Microsoft today signed a deal with Ford, which will use its advanced HoloLens solution for development. I think this showcases one of the big weaknesses in virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), and mixed reality efforts. Too many use consumer-grade hardware and incomplete solutions to address opportunities that are ill-defined and way too numerous. The Microsoft HoloLens effort was one of the leading exceptions to this horrid trend; it designed the solution with Lawrence Livermore for Mars exploration (NASA will be using a similar effort to showcase Mars for visitors) and, while it clearly anticipates an eventual move to the consumer segment, this was targeted at specific commercial segments from day one. As a result, it has generally been better received where targeted. Ford follows Volvo into using this solution and I think it showcases what should be a best practice that most others are missing.
Businesses Buy Solutions, Not Parts
What made Microsoft’s HoloLens stand out from day one was that it was conceived as a complete solution for those that needed to visualize things in normal space. Microsoft started by prototyping what was needed. Once a solution was defined, it did gap analysis to choose which parts it bought and which parts it built to complete the solution they had defined in test. For instance, to get the combination of performance and battery life, it needed a special processor that didn’t exist in the market yet and so defined and then commissioned its creation.
The result is a hardware/platform implementation that appears more refined and far more complete than anything else, even from Microsoft, currently in segment. This is critical because businesses tend to buy solutions. They aren’t in the solution creation business, and thus the more common approach of selling parts and letting the business build what it wants is a lousy way to build a market. Yet, sadly, it remains the path most others are on.
The Elements of Success
This idea of refining a vision in the lab, testing that vision, and then using the results to build a more complete solution is far from new. But sadly, it has become the exception this decade rather than the rule. Many of the early successful technology products, and certainly products like breakthrough cars, were and are first created in design shops and refined in labs, and then tested in emulation long before they reach final designs and are manufactured for market.
While this does slow down time to market, it results in far less risk because the products that do enter are more likely to meet the needs of the customers they target; these targets are defined and refined before the product is delivered. Otherwise, these refinements must be done post shipping, which is often why it takes several generations of a product before it is successful. Lab development can massively reduce the probability of failure and the number of in-market failures before there is a success.
In addition, as Google Glass showcased, this testing in a live market, if the initial product misses badly as Google Glass did, can poison the market, making it far harder for the eventual better product to function. We saw this with Microsoft Zune; the mistakes made with the first generation of that product killed the market for the following generations that were vastly more competitive.
Another best practice is starting at the top, not the bottom. If you start with a product that tries to be uncompromising, and target a segment that will pay for an uncompromised product, then move the product down market as prices come down, it will generally be more successful. This is because you build advocacy and envy, which provides a foundation for growth. Starting from the bottom means you have crippled products that disappoint the initial buyers, creating massive sales resistance that future offerings then must, but often can’t, overcome.
3D TV Example
A decade ago, we knew several things we ignored regarding 3D TVs. We knew folks didn’t like wearing glasses. We knew that we either needed a 3D equivalent to Disney’s Wonderful World of Color (which mainstreamed color TVS) and/or we needed these things to work in sports bars, and we needed a critical mass of content. The industry ignored most of these points. The glasses looked dorky, most sets required $100 active glasses that had to be charged and wouldn’t scale to sports bars, there was no 3D show like Disney’s, and there really was only one good 3D movie: Avatar.
The industry could have focused on passive 3D glasses, which would have also worked in many 3D movie theaters and lead to lines of designer glasses that would also work well as dark glasses. It could have worked with Disney, HBO, Amazon, and/or Netflix to create compelling 3D content. Passive 3D glasses are used in theaters today and can easily scale to sports bars. And, those that had their own designer 3D glasses would have gained status against those using the cheap versions in both sports bars and theaters, driving people to them rather than away from them.
A massive industry effort failed because the industry didn’t lock down before shipping what the requirements for success were. 3D TVs are effectively a dead technology today.
Wrapping Up: Plan to Succeed
One of my big frustrations is that the tech industry builds products that create accurate emulations/simulations and, in using those offerings themselves, could create far better initial final products. They, for some screwy reason, just choose not to.
HoloLens is a great example of how this could, and should, be done to increase initial success in market. Yet the more common approach is to go cheap, and throw crap into the market that the people creating it wouldn’t themselves buy. For instance, right now, it is more the exception than the rule that someone selling a VR consumer solution has that solution at home themselves.
HoloLens showcases a path to success. Refine the solution and tie it to customer compliance through emulation PRIOR to the product’s final design and better assure that it will be successful, or decide that you don’t want to take critical steps and exit before you ship the product. That way, you not only avoid the embarrassment of failure, you avoid the massive cost of that failure as well.
I’ll leave you with one more thought: More firms should ask why their employees don’t buy consumer solutions they build. That might help them build products that people would buy.
Rob Enderle is President and Principal Analyst of the Enderle Group, a forward-looking emerging technology advisory firm. With over 30 years’ experience in emerging technologies, he has provided regional and global companies with guidance in how to better target customer needs; create new business opportunities; anticipate technology changes; select vendors and products; and present their products in the best possible light. Rob covers the technology industry broadly. Before founding the Enderle Group, Rob was the Senior Research Fellow for Forrester Research and the Giga Information Group, and held senior positions at IBM and ROLM. Follow Rob on Twitter @enderle, on Facebook and on Google+