Having been a mediaphile for decades and actively involved in software and book publishing for many of those years, I’ve running into the problem of both startups and established companies trying to sell old wine in new bottles.
It’s been many years – since my college days in fact – since I read Marshall McLuhan‘s The Medium is the Massage. (Originally and more aptly titled The Medium is the Message). But there’s one of his key insights that has stuck with me: that new media types tend to ape the content of their predecessors in the early days of their existence until eventually artists and other creatives start to develop entirely new content types.
I learned a classic example of this in a course on the history of film. The first films were basically filmed stage plays. They had one camera left in a fixed position and the goal was to capture a stage performance on film. It wasn’t until directors like George Melies innovated with special effects and hand painted colors that film became more than a simple recording device in the early 20th century. Today over a hundred years later we take color, multiple camera angles, and most importantly, editing, for granted. There is now a highly developed language of film.
Similarly the first records were recorded live to disk. If any of the musicians made a mistake they’d have to play, and record, the entire piece over again from the beginning. Records, were like film, originally seen as a way to capture a live performance. Today’s laptops and even smartphones can handle a mind boggling number of separate tracks, enabling overdubbing, editing, special effects, and so much more.
This pattern continued with television and videotape. But this piece isn’t about history so much as it’s about history repeating itself. Today VR (virtual reality) and AR (augmented reality) are both at the infant stage of film: the silent, black and white, recording of stage plays through a single camera loaded with just minutes of film stock.
A lot of what I’m seeing now is startups trying to put old wine – content ranging from their video games to existing multiple choice tests to a company’s technical manuals – into the new bottles of VR and AR.
I was fortunate enough to work at the company that built the first application for personal computers that enabled them to do something that the dominant computers – the mainframes and minicomputers of the day couldn’t do: the electronic spreadsheet, VisiCalc. Steve Jobs himself admitted that it was VisiCalc that drove the sales of the Apple II and Ben Rosen, in his influential newsletter The Rosen Report, called VisiCalc “the software tail that wags the hardware dog.” Pundits at the time thought that a good use for personal computers in the home would be for women to store their cooking recipes . Of course today anyone who cooks can find great recipes using Google – I never heard of anyone male or female taking the time and trouble to enter their cooking recipes for use on a PC.
So I hereby encourage all entrepreneurs to first study the history of information technology and the inflection points when new media broke out of the old wine bottles and then to do lot of brainstorming and customer discovery to find out what’s the new wine for VR and AR.
Being neither a pundit nor a visionary I won’t attempt to be a digital sommelier and predict what those new wines will be, only that I’m confident that neither VR nor AR will take off until they develop new visual languages that become widely adopted.
And come to think of it, there’s a new opportunity for you: develop the tools used to develop that new wine. In fact that’s how one of the most successful companies of the last 40 years started – Microsoft. Bill Gates and Paul Allen first ported the BASIC programming language to the Altair, one of the first personal computers, and built their business initially by porting other programming languages to early PCs. As the saying goes the businesses that provided the picks, shovels, and dungarees (think Levi), made a lot more money that the early gold prospectors.
Just don’t try putting old wine in new bottles, as it will likely turn to vinegar, and last I looked the vinegar business was not a great business to be in.