He pioneered early online advertising. Now he’s doing the same for AR

Henry Copeland. Photo credit: Nicole Bogas

Long before Facebook started generating billions of dollars on self-service native ads, Henry Copeland had invented a self-service native advertising platform for blogs. And he was building early content management systems for newspapers well before products like Wordpress would go on to power much of the internet.

These days, Copeland is focused on augmented reality, and he think that today’s AR products are the equivalent of the blog advertising widgets he was developing in the early 2000s. In other words, we haven’t even hit the tipping point that will make AR ubiquitous, woven into the fabric of our daily lives.

What will that world look like? And what technologies still need to be invented before we can reach that point? I asked Copeland about these topics, and given his previous track record of spotting trends that would go on to sprout multi-billion dollar industries, I think we should listen to what he has to say.

To listen to the interview, subscribe to The Business of Content on your favorite podcast player, or you can play the YouTube video below. If you scroll down you’ll also find a transcript of the interview.

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A transcript is below.

Simon Owens: Hey Henry, thanks for joining us.

Henry Copeland: Absolutely Simon.

The reason I brought you on is that you’ve basically been this early pioneer in these technologies that would go on to become ubiquitous. The first thing you did was create one of the web’s earliest content management systems. You were a magazine journalist, and basically you realized that as each newspaper went online, it shouldn’t have to build a website from scratch, that there should be this platform that can be scaled across newspapers.

Exactly. That was back in 1998. I had been living in Hungary as a journalist and moved to France, and saw all these little local papers that could be online, should be online, but were never going to have the wherewithal to do it themselves. So my idea was to build out an apartment building and rent out floors to them. That was the vision. And today we know that as a CMS and a SaaS, software as a service. Rent software instead of building it and maintaining it yourself.

Yeah, so you think of Wordpress today. Now it houses like a third of all websites, and everything from the Washington Post to Vox Media, they have their own CMSes that they’re scaling out and selling to other media companies. This is a multi billion dollar business. Back then, software as a service didn’t even exist as a thing yet, and yet you saw the writing on the wall of what these newspapers would need, so you invented a product around it.

We were lucky. Bandwidth was getting cheaper and servers were getting cheaper. The internet was setting itself up to make everything a lot cheaper, and we figured that was a wave we could ride.

Another thing you were an early pioneer for: blog advertising. You had this burgeoning blogosphere but no way to monetize it. And so you invented this product called Blogads, which was this universal widget, this HTML code that these bloggers could embed into their websites, and it was a scalable blog network that helped turn everyone from Andrew Sullivan to Josh Marshall to Glenn Greenwald to Perez Hilton into household names. You were one of the early drivers of monetization for online content.

Yes. We had a few ideas which, in retrospect, became bigger than we knew at the time. The idea that you could have do-it-yourself advertising, that you could go onto a website and buy an ad. The idea was that the ads looked like content, which isn’t to say you were trying to fool anybody, but the ads had to be interesting themselves. Not just try to shock people to get people’s attention. You had to have something that was engaging and interesting and would get people to lean in and click on it. And then most importantly, the idea that these bloggers had these really passionate, authentic voices that were connecting with readers in a way that traditional media could not. So we kind of took all those things, put them in a package together, and had a nice little ride.

Back then the blogosphere was only a couple thousand blogs. At some point it reached upward of a million, but now you think of the offspring of that are platforms like Facebook and Twitter. Facebook has over 2 billion users. You pioneered and pushed forward these technologies way before they hit that growth curve of near-ubiquity.

So we’ve had those two different cycles. You’re now in your third cycle of company in an industry that you got into, again, before there was a widespread name for it. It’s now called AR, augmented reality, and we’re seeing some of the first major products being released under it. Everything from Pokemon Go to Magic Leap. You were on the scene very early through a product called Racery. What’s the overview of what that is?

Racery is a simple game. Most of us have participated in a work or school step challenge. I walk a thousand steps today, you take a simple pedometer, you add it to an excel spreadsheet, and you’re competing day by day against your colleagues. A colleague of mine had a brother in Sweden and said gee, I wish I could race my brother. So we took people’s mileage that people would submit and put it onto a map, and each day the miles you would create, I would create, would advance our little avatars on that map. And thanks to Google Maps, Google Street View, you could provide a very rich experience for people of creating this month-long arc of a race that would be very motivational.

