How Netflix Creates Cultural Relevance

Tidying up with Marie Kondo is more than a Netflix reality television series about an organizing consultant who helps people de-clutter their homes. It’s a cultural phenomenon. Since Netflix aired eight episodes January 1, Tidying up with Marie Kondo has sparked a discussion about Japanese culturethe role of books in our livesour societal pursuit of happiness, and materialism, among other topics. The show also demonstrates a major advantage Netflix wields against Amazon Video and Hulu: cultural relevance.

Tidying up with Marie Kondo is one of many examples of how Netflix seeps into our everyday culture by creating relevant content and even shaping our behavior. Netflix is not the only streaming service to create content that taps into the cultural zeitgeist – Hulu does so in spades with The Handmaid’s Tale. But Netflix creates cultural relevance more consistently and in more ways.  

Prophet Brand Relevance Index

According to the Prophet Brand Relevance Index, Netflix is the fourth-most relevant brand in the United States, behind Pinterest, Amazon, and Apple and ahead of companies such as Google and Nike. Amazon ranks ahead of Netflix not because of its streaming service but because of its ecommerce leadership – an important distinction. Amazon Video creates original content as a means to an end – to gain more Prime members for Amazon. Netflix lives and dies by the strength of its content. And the difference shows.

According to Prophet, “[Netflix’s] relevance comes from knowing what we want to watch, which means old favorites and $12 billion worth of exciting new projects, including contracts with executive producer Shonda Rhimes, director Spike Lee and former President and First Lady, Barack and Michelle Obama.”

Creating Cultural Relevance

Prophet focused on consumer relevance. Netflix’s cultural relevance goes beyond knowing what we want to watch although content is one important element. Cultural relevance means influencing how we talk, how we behave, how we work, and, yes, what we watch. Here are some examples:

Netflix and Chill

Netflix is part of our everyday vernacular. You don’t hear anyone refer to “Hulu and Chill” or “Amazon Video and Chill” as a euphemism for having sex. And let’s not even consider a world in which “Disney+ and Chill” catches on once Disney launches its own streaming service, Disney+. “Netflix and Chill” has become so common we don’t necessarily equate the phrase with its original meaning. The article “Netflix and Chill . . . and Share it on Instagram Stories” by Geoff Desreumaux certainly does not refer to hooking up.  And I’m pretty sure investor Dan Victor wasn’t thinking about getting some afternoon delight when he wrote the Seeking Alpha financial analysis of Netflix, “Buy Netflix and Chill – It’s Going Back to $400.” 

“Netflix and chill” is not the only example of Netflix-related phrases that have worked their way into our vocabulary. For instance, “Netflix cheating” is the act of watching  episodes of a Netflix series ahead of your partner. Netflexting occurs when two people watch a Netflix show in different locations and text each other at the same time. Netflix block happens when you scroll through your Netflix queue and cannot settle on something to watch. Here are more phrases that demonstrate Netflix achieving cultural relevance through our vocabulary.

Stranger Things

Netflix is capable of creating a cultural phenomenon, as seen with Tidying up with Marie Kondo and Dear White People, the latter of which has attained relevance through the ongoing societal conversation about race and white privilege. Perhaps the best example of the Netflix effect is the popularity of Strangers Things, which has become a catalyst for 1980s nostalgia, an inspiration for cosplayers, and a musical tastemaker (to the regret of “Africa” haters everywhere). In fact, it’s a global phenomenon.

The cultural relevance with content occurs two ways:

  • Creating content from another medium that has already attracted an audience (Tidying up with Marie Kondo was already a well-known book, and Dear White People was a notable movie first).
  • Releasing content that becomes so popular that its success transcends its original medium, which is what happened with Stranger Things

In fact, most of Netflix’s original content does not enter the cultural mainstream the way Stranger Things has done. But Netflix hits the mark more than anyone else.

Binge Watching

Netflix is actually changing our behavior. When Netflix began dropping all episodes of its new TV shows simultaneously, we responded by changing how we watch TV. Thanks to Netflix, we consume show after show for hours at a time. We now watch what we want when we want it, instead of a network making us wait for a weekly broadcast. The phrase “binge-watch” became the Collins English Dictionary word of the year in 2015. Four years later, we’re still talking about binge watching. Mashable devotes a section of its news content to binge watching. And you can get paid to binge watch. Binge watching is bigger than ever.

Highly Aligned, and Loosely Coupled

Netflix is also culturally relevant to the workplace. Netflix is well known among management consultants and the HR community for the way the company operates. Netflix is known for its “highly aligned, loosely coupled” approach of setting a clear strategy but empowering work teams to act autonomously. We now have PhD-level management consultants extolling the “7 Aspects of Netflix’s Company Culture That You’ll Want to Copy.” Its 2009 Culture Deck is called “the BIG DADDY of culture decks.” Its technology blog is also popular among product developers and engineers throughout the workplace. Amazon is also closely followed for its management practices – but here again, I’m focusing on the streaming business, where Amazon Video doesn’t create the kind of conversation for its business practices that Netflix does.

What’s Next?

But cultural relevance is fleeting. You can’t manufacture cultural relevance on demand although you can improve your odds by adapting already-popular content that has been tested in another medium, as with Tidying up with Marie Kondo and Dear White People. So far, Netflix sets the paceBut it will be interesting to see what happens when Disney launches Disney+. Disney wrote the book on cultural relevance and is well positioned to challenge Netflix with its Disney, Marvel, Pixar, and Star Wars brands (Star Wars created the template for phenomenon such as Stranger Things). The key will be how well Disney draws upon these popular names to create new content, which it plans to do with shows such as original episodes coming from Marvel. Disney+ will be an extremely costly venture. But Disney has very deep pockets, while Netflix is under constant pressure from investors for its spending. Netflix CEO Reed Hastings has his work cut out for him. But I think he’s up for the challenge. And he’s operating with a big head start and an ability to do things that no one else sees coming, such as introducing binge watching.

The next frontier for Netflix will be to create cultural relevance in international markets such as India, which is proving to be an enormously difficult task. In India, Netflix also has its hands full with local competitors such as Hotstar. Because of its cash burn rate, Netflix is under more pressure to ramp up faster in markets such as India. The race is on – and the next several months will prove to be exciting.

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When Voice Assistants Peddle Potato Chips

The Pringles brand is returning to Super Bowl LIII 2019 on Sunday, Feb. 3.

Now I know we’re really living a voice-first world.

Pringles has released three teasers for its Super Bowl LIII spot. The star of the ad will be a  — wait for it — voice assistant. At a time when advertisers are loading up on celebrities such as Chance the Rapper to hustle products, Pringles is relying on a faceless, Alexa-like voice assistant to sell us on the emotional power of Pringles flavors.

