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.

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Will the #Apple fall far from the tree?

First, I want to wish Steve Jobs the best and hope his health improves.

I guess we all knew this day would come. The board, the shareholders, the employees, the analysts and the evangelists; it’s just that we had all hoped it would be much, much later.

Whether you are a fan of Steve Jobs or not, what nobody can dispute is the fact that he single-handedly turned a fledgling company and tired brand into the world’s most envied and admired; one that is now on a path to become the world’s first trillion dollar company. However, what is most fascinating about the Apple story is how he achieved this. His vision, passion and workaholic nature are well-known but Jobs took this to another level entirely. It is said that he was involved in every decision right down to determining the type of wire that will secure MacBook’s in the Apple stores – that is both incredible and insane. Jobs’ is the only CEO I can think of who seems to go against conventional wisdom in every sense and still come out on top, every time. He is a classic example of someone who zigs, when everyone else is zagging.

Most CEO’s will tell you that the key to successfully growing your company, after you become a certain size, is to hire really smart people and then give them latitude to operate and a wide berth to do their jobs – and get out of the way. Not, like Jobs, remain involved in every minute decision; like what glass to use on the staircases of your retail stores. We know Job’s remained involved in every decision, even as Apple blew past Microsoft and Oracle to become the most valuable technology company on the planet.

Even more amazing is the fact that while the whole tech world seemed to acknowledge that the old Microsoft “proprietary” technology model was a failure and no longer sustainable in our new global ecosystem; filled with consumer demand and a need to constantly adapt and innovate in an open source way. So “open” has become the new buzzword for software development and management philosophies. Even companies like Procter & Gamble are now embracing this for rapid product prototyping, development and go-to-market strategies. On the other hand we have Apple who have created a completely closed and proprietary ecosystem for their products – and have been more successful than any other company. It is almost as if Steve Jobs’ philosophy and management style are completely counter-intuitive. This applies right down to the bets Jobs has made over the years. Like launching a tablet when everyone said that there was never going to be a market for a device that was not quite as small as a cellphone and not quite as powerful as a laptop; and we all know how that turned out.

We have been told that Apple has a very deep management bench and that may well be true but when a larger than life CEO like Steve Jobs vacates his position, he leaves a very rare and large hole in a company that few other leaders do.

So the 337 billion dollar question with Tim Cook is; how far will the Apple fall from the tree?