Category Archives: digital matters

Virtual Reality And The Future Of Storytelling

virtual reality

Photo: Pixabay

“Just so I understand this correctly, it’s possible to experience death in virtual reality. To experience what it’s actually like to die, in the brutalist of ways even. And as our senses develop — touch, smell, things like that — this experience is only going to get more realistic.”

The woman nodded in response. We were sitting across from each other in a large yurt that overlooked the Pacific Ocean, the door flap of the enormous tent making a gentle slapping sound in the wind as six of us sat cross-legged in a circle well past midnight.

The topic: virtual reality and consciousness.

“But you have to consider another scenario,” she said, leaning in further.

“What if experiencing death enabled us to face our greatest fear, and what if that wasn’t a bad thing? What if experiencing death gave us a greater appreciation for life, maybe even enabling us to live with more appreciation, empathy, and gratitude?”

Last fall, we gathered at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur for Digital Raign, a week-long summit created for bringing together industry folk (and curious minds – me) in the virtual, augmented and mixed reality worlds to discuss the state of the industry.

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According to a report by Canalys, over 2 Million VR headsets were shipped in 2016. While this is a notable number, it remains small in comparison to the hundreds of millions of smartphones sold each quarter.

Still, we are on the brink of an industry that is set to change the world as we know it.

With last year’s launch of Google Daydream and Samsung Gear VR at under $80each, wider accessibility to VR is finally possible. And for $15, you can buy Google Cardboard or even build a headset on your own for free. (Hint: it involves cardboard, bi-convex lenses, magnets, velcro, and a rubber band.)

The biggest setback that prevents VR from truly taking off is content. VR content is expensive to produce and funding usually comes from supporters who see enough traffic to turn around and monetize big on advertising.

Users show up for content. And more users = more traffic = sponsors, who in-turn fund content. It’s a chicken-egg scenario.

Music video director Chris Milk (Kanye West, Arcade Fire) is out to change that. Milk has dabbled in virtual reality concepts early on and in 2014 co-founded a production studio with artist and entrepreneur Aaron Koblin.

His first TED talk on the topic was in 2015, entitled “How virtual reality can create the ultimate empathy machine.”

“VR is the last medium for storytelling, because it closes the gap between audience and storyteller. -Chris Milk

Linden Labs, the founders of Second Life, are also betting big on VR with the upcoming launch of a new platform.

Variable Labs is one of many other companies dedicated to creating immersive VR experiences in order to help individuals foster empathy, develop soft skills, and help change behavior through therapeutic techniques. Last year, it was also announced that Reel FX was teaming up with Facebook’s Oculus for a $1 million ‘VR for Good’ initiative dedicated to inspire social change.

From spirituality and healing to education, work, tourism, and of course entertainment, the possibilities in virtual reality are endless.

VR is too new for us to fully understand the full scope of its implications, but it’s good to know that as it emerges as a platform for mass-consumption the social good element is breaking through sooner than it did in its predecessors, despite the outliers.

And, as early consumers and content creators, we have the unique opportunity to help decide which direction it goes in.

Whether it be transformative and uplifting, or dark and potentially traumatic.

The time to call it is now. And the great news is, good things are on the horizon.

More:

Chris Milk, Virtual Reality as an Art Form (TED talk)

VR for Good at Sundance

Smart Watch Review: The Vector Luna

Vector Smartwatch synced to iPhone app

Vector Smartwatch synced to iPhone app

As far as smartwatches go the Vector excels in both design and technical prowess.

It does exactly what ones assumes a smartwatch would do. It notifies the wearer of the info he or she wishes to receive. It also serves as an elegant and reliable timepiece — nothing more, nothing less.

People tend to converse about smartwatches in the same way they do about Google Glass. What’s a smartwatch other than another digital device stealing our time and attention? Do we really want another barrier to real human connection, especially one that from the very beginning appears to be somewhat gauche?

In our information-crazed society where FOMO is a real thing, aren’t we distracted enough?

