For the second of my reviews of SXSW I was struck by the importance of VR/AR/MR, this year it was much higher priority.
The VR Cinema was booked out. I had to wait 2 hours to have one of the experiences! – 11:11 by the SyFy Channel. It was an interesting example of how storytelling is becoming more gamified, with 7 linear, interlocking stories delivered inside a coherent universe and a challenge to find the last ship off a dying world.
There were other very different experiences such as an art piece based on the telegrams that were sent from the front in WW1 in which nothing could be written but only options crossed out. And an abstract environment created out of the words of a Bolivian journalist in the 19th Century.
What is clear is that the industry is exploring what boundaries can be pushed through the medium . There were talks on VR and the Law, Race and VR, Sexuality and VR and the now familiar ways that VR can build empathy. There were also explorations of how these technologies may impact humans moving forward.
Helen Papagiannis is an expert in AR and brought together these threads in her talk Augmented Humanity. She is exploring multiple AR delivery mechanisms not simply through sight but also taste, touch (haptics) and sound. And she saw it enhancing the capabilities of human beings much in the same way that Kasparov did the use of AI.
launched their AR glasses – not Augmented Reality but Audio Reality. The idea is that you can now experience truly immersive sound through headphones that respond to where your ears actually are. This isn’t Dolby Surround Sound, it’s sound delivery that changes just as it would if you were outside, heard a dog bark and turned to look for it.
It’s all signaling a move towards greater accessibility and immersion in the space. And a richer media world for us all.
This is the second of two posts about SXSW. The previous one looked at the experiential trends, you can read it here. This post is focused on the key tech trends. And there are 3 topics that kept coming up time and again:-
the implications of cars that can store and process information within the IoT,
the possibilities and the possible horrors of robot takeover
and VR’s move from fad to function.
Trend 1 – Smart cities, autonomous cars
Imagine driving to work and catching up on your latest book, or if you have kids catching up on sleep! And the ride is smooth, because there’s no stop/start, no congestion, instead you arrive on time, because the city you are driving through is smart and is managing the traffic.
Beyond that, you might have been slowed down at any point to avoid skidding on wet roads because other cars have been sending micro-weather reports to the Federal Government or to the Met Office.
Great, right? But cities and cars and governments are directly in relationship. And that relationship is raising questions.
For instance, if your car can send micro-reports about weather, it can send reports about how your car is driving. Or is that about how you are driving? And what does that mean for your privacy?
And how do you manage relationships between cars that are driving together on the same road? Do you trust them to give you the right information?
And what if a criminal decides to hack the stop signs that talk to your car and regulate city traffic stopping you from getting to vote?
What’s driving all this? IoT is established and becoming embedded in our environments way beyond tools like Nest. Manufacturers are pushing ahead, investing in AI and testing and selling autonomous vehicles. Cities see all kinds of benefits in cost reduction via things like lighting management and congestion or pollution management and government is playing catch up on policy and regulation.
No one had all the answers but the interest was intense.
Trend 2 – AI/Robot takeover
When you consider that Ford has just announced a $1bn investment in AI over the next 5 years and hotel chains like Crowne Plaza are testing a delivery robot you can see the AI and robotic services are a mainstream proposition.
There were 2 different strands to the discussion. The first was largely positive:
Amazon delivery drones on the street
Bill Ford talking about drones being released from F150s for search and delivery
Discussion of how to create sound for robots
A plea for school kids to be taught how to develop AI so that they will be able to come and study it and improve at a later date (Carnegie Mellon)
Conversations with robots in the Japan House
The second was way more cautious, almost fearful:
There are 2 other things we do not currently teach those developing AI systems – Ethics and Problem Solving. Yet they are essential to developing AI responsibly.
Implications of robotics and AI for the workforce are that ‘47% of total US employment is in the high-risk category, meaning that associated occupations are potentially automatable over…the [next] decade or two’ Fray and Osborne 2017
Likely to hit service and white collar workers – how do we conceive of what it means to be employed, have a job, to have self-respect and self-value etc?
The scenario that arises when an autonomous car has to choose between the safety of a crowd and the safety of its passengers
There were some great installations to explore the possibilities. IBM was there in force demonstrating the abilities of its Watson AI. I got a very wearable t-shirt based on a ‘conversation’ with Watson. There was also a system for monitoring the homes of the elderly so that they can live more independently. There was also an application that used AI to create new music based on your choice of mood or mix of styles.
There were also some ‘realistic’ robots you could have a conversation with, sort of and some creative projects exploring the use of AI in product design.
Undoubtedly the rise of robots is going to change our world. The creative classes and white collar workers have been safely insulated from the drive to automation that has decimated the blue collar workforce. The drive at SXSW was around both how that is managed and how we push towards a positive future.
Trend 3 – VR/AR/MR
It’s the cool new kid on the block and last year it was a strong emerging strand. But this year there was a whole room dedicated to VR experiences.Someone described it to me as VR finding it’s level, beginning to move from fad to function.
Many different players were there from NASA to Creative Industries Funding NL showcasing pro-social, creative and art projects in VR. There were also art installations in conjunction with for example the New Museum in New York using VR to immerse you in a different cultural experience.
