News & Views

Mobile World Congress / Follow The (Virtual) Money

by Contagious Contributor

Creative director and consultant Tom Eslinger shares his take on the mobile world's epic annual event  

‘When everyone has clothes, it’s time to accessorize.’ Ina Fried, Re:code.

I flew back to NYC from Barcelona and with the election drama back home, I popped on All The President’s Men while I typed up my notes. When Robert Redford’s Bob Woodward is trying to figure out the story that’s unfolding in front of him, his source Deep Throat tells him follow the money. Which, for me, was one of the underlying themes at Mobile World Congress 2016.

Mobile Is Everything blasted out in a video montage at the start of every session. With that very broad playing field, I stuck to sessions and exhibitors focused on the hardware, peripherals and content that was drawing attention and long lines of people waiting  to try it out. 

Was there some cool new gear? It’s MWC, of course there was. Was there a lot of jargon about ‘value chains’ and ‘monetization opportunities’? It’s MWC, of course there was. But the halls full of gear meant that attendees were being not just nudged but elbowed by video, virtual and augmented experiences, wearables and data. I divided my time between sessions that had a ‘look at this cool stuff’ theme, with a speaker or two thrown in for the ‘how do we charge for this cool stuff?’ questions.

Virtual reality

Attendees slipped on headsets and grasped at thin air in Intel’s massive techie playground and looked around virtual cars at Ford. After a wait of up to an hour, attendees would recklessly let go of the safety bar on Samsung’s virtual rollercoaster and take a spin in the SK Telecom unofficial Yellow Submarine. Bundling handsets and what will quickly be considered ‘entry level’ VR hardware from Samsung and LG phones will make it possible for anyone to look silly while they poke at the air with their mouths open. As Jefferson Wang pointed out, bundling is a fast-lane to commoditization, but is this happening a little too fast?

Most discussions touched on the ‘how does all this cool stuff pays for itself’ topic. Brand-funded ‘small bets’ and one-off promotions aren’t going to be enough to sustain growth (or quality) at the level that VR technology will demand in a very short time. The expectations on VR and AR are already setting the bar high for quality visuals and experiences. The presenters at IBB Consulting’s Jefferson Wang’s excellent Virtual Reality Opportunity panel agreed that the quality of the content from a sensory and storytelling perspective will need to be high to capture and hold the potential customer, regardless of whether they view content on a cardboard-enabled phone or high-res immersive experiences from creators like Jaunt and Framestore VR.

Mobile = commerce

Another high point for me was the session Mobile Is Commerce, one-on-ones and a mini-panel discussion expertly wrangled by Re:code’s Ina Fried. Getty Images and WPP, like most companies that face competition from literally anyone with a camera, an eye for composition and a good idea, described how they are pogoing out of their familiar lanes to create new mobile commerce opportunities.

WPP’s Sir Martin Sorrell and Getty Images’ Dawn Airey run businesses that generate literally millions of ‘things’ – images, video and otherwise. While the forgone conclusion is that something mobile will deliver it, they agreed that their customers will expect a high level of quality in the whizzy content, that is, at the heart of it all, compelling, connective stories. In recent years, ‘storytelling’ is used so much you think you’re watching a drinking game, but no one explained the rules to you. Hopefully these will be the stories that lift media and the IoT delivering it from being just lawnmowers chatting with refrigerators and dog-cams.

IoT is most interesting when it’s connecting actual people to have meaningful connections with other actual people and the stuff they love. The sessions Contextual Commerce Opportunity and Wearables for Wellness and Lifestyle did exactly what it says on the tin, presenting how data, commerce and good old customer loyalty made compelling brand stories for FitBit, UnderArmor, Fossil, GoEuro and great connective commerce systems like Button.

Nearly every square inch of the was Congress covered in ‘Mobile Is Everything’ signage and now that it’s everything, where to next? The hardware advances were mostly incremental and you literally could not put your finger on the most interesting parts of MWC. The threads bringing everything mobile together are more fluid, flipping from clouds to clothes to headsets to analytics, less and less tied to platforms and gadgets. Technology moves directly from MWC to shopping malls around the world at affordable prices, answering the ‘when will we have it?’ question and replacing it with ‘is this what you want?’. No doubt between now and MWC 2017, I won’t be the only one following the money.