The Internet of Things (IoT) and Virtual Reality (VR) are two technologies that represent entirely new ecosystems of user interaction and new opportunities for storytelling. On Saturday, June 4, more than a hundred CommLead students, faculty, and alumni, as well as technology experts and digital media professionals, came together for day-long session aptly titled “Content Strategy Beyond the Screen: How VR & IoT Will Change Storytelling.”
Two keynote addresses and a design workshop led by CommLead alumni introduced attendees to some of the major challenges facing content strategists and communicators. One of the biggest hurdles facing VR is the lack of diversity in its developers. As Evan Westenberger (Microsoft Digital Program Manager and CommLead alumnus) pointed out in a LinkedIn post, now is the critical time to get involved:
We are at still at the tipping point for this technology, and we can make a difference now. This is too important of a paradigm shift in technology, and we can’t mess it up with a lack of diversity.
Above all, the biggest challenge and question posed by these new technologies is understanding how to talk about it, especially to those who’ve never experienced it.
“Content strategy is evolving. When we look at the timeline of content strategy- from the early days of the web in about 1995 until roughly 2011, our discipline was about organizing content,” explained Andrea Zeller (Facebook Contest Strategist; CommLead Research Fellow and alumna).
“Let’s call that Version 1 (V1) Content Strategy. Then from 2011 until today, as experiences became mobile, content strategists became responsible for voice and tone and really the overall empathy of products, let’s call that V2 User Experience (UX) Strategy,” Zeller added. “And now, in 2016, as technology is becoming more immersive and we are in control of these experiences, this next version, V3 is Perspective Strategy.”
Attendees had the chance to employ perspective strategy in crafting user experiences for IoT and VR and envision how they could continue to use it in the future.
VR remains highly speculative, but IoT is already here
IoT and VR have been buzzwords at tech conferences for the last few years. How close are we to seeing these technologies in our day to day lives? How do they affect content strategy execution?
Noelle LaCharite (Amazon Alexa Solutions Architect and Evangelist) said the developments in voice-activated experiences are likely to become more mainstream and integrated into devices in the next few years. The technology already exists, but Amazon wants to make the process as frictionless as possible. “Everything I do today [at Amazon] is in those Golden Age of science fiction books,” she said, adding that for this type of technology, consumers often have expectations shaped by science fiction and pop culture.
According to Charlie Sutton (VR Designer, Facebook) it’s still too early to judge the consumer electronics side of VR, although the interest is there. “From a design perspective, consumers have had a decade of experience [with smart devices],” Sutton explained. “[Consumers will] ask why this doesn’t work like what we’re used to, or why it costs so much.”
Ultimately, for both VR and IoT, the user experience and needs remain a key consideration, designers must consider these expectations to design products intuitive to use.
Voice commands open up a world of intent
“With voice, you have infinite top-level requests, based on user intent,” LaCharite explained. “You don’t have to remember a tree or navigate a menu.” With the right programming, a complicated series of choices can be accessed with a single command. This eliminates confusion and lets the user fulfil their intent frictionlessly. If you’ve ever had to navigate through a phone-based menu trying to pay a bill or reach a government office, you have a good idea of the type of voice system that Amazon wants to avoid.
Amazon’s Echo, Echo Dot, and Amazon Tap are a family of devices that allow users to introduce voice control to their homes, inevitably leading to comparisons with Apple’s Siri. But the vision Amazon has around the Alexa Voice Service (AVS) is much more encompassing. By opening up the Alexa appkit to third-party developers, Amazon has effectively allowed Alexa’s voice control capabilities to be integrated into anything electronic. This ensures compatibility and broadens the ecosystem of Alexa-enabled devices.
Amazon has made the Alexa Skills Kit (ASK) open for anyone to us to encourage developers and customers to harness Alexa’s capabilities. Even someone with minimal experience can use Amazon’s templates to build their own “skills,” commands that users can program Alexa to recognize. Skills can including playing a song from a chosen playlist or arming a home security system.
