Breaking through the screen, Part 2: Social Acceptance

In my last post, we discussed the promise of AR and how it might allow us to “break through” our beloved (or abhorred, depending on your camp) screens by putting a digital layer on top of the world. Fundamentally, this will completely change how we see and interact with the world and with each other.

This vision has sparked an “immersive computing” fever amongst investors, press, and tech giants alike. Investors poured $2 billion into the AR/VR market last year, new AR/VR announcements pop up in the news almost daily, and industry behemoths are hastily buying/hiring startups and industry experts like they are going out of style.

Facebook hiring 100 people amid AR expansion

Snap acquires AR startup

HTC invests in Lumus

Samsung partnering w/ Magic Leap?

Apple partners with Carl Zeiss

Right now, most of the attention is on the hardware and content front. While this activity and attention is cool and sexy for us in the biz, many of AR’s most important battles will be fought on the outskirts of this current arena, and in some cases, in different theaters all together.

In this post, we’ll discuss the struggle with social acceptance; a battle that must be won before we are all wearing AR glasses and flashing our best Steve Urkel impression (Hollywood, please do a futuristic reboot…)

Just a generation too late…

Social acceptance

The first, and maybe most ominous challenge AR will face in the long term lies with social acceptance. Quite simply, a lot of people just don’t want to wear something on their face.

It’s not cool. No one else is doing it. People are judging me. What’s the point? I feel silly.

I’ve heard every excuse in the book. Exhibit A is Google Glass. Consumers quickly dubbed users as “Glass Holes” and the project was widely dubbed a failure. But let’s make a quick distinction. Google Glass was far from “cool” or fashionable (unlike Snap’s spectacles, which conform to the trends, have some fashionista sass, and are inherently cool due to the cultural ubiquity of the underlying platform).

No, that’s not me. That stache though…
Snap Spectacles

Glass also had little consumer utility and is not true augmented reality. It didn’t produce 3D holograms, or overlay data on the world. Rather, it was more of a heads up display, that produced text and flat visuals in the upper right corner of your field of view. A mini-screen in your eye, essentially. Despite the lack of consumer traction, we should give credit where credit is due. It has proven to be a commercial success within the industrial manufacturing and healthcare space, where hands-free data retrieval and video capture adds value on a variety of fronts.

Commercial viability aside, I was fascinated by the concept. This was long before the idea of working in AR was even a kernel in my mind. I was chest deep in advertising technology, wading through the agency world and trying to conquer agency holding groups with video ad serving and measurement software. My world revolved around slinging “viewability” metrics and brand lift data. If you had told me then that I’d be pushing holograms on people two years later, I would’ve said your nuts.

While I had no pre-conceived notions of AR as a viable business opportunity at the time, I suppose I was more familiar with the concept than most. This was largely due to my affinity for science fiction movies and novels. Books like Ready Player One (which imagines a future where the core of our existence exists within a fantastical virtual world) or Daemon (which predicts a world controlled by software and overlaid with digital information/holograms, seen via glasses) made my imagination run wild (if you like science fiction, these books are highly recommended). In fact, Ready Player One is currently being made into a major motion picture by no other than Steven Spielberg himself. With these stories floating to the forefront of pop-culture, it’s apparent that the notion of virtualized worlds is gaining mass appeal and interest. Stories like these will only continue to capture our imaginations and fuel the creativity needed to pull these ideas out of the pages of science fiction, and further soften the beach of social acceptance.

Social acceptance put to the test

When Google Glass first came out, I decided to put society’s acceptance to the test and storm that beach on a solo mission. Perhaps I viewed this as a chance to become the protagonist of my own science fiction narrative, but for all intents and purposes, and to preserve my own vanity, we’ll just call it a provoked “social experiment”.

A close friend of mine from Silicon Valley, Ryan, somehow got his hands on an early version of Glass, before they were released to the rest of the world. You know the “innovators” that make up the first 2.5% of the population on the technology adoption curve? Ryan is in the .001%…

Ryan is also the king of peer pressure and mischief. A deadly combo. At the time, I had just emerged from a three-year relationship and was adjusting to the newly single life. It was that fish out of water phase when flirting doesn’t quite come as easy as it used to. The prospect of approaching a girl armed with conversational content was paralyzing, and recent attempts to do so were reminiscent of Bambi on ice.

