Sales and Social Isolation

You choose your setting in Alcove, author’s photo

The personal is political. I am an old folk or at least a semi-old folk.

AARP is onto you at 55, [Spoiler Alert] which is a rude shock when it happens. I am 72 so they have been onto me for decades

AARP is into VR. AARPVR. Has a ring to it, doesn’t it.

They’ll be offering you their version of Virtual Reality at 55.

If not before — you want to stay in touch with your grandparents and parents in their assisted living community, don’t you? Well, we’ve got just the thing.

It’s called Alcove. Who says all the good names are taken? Alcove really nails it.

I’ve been in my Alcove.

When I say, ‘in my Alcove,’ if you haven’t yet had the VR headset experience, I’m referring to the feeling of being in a different place than your physical body — the place the headset takes you.

For Alcove, the different place is a comfortable modern house. You feel like you are in a nice, if generic, middle class home, with a living room, a game area, a study, and a back porch looking out onto a nice lawn.

My Alcove’s back porch, author’s picture

It’s comfortable, very easy to understand and very easy to get around. That’s a game changer — in ways that reassure me — and set off multiple alarms at the same time.

It could be one of the important ways that Alcove distinguishes itself from other Social VR apps.

For those who haven’t been in VR: It is possible to interact as if you are present with others, in a virtual place, by downloading apps to a VR headset, such as the Oculus Quest. One app, AltspaceVR includes a well-developed infrastructure for organizing, publicizing and then running virtual events.

Many new Social VR apps are emerging now, most of them emphasizing a specific set of features for specific markets, like business team collaboration or teaching. Alcove is an app that facilitates socializing with family, emphasizing the needs of older people. What’s not to like?

The emphasis of the Alcove app points to another way it is different from many platforms — you can’t do very much, at least not at any given moment.

Seriously limiting options, although it is not presented that way, is exactly the way to give people the freedom to try what is available.

If the very first steps present too many challenges, for some people, that’s it, maybe forever. If the very first steps present just a few easy choices and instant success, most people tend to keep going.

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Moving around in virtual space, for example — how you do it is a big deal on any VR platform. Anyone who is sufficiently motivated can eventually learn whatever the technique is. With VR, most people are not yet sufficiently motivated, not yet ready to go through whatever it takes.

Alcove finds the right balance. You don’t move. You just select from a few places you can jump to. Overall, there is a sense of freedom and motion within an underlying reality of highly circumscribed choice.

So what can you do in Alcove?

Expect social formats you are familiar with, which is the point — just hang out in a nice place, talk and chill, watch movies or shows together, play games.

I probably just described half of what you can actually do in AARPVR in that one sentence, at least at the present time. As an organizing framework, Alcove breaks down its offerings into five main categories.

Media is the living room, which is the Alcove entry point; specifically, on a couch in front of a big screen. The experience begins in couch-potato mode.

There is a start-up media library and the idea is to watch together, although I have not yet figured out how to do that. I’m not sure it’s possible at the moment.

However, it is possible right now to upload personal VR pictures and videos into the Alcove, adding personal media to the selection. A family member could record Christmas morning a 360 camera and upload it someone in a care facility, who would feel present in the scene. Why not livestream it?

Interaction is the game playing area, located next to the Media area, with familiar games like chess and checkers as well as new kinds of only-in-VR games, like 3D jig saw puzzles.

Health is impressive. There are Yoga and Tai Chi Workouts, with Kathy Smith and more. Dozens of other good practices from meditation to walking to self-care are available for free.

Plus, inevitably — Brain Gym, the kinds of mental activities thought to be associated with retaining cognitive strength. The Gym is where I came across the first explicit premium content: Even better Brain Gym VR experiences, for a fee.

Travel was, to me, even more impressive. Alcove is offering some of the best free, publicly accessible 360 video content I have seen.

