SXSW, virtual reality, and how beta testing can help media

Since its inception, the online media industry has been forced to adapt and reinvent itself based on the whims of fast-moving technologies. For publishers, the problem is that if they don’t adapt, readers might go somewhere else that will. However, even — especially! — for major publishing incumbents, the path to adaption has often been a minefield. Emerging technologies are usually the most expensive technologies, costing both money and time. The term “Failed Technology” includes a wasteland of bygone potential saviors and media “game changers” (the Xybernaut Poma being among my personal favorites).

Virtual Reality was a major topic at this year’s SXSW in Austin, Texas. Multiple trade show booths displayed VR headsets that showcased various campaigns, adventures, advertisements and games. I left the convention center with a pocket full of business cards from VR content providers who had expressed their eagerness to work with media companies. I also left with an overwhelming sense of curiosity. VR content is costly and time-consuming to produce. What if VR goes the way of the Xybernaut Poma?

A SXSW session, New York Times Reality Through VR-Tinted Glasses, approached that question. During the panel, Mark Thompson, President & CEO of the Times, said, “The New York Times is not a platform. What we are is a company that is dedicated to getting thoughtful people the information necessary to make sense of this complex world. When we are confronted with new platforms, we must face them bravely.” With this thought, big media’s technology path was becoming clearer to me: Big media should aim to be a kind of Beta tester. 

This new breed of digital media Beta tester shapes new technologies, influences, and understands. They don’t go all in on emerging, uncertain, and expensive tech. They don’t remain on the outskirts. They gather information, they experiment, they try new things and are not afraid of failures. In short, they are brave but not stupid. The most important goal is to get content to the users that matter, regardless of the platform.

A cool (and dare I say “exciting”!?) experimentation theme is emerging. As an engineer, this is good news, and why I am optimistic about technology in digital media. In software development, good applications come from many iterations. Each iteration can be seen as a micro experiment. In this light, this experimental phase looks a little bit like version control (on a product level), a time-tested method that drives all of our modern software. It is truly rare to get something right the first time and it is a good sign that the digital media industry keeps trying.