Monday, December 7, 2009

Where are all the new ideas? I/ITSEC 2009 re-cap

Last week I attended I/ITSEC, which (if you haven't been) is an awesome display of immersive learning environments for government and military. The conference is a veritable who's who of technology and service companies who work in the training and simulation market for government and the sheer scale of the expo floor makes most other conferences I attend throughout the year seem like intimate meetings.

This was my second year attending I/ITSEC. Last year was my first, and it was a massive learning experience--a crash course in how the government approaches simulation and learning in 3D. This year, I knew a little something going in. This year, I was ready to conquer that immense expo floor and soak in all of the new and exciting technologies. This year, I was ready to be wowed instead of just trying to remember all of the acronyms.

This year, I was completely underwhelmed and frankly, kinda disappointed.

I should frame my feedback by admitting that I only had an expo pass, so I wasn't able to attend any of the sessions. That said, most of the real action at the conference happens on the expo floor (at least the action that isn't private meetings...). Maybe some of my disappointment is because the expo itself was only 3/5 of what it was last year. Surely, its because half of the booths I visited were showing the same technologies and demos that they showed last year.

There were some exceptions. I was geeked out by the DaVinci virtual surgery equipment. There were some interesting games in the Serious Games Pavillion. I had a great talk with a kindred spirit from Lockheed Martin, I saw an amazing example of virtual worlds for learning (more on this coming soon!), and our dopplegangers at Hybrid Learning continue to awe me with their mobile learning examples.

But by and large, there was nothing earth shattering. Not too much that warranted a second look. Anything really cool, you had to really look to find it. So in an industry with so much money, and so much obvious interest in simulations, games, and virtual worlds...why was I so disappointed?

  • The government procurement process and the phenomena of SIs (systems integrators) squash innovation. Small companies with great ideas get chewed up and spit out in a system that is more about who you know than what you know, and relationships are rewarded over innovation. More than anything else, the process dictates the climate/environment for innovation and the environment is a tough one for small, innovative companies to navigate.
  • In many ways, its still a good ol' boys club. There were booth babes that looked like (I'll give them the benefit of the doubt) strippers and/or prostitutes. One party included "snow bunnies." If I want to go to a strip club, I'll go. I'm not of the belief that great learning design happens while I watch girls dancing on poles, though, and I'm pretty sure that's not the best way to learn about the most effect and innovative learning solutions for our government and military workers.
  • Everybody is still so focused on the technology, they don't focus too much on the design. DESIGN IS MORE IMPORTANT THAN THE TECHNOLOGY. Sigh. The ongoing beating of that drum continues...
  • Everybody thinks they can design effective training. Everyone says they have instructional designers, like checking the box is all that matters. And so I will say again, instructional design is not simulation design is not game design is not virtual world learning design.
  • As big a market as it is, government and military would do well to look beyond government and military.
I will say, in my second year at the "big show," that I finally got all of the acronyms down. But getting past all of the industry lingo and fanfare, what I saw this year was a lot of money being spent on concepts, but not necessarily effective solutions. I saw a lot of intention resulting in poor execution but masked by glitzy technology.

I'd like to see more research. I'd like to see more data. I'd like to see more innovation in design. I'd like to see new players in the game. And I'd like to see that next year...


  1. Wow. Your bullets are beauties. And your final sentence, regretfully, most likely can be repeated next year. Booth babes - really? I have never been to I/ITSEC but the first sentence in each the five bullets does a good job of identifying the reality and frustration of working FOR the government. And #5 - how does the government overcome itself?

    Would like your view and observations of injecting some of the devLearn positives into a government conference - like the ATSC distributed learning workshop in March 2010.

  2. Hi Koreen and Bob! I struggle with the same frustrations, but from a slightly different point of view. I still struggle with the vendors at I/ITSEC with glaring signs that say "We Make Serious Games!" When they don't. They make simulations. They make simulations that can be programmed to run different scenarios. Are real world scenarios simulated in a virtual space considered serious games? I thought I knew the difference between simulations and serious games, but now I'm left scratching my head...wondering.

    I'd also like to hear your "view and observations of devlearn positives".

    BTW - I was also a bit put off by the booth babes made to shine shoes in the Blackboard booth, until I heard that this is a sweet little business that they run and many other conferences and do quite well for themselves. Of course I did not verify this - but I hope its true at least to some extent.