Beware Bullying, VR is Coming for You

Google VR

It’s nice to be a poster child for Google. That’s me facing the camera in the yellow t-shirt. It’s August 2017 in Nantucket at the magical Screenwriter’s Colony, home of the Nantucket Film Festival.

Three makers, myself, Aleem Houssain and Mary John Franks had the honor of being VR as artists-in-resident at the VR Action Lab; a consortium including Harmony Labs, Screenwriter’s Colony and Google.  Part of the program included a two week deep dive at the Colony to develop our anti-bullying projects produced by the most amazing Sensorium Works .    Bullying is as Aleem often said,  a seemingly “intractable” problem.  The question for us was can we create a virtual reality experience or story that might penetrate the teen age minds and adults who face the issue daily?

We won’t know if we succeeded for a while, as our pieces are part of anti-bullying curriculums, developed by Harmony and powered by Google Daydream, running in schools all over the world.

The possibilities are exciting, that perhaps VR might provide a more meaningful medium in providing lasting experiences that help students cope.  Of all the many hundreds of pages we read or the experts who explained the research and the dynamics, one thread of information stands out. While it is obvious the target of bullying suffers, often tremendously, it’s not so obvious the bully is also in great pain but most surprising, at least to me, was that studies show somewhere around 65% of students K-12 won’t be the actual target nor the bully, yet they often suffer sometimes as deeply.  Why?  The anxiety of witnessing others being abused, coupled with the fear of becoming the next target, has a measurable negative impact.  In other words, bullying causes pain and it’s widespread. I am proud to have worked on a project aimed at solutions.

 

Virtual Reality is Isolating, I Bet Not

The idea virtual reality is an isolating experience and thus won’t scale to the masses without a multi-user winning application, always puzzles me.  There are plenty of challenges, yes.  Indeed, it’s a tall order to ask someone to strap on an awkward chunk of plastic over their eyes. And if they  do it, there’s gotta be a serious reward.   Lots of brilliant people around the world are working on that part right now, as I write.

As for isolating. Yes and No. No matter what gadgets or technologies come to bear there are many things that humans like to do alone or better yet can really only do alone, like:

Reading

 

 

 

 

Painting

 

 

Writing-Typing-Computing

I could go on, but I won’t. You get the drift. Many centuries and many gadgets later, we are reading more books than ever. I bet nothing in the world, at least in my lifetime, is going to change that.  Virtual reality will find a place as it’s singular purpose is realized. I’m beting on that too.

 

Reality: There Will Be Winners.

Travel at the speed of light.  That’s the superpower my amazing 9 year old daughter said recently she wished she had. Why?  She wants to be able to see things being made everywhere in the world whenever she wants. She’d hang out in Billund, Denmark at Lego, Florida at NASA, Antartica at one of the science stations among other places.

The way she sees it, the only really cool places to be are where new things are being made or the blocks for making things are being created, in other words, where change is alive and thriving.   She gets a thrill out of change and discovery and realization, which is actually what a lot of human “discovery” is.  That is to say bacteria exists and North America existed before people identified or realized it.  Change is jet fuel for the process.  We change what we do, what we think, how we think, how we do what we do based on the every flowing nuggets of identifying and realizations.

While it can be scary or great fun depending on your perspective, it is inevitable.  Technology is a tremendous symbol of constant evolution, sometimes small and then often every once in a while huge.  We are at a HUGE moment right now.   New threads, related threads and entirely new lines of inquiry are exploding around digital transformation.  There are potential applications for every single part of our personal and work life. The rate at which we embrace this in the marketplace depends on our ability to travel not at the speed of light per se, but across disciplines and functions, to assign focus and resources on the potential roads to adoption that either optimize our business or create new products and services.

I have this conversation almost daily with executives especially in media and entertainment.  They are often surprised when I say, don’t spend all your time or all your money on what’s coming, but a small percentage of both and do it consistently.  They say they expect me to push harder for more.  No.  Development takes time and there are too many pieces right now to even have a cohesive plan in most businesses as to what the application is, who to hire, how to engage consumer/enterprise base and so on.  Here’s a few thoughts I had earlier this year.

“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 Sach’s 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; it’s more 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 current VR/AR conversation often veers into that territory.  And those arguments will sound crazy ten years from now. Believe that. Remember above all else, there will be winners.

