Q&A: Adrian Slobin, Global Innovation Lead At SapientNitro
For businesses, the integration of high technology, like virtual reality (VR) and artificial reality (AR), may appear distant. However, Adrian Slobin, global innovation lead at digital marketing agency SapientNitro, sees the immediate potential for AR/VR right now. For the fourth-straight quarter, AR/VR investment has topped $100 million in funding. Meanwhile, brands like Target, Volvo and Red Bull are breaking into the new digital space, priming themselves for the expansion of VR adoption in 2016 with the release of Oculus Rift (Facebook’s $2 billion bet on VR) and Sony’s Morpheus Project (also known as PlayStation VR). Slobin, who heads SapientNitro’s global office in Minneapolis, breaks down both the near and distant future of VR and how it could affect the way consumers interact with products.
TCB: What is it like working in the field of forward-looking technology, like VR and AR?
Slobin: For starters, I grew up watching movies in the 80s like Blade Runner and Total Recall… Now is the first time you can start to see a glimpse of that crazy sci-fi fiction coming into reality. I have two young kids and, well, if we think the smartphone is revolutionary, what in the world is their experience of the world going to be like in 15 or 20 years? It’s mind-blowing.
How is SapientNitro utilizing this new techology?
That’s a tough question because we do a lot of work in a lot of different areas. But I think it is all centered around how brands sell their stories and how consumers use technology to get access to those stories. Whether it is the nuts and bolts of a commerce or content platform that delivers omnichannel transactions or content—we do a lot of work in that space. In terms of high tech—more exploratory, emerging technologies—we’re very invested in the intersection of digital and physical. So we have a team called Second Story that does a lot of work on the blending of physical environments and digital experiences because we believe those two will collapse into very interesting configurations. Artificial reality, we are starting to dabble around with, but that’s further out and needs to mature a bit before it hits primetime. It’s hard to predict, but [it may be] three to five years out before [artificial reality] becomes as compelling as virtual reality is in the next 18 months.
There’s plenty of application for VR in industries where Minnesota thrives, like healthcare. What sort of potential do you see there?
Right now we are having conversations with our clients in healthcare and the obvious plays are training and the ability to experience and learn about a complex product—for example, a medical device. In a way, it can be both more effective and less risky in understanding procedures and installation that would be involved. The healthcare profession has been exploring VR for some time in the same way military training has been a primary driver for VR. Trailing away from devices and more toward application from a consumer-facing standpoint, VR therapy for things like PTSD is very interesting. With soldiers coming back who are suffering, allowing for VR to recreate certain moments and help them through those moments is a proven and effective way in helping them get through the more traumatic dementias of PTSD.
When you say “certain moments,” would something like that be more personalized to each patient?
Yep, so I’ll make something up here… If you were in a particular scenario, like Iraq or Afghanistan, you can create something close to those environments and re-live it under the guidance of a trained therapist, you can work through those moments more effectively than just talking through them or taking drugs. Another one is for pain therapy. For burn victims who were really suffering and traditional pain medications weren’t as effective, a trial found that by creating cold environments in VR, it brought their pain down. So in the healthcare space, the power of VR is really about creating an emotional connection to an experience. So for trying to engage in some kind of therapy or training, that immersive dimension of VR—if used for the good—could be tremendously powerful.
Adoption of this technology obviously won’t happen overnight, so what sort of timeline do you see as far as brand/VR integration goes?
Except for the big, splashy brands—the Red Bulls, Nikes—healthcare is such a conservative industry, so those brands are going to be much less likely to get out over their skis in terms of publicly announcing what they are doing until [VR technology] is well-baked and proven. If you think about the consumer-facing devices like Oculus Rift that is coming in 2016 and Sony’s Morpheus—this stuff will become the furniture in people’s lives over the next 18 months to 2 years. It won’t necessarily be a foreign thing to strap in and have an interaction. I was actually talking to my mom about this. Not to stereotype her, but she had a hard time learning how to use the CD player, she’s a sort of a luddite, and I was starting to explain what the coming world of VR will be to her. And I realized it’s almost like trying to describe a movie to someone at the turn of the 19th century. The best way to do it is to get them in a theater, and there isn’t a single person I know who has experienced VR who takes off the headset and isn’t immediately like “you could use it for this or that or this.” It seems weird now, but it seemed weird in 2006 to be doing so much stuff on a phone. With the primary drive of gaming and entertainment, people will start to have these devices in their homes and then it’s a fairly easy step to start getting people in the healthcare space to think about using them to talk to your doctor in a way that is more meaningful than a phone call.
So with nearly every American industry having some potential use for VR, you believe gaming and entertainment the initial draw?
Yes, that will definitely be powering adoption. On the consumer-facing and business professional side, it’ll be the military and healthcare spaces—maybe education. There are a lot of start-ups exploring the potential for VR in the education space. My wife is a professor and so I’m maybe old school on what a good educational environment would be, but I guess I’m more skeptical about it being prime ground for the exploration of VR today. Who knows down the road? For super experience driven brands, like in the automotive industry, butts in seats is the mantra for any car dealer. But you don’t need to actually get someone’s butt in a physical seat in VR. You can actually recreate something close to the experience of being in a BMW or Audi and get that person primed to go to the dealer.
I’m glad you brought up the automotive industry. I know that Harley Davidson is a client of yours. Does that mean you’ve generated a bike trial for them?
