive of the brand are not, in my opinion, the best way to learn. For all intensive purposes, their invite-only groups are just another kind of remote island.

  3.  
    Tom Spire
    11/7/2007 | 6:24 am
     

    I have to agree that Philips activity is so far disappointing. I have been following their activity ever since the first promising press release appeared (which is no longer available), because I study how companies can use virtual worlds for real life innovations for a PhD thesis. I contacted them several times, but could not get any information. Anyway, thanks for the great post!

  4.  
    11/7/2007 | 8:05 am
     

    Tom, would very much enjoy reading your thesis at some point. Will you be posting it online?

  5.  
    11/8/2007 | 12:17 pm
     

    csven, I do get your point and perhaps you are right. Have to give it a night sleep :)

    However, when I see Philips being present at all the seminars (also those that dont deal with virtual worlds directely), where they constantly share their experiences and goals with the audience and try to make others understand how they can deal with virtual worlds, that just makes me happy. The whole hype and bad marketing campaigns completely backfired in the past and the news from companies like Philips and Coca Cola are helping to give things a more positive turn again. Maybe this is why i am defending them ;)

    tom, if you still need to contact them, let me know, i might have some contact information for you

  6.  
    11/8/2007 | 6:55 pm
     

    Aside from the initial press release, and this latest thing, what “news” has come from Philips? I keep pretty close tabs on virtual world news items and haven’t read anything else.

    I’d be pleased to find out Philips has been more active than I believe them to be. Feel free to post links and update us.

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