How a Healthcare Crisis May Fuel Virtual Reality Adoption

Sometimes a crisis can fuel innovation. With an opioid problem gripping the United States, medical providers are looking for ways to treat patients’ pain without resorting to addictive drugs. Those potential solutions include the use of virtual reality (VR) at institutions such as Cedars-Sinai Medical Center and the University of Washington Harborview Burn Center.

VR’s usage to treat pain is limited. But a heightened awareness of widespread opioid addiction, the efforts of progressive healthcare providers and technologists, and insurers’ mounting costs to pay for opioid addiction may spur an uptake of virtual reality for medical treatment. The cooperation of an ecosystem spanning businesses and the government will be required for VR to break through for chronic pain treatment.

VR Takes Hold

To casual observers, VR is an immersive experience for playing games and watching movies. In fact, companies use VR for non-entertainment functions such selling cosmetics, training workers to assemble machinery parts, and designing automobiles. In fact, medical providers have been using VR to treat pain for a few decades by tapping into VR’s ability to entertain by transporting users to a different world.

The University of Washington Harborview Burn Center created the first virtual world designed expressly to reduce pain. Known as SnowWorld, the experience distracts patients from intense pain typically experienced during procedures such as burn wound-care sessions. While patients endure a painful treatment, they use a virtual reality headset to enter another world where they can fly through a make-believe canyon and throw snowballs at snowmen and penguins. SnowWorld is the result of research into VR as a pain treatment tool going back to the 1990s at Harborview.

Patients using SnowWorld report experiencing 50 percent less pain than patients using other means to distract themselves (e.g., music). Why? Because virtual reality rewires the Continue reading

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Musical.ly: A Proving Ground for Digital Natives

On November 9, app Musical.ly made headlines when it was reported that Chinese media startup Jinri Toutiao was buying Musical.ly for between $800 million and $1 billion. The reported sale price was especially impressive since Musical.ly (based in Shanghai) was founded only three years ago. The news was also notable for many other reasons, among them:

  • Musical.ly is probably the first Chinese-created social app to penetrate the United States and has managed to operate independently of the Four Horsemen (Amazon, Apple, Google, and Facebook).
  • Musical.ly has demonstrated how to capture and engage the attention of Gen Z, the cohort of digital natives that is growing up mobile and app savvy.
  • The app has become a multimillion dollar powerhouse even though many casual observers have absolutely no idea what anyone really does on Musical.ly.

Musical.ly has often been described as a “lip-syncing app,” and indeed, the app permits its reported 60 million users to record elaborately staged lip syncs. But Musical.ly is a lot more than that. With its attendant app, Live.ly, Musers can broadcast livestreams of themselves hosting amateur shows where they engage with other Musers for hours at a stretch. Musical.ly is really a proving ground for digital natives to learn how to become self-made brands. The livestreams and lip syncs create ways for teens to figure out the art of engagement.

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Will Apple Take Augmented Reality Mainstream?

Apple critics have been quiet lately.

The company is worth more than $900 billion after beating Wall Street’s expectations in its November 2 earnings report. The iPhone 8 is selling better than expected. Consumers are lining up to buy its most expensive iPhone ever, the X. And the iPad just might be making a comeback.

Tim Cook is talking like a visionary, positioning himself and Apple on the cusp of changes in technology and human experience. For instance, Cook recently declared on an Apple earnings call that augmented reality is “mainstream” and that “Apple is the only company” that could have made augmented reality mainstream.

His comments evoke Mark Zuckerberg’s bold announcement that Facebook intends to get one billion people to use virtual reality. And, like Zuckerberg, Cook is being ambitious, considering that only 12 percent of the U.S. population is expected to use AR at least once a month in 2017. But there is reason for AR backers to be optimistic: usage of AR is growing by 30 percent over 2016 according to eMarketer.

Apple’s strategy to accelerate the uptake of augmented reality is to provide a development platform for the creation of AR content and to  rely on popular Apple devices as Trojan Horses to deliver that content to consumers.

But to realize the potential of augmented reality for widespread consumer and corporate use, Apple might need to do more — such as the creation of an augmented reality headset.

Augmented Reality Breaking Through

Augmented reality refers to an experience that alters our perception of reality by overlaying computer-generated content on to a physical space. Augmented reality is being used in businesses ranging from hospitals to amusement parks to train and entertain by enhancing our worlds with digital content such as holograms and 3D objects with which we can interact. In the automotive industry, augmented reality might enhance driving by overlaying content such as signage on a driver’s windshield, reducing the need for the driver to strain to read street signs while navigating. For AR to break through to more mainstream consumer use, the experience needs:

  • Great content.
  • A ubiquitous, user-friendly delivery mechanism.

Apple provides the latter through the manufacture of its devices and is enabling content creation by providing the necessary tools and media platform.

Apple’s Role Continue reading

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Topps Creates Baseball Memories on Demand

The clock is ticking.