Upon hearing these woes, he was insistent that we have some fun with his new toy. Our strategy was to try the opposite approach. Let them come to you, he said.

Adorning the glasses, I soon found myself waltzing with (outward facing) confidence into the one of the most popular bars in South Boston, Lincoln. And boy, did we cause a scene…

People at the bar went crazy for it! Girls and guys alike were lining up left and right to talk to me and ask what the hell I had on my face. I initially had my fun with it, telling people that I was seeing all types of holograms, and that it was recognizing their face, providing me with their Facebook/LinkedIn information, and interpreting their emotions and thoughts. Now of course this wasn’t true (even though you wouldn’t believe how many people fell for it!). All Google Glass could do was display flat, text based information or images, but it did have a camera, so in theory, this facial recognition and tracking application was an imminent reality (thank you Snapchat). It was at this point that they became either fascinated or concerned with the idea, which brings me to my next point within the vein of social acceptance.

At the time, Snapchat wasn’t a thing. People weren’t as familiar with software’s ability to track your face and overlay it with digital information (or puppy ears and a tongue…finally, AR’s killer app). But upon explanation, many winced at the idea of losing their anonymity. To calm the nerves, I’d argue it’s entirely dependent on the type of information that is exposed. Yes, we certainly need trust protocols in place to ensure that my “third-eye” isn’t recognizing everything about you, and somehow pulling information like your credit score, bank account information, and SAT scores.

But, what if I could see more helpful information that could spur on the ideal social encounter, lubricating the conversation and deepening a connection that otherwise might not have existed. I’m talking about harmless information such as the college you went to, where you’re from, what you do for a living, info that might allow you to quickly go from awkward ice breakers and small talk to more meaningful conversation.

Today, this information is controlled by digital conglomerates like Amazon, Facebook, Google, etc. quantifying your every move. Tomorrow, this information will be controlled by you via technologies like the blockchain. You will own your information and have complete discretion over how it’s used and how it’s seen. The block chain topic, especially around identity and security, is deep. We’ll cover this in a subsequent post, but for now, know that the blockchain will enable an entirely new way to store, access, and transact information, or anything of “value”, without the need of a middleman (eg: Bank of America, Facebook, AirBNB, Spotify, all middlemen recording, storing, and transferring currency, data, and ownership). With it society has a path to take back control of arguably the most valuable asset class in the modern world, your own data (which is a pretty revolutionary concept if you think about it… the digital crumb trail you leave online that is your data has helped create the most valuable companies in the world. What happens when the tables turn and YOU start getting paid for access to your data? The blockchain could enable this. Hmmmmm)

Okay, so hopefully we’ll be able to address issues of security and privacy with the blockchain, but what about the “coolness factor”? Don’t think companies like Oakley, Gucci, and Ray Bans are going to sit passively and watch as technology companies step all over their eyewear turf. As wearables become more prominent, beyond just eyewear, we’re going to see the fashion and tech worlds converge. It’s already happening in the world of fitness with the likes of Nike and Under Armor. They are absorbing all kinds of chips and sensors that turn your apparel and footwear into data sponges. You better believe that Luxottica is licking their chops at the prospect of a generation in which the iPhone becomes the “eye”Phone. Tech companies will partner with the fashion world to make sure they create something that is sleek, stylish, and very “cool” indeed. These fashion and style trends will drive purchase behavior and be a key factor in early adoption.

It’s hard to argue that the Google Glass form factor was anything close to fashionable or cool. I looked more like a cyborg than Bono (coolness debatable… but can’t knock him for trying), but wearing them still sparked a fascinating conversation, and while that Boston bar was a small sample size, I think it was still statistically significant, and the interest from the consumer was certainly there. Fortunately for the technology, fashion trends are less important within the enterprise, where AR is currently securing its initial foothold.

