business news in context, analysis with attitude

by Kevin Coupe

Longtime MNB readers know that around here, we find every excuse to bring up Star Trek. Whether it be quotes from Captain Jean Luc Picard ("Everything is impossible until it is not") or comparing the management styles of Picard and Captain James T. Kirk, the general feeling here is that there are many things in Star Trek that offer business lessons and metaphors that can guide behavior and decision-making.

Which made it particularly encouraging to reading a story in the Los Angeles Times that started out this way:

"Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking are playing poker together.

"No, this isn’t a bad physics joke. It’s a scene from 'Star Trek: The Next Generation.' It takes place in a holodeck, a simulated-reality room in the fictional Star Trek universe. The three scientists — or at least computer-generated versions of them — have been transported to the 2300s to play cards with Lt. Cmdr. Data.

"'I don’t even know why I’m here in the first place,' Newton says.

"While the show is set in the future, some scientists and researchers say we could have something like holodecks by 2024. If you have enough money, you could even buy one today, though it would be crude compared to the holodecks on Star Trek.

"This is all part of a quest by computer companies, Hollywood and video game makers to move entertainment closer to reality — or at least a computer-generated version of reality. Rather than simply watch movies, the thinking goes, we could become part of the story. We could see people and things moving around our living rooms. The actors could talk to us. Gamers who today slouch on the couch could step inside their games. They could pick up a computer-simulated bat in computer-simulated Yankee Stadium while a computer-simulated crowd roared around them."

Wow.

To begin with, the Times gets the science a little bit wrong. The computer-generated versions of the scientists are not "transported" to the holodeck. Rather, matter is both transported to and reassembled in the virtual reality system to create their images. It also is worth noting that the real Hawking played himself in the scene - he happened to be a "Star Trek" fan.

This Eye-Opening piece in the Times suggests more than the fact that, in fact, "everything is impossible until it is not." It also suggests ways in which retail could change in the long term. Instead of simply stocking and displaying merchandise on shelves, racks, coolers and cases, there may eventually be ways in which retailers can create immersive experiences that will allow people to interact with products in different and compelling ways.

Perhaps one could be virtually"transported" to a vineyard while in a store's wine department, where they could interact with a winemaker. Or could find themselves in virtual kitchen, getting educated by a trained chef, when trying to decide whether to buy this cut of meat or that piece of fish.

All of which will create new challenges, and new opportunities for differentiation, for retailers trying to compete in a world that seems to change in fundamental ways every day.

True, it all sounds impossible. Until, of course, it is not.
KC's View: