There Will Be Winners

What do Serena Williams, Disney and Meryl Streep have in common?

They win. They win a lot.

Yet, their winning streaks didn’t begin the first day they picked up the racket, created an animation or stepped onto the stage. No. They became winners gradually over time by signing up, showing up, practicing, building and working at it. They did so for many hundreds, even thousands of hours, before glory came knocking. So it goes in the marathon race to develop and apply virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) into and across every part of our lives.

There will be winners and losers in VR/AR, the next generations of computing tech, revolution.

While billions of dollars are spent by some of the world’s largest tech, entertainment and media brands — including Facebook, HTC, Sony and The New York Times — there are no clear winners. It’s still too early in the game. Let’s say the technology’s life span is the same as the average American at 78-year-old, then the industry is somewhere around 2 years old. Very Young. Yet, there will be winners in the VR/AR, the next generations of computing platforms.

Virtual reality combines a number of evolving hardware and software components for both content creation and delivery that’s been in the works conceptually since the 1930s. Many attempts to design and build working headsets and VR systems since the 1960s contributed to what we have now; contrary to pop culture which often incorrectly infers that Palmer Luckey, founder of Oculus Rift, invented the VR industry in 2009. No doubt, developments were critical, but he didn’t create Oculus Rift in a vacuum.

There have been hundreds of people all over the world who are not famous, who’ve been tackling virtual reality for decades.

In the past couple of years, particularly the past three (since Facebook’s three-billion-dollar acquisition of Oculus Rift), there has been an explosion of works in VR/AR. Increasingly teams all over the world are racing to become an early leader in what analysts predict will be a trillion dollar market in the next decade or so, as tools change everything about the way we live. Closely aligned with the future of VR/AR is the advent of artificial intelligence (AI), another emerging sector that many are especially bullish on. I add the convergence because the increasing use and viability is happening at the same time and creating some transfixing early prototypes of various combinations. Rival Theory is among my favorites, a VR/AI company.

There is no question these new technologies are increasingly more affordable and easier to access. It’s all happening so fast it’s hard to keep up. As of the end of 2016, there are many hundreds of VR/AR experiences or games on a variety of platforms from Google Daydream and STEAM VR to Littlstar and Sony PlayStationVR.

Yet, no one – not a single person on this planet – can say with certainty what these manifest evolutions will look like three, five or 10 years from now.

Or, what products will be produced or even what experiences or applications will enamor the masses; be it in communication, social, education, medicine, architecture/construction, games, tourism, ecommerce, immersive stories or movies, and so on.

I find the expansive applications fascinating; particularly in media & entertainment where I’ve worked for two decades. Hence, why I will focus mostly on those verticals. Perhaps in the next 12-18 months we’ll finally start to have a clue of what real-world VR/AR applications will catch fire in media and entertainment. Certainly, the rapidly changing industry is ripe for serious experimentation and development.

A central question many innovators are chasing is: What’s the perfect realization of these evolving technologies across any platform?

Whatever the answer is, there will surely be winners. That’s as sure a truth as anything in this life meaning any past tech innovation we’ve witness evolving or read about in history books. There are always winners in technological advancements that change the world, just as surely as there will always be new technological advances.

The lesson comes with a clear warning. Be careful. VR and AR are hard to make in the first place, and it will be hard to catch up because the current pool of people who know how to do it is not all that big.

It’s curious to me how many companies across sectors and industries operate against this truism, and assume tech will advance – instead of organizing against the idea that innovation has stopped at a ceiling, with no blue sky above. Even more curious is this idea: that when “someone” figures it, they’ll play catch up. Meaning, they will sit on the fence until someone designs a winner, then jump in to become a fast follower vs. an original innovator. Okay, mergers and acquisitions can be one potent strategy. Yet, to be successful there has to be premise that allows the acquirer to integrate and then operate something new and different. And, most mergers and acquisitions fail according to an HBR study which reported a 70-90 percent fail rate. There is much written about this by the brilliant minds at business schools all over the world, I’ll leave that to them.

The lesson comes with a clear warning. Be careful. VR and AR is hard to make in the first place, and it will be hard to catch up because the current pool of people who know how to do it is not all that big. And, even when the workflow evolves and there’s an increasing pool of qualified talent, an old adage remains: just because you have a tennis racquet doesn’t mean you know how to use it. I’m sure Serena could tell us a lot about that. Then there are the endless ghosts lining the innovation highway who thought they had a shortcut, instead of doing and investing in the hard work themselves.

It’s not so much as suspending belief as it is about getting past the inability to see all the possibilities that lay ahead.

I’ve talked to dozens and dozens of executives, leaders and professionals who are collectively acting against this inherently faulty premise that they can wait until the “answer” comes along. But, when it does, the big opportunity may have passed them by and it’s impossible for them to ignore the new normal. Think Facebook in social media or Blackberry in mobile phones. Not a single legacy media company has managed to find a path to greatness in social media or think digital. The legacy media & entertainment companies continue to grapple with OTT and skinny bundles on cable and the congruent digital stream and other strategies. It’s really hard.

What are some of the ingredients to getting on that practice path to winning?

1) Pay Attention and Be Curious
Take time to stay close to what’s happening on the ground and assign this task to a person who knows your business so they can assess and understand the applications to your core business. It’s shocking how many people I’ve talked to at legacy media and entertainment companies who have absolutely no idea, and haven’t even tried any VR/AR experiences. Don’t be that company.

2) Allocate Enough Resources
There is so much to research, experiment and perfect to bend the latest technologies in new directions. It requires significant R&D resources and the risk that comes along with that. The cold, hard fact is a lot of things might not work at all, but that’s critical intelligence. And the other side of the coin is that something eventually will work. This is not to say quit the elements of your current day job, but some minimal amount of time needs to be spent because, given your expertise, you might actually help accelerate what that winning, home-run unicorn company, product, or service might actually look like.

3) Weigh the Risk and Rewards
There’s been a steady stream of analysis and reports on a big, emerging VR/AR opportunity. For example, Goldman Sachs’ 2016 VR/AR report reveals wide agreement among technologists, practitioners, and key market players that the next generation of computing is here, and in short order it will grow to become a trillion-dollar global market within the next decade across enterprise and consumer products. They don’t say that in a vacuum. If you’re paying attention, you’ve already seen the evolving products and the promise behind them. (See suggestion #1, above.)

That’s a good start. It’s not so much as suspending belief as it is about getting past the inability to see all the possibilities that lay ahead. I remember those days in the not-so-distant past when people would actually argue about why anyone would want a personal computer in their home. It sounds crazy today, but it wasn’t then. The tone of the conversation today about VR/AR often veers into that territory. And those arguments will sound crazy ten years from now. Believe that.

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