The Big Opportunity with Virtual Reality

Virtual reality (VR) is being touted as the next big thing and venture capital firms are falling over themselves to give money to companies experimenting with the technology. There is also growing interest in mixed reality (MR), which is an augmented version that lets you use the real world as the backdrop to navigate VR objects placed within it. The MR experience is considered more real and believable, compared to VR, as the latter happens in a world that is entirely make believe. Here is a great Wired article on VR and MR which spurred my thinking and brought about this blog.

Turns out that VR technology has been around since the 1990’s but it was cost-prohibitive to mass produce. With the proliferation of smartphones, which have brought down the cost of sensors and created super computers that fit in our pocket, VR is finally ready to come of age.

It would be fair to say that Oculus Rift marked the turning point that resulted in VR going mainstream. Oculus started in 2012 as a Kickstarter project to build a VR gaming headset and quickly became a household name. In 2014 they were bought by Facebook for $2 billion. Since that moment there has been something akin to frenzy among the top tech companies to get into VR. Microsoft recently started shipping its HoloLens to developers (Source: Verge article). Verizon’s AOL bought a 360-degree VR video company called RYOT (Source: Wall Street Journal article). HTC, Google, Sony, Samsung, Apple and a host of other companies have launched VR products or are in the process of developing them.

However, all these companies are currently thinking about VR only through a lens of gaming and commercial applications like movies, tourism and for various new ways to market their products and services. It is great for companies to invest in innovation to find better and more effective ways to sell us ‘stuff’ but I believe that focusing entirely on the commercial aspects would be missing a much greater opportunity.

Here is the line in the article that sparked my thinking:
“People remember VR experiences not as a memory of something they saw but as something that happened to them.”(Source: Wired article).

In my mind, the greatest flaw we have as human beings is the inability to see through someone else’s eyes and, therefore, to empathise with them in a truly meaningful way. It is almost as if we are conditioned to personally experience a situation before we can fully appreciate and understand it on a deeper level. This is why it is often hard for us to truly empathise with people and situations that we have never experienced.

For example, most people get involved or start donating to Alzheimer’s and cancer research only after they have lost someone close or witnessed the disease first hand. Similarly people born rich are unable to appreciate the daily hardships and obstacles faced by families that live paycheque to paycheque, and simply view them as lazy or less hardworking.

Most people cannot fathom the daily experience of people of colour and the toll racism takes on a person’s self-confidence and self-belief. It is also very hard for any of us to imagine the emotional scarring that occurs, often for life, on victims of abuse. When there are no overt physical manifestations and scars, people struggle to feel a depth of compassion that might lead to action or a change in behaviour.

Now, let’s go back to the statement from the article; “People remember VR experiences not as a memory of something they saw but as something that happened to them.”

Now, imagine if we could develop VR and MR tools that will allow Presidents to walk virtual battlefields, before making the decision to go to war. I guarantee that they would not make it as lightly as they do today. Imagine if convicted murderers could see the hell they leave behind for victim’s families. What if skeptical lawmakers could live through the eyes of refugees fleeing war-torn countries? And college freshmen were able to witness the damage they do with a drunken but forced hook-up (not the actual act of rape but the aftermath). Imagine if Donald Trump could spend a day as a Muslim woman.

Think of it as an education tool to help us make better life choices and wiser decisions by building greater empathy, not as a brainwashing tool. I believe there is a greater potential for VR, and especially MR, that goes beyond experiences designed to create entertainment, one that could truly help us become more humane, compassionate and wise.

CEO’s of companies like Facebook and Google love to talk about their altruism. They want to give back to society by solving some of the biggest problems using technology. But because their motives are driven by profit (which allows them to fund these initiatives) we tend to end up with flawed initiatives like Facebook’s Free Basics.

So instead of Mark Zuckerberg and Sergei Brin playing God by holding onto innovations and breakthroughs in VR, to develop a narrow set of products that suits their commercial purposes (which they should still do), why not also open source all the research and code and allow the world to build off it and find many more commercial, altruistic and innovative uses for this technology.

Seeing life through someone else’s eyes is unequivocally the greatest power and gift we can give mankind and who knows, it might be the one thing that can help save us from ourselves.

Starbucks Race Together and the Starting Line

I was lucky enough to see Howard Schultz talk about Starbucks’ Race Together initiative at a small gathering not too long ago. While I was already a supporter of the company’s brave foray into the issue of race, I became an even bigger fan after witnessing Mr. Schultz’s passion and personal commitment to a cause he clearly views as important, and genuinely holds close to his heart.