I run today, alone, I run tomorrow alone, I’m not very motivated. But if I know you’re going to see my mileage, and if I know you’re going to be running and you might be sneaking ahead of me, it motivates me to get out of bed and go and do this stuff. So, you’ve created this virtual community that is kind of a mingling, which is a big thing for me. How much of our lives are a borderline between the atomic reality we experience and the digital reality, how much of those are blurred. And we’re living in the borderline between those two worlds right now. And Racery sits right at that nexus between the atomic and digital and turns those real miles into virtual miles, and that translates back into real motivation.

So just to recap: I’m a runner myself. I’m about to do a half-marathon. Most races you’re in a physical location with the other people you’re competing with. You run alongside them. What your app does is it creates a virtual map, so that I can be running and racing against someone in London, and our miles are counting toward this virtual map. Let’s say it’s somewhere in New York. You can actually visualize the map, see it on Google Street View, see exactly where it is you and the people you’re racing against are on that map. You can also put in objects, different prizes and rewards. You can create these virtual, augmented reality races, where runners across the world are no longer tied to physical location when competing with each other.

Exactly. So not only space shifting — you can run from anywhere — but also time shifting. It doesn’t matter when you run. You and I don’t have to both show up at Joe’s Coffee Shop at 9 a.m. to have our experience together. You and I, we run our stuff whenever, it pops into the map, and it creates this whole additional layer on top of our everyday experience. So you and I may be racing around Paris, doing a virtual marathon. We might be racing 70 miles in the Grand Canyon.

Or it could be a race that’s customized to a bunch of different needs. Let’s say you have a company with a bunch of different offices. You have one branch, and then the other branch. Or let’s say your entire company wants to take your employees to the moon and run around the moon together. That’s possible also. In that case it’d be a company shuttle bus that would be advancing on the lunar landscape.

It’s fascinating because there are very different psychologies for different runners. There are some people who say I’m not competitive, but you put them on a team of five people in a way that they’d never be able to compete currently, they’re able to roll up all their miles together and advance that team. Other people want to compete alone, completing that Paris marathon or completing multiple loops around Paris. But time shifting, space shifting.

There an app called Strava out there. Do you know Strava?

Yeah, it’s a running app that maps where you’re going, what your average speed is, and how many miles you’ve run.

The fascinating thing is they’re shifting on one dimension, which is to say, you’re running the same hill. Let’s say there’s a half mile hill in our town, and you and I are not running it at the same time, we’re running on different days, but you happen to run it in seven minutes and I run it in 6:30 today. So they build a bunch of leaderboards for all these specific locations. It’s called king of the mountain. Who has run that hill? That’s a virtual layer. And there are whole communities of cyclists and runners in which king of the mountain is absolutely a huge part of their lives. How are they doing versus all these others; the macho killer runners, killer cyclists, are competing in this reality that you and I don’t see. You and I look at it and we just see a hill, but they look at it and say Joe Smith, 18 months ago, did that hill in four minutes and 30 seconds. My god, I can’t believe that guy has legs of steel.

So your app is a mashup of Strava and Pokemon Go, where what you’re doing in the real world actually matters, but it’s also imprinting on this virtual world.

Exactly. And all of this stuff is just taking place in your brain. The physical reality we’re all experiencing is really just being pulled inside our brain and processed, and we have images of each other. And so, it just turns out you can create a whole new reality in someone’s brain with a bunch of software cues. Emails saying, hey, someone just passed you. Or the leaderboard. All this stuff becomes very real to people once they accept that other people are playing the game with them. It gets in people’s heads.


You were very early to this. This app launched a couple years ago.

Yeah, we got it up and running four years ago. It’s fascinating, because some people just get it and run with it. Our biggest race has 3,500 people. We’re going to do another race for that same group in the coming weeks, and they’re probably going to get 5,000 this year. We have other races that are just 10 or 20 people who happen to know each other and want to run around some race course in Arizona because that’s somehow meaningful to who they are.

We’re also getting ready to play with an Alexa version. What’s most important about Racery is not the map but the leaderboard. People like to have a status. They like to know they’re ahead of somebody, that they are seeing and being seen. So we’re going to abstract that, and pull a lot of the cues and put them into Alexa, so you can say, “Hey Alexa, tell Racery I ran three miles,” and then Alexa can spit back, “Ah, you’re now number 14 in the race, you’ve just passed Simon, this is day eight of your streak.”

