Think Local, Act Virtual

The breakout topic of this year's CES was predictably virtual reality (VR). Among the highlights: Oculus announced the date and price for the Rift consumer release, as thousands of developers and gamers salivated.

Like many tech revolutions, this will start with hardware, then compel an ecosystem of developers and supporting functions. It will be all about gaming first, then bloom into several use cases, including local search and discovery.

But first, VR will follow what I call the law of sevens:  Every ten years – at a decade’s seventh year – we see a hardware-driven inflection point in mobile technology. That leads to a decade of iterations and and behavioral transformation.

1987 was the iconic moment when audiences first saw Gordon Gekko on the beach with a Motorola DynaTAC. 1997 was the StarTAC's global penetration, launching an era of flip phones. And 2007 of course was the unleashing of the iPhone.

Now that we're a year from the next inflection point, it's becoming clear that it will be all about VR. It's also clear that the moment may come sooner than 2017 -- if it hasn't already passed --  as these cycles tend to change pace over time.

Though it's not fully "mobile" (yet) the bigger question is what will be VR's killer apps, and will they include local? In the same breath, we should include augmented reality (AR) which could have more practical local use cases than VR.

AR will include the unfulfilled promises of Google Glass, which was before it's time and a lesson in the fickle but deadly fashion implications of wearable tech. That aside, AR's graphical overlays are a natural fit for local discovery.

We'll see lots of heads-up mapping and local search. Yelp was among the first to do this with Monocle, along with Layar and others I've covered for years. But bringing AR closer to your eyeball is the difference... and the challenge.

There are also social media implications. Forget the news feed... see my status updates floating above my head. The possibilities also start to run wild with everything from dating apps to retail to real estate (think: Zillow on crack).

As for VR, there are oft-cited examples like gaming and entertainment. But there are less obvious ones like immersive journalism and collaborative design. Local applications will include immersive restaurant tours and test drives.

Together, AR and VR are projected to be a $150B economic engine by 2020, not including advertising. In fact, the size of this opportunity and the need for industry cohesion compelled last week's launch of the VR/AR Association.

So the killer apps are TBD, and there are directional indicators of a massive market. The question is what this means for local media companies? It could translate in the short term to vetting current product applicability to VR and AR.

Drawing historical parallels, it was clear that companies who stubbornly shunned the smartphone revolution paid the price. In many cases, that costly mistake resulted in years of perpetually catching up or missing the boat altogether.

It's also important to note that the pace is accelerating. Innovation cycles were faster with the smartphone (i.e app development) than the desktop. And desktop-era cycles were in turn faster than print and other traditional media.

The lesson: with each passing tech revolution, response time diminishes while opportunity cost grows. Local media companies that were late to the consumer internet or the smartphone revolution already know this pain.

With VR and AR, local startups will be more agile to experiment than larger incumbents. Most larger media companies will get tripped up in organizational inertia and innovator's dilemma. We've seen this movie before.

One way around this is to build innovation labs that aren't saddled by cannibalization concerns and cultural inertia. Parallels can be seen in local with Deseret Digital Media, and AT&T Interactive (the forebear of YP).

Or do none of the above. But if VR and AR are the next inflection points in connected hardware, it might come faster than you think. I predict we'll soon start hearing with escalating frequency, the requisite term VR-first.

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This post first appeared in Street Fight.

Mike Boland

Michael Boland is Chief Analyst and VP of Content for BIA/Kelsey, covering online and mobile media. Mike is a frequent speaker at top industry conferences such as BIA/Kelsey events, Search Engine Strategies, ad:tech, and WHERE 2.0. He has authored in-depth reports on the changing local media landscape including online video, social networking and mobile. He contributes regularly to highly read online news sources such as Business Insider and the Huffington Post. A trusted source for reporters covering the interactive media space, his comments have appeared in major news and trade media, including the Wall Street Journal, Fortune and Forbes. Previously he was a San Francisco-based freelance writer for business and technology magazines, such as Red Herring, Business 2.0, and Mobile Magazine. Mike began his career in business analysis and journalism as a staff reporter for Forbes magazine, where he covered tech & media.