Episode Fifty Three: Yet More VR; TV is still fucked; Vox.com; Ugh

by danhon

0.0 Station Ident

It’s a sunny Monday in Portland, Oregon – looking out the window I can see at least two mountains and to top that off I even had a good chat with a friend over a tasty breakfast. Everyone should have Monday mornings like this.

1.0 Yet More VR

With apologies to Douglas Adams:

“Virtual reality is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist’s (or, for that matter, the mobile revolution), but that’s just peanuts to virtual reality.”

Here, I think, is a baseline for the possible success of the Oculus Rift when it goes consumer. Nintendo released their Wii console in 2006; it famously became a lifestyle family console in a way that no other video gaming device had done before. Wikipedia reckons that worldwide shipments totaled around 100 million units by the end of 2013.

That’s for something that, for the most part, charitably speaking, was a *tennis simulator*. I’ve made fun of the Wii before in talks I’ve given because it feels like the main success of the device was due to the pack-in of Wii Sports and that it had thus become the most expensive (and prevalent) tennis simulator known to mankind.

That’s if virtual reality is a gimmick. One of the major failings of the Wii (if you can call 100 million units sold a failing) is that it completely missed the online services boat (and, arguably, Nintendo continue to miss that boat in quite a spectacular fashion). For Oculus, though, it’s pretty much impossible to conceive of virtual reality without a robust networking component.

The opportunity (or challenge) for Oculus right now is to break out what, until now, had been presumed to be their future: as a subset (albeit a successful one) of the PC gaming market. Now, in the grand scheme of things, the PC gaming market doesn’t feel that big. You’d be talking about converting a portion of Steam’s 75 million active registered users, for example. Which, I guess, puts you in peak World of Warcraft territory if you can convert around ten percent of Steam’s users, but that doesn’t really sound ambitious enough.

No, the big thing is breaking out into mass consumer territory.

Anyone who’s played with the Oculus hardware (and hasn’t been affected by the motion sickness from early developer units) can attest to the visceral, qualitative difference in experience. And the easiest job is going to be converting the ten million or so virtual reality adherents who’re just waiting for Snow Crash to come about. But we’re not playing for just bringing the metaverse about, we’re playing for building the biggest consensual hallucination ever.

There’s the product part, of course. I’m super interested to find out what Oculus’s product strategy is going to be – presumably they don’t want to be a peripheral device anymore to maximise takeup, and you can pretty much buy off-the-shelf ARM platforms with enough processing power and rendering capability (especially if you’re tethered to mains power). As a side-note, we finally need all that GPU power that’s been hanging around for 1080p x2 rendering. I would almost say (ish) that the product part is the *easy* part.

The hard part is maybe this: how do you sell virtual reality to everyone who’s not a convert?

We saw this a little bit with Facebook. While the impression that a great many people have of Facebook is in part via what they’ve done with their product (and how well or badly they’ve communicated *why* they’ve done certain things with their product), a big impression is also due to That Film. And while Mark Zuckerberg might not be anything like the Aaron Sorkin character, unfortunately the world doesn’t work like that.

In the same way that film got to dictate what we thought of Zuckberg having never directly experienced him, film, tv and culture are also getting to dictate what we think of virtual reality – before the product has even come out. Let’s be clear: technology has been over-promising and under-delivering on VR for *decades* by this point, and every little thing, every episode of Murder She Wrote[1], X-Files[2, 3] and Wild Palms[4] and god knows what.

This is me after four years in advertising and Wieden+Kennedy land, but I’m desperate to know: what’s the world’s first viable VR brand going to look like?

If you look at the staff Oculus already have on board, you can see expected roles like director of developer relations and Head of Worldwide Publishing, but then you’ve got Eugene Chung, Director of Film and Media. There’s the gaming side of Oculus, but then there’s also the *everything else* side of Oculus that the press have already breathlessly written about. What type of immersive storytelling is going to be possible? What’s going to be encouraged? The gaming side at this point is a matter of execution, but I’m convinced that what Oculus needs to cross over to mainstream is some sort of the equivalent of the Wii Sports pack-in. Of course, I don’t mean a *literal* Wii Sports VR tennis simulator pack-in. But something super easy and accessible to a mainstream audience. Remember when the first DVD-ROM drives came with pack-in movies and that was how everyone got their copy of The Matrix? Like that.

[1] http://www.netflix.com/WiPlayer?movieid=70077403&trkid=3325894
[2] http://www.netflix.com/WiPlayer?movieid=70134266&trkid=3325854
[3] http://www.netflix.com/WiPlayer?movieid=70134310&trkid=3325854
[4] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wild_Palms

2.0 TV is still fucked

So my friend Matt Haughey got his Amazon FireTV and wrote a review[1] and the big news is that there isn’t any news. It is (and I realise I’m at risk of doing a CmdrTaco “less space than a Nomad” here) exactly the product you’d expect it to be: an ARM/Android based streaming media platform hooked up to the usual suspects of content providers as well as the device owner’s with some nice touches here and there (the packaging is the same dimensions as a DVD box set and Amazon have already associated it with your Amazon account, just like when you buy a Kindle from them).

And as good as the user experience is in terms of fast and fluid UI, it turns out that what really matters is this: can you watch the stuff you want to watch, and can you find it easily. To which the answer is: no. Still. Video content licensing is fundamentally broken from a “serve the user-need point of view” because the landscape is so goddamn fragmented, and that’s notwithstanding the IP owners’ attempts at creating their own platforms (see: Hulu, Ultraviolet). No provider is going to allow API access to allow anyone to implement universal search (Xbox *kind of* does this, but it’s still a pain in the ass) because it’s still too early in the game and they all want platform lock-in. And of course one way of getting platform lock-in is to have exclusive content licensing deals.