In Reverse

Like many millions, I regularly use Power Point (presentations) or Excel (spreadsheets) or Microsoft Word (documents). You probably do too, or have.  I think about this suite of products and the relationship to the evolution of virtual reality, augmented reality and artificial intelligence.  There is a connection.

First though, making virtual reality and augmented reality content is real hard right now.  The software, hardware and the nature of the content is rapidly iterating, not settling quickly. It’s  the ubiquitous notion of  trying to change the wheels on a car speeding down the Autobahn in Germany (there is barely a speed limit).

I just spent three months on a virtual reality project, and while I have produced hundreds of video for broadcast and the internet, meaning I have a lot of experience making visual stories, live action 360 video is a beast; an entirely different process. The work flow doesn’t flow like preparing for the stage or a 2D film or 2D digital video. Why? The output itself, a 360 degree moving picture is not like any of those others.

We have far more questions than answers.  Are we telling stories, a narrative or creating experiences?  What might a story look like when the USER can choose to look anywhere in that spherical space, and so on?

What does that have to do with Microsoft?  While technologists built those utility pillars, they could then hand to the masses, and say carry on.  People can and do use them for anything they choose from personal journals to professional financial modeling.

These emerging technologies actually work in the EXACT opposite way, meaning while VR and AR  technology is cool, it has almost no meaning without a specific application.  Consider, a surgeon having a conversation with a technologist.

Technologist:  “We have some cool tech that makes 3D digital assets, how might that help you?”

Surgeon:  “Medical images, say X-rays or MRIs would be great to have 3D versions in augmented reality.”

Technologist:  “Great, what type of features will help you diagnose a patient’s issue?”

And so on.  The technologists need direction from domain expertise whether it’s educators or doctors, real estate developers, industrial manufacturers, human resource professionals or those working in sports, media and entertainment.  Materially beneficial applications, products, will only have meaning for those who are using them in the course of daily use,  particularly in enterprise or professional capacities.

We live in a 3D world, it’s fantastical to believe the ability to create 3D digital products, tools and assets will not have fundamental uses across the way we live and work.  Right now, the problem is we don’t know exactly what that looks like, except to say, the winners will be busy collaborating across disciplines with  technologists and domain experts at the table.  Let us not forget in every technological evolution someone, some company, some team comes up with a winning step. There will be winners.

 

 

Calling ALL Virtual Reality Skeptics

4th-industrial-revolution1

Photo: World Economic Forum

“I’m a skeptic,” a seasoned filmmaker, let’s call her Mary, told me not long ago standing in the middle of a VR festival.  “I’m a skeptic when it comes to virtual reality.”  No matter how many times I hear it, I am always perplexed.  I gave her my standard comeback,  “What are you skeptical about exactly?” adding, “I honestly don’t understand because we don’t know what it is yet.”   Mary makes wonderful movies and while she said the word skeptical, her eyes screamed disbeliever.   She’s convinced stories can’t be told in the waters of this evolving three dimensional technologies.

She’s not the only one, I meet lots of self-described skeptics logging miles among technologists, entrepreneurs, educators, investors, health providers, multi national corporations, creatives, governments, corporate leaders, and basically, anyone interested in the Fourth Revolution (see chart above).

Routinely, I also ask them all to hold off a minute and better yet, dig in, check out what’s being made (seeing as much of the content is being created for the first time), keep an open mind and even better think about how this might actually work in their domain of expertise.

Keep in mind, among the cyber-physical system sit emerging technologies of virtual reality, augmented reality, mixed reality and artificial intelligence.  It’s not just one technology that is the question, it’s a number of viable technologies, like computer visualization and mobile computing power, that are driving incredible possibilities among emerging technologies.  They are huge buckets of potentially life changing tools defined by the nature of the hardware if any, software, content and application.

We live in a three dimensional world. It’s virtually impossible to think that this ability to manipulate things in and about our world in 3 dimensions will not  find relevance and scale accordingly.   Life is nothing but change and tech is innovating faster than most would have imagined even 50 years ago.  I mean,  Google’s  not even twenty years old and many of us, certainly above a certain age, cannot really recall the world before the search engine arrival.

For almost four years now there has been a yearly influx of new headsets, applications and creations into the marketplace.  New. It’s all new.  Before we dismiss virtual or augmented or mixed reality, envelope it in a choke hold of skepticism, let’s  first truly investigate how it might be relevant in your life or your work.