The smart businesses are investing in things that will make your clients obsolete

There's nothing that feels more dated than virtual reality. It has been the technology pipe dream for so long that it has a multi-generation history of false hope and disappointment.

From The Lawnmower Man to Second Life, the promise of wandering round a projected universe has gripped the technical imagination. And it’s one that often bites advertisers too – they just can’t resist the lure of a "brand world"made real.

Sadly, it has never really worked out. Until, maybe, the Oculus Rift. It’s a cheaper, better 3D VR headset designed for gaming. Basically, it’s a big pair of goggles that you strap to your face and get immersed in a 3D world. It ran a very successful Kickstarter campaign a couple of years ago and it has been getting a subset of game developers hugely excited for a while now. And then it got bought by Facebook for $2 billion.

Google is spending on robotics - that's not an advertising play, that's a getting-out-of-advertising play

I realised something in a meeting the other day – most businesses think the "digital revolution" is a singular thing; a transformation in media, marketing, publishing, that sort of thing. It’s basically about information. But the businesses that really understand – the Googles and the Facebooks – get that this is just phase one in a more permanent upheaval: 3D printing, the Internet of Things, robotics, biohacking, even VR. They all promise to be way more disruptive than the changes we’ve already seen and they are all driven by exponential leaps in processing power and globally connected, non-hierarchical, impossible-to-control networks of people.

The first phase of the digital revolution has changed our consumption of media and a bit of how we shop. The next phases will transform how we’re fed and clothed and how long we live. That’s why the surprises are drying up in media land – the patterns have all been established, we’re just waiting for the follow-through and collapse.

Meanwhile, the smart money is moving elsewhere – they’re taking the money you gave them for ads and spending it on things that will end your clients’ industries. Google is spending on robotics and self-driving cars – that’s not an advertising play, that’s a getting-out-of-advertising play. Or you could see every bit of ad tech it builds as just another experiment in a bigger machine-learning project. These businesses are smart – they grew up making big bets on future technologies. While we’re all still trying to work out what native advertising means, they’re making massive investments in things we’ll consider toys.

Russell Davies is a creative director at Government Digital Service


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