What the Butler Saw

I spent some time last night globetrotting from the comfort of my sofa. Wearing the Oculus Gear headset, and exploring Google Streetview VR through the power of my voice I was able to teleport across the world.

At one level this is incredible. I remember fondly back to the Domesday Project of the 1980s and then how incredible it seemed that some information about every part of our country could be encapsulated and searched digitally. Today we have boundless information available about everywhere and everything all from a few hundred pound sterling glass and silicon slab that sits in our pocket. Strap that slab in front of your eyes and you can be virtually taken to anywhere (or at least anywhere the Google Streetview cars have roamed).

But on the other hand is VR another 3D TV in the making? A big bet by the tech industry on the future of digital devices that’s little more than a modern day What the Butler Saw?

Well almost certainly is a bit of both. VR is impressive in a way over and above the Viewmasters of my (and many others’) childhoods. The ability to interact with virtual things inside them is hypnotic. The Oculus Gear is baby steps- having briefly played with the HTC Vive system recently (which adds the significant abilities of being able to explore the virtual environment by walking around within the physical world) you can see that this stuff will be useful in many ways. That Facebook have invested so heavily shows that they think that some of those ways are social (although spending a lot on social doesn’t guarantee success as Google can testify).

VR also, I think, paradoxically illustrates how sooner of the next wave of digital is going to be about the physical world- namely how we start to create digital representations of the solid stuff around us. If you haven’t played with Google Earth and it’s increasingly 3D visualisations of our cities, it’s is a good illustration of this phenomenon.

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Above all else, what my head tells me it’s that this is a time to explore, and a time to throw away concepts of business benefit in the short term. A couple of years ago I interviewed the marketing director for a manufacturing company that produced specialist hinges and door fittings for kitchen units and the like. Their business had been transformed through YouTube; previously they’d only sold their products to highly specialised joiners, but with How To videos distributed for free, they’d been able to reach a much bigger market of generalist tradespeople.

That’s obvious with the joy of hindsight. But if you had told me that online streaming video would impact the building trade back in the late 90s when I was working on pioneering video projects at the BBC, I would have dismissed it out of hand. The possibilities for VR, it’s cousin AR, and commoditized 3D modeling won’t arise where they are dismissed from the outset. It’s time to open minds. After all, What the Butler Saw kind of led to that little old industry of the movies…

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