I’ve written about why I’d prefer not to wear one. I even went so far as to wear a sweater with an 8-bit Tamagotchi across the chest that pays homage to William Gibson’s Tamagotchi gesture.

In a 1999 essay from Wired describing his obsession with buying traditional timepieces on eBay, Gibson says:

Mechanical watches partake of the Tamagotchi Gesture: They’re pointless yet needful, comforting precisely because they require tending.

I don’t disagree that a timepiece requires tending. Sure, the Vector needs tending – it needs to be charged. And maybe at some point I’ll swap out a wristband or two.

From a moral perspective, isn’t the watch disturbing with all its notifications? Doesn’t it add to the level of digital noise instead of help reduce it, given that we’re already trying to turn down the noise (be it mental or digital) to begin with?

Let’s back up for a second. If digital distraction is the topic here, the iPhone is a lost cause. Think about it: it’s basically a computer we keep in our back pocket and program to go off all the time.

The smartwatch enables one to filter out everything except for the absolutely necessary.

And the phone can be put away.

The only notifications I have set up are incoming calls, text messages, Facebook messenger (the only reason outside of groups I still use Facebook), and Uber. Those are enough. All of the messages filtered to come through are from those I actually know.

I can also put the device in silent mode. That way I can move along with the activities and tasks that are truly important without worrying that no one can reach me. (Yes, a luxury problem that didn’t exist thirty years ago.)

The watch doesn’t interfere the way phones do, as long as we set them up to act that way. 

It’s also helpful to simply, well, glance down. For example, I can look down at my wrist and learn that the friend I’m meeting for brunch is five minutes away. There’s no need to dig out the iPhone, unlock it, and swipe. This literally eliminates at least two, three, possibly more actions taken depending on your setup and use.

I got the Vector Watch for several reasons but mostly, because I wanted to attach myself to something beautiful.

And the Vector is just that. The hardware is sleek and fully customizable from both an interface and hardware perspective. You can choose from several faces, bands and sizes.

You can essentially design a timepiece that looks like a classic mechanical watch. From a distance one barely notices that it’s a smartwatch – it’s that discreet.

When I got my Vector in late 2015 there were only a limited number of digital watch faces available. The file sizes must’ve been larger then, too — I was only able to download a handful. They must be iterating quickly, or maybe it’s because they’ve opened up their platform to developers because many more have rolled out since then ranging from classic to abstract. They even offered a heart-themed face on Valentine’s Day.

While it’s stream features are somewhat limited at present (and this may be intentional) the smartwatch offers basic functional features like a timer, alarm, weather info and news. For those who like to dabble in quantified self one has the ability to measure steps, calories burned, and hours of sleep, although there is no Fitbit-like interface for digging more deeply into the data.

The battery life also falls short of expectation (it’s closer to three weeks versus four). Other more nuanced personal grievances revolve around display resolution and storage.

The vector is cross platform, meaning that it’s compatible with both Android and iPhone devices. I tried it out on both and it worked just fine.

All in all, the Vector is a beautiful marriage between form and function; a high quality product that hasn’t glitched on me yet in the five months I’ve had it.  Sleek, intuitive design meets helpful technology – this is where the Vector truly shines.

Will it last five years though, as a traditional timepiece would? Probably not. It’s certain to say that in five years there will be a more sophisticated device taking its place. It will be interesting to see if there will be long-term debate about mechanical versus digital, or if they will simply be treated as separate species.

Within the former the mechanical watch will almost certainly win every time. Within the latter, the traditional watch will take home the categories of reliability and tradition as the smartwatch continues to dazzle on.

Why Digital Marketing Is The Future (And The Future Is Now)

Is building a product actually easier than marketing the thing? Some would answer yes. Perhaps it depends on what you’ve set out to build. (Yo, anyone?) On one hand, while marketing has become easier due to more methods at our disposal and advanced tools for measuring impact, the holistic idea of “marketing” as a whole does have its challenges.

