Report: Hybrid application design: balancing cloud-based and edge-based mobile data

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Hybrid application design: balancing cloud-based and edge-based mobile data by Rich Morrow:
We’re now seeing an explosion in the number and types of devices, the number of mobile users, and the number of mobile applications, but the most impactful long-term changes in the mobile space will occur in mobile data as users increasingly interact with larger volumes and varieties of data on their devices. More powerful devices, better data-sync capabilities, and peer-to-peer device communications are dramatically impacting what users expect from their apps and which technologies developers will need to utilize to meet those expectations.
As this report will demonstrate, the rules are changing quickly, but the good news is that, because of more cross-platform tools like Xamarin and database-sync capabilities, the game is getting easier to play.
To read the full report, click here.

The Future of Immersive Environments: Virtual Home Design, “Backcasting” the Future and a Look at How VR/AR Get Social

At the Gigaom Change conference in Austin, Texas, on September 21-23, 2016, Dr. Jacquelyn Ford Morie (CEO of All These Worlds), Melissa Morman (Experience Officer at BDX), Liam Quinn (CTO of Dell), and Doreen Lorenzo (Director of UT Austin’s Center for Integrated Design) talked about empathetic design in virtual space and the future of augmented reality.
The future is already here, but there is much more to come in terms of more fully immersive environments. Virtual and augmented reality (VR/AR) will proliferate in digital spaces, taking us from a two-dimensional interface to three-dimensional virtual spaces. But once these virtual and augmented environments are ubiquitous, what will we do, how will we react and what new things will we learn?
One of the areas where we’ll see some of the biggest changes is the home.
Melissa Morman, Client Experience Officer at BDX, is looking at ways homebuilders can adopt and deliver more digital experiences for their customers. Mormon said she is scouting new technologies for the homebuilding industry by asking questions like, “How do you attract customers digitally?”
Currently, prospective homeowners are given floorplans to help them evaluate (and visualize) a new home. But when the home isn’t built or significant changes are being made, floor plans can’t do the job. Smart builders understand this and are looking at ways of using virtual and augmented reality tools to help clients see the possibilities.
Donning an Oculus Rift headset, customers are digitally immersed into the virtual home and are able to make adjustments to colors, materials and even the physical configurations of the rooms. Need to make a hallway wider for wheelchair access? Want to see what your countertop looks like with another color of granite? All of these changes can be visualized in great detail.
Once inside these immersive environments, how might we react though? What will our emotional responses be and how can those be used in creative ways?
Dr. Jacqueline Ford Morie said that “VR let’s you experience walking a thousand miles in someone else’s shoes. It’s powerful as a tool for empathy.” She cited a project called “Hunger in LA” which recasts the participant in a reconstructed scene of a real-life man who has collapsed in line at a food bank. This project was ground-breaking as a journalistic approach to creating empathy and understanding.
The panel moderator and director of the UT Austin Center for Integrated Design, Doreen Lorenzo, agreed that there is a huge opportunity for designers to use VR and AR to “step inside” the world of the user and really understand what they need — whether you’re designing for someone with disabilities or understanding the specific needs of a group. Morie agreed, saying, ”We’re starting to use a lot of VR for health reasons so it can be life-changing. That’s coming.”
But this is all a single-person experience. The perception of VR is that it’s anti-social. Can we expect to see social, virtual experiences?
Morie mentioned a project called Placeholder as a great example of some of the earliest social VR work ever done (the project is led by Computers as Theater author and researcher, Brenda Laurel). Filling the role of different spirit animals, you and a group of your friends can talk to one another and leave each other messages in the larger scope of the game. There are also opportunities to have richer, more immersive experiences — diving under the water as fish or soaring in the clouds as a bird. “VR is social, not anti-social,” she said.
If VR is temporary immersive experiences, then AR is always with us. We can imagine this as constantly accessible informational overlays. Imagine a mechanic working on a part with a virtual manual right in front of them. But further in the future, AR has the potential to go beyond simple overlays. In a world that merges AR and VR, they’ll create a mixed reality (MR) that is seamless and fluid.

Quinn said they were already starting to see aspects of this vision with Dell’s Smart Desk for creative professionals. Dell is developing business applications for augmented reality that will allow IT departments do things like remote technical support with augmented overlays. They’re also working with automotive and airline partners to create mixed reality environments for their customers, creating ever-richer experiences for engage.
By Royal Frasier, Gryphon Agency for Gigaom Change2016

What’s going on in Phoneland?