The ad, which will play during the second quarter of the Super Bowl February 3, will sell the viewer on the appeal of “flavor stacking,” or combining Pringles flavors in interesting and tasty stacks. The teasers depict an “emotional smart device” (in the words of a Pringles press release) that laments not being able to taste Pringles. In one teaser, the device sighs, “I cannot taste Pringles. I can only order them.” 

The ad will also supported by “a fully integrated marketing campaign including PR, digital, social media, e-commerce and product sampling.”

Whether a depressed voice assistant will inspire Super Bowl watchers to start stacking Buffalo Ranch, Wavy Applewood Smoked Cheddar, or Screamin’ Dill Pickle Pringles remains to be seen. But the fact that a well-known consumer packaged goods company would shell out $5 million (the approximate cost of a 30-second spot for Super Bowl LIII) for an ad that makes a joke involving a voice assistant shows just how rapidly the voice-first economy is evolving. 

Last year’s Super Bowl featured an ad using Amazon’s Alexa voice assistant, but the point of the ad was to playfully sell Alexa itself. Pringles is banking on the likelihood that people are so familiar with voice assistants that an ad can incorporate the voice metaphor to sell its own product. Here’s what the number say: According to Accenture, half of online consumers globally use digital voice assistants, up from 42 percent one year ago. Accenture also notes that smart speakers are among the fastest-adopted technologies in U.S. history. In the United States, most consumers are aware of Alexa even if they’ve not used it.

The risk, though, is that the joke becomes dated as technology evolves. But if the ad helps Pringles move product in the near term, perhaps it won’t matter. 

Now let’s see if an Alexa knock-off can get us to start stacking chips. 

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Netflix Keeps the Film Industry on Its Heels with “Roma” Nomination

When I started renting movies from Netflix years ago, I never dreamed the company that sent me DVDs in the mail and then started streaming films would someday create movies. I certainly never considered Netflix capable of an Academy Award Best Picture nominee. And yet here Netflix is, snagging a Best Picture Academy Award nomination for Roma– among 10 nominations the film has achieved. This is what visionaries do. They create a future that you did not see coming. Consider these other examples:

  • When you were buying books from Amazon back in the day, did you foresee the company running a multi-billion dollar cloud computing business, getting into pharmaceuticals, and owning a grocery chain?
  • When you were watching ads for Apple desktop computers and cute clamshell laptops, did you see Apple becoming a personal wellness company?
  • When Google made it easier to search for things online, did you think the company might someday sell virtual reality gear?

There is a price to pay for being a visionary. Netflix has:

  • Created a cottage industry of doubters, mostly investors who cannot abide its cash burn.

At the same time, we all know what a visionary such as Netflix is capable of. Netflix does not disrupt industries. It creates them. Netflix has created a new model for hosting content and creating it. For being a movie distributor and TV network. For manufacturing popular culture. And now Netflix is making history. Not only is Roma a Best Picture nominee, it also boasts the the first-ever Best Actress nomination for an Indigenous Mexican woman, Yalitza Aparicio.

And yet you may not be able to see Roma in theaters. That’s because often, visionaries play by their own rules, and those rules do not always go over well with the established order, as we’ve seen with the Cannes Film Festival. AMC Theatres and Regal Cinemas will refrain from showing Roma in theaters because Netflix did not adhere to the traditional 90-day theatrical release window. Instead, Netflix released Roma on its own platform less than a month after Roma appeared (briefly) in theaters.

At the Golden Globe Awards in January, Roma won three awards, including Foreign Language Film, Director of a Motion Picture, and Screenplay of a Motion Picture. At the awards, Roma Director Alfonso Cuarón was asked to comment on a perception that Netflix is threatening independent cinema.

He replied, “My question to you is, how many theaters did you think that a Mexican film in black and white, in Spanish and Mixteco, that is a drama without stars — how big did you think it would be as a conventional theatrical release? I just hope the discussion between Netflix and platforms in general should be over. I think those guys, platforms and theatrical, should go together . . . They both together can elevate cinema, and more important, they can create a diversity in cinema.”

No foreign language film has ever won an Academy Award for Best Picture. Netflix now has a chance to make history at the 91stAcademy Awards February 24. Netflix’s 139 million paying subscribers have already won. 

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How Rihanna Has Changed the Game for Music, Fashion, and Beauty

No one who follows the music industry accuses artists of selling out anymore when they cozy up to corporations – not at a time when an Apple or H&M ad can do more to get a song noticed than Soundcloud ever will. In recent years, a musical elite has turned the notion of corporate sponsorships on its head by becoming corporations themselves. Rihanna’s evolution as a personal style brand is a case in point.

In the 19 years since she signed her first recording agreement, with Def Jam Records, Rihanna has become one of the most streamed musicians of all time. Her songs have hit Number One on the Billboard charts 14 times. She is a winner of multiple awards.  And she’s done something else as equally impressive, perhaps more so: rewritten the rules for the fashion and beauty industries.

Popular music and fashion are inextricably linked. Rihanna has always understood the power of fashion to shape perception, just as one of her influences, Madonna, has. As Rihanna once told Love Pop, “I think that Madonna was a great inspiration for me, especially on my earlier work. If I had to examine her evolution through time, I think she reinvented her clothing style and music with success every single time.”

Rihanna learned her lesson well. As she racked up song hits and music awards, she gained a reputation for her inventive and daring dress, achieved through collaborations with designers such as Mel Ottenberg. In time, she would add the title of official fashion icon to her list of accolades when the Council of Fashion Designers of America named her Fashion Icon of the Year for 2014.

But she wanted more than accolades for her attire. She wanted to shape popular taste in fashion and beauty. In 2011, she capitalized on her music stardom and growing reputation as a style maven to launch two significant business ventures:

  • Her first fashion line, Rihanna Designs, a partnership with Emporio Armani Underwear and Armani Jeans.

Reb’l Fleur and Rihanna Designs were just the beginning. She went on to create fashion and beauty businesses by creating partnerships with different companies seemingly at will. In 2013, she formed a clothing collection for the British brand River Island. She created even more high-profile ventures, such as successful clothing designs for Puma (where she was named creative director).

Her crowning achievement was her Fenty Beauty personal care brand, which focuses on people of color. Fenty, started September 2017, was expected to achieve $570 million in revenue in 2018, according to The Wall Street Journal’s Matthew Dalton. Time magazine would name Fenty one the best inventions of 2017 for being inclusive.

Now she has reportedly collaborated with LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton SE to form a luxury fashion house under her name. According to Women’s Wear Daily, the fashion house “will span ready-to-wear, leather goods and accessories, and could be released in tandem with her ninth album, expected out sometime later [in 2019] . . .”

The collaboration will elevate Rihanna to another level in fashion, but it will also make the LVMH brand more relevant to younger, social media savvy customers. As The Wall Street Journal noted,

The collaboration . . . shows how radically the power of social media has changed high-end fashion. Brands that once counted on acclaim from an elite group of critics and retail buyers now rely on social platforms to market their designs, particularly to younger consumers. That requires fashion houses to court influencers—people with large online followings—or team up with them to generate buzz.