For one, marketing departments don’t have a template to follow. There are no feature sets, no assigned tasks in Jira, no testing build to see if the features actually work.

That’s not to say that building a quality product isn’t challenging — it’s been reported that  less than 0.01 percent of consumer mobile apps actually find financial success. The argument is then reversed. Is marketing to blame for this unfortunate rate of success?  Perhaps.

Marketing has it’s own set of uniquely complex problems. In some ways the old adage still rings true – “marketing is throwing things against the wall to see what sticks.” But things have gotten drastically better.

In recent years marketing strategy has evolved considerably and the old paradigm is much less relevant. Consider advertising. This year the BBC reported that for the first time ever teens are spending more time online than they are watching television. This leaves the advertising world scrambling to reach them in other places like YouTube, in-games, or within narrowcast messaging apps like Snapchat. (by the way, they no longer use Facebook.)

The good news is that these new marketing opportunities are long tail and highly quantifiable through qualitative data. In other words, we can now measure our marketing dollars much more clearly.

Take the following example. Rather than buying a Superbowl spot on television an advertiser runs a video campaign tied to a timely topic using celebrity influencers as bait. The distribution channels? Social media. Along the same lines, relevant ad units can purchased within games, and badges or funny filters are great offerings we’re starting to see presented within narrowcast environments.

With the exception of the television spot, all of the above is measureable. What’s more, it can be broken down by demographic and  user persona. It becomes easier than ever to understand who engages with your product.

By the way, this is exactly what the new’ish methodology of “growth hacking” employs.

[To be clear, growth hacking isn’t actually hacking. It is the process of deliberately employing small, measurable action items in order to see what actually works. After you get an idea of what consumers respond the best to, you can then double down in the areas with noticeable (measurable) success.]

Examples of these small and measurable action items include:  running an incremental batch of ad buys on AdWords or Facebook, A/B testing content on your website, low level influencer marketing, strategically posting to social media. Marketing dollars don’t need to be spent in chunks, rather in small increments — think subscriptions and incremental ad buys.

This approach is vastly different from the old days when simply doing things like issuing a press release, having a presence at trade shows, or buying billboard space were the norm.

The key in the digital economy is to focus on things that are measurable.  

Not only can you market your product in a highly strategic way,  you’ll gain valuable user feedback as you go.

The new marketing paradigm involves more channels than ever. These channels include but are not limited to: content optimization, community building, e-mail marketing, and business development. With so many options it’s important to be strategic and find the channels that work best for you.

There are countless combinations of levers to pull in order to find success, which are found through experimentation. Some approaches may work for one company and fail for yours. You must choose your channels wisely, and you’ll be reaching your goals in no time.

How To Build A Successful Marketing Stack In The New App Economy

white iPhone

There are many ways to drive users consistently to your app while delivering exactly what they want in the form of an entertaining and – if you’re lucky – addictive in-app experience. Based on your initial target market along with what you learn about your users, all it takes is a series of steps that are tactical, measurable, and scalable in methodology.

While your business needs must always be tied directly to your implementation plan, there are many things you can do to interact directly with your core user base while simultaneously reaching target market groups.

Here are 5 key steps to get there:

1. Know and Serve Your Audience

Beyond Google Analytics and platform-specific marketing tools, tap into the social media earpiece to speak with and listen to your core user base.

Outside of basic affinity metrics, what are their interests? What do they want, and most importantly what do they care about? Do you attract design nerds, community lovers, foodies, music fans – perhaps a combination of several of these groups?

What daily problems do they face, and how can you help solve them through technology? By learning about your audience, you’ll best be able to draw conclusions about what type of content to create and experiences to deliver and thereby stay one step ahead of the game.

Target markets are the measurable, critical component that ultimately drive app growth. The key is to hook these users early by delivering exactly what they want (or something close to it) while consistently keeping yourself in their digital spheres by leveraging the channels where they hang out the most.