And there was a lot of discussion about how it can work best. For instance, VR can be an isolating medium and we are innately social animals, so how can we best create social experiences with VR? Sony’s WoW Factory had a game played alongside/against 3 other players including motion, wind and digital interaction in the space. It was great fun and engaging to watch as well as play.
The key driver this year was the way that we may start to integrate technology into our lives far beyond looking at a screen. It is moving into a space where our life and our technology are almost inseparable. There are ethical and emotional consequences for that, but the SXSW crowd will certainly be there to explore and expose those way before the rest of us. That’s a comforting thought.
2016 saw an explosion in virtual experiences created by brands for their customers. And by virtual experiences I don’t just mean VR. If you look closely there has been an expansion in all kinds of virtual experiences from chatbots, to drawing applications to AR games. We’ve arrived at a crossroads in communications technology.
One key driver of this explosion is clearly cost. VR was prohibitively expensive only two years ago, but is gradually coming within reach of even home users. Oculus Rift comes in at under $600 and Google Cardboard works with any smartphone and is just $20. Couple that with ever increasing processing power that is now available on small handsets or headsets and it’s clear that we have reached a tipping point in quality for these kinds of interaction. And quality plus cost is driving uptake from both brands and consumers.
But it’s not just about practical realities. For something to take off in this way there has to be a deeper resonance with a human need or desire. I believe it boils down to three key factors:
Expectations of connection
Mintel have identified a search for authenticity that has been driving brand interactions for some years now. It can manifest in searching for the an expectation that brands will be more open and more honest in conversation. But it can also manifest in a desire to come closer to ‘the real thing’, particularly when that thing is difficult to show in reality. Take for example Samsung’s gear VR rollercoaster, Yes, they have used it to demonstrate the power of Gear but they are also bringing a familiar moment in which to experience that. It’s relatable and understandable and it’s excitingly realistic. Other great examples of a desire for the hyper-real include Marriott’s The Teleporter, which allows you to travel to a Hawaiian beach and London hotel and Merrell’s virtual hike which combines vision and movement to create a walk in the Dolomites which is actually scary! Land Rover’s recent I-Pace VR at the LA Auto Show is a prime example of this. A futuristic landscape combines with the real features and design of the forthcoming electric vehicle to create a deeply immersive experience about a product you can’t yet buy, but will be purchasable in the near future.
VR offers the chance to bring to life near future scenarios particularly in product development or display that drive uptake and excitement. This isn’t dreaming it’s hyper-reality.
Our brains are hard-wired for stories. Bowker reports that over one million (1,052,803) books were published in the U.S. in 2009, which is more than triple the number of books published four years earlier Even logical problems are more easily solved when they are embedded inside the fictional world of story. We also experience the world through a combination of senses. For this reason a story that goes beyond the telling to the directly experiential, the doing, is a powerful way of communicating. Virtual experiences can take us beyond even what we can imagine to a new way of experiencing messages and moments. Take, for example, the Lockheed Martin VR bus that let children ride to school as if they were living on Mars. or Superman VR Roller Coaster at Six Flags amusement park.
We love stories and virtual experiences can tell us stories in new and immersive ways. Why wouldn’t we gravitate towards them?
Expectations of connection
Service has become a price of entry for any brand in the market but expectations of service are dramatically different even than they were 5 years ago. Social media has brought immediacy and changed expectations of what counts as ‘fast’; a global ‘always on’ culture has driven an expectation of 24/7 interaction, and customers feel more empowered. To provide the kinds of service that people need brands have turned to robots. These range from intelligences like Watson from IBM which can drive extremely human like interactions with physical robots such as Pepper to much simpler chatbots who can answer the most common customer questions completely on brand, and 24/7, like Audi’s chatbot from the Frankfurt auto show.
This ‘Robot Renaissance’ as Rohit Bhargava calls it, focuses as much around striving to be as human as possible as it does around replacing humans, a kind of Virtual Humanity, if you will. And with machine learning these kinds of virtual interactions will only become more lifelike and satisfying.
What is the value to brands?
Clearly for brands who have technology at their heart the move into all things virtual is simply a stop on their journey. But you can only ride that wave for so long before everyone is doing it and you no longer stand out. Where then is the value in this virtual world we are creating?
As products become commoditized so experiences that communicate what a brand stands for become essential. They’re the differentiator, the reason to believe and to buy. The best virtual experiences bring humanity, connection and dreams to life in a way that is expressive of the brand. They generate an emotional moment that allows the consumer to really understand what you are about and to form an affinity with your product, brand or positioning which is rooted in personal experience.
Virtual experiences that create connections, drive emotions, and deliver immersions will make your brand stand out in a sea of gimmicks and lightweight conversations. The virtual world is your oyster.
"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair" - Charles Dickens
I'm the founder of the Tuttle Club and fascinated by organisation. I enjoy making social art and building communities, if you'd like some help from me feel free to e-mail me: Lloyd dot Davis at Gmail dot Com or call +44 (0)79191 82825