Should You Close Your Physical Innovation Lab and Open One in the Metaverse?

By Scott Kirsner |  March 11, 2022

At our February members’ meeting, we talked about the fate of real-world innovation spaces — as well as what experiments companies are running to bring people together in the digital realm. 

Members talked about some physical spaces being repurposed, or needing to justify their existence under intense scrutiny. But no one said their innovation lab had been shuttered as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The one-hour conversation spent less time on brick-and-mortar facilities, though, and more discussing the possibilities of bringing people together for meetings and collaboration in virtual reality, and some of the training and support hassles that can create. Members also discussed some of the metaverse platforms they’ve been experimenting with.

Members on the call represented industries including consumer packaged goods, insurance, healthcare, food, telecom, manufacturing, retail, and financial services. As with all of our member’s meetings, when we share notes, we give companies and speakers anonymity. 

Our next members’ meeting takes place on April 8th, and focuses on driving innovation in sustainability

• Some companies with large innovation labs occupying expensive real estate are looking at reopening them as potential hybrid office spaces — a place to convene people more casually (and not just innovation team members.)

• Other companies, especially those without headquarters located in major cities, rely on their innovation centers in urban locations as a way to host events and activations, train employees, and plug in to the startup ecosystem. At least one person said the odds of keeping their Chicago innovation center open was a “10 out of 10.”

• One member based in Silicon Valley argued that with any videoconference-based innovation activity or online conference, “it can be a challenge to get engagement. We think in-person is where it’s at.” His facility has been open and active through much of the pandemic. Another member added, “We treat [our innovation] space as a prototype that’s always changing; we rearrange it based on how people feel it would work best.” 

• But that same member said his team had put a lot of work over the past two years into making online collaboration sessions more engaging. He looked at the videogame streaming site Twitch for examples of how streamers held the attention of the people watching their channel. “It was almost like we had to treat virtual meetings as a TV show,” with polls, word clouds, ice breaker activities, etc. “When you’re asking for three hours of someone’s time [for an innovation workshop], you need to make sure they’re engaged,” he said.

Accenture recently purchase 60,000 VR headsets so its employees can collaborate better in a virtual environment. 

• Accenture recently purchased 60,000 VR headsets so its employees can collaborate better in a virtual environment. Some InnoLead member companies have done the same, at a smaller scale, so that colleagues can connect in a virtual environment. 

• Members talked about dealing with VR challenges, including keeping sessions in the 20 to 30 minute range to avoid headset fatigue, and providing hands-on training to senior execs who may not have used a headset before. Giving people outside of a particular company access to custom-built VR spaces remains a challenge.

• One member mentioned the meeting platform Glue, and using headsets from Oculus and Pico to give people access. Another said he’d tried platforms like Mozilla’s Hubs and NextMeet, with an eye toward software that could remain stable even when being used by a large group of people. 

• One CPG company has built out a CAVE physical space for use in prototyping store environments, and often takes people into it as part of innovation process to understand how people look at shelves, and walk around it stores. The next version could be set up as a purely VR environment, this member said, with people logging in from their homes.

• It sounded as though any sort of group activities in virtual environments required not only hardware purchases, but a fair amount of training and tech support to get people onboard. 

The future of innovation is showing — not telling.

• Several members are inviting startups into their physical innovation spaces to foster collaboration and lend a sense of energy and activity. But one member who had done that prior to the pandemic cautioned, “There were pros and cons. When you try to get the real estate teams and business units involved, they want to know if it is a loss leader? Will it generate revenue? If you promise to make money, you will have to prove that. And that’s so unpredictable.”

• “The future of innovation is showing — not telling,” said one participant. In the past, those demonstrations have typically occurred in physical innovation centers. Increasingly, they may happen in the metaverse.


(Featured photo by Maxim Hopman on Unsplash.)