WWD reported,

Just a year after its launch, Fenty Beauty by Rihanna is a digital innovator and champion for diversity, using its platforms — 6.3 million Instagram followers, 490,000 YouTube subscribers and 372,000 Twitter followers — to showcase makeup on women of all complexions and sizes. The brand engages with its followers regularly, reposting user-generated content and collaborating with avid fans on videos and posts.

She gets much from these relationships – hundreds of millions of dollars and a means to remain relevant independent of the strictures of music. She’s not toured since 2016 when she released her latest album with an innovative distribution deal through Samsung. She can release music and tour whenever she wants because she has freed herself from the music industry. In fact, Rihanna has turned the tables on the music industry: her new album in 2019 will support her fashion interests, not the other way around.

She has also challenged how the fashion and beauty industries operate through her use of social media and refusal to play by anyone’s rules. As The New York Times’s Vanessa Friedman observed,

Even though Rihanna became the face of Dior’s Secret Garden scent in 2015 (making her its first black brand ambassador), she never aligned herself with a single brand; they served her purposes, rather than the other way around. 

The fact that she signed a deal with Puma to be its creative director and start her own ready-to-wear brand in 2014, when the sportswear giant was still owned by Kering, an LVMH rival, and for a time worked with both groups simultaneously (an unprecedented arrangement) reflects the shift in status. Suddenly a celebrity could have the upper hand.

Her ventures have given her a chance to change an entire industry by making beauty brands pay attention to the purchasing power of people of color. Her Fenty line has been credited with making other personal beauty lines cater to people of color by releasing more foundation shades, an industry shift known as the Fenty Effect.

In the article “How Rihanna Forced the Beauty Industry to Acknowledge a World Beyond Rich and White,” Sangeeta Singh-Kurtz of Quartz discussed the impact of the Fenty Effect:

So it’s really no wonder that Fenty’s darker shades sold out practically upon their debut: by providing a richer dark-skin collection, Fenty captured an audience that has been consistently ignored by most of the industry. That said, it wasn’t just Fenty’s products or Rihanna’s celebrity that lead to its success. The brand’s marketing campaign also prominently featured people of color, a move that has now been adopted by mainstream brands as they hop on the 40 shade wagon.

CoverFX, for example, actually launched an inclusivity campaign on social media with the hashtag “#NudeIsNotBeige” a week after Fenty’s debut, and in May, when CoverGirl released its 40 shade Matte Made foundation line—its “most inclusive foundation ever!”—it did so with Issa Rae and Ayesha Curry as its Cover Girls. Then there’s Revlon’s new “Flesh” collection, which is literally branded as an “inclusivity-driven” beauty line, and Too Faced—another last minute addition to the party—whose founder, Jerrod Blandino, announced with an Instagram photo featuring black and brown models that he would be teaming up with black Youtube makeup artist Jackie Aina to “develop an even bigger shade range” of the foundations.

Singh-Kurtz also asked, “But is Dior—and the rest of the industry for that matter—really celebrating diversity, or are they just pandering to people of color to compete in an increasingly competitive landscape?”

But Rihanna is beyond accusations of pandering. That’s because she possesses brand authenticity – in other words, her products reflect her actions and statements consistently. Reportedly she turned down the coveted halftime show for Super Bowl LIII, occurring February 3, to support embattled quarterback Colin Kaepernick and because of the NFL’s controversial National Anthem policy that sparked Kaepernick to take a knee during the National Anthem. She has also spoken out against racism in the music industry and generally exhibited inclusivity in her actions and charitable foundations. 

Rihanna is not the only musician who has become a business mogul. As I wrote in The New Music Moguls, Jay Z operates ventures ranging from entertainment to venture capital. (His company Roc Nation manages Rihanna.) Dr. Dre is worth hundreds of millions of dollars because of his interest in Beats Electronics, sold to Apple in 2014. Many other artists have branched into industries such as fashion and liquor, as I discussed in The New Music Moguls. Few musicians will ever get to this level of success, but the music moguls have defined a new end game. And Rihanna is changing the game.

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Gillette Tries to Be the Best That Companies Can Be

Gillette sure knows how to create a controversy. The company’s “We Believe” short video, which challenges men to hold each other accountable for toxic behavior, has quickly become a polarizing example of the emotional firestorm a business can ignite when it dips its toes into the volatile world of cause marketing.

The video has been reviled and praised — accused of being being preachy, phony, and ham-handed, and praised for taking a stand against the evils of sexism and bullying. Some consumers on social media have called for a boycott against Gillette products. Others have taken to social to back Gillette. As comic book writer Ron Marz tweeted, “If you have a problem with the #GilletteAd, congratulations, you’re the reason they made the #GilletteAd.”

What interests me from a marketing standpoint is what will happen once the controversy over the video subsides. So much attention has focused on the “We Believe” short that I think many have overlooked the fact that “We Believe” is much more than a video. “We Believe” is a broader redefinition of Gillette’s core brand ethos, from “The Best a Man Can Get” to “The Best That Men Can Be.” In a press release, Gillette announced the company is committed to a long-term effort to uphold the values of respect, accountability, and role modeling. Per Gillette:

RESPECT — Demonstrating respect and fostering inclusivity for all, including genders, races, religions and orientations.

ACCOUNTABILITY — Ending phrases like “Boys Will Be Boys” and eliminating the justification of bad behavior.

ROLE MODELING — Inspiring men to help create a new standard for boys to admire. We want boys to see and admire traits like honesty, integrity, hard work, empathy and respect — words that people across the U.S. use when describing what a great man looks like.

Gillette said it will hold itself accountable to these values by:

  • Donating $1 million annually to causes designed to help men achieve their best.
  • Ensuring that its public content reflects respect, accountability, and role modeling.
  • Keeping a conversation about male behavior in the public eye through social media.

Gillette has put a stake in the ground. If Gillette truly lives those values in its actions and in its message, Gillette will succeed. In fact, Gillette may gain customers who identify with those values, especially with millennials, who are more interested than baby boomers are in brands whose values align with their own. In addition, Gillette may very well be happy to cut loose of the kind of customer who boycotts a company for challenging men to hold each other accountable for their behavior.

What happens next all comes down to Gillette demonstrating its commitment to its brand values. You don’t simply bake a new set of values in the oven and serve them to the public. It takes time to build emotional trust and belief through actions and reinforcement of your message. Gillette has just begun a long-term journey toward being a better company, not just a famous brand that makes a lot of money selling razors. Let’s see how this journey plays out.

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Why Amazon and Google Are Fighting to Lead the Voice-First Economy

To no one’s surprise, the story of CES 2019 was the battle between Amazon and Google to lead the emerging voice-first world.