Connecting the dots on some news stories from Phoneland.
First, the CEO of Ericsson has been sacked:

Kim McLaughlin, Ericsson Ousts Vestberg as CEO After Turnaround Plans Stall
Vestberg’s departure caps a turbulent period for Ericsson, which is cutting jobs while battling fierce competition from from Huawei Technologies Co. and Nokia Oyj. The company said last week it would accelerate cost cuts after reporting four straight quarters disappointing revenue and profit. Vestberg has faced questions on probes into alleged corruption in Asia and Europe, and last week the company rejected a report in Swedish media that it may be inflating sales by booking revenue before some clients are invoiced.

As usual, that’s the proximate cause, but the deep structure is that 4G tech has been rolled out worldwide already, and no one’s buying much these days.

With much of the so-called fourth-generation networks already built in the U.S. and China, Vestberg had vowed to improve profitability, but the stock has declined since reaching a more than seven-year high in April last year.
Vestberg had carved out new business units targeting media and enterprise customers to get back to growth, while investing in a next generation of so-called 5G wireless technology, which represents the next wave of spending at Ericsson’s telecom carrier customers. However, he refrained from big, dramatic moves like Nokia’s purchase of Alcatel-Lucent SA, opting instead for a partnership with Cisco Systems Inc. for Internet products like routers.

So, he’s out for thinking small bore, and we’re seeing the hiccups from the 4G/5G transition in Phoneland.
Second story: Steven Russolillo says that Apple is ripe for a Rally, despite the fact that market watchers are negative on the giant:

Much of the bearish thesis is due to weakening iPhone sales, which account for more than half of revenue. The iPad isn’t selling as well as it used to and the jury is out on the Apple Watch. Tech investors are allergic to anemic growth, which explains why the tech-heavy Nasdaq has lagged behind the Dow industrials and S&P 500.
Still, Apple has been punished more than enough. The iPhone slump appears priced in. And while the next iPhone, expected later this year, likely won’t be a significant upgrade, there is optimism that sales growth will soon bounce back. Analysts forecast iPhone unit sales will rise 5% for fiscal 2017, which ends next September.

The real question is not about stock price (or profits, either, with $10.52 billion in the March quarter), but about consumer buying behavior. Will we have to wait for a new mobile device — like AR/VR goggles? — before there is another huge surge in consumer demand for mobile? Watches aren’t the future, but goggles will be, I bet. Not a 2016 trend, though. Maybe 2017?
The third and last data point for today: Aaron Pressman digs into AT&T’s efforts to convince Wall Street its wireless business is healthy. His argument reviews the standard argument that postpaid subscribers — the ones signed up for monthly accounts — are generally considered to be better sources of reliable revenue than prepaid subscribers, who generally ‘spend less for service, buy cheaper phones, and tend to defect to other carriers more frequently’.

The bottom line is that so far this year, AT&T’s postpaid subscribers grew only 1% while prepaid subscriptions increased 21%. That’s disturbing to Wall Street, based on the ruling assumption that postpaid customers are preferable.
Thus, Stephens has been trying to push some new math on the analysts. In essence, his argument is that the best customers in prepaid are actually a lot better—and more profitable—than the worst customers in postpaid.
The average service revenue AT&T collected from postpaid customers who have left—and who mostly had not upgraded to smartphones yet—was only $35, he said during a conference call with analysts on Thursday afternoon. But the new prepaid customers signing up with Cricket are bringing in “closer to a $41, $42” of average revenue. Additionally, it costs less to acquire a new prepaid customer and less to provide them with customer service, he noted.
“So from that standpoint, the economics are better, and it is being shown in our margins,” Stephens told analysts, pointing out that while total wireless revenue was down slightly, profit margins were at record highs.

So AT&T has landed in a different dimension, where the economics are reversed, with T-Mobile and others screwing up the numbers for postpaid, while the supposedly poor prepaid sector looks good. However, this may be only true for a short transient period.
And the back office transitions around cable and internet, suggest other churn as the world is turning:

The telco is shedding expensive-to-maintain cable TV customers at its U-Verse unit while adding less costly satellite TV customers for DirecTV. AT&T is dropping broadband Internet customers who connect via older DSL lines while trying to add fiber optic broadband customers. And it’s trying to move corporate customers from traditional managed networks to cheaper virtualized networks. If all of the transitions succeed, both revenue and profits should grow.

Putting all the dots together? The consolidation in Phoneland is accelerating. Old technology is maturing, while new technologies and business models are only slowly emerging, which is leading to the downdraft at Ericsson, and financial analyst disdain for Apple and AT&T. The slowing rate of purchasing — by telcos and consumers, both — is leading to consolidation, the classic market maturation that comes right before a new era of breakthroughs and growth. But those breakthroughs won’t be in 2016.

