From mobile learning solutions to deep interactive experiences, The Iona Group and its sister company, Float Mobile Learning, stand on the cutting edge of the creative process.
In 1984, two men left their teaching careers to strike out on their own. Founded by Dave Berry and Steve McNair, Ink & Image was the shared dream of two friends, one a writer and the other an artist. The newly formed company focused on the design and development of materials used by Caterpillar and Pioneer for corporate presentations and events.
“We primarily produced 35mm slides for our clients’ presentations,” says McNair. “We had the best 35mm compound camera for its time and produced literally hundreds of thousands of slides.”
It was a watershed year for technology. Apple’s Macintosh was launched with one of history’s most memorable TV commercials. The term cyberspace was coined by sci-fi writer William Gibson. IBM introduced the first portable computer—weighing at a hefty 30 pounds—and Microsoft was readying a product called Windows. Dell Computer, Mark Zuckerberg and the 3.5-inch floppy disk were all born in 1984.
As computers gradually entered the mainstream, Ink & Image put them to use, but not in its core business of slide production. “Our first computer was a DOS Epson laptop with a green tinted screen; green, blocky text; and a hard drive with far less capacity than the RAM on today’s machines,” said McNair. “This early laptop cost us $5,000…We used it primarily for word processing and spreadsheets.”
Scott McCormick, now a partner, joined Ink & Image shortly after its founding. “I was a ‘jack of all trades,’ doing graphic design, slide photography, writing and quality assurance,” he recalls. “The three of us had a small-business survival mentality. We were willing to take on any challenge to be successful. They were challenging times—with tight deadlines and sleepless nights—but they were also a lot of fun.”
Opportunity Amidst Change
Inevitably, the creation of ever more elaborate presentations led the firm to incorporate the latest technologies into its work. “When we purchased our first computer system to create slides, the computer and film recorder cost us over $100,000,” McNair recalls. “We processed all of our film in-house…We didn’t want to have to depend on an outside company.”
But as computers grew more affordable and their power increased substantially, the times were a-changin’. Most significantly, the emergence of Microsoft’s PowerPoint brought audiovisual presentations to the masses—now, anyone could easily create them on their own. It was the death of 35mm slides in the corporate world, and it could well have spelled the end of a lesser firm.
But opportunity arose from the ashes of obsolescence, as it so often does. Continuously improving technologies meant that resources could be funneled toward far more sophisticated work than was previously within the reach of a small firm. With the purchase of video editing software, Ink & Image began to chart a new course, one that would pay great dividends in the future.
It was the mid-1990s. CD-ROMs were in vogue, Apple was nearly bankrupt, and pagers were far more common than cell phones. Using Macromedia’s Director software, the company was combining video, animation and graphics into presentations with greater and greater sophistication. Soon, Director gave way to Flash, and the early video editing software was replaced by Premier, and later, Final Cut. Meanwhile, a network of linked documents known as the World Wide Web was about to spur even greater change.
The Next Chapter
By 1999, Ink & Image had evolved far from its origins, and its name no longer seemed to make sense. That year, the company was reinvented as The Iona Group, named after a small island off the coast of Scotland, revered as a bastion of learning and creativity during Europe’s Dark Ages. For a cutting-edge firm riding the wave of the 21st-century technology boom, it was both a reflection of its recent evolution and a blueprint for what was to come.
Change was afoot within the company’s leadership ranks as well. In the early 2000s, Dave Berry, one of the original partners, sold his stake in the company to John Feser, then a manager at the global consulting firm Accenture. Feser had an electrical engineering degree, an MBA and a background in project management, operations and finance, and was looking to run a business built on creative innovation. It was a natural match. Feser brought in a colleague at Accenture, Tom Marchal, to help run the company, and the modern corporate structure of The Iona Group was in place.
Likewise, Iona’s work was coalescing into three major areas of practice: Learning, focused on the development of eLearning solutions, Events and Exhibits, encompassing deep interactive experiences and high-definition video for conferences, trade shows and museum installations, and Web, focused on architecting high-performance content management solutions for web applications. It was a natural pathway from the company’s early days—building on past strengths, with an eye on the future.
The spin-off creation of Float Mobile Learning in 2010 was another important milestone. “Iona recognized a coming industry trend for just-in-time information delivered to an ever-increasing number of smartphones, tablets and other mobile devices,” explains Chad Udell, solutions architect and team leader for The Iona Group and Float’s managing director. “We wanted to meet the need expressed by our clients, so we leveraged our expertise in learning and technology to create a new company focused completely on mobile learning.”
Iona in Action
The Iona Group’s roster of clients encompasses a range of leading organizations, from Caterpillar and State Farm to DuPont and Abbott Laboratories. They have created exhibits for Midway Airport and the Shedd Aquarium, coordinated interactive events for Bradley University and Pioneer Hi-Bred, and produced web applications for Tyson Foods and the Chicago Field Museum.
“One thing that is very different about the work we do is that every solution or project is different,” says Udell. “Most of the time, we are solving a problem or crafting a new application that has never been built before.
“We’ve replicated audio from a World War II sub, we’ve created remote-controlled robots with computer vision, we’ve made iPads talk to each other, we’ve built custom Dance Dance Revolution arcade installations, we’ve designed text messaging games for 1,500+ people…the list goes on and on,” he adds. “You’d be hard-pressed to find a single thread that runs through all of them…but they all required ingenuity and dedicated research to pull off.”