CES was awash with announcements about products such as alarm clocks and thermostats powered by Amazon’s Alexa virtual assistant and Google Assistant, prompting coverage such as CNET’s “Who Won CES 2019: Amazon or Google?” and USA Today’s “CES 2019: Google vs. Amazon, Who Won?

In the aftermath of CES, though, one question looms: What exactly do Amazon and Google get out of winning this battle?

Numbers Galore

Both Amazon and Google used CES to state the case for their leadership of voice (Apple, Microsoft, and Samsung, while certainly players, are not the leaders in voice although Apple is a strong challenger). Google announced that Google Assistant is on one billion devices, up from 500 million in May 2018 (a figure boosted by the sale of Android phones that contain Google Assistant by default). Amazon disclosed that it has sold more than 100 million devices that rely on its Alexa virtual assistant. In addition, the number of people who use Alexa every day — and who own more than one Amazon Echo smart speaker — doubled in 2018. 

Meanwhile, during CES, more telling numbers were disclosed. According to research conducted by Edison Research and NPR, 53 million adults in the United States (or two out of 10 Americans) own at least one voice-activated smart speaker. The number of smart speakers in homes has increased 78 percent year over year. And on January 8, Accenture reported that half of online consumers globally use digital voice assistants, up from 42 percent one year ago.

These figures don’t mean that people are actually using their voices to buy things from businesses. In fact, most people use voice assistants to perform everyday tasks such as listening to music and getting weather information. But the usage data is important nevertheless. It shows that even if we’re not exactly living in a voice-first world, we’re getting there – and doing so quickly considering that the Amazon Echo didn’t exist until 2014, and Google Home just two years later. In addition, by 2016, 20 percent of all Google mobile queries were voice searches.  

The rise of voice also helps explains why so many companies continue to launch products fueled by voice at CES, and 2019 was no exception.

Gadgets and Software Integrations

CES unleashed a dizzying array of products powered by voice, usually through Google Assistant or Amazon Alexa. These products typically focus on making it easier for people to use their voices to live in their homes and navigate their cars. For instance:

In the Home

Lenovo announced an alarm clock powered by Google Assistant. KitchenAid and GE rolled out smart displays that rely on Google Assistant to help you get recipes, watch videos, and do anything else to keep you occupied and entertained in the kitchen. Currant’s new smart wall outlet, which can be controlled by Alexa and Google Assistant, monitors energy usage and suggests which products to automatically turn off to conserve power. The Dalkin smart thermostat works with Alexa and Google Assistant to control the climate in your home.

You can learn more about major product announcements here and here. (For those of you keeping score, in November 2018, Recode reported that Google Assistant works with 10,000 smart home devices versus 20,000 for Alexa.)  But the most intriguing products, such as the Currant smart wall outlet, use artificial intelligence to not only act on your voice commands but also give you information and manage your home without your intervention.

On the Go

Both Amazon and Google showed that Alexa and Google Assistant are powering our lives on the go, too. Google formally integrated Google Maps with Google Assistant, which is important because of Google Maps’s popularity for mobile wayfinding. As Mashable noted, “Google envisions users asking it for directions home, or to nearby restaurants and saved locations. You can ask the assistant to search for places along your route (like gas stations) or add a stop — all things that used to require some button pushing.”

Amazon announced a stronger push into voice-powered automobiles. CES was barely under way when Amazon and Telenav, a provider of connected car and location-based services, announced a relationship that makes it possible for drivers to use the Telenav Alexa-powered navigation system to do the same kinds of functional tasks that they can do with Google Maps. And then Amazon formally launched Amazon Echo smart speaker for the car. Google announced a similar product through a relationship with Anker’s Roav automotive accessory, which is essentially a Google Home for the car.

These announcements continued a battle for on-the-go voice experiences that has been going on for some with Google, Apple, and Amazon all rapidly launching products and software designed to be the de facto infotainment systems for different car manufacturers. The irony is that major auto makers have been announcing dips in sales for 2018. But overall, automotive has been a strong industry over the past several years. And now cars are getting smarter.

What Do They Want?

No wonder so many “Google versus Amazon” stories have proliferated throughout January. But the more important question than who “won” CES is what do Amazon and Google get out of all these voice-powered products? The answer is simple:

  The company that owns the ecosystem monetizes the voice-first world.

Owning the ecosystem yields practical benefits, such as revenue gained from the sale of smart speakers. Amazon commands a strong leadership of smart speakers, but Google is catching up. As of 2019, Amazon is capturing 63.3 percent of the smart speaker market, with Google Home accounting for 31 percent. The numbers matter for another reason besides revenue: smart speakers connect people with other smart devices, thus acting as a gateway for product integrations. As Accenture noted in its survey of global smart assistant users, “[n]inety-three percent of consumers globally expect their home device purchases, such as smart TVs or computers, to be based on ease of integration with their standalone smart speaker.”

Google’s Motivation

For Google, being the backbone of voice protects the company’s online advertising business, which accounts for more than 70 percent of Google’s revenue.  Google needs to keep giving people reasons to keep using products such as the Google search engine, Google Maps, and the Google Chrome web browser. As people stay on Google, Google can continue to deliver audiences to advertisers and learn from audience behavior. As people use voice, Google can keep them on Google by incorporating voice into its products, launching new products such as Google Home, and making Google Assistant part of other companies’ products, which is the alarm clocks, thermostats, and cars using Google Assistant come into play. 

But it’s not all about advertising for Google. Google also wants intelligent voice assistants to make Google software and hardware (such as Pixel phones) more useful and popular, a dramatic example being Google’s Duplex software, which can make convincing phone calls on behalf of human beings.  

What Amazon Wants

Amazon has its own motivations. Amazon is already a popular search engine for product searches, with half of online shoppers starting their searches on Amazon. Amazon also needs to incorporate voice to keep those shoppers using Amazon as they become more comfortable using voice – not just because Amazon wants them to buy things from Amazon with their voices, but also because Amazon is building an online advertising business that is already the third largest in the industry, behind Google and Facebook

As Amazon creates its own advertising business, it, too, needs to show potential advertisers that it can deliver an audience to them – in the home and on the go, whether they use their voices or text to get what they need. In 2018, it was reported that Amazon was in talks with advertising giants such as Procter & Gamble to permit them to advertise on Amazon Echo speakers. Amazon has denied that it’s going to permit advertising through Alexa. But even if Amazon does not offer ads, per se, it can use voice to mine valuable data about its customers that would be useful to its advertisers, such as Google can.

Amazon is already working with businesses to monetize skills. Through premium content known as in-skill products that reside within Alexa skills, businesses can sell premium content such as in-game currency. For example, Stoked Skill offers free games such as Escape the Room and Escape the Airplane. The games are set up as Alexa skills. Players use Alexa skills to find clues that will help them escape spaces such as jell cells and cars. Customers can pay for optional “hint” packs (in in-skill product) that make it easier for them to escape. 