Dr. Jacki Ford Morie talks Virtual Reality with Gigaom

Dr. Jacki Ford Morie
Dr. Jacquelyn Ford Morie is widely known for using technology such as Virtual Reality (VR) to deliver meaningful experiences that enrich people’s lives. From 1990 to 1994, Morie worked at the University of Central Florida’s Institute for Simulation and Training. While there, she developed multi-sensory techniques for VR that predictably elicit emotional responses from participants. In 1999, she helped establish the USC Institute for Creative Technologies, an Army-funded research lab finding connections between entertainment and military needs and expanding her work in emotionally evocative VR, including patenting a scent collar to deliver evocative odors to participants within immersive experiences.
In 2013 Morie started All These Worlds, LLC to promote virtual environments and technology for healing. Her Coming Home project, started in 2009, created a center in the online world Second Life, where veterans and soldiers in need could find stress relief and rehabilitation activities. She also recently created a virtual world ecosystem called ANSIBLE for NASA designed to provide psychological benefits for future astronauts who will undertake extremely long missions to Mars.
Dr. Morie’s other research interests include how space, identity and play in virtual worlds can positively affect our human nature, and she has presented this work at conferences worldwide. Her newest startup, The Augmented Traveler, is focused on bringing an augmented reality product to market that will enhance the way people experience travel to all corners of the world.
Dr. Morie will be speaking on the subject of virtual and augmented reality at Gigaom Change Leaders Summit in Austin, September 21-23rd. In anticipation of that, I caught up with her Tuesday, June 21, with a few questions about virtual reality and it’s potential impact on the business world.
Byron Reese: Your involvement with virtual reality goes way back. When do you remember of the first time you thought about it or encountered the term or fiddled with the device? When did what would become VR first popup in your life?
Dr. Jacki Ford Morie: In the late 1980s I became aware of virtual reality and I found a lab in Central Florida that was starting a virtual reality research lab. And so I ended up getting myself hired there so I could work on virtual reality. And that was 1989.
And when you survey, when you flash ahead 27 years to today, how has what happened unfolded in ways that you expected or that you didn’t expect?
Well, the thing about actual virtual reality is how amazingly comparable to reality it can be. It doesn’t have to be photo-realistic but it gives you a believable experience. And that is really the primary thing behind virtual reality. We’re able to give people a very engaging, compelling, believable, cognitively real experience. Even if it’s being presented through virtual means.
What’s happened now, 27 years later, is that everybody wants to be on the VR bandwagon and things are being called virtual reality that have none of those sort of affordances that virtual reality actually allows us to build on.
So things like 360 video, which is nothing more than wrapping a screen around your head on a sphere. That’s not virtual reality, that’s another kind of screen that gets wrapped around your head. So I guess the thing that has happened that I could never have anticipated is that many versions of things that are not actually virtual reality are now being called virtual reality and people just keep repeating it because they don’t know any better, they have a vested interest in making that be something sexy to the general consumer.
You mention the consumer. Do you see in the next 10 years virtual reality mainly being a consumer technology or do you see virtual reality, and augmented reality, having an impact on the business world?
Oh absolutely, it’s going to have an impact on many, many different businesses. The business that wants to get their message out there in a compelling way, there’s going to be nothing better than virtual reality or augmented reality to do that, because it’s a multi-sensory mechanism for bringing people into the experience you want them to have.
And that’s very, very compelling. We go to the theater because it’s an experience, but if you want to get that theater experience out to more people and preserve the kind of immersive experience that theater-going gives us, that social aspect, then you’re probably going to want to use virtual reality. 
Look at Broadway, they’re maxed out on tickets, they’re maxed out on the prices of these things. How is it going to expand? It’s very expensive to send a troop to every city in the country. And yet, the demand is there. But imagine if we were able to create those Broadway shows with virtual reality characters who can either act predictably or have some sort of spontaneous elements to them. And this is going to take more doing in terms of getting believable characters who have some sort of emotion behind them.
Right now, real-estate agents are using it to give you tours of a place. So I’m looking to buy a house in Florida, let’s say. I don’t have to get on a plane and go to Florida and walk around 15 houses. I can actually take my first pass of those houses through a virtual reality walkthrough and get a sense of what it’s like to be in that house.
