The nature of entertainment is really going to change.
Jim McArthur, who leads the new Big on Mars, is passionate about digital connectivity: He believes it’s going to empower and revolutionize the human condition. Part of JWT’s Digitaria, Big on Mars is a unit focused on helping brands find opportunities in the Internet of Things. McArthur, a self-described hacker and nerd, previously worked in everything from engineering and creative to business development at Digitaria. We spoke to him while researching our new mobile trends report, discussing how mobile connectivity and other groundbreaking technologies like virtual reality are shaping the future of entertainment and brand-building.
What was the impetus for branching out into the Internet of Things?
It’s something that I’ve personally been pretty passionate about for a while. I’ve always been sort of a hacker and a hobbyist, and a nerd, and I’ve always worn those labels very proudly. In my spare time, I void warranties for fun and I write code and all that good stuff. So despite the fact that by day I’m a gray-haired executive, by night I’m more of a gamer and a hacker.
We’ve always had our eye on these technologies as an organization and we’ve done this really cool work, but one of the things that that hobbyist sensibility and the market trends add up to is the need for companies like JWT to really double down on emerging tech. The way that customers are going to engage with product and brand is just completely up in the air right now. It’s going to change what we do fundamentally across the board.
The Internet of Things is such a nebulous term. How do you define it?
Essentially data is what we’re dealing with. It’s the information age, and as we begin to connect things to the Internet, all we’re doing is passing around more and more information, more and more data. The core game changer is people having access to that information, devices telling us what’s happening, what’s going on, what people are doing, in a new way and painting an entirely new picture.
I like to think of it as, all of a sudden, one day mankind could see UV light—there’s this whole spectrum of light that we can’t see but other animals can, and if you have the right device, you can see it. And that’s what data is like to us today: We’re going to turn on this thing, and when it’s firing at full speed, we’re going to have an entirely new sense. It’s species-bending stuff.
What kind of data does that provide, what kind of granularity does that provide?
Look at what Disney’s doing with their Magic Band. The trend they’re pointing toward is real-time telemetry, actually knowing where people are at a given moment. We have GPS and we have phones, but that’s not necessarily helpful in a retail environment. When we talk about new technologies, like beacons and lighting up areas with new kinds of Internet and those sensors that are going to interact with those networks, we’re going to see pinpoint telemetry.
What role can agencies like yours play here?
Not every company can start up a lab. Not every company can sit there and pay a bunch of guys hundreds of thousands of dollars to hang around and dream and be on the cutting edge. That’s where a lot of brands are going to depend on us to come to them with the answers—as soon as possible, not necessarily waiting until it’s happening, until it’s market-proven. Because now we’re talking about light-speed not only for marketing and advertising but for product development,
The nature of entertainment is really going to change. Television is going to change, screens are going to change. So for us, it’s just about being nimble and smart and having a focus on these things. We’re especially important in this new world, because it’s our job to figure it out.
We make digital things that create revenue, that are symbiotic with physical product, that extend the experience. That’s where things are going, and that’s our role—to bring that stuff to our customers in real time as fast as possible, with as much data behind it as we can. So that’s where I saw the opportunity, and for clients, they’ve just got to keep their eye on the ball. They can’t sleep on things like AR/VR anymore, they have to be active in the game. If you own an airline and you’re not looking at virtual reality, you’re out of your mind.
With the Oculus Rift, virtual reality is certainly rising up the radar right now.
The reason that [the Oculus Rift] is so big is that it’s the first time people have interacted with any form of digital content without a frame. Just think about it: Every other form is, you’re looking at it through a window. Now that window’s gone. My 10-year-old daughter put it on, took it off and said, “What is reality anymore?”
The military’s currently using virtual reality technology similar to the Oculus—but it’s naturally superior—and have been for years. And one of the things they have been working at is direct connection to the mind. So, using your mind to fly a drone. These technologies exist: there are patents in their files.
Have you ever seen that Bruce Willis movie [Surrogates] where everybody just lies in bed at home and controls an avatar out in the world for their entire life? The possibility for that kind of technology exists, where you’re controlling something else. You have a doppelganger avatar, and it opens up the possibilities for all these neat interactions. We’re talking about this in the dawn of it, of a new age. But it’s not crazy to think that stuff is coming our way, and it is.
That type of scenario might scare people also—there’s a potential dark side to these technologies.
When one man figures out how to use technologies across the board, the possibilities exist for bad things to happen. We’ve already seen people get arrested for using Google Glass, being thrown out of restaurants. In the end though, humans are smart—if we didn’t blow ourselves up with a nuclear bomb, we’re not going to kill ourselves with virtual reality. So I think we’ll be fine, we just need to go through the process, learn how it works. Each generation will do what it does and they’ll adapt; that’s our job as humans. We’re going to change, and people may not like that.
Wearable tech still hasn’t really found its feet. Why is this?
Today, you’re seeing really simple devices, like biometric trackers—they’re not biometric trackers, you’re talking about a pedometer with maybe a blood pressure monitor, if you’re lucky. And then it’s pulling a bunch of BS statistics about how far you walked in a day.
That’s just down to the fact that we’ve not really cracked a few things. Like bandwidth. The devices that we’re putting in place are now the new layer for pillar technologies to reach more and more places within customers’ lives. The wearables themselves, they’re going to improve the technology. So as bandwidth increases and we can touch the cloud quicker, processing power gets more and more powerful locally. There’s a day coming in which you’re going to be wearing a computer that’s five times more powerful than a Cray—back in the day for us old guys—the size of a ring, and it’s going to have a gigabyte down and a gigabyte up.
And with that, we’re going to be able to invent sensors that can do a ton more. So instead of looking at how many steps is a guy taking by vibration—which is not very accurate because you can shake your arm and fool a Nike FuelBand—you’ll have a camera embedded in your lashes or on your face that, through its periphery, tracks each step, the length of each step, the velocity of each step, the pressure with which you hit the ground. All that data’s now going to be floated to a new place, and you can only imagine, from there, where things go.
It’s really about the natural progression. Wearables today represent the big, huge gray phone, the size of a phonebook, that was the first mobile phone. So give it 15 years and then apply the smartphone paradigm to wearables.
What about the potential that wearables represent for marketers?
When you look at the improvements around wearables and advances in mobile phones and advances in heads up-displays—all that stuff’s going to hit like a freight train. You know when it hits really big is the day that Burberry or Oakley and Google come out together with something that looks not stupid, and we all know that day is coming.
Then you’ll have these non-dorky Google Glasses, and the heads-up, ubiquitous-information-display era comes into play: the games, pay-per-gaze advertising and blink-to-click, and all this stuff is here. If we’re not absolutely feverishly building a skunkworks around this technology, we’re going to end up playing other people’s platforms and they’re going to own the data.
Everything from the screen, everything is now digital—your baby, your dog, your Q-tip, it doesn’t matter. You put on Google Glass, you walk up to a Porsche, you can make that Porsche light up with information all around it. It gives you a totally augmented experience, and you can learn about that car in real time.
It seems like all this technology is advancing quickly—that we’ll get over the hurdles sooner than later?
The reason virtual reality is getting to the place where it is getting today isn’t just technology, it’s the people that are on it. It is about talent too. And what we’re seeing is a migration of talent towards this new world. It’s like the oil fields in the 1900s in America or the Gold Rush before that. It’s about opportunity. From that, you’re going to see natural growth.