I could see Amazon also offering branded content and products to Prime customers who use Echo, such as discounts at local restaurants unlocked exclusively through Amazon Echo Auto. Doing so would monetize voice without more intrusive advertising that lack any useful offers.

Finally, Amazon has other plans to monetize voice in the enterprise, such as Alexa for Business to help enterprises use Alexa to improve workforce productivity. As these examples show, companies are using Alexa for Business to book conference rooms, manage the connection status of shared devices, and other workplace tasks. But Amazon has competition in the enterprise most notably from Apple and Microsoft.

What Business Should Do

Brands have a clear mandate: prepare for a voice-first world, and one where Amazon and Google call the shots for now. When consumers start really buying products and services via voice assistants, brands will need to play ball with the companies that control the voice ecosystem. Here is how Recode envisions one way that world will play out:

How it works now: If you ask Amazon’s Alexa or Google Assistant to buy, say, shampoo, they’ll surface what they think you’ll want. Alexa uses several criteria to suggest a purchase option: Your order history, whether a product is eligible for free Prime shipping and whether the product has the “Amazon’s Choice” seal of approval — “highly rated, well-priced products available to ship immediately.”

Google picks products from merchants thatare most relevant to the query. It also considers purchase history and information about user preferences, as well as an item’s availability and proximity.

Both companies say there is no favoring of specific retailers — or their own products.

Brands also can’t pay for visibility — yet. For now, Amazon and Google are trying to build trust among new — few — voice buyers by making their search results as relevant as possible. It doesn’t, however, take much imagination to see a future in which Amazon or Google merchants could pay to have their products suggested by their smart assistants — like sponsored ads that crowd their websites — as a way to generate more ad dollars.

Today, businesses are participating by creating sometimes clever and inventive voice-based brand building experiences, such as HBO’s voice-activated Westworld game, in which people use Alexa to explore the mythical Westworld. Other businesses have created their own branded Alexa skills. With Tide’s Stain Remover skill, you can get stain removal instructions shared with you through Alexa. Campbell’s offers recipes through Campbell’s Kitchen. Presumably, these businesses could offer in-skill products if they wanted to, an example being HBO offering a premium-tier Westworld game for purchase. And businesses are optimizing their content to be found through voice search. 

Amazon and Google are not the only companies doing the heavy lifting, but they are leading the way to a voice-first world. Smart companies are going with them. 

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David Bowie Blows Your Mind in Augmented Reality

David Bowie visited my home on his birthday this week. He sang “Life on Mars” in my dining room. He performed a mime on my front porch. He showed me the handwritten lyrics to “Ashes to Ashes” while I was sitting on my sofa. All thanks to a mind-blowing augmented reality app, David Bowie Is.

The app, based on the groundbreaking David Bowie Is museum exhibition, was released on iOS and Android platforms January 8 on what would have been the Thin White Duke’s 72nd birthday.

had visited the David Bowie Is exhibit at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art in 2014. At the time, I was moved to tears by the brilliance of his music, his visual genius, and his passion for creating art. When I downloaded the app years later on a wind-swept January day, I wondered whether re-creating bits and pieces of the exhibit with a small iPhone screen might tarnish the memory.

I need not have worried.

When you open the app, you explore 25 rooms and 400 objects from his life, including hand-written notes for songs, costumes rendered in 3D, images of stage sets, and video. Gary Oldman (sounding a bit like Bowie himself) narrates different scenes, such as how the BBC actually used Bowie’s “Space Oddity” in its coverage of the Apollo 11 moon landing. 

But this app is not just a progression of flat images and video dancing in your smart phone. When you point your smart phone at a flat surface, the space in front of you is transformed while David Bowie’s songs fill your ears through spatial audio. My dining room table dissolved into stars as I played “Space Oddity” and then became a floating set piece for Bowie’s Diamond Dogs tour, obliterating the very real pile of unpaid bills and junk mail that cluttered the surface. My dining room became bathed in a mint green light as Bowie sang “Life on Mars.”

The David Bowie Is app also takes you on a journey through David Bowie’s creative process. How he collaborated with fashion designers, artists, and filmmakers. How he synthesized everything he saw, heard, read, and lived into his own vision. You learn how living in the disjointed but kinetic world of 1970s Berlin fueled the sense of experimentation and adventure on the so-called Berlin trilogy, Low“Heroes,” and Lodger. How his rough drawing for the album cover of Diamond Dogs became a shocking and memorable image through his collaboration with artist Guy Peellaert. And you learn much, much more as you lose yourself in his world. 

The app does not replace the experience of going to the museum and sharing David Bowie’s world with the community of museum goers. It’s more like a technology-rich update to the experience of listening to David Bowie’s record albums. I use the term record album deliberately. Actually listening to a record album all the way through demands your attention, especially if you listen to a vinyl record, which entails unwrapping an album from its sleeve, teeing it up on a turntable, and turning it over midway through. When you listen to a record, you don’t make “Fame” and “The Man Who Sold the World” into digital background fodder for your morning exercise routine. 

David Bowie Is functions like that vinyl record. You must give the app your full attention to appreciate it. Here is augmented reality with a soul. 

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Memorable LGBTQ Album Covers of 2018

Record albums refuse to die even though sales are no longer what they used to be. Musicians continue to rely on long-form collections of songs to tell personal stories, and album cover art remains a crucial aspect of the storytelling. In 2018 (as I’ve done for many years), I explored music released during the year to identify the most memorable album cover art. I looked for album covers that: 

  • Capture your attention.
  • Express the essence of the artist.
  • Say something about the musical content of the album itself.

This year, I was struck by the number of album covers that expressed what it means for an artist to be the Other, especially to be LGBTQ. The year witnessed a bumper crop of works created by LGBTQ musicians, perhaps most notably by Janelle Monáe, whose acclaimed Dirty Computer created a public forum for Monáe to announce her pansexuality. The album cover art of LGBTQ artists was as intensely personal as their music. Here are three examples:

Blood Orange, Negro Swan

Negro Swan, the fourth album from Blood Orange, the moniker for musician Devonté Hynes, expresses the complicated journey of the black LGBTQ experience. Blood Orange recently said that Negro Swan is “an exploration into my own and many types of black depression, an honest look at the corners of black existence, and the ongoing anxieties of queer/people of color. A reach back into childhood and modern traumas, and the things we do to get through it all.” The album’s title underscores race-based Otherness by using wordplay to subvert a term, black swan, meant to signify a rare thing of beauty. Songs such as “Charcoal Baby” articulate the artist’s vision, with lyrics such as:

No one wants to be the Negro Swan

No one wants to be the odd one out at times

Can you break sometimes?