So here you have those kinds of things. It’s certainly what IKEA was doing with augmented reality with their catalogues, where you could take the furniture from the IKEA catalogue and place it in front of you in your room space to see what it looked like. That was a great use of augmented reality and we’re going to see a lot more of these things. 
So I think what we’re going to find is a seamless continuum from reality to mixed reality, augmented reality, that purely virtual thing that can immerse you and separate you from the physical world. And I can think of very few markets that might not have a benefit from this kind of technology.
And to go back to a comment you made earlier about the phrase, “trying to mean everything and therefore meaning nothing,” do you consider augmented reality in the camp of really being virtual reality because they are immersive and they respond to your movement and all that, or is even augmented reality not something you would call virtual?
Well, they all use digital technology in some ways. The difference between virtual reality in its purest form and augmented reality in its original context is that pure virtual reality requires you to put on some kind of device, usually a head-mounted display, that separates you from the physical world to immerse you in something where any sort of extraneous signals coming from something that’s not the experience being provided to you in virtual reality, they can’t intrude.
So it’s amusing to go to the meet-ups and conferences right now where somebody puts you in a head-mounted display, mind you designed to separate you from the distractions of the physical world and allow you to focus on that immersive experiences that’s been created. And the first thing they do is tap you on the shoulder and say, “hey, you can look around.” Or what you’re hearing is the glaring sound from the exhibition floor.
Now, augmented reality by context is designed so that it overlays some sort of imagery on to the physical world. So it doesn’t work without the physical world. It’s augmenting the reality you have. So they’re kind of two ends of the spectrum. Maybe you put full physical reality at the very end of the spectrum and the augmented reality is in there. And there are favorites of that where it’s more augmented than it is reality or more reality than it is augmented.
So for example, your augmentation might be hold your phone up and it says, there’s a great restaurant down this street. And then at the other end you have experiences that require you to separate yourself from the physicality of everyday life. And that’s the pure form of virtual reality. So it’s a continuum. They’re all using virtual technology but in different ways for different purposes.
Do you think there’s a chance that a significant portion of the population will put on a virtual reality headset and never take it off?
No. I don’t think that’s going to happen.
And why do you think that?
Well, I don’t think there’s enough content in the world for somebody to put one on and never take it off.
But I don’t mean, literally never take it off. But the people who already spend enormous amounts of time in virtual worlds, now we’ve essentially made the virtual world even that much more immersive and believable. So that you have significant number of people that just kind of disappear into those worlds because they consider them more attractive than the real world.
Perhaps there is a subset of a population who was so unsatisfied with their actual lives for whatever reasons. They could be shut ins, or live in a very remote area or whatever. Those people might find a lot of satisfaction being primarily in a virtual space. I think well-rounded individuals will probably balance their time between the physical and the virtual for very good reasons.
You have to be getting something valuable out of immersing yourself in a virtual space and separating yourself from the physical world. I don’t see that amount of satisfaction, except for those cases I mentioned, for most of the population any time soon. 
Maybe in a 100 years when we really need to go into something that’s been created for us because everything else has degraded to the point that we do have an apocalyptic future and we live in a matrix. That type of thing. But I really don’t see that happening. I think there’s too many things about life itself that can’t be delivered through a virtual experience and a head-managed display that is going to forego that kind of situation, where most people want to just live in their virtual space all the time.
And then there’s questions like, okay, how did those people even support themselves? And things like that. So, you know, there’s just a lot of social and economic barriers to that type of thing happening. I think if people talk about it it’s more of a scare thing than a reality that I envision happening any time soon.
Alright. Let’s leave it there. It was a great note.
Dr. Ford Morie will be speaking on the subject of virtual and augmented reality at Gigaom Change Leaders Summit in Austin, September 21-23rd.

