Over the course of my first year studying for a PhD at Coventry University’s Centre for Business in Society, I have learned that the acceptance of an innovation is not just about the technology involved, its feasibility or innovativeness. Rather, it is the socio-economic context in which the technology is conceived and will be commercialized that defines its acceptance or rejection, and therefore its success.
In 2009, whilst working as Head of Sales and Business Development for a technology company in the Motorsport sector, I came across a very interesting project: being able to race in a virtual space live alongside drivers taking part in motorsport races. The target wasn’t Formula 1, due to endless problems of copyright and the secrecy of team data, it was GT type championships.
The company that had the idea was from the Netherlands, with a CEO and MD (Andy and Sven) who would be categorized in the economic literature as visionary leaders (Tellis, 2006). Through investors they found enough money to ask the company I was working for to develop the technology for this project. I must confess it wasn’t easy to convince senior management to agree to the project but, in the end, we embarked on the journey. Pushing the technology to the limit, we had a working prototype ready in 6 months; after all clever engineers make ideas possible!
When we came to test everything at Zolder it was clear that the technological solution we had put together worked, with the ability to transmit over telemetry real time data from the car to the garage, where we had a ‘simulator type’ environment, with just a few milliseconds delay, and with very good GPS accuracy. After all we created the technology behind the Marshalling System in F1 in 2007, when everyone thought such a system would have been impossible.
A subsequent trial with a GT3 car and with a British Touring Car Championship driver in the ‘gamer’ seat also took place at Zolder. This demonstrated that the technology was almost there. There were a few minor issues to iron out, such as: the graphics of the game when overtaking; a few problems with the telemetry system (we didn’t use fibre back then!); and a few hold ups with the ‘inertial platform’. More work and money were required, but 80% of the system.
However, new investors entered the company and unfortunately decided to pull the plug on the project. For them, the project was not of interest and lacked potential for commercialisation. This news of course came with much disappointment, both for me and the CEO and MD of the company, the visionary leaders!
Now, fast forwarding to the end of 2016, I read with interest an article from James Allen announcing that the real time gaming against live F1 racers is ‘only’ two years away! This raises the question, to what is he referring? Is it the technology or is it the acceptance of such innovation?
The technology to enable gamers to ‘play’ virtually and in real time against racing cars on the track was already in place in 2009. Of course it can be argued that some seven years later, such technology is much improved with data flows from car to garage via fibre optic loops, enhanced resolution GPS, improved accuracy on the sensors that can be added to the inertial platform and possibly more complex algorithms. Notwithstanding this, however, allowing gamers to play virtually against real-time live racing was already possible back in 2010. Sven, Andy and I did believe in this project and our two teams made it happen technologically. What we did not account for, in our visionary leadership, is that neither society nor the investors were ready for it.
The concept of the socio-economic environment as a factor inhibiting or facilitating the acceptance of a technology is not new to some technology brands (Apple, Google, etc), and is of course not new to the economic literature, where theories openly recognise that technological changes are triggered by complex packages of elements that make up innovation. Specifically, in accordance with the belief of most managers that changes in technology are possible only upfront of a change in market demand, we should recall Freeman (1998) and his techno-economic paradigms (TEP) theory. This theory conceptualizes the interaction between technological changes and social and institutional factors, and defines a techno-economic paradigm as a stable cluster of technologies around which innovation and economic activities take place. The cluster of technologies influences the economy and the social environment in which the technology is placed.
Although the above was partly the case of why the I-Opener project come to a halt, market demand was not the only factor that influenced the decision of stakeholders. At that time the power of virtual reality was not yet fully developed. Augmented reality was not yet conceived as such, and the target generation, the millennials, had different interests and perceptions compared to the current ‘new’ generation, that is now the target for augmented reality.
Hence, this example follows closely what, in social science, is defined as the Social Construction of Technology theory (SCOT), which considers interaction amongst social groups as the key element behind the acceptance or rejection of innovation, thereby regarding innovation as a socially constructed process. Great technology is not enough, per se, to determine if a project will fly or fail, but rather it is the socio-economic context in which such a project is developed and introduced that will determine its success.
Augmented reality and real time gaming in motorsport were possible seven years ago, and ten years ahead of James Allen’s forecast timescale, but society and the motorsport sector was simply not ready for it!