So no, there is no easy way to tell you if you can watch a certain TV show or movie over whatever streaming media device. Because Hollywood hates you.

[1] http://www.pvrblog.com/2014/04/amazon-fire-tv-first-impressions.html

3.0 Vox.com

So Vox.com has launched and it’s… interesting. It’s explain-y which, if you’ve been paying attention to organic traffic these days, is a pretty good characteristic to have for a news organisation. It even looks to be espousing the writing-for-the-web design principles as held up by current standard-bearers the UK Government Digital Service (of which: read theirs[1,2]).

The whole cards metaphor is worth taking a look at because it’s chunked up their content in easy-to-digest, well, chunks. Each chunk looks like it answers a specific question (check out their Obamacare[3] article) in a way that, well, Wikipedia doesn’t, really. At first glance it looks super nicely designed.

I’m not entirely persuaded by the visual identity – the yellows and grey/blue wash makes it feel like an also-ran Economist with pull-quotes looking like an also-ran Bloomberg Businessweek at the moment, and something about it feels bland and unnecessarily dense in Ezra Klein’s debut article[4]. That said, this is a one-dot-oh release, and hey: when was the last time you saw a news organisation with *version numbers*[5] for their platform? Used to be, you’d look to an outfit like The Guardian for interesting news/web innovation, now it looks like the Guardian is being out-agiled.

[1] https://www.gov.uk/design-principles
[2] https://www.gov.uk/design-principles/style-guide/writing-for-the-web
[3] http://www.vox.com/cards/obamacare/what-is-obamacare
[4] http://www.vox.com/2014/4/6/5556462/brain-dead-how-politics-makes-us-stupid
[5] http://www.vox.com/2014/3/30/5564404/how-we-make-vox

4.0 Ugh

Speaking of my favourite British-based Borg collective, Wired UK published a quite frankly amusing recount[1] of an “event hosted by EMC and Policy Exchange” on how technology can be used to reinvent government. Apparently the two organisations are currently writing a joint manifesto to advise the government which, I have to admit, is pretty hard to read without hearing “to serve their interests.”

I suppose the real problem I have is the incoherency of the writeup, which appears to not actually understand the positions being advanced. It’s a bit clearer when you read Mark Thompson’s blog post[2] but only, from my point of view, in the sense that there’s one good point buried under a whole bunch of dreck.

I’ll start with the one good point. It’s true that “digital is… disingenuous without an open, honest debate about how reinventing govt [sic] will reshape the public sector and alter the nature of public sector jobs.” Doing digital government properly will by necessity involve radical change: the disruption of hierarchies, abolition and merger of departments and so on. But to effectively write-off current progress because the next part of the journey hasn’t been done yet strikes me as more than a little disingenuous, especially when it appears like you’re not appearing to offer any solutions yourself. And speaking from a personal point of view, I side with what appears to be GDS’s current notion of delivery driving progress rather than top-down rearchitecting. Pragmatically, I believe the former will actually have a chance to effect change rather than the latter.

Now the dreck.

Thompson says that rather than contracting-out, the government is now growing its own capability to build bespoke IT (such bespoke IT that he’s knocked in the previous paragraphs), and saying that “the fact that it’s using open source makes little difference.” With all due respect to Thompson: bollocks. From the outside, it appears that GDS is actually doing the hard work to make sure that the right software and tools are being built in the first place through strict embedding, co-operation and partnership as well as, how do the Spanish Inquisition say, an almost fanatical devotion to uncovering and serving user need.

And then this: “The tech is still special, requires upgrades & maintenance, and the UK remains in its cul-de-sac, decoupled from the innovation of the global marketplace.”

Where to begin? All technology inevitably upgrades and maintenance – that’s the nature of technology. Thompson, I am sure, would be decrying the use of ball point pens, referring to the far superior and more reliable technology of fountain or quill pens. And what of this rhetorical device of the UK remaining “in its cul-de-sac, decoupled from the innovation of the global marketplace.”?

The issue isn’t around closed source: it’s about the right tool for the right job and having the expertise to ensure that it stays that way with interests that are aligned. I think it’s fair to say that at this point, procurement contracts for big government IT (or even any government IT, for that matter) haven’t successfully managed to align goals. A weak government with no implementation capability is a fat easy teat that I’m sure EMC is incredibly unhappy they’re less able to suckle from. You can use all the open-source software you want and still create as big a pig’s ear of a software solution as Accenture or Capita would.

And finally, because if I go on, I really will completely lose it, what exactly does “decoupled from the innovation of the global marketplace” mean, exactly? Does Thompson not realise that some of the most effective “innovation of the global marketplace” is being achieved with the right in-house, vertically integrated tools and services? Or is this some sort of conscious coupling that must be achieved, Gwyneth Paltrow style? Presumably governments may only be consciously coupled with the innovation of the global marketplace by *buying* that capability and never developing it, thus ensuring that they only benefit from second-order optimisation and never actually get the tools and services they need.


That’s why I think Thompson has grasped completely the wrong end of the stick. He’s looked at the delivery and output aspects of what GDS has accomplished (the 25 exemplars) and seen them, amusingly, given his tract, purely in terms of “technology” and failed to realise the actual political and bottom-up change that has to have occurred in order to effect the exemplars in the first place. Does he think, for example, that GDS winning design awards for clarity of provision of service, is a technological “agile” deliverable, or one that’s required a genuine change of working inside the civil service?

Oh, right.

[1] http://www.wired.co.uk/news/archive/2014-04/04/digital-disruption-government
[2] http://www.blogs.jbs.cam.ac.uk/markthompson/2014/04/05/government-digital-is-in-danger-of-losing-its-way/