The Seven Wonders of the Business Tech World

Just over 2000 years ago, Philo of Byzantium sat down and made a list of the seven wonders of the world at that time. Like any such subjective list, it was met with criticism in its own time. The historian Herodotus couldn’t believe the Egyptian Labyrinth was left off and Callimachus argued forcefully for the Ishtar Gate to be included.
At Gigaom Change in September (early adopter pricing still available), we will explore the seven technologies that I think will most affect business in the near future. I would like to list the seven technologies I chose and why I chose them. Would you have picked something different?
Here is my list:
Robots – This one is pretty easy. Even if you make your trade in 1’s and 0’s and never touch an atom, robots will still impact some aspect of your business, even if it is upstream. Additionally, the issue of robots has launched a societal debate about unemployment, minimum wage, basic income, and the role of “working for a living” in the modern world. We have dreamed of robots for eons, feared them for decades, and now we finally get to see what their real effect on humanity will be.
AI – This is also, forgive the pun, a no-brainer. AI is a tricky one though. Some of the smartest people on the planet (Hawking, Gates, Musk) say we should fear it while others, such as the Chief Scientist of Baidu say worrying about AI is like worrying about overpopulation on Mars. Further, the estimates to when we might see an AGI (artificial general intelligence, an AI that can do a wide range of tasks like a human) varies from 5 years to 500 years. Our brains are, arguably, what make us human, and the idea that an artificial brain might be made gets our attention. What effect will this have on the workplace? We will find out.
AR/VR – Although we think of AR/VR as (at first) a consumer technology, the work applications are equally significant. You only have to put on a VR headset for about three minutes to see that some people, maybe a good number, will put this device on and never take it off. But on the work front, it is still an incredibly powerful tool, able to overlay information from the digital world onto the world of atoms. Our brains aren’t quite wired up to imagine this in its full flowering, but we will watch it unfold in the next decade.
Human/Machine Interface – Also bridging the gap between the real world and the virtual one is the whole HMI front. As machines become ever more ubiquitous, our need to seamlessly interface with them grows. HMI is a wide spectrum of technologies: From good UIs to eye-tracking hardware to biological implants, HMI will grow to the point where the place where the human ends and the machine begins will get really blurry.
3D Printing – We call this part of Gigaom Change “3D Printing” but we mean it to include all the new ways we make stuff today. But there isn’t a single term that encapsulates that, so 3D Printing will have to suffice. While most of our first-hand experience with 3D printing is single-color plastic demo pieces, there is an entire industry working on 3D printing new hearts and livers, as well as more mundane items like clothing and food (“Earl Grey, hot”). From a business standpoint, the idea that quantity one has the same unit price as quantity one-thousand is powerful and is something we will see play out sooner than later.
Nanotechnology – I get the most pushback from nano because it seems so far out there. But it really isn’t. By one estimate, there are two thousand nanotech products on the market today. Nano, building things with dimensions of between 1 and 100 nanometers, is already a multi-billion dollar industry. On the consumer side, we will see nano robots that swim around in your blood cleaning up what ails you. But on the business side, we will see a re-thinking of all of the material sciences. The very substances we deal with will change, and we may even be said to be not in the iron nor stone age, but the nano age, where we make materials that were literally impossible to create just a few years ago.
Cybersecurity – This may seem to be the one item that is least like all of the others, for it isn’t a specific technology per se. I included it though because as more of our businesses depend on the technologies that we use, the more our businesses are susceptible to attacks by technology. How do we build in safeguards in a world where most of us don’t really even understand the technologies themselves, let alone, subtle ways that they can be exploited?
Those are my seven technologies that will most effect business. I hope you can come to Austin Sept 21-23 to explore them all with us at the Gigaom Change Leader’s Summit.
Byron Reese
Publisher
Gigaom

Virtual Reality: Just for fun? It won’t stay that way!

While the 1992 film Toys, starring the late, great Robin Williams, did not meet with universal acclaim (it registered a paltry 26% at the review site Rotten Tomatoes, despite receiving two Oscar nominations for its artistic merit), it contained at least one notable scene. This involved Williams, as toy designer Leslie Zevo, sitting on a sofa with his sister Alsatia (played by Joan Cusack) and wearing what looked like eye masks. As the pair rocked, screamed and waved their hands in the air it became clear that they were watching a roller coaster simulation.
Spot the date: over a quarter of a century has now passed since virtual reality (VR) headsets first entered the popular consciousness. A number of challenges have had to be overcome — not least insufficient screen resolution and movement tracking, which have been considered as causes of queasiness when headsets are worn.
But also, cost. I can remember, back then, considering the scenario of a young rebel on a city metro train, sporting cool-looking glasses that beamed images onto his retinas. Even if this were yet possible, it would be cost-prohibitive. But it is coming.
A mere three years have passed since Palmer Luckey first set himself the task of producing a low-cost VR headset. Following a luck(e)y break when he met John Carmack, creator of the seminal first-person shooter Doom, Palmer followed the footsteps of so many entrepreneurs when he left college to follow his dreams.
The Kickstarter campaign for the Oculus Rift heads-up display raised nearly $2.5m and while the device is yet to be released, its technology is already built into Samsung Gear devices. As it arrives however, the Rift is already offering more potential than just viewing images and videos.
To understand why VR in general, and the Rift in particular, are set to be such a game changer, we need to consider not just the headset but how it fits with a range of other technologies. Augmented reality for example, which links visuals with context-based data. Motion tracking from the likes of Leap or Kinect.
It’s not how any one technology delivers that matters; rather, it is how they can be used in combination. You can think of all the pieces as components of a new range of solutions, which have applicability in retail, in healthcare, in navigation, in geology and (as per Mr Williams) in film, media and all forms of entertainment.
Audi’s “world’s first fully digital car showroom,” based in London, is one example of how VR can benefit the retail experience. Audi integrated a Samsung Gear VR headset, immersing customers in a tour of the car’s features – you can even take a test drive. While this set-up claims to be the first of its kind, it is unlikely to be the last. As such solutions become prevalent, and as an inevitable consequence of the laws of supply and demand, the components will also become cheaper even as they diversify in form and function.
What other applications might we see? We might see a resurgence in virtual worlds such as Second Life; more likely however is that VR will become part of our daily lives. As such it is important for any organisation to consider the implications, which can come from a number of directions. It may be that VR has applicability within the business — in R&D for example, or in data visualization. Equally, it has potential to change behaviors, for example in how people work and relate to their colleagues.
The bottom line is: today, for many, VR still looks like a fun gadget, and indeed it is outside of certain domains. So have some of that fun — for a few hundred dollars, invest in some headsets and try them out. That way, when VR becomes more than fun, you will have a more solid perspective into how to integrate VR into your business strategies.

