As a tech-junkie, I saw the opportunity to interview Robert Scoble as a chance to converse with a man who could be perceived as a sort of conduit for all things technology and start-up related.
Robert is the entrepreneur in residence at Upload VR – a company dedicated to accelerating the success of the immersive technology industry. A known evangelist, consultant and personality in the tech-journo field, Robert became infamous during his reign as the ‘most followed person on Twitter’ in the first two years of the company’s launch. Beyond this, he was Instagram’s 79th user and Google’s Siri was launched in his home. As an avid gamer and compulsive consumer of technology, I knew Robert was as close to a first-hand source as I could get when it came to tech start-ups, emerging technologies, R&D and consumer behaviour.
I had known of Robert before meeting him at the Mavric VR event in Cork, having followed his work for many years online. Robert traverses the globe to visit organisations and research teams – speaking at events and conferences – while keeping his expansive social media following updated on his adventure at all times. With 506K followers on twitter, slightly higher numbers on Facebook, and an impressive 3.3 million connections on Google Plus, Robert is a respected personality whose audience has transformed into a fan-base because of his fervent approach to tech coverage. Robert’s appetite for technology is apparent in his work and can be seen when you look at the extensive network he has created for himself. As Derek Gallagher, host of the Mavric VR event said in his introduction of Mr. Scoble – “he’s probably one of the most connected people in Silicon Valley” – which cannot be refuted when you see videos of Scoble interviewing Elon Musk from the passenger seat of Elon’s Tesla Roadster.
Roberts ability to predict where the market is going – and whose very function was, and still is, to continually follow and promote the next ‘big thing’ – is a testament to his business strategy, his eye for recognising consumer behaviour, and his ability to provide his audience with meaningful informative content. The next ‘big thing’ is always something different, which does not confine Scoble to any one area, service or product, resulting in an expansive amount of knowledge which he disseminates in an easy-to-understand, encouraging way. Scoble utilises social media to great effect and for its exact purpose – to socialise, entertain, and inform.
The ‘Scobleizer’ has made himself a personality, a brand, a hashtag, and I felt there was only one way to open the conversation. I referenced a comment he made in the past about virtual (VR) and augmented reality (AR) technologies – the subject we were all here to learn about – and I asked him to expand.
“Hi Robert, thanks for being here today we all appreciate it. So… to start off. In the past you’ve described VR and AR as ‘Legalised LSD’ … what do you think inspires the comparison?”. Robert was chuckling, slapping his knee, and with a cheeky point of the finger, he interjected – “Probably my doing of LSD!”.
We were both laughing, comfortable – maybe in the 25 minutes before Robert had to get back on stage with the panel, I could get his thoughts on some of the more abstract problems that are yet to be tackled by engineers, developers and CEO’s’.
Roberts’s role as an evangelist and speaker requires him to get people excited about technology, but also interested, which are very different things. Observing Robert speak, you see how he communicates to those who are new to the field, and to those who are more immersed – in a way that excites the noobs and indulges the nerds. Although Robert has a broad understanding of different technologies and software’s, he does not attempt to over-sell his technical knowledge, but rather, provides his own insight into market behaviour and lets the outside world share in the exploration, providing a unique resource whereby others gain reliable first hand video direct from the source, i.e., when Robert live-streams his visits to companies, for interviews and/or product/service demonstrations, and allows individuals involved in the projects to speak about their work.
This exclusive access is both a contributor to, and made possible by, his sprawling social media following and the level by which they ‘engage’ – or in marketing lingo, display ‘loyalty’. This might be due to Robert’s willingness to speak openly his own personal issues, exploring potential problems that might need to be tackled in the virtual social setting.
Back to the technology.
Many social VR platforms such as AltspaceVR use rudimentary avatars in their platforms, but studies have shown that interacting with these avatars elicit similar neurological responses as those seen when we interact with another person in reality. Platforms and social VR spaces have not tried to create avatars that look like humans yet because of something called ‘the uncanny valley effect’. Robert explains.
