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Through Rose-Coloured Oculus Rift glasses

The importance of being open to the next new thing

Marzena Czarnecka is a Calgary-based business and legal affairs writer. She can be reached at paddleink@gmail.com, stalked via @paddleink on Twitter, and visited at CalgaryBusinessWriter.com.

Jun 1, 2015

by Marzena Czarnecka

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Illustration Christian Rosekat

I am at the offices of Strut Creative in Calgary’s beltline, chatting with Chris McPhail, the managing director of the technology and communications company. Except, at the same time, I’m walking through a show home in a far-flung southern suburb. “Ha! I just walked through a door!” I exclaim. “Wah! I just walked into a wall! Wow! I just peeked around the corner. Hey, can I open the cupboards and drawers? OK, I’m at the back door – can I open it?”

I’m wearing Oculus Rift goggles and acting like a five-year-old child on her first trip to Calaway Park or Galaxyland. I’m neither a gamer nor a digital native, so the virtual reality world I’m experiencing through the goggles is unfamiliar and kind of trippy. Before I begin, McPhail has to teach me how to use the controller (“You don’t play any video games?” “Not-a-one.”) And when I’m done – I’m facing in the opposite direction from where I started and where I thought I came back to… and I kind of want to vomit.

Also, I’m really excited and want to do it again. I want to find out if I can lie down on the beds. Can I look in the fridge? You know what would be really cool – if I could turn on the dishwasher. Can I do that?

I’m jumping a little ahead of the programming, I’m told. Yes, all that’s possible – but it’s not coded into that module yet. Right. Prototype. Still. I just got to walk through a show home… while sitting in a chair in front of a computer. McPhail, whose team is in the middle of developing and pitching the module I’ve just experienced to a Calgary home-builder client, asks me to imagine the possibility of people having that experience at a booth in a mall, say. And once “inside,” imagine I have the option to change the colour of the paint, the type of flooring, the hardware on the kitchen, the appliances. Walk through a dozen different show homes in a few minutes, seeing the changes as I make them. What a powerful sales tool!

For a province that prides itself on innovation, entrepreneurship and risk-taking, Alberta businesspeople have a pronounced fear of being the first.

It’s so cool, I can’t believe the project Strut’s pitching will be the first of its kind. (Not totally first: Sport Check is deploying the technology at its flagship Edmonton store, and so is Destinations B.C.), as well as a handful of U.S. and U.K. organizations. But because I’m an Alberta girl, I immediately think – oil and gas applications. What a stellar training tool. And, oh, man – tours through plants for investors, stakeholders! Oil sands communications/PR people should be salivating over this. Craft the experience, control the narrative… (Also this: Sierra Club virtual reality booths in malls. “Experience Alberta oil sands first-hand. Oh, it’s coming. I bet it’s already under development.)

So I get McPhail running with me in that direction, listing off the almost limitless potential of the technology’s applications to our province’s bread-and-butter industry and we both get really, really excited… and then I look at him. “But, what are the obstacles to adoption? Cost?”

McPhail shrugs. Everything has a cost. The cost of developing a virtual reality module for anything – a show home for a home builder, a plant plan for an E&P company – will be… well, let’s say “highish.” Maybe that first VR show home will cost as much as developing a brick-and-mortar (er, this being Alberta: wood and stucco) show home. But each subsequent modification becomes more cost-effective. (And don’t assume the show home will cost less than the plant. After all, you don’t need to build in any “change the colour of the carpet” options.)

The biggest obstacle to adoption? It’s new. It’s different. And everybody’s not doing it.

Now, I love you all and don’t want to call you sheep. But, for a province and industry that prides itself on innovation, entrepreneurship and risk-taking, Alberta businesspeople have a pronounced fear of being the first. Don’t sputter in indignation. You want to be the best – ahead of the pack – and the first in doing that thing that’s just a little bit different. But if it’s really new and out of the box? Untested and untried?

You’d rather the other guy tried it first.

It’s actually not a bad strategy. First-mover advantage is, for the most part, a fallacy. The first-mover gets kicked in the bohunkus and into bankruptcy 60, 600, maybe even 6,000 times for every first-out-of-gate success. The first-mover often moves too early: when the technology is not quite good enough, the market not quite ready, and the business roll-out plan too ambitious. The second and third mover get to watch and learn from the bold one’s mistakes.

At this point, McPhail and I are no longer talking about the Oculus Rift goggles and virtual reality. We’re talking about any new technology-tool-strategy-product. And how it’s a question of timing. Investing money in a website or an online store before your customers were online had no first-mover advantage, really – but man, being there, established and ready to go as the consumer Internet took off, with technical glitches worked out and already-tested strategies… that’s still paying off for the almost-first movers.

So it’s okay, we decide, to be a little cautious, with virtual reality as with anything else. To do the market research, your due diligence, all those responsible things. To ensure that the product you’re deploying – be it a virtual reality experience of the dream home you deserve or a custom-designed tour for your investors of a newer-better rig-plant-truck – gives your customers the immersive experience you’re shooting for, and not vomit-inducing nausea. (In VR, of course, “The elephant in the room is motion sickness,” as Henry Cowling, creative director of Unit9 VR, likes to put it. “Virtual reality tricks your brain, and the brain isn’t a good sport about it.” So, if you’re going to be a pioneer in this area – spend the extra cash for what Cowling calls “good craft” that will trick the brain more effectively.)

But it’s not okay to go, “Ugh, new, weird, never done it before, don’t understand it, no one’s going to use it, I’m just gonna go run newspaper ads like my granddaddy did.”

Now, I don’t really know if virtual reality marketing is going to be the next big thing – although Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg clearly thinks so and research firm MarketsandMarkets predicts VR and augmented-reality hardware creators (like the Facebook-owned Oculus) will generate $1 billion in revenue by 2018. But I do know that the next big thing is coming, and we’re going to adopt it en masse and quickly: the Internet, Smartphones and social media have all primed us for that.

Odds are good the next big thing is going to hit us – oh, right about now. The ingredients are all there, economic slow-down included. Creativity likes a touch of desperation and friction, and anxious people are vulnerable to distraction and shiny things. And because I desperately care about your success, I want you to see it coming… and to ride the crest of the first wave and gain competitive advantage. Be it VR or some other wacky idea your business development people are bringing to you – be open to it. Think about its potential. No one’s doing it – but could they? Would they? Should you pay attention to it, invest some time (and a reasonable amount of money) in exploring its possibility so that you’re just a little bit ahead of the pack when the timing is right? If no one else is doing it – is it possible they’re all missing the boat and your customers have a need for this type of product-communication-service-innovation right now?

Being skeptical and cautious and doing your due diligence is smart. Being cynical and closed to possibility because you don’t understand it – because you don’t play video games, because you still resent the need for a LinkedIn profile – is stupid. And you’re not stupid, dearest. Right?

Remember: first-mover advantage is a beautifully documented fallacy… except when it’s not. Last-mover advantage – there’s no such thing.

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