The headset cometh: A virtual reality content primer

When we talk about VR, we tend to talk in broad strokes. “Experiences,” we call them, as if that term is somehow covers and conveys the depth and disparity that exists between gaming, watching, and interacting with VR content. The reality of virtual reality, however, is not so easily categorized or described.
VR content is the big blanket term that clumsily and imprecisely covers large and vastly divergent portions of the content market as it stands. VR games, immersive video, and virtual cinema all fall under “VR content”, but they’re fundamentally different experiences, possibly appealing to very different portions of a potential mainstream VR market.
Let me get this out of the way: the Samsung Gear VR, Oculus Rift, HTC Vive and Sony Playstation VR systems that are coming en masse in Q1 2016 are wildly dissimilar creatures. From hardware to headware, these headsets have commonalities (gyroscopes, accelerometers, lenses) but result in very different experiences, namely with respect to resolution, frame rate, quality of the image, type of content supported by each headset. But alas, that’s another story, which we’ll save for another time.
We’re here to talk about VR content and what there is to do in a headset. Who is VR for and why does it exist? What does VR content look like, where does it come from and end up, and why should anyone want to strap something the size of small(ish) camcorder on her face?
Right now, most VR content falls into two distinct (if broad) categories: video and games.
It’s no secret that a large portion of the early adopter market for VR headsets will be made up of gamers, but gaming is really only part of the story. We’ll get to it, but first let’s take a look at the sleeping giant of VR content: video.
For the time being, video in VR also pretty much falls into two categories: immersive video and virtual cinema. Video, for the purposes of this discussion, is any bit of content that you experience in a VR headset during which your degree of agency is limited to where you’re looking.
In other words, whether it’s immersive or passive, in video content, you can’t control your or interact with your environment directly or physically. In some cases, you may be able to explore it by looking around, but your impact on the world is limited to changing your own perspective. Gaming and interactive content, by way of contrast, is content that allows you to affect and interact with the environment around you, whether its via gaze-based mechanics or controllers of any kind.