Fast forward three years, and that fateful night turned out to be quite the prophecy. Here Ryan and I both are at Meta, tip toeing amongst giants and doing battle on the front lines of this new computing paradigm. Funny how things work out, and how life’s small moments can in hindsight prove to be catalysts to greater life outcomes.

That prophecy went unnoticed until recently, when I found myself once again testing my social acceptance assumptions. As we scratch and claw to get the Meta 2 to market, it’s been all too easy to get caught up in the day-to-day chaos and existential hustle that comes with riding a start-up rocketing towards a world that doesn’t yet exist. That in mind, my comrade and I made a point to take a step back recently, enjoy the ride, and revisit my little social experiment during a recent business trip. This time, on a much different stage. Rome, Italy.

Ciao, ciao, grazi, ciao

While there, I wore the Meta 2, tucked the tether into a backpack, and proceeded to parade around the Pantheon and the Coliseum, pretending to engage with a tourism application of sorts. Heads turned left and right as I walked by, waving my hands in the air like a crazy person. As this went on, small crowds began to form. Each onlooker waited their turn to ask me what in the world this thing was on my face (cue flashback), and what could I possibly be seeing. I had a soap box, and I couldn’t resist…

With my little audience growing, I explained to them that I was swiping at unseen digital panels of information about the statues and monuments. Fist bumping holographic gladiators acting as my tour guides. Observing Roman gods and angels flying down through the Pantheon’s circular opening above. I let my imagination run wild, and theirs were right in tow, nodding along in disbelief. They all looked down at their paperback tourism guides in disgust.

Compared to the Boston bar scene, there was relatively zero push back around this use case. There were zero concerns about privacy, no concerns about fashion and coolness, no argument around utility. Overall, due to the perceived utility and uniqueness of this application, social acceptance didn’t seem to be of concern (and mind you, this is a pretty bulky, odd looking headset). To them, this was an amazing new way to experience and understand the world in a way that couldn’t be achieved through any other means, and they were willing to look a bit ridiculous to experience it for themselves.

When I told them the truth about the headset, they were all pretty upset. Hands went up in the air in dramatic fashion (the Italians obviously) and curse words sprung out in at least 4 different languages. Not so much because of my playful lie, but rather because I had gotten their hopes up. They were excited at the idea of the arrival of this new world. They wanted to experience it themselves right then and there.

Like many things in this world, these anecdotes show that AR usage will exist on a spectrum based upon context and use case. While this might be obvious, it’s interesting to consider what the AR spectrum will look like as we shift from screens to immersion, and how it might evolve as the technology improves. Just like using your phone at the dinner table or in a movie theater is frowned upon today, so too will be AR usage in certain settings. Today, many people spend their entire time at the bar on their phone, snapchatting, tweeting, you name it. Others find this obnoxious. The bar is a grey area on the spectrum, whereas tourist sites will swing into the “green”, and the odd, early versions of these glasses will be the norm.

But perhaps one day, that spectrum will disappear entirely, as AR will become something that is just integrated into our daily lives. As Tim Cook recently said, it will be something that we need to survive, much like “eating three meals a day.”

Back in Italy, after calming down the crowd, I told them not to fret. These glasses are shipping soon, and partners of ours like ETT (an Italian technology firm focused on tourism apps) will begin building such experiences this year.

Now, apps like the one I’ve alluded to are a ways away. There are many technical hurdles that we’ll have to get over before AR becomes good enough for such an experience to exist in a compelling fashion, and I’ll be touching on those hurdles in the next post.

Despite the long road that lies ahead, it’s moments like seeing such excitement on those tourist’s faces that keeps us trudging forward. In a world filled with interactive content, perhaps we can finally give Italians a legitimate excuse to speak so emphatically with their hands. Or perhaps, we’ll be able to make historical landmarks come back to life, first encounters a bit more meaningful, and the world in general a bit more creative, collaborative, and wise.

I’d say that’s a mission worth staying strapped in for.

Meta 4 (left….) Meta 2) (right)

XR GTM Strategy @ AWS. I write about spatial computing/XR, crypto, IoT, artificial intelligence, and the wondrous convergence of all things tech.