Isobar has published a white paper explaining how brands can leverage Headless Commerce to create experiences across an entire ecosystem of touchpoints. Using the Headless Commerce approach enables brands to build long-term customer relationships and deliver sustainable business growth.
Authored by the Isobar UK and Global team, the white paper makes the argument that the reconfiguration of legacy systems can support the functional, emotional and tangible needs of a customer experience. It explains how the Headless Commerce approach provides brands with greater control over the UX, giving them a consistent identity across an entire ecosystem of touchpoints, and a foundation to create long-term customer relationships that can deliver sustainable business growth.
Vikalp Tandon, Global Chief Technology Officer, Isobar, said, “One of the biggest challenges in the experience economy for brands is to engage consumers at every touchpoint across an ecosystem. This goes beyond serving the right content at the right time, it originates in the brand’s technology infrastructure that powers their digital presence. The Headless Commerce approach allows brands to deliver a truly customer-centric experience at speed and scale which is key in today’s landscape, and moving forward.”
The white paper covers:
– The context behind the emergence of unified commerce experiences
– The opportunities of the Headless Commerce architecture model
– A Customer Experience Framework
– The limitations of conventional architecture approaches (Monolithic architecture)
– The opportunity for immersive experiences through rich content approaches
– How Headless Commerce provides brands with a centralised view of customer data
– The requirements of a Headless Commerce strategy & what the future holds
The white paper was authored by Mustafa Rashid, Isobar UK Head of Emerging Technologies, and Vikalp Tandon, Isobar Global Chief Technology Officer.
Isobar has an innovation NowLab, where our team is exploring and pushing the boundaries of emerging technology. About a year ago, the NowLab held an office-wide VR hackathon. The team competing on behalf of the Boston office didn’t include a Developer. We chalked it up to a win because they were able to focus on the idea, rather than the limits of technology. Following that, we collaborated with Microsoft’s Mixed Reality Capture Studios, Viacom and Tiltbrush artist, Danny Bittman to produce Aeronaut, a Virtual Reality music video for William Patrick Corgan’s latest single (a.k.a Billy Corgan from the Smashing Pumpkins). For this effort, Isobar was a finalist at the MITX Awards (Massachusetts Innovation & Technology Exchange) in the Best AR, VR or Mixed Reality Application category.
The Boston-based award show, in its 22nd year (!), shines a bright light on innovation and technology pioneers. Amy Quigley, President of MITX, was impressed by the overall diversity in entries this year: “We are seeing amazing ideas coming from a variety of verticals, including financial services and healthcare. Brands and agencies are pushing what is possible creatively, and as a result consumers are winning.”
We uncovered an interesting dichotomy of emotions surrounding the future of tech innovation in Boston. While there’s excitement about the future and all its possibilities there’s also some question about how the growth will impact folks individually. Some may question, “Growth is good overall, but is growth good for me?” or “Will we become like everyone else?” and “Am I still special and will this limit my potential?” One thing is certain, attendees felt strongly that by working together – collaborating and empowering one another – the future of technology and innovation in Boston will be bright.
Steve Myers, Vice President at Isobar (and Boston-based ad guy for 25+ years), shared his thoughts on the topic: “Given the growth we are experiencing, I’m hoping that as an industry we will look ‘inward’ and leverage all of this amazing thinking to help solve for the challenges we’ll face as the population and footprint of our city continues to grow.”
In Boston, innovation isn’t a novelty. It’s the norm. The results of the MindSight study prove that we as an industry are not shying away from this, but rather embracing this exciting future. At Isobar we believe the toughest questions are best answered with collaboration and creativity.
Digital transformation has become a hot topic, with CEOs talking about it every day and allocating significant budget for it in 2018. In the past, most digital transformation initiatives were about high-end and edgy technologies or solutions. However, now Digital Transformation ROI has been validated across many industries, C-Suites are understanding that it is more important to map out the right strategy rather than implementing complex tech solutions.
Let’s take a look from the perspective of branding and marketing. Under the trend of transformation, “Brand” and “Commerce” have gradually merged into one term, “Brand Commerce”, a term to describe the narrowing of the gap between brand inspiration and consumer transaction. The concept of Brand Commerce has become the ‘North Star’ for brand marketers when reviewing and evolving their own work and methodologies.