Immersive Video

I’ll admit that the first time I saw Paul McCartney in concert, I cried. Paul’s my favorite Beatle, the mastermind behind most of my favorite Beatles songs (including and especially Fool on the Hill), and seeing him live, right in front of me was, to put it simply, breathtaking.
Of course, I wasn’t actually there. I was watching it in a VR headset, from a much better vantage point than any seat could hope to provide. I was right next the piano. If I’d been any closer, I’d have been sitting on the grand piano right in front of him. He was playing Live or Let Die which, while not one of my favorites, was incredible. There was no moment at which I felt just exactly like I was right there in the stadium, surrounded by thousands of people and whisper-distance from Paul McCartney. But then, I also forgot that I wasn’t right there. And that’s what VR is all about.
Immersive video content comes in a number of different forms, though it all stems from the same general principle: putting you into the story or the action.
Companies like Jaunt, Vrse, WEVR, Discovery, and even Jeep and Volvo are creating immersive video content. Right now, for both Cardboard and Samsung Gear VR, there are a number of apps and short video experiences that put you anywhere from in the audience at SNL to in a wetsuit, diving into and exploring a shark-riddled shipwreck. There are VR tours of museums and stunning locations, heart-pounding skydiving, flying and racing experiences, and human-centric stories and short films.
Discovery VR is Discovery’s foray into the world of VR and immersive video, and features a number spherical video tie-ins with Discovery Channel IPs like Mythbusters, Gold Rush, Shark Week, and Survivorman. With immersive video, the team behind Discovery VR is experimenting with VR as a new way of telling stories.
On the other end of the immersive video content spectrum is WEVR, the VR software company recently on the receiving end of a big ($10M big) investment from HTC (makers of the Vive headset). WEVR is an open platform VR ecosystem with agnostic software solutions, and it’s looking “enable a content explosion,” in the words of co-found and CEO Neville Spiteri.
Conal Byrne, Discovery’s SVP of Digital Media and one of the leads for Discovery’s VR project calls virtual reality, “the first medium where you can turn a fan or a viewer into a character by just placing them smack-dab in the middle of the story.”
And really, that’s what lies at the core of immersive video: presence.
“You need to think about the audience as being in the experience,” says WEVR’s Spiteri. “You’re not just a viewer…we use the term ‘visitor’.”
Though the idea of creating video around a viewer instead of in front her may seem simple, the effect it has on the way we tell stories is nothing short of ground breaking. “With that simple change,” says Byrne, “to be in control of your POV as you watch video–it’s a seismic change.”
Beyond presence lies another, much more illusive component of immersive video: storytelling. Right now, VR is new and novel, but there will come a time when strapping on a headset and looking at a sunset may come to feel commonplace–something like looking at a beautiful photograph. Enjoyable, stunning even, but somehow stagnant. The compelling element of any video, any experience, is the story. Immersive video will eventually develop and evolve to stretch the boundaries of storytelling, and that presents some exciting opportunities tempered by some very real challenges.
“360-degree video or ‘capture-based VR’ where you’re starting with some aspects of the real world,” says Spiteri, “is proving to be very compelling and creating opportunities for ways of creating and telling video-based stories that have different degrees of interactivity.”
Requiring complex multi-camera/lens rigs, sophisticated editing software, and a team of people who understand the complexities of capturing all 360 degrees of a scene, creating immersive real-world video content is a difficult task. But of course, creating immersive video is much more complex than simply setting up a multi-camera rig that has the technical capabilities to capture 360-degree video.
Creating immersive video content requires recognition that everything around, above, and even below will be captured on camera. Everything is in frame and it’s all a part of the story, and the viewer is going to have the freedom to consume all of it. It’s all a part of the story, even if the action is only happening in a small or partial portion of the scene.
“With traditional storytelling, the director has a pretty high degree of control over what you’re looking at,” says Spiteri. “The art of drawing the user’s attention and directing gaze becomes pretty fundamental to the story and the storytelling process.”
While much attention is given to capture and edit systems, fancy and rugged rigs, and perhaps one of the most crucial factors of storytelling in VR has nothing to do with technology at all. Instead, it’s entirely human.
“We want to make sure that humans don’t get lost in the mix,” says Byrne, “that storytellers, journeymen, pioneers, the people that bring stories to life…don’t get lost.”
In discussing the lush forest-based Survivorman experience on Discovery VR, Byrne says, “It’s one thing to shoot a 360 shot of that forest off the grid in Canada, but when [Survivorman’s] Les Stroud steps out of that forest and starts talking about what he loves about being off the grid and why he does what he does, teaching survival to the viewer, it takes on a whole other meaning and comes alive.”
Like my experience with Paul McCartney, the human element is essential. Who you find in the scene and what they have to share is every bit as important as where you are when you put on the headset.
One of this year’s most stunning examples of immersive video, however, comes from Oculus Story Studio, and features not a human, but a hedgehog. Henry is a short film that follows Henry the hedgehog as he embarks on a journey to find friends.

Unlike much of the immersive video content that exists and is available right now, Henry is an animated VR short and puts the audience inside of Henry’s animated world. The visuals are crisp and stunning, but perhaps one of the most stunning elements of the film is the way that Henry behaves within it.
Henry can look at you. Like, right at you. And while it sounds simple, that is a fundamental paradigm shift. This isn’t just breaking the forth wall, it’s pulling you inside so that the fourth wall is firmly behind you. Henry’s world was designed around the you, the viewer, and you’re a part of it.

Why VR content investment in ‘a galaxy far, far away’ is just the beginning

Lucasfilm’s ILMxLAB studio recently released virtual reality content for the official Star Wars mobile apps, marking the first time the beloved sci-fi property has dabbled in VR content. It definitely won’t be the last, either.

The new experience, called Jakku Spy, is designed for use with Google Cardboard. Jakku Spy is an experience in installments, and today marks the first installment’s release. New pieces of the Jakku Spy puzzle will be uploaded every few days leading up to the Star Wars: The Force Awakens release on December 18.

The first VR experience itself is short: You’re treated to the signature Star Wars crawl, which informs you that you’re a spy for the Resistance on the desert planet Jakku where you’ll be on the lookout for enemy activity. Then, you find yourself standing atop a massive sloping sand dune, surrounded by high temperatures and hot, dry wind. There’s plenty to see, but you’ll scarcely have time to inspect before a speeder whizzes past, weapons ablaze. A moment later, a few bleeps and bloops grab your attention and you’ll turn to find a looking small, helpful, and very round BB-8 with a message for you.

That’s it, really. It’s just a taste. It’s a chance to step onto Jakku, to look around, to take ownership of your own perspective within a created world. And for now, that’s how VR exists in our world — the “real” one.

