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Facebook and Oculus Rift and Doing the Wall E Future

It has been over 3 years since Facebook purchased the current big name in VR, Oculus VR, who make the Oculus Rift headsets. My experience with VR has been limited to Google Cardboard, which is a decent approximation of what to expect from actual VR. Of course, I still have that Google Cardboard thing, but after the initial few hours, I never used it.

The VR makes us (the user) part of the action, to the extent that video and audio can. This is in contrast with a regular movie or TV. The fourth wall is strictly in front you, and clearly defined. With VR you are inside the four walls, and that means, you can look around and depending on the technology (and the capability of the technology used to develop the VR media, interact and perhaps even change the virtual reality world. VR will put you in the driver’s seat of a formula 1 car for instance, or make you one of the characters in a movie or allow you to roam around in a (virtual) Jurassic park with huge dinosaurs and totally insecure and untested security systems that are designed ensure that all humans will die once these beasts escape from their cages.

Now, that’s VR.

Then there is Facebook. At it’s core Facebook is essentially a place to share media (photos, videos, links and of course text) and allow others to interact with it. It plays on the essential human instinct to show the world what you are, and just may be, tell them that you are doing something they are not. Essentially, it’s an ego feeding machine that also has some peripheral uses like networking and business development and (actually) keeping in touch with people we care about.

So, why would Facebook bother having Oculus as on of its subsidiary? It is essential to understand that Facebook has always been a platform to get things done. It’s like the operating system that powers your phone or PC. It’s like a (virtual) home or house in which you live. If your Facebook account is your house (filled with memories, the joys and sorrows, the events and milestones and all things that cover), the interesting thing is that you cannot live in it. You are essentially operating from outside the fourth wall. It’s like when you go to the zoo. Sure you paid for the ticket and you are here to see the Lion but you cannot go and roam around with the Lions or pat them or take selfies with them.

I think the idea here for Facebook is to break that fourth wall and put you in the middle of your facebook account, which is by default your digital home. I am sure that VR is at least 5 years away from becoming mainstream. I wrote about the many problems with VR in an earlier blog post. Many of the problems I talked about earlier are solvable. They are mostly engineering issues (like processing power, displays, battery capacity, user comfort) which will be fixed because the march of technology does not stop for anybody. People (and the world is filled with people who are constantly coming up with innovative solutions) will always figure things out.

While talking about VR, its hard not to think of the quick growth and death of 3D. I think what killed 3D was the same thing that killed 3D 30 years ago, as well. The lack of content. Imagine you buy a food processor that makes fantastic fruit juice in like 5 seconds. Unfortunately, lets imagine a scenario where you live in a time and world where it is impossible to get fruits. You want to use your processor but there is no way to get fruits. The television companies were selling 3D television sets like they were the next greatest thing for the living room but other than promotional videos, there was literally nothing else that was available in 3D. Streaming companies never really embraced 3D in a big way. User generated content also never happened. So, every possible producer of 3D video declined to generate 3D video. There was no supply, and there was no consumption and by default, there was no demand for 3D hardware. Everything just fizzled out. It’s Economics 101.

This time though, I have a feeling that perhaps VR medium will grow. If Facebook gets it right and figures out a way to convert the trillions of GB of data it is sitting into a VR format (and ensures that users don’t have to jump through hoops to create VR content for consumption), supply is ensured. Once there is a steady supply, consumption will happen and demand for VR devices will grow. This will circle itself into the expected never ending cycle that will lead to mainstream VR adoption, lower prices, easier access and stuff like that. Obviously adult entertainment (as it has done with VHS tapes, streaming media and Blu Ray adoption) and gaming entertainment have a big role to play in this.

My job allows me to interact a lot of people (like 1000s every year) and each year I notice that the younger generation is becoming more and more digital social, less and less real life social. Obviously there are some serious negative consequences in the long term because of this, but I don’t see how this can communicated. As we consume more and more digital services, and use digital tools for everyday communication, I can see that people will embrace VR as part of their lives. Mostly because they don’t have a choice, but sometimes because they really want to.

Eventually (perhaps even in our own lifetimes) we might see some version of the life depicted in Wall E. You know people just sitting on chairs and everything being done for them, and happening from where they sit. Hopefully, at least some people will get up and get things done. Or, we might have to abandon our planet, just like in Wall E.

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Netflix and Amazon Prime Video are here with offline option

[logo of amazon and netflix, obtained from their official logo disbersing media center links on their website]

A while ago, I blogged that Netflix should enable offline mode. I made a case as to why that is not just neccessary, but rather mandatory if netflix wishes to survive. And now, as of this writing not only is netflix offering offline video, amazon prime video is finally here. It just so happens that Prime Video always had offline mode.

For me, as a consumer, this is a god send. This and other scenarios such as the entry of Reliance Jio are a sign of things. It is not a coincidence that netflix and amazon video make an entry into the second most populous country in the world, and Jio launches in India. Internet has always been one of those things that was needed but not available. Despite the valiant efforts of Reliance, Jio will still fall well short of meeting the broadband needs of Indian consumers. However, at least, there is availability in a place where there none to start with. This explains why Netfilx and Amazon are making an entry into the Indian market.

This will also signify an intense shift in the way we consume media. The smartphone - cheap as it is - is perhaps the only gateway for a lot of folks to everything from accessing information to porn to entertainment. Now that (limited) broadband access is also in place, Netflix and Prime Video need to do what they can to get people to use it. I see this impacting a lot of folks in a variety of ways.

Obviously, Vodafone and Airtel will have to reduce their rates. They would rather make less money and keep their customers than the other way around. So, data rates and broadband rates should come down drastically, and then stay steady.

Compression technology should also improve incredibly. India will always be a special case when it comes to broadband speeds. We still believe 256 to 512 Kbps qualifies as 'broadband'. I am already seeing Prime Video offering to deliver an hour of content for less than 100 MB. That is just awesome. Of course, compression technology is usually open source. So, what we will probably see is innovation in the ability to compress content on the fly, and then deliver it.

Another place where I see this impacting is general entertainment. Especially, movie box office. The television has already taken a huge bite out of movie business (which explains why a box of popcorn costs more than the movie ticket itself). With folks being able to get entertainment on their mobile screens, there is an even less reason to step out of the home and sit in a cramped movie hall and watch half a dozen trailers, ads and what not, before the actual movie starts.

Then, there are the originals. As it is already happening with many bollywood productions, I fully expect some of the more advanced movie studios like YashRaj and Red Chillies to tie up with these streaming providers for exclusive content. I wont be surprised if SRK or Salman Khan produce and may be even act in special content. I expect them to have a huge pay day as well.

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