“When you’re presenting a virtual thing, if you don’t make it look like a human, it’s actually pretty cool, but the more you try to get it close to a human being, or representative of a human being you start going ‘that’s not real’ and it doesn’t real, it’s jittery a little bit. Something’s wrong with it and it bothers you.”
“And that’s the uncanny valley – as we get closer to trying to replicate what my face is in a computer system, it’s going to bother people, it won’t be detailed enough, there’s some problems with it, it won’t look right, and we won’t like that. So the designers of games today, for instance, VR Unicorns, who built selfie-tennis, they just said, ‘we just tried to avoid that, we stay abstract’. Chris Milk who is famous music video producer, now who is doing VR work, his work uses very few polygons, very abstract, they don’t try to replicate anything exactly.”
Chris Milk uses innovative technologies to create personal, interactive, human stories, and his use of fewer ‘polygons’, means his games will render with a higher-framerate. At the moment, it seems detail must be compromised for speed, and ultimately, user-experience.
On the issue of user-experience, I wanted to ask Robert about the predicted social issues that might arise in these virtual worlds, when thousands of people begin to interact become more immersive and connected – and when problems such as the uncanny valley effect are overcome.
As Robert had previously expressed concerns relating to ‘user-safety’ in virtual worlds, I asked him about the ability to monitor and mitigate ‘inappropriate behaviour’ – as he himself has spoken openly about being a sexual abuse victim, and how social platforms could be used by ‘bad actors’ in a multitude of ways.
“In Altspace VR you have a social VR so I’m seeing you and you’re virtual, and in a virtual area you have sexual harassment and abuse and bullying and stuff like that, so if I try to sexually harass you and I do something inappropriate, first of all I’d disappear from your view, right away I’m put into ‘jail’, and also, my hand turns back on me, so I can’t even do it. So they’re building systems like this to put boundaries on you so I can’t ruin your experience in these social systems.”
From a consumer or user point-of-view, these considerations are typically overlooked if they operate within the parameters of the given game/platform or ‘play by the rules’ as it were. They might be unaware until they become a victim to it. We are seeing more and more virtual worlds emerging where people operate avatars in 3D interactive spaces. The question is whether these social VR platforms will revolutionise the way we interact – and begs the question, how will people choose to use it?
Finally, I asked Robert to give people a distinction between AR and ‘MR’ or ‘Mixed Reality’, as another speaker at the event, Ryan Mesches – an evangelist for Microsoft who was in attendance and providing demos on the Hololens – was quizzed about the distinction between the two and had been unable to provide a coherent answer in the court of twitter-updaters. I asked Robert about the difference between the two, and how other hardware developers in the AR field, such as Meron Gribitz – CEO of META – regard it important to be able to distinguish between them.
“He [Meron] wants to make sure we don’t go down the path of where that Japanese video was where it’s a garish world with lots of ads and things coming out of the walls. We’re going to do some of that. He’s trying to set a philosophy that ‘hey my system is here for working, and for playing, and it’s not going to about putting lots of ads everywhere.”
“I use Mixed-Reality as a term for this new industry, even though it’s Augmented-Reality. Its next generation Augmented-Reality. The problem is, the term Augmented Reality has baggage… I mean Snapchat does Augmented-Reality on your face, but what’s coming is not that. Stuff will be on the table and you can walk around it and it’s locked to the table, and there’s stuff on the wall and you can walk around it and it’s locked to the wall. That’s something different then what we had in AR worlds like from Metaio over the last decade, so I’m using mixed reality partly because Microsoft is using it and they’re the ones who brought Hololens to market first… but it’s semantics”
The world of VR and AR – and even MR – may indeed act as a catalyst for new forms of social behaviours, but perhaps even more interesting, will be the insights provided by these platforms into the very nature of the human species – quantified and stored.