The AR/VR marketing oddity

The augmented reality and virtual reality combo (denoted as AR/VR hereon) is clearly an important technology going forward. I’ve mentioned my thoughts on AR/VR previously, the gist of it being: in its current state it isn’t solving any problem. Gaming is the primary and most widely accepted use for VR. Apple is, undoubtedly, playing around with AR/VR internally and may even release a relevant product some day — or make it a part of one. I recently found myself watching The Verge’s review of the Oculus Rift and a hands-on with Microsoft’s HoloLens. It got me thinking how odd these demos are. Much of the shots you see in these videos are the headsets strapped to the person’s face and a voiceover talking about the experience. The HoloLens video looks downright crummy even though the team ostensibly put in a lot of effort while editing. This presentation style isn’t even terrible just on a reviewer’s part. Have a quick glance at the Oculus Rift’s official page and you’ll see that same sense of awkwardness — ‘What value do I, as a customer interested in the Rift, get out of looking at a bearded man with a Rift strapped to his face and his jaw dropped?’. Obviously the message is ‘the Rift experience is jaw-dropping’, but how do you convey that to me across a screen? Show me a simulation of what using the thing might look like in a video? Maybe. But doesn’t watching a 2-D simulation on a screen inherently take away the experience AR/VR is selling in the first place? The best such a video does is make me curious to have a first hand experience. More on this later. Let’s subject phones to the same situation. The iPhone 6S page shows off its build, design etc. beautifully but still doesn’t give me — a customer interested in buying a phone — a sense of what my experience with the thing would be. Which is why Apple’s ads try to embody the iPhone experience — nimble, fantastic and excellent. (Take the first 6S ad — my favourite 6S ad — for example; also, the Cookie Monster ad is a marvel that sells you the same joyful, humane experience and there isn’t even a human in it.) The HoloLens site is a little better in that it doesn’t focus on the thing strapped onto a person’s face (the images do show it but only as an end to portray the HoloLens user in their surrounding). Have a look at the edges of the projected UI though — it’s poorly done — in the same vein as The Verge’s video. (Example image for convenience.) Sony’s Playstation VR page is just dull and uninspiring. The bearded man with the thing strapped to his eyes makes a return at the end of the page (albeit without the jaw-drop? ) with typical Sony advertising in the form of dry, lengthy paragraphs. You get the point. I mentioned above that the best an AR/VR simulation video can achieve is to inspire the curiosity to check one of these things out in person. I can think of no product that has a similar ‘see it in person to know what it is’ pitch to it. Cars, phones, watches, home appliances are all products you know a lot about before you go for the ‘What does it feel like in person?’ store visit. You test drive a car but you’ve most probably driven a car before. The car being test driven is a transition from the cars you’ve driven before — the experience is relative. With AR/VR, there is no ‘relative’ for the average customer to build atop, to judge the Rift from the HoloLens. That is the curse of a new technology and AR/VR, as I mentioned above, is at a singular disadvantage. In consumer electronics (disregarding cars), the TV buying experience is probably as congruent as it gets. You need to see the TV in person to know how saturated one is over another. Even then, you have a basis to compare it against since if you’re reading this, it’s almost certain you’ve seen a Television before. Also, TVs have traditionally been advertised in electronic stores by making a bunch of them — placed side-by-side — play the same video. As technically disinclined as a person may be, a glance at those TVs is enough for them to exclaim, ‘That one, over there, looks good. I’ll have a look at it when I’m in the market for a TV’. How do you pull off the same thing with an AR/VR headset? (Not to mention that a ‘demo’ HoloLens, say, somewhere in a Microsoft store, you try on has already been strapped to the heads of hundreds of people before you — gross! One realises now, how Apple doesn’t let you wear the Apple Watch demo unit, even though it is a fashion accessory. Fashion items have nearly always had the ‘try it before you buy it’ policy granted to it.) This leads me to the conclusion for this piece. I am curious to see how Apple tackles these issues. How does Apple — and its marketing juggernaught — sell their AR/VR idea. Does Eddy Cue come up on stage with one of these theatre-boxes strapped to his head, looking and pointing about cluelessly? I hope not. I’d go so far as to say Apple’s AR/VR product — if it ever materialises — would be a part of another product (Augmented Reality for the Apple Car?) the way 3D Touch is a part of the 6S experience. (Meanwhile, have fun relating this image of a girl playing Pin the Tail on the Donkey to this segment of The Verge’s HoloLens video.)

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The iPhone SE bags more Android users