I’m sorry, I won’t be able to comment on them in particular, but I will say in general, it’s an obvious play. It’s obvious that these brands are going to want to give consumers the experience of being on their car or bike and the question becomes execution. It goes back to risk aversion. If you’re a [chief marketing officer], is it really worth the risk of creating a bomb and having to do damage control versus using the traditional channels to market? That is the tipping point: when that CMO has to realize it is not optional to play in the VR space. At that point they will take on risk, but for now it is still optional.
What sort of clients is SapientNitro engaging with right now?
Of the projects we are talking about… healthcare, automotive and retail are the industries that are most open to the VR conversation. We are right now architecting the actual transactional capabilities in VR to enable it to plug into existing commerce platforms. So if you’re a retailer and you’ve invested x-gazillions of dollars in setting up a digital commerce capability, you are not about to set up a second capability in VR. There is no business case in the world that would provide for that. What you want to do is plug the VR channel into your existing e-commerce. But how does that hook into your catalog, checkout and inventory management? From the pure technology side, we’re in the process of the architecting that.
Taking the retail angle, can you describe a scenario for the use of VR at home or a brick and mortar location?
For tools or toys, getting to virtually experience what that is like… Whether it is test flying a drone or at a Home Depot or a Lowe’s—before buying a saw or drill—having the consumer experience of what it would be like. Or it could be a Black and Decker installation inside a Home Depot. So if you think of Home Depot as the venue, the brand could put a kiosk and get consumers to engage in that personally. And this isn’t five years out, I think it’ll be much sooner than that. It’s not expensive to do and what are most retailers interested in? Foot traffic. Those that have brick and mortar locations want people to come through the doors one or two times more a year than they usually do. And so what do you do to inspire that? You create destinations to draw people in. Don’t quote me on the numbers, but it’s a sub-$5,000 for the raw equipment and then the creation of the experience, which is not that expensive depending on the level of sophistication… You compare that to getting a one percent increase in foot traffic, and there will be no reason not to do it provided it is done well.
What is your step-by-step process of taking a client’s proposal and creating a VR experience for them?
I’d actually flip that around and say at this point of the conversation that we are pitching the clients. I think consumer-facing brands have been burned by digital technologies as many were late to the e-commerce game, and played catch-up. And then they were blindsided by mobility and the smartphone, and played catch-up. I don’t think VR is going to have the same level of revolution that the smartphone had in terms of ubiquity. But what it will lack in ubiquity it will make up for in depth of experience. So if I’m a marketer, do I want to be really late to that party for the third time? Can by brand survive it? Can you think about all of the brands that are no longer on the New York Stock Exchange because they were late to one of these digital disruptions over the last 15 to 20 years? Or let’s put it this way: for a big-box retailer that is suffering from lack of exciting product… You have this new medium that can bring your products to life in a way that is much richer than a glossy circular in the Sunday Star Tribune or really nice JPEG on a flat website. Now you can actually get the consumer to engage in that product in a new way, so wouldn’t you want to just see if setting up a kiosk or a few in your space might generate more demand than the product on the shelf alone does? Isn’t it worth the bet?
We’ve glossed over this, but I’d like to get your full take on consumer adoption looking into 2016 and beyond. As you said, what the timeline until VR becomes “the furniture in people’s homes?”
I’ll answer your question by coming at it from the side. There are three or four different vectors that are going to drive adoption. There is the consumer device side—with the new Samsung Gear VR device, with the Oculus Rift headset, with Sony’s Morpheus, with the HTC Vive—you’ll see a flood of these devices that will be in people’s homes. Verizon and AT&T may start giving them away or at a reduced cost when you get a new contract because Samsung has put a lot of money into VR, and they want to make sure people are incented to get these devices. En masse, in the next 18 months to 2 years (and I think depending on who you believe), somewhere between 50 to 100 million head-mounted displays will ship. So there’s that vector. Then there’s the vector of devices to create VR experiences, and that’s coming down both in price point and going up in terms of sophistication. The third is content creation itself because who cares about a device if there isn’t anything interesting to go experience. The YouTubes and Facebooks of the world have created platforms for sharing content and users are generating VR experiences like crazy. I don’t know what the metrics are, but if you go to #360 on YouTube, there’s a ridiculous amount of user-generated content there. And then the fourth one is the content from professional-grade studios and game shops. There used to lots of great ideas for content on VR but not enough processing power to realize it. So you won’t have devices in search of content or content that wishes it had the right device to play it. You are—for the first time in history—having these things intersect at the exact same time.
To cap it off, Adrian, I’d interested to hear what personally excites you most about VR?
Good question, but professionally or as a person? Professionally, I’m most excited about helping our clients in the coming years reach their consumers in a more meaningful way. And I know that sounds clichÃ©, but that’s what marketing companies are about. This medium will expand in every dimension for brands to tell stories in an emotionally connected way. I mean, it’s a new canvas. On the personal side, frankly I’m more apprehensive than excited for the reasons I mentioned earlier. I have two young kids and I see them already so pummeled by digital and are connected in ways that I wasn’t even five years ago. I worry about what this new medium will do to their sense of the world because I see there being a lot of power in it but also a lot of challenges. It’s an interesting sort of schizophrenia when I think about the opportunities on the business side, but that comes with a little bit of trepidation. I don’t mean to end the conversation on a sour note, but the potential for misuse is there and it needs to be carefully guarded so VR can be a force for good.