How to be more innovative (by copying games)

We’re in the midst of a glut of applications, all trying to be disruptive, innovative and ground breaking. And that’s great, except that the predominant method of being disruptive, innovative and ground breaking is… to copy other disruptive, innovative and ground breaking systems which are almost identical to our own. (Only our’s completely different, because this one is green and that one is blue!)

The truth is, of course, that nothing great was ever made in isolation. We all stand on the shoulders of giants, and copying, optimising and tweaking is how most progress is made. No, the problem isn’t copying, per se… It’s that we keep copying the wrong thing.

In IT we tend to find ourselves a niche, then exploit that niche for all its worth.  This is not a bad thing – niches are one of the best ways to form a market for a product in an already-saturated space. What that means though, is that when we look for things to copy, things to be inspired by, we look at products in the same niche. Of course, those other niche dwellers then copy from us, and we copy from them, and we end up in a downward spiral of sameness, digging deeper and deeper. Our niche becomes a hole and we can’t even see over the edge any more.

A badly bogged excavator with the caption 'Dig up stupid'
Help! My Niche is too deep!

Even when we’re trying to look beyond our field, we all-too-frequently miss one of our nearest technology neighbours; video games. We see their field as too far removed, too different to our own to be worth stealing from.

Which is, of course, ridiculous. Because when it comes to innovation, video games have us well and truly licked.

Games innovate, all the time. If we want to be more innovative, we should be looking harder at games.

Let’s take a case in point.

I see what you did there
An X-Box Kinect Sensor

This is the Microsoft Kinect Sensor, first generation. It was created to let developers use the whole human body as a game controller, and it does this very well. Interestingly though, it was not developed with business applications in mind… Nor was it developed for online media companies, or social network applications. It was developed for games. And it worked very well in that space for years before eventually some bright spark in the corporate space realised that maybe, just maybe, this kind of commodity gaming hardware could be repurposed to serve their needs.

For example, a few years ago I heard about a project which involved repurposing the Microsoft Kinect Sensor to record the behaviour of users in shops; where they went when they arrived, where they lingered, what they passed without a second glance. To do this sort of research manually would cost thousands in salaries for people to stand around with clipboards noting activity… And even then the data would be unreliable. Nothing puts you off lingering at a retail display quite like having a stranger watching you and taking notes on a clipboard every time you move!

Another, similar project from a different company involved creating gesture-based alternatives for information kiosks. These large screen kiosks could be placed indoors behind a window, making them a much less attractive target for theft or graffiti while still allowing passers-by to interact with them and the information they presented.

The truth is that games have been pre-empting mainstream IT for decades. The world thought smart phones were ground breaking – a pocket-sized, fully programmable device at a consumer price point? A few people ‘in the know’ scoffed and talked about the previous generation of PDAs, but when it comes right down to it… The Nintendo Game Boy first went on sale in the late 1970s. A pocket-sized, fully programmable device, at a consumer price point. The gamers got there first.

It’s not just about hardware though. Here’s a bit of a history refresher:

A timeline showing the times when various services and products became available compared to games offering similar services. See paragraph below for specific products.
Do you remember when…?

The digital app store? Both the Apple app store and Android market went live in 2008. Beaten three years earlier by Steam Digital Distribution, an online store for digital download video games.

Software as a Service? That’s huge business now, with Amazon EC2 coming out in 2006, and Writely, the precursor to Google Documents, hitting the web a year earlier in 2005. Then of course, there’s the behemoth that is Salesforce – way back in 1999. But then again, Everquest an early MMORPG and spiritual precursor to modern games like World of Warcraft, came out in 1997. And that’s not even counting the early “Multi-User Dungeons” or “MUDs” which gamers populated for years earlier.

Casual apps? Those single purpose, one-hit wonders like Instagram or SnapChat? You could look to the release of J2ME, which heralded the entrance of apps to phones and is a respectable fifteen years old now, but really… Minesweeper? Circa 1960-ish.

Really, we’ve been ‘late to the game’ for a long time now. It’s time we started watching more closely.

I’ve got several specific ways lessons which we can learn, and over the next few weeks I’ll be going into a bit more detail on several of them. Keep an eye out.

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