As I write this post, Topps trading card company is offering a special baseball card that commemorates Los Angeles Dodger Outfielder Joc Pederson’s 7th-inning home run that helped the Dodgers beat the Houston Astros 3-1 in Game 6 of the World Series. The game ended about 16 hours ago. And the card is available for only 24 hours.

Welcome to the world of Topps NOW, in which baseball cards are printed and sold on demand.

For baseball fans, the 2017 World Series has been especially memorable, featuring close games, clutch hits, big strikeouts, and defensive gems. As the Houston Astros and Los Angeles Dodgers prepare for a winner-take-all Game 7 November 1, Topps has been capturing those moments in a brilliant way.

Through a limited-edition product known as Topps NOW, Topps has created slick, well-designed cards that commemorate key moments during the first six games, such as Dodger pitcher Clayton Kershaw’s sparking performance that shut down the Astros in Game 1, or the walk-off single by Astros infielder Alex Bregman that beat the Dodgers in Game 5.

Hours after each game concludes, Topps takes orders for the cards during a 24-hour window. After 24 hours, you cannot buy the cards from Topps.

Topps launched  Topps NOW in 2016 as a way of shaking up the model for selling collectible cards. Normally, Topps, like other trading card companies, sells licensed Major League Baseball cards months after a season has ended. So, for example, complete sets and packs of cards commemorating the 2017 season won’t be available until the spring of 2018. Selling cards select cards on demand injects immediacy and excitement into the purchase.

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Southwest Airlines Wants to Be A Music Tastemaker

Southwest Airlines is known for trying to inject fun into air travel, such as employees at an airport gate creating a spontaneous karaoke moment or a flight attendant turning a routine safety speech into stand-up comedy. The $20 billion company embraces an undeniable quirkiness, which is saying something for an airline. So it makes sense for Southwest to rely on the power of music to build its brand, sometimes in unexpected ways.

Since 2011, Southwest has featured surprise pop-up music performances on flights through a series known as Live at 35. The Live at 35 concerts give emerging artists such as Valerie June and Gavin DeGraw a chance to literally sing and strum their guitars in the aisles for whoever happens to be on a flight.

Live at 35 (#Liveat35) is part of a broader artist discovery program that includes efforts such as sponsorship of more conventional concerts in places such as Bryant Park in New York; and a website, southwest.fm, dedicated to sharing music content.

Turbulence Continue reading

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Facebook’s Ambitious Vision for Virtual Reality

Facebook wants to make the world better with virtual reality.

At last year’s Facebook F8 event, Mark Zuckerberg articulated a simple vision for making virtual reality mainstream: social VR, or connecting people in the virtual world. But now Facebook has bigger plans. Delivering the keynote at the Oculus Connect conference October 11, Zuckerberg shared a future in which VR improves every aspect of our lives beyond social (naturally, with the help of equipment created by Oculus, owned by Facebook). He also raised eyebrows by announcing that Facebook wants to get one billion people to adopt VR.

Whether Facebook delivers on this vision depends on three factors: accessible equipment, content, and business adoption.

Mark Zuckerberg Updates a Vision

Oculus Connect is an annual gathering of developers and content creators, and because of Oculus’s influence on VR, the event is a bellwether watched closely by the technology industry – making it an ideal venue for Mark Zuckerberg. He used his keynote as an opportunity to redefine VR as a way to improve all aspects of our everyday lives, beyond connecting people socially.

“We believe that one day almost everyone is going to use virtual reality to improve how we work, how we play, and how we connect with each other,” he said. “[Virtual reality] is not about escaping reality. It’s about making it better. It’s about curing diseases, connecting families, spreading empathy, rethinking work, improving games, and, yes, bringing us all closer together.”

He also said, “We want to get a billion people on virtual reality. We have to make sure virtual reality is accessible to everyone.”

He didn’t give a timeline for achieving that goal, but to put things in perspective, in the United States, there are probably only 9.6 million people who use a virtual reality at least once a month according to eMarketer.

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Roger Waters Leads a Musical Resistance

When was the last time that popular music made you think?

I mean really made you think about the state of the world and your place in it? The leaders you’ve elected? The choices you’ve made down to the products you buy?

The music of Roger Waters always makes me think. Like when I’m watching him in concert wear a mask of a pig snout and stalk the stage with a champagne glass while his band plays “Dogs.” Or when he examines the plight of the millions of refugees around the world in “The Last Refugee,” a song from his latest album Is This the Life We Really Want?

His songs evoke a time when popular music was a voice for dissent and dialogue about politics and social change – when the Rolling Stones’s “Street Fighting Man” was a rallying cry for Vietnam War protestors and Sly & the Family Stone eviscerated American values with There’s a Riot Goin’ On.

That time is now.

The current political and social unrest that grips the United States and the world has inspired mainstream artists to speak out through their music and actions. No matter what your taste in music is, it’s hard not to notice. For example:

  • In 2016 Beyoncé departed from her usual songs about dancing and grinding to release Lemonade, a celebration of black sisterhood that contributed to the conversation about #BlackLivesMatter.

