Why the next wave of digital media is about 'experiences'

Welcome to the first weekly subscriber newsletter in this new phase of Cybercultural. Today I’m debuting a fresh format for the subscriber emails. It’s not too different, but there are a few new twists that I hope you’ll like. Here’s what you’ll be getting every week from now on:

  • A themed newsletter that hits on 4-5 current news stories at the intersection of tech and culture. The theme of today’s newsletter is the rise of ‘experiences’ (VR, AR, gaming and other interactive media). I’ve chosen four news stories based on this theme, with the goal of chiseling out useful insights for you.

  • I’ll write an intro to the theme in each email, explaining its current and future significance to culture-tech, before digging into the stories.

  • The ‘My take’ commentary for each story is also slightly expanded, although I’m also wary about making the email too long - so let me know if the balance is right for you.

  • I’ll provide a short bullet point list of the main takeaways from the stories.

  • Data Points or Good Reads section; as you’ve come to expect, I’ll highlight culture-tech data or articles that caught my eye over the week.

  • Other interesting and fun goodies as I think of them.

Again, this weekly newsletter is exclusive to you as Cybercultural subscribers. Free signups will only get (on average) one article per month from me from now on. Ok, let’s get to this week’s topic…

Interactive media is where the excitement is

The inspiration for this week’s newsletter came from a recent article on Vice’s Motherboard blog, about (of all things) the value of Flash web technology in the 1990s. The article was entitled, “Flash Is Responsible for the Internet's Most Creative Era.”

Now, old webheads will know that Flash had as many things wrong with it as right - its blatant disregard for web standards, its bloat (in an age where broadband wasn’t yet mature), and its propensity to attract malware. For all that, Flash was a creative tool used by many talented web designers, and it directly led to some of best interactive websites of that era. There was a real sense of excitement among web designers when it came to Flash, something that is missing from today’s Web.

So what happened to all that creativity that Flash inspired? According to Rob Ford, co-author of a new book entitled Web Design: The Evolution of the Digital World 1990-Today, the excitement today is around creating “experiences”:

“The progressive interaction and visual creativity is happening outside of the web browser now,” he explained. “The rise in interactive installations, AR, and experiential in general is where the excitement of the early days is finally happening again.”

With that in mind, here are several relevant news stories that popped up recently. All shine a light on how ‘experiences’ are driving the next wave of digital media.

  1. Verizon is buying virtual reality company Jaunt 🥽

Verizon is now more well known for selling off cultural content companies than buying them - having offloaded Tumblr for a pittance earlier this year and now reportedly looking to sell its key blog brand The Huffington Post. The Financial Times called it a “digital media retreat” from Verizon. But apparently the exception is digital media companies that specialise in VR and AR. As reported recently by CNBC:

Verizon has acquired some assets of virtual reality video start-up Jaunt XR, the company announced Monday [30 Sep]. Terms of the deal weren’t disclosed.

As part of the deal, Verizon will own Jaunt’s software and technology, among other assets.

My take: A couple of things stand out here. One is that, despite CNBC’s headline, Jaunt is these days an AR company - not a VR one. As CNBC explained further into the article:

The company, which was founded in 2013, established a foothold in virtual reality technology, developing hardware, software, tools and apps that enable brands and consumers to make high-quality VR content. Jaunt later launched a Netflix-style content library for VR headsets, before announcing in 2018 it would transition to augmented reality technology. […] Jaunt is pivoting to AR at a time when VR remains a crowded field with many players, despite the technology gaining limited traction outside of niche audiences. Facebook, Apple and Google have all launched dedicated efforts in the space.

Specifically, Jaunt now makes “volumetric videos of humans” (i.e. 3D holograms), which is a technology increasingly being used for AR applications.

So what does Verizon want to do with holograms? Perhaps it wants the technology to help showcase its 5G network (Verizon’s competitor AT&T is proudly listed as one of Jaunt’s main clients). Perhaps too, Verizon is serious about the game streaming service it is rumoured to be building. Most likely it’s both of those things, plus Verizon just wants to keep abreast of future digital media trends (a hedge as it disposes of ‘old’ new media like Tumblr and HuffPo).

  1. Google Ships Pixel 4 Without Daydream VR Support, Stops Selling Daydream Viewer 📱

Hinted at in the Jaunt story above, over the past few years VR has struggled to become a mainstream consumer technology. While there was initial hype for consumer VR, particularly after the Facebook-owned Oculus Rift was released commercially in March 2016, the reality since then has been underwhelming. And now Google has stepped back from its smartphone VR platform, Daydream. Variety reports:

Google is effectively phasing out its Daydream virtual reality (VR) platform: The company’s latest flagship Pixel 4 flagship phone, which Google unveiled at a press event in New York Tuesday, won’t support Google’s Daydream mobile VR platform anymore, a spokesperson confirmed to Variety.

My take: It seems smartphone VR has gone the way of the infamous first edition of Google Glass (although at least Glass eventually found its niche as an enterprise product). It’s not too surprising, since the whole point of VR is to immerse yourself into another, virtual, world - something which is extremely hard to do when you’re out and about. Where VR has taken off recently is in specialist destinations where VR can be experienced in a truly immersive environment, much like going to a movie theatre specifically to watch a film. For example, The VOID in Santa Monica (among other destinations) allows people to experience various VR creations.