Interest in voice-activated controls is picking up momentum. In just a few months, LaCharite said, the number of user-made skills for Alexa has jumped to six hundred. More are being added every day. Many of those are written by product developers creating skills for their products, which is where content strategy and user experience comes into play.
LaCharite stressed that the goal is for voice to enhance existing user interfaces, not simply replace it. Rather, Alexa simply adds the option to integrate voice.
“Your capabilities come in your ability to build a customer experience for anyone using an Alexa-enabled device,” LaCharite said. “I encourage you to think, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool to do that with your voice?’”
The biggest constraints on VR are social, not technical
One of the most challenging questions for anyone working with VR, Sutton explained, is incorporating diversity of thought and opinion into a new medium. Rather than dwell on the technical details or describe the experience — which, for people with no experience in VR, he likened to doing an interpretative dance of the nightly news — Sutton approached the topic of VR from a more familiar standpoint: design.
“Undesirable and unintended consequences can happen when the origin story of technology does not represent diversity of thought and opinion … I want to talk about the context of VR because its origins might be an indicator of where we’re going,” Sutton said. “Being a good designer means being a good student of history.”
Humans have been pursuing the creation of more immersive experiences for years, whether through elaborate constructions, Sony Walkmans, 3D devices like the View-Master, or ideas of virtual reality in science fiction. Though technologies like VR are considered cutting edge, they really have the weight of humanity’s whole relationship to devices and immersive experiences behind them. Worn devices have intense personal and cultural symbolism, and putting anything over the face and head is the most intimate experience of all.
While social norms shift and change, it takes time for new technologies to become widely adopted, and at first they can cause discomfort or an avoidance of technology. Hardware and experience designers in VR should carefully consider how people respond to that.
Sutton passionately encouraged designers and strategists to embrace “no more rectangles” when thinking about VR spaces. He pointed out that design has gotten very good at designing on a two-dimensional plane. However, many people overlook that spatial awareness can be used to create a more immersive experience. Still, he added, the most important thing is granting users a sense of agency and control over the experience.
“Your brain is easily fooled … A lot of designing in VR is giving the brain exactly what it needs to fool itself,” Sutton explained. “That’s the secret to VR, is giving it just enough. The next level of immersion is not fidelity, it’s not resolution, it’s agency … If you deliver agency to the user, the requirements for fidelity are lower.”
Of course, a model with agency requires careful consideration of what agency you allow your users. “The function of AR and VR is world creation,” Sutton said. “This creates a big responsibility on designers. How do you mediate the kinds of worlds people create?”
Continuing the conversation
Exposure to these new mediums is critical. Only a handful of attendees said they spent more than 20 hours with a VR headset every week. Some had never experienced VR at all. Comparing that to the amount of time people spend on their smartphones, it puts into perspective how much we still have to figure out about these new technologies. Events like this workshop get the conversation started. But it’s up to content strategists to extend it to actual applications and share their insights with others.
“This event was really important to help introduce content strategists to this technology and start to understand how to apply our skills to VR and IoT technology,” Zeller said. Zeller collaborated with CommLead on the masterclass to research and explore incorporating content strategy skills into VR and IoT design.
“It really opened my eyes to the variety of applications for VR, and I really appreciated that since I tend to equate VR with video games, which I don’t play,” said Jill Reddish, a Cohort 14 alumna. “So for instance, my group worked through a content strategy development for a VR simulation to guide people who have never flown through the experience of navigating airport terminals and what it’s like to fly. Applications for real world simulations are practically endless for training or educational concepts.”
Viola Lee, a Cohort 15 student in the CommLead program, said the message that social and interaction constraints for humans should be the top consideration resonated with her.
“It reminds me again that humanity is always the core that drives us toward solving problems with the cutting-edge technology. Technology [can evolve], imagination can be broadened, [but] the most critical thing to think about is whether the human problem is being solved.”