  • The VR Bus Tours are brilliant. They provide a top deck perspective, riding through Paris, or any one of a dozen other choices, listening to the tour guide, not wasting time stuck in traffic, really seeing Paris from inside a well-recorded 360 video.
  • The VR Balloon Tour is exciting and holds up to repeated rides. In Kenya, the balloon gets so close to the ground the individual blades of tall grass are visible. And wildebeests. I have done actual hot air balloon rides, which are both a big hassle and a breathtaking experience. The VR Balloon Tour is zero hassle and an exciting, enjoyable experience.
  • There are driving Road Trips, extended Video Visits to famous places like Angkor Wat. Underwater options. There is a Wander tie-in; Wander is another app, partnering here in Travel with AARP.

These virtual travel experiences are presented naturally, with choices made by selecting items that would be in the family’s travel memory room.

Selecting the globe brings up little pictures of places to visit. There is never too much at once. Hours of entertainment are carefully tucked into iconic little objects that belong where they are.

  • Space (like, Outer Space) costs something. There’s a toy rocket ship on the floor of the Travel room (also a toy bus, toy car, and toy hot-air balloon), but unlike the others, the rocket toy immediately informs us we are in premium content land.

There is one other major limitation with all of the immersive Travel experiences. They are solitary. Watching TV and playing checkers is fully social. You feel present with other people and interact immediately and naturally.

But on the Bus Tour of Paris or the Diving at the Great Coral Reef — you’re on your own. It is not yet feasible to immerse multiple people in a 360 video, with standard VR equipment.

Family is the last of the five main areas of the virtual home and it is in some ways the least developed. At the moment, ‘Family’ means uploading media to customize the player and the pictures on the wall; or, to be more precise, it means reading about how to upload pictures and remembering a URL.

Enter Rendever.

Virtual Reality apps like Alcove are standalone platforms that control every aspect of the user experience. Alcove runs on Rendever’s platform.

Rendever is an entrepreneurial for-profit company cofounded in June, 2016 by Kyle Rand, Dennis Lally, and Thomas Neumann, based on a classic plan-sketched-out-on-a-napkin, in this case at the Muddy Charles Pub near MIT, where Rand and Lally were in an MBA program at the Sloan School of Management.

The origin story is a vision of relieving social isolation for seniors, connecting them with family and giving them access to personally meaningful VR experiences. Rendever’s concept involves networking generic VR headsets, making an ‘enterprise VR system’ for old folks.

Why? Because people with significantly declining abilities have trouble sometimes when they have to push ‘Play,’ or have to ‘Select.’ With a networked system, someone else can do it for them, a staff member from across the hall or, potentially, you, thousands of miles away.

I have every reason to believe the founders were and still are highly motivated to provide an important social benefit through VR. I am also naturally suspicious, especially when it comes to money and old people.

By now, Rendever has been selling networked, enterprise-style systems to residential facilities for several years. If they are bad actors, it is not yet apparent. Senior Care Facilities publications are not full of stories warning us against Rendever. On the contrary. the trade press is positive.

This is the Big Question, right? Can entrepreneurial for profit dudes (all three individuals designated as Rendever co-founders are dudes) make their nice return on investment and also treat a vulnerable and needy core market fairly?

What is fairly? How much should we value Rendever’s value-add? What about if/when the platform and the market cap and the whole damn thing gets driven by shareholder value as opposed to old people value?

The company also has an Expanding Impact program, through which people living at home are invited to apply for a headset which will enable them to be virtually present with a family member in a facility where the Rendever system is available.

This kind of connection is obviously the future, even if it is going one headset at a time right now.

It is difficult to obtain information on Rendever’s growth. A September, 2019 MIT News article stated that the company’s platform was being used in “hundreds of senior living communities.” Heartwarming anecdotes are much easier to find than cost and revenue data.

Fortunately, I’m not doing hard hitting investigative journalism here. I’m describing an emerging virtual landscape with Alcove looking to me like a high quality offering in a very nice position. Because Rendever has had to keep up with the inevitable changes in VR Headset technology, their platform’s architecture must be sufficiently flexible to serve the company well over the next few years of continued change.