  • In August, Pink released “What about Us,” with its accusations of betrayal from political leaders.

  • Kendrick Lamar continues to confront American racism on albums such as To Pimp a Butterfly and Damn.

  • (Update: on October 10, Eminem issued a clear and urgent protest against President Donald Trump with his fist-pumping rap freestyle, “The Storm,” which quickly went viral on social media.)

We’re living in an age of heightened activism. Although the groundswell around social justice issues such as #BlackLivesMatter has been happening over the past few years, the election of Donald Trump has unquestionably turned that activism into dissent for many artists (unless you happen to be Kid Rock or Ted Nugent).

According to The Atlantic’s Spencer Kornhaber, the first 100 days of the Trump administration inspired a bumper crop of protest music. As Cat Buckley of Billboard recently reported, 2017 is a year of a “brewing musical resistance” with President Donald Trump the focus of that resistance.

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Virtual Reality’s Image Problem

Virtual reality has a major image problem.

I see it whenever I read an article about someone’s grandparents experiencing virtual reality for the first time, accompanied by a photo like this:

Which inevitably makes me think of this:

Or when I visit a VR website and am greeted by this:

Or when I do a Google search for virtual reality, and these images pop up on my screen:

Do you see the problem? It’s simple:

  • Headsets that obscure your face look dehumanizing.
  • People looking at headsets look antisocial.
  • Seeing people enjoying something I cannot enjoy is alienating.

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Slain in the Spirit of Father John Misty

Author screenshot of The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.

I don’t go to church as often as I used to, but I always attend Father John Misty’s services when he is in town.

For a Father John Misty concert is a religious experience, one I have witnessed time and again, most recently September 20 at the Auditorium Theatre in Chicago. Onstage, he morphs into every kind of spiritual persona I’ve ever known. He is as cerebral as a Presbyterian who rules the pulpit with scripture and reason. As emotional as a Nazarene tent preacher speaking in tongues. As provocative and socially conscious as a Jesuit priest. Father John Misty, the stage name adopted by musician Josh Tillman, is partly the product of a troubled but important spiritual past. His ability to draw on his past to create compelling music makes him an artist, not just an entertainer.

Image source: Lynn Lippert.

I first noticed Father John Misty late one evening a few years ago when I was watching a livestream of the Coachella music festival on my laptop. He prowled the stage like a lion, twirled his arms above his head, and gyrated so wildly that I thought he was going to burst out of my screen.  Who was this guy? I was reminded of when I was a child and my mother took me to church tent meetings in dusty fields of central Illinois to watch preachers whip an audience into an emotional frenzy by waving Bibles in the air and shouting scripture to occasional bursts of music from horns and organs. Those worship services were exciting and a little scary. And so was Father John Misty.

Author screenshot of Capitol Theatre livestream.

The next day I bought a copy of Fear Fun and got to know him better. His lyrics — sophisticated, honest, and droll — made me think of Bob Dylan. His song phrasing was Continue reading

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Apple Extends Its Reach into Healthcare

Apple continues to shape the future of healthcare.

At its September 12 special event, Apple CEO Tim Cook and COO Jeff Williams announced something less sexy than the $1,000 iPhone X but no less important: new health and fitness features through watchOS 4, the operating system that powers the Apple Watch. They include:

  • Improved heart monitoring. The Apple Watch already performs basic heart-monitoring with Cardiogram (In fact, according to Williams, the Apple Watch is the most-used heart rate monitor in the world.) But with watchOS 4 (available September 19), Apple Watch will also report resting heart rate and recovery heart rate (the latter metric tells you how quickly your heart rate drops after a workout). As Williams said, a lower resting heart rate and a quicker recovery rate can be signs of improved fitness.

  • Alerts on elevated resting heart rates. Williams noted that many Apple customers wrote to Apple about how their Apple Watches helped them detect unusually high heart rates at unexpected times. So the Apple Watch now notifies owners when the device detects an elevated heart rate and the owner does not appear to be active — thus alerting the watch owner about potential heart problems.
  • Better support for your workout. For example through the GymKit technology platform, watch OS 4 will make it possible for people to sync fitness data between their Apple Watches and cardio machines they use at the gym, thus delivering more accurate fitness information such as calories burned or distance traveled during your workout. The sync feature will only work with newer pieces of gym equipment — so that functionality might be limited.

Apple also announced that the company is working with Stanford Medical Center to determine whether the Apple Watch can accurately detect abnormal heart rhythms, or arrhythmias. As noted by Jessica Conditt of Engadget, Apple would like for the Apple Watch to be able to detect common – but often undiagnosed — heart conditions such as atrial fibrillation. According to a study done by Cardiogram and the University of California, San Francisco, the Apple Watch already detects the most common type of heart arrhythmia with a 97 percent accuracy rate. With the Apple Heart Study, Apple will manage its own research with Stanford Medical Center.

“In our Initial studies, Apple Watch has been effective at surfacing irregular rhythms,” Williams said. He noted that the Apple Heart Study “will use data from Apple Watch and Continue reading

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