Also interesting to note Google’s pivot from VR to AR, similar to what happened with Jaunt. According to Variety:

Internally, Google has refocused much of its resources on augmented reality, something that Google’s spokesperson also stressed in the statement provided to Variety Tuesday: “We’re investing heavily in helpful AR experiences like Google Lens, AR walking navigation in Maps, and AR in Search that use the smartphone camera to bridge the digital and physical worlds, helping people do more with what they see and learn about the world around them.”

  1. MelodyVR strikes exclusive 5G deal with UK telco O2 🎹

Switching to the music industry now, Musically reports:

MelodyVR has been signed on as “the exclusive music partner of O2’s 5G UK launch”, with customers getting a 12-month subscription to MelodyVR bundled into their contracts. […] O2 will also be giving its ‘premium’ 5G customers Oculus Go headsets, on which they’ll be able to use MelodyVR’s app.

My take: One thing that may yet save smartphone VR will be the worldwide launch of 5G. As noted in the Verizon-Jaunt story, the telecoms companies are actively looking for ways to showcase the faster and more reliable connection capacity of 5G. Enabling people to view a VR music concert on 5G would certainly prove that. I’m skeptical though that people will actually want to do this when they’re out and about (i.e. put on a pair of VR goggles and watch a concert recording). Given the first two news stories I commented on, I’m half-expecting the following headline in 6-12 months: ‘MelodyVR changes name to MelodyAR and offers hologram concerts, sans headset.’

  1. Hollywood’s Video Game Blind Spot 🎮

A new essay by analyst Matthew Ball argues that Hollywood isn’t paying enough attention to video games, particularly from an IP perspective:

By missing out on gaming, Hollywood is allowing itself to be replaced as the dominant story platform in audiences’ lives. Making matters worse, Hollywood is even financing its emergent competitors by either adapting gaming IP into film/TV (thus raising its profile), or by handing over its own for adaptation in gaming (thus contributing profits).

My take: Ball suggests that Hollywood studios should think beyond traditional movie company acquisitions like Pixar and Lucasfilm, and look to Microsoft’s $2.5B acquisition of Minecraft as inspiration. Indeed, Minecraft has experienced a renaissance this year - after seemingly being usurped by Fortnite in recent times. This signals that leading game brands like Minecraft - and Fortnite - can have just as much longevity as movie brands like Star Wars. Leading interactive games also have a tremendous amount of regular, day-to-day, engagement from millions of users/fans. It’s also worth mentioning Minecraft’s upcoming AR play, Minecraft Earth (I hope you’re seeing a pattern in these stories: AR is where it’s at now!).

More generally, there is a generational shift happening - from the traditional media world of tv and movies to the interactive media of games…and eventually, VR and AR ‘experiences’ that are more like entire universes.

Ball is also right to point out that gaming will only pull more and more consumer attention its way, as younger millennials and Gen Z take over:

…gaming’s strength in the attention economy is going to grow rapidly in the years to come. Cloud streaming, for example, will bring many of the aforementioned advantages of television (e.g. frictionless access, ease of sampling, portability) to the category. The rise of Netflix-styled gaming subscriptions (e.g. Microsoft’s Game Pass, Apple’s Arcade), meanwhile, will siphon ever-more playtime away from television.

Takeaways from these 4 news stories

  • AR is where it’s at for mobile-based interactive media.

  • At this stage, smartphone VR is all but expired. Although it’s still useful as a showcase for 5G.

  • While VR in general hasn’t lived up to its initial hype, places like The VOID show that it’s still potentially the 21st century equivalent of movies.

  • Gaming IP is a huge opportunity, especially for Hollywood.

  • Verizon is ditching Tumblr and Huffpo, but investing in VR/AR and streaming games. That could be just typical mega-company bumbling towards the future, but it’s also kind of smart from them given the trends noted above.

Data Points 📊

  • FIPP: 78% of millennials choose to spend on “desirable experiences,” making events an important revenue source for publishers (this is mainly about real world events, but surely interactive events will be a growth area). 🌱

  • Sensor Tower: Global App Revenue Grew 23% Year-Over-Year Last Quarter to $21.9 Billion (incl a 17.6% increase in mobile game downloads). 📱

  • NPD Group: 73% of Americans play video games (“Survey finds "notable increase" in both engagement and spending among younger audience”) 🎮

  • Zenith: Online Video Consumption Continues to Rise Globally 📹

  • B&C: Netflix reported higher third quarter income as it increased global subscribers by 22% to 158.3 million. 📺

Tweet of the week 🐦

This tweet summed up the sentiment about “phone-based VR”…

Twitter avatar for @XRLabLondonXR Lab London @XRLabLondon
engadget.com/2019/10/16/goo… rip in pepperonies Daydream VR 2016 – too soon Google Daydream View is officially killed by Google. As the last of its kind, it takes phone-based VR to the grave with it. For this generation at least... #VR #Daydream #VRNewsThe (Day)dream is over: Phone-based VR is well and truly deadWhen Google introduced Cardboard at I/O 2014, a lot of people thought it was a joke. A cardboard-based contraption that turned your phone into a primitive VR he...engadget.com

That’s the first weekly newsletter in the new, refreshed format. Do let me know what you think! Thanks for your support of Cybercultural, it is much appreciated. 🙏