The tyranny of things and how virtual reality will set us free

by Sarah Firisen

ImagesRecently, I dropped my iPhone on the sidewalk. I have a case with a bumper on it, but even so, I guess it hit the sidewalk in just the wrong way and, the next thing I knew, I had a $130 trip to the Apple store in my immediate future. Now clearly, like many thing iPhone, Apple could quite easily make a shatterproof screen. We have shatterproof windshields after all. They could also make water resistant phones (as other companies do), but then think of all that lovely lost income from phones dropped in the toilet or tangled up in bedding and put through the washing machine – yeah, I’ve done that as well. The trip to the Apple store was quick and pretty painless, they’re a well oiled machine with a steady incoming stream of people with pretty similar issues to mine. It would be interesting to stand there for a few hours and try to count how many people come in with either cracked screens or water logged phones, I bet it’s high.

The “things” we can’t live without; for most of us, our phones are pretty high on that list. And so of course Apple, as happens in a capitalist society, exploits this need, some might say addiction. And of course, our phones are not the only screens we’re addicted to: TVs, laptops, tablets, Fitbits, Apple Watches, and more.

Magic Leap, the most incredibly secretive and highly anticipated startup in the VR/AR (virtual reality/augmented reality) space seems, at least from its demo videos, to be working on a product that could, in principle, do away with all these screens. There will certainly be a headset of some sort to begin with, but it’s not hard to imagine a scenario where we’re all wearing contacts lenses instead. Then you can not only have a screen that you can’t smash or drop in the toilet, you could have many of them, at once. Every screen, devices beyond screens, could, at least in theory, be replaced overnight. If I was a company producing laptops, or TV screens, I might be a getting a little nervous. And while I realize that there is a whole social dimension, and probably legal and moral ones, around whether we want a world where people can be looking at virtual screens (unbeknownst to those around them) at any point, we sort of almost live in that world now. 15 years ago our current levels of smartphone usage was unthinkable, but it turns out that these technologies have a way of worming themselves into our daily lives and suddenly the unimaginable becomes the impossible to live without.

I recently ran a workshop on emerging technology and virtual/augmented reality was one (or two) of the technologies we looked at.

At one point the participating executives participants were in breakout groups working through various questions around how disruptive the various technologies might be to different industries. I observed a breakout that was talking about the retail & consumer sector. As the executives tried to think through the various disruptions that VR/AR might cause to retail & consumer, they came up with a pretty basic list that was mostly things related to variations on training and sales and marketing. All of which is true. But I pushed them to think further. I mentioned Second Life, the online virtual world that has been around since 2003. One of the things that sets Second Life apart from other massively multiplayer online games is that you can create things; there’s a basic palette of 3D shapes that can be endlessly manipulated in shape, dimension, texture, color and placement. These shapes can be linked together limitlessly. There’s a programming language that be attached to the objects so that they respond to various actions. Using these objects, it’s possible to create buildings, furniture, cars, planes, clothes, hair (the basic hair that avatars comes with out-of-the-box is neither lifelike or flattering), tattoos and the list goes on and on. Second Life has an internal currency, the Linden, that can be traded on a market-based currency exchange for US dollars. At its peak, there was a thriving and significant economy, with hundreds of thousands of dollars trading hands daily and some people making six figure salaries in real money based on goods and services they were providing in Second Life. People, and I very much include myself in this (though I made a lot of things as well as buying some) had full digital inventories of digital junk.

So if we posit a not so far off future where people spend increasing amounts of time in virtual worlds, two questions arise from a retail and consumer perspective: will there be a role for companies who are now selling physical things to move into selling digital things and the flip side of that question, will people purchase less physical things?

I’m not suggesting that we won’t bother buying clothes, furniture, cars and the like because we’re instead buying them in virtual worlds. But think what the e-book did to the publishing industry. When was the last time you bought a DVD of music? Do they even make those anymore as a standard practice in the music industry? Where do they sell them if they do? Because we certainly don’t have record stores anymore. Looking through the lens of what has happened to the publishing and music industries, suddenly maybe it’s not so far fetched to say that it’s likely something will happen to other segments of the retail & consumer sector as aspects of our lives move into VR/AR.

There’s a lot of activity in the VR/AR space at the moment and no clear platform, software or hardware, has emerged as the winner. But Facebook is making a big play here, software and hardware, with its Oculus Rift headset and its newly launched in beta Facebook Spaces virtual world. If most of us even spend a quarter of the time we currently spend on Facebook in Spaces, that’s a lot of time spent in a virtual world.

Currently, the main aim of retail companies in Facebook is to drive you to their online stores to buy physical things, and I’m sure that will only become more prevalent in Spaces. But if Second Life taught us anything, it’s that people can get very vested in their VR avatars. In Second Life, most people made little effort to have an avatar that physically resembled their real life (RL) physical being. In fact, quite the opposite, my avatar, Bianca, is tall and willowy, always aspirational for me. But I was interacting with mostly strangers in Second Life. There are already companies promising to create very authentic 3D representations of your physical self. I could imagine a scenario where these avatars sit in the cloud and perhaps can move between the various VR worlds so that we have a consistent identity throughout whatever our various VR/AR experiences are. We’re going to care what these avatars are wearing and how they look. I suspect that there will be a whole new category of patent and trademark law based on virtual goods; in Second Life, it would have been a trivial thing to take a Ralph Lauren logo and put it on a virtual T-shirt. Is this something that Ralph Lauren is going to care more about when far more of us spend far more time in some sort of virtual spaces?

If you’re reading this thinking that VR is just for kids and gamers, then you’re wrong. If you’re shaking your head at the absurdity of huge amounts of the population spending significant periods of time in some forms of VR and AR (probably what is now being called mixed reality), again, I’d ask you what odds you would have put on us all being so consumed by Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and the like 15 years ago. If the last 10 years of technology has taught us anything, it’s never say never. There are already stories popping up that are beginning to raise the kinds of issues and questions about these technologies that will only become even more prevalent and pressing, for example, what constitutes sexual assault in VR? Human beings don’t magically become nicer, more law abiding people when they enter a virtual world. And they won’t become less consumerist either. I titled this piece, The tyranny of things and how virtual reality will set us free. But really, it may free us from some of the tyranny of physical things and subject us to a new, perhaps far more tyrannical corporate master in the virtual space. Because while those virtual smartphones won't fall on the sidewalk and crack, they also have zero manufacturing and supply chain costs beyond the coding to create them. So the winners are not necessarily going to be the traditional manufacturing and retail companies, but the companies, and people, who can create the best digital experience. And I suspect that our use of these digital assets isn't going to be free.