News & Views

Opinion / The Tech Revolution and Optimus Time

by Contagious Contributor
Alain Sylvain, CEO and founder, Sylvain Labs, argues that the successful uptake of new products, ideas and behaviours relies on Optimus Time  the window when forces are aligned

Watching scores of frenzied shoppers wrestle over a 60-inch flatscreen and panic-purchase multiple Nutribullets is a fairly depressing scene but, like it or not, for tech aficionados Black Friday is a pretty exciting event. Each year the latest gadgets and aspirational products fly off the shelves and, after a raft of launches (Samsung Gear VR, Google Daydream, Oculus, Hololens, etc.), VR technology is considered the breakthrough of 2016 that will dominate wish-lists.

But why now? The first VR system was created in 1968 by internet pioneer Ivan Sutherland, so why has it taken almost fifty years for consumers to get on board? It’s not just VR: General Motors first unveiled its vision for the driverless car at the 1956 Motorama Show; drones have been in use since World War II but consumer adoption only took off in the last couple years; we’ve been using wearables since the 1980’s – anyone else remember the calculator watch? After tentative launches and painstakingly slow progress, it’s only really now we see these technologies taking off at a plausible rate, with the reality of them being a standard of modern life not far off. What it comes down to is time, Optimus Time.

Optimus Time is the window when forces are aligned for the ideal introduction of a new behaviour, product, or idea. It's the reason incredible products fly or fail. So much of the conversation around innovation and invention has been invested in questions of ingenuity and creativity, but what about time? Ultimately, Optimus Time is a conceptually interesting way for us to wrap our minds around the ripeness of ideas – products, brand experiences, or even pop culture phenomena. A framework for us to build stories against, to test within our gut whether an idea feels like it is right or not. And in this instance, a way to ask if the realities of a technologically advanced world jibes with life as we see it.

From a practical perspective, technology advances will of course always take time, but success is also dictated by time in terms of hitting the market at the right moment – no earlier, no later. The concept of the driverless car has been floating for decades, and it’s starting to look like a reality now but there is clearly still fear of the unknown amid a market that’s simply not there yet. Any child today will likely not-drive a driverless car.

The connected home is bringing a plethora of gadgets into our lives, heralding a new way of living where tech is set to blend seamlessly into everything from security and utilities, to household chores and your morning coffee. Powered by the ambiguously titled Internet of Things, the connected home still comes with a level of mistrust – does automation come at a cost, our privacy? Are we ready to let the unknown in? Even VR could fall victim to the consumers’ subconscious concept of the ‘right time’. Every technology company is investing heavily in its own interpretation, but can we honestly say the masses have demonstrated an earnest and consistent interest in that medium? It’s debatable.

We can apply this theory to all manner of advances. The music industry has always been a slave to culture – be it pop or counter driven – informing and adapting to movements throughout history. Some of the industry’s sharpest innovations have been victim to time while others have revelled in the sweet-spot of Optimus Time. Spotify is an obvious example. The record labels went crazy in the early 2000s, attacking Rhapsody and Napster who essentially tried to do the same thing. What makes Spotify different (better?) is that it launched at a time when labels ran out of choices and users were used to having music very handy. Apple did a lot of the heavy lifting in getting consumers used to the idea of buying for music online. Those factors created the Optimus Time for Spotify.

We have to approach time like an athlete approaches the starting blocks, reacting not a moment too soon or a second too late. Today’s pioneering consumer brands, the likes of Netflix, Instagram, Buzzfeed, capitalised on the digital boom that Blockbuster, Kodak and traditional print media waited too long for. However, it works both ways – just think of considered one of the original social networks, or Webvan, an Amazon predecessor that failed when dot-com excess bubble burst. Evolutions must happen at the right time, but we’re so freaked out about missing the proverbial boat that we often rush to launch before mankind is really ready.

As a culture we often fantasise about the future. We are obsessed with sci-fi realities – flying cars, teleportation, etc. But it turns out many of those things are already here. People just don’t want them. The notion of a digital currency sounds great – particularly in a time when faith in traditional banking has taken more than a few hits – but in reality bitcoin has floundered, benched to the realms of the dark web. Google Glass was a bold venture that has arguably kicked off the smart-glasses revolution, but the product itself was shelved having been derided for its unwieldy appearance and unpractical applications. I deeply believe that if space travel was available today, for a relatively cheap cost, it wouldn’t be all the rage many expect it to be. I’d love to go to space, but in practice, are people motivated to spend money on that trip today?

While many of these ephemeral advances may go back to the blueprint, we are edging ever closer to a fully-automated tech orientated lifestyle, one in which driverless cars, VR and the connected home will become the norm. But as modern and experimental as we’d all like to believe we are, humans are essentially creatures of habit for whom change and evolution are uncomfortable introductions. Here’s the thing, people are steeped in their ways – patient and not unsatisfied. Technology and consumerism in general perpetuates this idea that we all need new stuff. But we don’t. It’s the technology that needs to find us and our tastes, not the other way around.