In “Dagenham Dream,” Blood Orange recalls how he stopped wearing makeup and tried to start conforming after getting beat up for being an Other, much to the sadness of one of his school teachers:

And my eyebrow acted like the boys in town

Then my teacher told me that this, made her sad

Had to act just like the others to get around

But Blood Orange also offers hope that he will embrace his Otherness, as in the song “Smoke,” in which he sings,

Choosing what you wear and getting this far

Waiting for the smoke to clear . . . 

The Sun comes in, my heart fulfills within

Indeed, Blood Orange has also said of Negro Swan, “The underlying thread through each piece on the album is the idea of hope, and the lights we can try to turn on within ourselves with a hopefully positive outcome of helping others out of their darkness.”

The album cover personifies Negro Swan through the image of Kai the Black Angel, who appears sitting on a car’s front passenger window frame with a white do-rag on his head and angel’s wings sprouting from his back. His head rests on his arms. His facial expression looks ambiguous. Is he calmly resting? Resigned? Sad? It’s hard to tell because his face is partially obscured by his arms.

In the video for one of the album’s songs, “Jewelry,” Kai the Black Angel appears briefly sitting on the car’s window frame. His facial expression again exudes a sense of calm. He also looks hopeful for the touch or embrace of the viewer. He reaches out toward the camera with a gentle wave, and as the car moves away from view, he continues to gaze back at the viewer, as if to make the brief moment of communion last as long as possible. For a few seconds, Kai the Black Angel shares the light that Blood talks and sings about on Negro Swan.  

Janelle Monáe, Dirty Computer

On Dirty Computer, Janelle Monáe celebrates LGBTQ sexuality while confronting judgments that are inevitably cast upon the Other. On the song “Crazy, Classic Life,” she sings with confidence and defiance,

Young, Black, wild and free

Naked in a limousine . . . 

I just wanna party hard

Sex in the swimming pool . . .

I’m not America’s nightmare

I’m the American dream

Just let me live my life

Elsewhere, she explores what it means to live as a sexual being on her own terms, as in the song “Take a Byte”:

I’m not the kind of girl you take home to your mama now . . .

Maybe it’s lust, maybe it’s love, maybe it never ends

Ooh, say your goodbyes (say ’em now)

Play in my hair and nibble there all on my mocha skin

Yeah, just take a byte

In “Pynk,” she speaks bluntly and frankly about a sexual experience whose meaning is even more clear in the song’s video: 

Pink like the inside of your . . . baby
Pink behind all of the doors, crazy
Pink like the tongue that goes down, maybe
Pink like the paradise found
Pink when you’re blushing inside, baby
Pink is the truth you can’t hide, maybe

But the album cover dials down the overt sexuality and instead presents the artist in another light. Her eyes are nearly closed, and her face is covered with a beaded veil. Why? One explanation I’ve read makes perfect sense: she’s expressing an homage to her mentor Prince:

The connection is obvious in the video “Make Me Feel,” which sounds and looks like a Prince video. In it, Janelle Monáe explores her own lust for female bodies. And indeed she adorns the beaded veil in the video as she does on the album cover.

But the video also appears in a completely different context, as part of a 48-minute movie, Dirty Computer – An Emotion Picture, that debuted in April along with the album’s release. The movie depicts a world in which people living lives of individual freedom are rounded up and have their memories erased.  A voice-over explains, “You were dirty if you looked different. You were dirty if you refused to live the way they dictated. You were dirty if you showed any form of opposition at all. And if you were dirty, it was only a matter of time . . .”

Monáe portrays Jane 57821, whose life of unfettered sexual joy makes her an outlaw and a target for the authorities. Her life is told through sequences taken from her standalone videos, including “Move Me,” which recontextualizes Monáe as Jane 57821 wearing the jeweled veil. In the context of Dirty Computer– An Emotion Picture, her joyous pansexual life puts her at risk for being persecuted and subjected to a horrible fate. Now we see the cover in a new light: her sexual identity, which is a source of pride and joy, also creates a personal risk, as it does for the Other. 

In a Billboard interview, she elaborated on the meaning of the movie:

Dirty Computer is a near-future story about a citizen who finds love and danger in a totalitarian society. She’s an outlaw because she’s being herself . . . Overall, I wanted to reflect what’s happening in the streets right now, and what might happen tomorrow if we don’t band together and fight for love.

Jane 57821 is alive today, fighting for her own identity in the United States. Jane 57821 is Janelle Monaé.

Ah Mer Ah Su, Star

Star is an expression of self-love and healing from the perspective of a transgender artist, Amerasu Star, who performs as Ah Mer Ah Su. In an interview with PAPER, she says the album reflects her learning self-compassion and acceptance after surviving an abusive relationship with a man and being diagnosed as bipolar type two. On the song “Heartbreaker,” she not only transcends a relationship but turns the tables on a man who is hurting her:

I once tried to put you under my spell

Then realized I’d failed and I was overwhelmed

I’ll run into the arms of others

To try to forget you

And it hurts, it hurts, it hurts

But being a heartbreaker is easier than being broke

Here is how she describes the song meaning to PAPER:

I think I’ve had my heart broken too many times by men, to the point where I’ve become someone who ghosts people or runs away. It’s my way of turning the tables, of running away from feeling too good, because I want to break your heart. I’m tired of being heartbroken; it has happened too many times. As a transfemme, it happens so much that we are with shitty dudes who don’t care about us at all really. They view us as sexual objects and I’ve been devastated by that, so I wanted to totally change the narrative.

The overwhelming vibe on the album is about claiming your own narrative by reaching within. On “Need You, Need Me,” she defiantly looks forward after breaking free from an abusive relationship. On “Be Free,” she asks her audience, “Are you growing?/Are you showing any sign of change?” The soaring “Perfect” exhorts the listener to reject self-loathing, stop trying to chase for perfection and instead embrace something more positive and healthy:

How many days have I spent feeling shame?
Where I said I was to blame for my circumstance?
What would you do?
If you couldn’t be you? . . . 

Perfect
I’ll never be perfect
The world isn’t perfect and neither are you

The album cover art, taken from the video for “Perfect,” expresses the album’s themes. The vibrant colors suggest the star that shines within us. Ah Mer Ah Su holds herself tenderly with her eyes closed, as if lost in a moment of self-love. The somewhat grainy and blurred image seems to capture the narrative of “Perfect” – the reality that there is no such thing as perfection, and what matters is accepting and celebrating ourselves as we are. Hers is a universal message, too. As she told Billboard,

[M]y album isn’t just for transgender black people. I want everyone to listen to this album and listen to a trans woman sing about her experience. I want everyone who listens to understand what it’s like to be me and realize how precious and delicate — yet strong and empowering — my story is. I want my sisters to listen to this album and know that they are worthy, beautiful, and deserving of love.

Ah Mer Ah Su, like Blood Orange and Janelle Monáe, has connected with listeners in emotionally powerful ways. Fortunately we have her music and artistic expression of her songs to deepen that connection.

