Tuesday, 14 June 2016

Guest blog - First impressions of the great wall

It is my first visit to China and I have been both scared &  excited for the previous week about this trip. As a new indie, an exploratory trip to China is a speculative luxury. But when I was invited by an old friend to join a cross border investment roadshow I decided to take the plunge, just as I did when I left Sony 3 months earlier.

As I am travelling on airmiles I had to leave a day early, but at least this gave me a day to visit China's most amazing construction, the great wall. And what a sight. Just the basics are astounding. 5500 miles. 1 million workers. 4 trillion bricks. A seemingly impossible task, just like starting a studio. But they broke the wall down into sections & subsections, dividing it into more manageable sized tasks. Good advice for me as I see the enormity if my own ambitions ahead of me.

And after a few days being here, meeting other CEOs, startups & investors from China and silicon Valley, I realise that the great wall itself is like a reflection of China today.

Firstly, the scale of China is staggering. There are 1.4 billion people & 560 million smart phones. Email has been leap frogged and everyone uses wechat to communicate, send files &  even pay for stuff. As a new market it is simply huge, and it is interesting to note that Western platforms like Facebook messenger lag behind the functions on offer from their eastern equivalents. They openly admit they are good at copying, but what seems obviates a couple of days is that they also improve on the original by using a very pragmatic approach to design & development. Another great takeaway for an aspiring startup.

Wealth. The great wall didn't come cheap. It was a huge investment of time, money & infrastructure on an incompressible scale. Everyone I meet tells me there is a ton of cash in China and they are keen to invest abroad. For tech that translates to silicon Valley so I am a bit of a novelty coming from the UK. Although it doesn't seem to put people off. They do however, have clear guidelines as to how to evaluate you as an investment. (see 5 steps at the end). 

I have asked a few people where the money comes from with a variety of answers. 
  • it has always been here
  • it's pent up capitalism 
  • China makes everything the world uses (the most likely one imho) 

Power. With wealth comes power and there are clearly many power structures here. From the SOEs (state owned enterprises) which we are warned against due to their red tape and misguided targets (volume as opposed to performance of foreign investments) to the huge publishers &  investment houses, enough to make even Mr Zuckerberg blush.

Control. The control required to harness 1 million workers to build the wall is difficult to comprehend. Imagine being the lead producer on that project, with your life at stake for missing a milestone. But with control comes protection. The wall was built to keep the marauding mongels out. If food was scarce they would raid the Chinese villages. And now there is the great firewall of China, designed to protect the citizens from the evils of Google, Facebook & the like. It can be bypassed by vpn clients, but these are flaky & intermittent at best due to government attacks to bring them down.  A personal realisation is just how much I rely on these platforms and services. And more useful advice for me, always look after my team. 

Achievement. And finally, What an achievement the wall is. It would be impossible today, even in China. It is clear to me that people here pride themselves on personal and societal achievement. Before coming, many friends told me how crazy it would be, which is true. But actually, I am really impressed by the infrastructure. There are tough traffic jams, but let's be honest, London is no picnic in rush hour, neither is LA (#firstworldproblems?) the outlook by most people is optimistic although I pick up similar concerns from the younger people of the impossibly high housing costs in the affluent cities.

The difference here is that top down control is in force again. Drivers must forgo using their cars one day per week (eg everyone whose registration number ends in 2 or 4 cannot drive on a Wednesday) with heavy fines as penalties.  Interestingly, the structure is designed for overall efficiency much the same way we organise our development teams. There is a clear influence from californian startup culture and everywhere has incubators or wework equivalents. Allowing teams to focus on their key goals.

I will sign off with some great advice I was given by a Chinese American as to how he evaluates a company to invest in.

1. Geography. Is the economy stable?
2. Sector. Is the business in a growing sector? (games &  vr both pass this with flying colours)
3. Is the business model sound?
4. Is the team good, great or outstanding?
5. Is the product worthy of investment?

My final thought is this. I am near the end of my trip and I have learned much more than I ever expected. And just as I have fallen in love with the majesty accomplishment of the great wall, I am falling in love with the county & culture of China itself. This is my first trip and I very much hope it is not my last. One of the developers I met here gave me some advice...  Maybe use some Chinese architecture in my products to help them sell in China... I think I will, and actually, I think it will help them sell in the rest of the world too. 

Dave Ranyard is a virtual reality developer and will be speaking at this year's Develop:Brighton conference on Tuesday 13 July at 5pm. 

