Rita King

Innovator-in-Residence

IBM's Analytics Virtual Center

Muse of the New Digital Reality

If anyone survives the digital revolution, it will surely be Rita J. King. Through imagination and will power, she plans to come out on the other side of this, landing on two feet in an augmented version of our semi-unhinged world.

She is not the type to sit around waiting for someone to tell her what that new reality will look like or what her place will be. “Instead of going along the path that is circumstantially dished out to us, we should create a path,” she says.

King began her career as an investigative journalist reporting on the relationship between corporations and government and the issues related to digital identity creation. She enjoyed writing stories about people and learning about them in a personal way. But as technology transformed around her—journalism was changing and the job market was falling apart—she began to feel constrained in her storytelling.

“The industry was not shifting enough for me toward the digital era,” Kings says. “I wanted to contribute something toward creating better systems.”

What helped her move forward was her gutsy faith in technology’s potential to enhance human relationships as it improves work. Operating under the banners of Dancing Ink Productions and the company’s design arm, The Imagination Age, King now develops mixed media/mixed reality business strategies, content and games for organizations that, like her, want to make creative transitions into the next economy.

And her high-powered positivity in this area has not gone unnoticed.

King is widely recognized as someone who can help us cross the bridge from this world to the digital realm. And her imaginative perception of the future relies heavily on her fluid sense of boundaries. She is currently leading a collaborative design team for a global storytelling game for the British Council that will launch in 110 countries in the fall.

She is a fervent advocate of the online virtual world Second Life, which is used by major corporations (including IBM; King is Innovator-in-Residence at IBM Analytics Virtual Center) and scientific organizations looking to train employees, create collaborative terrain for workforce development or hold virtual conferences.

Through her avatar, Eureka Dejavu, King moves through Second Life unencumbered by physical or social constraints, transcending her own body to explore a wide open and culturally diverse world. On a practical level, she calls it a “deep work environment” that enables on-the-spot exchanges of embedded media like Web pages, videos, and graphic simulations.

As an added bonus, she says, the virtual dimension fosters greater interpersonal understanding because it encourages people to drop their guard: “The subtler thing about Second Life is that some people are shy and they don’t speak up, but here, they don’t get physically uncomfortable. Second Life eliminates intimidation and heightens creativity. It’s really good for innovation.”

King has been breaking down physical barriers not just in the business world, but internationally, through what she calls “digital diplomacy.” The centerpiece of her efforts is a project called “Understanding Islam Through Virtual Worlds,” developed with collaborator Joshua S. Fouts while both served as senior fellows at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs. In the digital and borderless environment of Second Life, participants can take a Hajj to Mecca, visit ancient Mesopotamia or converse with an avatar protesting the violence in Gaza.

Ideally, these encounters enable an exploration of humanity without the hindrance of restrictive cultural norms.

“In facilitating a global story, you start to see what the shared values are instead of imposing values,” King explains.

Despite the virtual nature of “Understanding Islam,” there is still a very “nuts and bolts” dimension to assembling the infrastructure of such an endeavor. As a result, King spent an entire year traveling across four continents to promote the project and build it out.

“I make a lot of real world appearances,” she says. “Everything virtual to me is just an augmentation of the physical world. I don’t distinguish between them. I think they are one in the same.”

This is the essence of the virtual, according to King. It does not cordon us off into our own pockets of existence, but rather “amplifies our connectivity.” Virtual reality was created to make this world more expressive and interesting, not to provide a world of escape. And the slipping away of physical boundaries can be a revelatory experience.

“I’ve always been in it for the adventure,” King says. “I never pretend that the future is something we can understand with any degree of certainty, but I don’t believe that failure is an actual concept.”

Surely, King ‘s supreme optimism and empathic intelligence make her the perfect muse to guide us into the digital reality that awaits.