Take the example of a brand’s entry in to the Chinese market. In today’s climate, the brand will decide on an online and offline channel strategy, and the local brand channel planning teams work together in an agile way for rapid progress. This is the opposite of the linear and separate ways of working in the past.
To be specific, brand positioning in the Chinese market needs to be worked out in response to specific online channel strategies. Online and offline media strategies and campaign planning need to direct data to inform channel planning. When sales begin, media data, sales data and customer membership data needs to be consolidated and analyzed in time for optimizing the next round of brand and commerce strategy. The fast-paced and complicated way of working presents traditional organizations with many challenges.
From my point of view, Brand and Commerce go hand in hand, and have only previously been separated because of traditional ways of working — using digital to reach, communicate and interact with customers in real time.
A great example for this new era is the story of a female entrepreneur, who found out that her company’s reputation was being damaged by other vendors selling fake versions of her products, so she made the decision to invite whoever bought the fake products to store to swap them for genuine products from her company. Not surprisingly, a lot of customers went to the stores. She saved the company’s reputation, won back customers’ hearts and sales grew three times, driven by more store visits.
This story strongly demonstrates the benefit of Brand & Commerce working together. Imagine, if the same situation happened in your company, how long will it take to go through the discussions with the brand team, marketing team, legal team, operation team and channel team?
When developing a digital transformation strategy, is there a way to evaluate how well Brand and Commerce actually work together? This is where the original thinking framework — the Brand Commerce Digital Transformation Matrix — is used as a diagnostics tool for brand and marketing related professionals.
Studying this framework, there are few brands located in area (1) of the matrix nowadays. Most brands are moving toward mid-high level, in terms of digitalisation of brand building or digitalisation of commerce.
Take T-mall’s one-to-one brand commerce ecosystem and seamless experience as an example for type (5) in the matrix.
In terms of digitalisation of brand building, T-mall has been known for being a personalised one-to-one medium (Thousand Faces to Thousand People) on its marketplace. This year, the service has been upgraded to “Unidesk” service, which seamlessly synchronises all of Alibaba’s platform data, such as Alipay, Ant Finance and Cai Niao Distribution, in order to provide integrated services to customers in different scenarios. However, it still has some challenges and sometimes recommends irrelevant products to consumers, such as serving unrelated product categories to a given consumer, again and again.
When talking about the digitalisation of commerce, besides desktop and mobile channels, T-mall celebrates the concept of “new retailing” – such as T-mall automotive mall, shopping mall, self-service unmanned store and mini supermarkets — with the purpose of covering all online and offline touchpoints.
It’s only a matter of time until T-mall excels in omni-channel selling, but personalised interactions need to improve. From my perspective, truly personalised digital interaction is essential in selecting the right scenarios, targeting certain audiences and creating tailor-made interactions. Coca-Cola, for example, created an “invisible” vending machine that only showed itself to couples walking by for Valentine’s Day.
The incredible thing about it is that it could recognise couples, activate vending function and show a huge, romantic ad when necessary, while the whole experience was “invisible” for other passers-by. In addition, the vending machine would ask names of the couples and print them on the bottle, making the drinks unique to each couple.
There are several elements of this case worth considering. The context of Valentine’s Day, that only couples were targeted and the experience of personalising drink bottles. This is a case of a truly personalised customer experience.
So, how can the Brand Commerce Digital Transformation Matrix help find the right path for traditional firms’ digital transformation of brand commerce?
The banking industry is under strict supervision by Chinese financial departments, especially in terms of privacy, and with the increasing complexity of banking services, it is one of the most challenging industries for digital transformation of brand commerce.
As an example, China Merchants Bank made early progress in digitalisation in China. They created a range of differentiated services, such as the visionary VIP systems like Sunflower, to target different segments of customers. The bank also made attempts in marketing automation to support brand experience and reduce costs. Every month when receiving payments, customers would receive an SMS with contact information of tele-marketing representatives, reminding them to grab the opportunity of buying financial products specifically designed for their salaries.
However, the bank has quite a long way to go in enhancing engagement with customers and improving customer experience, so I’d place them in area 4 of the Matrix.