On the web side, The Iona Group has developed a myriad of online games, viral promotional campaigns, websites and microsites. Most recently, it redesigned Oyez.org, the single largest repository of U.S. Supreme Court data, with a real-time search interface. It is the authoritative source for all audio recorded in the Court since a recording system was installed in 1955—more than 6,000 hours of fully searchable audio and transcripts.
Iona’s work for museums has earned it quite a reputation. In 2006, its World War II submarine display for Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry (MSI) won a national award. Three years later, it collaborated with Adler Planetarium on “Planet Explorer,” an assortment of fun, interactive learning experiences for children. The firm has built interactive displays for the Children’s Discovery Museum in Normal, and most recently, it provided audio and video services for the MSI’s Dr. Seuss exhibit.
The success of Iona’s interactive work hinges upon the consistent production of memorable experiences. A recent installation for Growmark incorporated iPads, touch screens and a local area network to create a fun, educational game that was played by thousands of visitors at the Farm Progress Show in Decatur. Its Pioneer-branded edition of Dance, Dance Revolution was a hit with students at the Future Farmers of America show in Indianapolis. And attendees of Bradley University’s Renaissance Gala several years ago will not soon forget the interactive game show put together by Iona, with more than 1,000 participants sharing campus memories via texts and videos.
At the Heart of Mobile
Beyond the bells and whistles of The Iona Group’s interactive projects, a prescient vision has placed its sister company at the heart of one of today’s hottest trends. With the recent explosion of mobile devices, Float Mobile Learning is taking a core Iona strength to a whole new level.
Having developed learning and training solutions for many years, The Iona Group held a deep reservoir of experience in that domain. But as growth in the mobile marketplace skyrocketed, it became clear that its clients would benefit from a more focused effort. Enter Float Mobile Learning, a spin-off company, focused exclusively on the mobile learning environment.
Float’s Advice for Businesses Going Mobile
- Start small, build a minimum viable product and go from there.
- You may not need “an app for that.” Examine using the mobile web, too!
- Mobile isn't a “Phase 2” decision—it's a “Phase 1” must-do.
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- You're not too late to the party! Start now and ride the wave…
“Mobile learning in the workplace may be the single largest transformative force for increased productivity and safety since the advent of the desktop computer,” claims Udell. “The ability to put just-in-time information at the fingertips of your employee network is a powerful capability. Businesses that recognize this and use it to their advantage will have the ability to add greatly to the bottom line.” To that end, Float helps its clients leverage this power by making useful information accessible to them—anytime, anywhere.
That power lies not only in the value of the information itself, but also in the context in which it is delivered. John Feser cites an example to illustrate the importance of context in the mobile environment. “Imagine that two people are standing, looking up at the Willis Tower,” he says. “One is a real estate broker looking for a tenant. The other is a tourist trying to decide which sites to see while visiting Chicago. Both grab their smartphones to do a search on the Willis Tower, yet each has a different objective. The real estate broker is looking at occupancy rates, rents and lease terms, while the tourist is looking for information about the building and what hours it is open for visitors.
“The power of mobile learning,” he continues, “is that each person, using their own personal device, can access the information they need at the exact point in time when they need it. This makes mobile learning a private and customizable experience.”
Indeed, from the classroom to the boardroom and beyond, mobile learning promises to transform the world dramatically. “2012 is going to be a huge year for mobile,” Udell assures. “Consumer demand for mobile apps and services is going to boil over into the enterprise. Businesses will start to realize great ways to leverage these devices and roll out their own apps and services to take advantage of this enthusiasm.” And Float Mobile Learning is leading the way into this new world, helping to fulfill the original promise of the Internet—all the world’s information, quite literally at one’s fingertips.
Positioning the Future
Fast-paced, deadline-driven work can be a grind. It can wear you down and burn you out. That’s why Iona and Float take great steps to reduce the stress that comes naturally with that territory. Workplace amenities—flexible hours, the ability to work off-site, the latest tools and technologies, the Keurig coffeemaker in the break room—are just a start.
Mutual respect and a family-oriented approach are hallmarks of employment at Iona/Float. There are regular get-togethers for employees and their families, and a shared camaraderie and commitment to excellence permeates their work. “We are a tight-knit bunch,” says Udell. “Each of us brings a diverse set of talents that come together for the good of our clients, and we all like to be challenged, which allows us a chance to learn and grow.”
Besides the sheer variety of work, the satisfaction that comes from developing innovative solutions to particularly vexing problems cannot be underestimated. “We love projects where we can work alongside a client who wants us to bring our best creativity,” Udell adds. “When we get smiles and thanks from the end user—and the client knows it was because of the creativity we employed to get it—those are the most rewarding.”
Looking toward the future, The Iona Group and Float Mobile Learning are well positioned to move on the technology trends of tomorrow. A human-oriented approach to design will be crucial—Steve Jobs proved this—and Iona/Float are poised to bring this insight into the coming world of “ubiquitous computing.” It’s a world in which machines are designed to fit the human environment, not the other way around—a world in which computers are so thoroughly integrated into everyday life that most people will hardly notice they are there. This, according to Udell, is the next step in the evolution of the mobile web.
Sound scary? He suggests that you think of that phrase in several different ways. “First, think of ubiquitous transportation. All that means is ‘traveling by car.’ Everyone does it; no one thinks twice about it. Secondly, simply break the phrase into two parts. The first, ubiquitous, simply means ‘everywhere, worldwide, global.’ And of course, computing is something that happens whether it's an ATM, check-out register or laptop.
“When ubiquitous computing arrives, you'll be less aware of it then when you step into your automobile to go to the grocery store,” declares Udell. “With Float's focus on putting the right information in the right person's hands at the right time, we're positioning ourselves to be able to help this evolution occur.” iBi