After that, the real fun begins – this is where you can work on bringing the somewhat-to-average app user to ultimate fan status.

2. Deliver, Deliver, Deliver

Related to #1, you should provide users with exactly what they want. Deliver items tied to their interests, and you will open the door to increased usage, upsells, and app growth.

Don’t forget that your #1 marketing channel is word of mouth. This directly contributes to the velocity of the number of downloads acquired and is also a key metric for visibility in the iTunes app store in terms of store ranking and feature placement.

Seed content by hiring top-tier and relevant storytellers to expand your reach on blogs and social media. Create engaging content – and don’t worry about the rules. Create Instagram content just as cool as your friends would create. Reach out to influencers through various platforms (again, where they hang out), and you’ll wind up with a channel that can create significant impact.

3. Embrace the Funnel

Tap into how people are using your app. User behavior is telling, from the newbie to the frequent user. Examine where they drop off and investigate why it happens. If your on-boarding screen is collecting the correct information, you already have basic contact info available. This creating an easy entry point to remarket by offering incentives to return for more, which leads to the following…

4. Don’t Be Afraid to Pivot

Stay true to your product roadmap, but always be available and willing to ask questions. If something isn’t working and you receive the same feedback time and time again, the suggestion may be worth acting upon.

If a feature recommendation comes to the table that actually makes sense, that’s a terrific thing. And it’s free feedback! Let that feedback gently inform your product roadmap, and keep iterating on the product with this information in mind.

5. Utilize Tools with Built-in Engagement Mechanisms

Facebook bought Parse for a reason – they are now directly tied to developers and thus can make the development process of integrating with Facebook simple. Twitter and Google are also in the game of making significant investments in tools that provide easy access to app analytics, built-in promotional tools, and other strategies that provide natural stepping stones into proprietary advertising platforms that drive app downloads, which in turn drives revenue (Facebook earned $1.95 billion in Q3 2014 on mobile ads alone).

While it’s been proven that buying ads on Facebook works well, further evidence shows that content-driven engagement will always be of interest. Combined with the above tactics – examining user behavior, knowing and serving your audience, creating original content, and not being afraid to pivot – you can leverage many tools that lead to the promotion and distribution of a highly successful app.

I Won’t Wear Android…Yet

Samsung Smartwatch

I don’t want a computer on my wrist. Or anywhere on my body, really. Having an iPhone tracking every movement from my handbag is alarming enough.

Wouldn’t it be nice to go back to a flip phone? Sure, there wouldn’t be any fancy games, or maps, or cleverly branded apps for taking selfies. Sure, I could turn off “Location Services” and refrain from checking-in. But what’s the fun of that?

Maybe I’d enjoy life a little more.  Maybe I’d experience some…freedom.

Google wants it all. The contents of my e-mail, exact location, browser visit, search, preferences, along with anything else they can reach.

And, similar to Facebook, it’s my fault for willingly giving it to them in exchange for free services and the convenience of a single log-in.

But are these services free? These days privacy is seemingly more valuable than an SSN. Why would I give up privacy so voluntarily?

Then again, who cares? It’s not like I’m a criminal unintentionally leaving digital breadcrumbs of evidence strewn across the internet.

But, back to the Watch.

The only functional solve I see to the Android Watch outside of what the iPhone already provides is pure physical convenience. You don’t have to continually pull your phone from your pocket to read a text or answer a call.

For now, I’m unwilling to have a computer strapped to my body for the sake of convenience. A line has to be drawn. Until the phone offers drastically new features, and until I’m in control of the information I choose to disclose (likely, never), I’ll default to my trusty analog watch.

A watch is the kind of device that does one thing and does it well. It retains a timeless style that requires actual physical tending. Conversely, it does not tend to my physical being by recording every output.

Also, it doesn’t die every 4 years.

Perhaps I’ll be seduced by the sleek design and inevitable heart-tugging campaign surrounding the launch of the Apple iWatch. Until then, I’ll cling to the throwback of form and function as my daily business continues to tick on.