China Merchants Bank has the natural advantage of accessing data of customers with debit and credit cards, including all aspects of life, such as shopping, traveling, transportation and shopping area, shopping timing, etc. Customers’ records of income and expenditure naturally become shopping logs, reflecting all kinds of motivations and needs for shopping and financial management. Such data can be extremely beneficial for brands. How to dig out customers’ needs of next steps via data analysis is the question that brand builders should consider for digitalisation.
For instance, for customers who have purchased flight tickets for traveling abroad on tourism websites, they will be preparing foreign currency and completing budget plan in addition to itinerary planning. There’s so much more to guide customers besides promotion and discount messages. On the other hand, for a customer who constantly faces credit card overdraft, what they truly need is a well-rounded financial management plan instead of more promotional messages on loans and overdrafts. Different customers have different needs — we need to use technology, data and creativity to deliver on these expectations
Looking at China Merchants Bank from the aspect of digitalisation of business operations, its branches and communication channels cover a large area. By trying the services offered on different channels, services are neither consistent nor continuous.
Try opening a credit card at the bank counter of a branch in China. When you finish filling out the forms, the clerk will send them to the headquarters and someone will get in touch at some point. What if the mail never reaches the headquarters? Who should customers look for then? Or try calling the hotline and consult membership-related questions. Only one type of question can be answered per time the call is forwarded, i.e. representatives in charge of member events can only answer event-related questions, and your call has to be forwarded again if you want to ask about member login. Therefore, the level of digitalisation of business operation is in the middle, too.
Of course, a complete analysis of Brand Commerce needs in-depth research from both inside and outside the brand. The best route for development can also vary for different industries and brands, so there is not a one size fits all model to digital transformation.
So what actions can China Merchants Bank take in order to improve the level of digitalisation of brand commerce?
Utilize the consumer data with more flexibility, look into their needs in-depth and explore more possibilities to interact with them with more personalized experiences.
Based on a customer’s personal experience, analyze the business service journey, and prioritize key parts in order to renovate brand experience.
Article by Cecilia Huang, Senior VP of Brand Commerce Consultancy, Isobar China Group.
Unable to attend this year? Don’t worry. Our colleagues from Isobar US had on the ground team and shared an in-depth recap of everything you need to know and look out for in 2018 and beyond.
Another year, another Consumer Electronics Show. Once again, attendees head home with sore feet, sniffles and an outlook of what the next year is going to deliver in terms of new gadgets and larger trends in the consumer electronic marketplace.
The last half-decade has seen a steady progression of devices that have gone wireless and become connected and integrated with other products and services. We’ve seen processors get smaller and faster, screens become bigger and brighter, and memory get cheaper. We’ve witnessed the concept of companion mobile apps for consumer electronics become commonplace. We now have batteries that can outlast a day on the CES show floor and (if not), fully recharge in just an hour. But now, thanks to our friend Alexa, a new battleground has emerged – one for our voices.
Isobar predicts that 2018 will be the year of Augmented Humanity, a year where technology enhances and scales our most human attributes. In 2018, technological interfaces will become more natural and instinctive, technology will automate repetitive tasks to free up time for creativity and compassion, and artificial intelligence will meet emotional intelligence.
Isobar’s innovation and strategy experts from around the world have defined five key trends that explore this evolving relationship between humanity and technology and predict a harmonious future. Augmented Humanity explores the ways in which technology enhances and fuels our most human attributes – the ability to recognise and trust each other, to adapt to changing circumstances and the power to deliver true creativity.
Jean Lin, Isobar’s Global CEO, comments, “Artificial intelligence is great, but humans score on emotional intelligence. The power of being human is in empathy. This cannot be automated or outsourced. Augmented Humanity will use technology to scale everything that is best and most powerful about human interaction.”
The report argues that we may one day view the era of anonymous, one size fits all transactions as a temporary blip in our evolution, and that as technology advances it will become more human, not less. It will return us to a time where voice will be the primary way we interact with the world, where we will be recognised and rewarded in stores, and where we will buy more directly from trusted suppliers.
Isobar’s five key trends for 2018 explore this intersection of technology and humanity, magic and the machine, code and conscience:
1. Body Talk explores the body as an interface, as our eyes and ears replace touching and tapping. 2. Powered by People tackles the shift from customers to communities as technology turbocharges the sharing economy. 3. The Economy of Me looks at the power of AI to deliver ever more personalised products, prices and places. 4. The Ethical Algorithm tackles technology as a force for good; in a world of fake news and algorithm bias is there such a thing as moral code? 5. The Makers and the Machines explores the extraordinary union of art and technology to create outputs we could never before imagine.