Jakku Spy is made to be intentionally limited and short. It’s supplemental. It’s a bite-sized experienced, contained in something that many of us have access to: a smartphone. It requires no special equipment, no high-powered computer, no costly headset and no wires. Google Cardboard was designed around the core principle of accessibility. Headsets are often around $30 (though special edition Star Wars Google Cardboard headsets themed after BB-8, R2-D2, Kylo Ren, and a Stormtrooper will be for sale in-store at Verizon retail locations) and most Google Cardboard apps and experiences themselves are free.

In many ways, Google Cardboard is the world’s necessary first step into VR. One of virtual reality’s biggest challenges on the road to mainstream acceptance is access. You can’t know how utterly different a VR experience is until you’ve tried it for yourself, and words simply fall flat. Trying to describe what a VR experience is like to someone who has never tried it is like trying to explain the way the wind feels or what it’s like to see the ocean for the first time. And, if we’re being honest, Google Cardboard isn’t anywhere close to the best VR has to offer us. It’s light years away from Oculus Rift and HTC’s Vive and even Samsung’s Gear VR.

But this, Google Cardboard, is our necessary first step. And the involvement of what is arguably the world’s largest film franchise is nothing if not a clear indicator of the future of VR and the extent to which Disney and Lucasfilm understand that for now, it’s important that everyone be able to experience Jakku for themselves, without the aid of early adopter equipment.

There’s more coming in VR. More content. More headsets. More frames per second, more time behind the lenses, more sound. Just more. There will, inevitably, be a time when we have long, standalone experiences in the headset. The technology is progressing, the demand is growing. But for now, VR experiences are supplemental. They’re short, they add depth and immersion to existing IP’s and experiences. There are opportunities for VR storytelling, but for now, introducing viewers to familiar characters and worlds through a new lens has proven an effective first step into VR.

In the announcement this morning, Rob Bredow, Lucasfilm’s head of New Media/VP, Advanced Development group said,

“ILMxLAB’s whole foundation and mission is about creating immersive entertainment, and that includes virtual reality. We think a lot of people are going to experience virtual reality in Google Cardboard for the first time with Jakku Spy. It’s a great opportunity because there’s this familiar content — characters and vehicles that you’ve seen in trailers — but you’re seeing it in a completely new way.”

Jakku Spy is meant to draw you in, to build anticipation for The Force Awakens, to introduce you to Jakku so that you feel like you know it and you must see it for yourself in theaters. And it’s working. Jakku Spy, much like most of the content in the Star Wars app, is meant to build the world of Star Wars. It isn’t long, and it isn’t standalone.

It doesn’t provide hours of interaction in the Star Wars universe, but it’s a start. And if the last paragraph of the announcement is any indication, that’s just what Jakku Spy is: Ultimately, Jakku Spy is the first step into a larger (virtual reality) world for Lucasfilm and Star Wars,” said the release. “And that’s something to be truly excited about.” 

YouTube jumps into virtual reality with Cardboard support

YouTube is breaking into virtual reality.
The service announced today that its application for Android smartphones now supports Google’s Cardboard headset. This means YouTube users will be able to select a virtual reality video, stick their smartphone into the headset, and kick back as the future of video consumption appears before their eyes.
“If we’ve learned anything in the past 10+ years at YouTube it’s that capturing and sharing videos is a great way to bring people there with you,” YouTube says in a blog post, adding that it’s supporting virtual reality because it “makes the experience of being there even more awesome and immersive.”
The service dipped its toes into virtual reality content earlier this year with 360-degree videos that allowed users to swipe their way around whatever was happening on-screen. This update, combined with the capabilities inherent to the Cardboard headset, promises a more immersive virtual reality experience.
But there’s another, larger change in YouTube’s announcement: The service has made all of its videos available to view in Cardboard. “You can now watch any video using Google Cardboard,” it says, “and experience a kind of virtual movie theater.” This gives YouTube the largest virtual reality content library.
It will face competition, of course. Facebook introduced 360-degree videos to its service earlier this year, and if its $2 billion acquisition of Oculus, plus its increasing efforts to provide all the media its users could ever want right from its website, it won’t take long for a full-on virtual reality experience to appear.
Video producers are just as excited about virtual reality. The New York Times introduced its own virtual reality app (which also relies on Cardboard) early this morning. Jon Stewart is reportedly working with Otoy, a startup known for its 360-degree video technologies, as he develops a new series for HBO. The Associated Press also released a virtual reality film with RYOT earlier.
All of which means that some of the world’s most influential publishers are racing to embrace virtual reality while the most popular video service and social network duke it out for control of the new market. If that doesn’t portend a momentous shift in how we watch videos, I don’t know what will.