Imagine yourself to be Henry Ford in 1908, watching the first batch of Model T cars leaving the assembly line. What would you be thinking about? Henry Ford might have considered the impact of his assembly lines… but not likely the societal impact of the interstate highway system, the international geopolitics of the oil and gas industry, let alone self-driving cars or Uber. This is precisely where we are today with VR, AR, and the Metaverse.
Today, we have the Oculus and Pokemon Go (and the late Google Cardboard). One can debate the merits of these specific products/services, but not the glimmer of possibility. What they eventually give birth to will change marketing (and our lives) dramatically, just as the internet did a few decades ago, or automobiles did a century earlier. And they each represent a fundamental shift in how organizations will operate. They will be even more game-changing than the internet itself.
1) Virtual Reality (VR): In this mode, we are placed in a world that is completely artificial: we are “transported” into a video game-like environment. To achieve this, one wears goggles (and sometimes gloves or controllers, and sometimes other sensors) that provide a completely immersive experience. Think of theStar Trek holodeck, a virtual reality simulator that people walked into and “experienced.”
VR will be used to perform specific functions, including entertainment, travel, education/training, meeting/interacting with other people, and shopping. But VR commercial success will only come when VR moves from being a silo-ized individual experience, to one where there is connection and interactions between virtual worlds – a term called the Metaverse. A great analogy for this is the movement from PC-based programs (which were very capable but existed in a silo) to the web and cloud computing. Or the movement from a paper telephone directory to the likes of Facebook, LinkedIn, and other social media. The connected experience is richer, and more valuable in almost every respect.
It is important to note that beyond gaming, many are already using the Metaverse for concerts, graduations, ecommerce, and other at-scale activities. And eventually, imagine walking (flying?) down a virtual street, with doors that open to different experiences: from recruitment centers to retail stores, entertainment, branded experiences, community centers, and to private “homes”. And yes, sadly, also to the likely killer apps for VR: gambling and pornography.
(Interestingly, a socially-connected VR/Metaverse may be just the solution for the zoom fatigue of the 2020 COVID isolation that many have experienced.)
2) Augmented Reality (AR): In this mode, the virtual is brought into our real world. Over the last few years, AR has been used in smart phones to overlay data about the world around us, recognizing buildings, streets, etc, principally providing locational and commercial information. Without a doubt, the killer app for AR for many was the ground-breaking Pokemon Go: it gamifies the experience, and is responsible for introducing the AR experience to an exceptionally wide audience. A proof point is an initial deal they had made with McDonalds in Japan, where each of their 3000 locations became Pokemon Gyms or Pokestops: this would presumably drive significant traffic to each of their locations. (Pokemon Go uses your smartphone to superimpose Pokemons on real-life locations, which users seek out and then battle.)
Eventually, AR will be used to provide background data on everything: click on someone’s picture and get their entire profile, pulled from multiple sources. It will be used by retailers to provide virtual help with their products and services (Leading to less “may I help you sir?”), and allowing you to superimpose potential purchases into your home. Museums and historical sites will develop virtual (and “smart”) tour guides. Meanwhile, engineers might use AR to visualize the inside of a machine, doctors to visualize the inside of a patient, and police to visualize physiological changes in a suspect. AR can change just about everything: A meeting with a colleague who is rendered using AR? Or how about a car without a physical dashboard – just an AR one?
Remember “town squares”, a feature of many old cities in Europe? These venues were a place of meeting, communication, and also a place where each person could choose to enter any storefront of interest to them. Today, we’re in the midst of the biggest economic race the world will ever see: Who will create, and control, tomorrow’s virtual town square? (Everyone else will be their tenants.)
The war is being fought by the usual suspects, all of whom are poaching people, filing patents, and acquiring promising VR/AR start-ups. Their strategies appear to reflect their inherent strengths:
Google: Google has momentum on a number of fronts: Android (and the Android developer base) is huge. Their search engine is the de facto go-to venue for anyone looking for anything. It has been creating a “virtual” world through Google maps and Street view. It is experimenting with products like Google Cardboard and Daydream. And finally, it has significant sales infrastructure, content deals, and agency relationships that can “sell” advertising, and likely more.
Meta, aka Facebook (Oculus): Meta’s strategy is based on their products’ de facto status as the world’s relationship engine. They have steadily improved how and what the community can share, from text updates, to pictures, to videos: “being there” (with people or brands you care about) is not that much of a jump. The Oculus platform – the intimate connection with the user – completes the ecosystem. Meta’s robust apps – Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, Messenger, etc – (and app developers), sales infrastructure, content deals, and agency relationships make it a formidable competitor. Furthermore, the sheer number of users that log in to their system every day gives them a huge advantage. That they are spending billions on R&D, but their Achilles heel is that they don’t control the distribution end-point: every single one of their users must access Meta’s social products through an Apple, Google, or Microsoft operating system or device.
Microsoft (HoloLens): Microsoft’s strength is building the development platform, and they are hoping this exact strategy will be successful in the VR/AR world (or as they like to call it, “Mixed Reality”)
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