Within each theme, Isobar unpicks key sub trends and explores how they come to life today, in the future, and what they mean for businesses and brands right now. The report celebrates the importance of emotion at every touchpoint; in this new landscape it will no longer be enough for technologists to ask “how does it work?” – they need to consider human emotion and drivers and ask “how does it feel?”.
Facebook has launched an exciting new feature called ‘Facebook Camera Effects’, a new tool that allows designers to create effects for the Facebook Camera, ranging from a simple frame to stunning augmented reality experiences.
Facebook has been eyeing the success of Snapchat’s famous lenses and filters, which can be customized for brands, and it’s keen to tap into the potential.
Facebook Camera Effects is not a mere copy/paste though. Similarly to when Instagram adopted the popular ‘stories’ feature from Snapchat, Facebook has made some very welcome changes. The biggest one is that Facebook has essentially made Camera Effects an open platform, leaving out the need for time-consuming review periods or obligatory media costs to host the effect. Thanks to this evolution, Camera Effects are both fast to get out unto the public – we can launch an animated effect within a few days of the briefing! – and easy to create, resulting in greatly reduced development times and costs.
Wanna have some fun? Hit the link (on mobile, duh) for an Halloween example designed by the agency.
This link can then be distributed to any audience with promoted Facebook posts. Once audiences click on the link, they get the option to send a notification to their phone, which will take them directly to the Facebook Camera, featuring the effect.
We’ve tested the feature together with Beiersdorf on Nivea Men and have included a Facebook Camera Effect into their campaign promoting Movember, an initiative where men are encouraged to grow their facial hair to support men’s health. An AR effect was developed allowing users to see how they would look with the coolest ‘stache ever.
Following Spikes Asia Festival of Creativity in Singapore last month, we spoke to Sandipan Roy, Chief Strategy Officer, Isobar Asia-Pacific to discuss the ROI of innovation.
You discussed the ROI of innovation at the recent Spikes Asia festival. Can you tell us more about your thinking on that?
There’s sufficient macro-economic and corporate data to indicate that innovation either isn’t working or there’s not enough of it happening. Here are some quick data points:
We are living in an era of economic stagnation. Our productivity rates are just about 1%. If the definition of productivity is maximizing output with minimum input, then the delta has to be innovation. But if productivity is only 1%, obviously innovation isn’t a big part of it.
Companies are sitting on massive cash reserves and distributing huge amounts of dividend every year. Trillions of dollars are trapped in low- to negative-yield financial instruments. And yet innovation is nowhere near getting its fair share of this cash. So, there is a lot of cash out there but it’s not finding its way into innovation.
The start-up failure rate is high. The success rate of new products is abysmally low.
There is a Harvard Business School study that says over 84% of CEOs sees innovation as a board-level agenda but only 6% are satisfied with the success of their companies’ innovation.
So obviously, something is going wrong somewhere.
Why are businesses and brands unhappy with the success of innovation?
Fundamentally, there are a couple of problems with the way innovation is being done. One, innovation is more of a solutions-first approach, which means you build solutions that then have to find problems to solve, as opposed to the other way around. Two, even when big companies are doing innovation on the side i.e. skunkworks, startups, innovation teams, they find it difficult to integrate these outputs with their core business. So, when integration between the core and innovation sides results in failure, innovation is always seen as guilty before being proven innocent and in the core business, it’s exactly the opposite.
In spite of this, the disruption of legacy incumbents is inevitable. It’s not a question of ‘if’, it’s a question of ‘when’. It’s not an event called disruption, it’s a process of disruption. Every sector of the economy has already stated getting disrupted, the speed depends on how mature the technology in that sector is — so while technology may impact the speed, it is not the reason for disruption. GPS and mobile has existed for a couple of decades, but that never disrupted anything by itself. Uber had to put a business model around it to disrupt the transportation industry. Streaming has existed for a couple of decades, but Netflix had to put a business model around it to disrupt the entertainment and media business.