Jaimee Minney, Slice Intelligence with data on the iPhone SE sales (via. Dave Mark, The Loop): […] 16 percent of [SE buyers] were previously Android users. By comparison, 49 percent of iPhone 6S buyers upgraded from a previous iPhone, and 10 percent replaced an Android device they bought online within the past two years. Buyers of the SE look much different than the Apple fanboy audience typically queuing up to buy the latest from Cupertino. They’re older, less educated, and surprisingly, more male. Let’s ignore the questionable wording towards the end there. The first paragraph highlights something I saw coming 1 — and it’s not a tough conclusion to draw. Two characteristics of Android phones are: a) They’re mostly 4.5-inches and above; the average, anecdotally, being 5-inches and above. b) They compete on price — aggressive enough to pass it off as a ‘feature’. Saying the SE ‘strikes a balance’ between those criteria is doing it a disservice. The SE is the only phone with flagship internals for its size category and it’s priced very competitively. (In fact, listening to Neil Cybart’s recent podcast on the SE’s pricing reveals, to me, the genius that this product is.) Naturally, if a customer is in the market for a smartphone that isn’t a monstrosity for their hand and they don’t prefer one platform over another, the iPhone SE is the logical choice. As for a possible explanation why people are switching from Android, let’s roughly think of the pre-iPhone SE days. A platform agnostic customer that prioritises compactness over everything else saw both Android and Apple offer their flagships in relatively large form factors. Thereby, their second most important criteria — whatever that might be — led them to pick an Android. Post-SE, that customer now has a flagship meeting a demand they most valued. The relevant quote from what I wrote previously: The SE also presents an opportunity for more Android switchers since, at the time of this writing, no Android flagship exists in a 4-inch form factor. The closest is a Sony Xperia Z5 Compact with a 4.6-inch screen and it retails for around $425 in the US. Not only is the SE the best choice for people who like small phones, it’s probably the only feasible choice. ↩︎

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Thoughts on BuzzFeed’s coverage of Sundar Pichai

Mat Honan wrote an extensive article for BuzzFeed, covering Sundar Pichai — CEO at Google. A few parts caught my attention. First: […] a large, unmissable billboard, advertising the Nexus 6P, Google’s flagship phone. You see these ads all over Delhi, and outside of it, too. They greet you at the airport. There are no similar signs for the iPhone. BuzzFeed got this completely wrong. In fact, when I took my last flight in December, last year, the iPhone 6S was heavily advertised at the Delhi airport (the Watch was advertised as well). iPhone ads are selectively spread across the city too. Exhibit A — at a metro (subway) station. Exhibit B — at the Delhi airport. Further: Google is also pushing hard into Indic languages. Although Hindi is the most widely spoken language in India, with more than 400 million native speakers, that’s a small slice of the nation’s 1.3 billion–strong population. Google says it expects the next 300–400 million Internet users in India to come online speaking native languages. And so Google has rolled out support for 11 of them. […] “Most women in rural India assume the Internet is not for them,” Pichai continues. “They assume it’s for their husbands or fathers or sons or brothers. But then you show it to them, and there’s this thing that clicks in their heads that it’s for them — for some people it’s the crop prices for vegetables which you can find on the phone. Google should benefit a lot by having Pichai as CEO — at least in theory. Their focus lies in expanding into developing countries to garner their ‘next billion’ people. Since China and Google aren’t exactly the best of pals, India defaults to probably the single biggest market for Google to focus on. Since Pichai has spent his formative years in India, empathy comes naturally to him. He has experienced – first hand – what his company is focusing on now. Given his current position, I suspect it won’t be difficult for this empathy, his values and his outlook to permeate through the company. Remember when Cook said ‘Inclusion inspires innovation‘? This situation is a tangible example of such innovation. (Apple’s page on diversity talks about it at length. If you’d like, a previous post on NSShadowcat discuses issues designers face when designing for developing countries.) Further: Google had purchased Android early in its history, and Android founder Andy Rubin continued to run it after the acquisition. Under Rubin, Android had run almost as an entirely separate business within Google. Pichai brought it back into the fold and made sure that Android — the thing that for perhaps 1 billion people will be their first interaction with the Internet — was deeply, and profoundly, a part of Google. Ben Thompson tweets: […] that screenshot gets at Pichai’s biggest accomplishment to date: getting Android to serve Google, not other way around. Note that there’s quite a contrast in Apple’s acquisition strategy compared to Google’s. Apple’s major focus is for people to ‘upgrade’ to iPhones. The target audience is either current iPhone users, or, preferably, Android users. Google’s major focus is to bring to Android people who don’t use smartphones at all. Continuing: When you think about the great leaders of Silicon Valley, they tend to fall broadly into one of three buckets: engineering, business, or product. […] Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg is the archetypical engineer […] Apple’s Tim Cook, who pioneered supply chains in China and built the company into a financial juggernaut. The product types are those who can focus in on what makes something not just useful, but great and beautiful. They translate human engineering into humanity. Steve Jobs is the ultimate product guy. […] Pichai is clearly in the product camp. Under him Android has bloomed, going from a customizable but clunky interface to something beautiful and fluid. Chrome redefined how fast and invisible a browser could be. Google Photos transformed the way photography can be organized and displayed in the smartphone era. A product-first ethos also demands that you abstract away all the inner workings of your product — ‘I don’t care what components go into this phone. All I care is that it should do what it’s supposed to, not cause me to rip my hair out and…just work’. That is the pinnacle of what labels you ‘product-first’. But let’s say you didn’t read my previous quote from BuzzFeed’s article. Granting that you knew the distinctions between engineering, management and product (Mark Zuckerberg, Tim Cook and Steve Jobs are the respective manifestations of each discipline), where would you place Pichai? Close to Jobs? I don’t think so. If I were made to play along with this arbitrary segmentation, I’d hold Pichai closer to a mix of Mark and Tim — engineering and management that is. The article points out that Pichai is great at meetings and taking away the politics from people, letting them focus on the play (pun unintended). Pichai concedes Android allows you to customise your phone the way you want, with seemingly more coming ahead. That, to me, is more ‘engineering’ than ‘product’. It’s a great article and an exhaustive coverage on Sundar. Towards the end, it highlights what Delhi’s atmosphere – the city I live in – is, and how Sundar, true to his childhood dream, relishes a game of cricket.

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