A bold new frontier
Paul Warren, CEO at Unboxd, sits down with ACN to discuss the future of augmented reality and what it will mean for business
ACN: Could you start by sharing some details on yourself and your past work experiences?
Paul Warren: I’m the founder of Unboxd and an entrepreneur focused on consumer apps. As anybody dealing with early stage businesses will tell you, this can imply a range of responsibilities, but I deal primarily in business development, product strategy and UX design.
In the past, I’ve consulted on technology ecosystem development in the Middle East and Caucasus for the COMMIT Network. Prior to that, I worked as an analyst in Bloomberg’s Tech Ops group, primarily on automatic headline generation and Big Data mining.
ACN: What is Unboxd and what is the history of the platform?
PW: Unboxd is a platform for creating interactive, shoppable video reviews. The app was created to bring the personal element and human connection into E-commerce through short videos where real consumers share their opinions on products and services.
We created the product because it felt like the shopping decisions we were making lacked the insight and engagement provided by word of mouth. This face-to-face interaction is something we’ve relied on for thousands of years when shopping, and still tend to prefer when we get it from friends and family.
ACN: Could you share any upcoming developments for the Unboxd app? What new features are we likely to see in future releases?
PW: Unboxd is currently a great tool for social and visual review content, but we’ll be integrating features to make it more practical as a discovery tool in the future.
To do this, we are building out a recommendation AI, which uses a combination of preference-based machine learning-based on review data from both professional and casual reviewers to provide suggestions. Put simply, the AI makes it easier to make the right decision.
Ultimately, we aim to create a consumer facing product that not only synthesises all of the useful data we can collect online, but presents it in a way that is easily understood and felt by users.
ACN: With the recent global success story of Pokemon Go, do you feel that there is an increased drive towards adopting augmented reality for business?
PW: I think there is an increased awareness of augmented reality generally, especially in the case of local business. Pokémon Go demonstrated for the first time that widespread consumer adoption of an augmented reality platform could happen and at scale. This helped reframe perceptions around a technology that has been around for a while, though largely out of general public awareness.
From a marketing perspective, AR plays by businesses have been, to this point, mostly limited to one-off campaigns often layered on top of print media.
With large active user bases connected meaningfully to the physical world in games like Pokémon Go, advertisers will be able to much more effectively leverage location-based targeting. Needless to say, we are just seeing the beginnings of AR-based marketing.
ACN: What are some of the ways in which you see AR being utilised within an enterprise environment?
PW: Practical AR for enterprise feels like an inevitability with the arrival of new platforms like Magic Leap or Microsoft’s Hololens. Of the many areas in which enterprise can benefit, I believe products for communication, prototyping, and product development are likely to be readily adopted and highly disruptive.
For example, in the case of communication, imagine being able to replicate the feeling of an in-person meeting or brainstorming session at the office when every participant is sitting in their living room. The productive, creative, and emotional benefits of collaboration in the same space via AR will revolutionise work across distributed teams. Long-term it could even mean the end of things like traditional commercial real-estate.
When manufacturers find a way to make AR wearables look fashionable like Apple did for listening to music with the iPod or someone like Google pulls off AR-enabled contact lenses, we’ll really be in for a revolution.
ACN: Which sectors do you believe would greatly benefit from utilising augmented reality and why?
PW: Short-term, look to sectors that can take advantage of AR on smartphones to deal with certain pain points. With an eye on the UAE in particular, I don’t see any reason why I shouldn’t be able to explore apartments or other real estate remotely from my phone instead of going in person. Malls in the UAE seem like a particularly interesting local marketing opportunity — either on top of a trending platform like Pokémon or as a standalone entity. I see no reason why you couldn’t gamify the Dubai Mall using AR or use AR as a guide for upcoming museum projects.
ACN: How would you rate the level of awareness of the possibilities of augmented reality here in the Middle East? In what ways could it be improved?
PW: I would say consumer awareness of mobile technology generally is incredibly high, especially in the Gulf. In the case of our own companion app to Pokémon Go, GoSnaps, which was downloaded more than 1 million times over the course of one week, not only were users in the Middle East among the earliest adopters, but they were also easily the most active and engaged on the platform.
To increase awareness of the possibilities for AR specifically, I think business owners and developers need to both see real value in AR and have easy access to platforms for using it. At this stage, I’d say most businesses would see very little direct ROI from building their own AR app, but marketing using AR platforms might be a successful way to use the technology.
Additionally, I will say that the continued popularity of print media in the Middle East paired with the high smartphone penetration seems like an invitation for experimenting with existing tools for making interactive media that might prove less successful in other markets.
ACN: What aspects of the market here in the Dubai make it attractive for entrepreneurs looking to establish themselves? How does it compare to other countries within the GCC?
PW: I could give you an academic answer here, but to my mind Dubai’s greatest assets from an entrepreneurial perspective are the lifestyle and culture. Dubai is a beautiful, safe city, with an excellent quality of life, as well as nice beaches, and an international community of both hard-working, aspirational young people and successful entrepreneurs of all stripes. It’s for this reason above all others that I find Dubai a compelling place to start a business.
Of the tangible benefits, I would say the tax environment is incredibly attractive, especially for small businesses with limited resources. There are also an increasing number of incubators, accelerators, and other co-working spaces which support early-stage innovation like Astrolabs Dubai, where we started our company, that help businesses get off the ground.
Compared with other countries in the region, the UAE holds the standard for political stability and rule of law. This is paired with fairly strong institutions around contracts and starting a business, which have built trust in the nation and the economy.
ACN: What do you think about the IT talent pool in the GCC? How could it be developed further?
PW: Internationally, demand for quality software engineers is much higher than supply, creating real competition in hiring and retaining the best of the best.
True world class tech talent traditionally follows large opportunity, challenging problems, and, most importantly, other smart people. The first requires access to capital and markets, the second a degree of specialisation and appetite for risk, and the third is a bit of a chicken and egg situation requiring a combination of high quality local education, specifically universities with strong computer engineering programs, and a thriving tech community.
There are many ways to work on increasing the talent pool — I think I could expound on this for a while — but if I had one choice to make top down, I’d invest heavily in education; recruit a world class Computer Science faculty and get them working on some interesting problems. If you create an environment where smart people can experiment on some big ideas without much financial and bureaucratic overhead, you’re laying some of the best foundations for a sustainable tech ecosystem.
ACN: How would you rate the adoption of technology and best global practices here in the region and how does it differ from other markets? Are there areas where the Middle East excels?
PW: As smartphone penetration and engagement show there is a huge opportunity and appetite for technology in the Middle East. Despite this, when Western start-ups are looking to enter new markets, MENA isn’t typically high on the to-do list, meaning regional innovations on popular foreign themes have potential that shouldn’t be ignored.
Dubai is a clear leader when it comes to investment in smart cities and I believe the weight given to technical innovation by the government of the UAE will be reflected in its tech economy in the future.
ACN: How do you see the field of augmented reality evolving over the next five years?
PW: I’d say keep your eyes open for platforms that take AR off of our smartphones and more seamlessly integrate the virtual and the real, especially those that cater well to developers. I would guess AR gaming and design applications will likely precede more widespread adoption when the hardware hits the right price-point and looks a bit sleeker. In the meantime, I’d say expect more brand experiences and mobile gaming apps.