For more examples of memorable LGBTQ album cover art, check out my SlideShare. What album cover art from 2018 resonates with you?

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How Apple Is Changing Healthcare through Partnerships

Apple took a major step forward to influence the future of healthcare with the release of an ECG app and irregular heart rhythm notification. With the Apple Watch Series 4, users can take an ECG similar to a single-lead reading. And owners of Apple Watch Series 1 or later (with watch OS 5.1.2) can get notified if an irregular heart rhythm such as atrial fibrillation (AFib) is identified (per the American Heart Association, AFib is present in about one in five strokes.) The new functionality has already been credited with saving one man’s life. The release of the app also comes with a challenge: earning credibility with physicians, who have voiced concerns about people misreading the app’s data. But Apple is up for the challenge — and will succeed. That’s because for years, Apple has built partnerships across the healthcare ecosystem. Those partnerships have provided a proving ground for Apple’s healthcare apps and generated a reservoir of goodwill for one of the world’s most valuable brands.

A Healthcare Strategy

The ECG app, announced at Apple’s September 12 Special Event, support Apple’s strategy to improve healthcare by being the data backbone for patient care. That strategy has three key elements:

  • Software for patients and providers to monitor and share data, which is where apps come into play.
  • Hardware: the Apple Watch and iPhone to create an ever-present device platform.
  • Relationships with healthcare providers such as hospital networks to monitor and share wellness data.

Apple’s penetration of healthcare supports its growth in both wearables and services, two categories that, while small, are contributing more to Apple’s revenue growth based on its fourth-quarter earnings results announced November 1. But with healthcare, CEO Tim Cook has loftier aspirations than generating more revenue. As he told TIME recently, “Apple’s largest contribution to mankind will be in improving people’s health and well-being.”

His focus on wellness care in particular positions Apple well. The PwC’s Health Research Institute (HRI) cites wellness care as one of the top forces shaping the future of healthcare industry, with wellness accounting for $276 billion of the $5 trillion U.S. healthcare ecosystem.

Reaction from Physicians

But to improve health and well-being, Apple needs to have physicians on board. Some have been publicly critical of the ECG app, while others have been supportive. The announcement of heart monitoring features during Apple’s September Special Event almost immediately triggered concerns from physicians who worried that patients would misdiagnose themselves. But the announcement also came with support from the medical community. For example, Christopher Worsham, a critical care physician at Massachusetts General Hospital, and Anupam B. Jena, an internist at Massachusetts General Hospital, wrote in Harvard Business Review, “ . . . doctors shouldn’t be too quick to dismiss the new feature, particularly as it appears amidst growing consumer enthusiasm for wearable devices that measure health behaviors. The Apple Watch has the potential to provide valuable data that benefits the entire health care community.”

Now that the ECG app is live, Apple has experienced both criticism and good PR. On the one hand, an Orange Country cardiologist, Dr. Brian Kolski, has complained about numerous patients contacting him because they thought their Apple Watches were reporting heart problems when in fact nothing was wrong. Dr. Kolski discussed a patient who contacted him in the middle of the night, panicking about a heart reading he’d seen on his Apple Watch.

“He texted me the strip, and it was completely normal,” Dr. Kolski told The Orange County Register. “This was a healthy 45-year-old man who was playing around on his watch and went into a major panic.”

On the other hand, the new features are generating positive news coverage for Apple. TechCrunch and ABC News have already reported the case of Ed Dentel, whose physician told him that the new app likely saved his life by notifying him of an abnormal heart rate. Dr. Sanjay Gupta, CNN’s chief medical correspondent, tested the ECG app and reported it to be “remarkably easy” although he cautioned users to use the app with care.

“The app may also increase visits to the doctor from newly concerned patients,” he wrote. “Still, there has been considerable enthusiasm from the medical community as a whole . . . There is no doubt Apple is counting on doctors to use the data collected by the Apple Watch. The company has made it easy to upload your ECG, along with a description of your symptoms, to your personal doctor directly from the app to facilitate that communication. It’s all part of their big bet on making an impact in health care.”

Strong Relationships in Place

The PR is important, and so is the data that Apple cranks out to substantiate the value and accuracy of the ECG app. But Apple already has something else going for it: a demonstrated ability to forge partnerships with the medical community. The launch of the ECG app is just the latest in a long list of Apple’s accomplishments on the road to become a healthcare player — and those successes have come through partnerships with physicians that I discussed in my recent white paper, Dr. Apple Will See You Now. For example:

  • In 2014 Apple, launched HealthKit to give Apple users a central repository to track health and fitness data on their Apple devices. In February 2015, Ochsner Health System in New Orleans launched its “Hypertension Digital Medicine Program,” which relies on HealthKit to help patients measure and share with the provider their own blood pressure and heart rates. Oschner adjusts (in real-time, if needed) patients’ medications and lifestyle counseling based on the findings.
  • In 2015, Apple released ResearchKit, an open source software framework designed for medical and health research, intended to help doctors and scientists gather data more frequently and more accurately from participants using iPhone apps. The University of Rochester has used ResearchKit to build an app for the largest Parkinson’s study in history. According to Apple, “the app helps researchers better understand Parkinson’s disease by using the gyroscope and other iPhone features to measure dexterity, balance, gait, and memory.”
  • In January 2018, Apple announced that its Health app will make it possible for users to see their medical records right on their iPhones, which would thus empower potentially 90 million Americans who own iPhones. When Apple launched the capability, the company came out of the gate with 39 hospital networks participating. (Apple keeps a running list of participating hospital networks on its website.)

Apple has published more examples of successful physician collaboration. For instance, at Johns Hopkins, physicians provide epilepsy patients with Apple Watches to track their seizures, possible triggers, medications, and side effects. Thanks to a special app developed by Johns Hopkins, the EpiWatch, patients have access to their personal information through a dashboard that also shares data with providers if the patient wants to do so. Patients can also send a message to family members and providers to let them know when the patient is tracking a seizure. Johns Hopkins is collecting this data to eventually understand how to predict seizures before they happen.

Hiring Physicians

Reportedly, Apple’s journey to healthcare prominence also means hiring approximately 50 physicians. CNBC cited the example of hiring hired an orthopedic surgeon, Sharat Kusuma, who leads a team working with medical device maker Zimmer Biomet “to study whether Apple technology can help patients recover from knee and hip replacement surgeries.” In a December 12 article, Christina Farr of CNBC wrote, “The hires could help Apple win over doctors — potentially its harshest critics — as it seeks to develop and integrate health technologies into the Apple Watch, iPad and iPhone.” She added,

Doctors can also help Apple guide the medical community on how to use Apple’s new health technologies  and to deflect criticism. As an example, when Apple announced its electrocardiogram sensor to track heart rhythm irregularities, the company  put up a website to help answer physicians’ questions. That’s important because there’s a very high bar to win approval among doctors who fear liability and are  already overburdened by technology

And here is where Apple’s established relationships with medical networks will pay off. Apple is not trying to build relationships and credibility from scratch. Apple already possesses goodwill by proving itself through efforts that precede the ECG app (such as those cited above). And Apple’s other ace in the hole is usage among physicians: 75 percent of doctors in the United States own some form of Apple device, according to a study by Manhattan Research.