Wednesday, 1 June 2016

Guest Blog - Why My Mum Likes VR Better Than You Do

“How do I put this thing on,” she said, looking warily at the VIVE headset and controllers. Mum’s not a gamer; she’s never so much as dropped a quarter in an arcade machine, let alone picked up a console control. Hell, she struggles with her smartphone. “This is heavy,” she sighs, as I fit her with the headset, and guide her hands through the controller straps. “Ok,” I said, “I'm going to turn on a game called ‘Space Pirate Trainer’. It’s really easy, you have two guns, you pull the trigger on your controller (I showed her where they were), and you shoot the floating orbs that are trying to shoot you.  Don’t let them hit you.” As I started the game she gasped. “OH MY GOD, I'M IN SPACE! CAN YOU GUYS SEE THIS??” The last thing I said as I popped the headphones over her ears: “Use the gun in your right hand to shoot the box that says ‘Play’. Have fun.” And then I got the hell out of dodge.

My mother is 61 years old, somewhat arthritic, but still relatively spry. I watched, grinning, as she transformed from a prim and proper real estate agent into her own personal incarnation of Lara Croft. She ducked and weaved; she hurled strings of four-letter-words at the robots. I do believe she accidentally kicked the cat at one point (he hasn't forgiven her yet, poor kitty). And when she “died”, she wailed “NOOOOOOO”, immediately followed by, “I want a do-over.” Before I could say anything, she’d hit the Play button and was back in. Her only break was when we had to tear her away for Mother’s Day brunch, but all in all, she played SPT, Fantastic Contraption, and messed with the IKEA demo (“I wanted to rearrange the cabinets! This is a let-down…”) for roughly 3 hours. On the other hand, my twenty-something brother-in-law, who plays a lot of WoW and Call of Duty, etc, tried it out, and got bored after about 15 minutes. “That’s nice, I guess,” he said. “But I don’t think it’s worth the money, and I'm just in a room here by myself.”

This kind of engagement - for lifelong non-gamers to suddenly become avid enthusiasts – is practically unheard of in previous iterations of game evolution. Yet change is generally difficult for the established culture/mindset to adopt (hence the addage “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks”). So why is VR, this cutting edge technology, more attractive to older people?

My theory is twofold: First, that because the controls are still very crude, the games must be designed simply. The quality of a game becomes more reliant on storytelling, visuals, audio, and ease of navigation. My folks still go on dates to the movies 2-3 times per month. They watch whatever movie or show BBC America is running. They want to the entertained, but in a way that’s low effort/thinking on their part. Gaming, for them, is “too hard”. But VR is easy.

The second is that the GenX/Boomers came of age in a time where real life experiences were tantamount to electronics/media. VR is the first tech where games truly emulate real life. Finally, here is a technology tailor-made for the vast majority of older people who grew up wishing they’d done something different with their lives (because no one gets to maturity without some kind of regrets). Not because they don’t like what they have or what they have done, (read: anyone who can afford VR is probably doing well for themselves), but because they wonder what it would have been like to be a musician instead of a sales agent, or an artist as opposed to an engineer. Well, turns out it’s not too late; now you can live those imagined lives vicariously through… you. Wanted to try Alpine downhill skiing but didn't because it was “too dangerous”? Not any more. Decided against that summer of slumming it in Paris to save up for a “practical” home downpayment? You can still waste a few hours at an outdoor café (with a view of the Eiffel Tower!) catching tidbits of murmurs in French. VR lets you be someone else for a little while, gives you a mental escape. So why aren’t younger generations just as excited about all the opportunities VR offers?

Millenials, unlike previous generations, are exceptionally self-actualized. VR is a nice distraction, sure, but it’s still a game, albeit really cool. However, Millenials want more. They don’t want to just watch a 360º movie, they’d rather actually go to these places or do these things. Being “in the game”? That’s nice, but Millenials want to control the story and change the outcome. This is now the challenge for VR developers: How do you create an authentic, fulfilling experience? What will it take to make VR indistinguishable from the real thing? That’s a question we’ll be able to answer hopefully in the next few years.

The good news? A healthy market for which to create content already exists. Right now, folks like Mum (Boomers and Gen X) are quite satisfied with today’s tech. When she finally put the headset down, smiling, she wiped the sweat off her brow and quoted a phrase I'm very fond of using: “We really are living in the future.”

Sophie Wright is the Product and Brand Evangelist for Human Interact, currently working on an unannounced VR project. 15 years of experience in an engineering leadership role led to a passion for exploring and sharing the possibilities of VR. In this reality, she enjoys gin, tinkering with her Mini Cooper, meteor showers, and having meaningful experiences with people.