Virtual World Concepts for CPG: Challenges!


In the first installment of this series, we talked about how CPG companies might apply the first-person POV popularized in MMORPGs like World of Warcraft to achieve a more lifelike experience with consumers in virtual store environments.  In the second installment we explored how CPG companies are leveraging Second Life – a multi-user virtual environment (“MUVE”) – to enhance both their consumer-facing activities and their internal operations.  Today we’ll discuss some of the practical challenges of using virtual world technologies in CPG operations.

Part 3—Challenges to Using Virtual World Technologies in CPG

There are technical challenges to using virtual world technologies in a business setting.  Environments like Second Life are hardware-intensive; to operate effectively they require an amount of CPU, RAM, graphics acceleration, and bandwidth that many corporate end user machines simply don’t possess today.  But history has proven that market forces push the evolution of such technologies at such a rapid pace these technical challenges will be a non-factor in the near future.

What I find more interesting are the socio-psychological challenges of using these technologies in daily CPG operations, specifically in the realm of virtual product design teams.  These challenges cannot be mitigated as easily as simply providing machines with more horsepower.  How do we recreate the social dynamics experienced by design teams accustomed to working face-to-face in a virtual environment?  Is it even optimal to do so?

How do we foster trust, participation, and creativity in virtual teams?

There is a wealth of excellent research available on this topic.  Many researchers reference Social Presence Theory and Media Richness Theory to argue that the closer we get to replicating the experience of face-to-face interaction (i.e. the “richer” the medium), the better the technology is at conveying social presence, and therefore the more effective the communication will be between collaborators.

But others have challenged this theory.  In their research Effects of Communication Medium on Interpersonal Perceptions, Connell, Mendelsohn, Robins and Canny suggest that a

“moderate level of richness and presence… makes for a medium that inspires less inhibition of expression than either of its more fully rich or lean counterparts. The results suggest that moderate presence of others allows one to relax just enough to feel comfortable and less inhibited, and moderate richness allows enough, but not too many, expressive cues to still manage impressions.”

In developing their Embodied Social Presence Theory, Dr. Brian Mennecke et al. ( extended Social Presence Theory to investigate how the “physical” body of an avatar adds to the richness of communication by heightening the sense of engagement between virtual actors.

“It is the perceptions of the interaction mediated through the body that gives the user a sense of engagement that is more involving than would be the case in other media. Key to this interactive potential are the shared contexts, shared spaces, shared objects, shared activities, and the tools for interaction that exist within the milieu of artifacts that define the shared virtual experience.”

Check out this excerpt from PBS’ Frontline presentation “Digital Nation” that shows how IBM is leveraging embodiment in Second Life to facilitate internal meetings.

I am working with Dr. Mennecke to identify industry partners for field research on Embodied Social Presence Theory; if you are interested in participating please contact me directly.