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Rules of Engagement: Learnings from a Decade in the AR/VR Industry

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Vivek Padmaji, Product Designer, Imaginate Software Labs Holding a BE in Mechanical Engineering degree from RV College of Engineering, and M.Tech degree in Dynamics & Control and Aerospace from IIT – Bombay, Vivek is an Engineering & Design enthusiast and has been in the industry for over five years now.

Design plays a crucial role in the market adoption of products dependent on evolving technologies. Two design philosophies have proven to be effective in navigating the waters of fast evolving tech and they are learning that we believe are worth sharing.

Design for a Niche
Evolving tech cannot support a mass product for the consumer market. It always begins with a niche market and then evolves into a mass product with adoption. And product development for a niche market is a lot like providing service. This resonates with the philosophy of designing for anticipation. Setting up anticipation happens effortlessly in service mode. The relationship with the client is an ongoing one and there is continuous improvement and customization for the client. This relationship with the client not only gets them to trust the company providing the service but also enables the adoption of the evolving tech.

Continuing with the example of the smartphone, its origins lie in the PDAs that were developed for a niche market. The features and design were customized for office use by managers and working professionals. This was when the tech was still evolving and had not yet become mature enough to be taken for granted. For the past few years, AR/VR tech has found adoption in customized enterprise applications.

This might appear to be common sense however it is surprising to see a lot of startups working on consumer products for the mass market in the evolving tech space and meeting disastrous ends. This is the reason why cryptocurrency will in all likelihood be adopted by a niche market first before becoming widely accepted across the common population. Blockchain technologies will start out influencing niche markets like real estate ownership tracking for the government before they become part of a mass consumer product. Every product startup in the evolving tech space has to start as a services startup.

Identifying a niche market itself is a process and there are no ready made answers. Startups should spend a considerable amount of time in identifying that niche market. Once it is identified, the next important thing is to design for anticipation.
Design for Anticipation
Design for anticipation, has been the biggest learning and the reason Imaginate continues to survive and thrive in the AR/VR industry even as a lot of the competition had to or was forced to quit. This philosophy is applicable to all products in the evolving tech space like AI, blockchain and foldable screens which continue to evolve with AR/VR.

The central tenet of designing for anticipation is to set up the anticipation for all the amazing features that would be coming soon in the future. The design would also focus on delighting the customer with the best that can be achieved with the current tech but that comes second. The current version of the product is an ad for the next version and a ticket to get onto the good stuff. This would be disastrous in tech spaces that are mature, but in tech that is constantly evolving this philosophy works.

On the outset, the design of a product becomes a differentiating factor once the underlying tech is mature. If the tech is still evolving, then just amazing product design and UX isn’t going to sell a product. Consider the early days of mobile phones, the UX of the Nokia 3210 or any other phone for that matter, was not its USP. Design and UX became the differentiator post the launch of the iPhone. At the time of the launch of the iPhone, the technology was mature enough to be taken for granted. The iPhone had similar tech that every other manufacturer did but with a killer UX which made all the difference.

The AR/VR hardware in 2010 was in the same league as Nokia 3210 and currently, in 2019, its approaching the inflexion point where tech is taken for granted and the product design and UX is going to decide what becomes the iPhone of AR/VR, and who becomes the Apple of AR/VR. Looking closer however, for any tech to survive till it matures enough to be taken for granted, it must have one of two things

1.Super high utilitarian value, like a communication device
2.Amazing product design and UX that will convert it from a ‘good to have, but I can live without it’ tech to ‘must have’ tech.

That is the story of the smartphone, making calls will always have high utilitarian value but browsing the internet was once ‘good to have, but I can live without it’ tech and the iPhone with its design converted that into ‘must have’ tech.

The first iPhone was essentially a demo or proof of concept of the current one in the sense that it triggered the imagination of the users of the endless possibilities of such a device. Even though the first iPhone was only capable of supporting simple games, in the user’s imagination they could already see themselves playing an open world game like Grand Theft Auto on their phones, which eventually did become possible. The moment users start to imagine all the things that they would want to do with a technology, it has arrived.