I have no idea what the actual virtual relationship is between Rendever, AARP and Alcove. What I know is when I went to the Family area of Alcove, I was directed somewhere else, that turned out to be the Rendever platform.

AARP’s R & D incubates start-ups emphasizing the needs of older people. Rendever was incubated.

AARP sells stuff, always has. In recent years, one of it’s main partners has been UnitedHealthcare (UHC). It’s no secret. AARP sells UHC Medigap policies right on their website and has made billions from this activity.

Medigap is controversial because in some cases, coverage can be denied due to pre-existing conditions, making it an especially profitable financial instrument. Medigap advocates have good arguments on their side too.

My only position is that AARP is an organization; it is not the 40 million people it claims to represent. It is an organization that survives not through collecting dues from supporters but through sales.

AARP says that in this new world of VR, they are selling family connection in a safe place, an Alcove. Security isn’t exactly a tough sell these days and family connection is always a winner.

Technically, ‘security’ in a VR headset means enclosing it in a Walled Garden.

Anyone can buy an Oculus2 VR Headset, set it up themselves easily, and then download apps that lead to many different platforms and many different experiences.

My concern is that one, centralized for-profit platform could become what Virtual Reality is for enough people that it becomes true — in the same way that centralized personal data acquisition and reuse has come to define social media.

Social media doesn’t have to be structured so that one central source and one source only collects all the data derived from platform activity, that’s just how it developed among humans in the early 21st century. In their effort to maximize engagement, platforms such as Facebook opted for divisiveness and insecurity.

Facebook will never be able to say its platform is an alcove, a nice safe little nook. But AOL did try something like that with the Internet almost thirty years ago.

In the early 1990s, AOL made the new and largely unknown Internet usable, for anyone willing to stay willing to stay in AOL-land and pay for it. Their freemium strategy was all about getting lots and lots of CDs with free-hours out into the world, beginning in 1993. Those disks eventually became an unavoidable cultural artifact. The plan worked until most people didn’t want to be in a Walled Garden any more and definitely didn’t want to pay for the privilege.

When web browsers became an easy way to move from site to site, AOL’s added value wasn’t so valuable. In VR, there is no clear equivalent, yet, to a web browser. When someone is in Alcove today, using an Oculus Quest2, for example, going to another platform, like AltspaceVR, means leaving VR, downloading the new app, and re-entering VR.

There is a built-in tendency toward being a Walled Garden at the current level of VR development. While I routinely have dozens of browser tabs and multiple applications open on my laptop, in VR everyone is effectively confined to one platform at a time. Support for multiple applications is coming and the current structure will change, but networks are being built now.

There are about 30,000 assisted living communities and another 15,000 nursing Care facilities in the United States alone Companies are currently creating, in effect, private headset networks, by providing hardware and content for old people to institutional subscribers. A current Wall Street Journal report gives some indication of progress to date:

  • MyndVR, 150 elder-care facilities in 47 states and Canada
  • Rendever, 250 senior homes
  • Viva Vita, 10 senior-care facilities

Less than one percent. But an easy-to-understand tendency is already in place. The focus is on the Content. How many titles are available in the library?

Watching Content does not relieve social isolation. Actively doing things with other people relieves social isolation and there are definitely ways to do that in Alcove. Some of them are monetized, some are not.

When I logged into my Alcove today, it was nice to see my pictures on the wall, nice to see my videos in the media area. Both my parents spent their last years in an assisted living community a long distance from where I lived. I would have loved hanging out with them in Alcove.

I also noticed a new pop-up when I spawned in on the couch. It was a Notification of new additions — new shows to watch, games to play, and travel experiences to enjoy. Some were free, some weren’t. I haven’t looked into any of them yet, but I’ll bet they’re good.

Relieving social isolation is more difficult to monetize than keeping people entertained. The channels are there in Alcove to do both. For now, the multiplayer features aren’t quite ready, but the sales are underway.

I also write an occasional piece on Substack not about VR:

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