So where are companies going wrong?
The thing about disruption is the fact that more often than not, companies are not getting disrupted as much as they are destroying themselves. The crucial factor there is that they aren’t organising themselves around the customers’ needs. When companies are startups, in the stage of disrupting, the focus is always on customer needs for e.g. “how can I meet customer needs?” Once these startups start becoming bigger and better, they remove the focus on customer needs and on to their products instead i.e. “how can I make my product better?” The final nail in the coffin is when they feel their product is better, then they focus on their operations — “how can I make my company more efficient?”
Kodak is the poster child for how a big company got disrupted. But interestingly, they did do a lot of innovation — they improved their print quality, film quality, etc. But they were innovating on the wrong end of the business. They were innovating on their core processes and systems, while the disruption was happening on the consumer side of the business with new developments like Instagram and iPhones.
So, I think there’s a lot of fear amongst legacy incumbents — they dread cannibalization. They think that if they embark on innovation, they would cannibalize their own business. But I don’t believe companies can disrupt themselves. Very few companies have managed to disrupt themselves successfully such as Netflix, Facebook, or General Electric. But by and large, disruptive innovation is best done in another zone of the business and then integrated with the core in a systematic manner.
Is innovation still important to businesses and brands, or should we shift the focus?
Innovation is fundamental not just to success, but to the existence of any business because essentially innovation is about meeting customer needs in a new and different way, and not necessarily a better way. Innovation is fundamental to neutralize risks of disruption to the core business as well as to seek opportunities to be disruptive.
Where do you see the next opportunity for disruption?
I am very hopeful and passionate about healthcare. It contributes to a fifth of every economy’s GDP. Not disrupting healthcare means a big sector of the economy isn’t being impacted. We do see some progress, such as IBM Watson’s AI work with oncologists at Sloan Kettering, but it’s not happening fast enough for a number of reasons — regulatory, safety and security. The other area is education. With increased importance around re-skilling due to unemployment caused by automation, transformation of the education sector is of massive importance.
Finally, what’s your one piece of advice to businesses and brands on innovating?
Ultimately, there’s a demand and a supply side to every business and the successful existence of any business is to organise themselves around newer and different ways to meet unmet customer needs. Strategy is about value creation so identifying areas where value can be created or destroyed and then developing frameworks and mechanisms to institutionalize it is key to long-term success.
Innovation has been a focus for our Singapore team this year, with their most recent innovation being the V-Showroom, a first-of-its-kind mixed reality dealership for our global client General Motors. We spoke with the minds behind this work, Stan Lim, Regional Creative Director and Chye Yong Hock, Innovation Director as they stepped off the stage at Spikes Asia 2017.
[For the people who didn’t make it to Singapore for your presentation]
What were key takeaways from your talk at Spikes Asia?
Stan: The key thing that we wanted people to take away from our session is to think deeper about what you can actually do with experiential tech and not just limit it to consumer-facing implementation. Where innovation started out was really to create nice brand experiences and delight consumers. But there’s so much more to experiential tech than that, and if done right, I believe it can create real business value.
Chye: A lot of people at Spikes were talking about how experiential technology and machine learning have influenced the marketing landscape in general. But fundamentally, we wanted to show people that technological advancements will be more prevalent in the future as long as we focus the end point on delivering something of tangible value to the client. We also shared best practices for Innovation projects, for example how we approach them, and what was the process is for kick-starting these projects with clients based on our past learnings. It’s a very different process from pure-play marketing projects.
[Please can you include the best practices so we can link to them?] — Actually the GM work is probably the only best practice that we can share.
With AI and data advancements dominating industry conversation, does creativity still matter?
Stan: Of course it still matters, but AI & Data has changed the process involved in creativity. AI and data will impact how we have to be creative in order to solve a client’s problem. But AI & Data isn’t the end point — we will still need to create delightful experiences for people.
Chye: These days there are a lot of companies in the tech and innovation space, so it’s creativity that sets an agency apart. If digital agencies didn’t own creativity, we would be just like any other tech solutions provider or vendor, where everyone is selling just one product. But we tell clients “don’t think about the tech you want to use. Rather, think about the problem you want to solve” and from there, we can figure out what we need to create, and what tech we use.
