A Virtual Robot Tour Inside Accenture's New Liquid Studio

Enterprise-scale businesses all want to innovate in as quick and agile a fashion as start-ups. As Apple, Facebook, Google, and countless Silicon Valley start-ups transform not only how software is delivered but the agile, freely creative culture in which they do it, slower-moving Fortune 500 and Global 2000 businesses want to approach innovation and product development the same way.

Technology consulting firm Accenture recently launched its new Liquid Studio to give those large, global enterprises a tangible space to do just that. Studio Launch Director Max Furmanov described the studio as "a new-age delivery center helping clients approach software engineering in new and innovative ways." The first of many planned Liquid Studios, this one located on San Francisco Bay, opened this past March as a more modern type of rapid application development (RAD) center using agile software development methods, software architectures incorporating reusable components, and automation tools to develop cutting-edge applications for custom business use cases. The studio pairs teams of Accenture software engineers with companies.

"The reasons our clients want the rapid development the studio offers is to keep innovating or they'll end up out of business," said Furmanov. "Our Technology Vision study found that 52 percent of Fortune 500 companies from the year 2000 are gone today. Look at Airbnb—the largest accommodation provider in the world today—they essentially sprung up overnight, and their only cost of entry to disrupt that business was building an app."

Furmanov said the company's vision for Liquid Studios is tied in with its philosophy toward emerging tech research, and toured me (remotely) around the newly built space using Beam, Accenture's trusty robot tour guide. Furmanov controlled the segway-like robot with a camera and screen for a face using a Liquid Apps Studio Beam app on his Macbook from their NYC office. You can see Beam roaming around the Liquid Studio (at around the 0:15 mark) in this video.An Eye on Emerging TechAside from overseeing the Liquid Studio, Furmanov is the Global Managing Director of Accenture's Emerging Technology practice, an applied research and project group comprised of approximately 200 employees. The group reports directly to Accenture's CTO. Furmanov said his team is constantly focused on 10-12 primary areas of research. Furmanov pointed to the Internet of Things (IoT), wearable technology, and cognitive computing innovations in computer vision and video analytics as areas Accenture sees advancing toward varying levels of enterprise maturity. He talked about each in detail as Beam the robot navigated through the studio.

The agile, start-up-like development the inaugural studio practices, Furmanov explained, wouldn't be possible without incredible recent advances in cloud infrastructurevirtualization, and modularized software architecture through lightweight app containers and microservices. He said traditional businesses need a new silo-free operating model, and the Liquid Studio is Accenture's living, breathing example of how enterprises can transform their culture, people, skills, and technology in a modern workplace."Over the past decade or so, we've gone through a hardware revolution. Hardware is no longer a constraint in creating enterprise systems," said Furmanov. "Those constraints are gone now; infrastructure is infinite, it's elastic, it's almost free when bought as a service. So we can now revolutionize the way software is being delivered. The idea behind the studio is to put this culture and technology together to work on projects, and turn an idea into an end-to-end experience."

The Question of 'Enterprise Innovation'Accenture isn't the first enterprise tech company to have this idea. IBM tried something similar about a decade ago with the Enterprise Process Innovation Continuum, a collection of software and services to help companies transition to software-oriented architecture (SOA), the precursor to today's concepts of agile development and modularized microservice architectures. IBM didn't open a sleek Silicon Valley office space, but many companies have attempted to implement similar philosophies over the past few decades.

Rob Enderle is Principal Analyst at The Enderle Group and an IT industry veteran who has spent the past 20 years consulting for companies including Dell, HP, IBM, Intel, Microsoft, and others. He said the idea of creating a remote idea center for innovation is a good one and that so-called skunkworks projects have often covered ground that a firm couldn't cover internally. But he remains skeptical about the studio's ability to adhere to enterprise requirements.

"For IT projects that have far more formal requirements tied to line of business, the separation from those businesses generally creates late-stage mismatches unless there is a viable representative for that business in the group," said Enderle. "That last part is often forgotten or poorly staffed and, as a result, while these efforts do conclude more quickly, the results are often mis-targeted and unsuccessful. It's not that this can't work; it's that the part to make it work is either forgotten or not adequately assured."

Enderle also pointed out that, as a consulting company, Accenture may not be well-versed enough in company development practices to assure compliance. That said, overall, he's optimistic about what Liquid Studio represents for the industry.