Just as when you were building one of the early CMSes, most people couldn’t fathom a world where we have sites like BuzzFeed today that get hundreds of millions of pageviews. And just as you were pioneering early blog advertising and native advertising and self-service advertising, nobody could fathom that that blogosphere would turn into social media sites that now have billions of users. Do you think that’s analogous to AR right now? We’re still in the low adoption stage. This is not even touching upon the ubiquity that we’re going to see in a few years?

Yes. I think that’s 100 percent right. When I started thinking about the first CMS we built, which, again, was software as a service. In 1995, 96, I was thinking that the web has been around a few years now. Surely this has been built already. But it hadn’t been built. And when Google came along with a search engine and we started hearing about it around the year 2000, there were hundreds of search engines then, and we thought gee, why do we need another search engine? What are these guys doing?

So I would suggest we’re in the same exact — this is like Web 1.0, the web circa 1995 to 2000, which is we’re getting the first inklings in what’s ahead in terms of people living these very rich, multidimensional digital lives that do not involve typing, they do not involve even video. They involve interacting in virtual environments with characters, figures, competitions, and games that are very real to these people but totally invisible to everybody else.

And I think Pokemon Go was the first inkling of that where you had people wandering around town and other folks who couldn’t see it and couldn’t understand it. What the hell are these people doing and why are they enjoying this? Well, a lot of us think of NFL football the same way. What are people doing with their Sunday afternoons? Well, they watch other grown men run around on the field and try to crush each other. When you think about that, that’s just people projecting their egos out into some absurd universe. The beauty of AR and VR is that people are not projecting their egos. They’re there. They’re actually doing it.

And I think this summer was a real wakeup call for everybody. For everyone who has kids or grandkids, this summer it was “what the hell is Fortnite”? Literally Fortnite swallowed the minds of kids age 8 to 18. And there’s this other thing called PUBG, similar, very very rich, incredibly entrancing game. It becomes a big part of people’s lives. And I think what you’re seeing is the Fortnite generation, 20 years from now, 40 years, are going to be very used to living their entire lives in this netherworld that will be much realer than the New York Times world that we live in. So if you project that group forward 50 years and put them in retirement communities. These people are going to be living very happy lives running around. They may not be shooting each other, but who knows?

The fascinating thing for me, having worked with advertisers, is that advertisers think advertising is about buying a print ad or a static banner. The amount of attention and care and money and effort that has to go into creating advertising that competes in this multidimensional, giant new universe is astronomical. I don’t think anybody can imagine how much money they’re going to have to spend to market in this world.

I really like what you said about Google and how the search engine space was so crowded, and you never understood why someone new would get into search engines. And then Google went on to dominate it. And everybody mocked Facebook as a Myspace clone. Does that mean the Google and Facebook of AR might not even be on the scene yet?

Oh 100 percent. Weirdly enough, and I’m not saying Fortnite is it. But Fortnite is a little company down the road from us is North Carolina. They are reportedly making $100 million, $200 million, $300 million a month just from people buying new costumes when they’re running around this world. They’re not even buying new tools or weapons that have more power. It’s people spending money so they can look extra delux in this universe. We laughed five years ago, 10 years ago when Second LIfe came along and people spent money on how they would look in this virtual world, or the size of house they had in this virtual world.

Again, I’m not saying it’s Fortnite. It’s that we cannot imagine what tomorrow’s big players are. And that’s why you see people like Zuckerberg invest in Oculus. He has a 50-year plan, and the 50-year plan is that the virtual world is a lot bigger than the one he dominates right now, he better be playing in it. So you’re going to see them spending a lot of money. Google’s done a terrible job buying anything that’s social. They just don’t seem to get it. So it’s probably going to be a Zuckerberg or someone else who gets the social DNA of this new stuff. Creating games, creating engaging environments.

So Fortnite I wouldn’t consider AR. Are you arguing that VR and AR, there might not be that much of a distinction between the two? It seems like VR was the next thing for a hot minute. It was kind of a flash in the plan, and then everyone was like no, AR is where the real future is. And I can see why Fortnite is somewhat VR because it’s throwing you in a virtual world. How do you see these distinctions?

Your point is a good one. I shouldn’t be using all this stuff interchangeably. I am to a degree because people are inhabiting this world. I think the line between the atomic and the pixel inhabitation is a very thin one. If you’re in Fortnite, it feels very real to you. As real as anything you experience when you walk down the street. That is, in a sense, a classic game. But when you marry that up with an Oculus headset — one of the rules we’ve seen is Moore’s Law, where every 18 months, the power of a chip doubles. But it also seems like a lot of stuff trends with Moore’s Law, and it basically ends up, if you look at the power of compounding, over the course of 10 years, everything gets 99 percent cheaper.