And it’s no longer just about creative marketing alone — we need to blend it together with tech solutions and services in order to be truly effective. But the challenge a lot of agencies face is how much clients are willing to invest — proper implementation of some of these new technologies are big investments. And to use tech for only one campaign is just not worth it. That’s why we are focused on experimenting with technology that has longer-term potential, for example improvements that can be made to the customer service industry just makes more sense. Strategically choosing areas of experimental focus is an agency’s biggest opportunity for delivering great value to clients.
What’s the latest in the digital and creativity in Asia-Pacific?
Chye: It’s shifting; the advertising landscape is changing a lot, and it’s to do with how APAC clients are spending their money. For example, in Asia social has largely become a low investment staple of the marketing mix. Clients have set how much they want to spend and how they want to do it. So, they’re less open to new ideas.
Clients’ investment is slowly diverting to experiential tech to help them retain customers — this client demand has increased a lot more this year. Many companies now have innovation teams, and they are treating it just like a marketing division. So, they are definitely going to spend more on innovation and experiences in the near future.
Stan: Generally, I think APAC clients have matured in their approach to innovation and in some cases the clients are more aware of what technology can do but not how to deliver it. But when you’re facing a client who might be thinking “there’s no use for tech beyond marketing” not many agencies can jump in and leverage the opportunity. In APAC, we still have a lot of catching up to do.
Why should businesses and brands investigate what innovation can do for their business today?
Stan: It’s the risk of being disrupted. Entire categories are getting replaced on a monthly, and sometimes, weekly basis.
Chye: Brands and businesses need to understand that tech and innovation is a part of the working world today, and it is not something you buy off the shelf. They need to understand how it can power their business.
Lots of brands and businesses are already investing in creating an innovative culture. They are rethinking and maturing in the way they approach innovation projects. And companies like Kickstarter have helped foster the start-up culture to make brands and businesses more accepting of trial and error, and the mantra “fail-fast”.
Also, the customer demand is there. Take the car industry for example, people want the latest technology in their cars now, so automakers have put more innovation into producing cars in the last two years than they have in the last twenty. But this takes learning and can’t be completed overnight. So, you need to start the innovation process early.
Stan: Disruption is not an event, it’s an ongoing process. So, the day you realise you are being disrupted is the day it’s too late to do anything — As Chye mentioned, innovation needs to start now to prevent yourself from being disrupted six months down the road.
The Brussels and Amsterdam offices of Isobar are co-organizing the September edition of the event, just one of Isobar Academy’s many global program packages that all have a common aim of exchanging experiences, knowledge sharing and encouraging cooperation within the network. This edition will be held in Amsterdam, an ever-inspiring city.
Flying in from several EMEA markets; multiple talents from the agency’s network (among them Strategists, Creatives, Art Directors, Copywriters, Accounts and Creative Directors) will work on a real-life Cubanisto (AB InBev) brief together with the client.
The workshops will be on Experience Design and based around building optimal experiences for brand activations, customer service, brand’s digital destinations, mixing digital and the physical world.
The Programme starts today September 27th and will last until Friday 29th, 48hrs and then some of intense and exiting creative work from 25 people.
We’ll update the blog as the event goes on, along with a summary next week.
In the mid 1990’s, neuroscientist Vilyanur S Ramachandran conducted a series of experiments on patients with phantom limbs. One of such patients felt as if his phantom fingernails were digging into his clenched fist, an agonising sensation that had no apparent cure. Ramachandran placed a mirror between the patient’s arms and asked him to open and close both his hands (his healthy one, and his phantom one) simultaneously whilst looking at the reflection of the healthy limb. The patient’s brain, fooled by the trick, released the phantom limb’s clenched fist almost immediately.
Though I don’t know enough about the brain to even attempt to understand the importance of such a discovery in the field of neuroscience, one thing is evident: tricking the brain can be easier than we think.
Yet for every piece of VR promise, there seems to be a never-ending list of hurdles to overcome, aspects that are stopping most virtual reality explorations from becoming truly realised, comprehensive and, most of all, convincing experiences.
For one, there’s the physicality of it: you can move to a moderate degree, but unless you’re willing to strap yourself to a cumbersome, expensive and awkward circular treadmill, that’s about it. Then there’s touch: haptic feedback is a very rudimentary attempt to bridge this gap, but it doesn’t come close to the nuances of our somatosensory system. Smelling, a sense that seems to have proven too difficult to emulate in any other media, is also absent from most conversations around VR.