"It is also very hard for a third party like Accenture to assure [IT requirements] because they typically don't have a deep enough understanding of the customer company to assure compliance," said Enderle. "With improved enterprise-class social collaboration tools and a vastly lower confidentiality requirement, when compared against externally focused product offerings, it should be much easier to keep projects like this coupled with the lines of business. As a result, efforts like this should have increasing success over time."

Roving Around the Liquid StudioThe studio itself is what you'd expect from a newly opened Silicon Valley office space. In the 160-seat studio, there are wide-open workspaces with comfortable chairs, sofas, and coffee tables strewn about—like a lounge with whiteboards hanging here and there, interspersed with islands of clustered desks, computers, and tabletop work areas Furmanov called "pods." The pods are broken up by either project team or emerging tech teams made up of six or more members.

"The environment affects the productivity of the people working in it," said Furmanov. "You want to be in a cool office. One that's collaborative, one that actually has sunlight. Each pod has a living room area as well, to work in a casual environment, and we're letting teams totally customize the space."

The space has executive offices and glass conference rooms lining the outside of the studio, but the main thing you notice is the clean open layout and the sun shining in from the bay. There's also what Furmanov called a "client immersion zone," another open area with long tables for companies to set up shop and work. This free-form start-up feel isn't an accident.

The reason Accenture built the inaugural studio in Silicon Valley was to tap into its start-up ecosystem. The company runs a program called Open Innovation that builds relationships with late-stage start-ups that already have a product on the market by working with accelerators, research and design labs, venture capital (VC) firms, and universities.

Accenture let some of the start-ups and companies with whom it partners [such as operational intelligence company Splunk, location-sharing app Glympse, and live-event user experience (UX) platform VenueNext] set up shop in the Liquid Studio to show enterprise clients what the space is designed to do. It's a living example of the kind of start-up agility enterprises seek. As he remotely controlled Beam the robot, Furmanov explained how Accenture partnered with Glympse, a large enterprise retail client, in the Liquid Studio. "This retailer was facing a lot of challenges around logistics, so trucks delivering goods from warehouses to stores all over the country," said Furmanov. "The loading and unloading process was all really poorly executed. So we got Glympse into the studio and sat down with this client's VP of Innovation, and had a four-hour design-thinking session, in a casual environment with interactive technology, and came up with three use cases we're now working to put into action." As we navigated around the wearables pod—the collection of workstations, dummies, and mounted displays where engineers work on connected and IoT devices—Furmanov talked about another early creation from the studio. He said the wearables team is currently working on 8-10 projects spanning industries from aerospace to healthcare. As Beam the robot whirred past a table with heads-up display wearables mounted on mannequin heads, Furmanov talked about an augmented reality (AR) use case in which Accenture is helping aerospace engineers assemble planes using AR glasses to superimpose manual instructions in their field of vision.

On the IoT front, Furmanov said Accenture worked with another client to build a Raspberry Pi-based prototyping device connected to IBM's open-source Node-RED IoT platform, turning app creation into an automated drag-and-drop process for quick trial and error.

"We built a platform for rapid prototyping of IoT applications and are working with start-ups in that space to enable it," said Furmanov. "The goal in the studio was to create a platform we could ideate and use to build sensor and actuator applications very quickly. We're using a microservices-based application for that, and we have a life sciences client that makes medical devices who we're helping create a set of devices and sensors that can monitor a patient who normally needs to be hospitalized in their home instead." One of the last areas Beam the robot showed us was a lobby with a giant touchscreen monitor that can be wheeled around for interactive presentations. Here, Furmanov talked a bit about Accenture's research in cognitive computing, which he said is still a bit over-hyped and far less mature than people think when it comes to artificial intelligence (AI). The most concrete strides researchers and tech companies are making, he said, are in computer vision and machine learning.

"Video analytics is one area we're seeing realistic strides in," said Furmanov. "Very sophisticated software that can recognize different shapes, objects, and even behavior patterns. Another one is natural language processing where virtual agents have gotten much better at understanding human speech."

There are no concrete plans yet for when and where the next Liquid Studio will open, but Accenture plans to launch them all over the world. (The company opened an AI lab in Dublin in 2015 and has another R&D facility in southern France. Furmanov mentioned those as ideal locations for a Liquid Studio to work closely with the labs.) Enterprises all want to find the start-up spark that fuels the next game-changing product that sets the market or reinvents how they do business. Whether it comes out of a Liquid Studio, only time will tell.

This article originally appeared on PCMag.com.