So if today an Oculus Rift headset is $400, that headset 10 years from now would cost you $4. So imagine a world in which literally we’re surrounded by these headsets, and any place you go, you can put one on, and they’re as ubiquitous as cans of Coke.

It seems like this is going to require massive amounts of data. I’ve been doing some work with Intel around 5G, and about how you think of the Internet of Things, you need to be able to have a ton of information going over the network at very fast speeds so there’s no latency. I’m thinking about how in order for us to hit the equivalent of Web 2.0, but for AR, what needs to happen from a hardware perspective that allow AR to explode in usage?

So far, all the big successes with AR have happened around the phone. You have things like running and biking apps. You have Snapchat with its various filters. And then you have Pokemon Go. Those are the three most successful versions of AR right now. But they’re limited to this phone. What are the necessities that still need to be invented in order to reach the next stage of AR?

I have faith in the process. Let’s put it that way. Which is just to say, I’m going to go back to the power of everything doubling every 18 months, a cheap extrapolation from Moore’s Law. And so yeah, it means your phone’s going to be twice as powerful in 18 months. If and when Apple announces its eye glasses. If or when Google comes back and takes a bite at Google Glass. There’s going to be something in wearables, in voice. You’re right the phone is right now the most likely conduit or vessel for it.

For right now. But it seems like there needs to be another hardware generation of something new. If you think about Google Glass or Magic Leap just came out with its headset. Maybe that’s the next thing that pushes us to the next generation?

The analogy I would make would be, I don’t think it’s the hardware per se, or the software per se. I would say the revolutions become really powerful. When people are empowered to do stuff. Wordpress has thrived because it’s enabled a whole bunch of people to publish. The person who built Second Life created a platform called Sansar, which they argue democratizes VR as a creative medium. That’s what takes this out of the hands of the hands of the monoliths, takes it out of the hands of the NASA-style moonshot projects where someone’s got to marshall $10 million in public resources and shepherd it along, and fight the internal battles, and then launch their project five years from now. That allows mom and pop to say, let’s create a little game called X, and see what we can do with it. If you think of how Instagram or Twitter came along, you could create a really big mode without giant corporate resources.

That’s one of the problems with where we are in this whole revolution: you have to have huge resources. It’s only the biggest players that are creating this stuff and getting enough leverage. Just for the heck of being controversial, I’ll say it’s not devices, it’s not bandwidth, it’s actually a mode that allows people to get creative, do weird stuff. Build niche products. Facebook was supposed to be a product that served one dorm at Harvard. It ended up doing a very good job of it. And gradually moved outward from there. So I think the true face of the new AR generation will be created by a couple kids in a dorm using tools that allow someone to have the same powers as the big players. When you see that 12 or 18 months from now, you see something with a million users that was incubated in a dorm at NC State, then you can say, ok, that’s the beginning of the new thing.

The internet famously caught the media incumbents flat footed. Do you think that’ll happen again? Facebook and Google and Amazon, do you think they’re going to be caught flat footed in the same way the previous incumbents were?

I wouldn’t want to be the guy who says Facebook is going to get its ass kicked. They clearly are behemoths that are going to be hard to beat. Certainly not in the next 10, 20 years. But I would argue that there will be some very big players that do some very innovative things without needing all of their bucks and all of their firepower.

Let’s not say Google is going to get caught flat footed. But let’s say a particular brand of tennis shoe will get caught flat footed.

All the other industries AR is going to touch, not just the internet industries.

Exactly. Right now, all those industries are thinking how do I take a physical shop and put it in a virtual world? And that’s exactly the way incumbents think. How do I take what I have right now and extrapolate it and make it digital? Those guys, when it comes to people creating tennis shoes in this virtual world and then having them printed, that’s where something like a Nike will get caught flat footed.

To take another angle on this. The same way that fan fiction has become giant, it’s tertiary to what these content behemoths like Disney are creating. Let’s try to imagine a world where fan fiction itself becomes the source itself for new movies and new products.

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Simon Owens is a tech and media journalist living in Washington, DC. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn. Email him at simonowens@gmail.com. For a full bio, go here.

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