The Beatles, Unanticipated Uses of AR

Issue 11 of my newsletter – subscribe here

Despite growing up near Liverpool, I never visited any Beatles attractions other than popping into the Cavern a couple of times. It’s like living in London and never visiting The Tower: there’s always something more exciting going on.

I broke the habit of a lifetime by finally going to The Beatles Story, a museum on the Albert Dock. It was just about fine given entry cost £17. The whole place felt worn down and cramped, as if it hadn’t been properly refurbished since opening in 1990.

Back then, it would’ve been much more impressive to the hundreds of thousands it attracted every year, but nowadays it comes across as dated and irrelevant, for fans only. Even so, it attracted 266,614 visitors in 2017 – numbers that most attractions would kill for.

The odd thing was just how little Beatles stuff it had; there were a few nice pieces like Lennon’s glasses and piano, but I gather that a lot of impressive objects have been sold off to richer collectors and US institutions.

Not that a Beatles museum needs a lot of objects to be successful; The Beatles Story clearly has the band’s blessing, along with a few band-adjacent voices on the pretty reasonable audio guide. If they found a new space that was quadruple the size and hired the V&A designers behind the visually stunning and immersive Bowie and McQueen exhibitions, they could easily make their money back. Throw in a better restaurant and bar, and they’d print money.

Then again, this is an obvious idea and I can only assume the rights holders just don’t care. Paul McCartney is a billionaire, getting a few million extra a year from a museum would hardly register on his bank balance. Maybe he isn’t interested in that kind of legacy.

I had yet another call this week with a major tech company about augmented reality and gamification. It’s pretty clear that all the big companies have AR glasses coming out in the next 1-3 years and so they’re thinking very hard about possible applications, because, well, they don’t have any.

So here’s a free idea, albeit one that won’t be feasible for a few years: selling used goods.

I’ve started selling a lot of stuff on Facebook Marketplace lately. I used to sell things on eBay but after being burned a couple of times by buyers who claimed their item didn’t arrive, I gave up; but with Facebook Marketplace, you can get people nearby to meet you at a location of your choice. The listing process is also free and extremely fast.

It’s mostly been games I’ve finished, along with tech that I’m replacing or not using – old TVs, Kindles, iPads, that sort of thing. It turns out you can get a really good price for solid brands, and I feel good about this stuff being used rather than gathering dust in a closet. And yeah, the money helps.

I am temperamentally suited to selling my stuff in this way because I like not owning many physical things. Other people are different, and that’s where I think AR could help. Imagine glasses that tracked your activity, and could say, “Hey Adrian, you haven’t used this exercise bike in six months! I can have someone pick it up tomorrow for £180, what do you say?”

Is this creepy? For sure – especially if it was operated by Facebook. But if it was under your control, I think it’d be helpful for a lot of people. Right now, there’s a huge amount of friction that prevents community tool lending libraries from being set up – few people enjoy keeping a database of items up to date – but if it was completely hands-free and your glasses could instantly identify the make and usage levels of a particular item, I think most would be much more willing to opt-in and share or sell their items.

In other words, AR glasses could introduce a true sharing economy – not Uber, not Airbnb, but a true non-profit version – by dramatically reducing the friction involved in data entry and maintenance.

Of course, this is the optimistic view. AR glasses will also be used to sell us all sorts of useless shit in ways we can’t possibly imagine now, like putting virtual products in your wardrobe and virtual burgers on your plate, and saying “this burger could be yours in only ten minutes for just £5!”

Playing

🎮 Valleys Between on iOS. Imagine if Monument Valley and Alto’s Adventure had a baby that wasn’t as fun as it’s parents. It’s a paid game (which I like!) so I wanted it to be good, but it was devoid of challenge, and frankly, of gameplay.

Watching

📺 Stranger Things Season 3 on Netflix. I’m only halfway through but it’s hitting the perfect 80s nostalgia family action adventure spot. This season, I feel like they’re relying on the old Mad Men trick of making fun of olden times a bit more heavily, but there’s nothing wrong with that.

📺 Legion Season 3 is a welcome improvement on the previous season, being a soft reboot and also the final season of the show. I have high hopes.

🎞️ Yesterday. I was hoping it’d be a 7/10, but instead it was a 6/10. The concept remains gold, but the romantic relationship was poorly written and unbelievable. Although now I think HBO should make a prestige series about The Beatles.

🎞️ Spider-Man: Far From Home wasn’t as good as Homecoming, which had Marvel’s best villain after Black Panther, but I enjoyed the lighthearted teen comedy bits. Can’t wait to see what they do with Spidey once they get over their Iron Man fixation.

Reading

📖 Dealers of Lightning by Michael Hiltzik. I knew the legend of Steve Jobs and Bill Gates ‘stealing’ the idea of modern windowed interfaces from Xerox PARC, but this book documents the far more impressive and interesting truth behind Xerox’s research labs. It turns out PARC didn’t just invent the modern windows UI but also Ethernet, laser printers, VLSI, and (sort of) Postscript, SGI, and TCP/IP.

The lessons of PARC may not be widely known in detail but you can be sure they are familiar to Silicon Valley founders from the 90s and 2000s (e.g. Google) because they would have been advised by people who lived through it (e.g. Eric Schmidt, who worked at PARC from 1979-83). As such, you wonder if Google’s penchant for releasing every product they can think of is a response to Xerox’s releasing nothing due to internal politics. Of course, now we can see the problems with Google’s approach…

📖 The Shock of the Old by David Edgerton. Glowingly reviewed, the author is either wilfully obtuse or downright dim – you choose. I’m planning to write a longer review, but this book essentially boils down saying “Haha, technologists haven’t figured out a better way of killing whales than the harpoon – so much for iPhones, right?”

Listening

📻 Something For Your M.I.N.D. by Superorganism. Suitably weird.

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