We all know Steve Jobs was the super power who made Apple synonymous with changing the world. But Tim Cook is building a legacy, too, around healthcare. That’s because Apple is improving healthcare through partnerships, not disruption.

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How Virtual Reality Re-Imagines the World of Norman Rockwell

I recently stepped inside the paintings of Norman Rockwell through virtual reality. After viewing Norman Rockwell’s Four Freedoms paintings at The Henry Ford in Dearborn, Michigan, I experienced them in an immersive way that only VR can provide. Norman Rockwell’s Four Freedoms: A Virtual Reality Experience demonstrates how VR can educate by complementing, not replacing, the physical world — but only if VR offers compelling content.   

About the Four Freedoms

In 1943, Norman Rockwell painted the Four Freedoms series — Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Want, and Freedom from Fear – to visualize the four freedoms, or essential human rights, espoused by Franklin Roosevelt in a 1941 State of the Union address. Upon their publication in The Saturday Evening Post, Rockwell’s  Four Freedoms became immensely popular. They expressed a nostalgic, reassuring image of America at a time when World War II had made the world seem darker. The Four Freedoms ensured Norman Rockwell’s fame as an artist whose work expressed American ideals in a way that resonated with a mass audience. 

Many decades later, the Four Freedoms are on display in a traveling exhibit that began at the New York Historical Society on May 25 and will continue until 2020. The Henry Ford has hosted the second leg of the tour since October 13 and will do so until January 13. Seeing these paintings in person is like viewing the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the Declaration of Independence at the National Archives. They don’t need virtual reality to convey their power. But as I discovered, VR helped me appreciate the artist and his times.

Rockwell Up Close

I came across a VR viewing area near the end of the tour, after I’d spent a Sunday afternoon studying Rockwell’s works up close, including Freedom from Want, which has become perhaps the most cherished if satirized vision of American bounty. 

As with just about every famous art I’ve seen reproduced somewhere, Rockwell’s paintings are more vivid when you see them in person. By contrast, the VR viewing area consisted of a spartan arrangement of chairs and headsets. You always know when you’ve entered the VR zone: no matter what the context, you’re greeted by a clusters of disconnected people gazing into headsets unaware of the real world around them. But I’d already gotten what I came for. I was game for spending some time in the VR zone. What did I have to lose? After I was given a brief explanation of how the VR experience works, I strapped on a headset and let my mind wander.

Intuitive VR

The experience was as intuitive as VR should be. From a virtual viewing room, I could step inside different Four Freedoms paintings to explore a re-creation of the settings suggested by Rockwell’s art. For example, Freedom from Fear depicts a mother and father tucking their children in bed for a night of peaceful, carefree sleep. The father holds a newspaper with a headline that suggests the London Blitz bombing occurring across the Atlantic. 

Through VR, I explored the room in more detail as well as the family’s home as it might have looked in 1943. I came across a silver-colored penny on a dresser. When I clicked on the penny, words appeared onscreen to explain that the 1943 silver-colored penny was a wartime coin issue made of steel and coated with zinc. It was necessary to create pennies from steel because copper was needed to make shell casings and munitions. Throughout the house, I found many other belongings from the era, including a civilian air spotter guide, blackout curtains, comic books, and trading cards.

VR expanded my understanding of wartime in the United States by inviting me into Rockwell’s time rather than separating me from it with a panel. Rockwell’s paintings engaged and taught me more about Rockwell and his vision. VR taught me more about Rockwell’s world. 

VR and AR Take Hold in Museums

Norman Rockwell’s Four Freedoms: A Virtual Reality Experience constitutes a laid-back experience as far as VR goes. Touring the paintings requires not much physical effort beyond tilting your head to navigate. This experience is designed to ease you into VR from a sitting position. Created by Academy of Art University, San Francisco, and the Norman Rockwell Museum, Norman Rockwell’s Four Freedoms is one of many ways museums are using VR and augmented reality (AR) to become more immersive. For example:

  • The Franklin Institute transports people into space, the ocean, and the human body with Oculus Rift and HTC Vive VR headsets. 
  • “David Bowie Is,” the critically acclaimed David Bowie exhibition, will become an AR app following a multi-year run at museums ranging from V&A Museum in London to the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago.
  • The Kremer Museum, launched in 2017, features more than 70 17th Century Dutch and Flemish Old Master paintings exclusively through VR. It is believed to be the only museum to exist entirely within VR.

And many, many more examples abound, as museums employ technology to remain relevant with audiences whose expectations are set by immersive games, music, and movies using multiple devices and screens. 

Why the Four Freedoms VR Experience Succeeds

In this context, Four Freedoms: A Virtual Reality Experience succeeds. Here’s why:

  • Most importantly: the content is effective. The idea of using VR to visit the settings suggested by the painting is inspired, and the execution delivers with interesting examples such as the steel penny. 
  • VR complements the in-person experience. Placing the VR stations at the end of the tour means that VR does not compete with the landmark paintings. You first get the measure of Rockwell’s work before experiencing the paintings from a fresh perspective with VR.
  • The low-key experience suits the topic. You explore the paintings at a leisurely pace, befitting the idyllic setting of Rockwell’s paintings. This is no Lone Echo or Star Trek: Bridge Crew, nor should it be. Norman Rockwell’s work evokes a simpler, homespun time, like comfort food. His paintings do not lend themselves to an overwhelming sensory experience. 
  • It does not cost extra. I was more likely to strap on a headset and geek out with VR because I didn’t have to pay more. I’d already paid for the entrance to the exhibit when I bought my ticket for The Henry Ford. 

The experience also underscores the limitations of VR as a technology for mass consumption. At the end of the exhibit, I walked away, probably never to experience Norman Rockwell’s Four Freedoms: A Virtual Reality Experience again. VR requires repeated use by consumers to take hold. And with the exception of gaming and entertainment, VR lacks the requisite content to justify the expense of buying the equipment and the time required to delve into VR. Put another way: it’s one thing for museum goers to use VR as part of an experience they were going to pay for, anyway, especially when someone else is providing the equipment. But asking them to make an investment into VR for common use in their homes? That’s a totally different story unless they are into gaming. 

But these limitations are only a problem if you expect VR to become a popular everyday consumer experience. VR continues to take hold in industries ranging from education to training (to wit: STRIVR works with businesses such as Walmart to use VR to improve employee performance with training). Norman Rockwell’s Four Freedoms: A Virtual Reality Experience demonstrates one useful application.

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