So, if VR’s intent is to trick our brains, how far can it go before revealing itself as prisoner to its own limitations?
If you go to Zero Latency, in North Melbourne, you might find yourself at odds with what’s on display: a huge, empty warehouse, nothing but black walls and concrete floors, framed by a network of cameras. In the middle, a group of people, each strapped to a VR headset and armed with a two-handed gun, walk around in apparent disarray. They talk to each other, and yell, and laugh, and unless you’re experiencing what they are, act in a manner that seems to make no sense. For outsiders, it likely reads as an episode from Black Mirror.
Places like Zero Latency continue to trend around the world, spaces where people have the opportunity to step into a different reality. Whether you’re in it for the thrills or the exploration, for shooting at robots or walking on walls, they offer experiences unlike any other. These establishments are working towards what is arguably the very first significant step since the re-birth of VR: free-roaming worlds.
It isn’t until you feel like you’re about to fall down a 20-story building, or your sense of balance goes off-charts when walking upside down, that you truly realise the potential that VR has in the way we can perceive, create and modify the reality around us.
With more tinkerers willing to invest in the technology, and more people being welcomed to make use of it, it’s not hard to imagine the shape of (some of the) things to come.
The Kindle of reality
In 2007, after a decade of other companies’ failed attempts at making e-books “a thing”, Amazon launched their Kindle e-reader to tepid reviews and skeptical appraisals. Today, ten years later, many consider paper books a romantic notion, much like vinyl records. Kindles didn’t kill the book the same way video didn’t kill cinema: they just offered people a different vehicle to access and consume the same content.
A similar parallel can be established between virtual reality and actual reality. In its current form, the technology can photo-replicate simple locations, giving us the opportunity to explore certain places that would otherwise require us to travel halfway around the world to reach. Imagine visiting the Louvre without having to deal with long flights and jet lag, price tags and nosy tourists: all you have to do is drive to your local VR shop and strap on a headset for a few hours. In essence, VR could do just as good a job as going to the real place, if not better. And so, inaudibly, the question sets in: is this virtual reality any less real to our brains?
It’s a fascinating premise, one that will most likely divide opinion: if you could live in a lucid dream, would you choose that instead of reality? For the outsiders, the unsleeping audience, it’s a no-brainer: that’s not reality per sebut a weird simulation that your brain likes to create when you’re unaware. But for those inside of it, for the dreamers, it’s as real as it gets, only better: you can fly, and any one thing can be multiple things at once, and it’s all so bright and vivid and brimming with feelings. Your brain considers that to be as real as this, your own physical reality.
Will there ever be such a tipping point for VR? Will it ever be able to replace, or rather, mimic, reality in a way our brains cannot distinguish? The short term answer, the one that our current technological limitations dictate, is rather simple: no. All of those things we still haven’t figured out about VR are expensive and difficult to solve, and might never be fully cracked. And yet, if Moore’s Law is anything to go by, we might get there after all, and quicker than we imagine. Solutions to the “simple” problems are on their way: better screens, wider depths of view, lower latency rates, smaller, less cumbersome headsets, wireless technology. And then there’s the rest: graphics are improving by the minute, we’re getting better at synthesising smells, we’re exploring ways in which we can touch what’s not really there, AI is becoming more conversational and quickly learning how to sound like us.
When (if) these reach moderate success and make their way into our headsets, what will then be the difference between walking through a realmarket in Bali, and going to a warehouse somewhere in your own town where you can strap a headset on and have a near-identical experience, one where your senses can be stimulated in the right ways? Because when what you see looks like the real thing, and the conversations you can have with AI beings are indistinguishable from those with friends, and the smells imbue your surroundings, then that reality, that complex combination of astounding technical prowess and our brains’ disposition to be tricked, will be just as real as anything else. And then, maybe, some kinds of physical reality might become a romantic notion, much like paper books are after Kindle.
Augusto Jacquier, Studio Lead & VR Enthusiast
This article was originally published on Isobar Australia’s blog.
Text credits to Augusto Jacquier, Senior Designer – Studio Lead, Isobar Melbourne.