While I laud the effort, I also think it is important to point out that there has been a problem with the execution and the manner it was launched into the mainstream. Execution always matters, but in an effort of this magnitude, sensitivity and complexity, it will be the difference between success and failure. For one thing, it is absolutely imperative that this effort not come across as a glib and disingenuous marketing campaign. Nor can it afford to be ‘perceived’ as an altruistic effort designed to generate sales and foot traffic for Starbucks. I know it is not, but I may be the in the minority.

For starters, there are very few companies and brands in the world that could even attempt to raise an issue so loaded and so sensitive, leave alone try to convince the world that it is coming from a selfless place. The Starbucks brand has built a strong reputation for authenticity both with the respect with which they treat their partners (employees) and the amazing benefits they offer. They also have a history of actively supporting the communities they do businesses in. They were one of the early companies to join RED to help fight AIDS. During the recent recession they partnered with Opportunity Finance Network to help put people back to work. Diversity and inclusion have always been more than a motto and mere words on a vision statement to this company. Recently, they launched a major initiative to help US veterans. They sponsored a star-studded concert this past Veterans Day, and Howard Schultz has even co-authored a book “For Love of Country” that shines a light on these brave men and women by sharing their personal stories. Starbucks has also pledged to hire at least 10,000 veterans and military spouses by 2018. This is a company whose social outreach has always gone above and beyond writing cheques. They have never been afraid of rolling up their sleeves and getting their hands dirty on issues they believe are important to society.

However, unlike all their past efforts, there is one stark and crucial difference that they need to recognise with Race Together before they can create a blueprint for how to execute it. Free undergraduate college degrees (recently announced for all employees), helping fight AIDS, supporting Veterans and every other social initiative Starbucks has undertaken are very easy for people to get behind in ways that instantly make them feel warm and fuzzy, be it through personally getting involved or by simply buying a cup of coffee. Race Together is different.

The topic of race pushes people well outside their comfort zone. There is no warm and fuzzy here – only guilt, grimace, shame, embarrassment and gross discomfort. Whether you have witnessed a racist act and did nothing to stop it, or have been humiliated because of the colour of your skin and felt like you did something wrong – most everyone has had a personal experience with race. Yet, this is not a subject that families discuss at the dinner table or even with close friends. It is something we bear witness to and experience, most often in silence.

For this reason, I am confident that none of the traditional tactics will work here. In fact, the message will fail to resonate as long as it is delivered in a top-down manner. What I mean is that USA Today inserts make this feel like a marketing campaign. Writing it on cups (while well intentioned) made it feel forced and gimmicky. You cannot force people to talk about sexual abuse publicly; and most people feel the same way about racism. One final point on this; I believe that as long as Mr. Schultz and/or his board and senior executives are seen to be the public “voices” and faces of this campaign, they will struggle to lend it the authenticity it requires. I have no doubt that Mr. Schultz is genuine about his desire to start this conversation and for all the right reasons, but he is still a wealthy and successful white man and this fact matters in this conversation (even though it should not).

My suggestion to Mr. Schultz is to turn his current executional strategy on its head – stop trying to deliver it top-down. By this I mean think about Race Together less like every other traditional corporate PR and communications effort, and imagine it like needing to build a grassroots movement – one that can only be built bottom-up.

For me the video Mr. Schultz showed us of an impromptu town hall meeting (he held at Starbucks headquarters last December) did more to provoke thought and evoke a sentiment about this topic than anything else Starbucks has done thus far. And it was not Starbucks’ voice that caused this emotional stirring, but the voices of the everyday people sharing their very personal stories.

By sharing starkly different experiences about simple, mundane, everyday acts that most of us go through without batting an eyelid – it brought to life very vividly the different Americas we still live in today and experience differently based purely on our skin colour.

Hearing a black mother say that one of her greatest daily fears is making sure her child does not wear brightly coloured clothes to school has a power that no advertising or PR agency can ever deliver in a campaign. It is raw. It is authentic. It is where Mr. Schultz should begin building his brave and much needed conversation about race in America, all while ensuring that Starbucks Corporation and his voice are always in the background, creating the safe zones, providing the platforms and championing everyday voices until one-day they light the spark that will get everyone speaking out, across America.