Cities are one of humankind’s great innovations – centers of population density that organically solve complex coordination problems – but they have been slow to keep up with recent rapid changes in technology and human behavior. The builders of cities did not anticipate ubiquitous smartphones, online retail or the sharing economy. As a result, there is a disconnect between 21st century city living and physical infrastructure that dates to the 19th and 20th centuries.
Autonomous experiences are a class of activities emerging in dense urban areas as part of a broader movement to modernize cities. While we at PingPod are fans of efforts to build startup cities from scratch, we believe autonomous experiences are a powerful way to use technology to repurpose existing physical infrastructure to better match how people live today.
Autonomous experiences – accessed on-demand using a smartphone – enable us to engage in activities that are inefficient or cost prohibitive to do in the confines of our homes. PingPod is building a network of autonomous Ping Pong studios. Sharks is building a network of autonomous spaces to play pool. Pirate Studios is building a network of autonomous spaces for creators (music, dance, DJ, podcast). Silofit and GymPod are building networks of autonomous fitness spaces.
To better understand the power of autonomous experiences, we need to break down what autonomy and experience mean, what problems they solve, and what new behaviors they enable. The framework below is specific to PingPod, but the concepts are broadly applicable to autonomous experiences generally.
The word autonomy as used today may call to mind self-driving cars and robotics, technologies which de-emphasize the human. Autonomous experiences like PingPod work differently, using technology to bring people together. The salient characteristics of autonomy are independence, and the ability to operate a venue with minimal human intervention by employees. A space for an autonomous experience is generally unstaffed, with security handled through cameras and other technological means.
Operating autonomously is a game changer for business owners. Autonomy drastically reduces operating costs by almost entirely eliminating labor from the equation. Without the need for staff, an autonomous space can stay open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Autonomy reduces cost while simultaneously increasing capacity – bending the usual economic relationship between cost and capacity.
One common critique is that customers are far less likely to use the space in off-peak hours. However, the data we’ve amassed after nearly two years of operating PingPods refutes this argument. Roughly 48% of Pod usage comes outside of peak hours (4 pm to 12 am on weekdays, and 12 pm to 12 am on weekends). The fact that we’re open during hours when there are few alternative experiences means we capture a greater percentage of a smaller number of people seeking things to do.
Another common critique is that Pods aren’t safe without staff onsite. Would customers steal equipment? Would people engage in activities other than intended? What about fights? In two years of operating Pods we have had no such incidents of significance, and we believe our Pods to be safer than standard clubs that serve alcohol. In contrast to practically any other physical store you can think of, PingPod doors are default locked. No one can enter a Pod without a paid reservation, so a customer would need a smartphone, credit card on file, and to pay money in order to engage in bad behavior. We do not sell alcohol, which is a leading cause of reckless or unsafe behavior. But, most importantly, we have 24/7 eyes on Pod activity via tech enabled cameras monitored by our security team in the Philippines. The security team ensures that customers follow Pod rules and communicates with customers over the intercom to correct any misbehavior.
Operating autonomously makes it easier for customers to access fun and engaging activities when and where they want. Autonomy creates scheduling and geographical convenience for customers at affordable price points. Because PingPod has low operating costs, we are able to offer a quality service at a fair price, with multiple pricing tiers depending on what a customer values most (price, flexibility, specific time slots, or privacy). A customer can easily book a space where they want, when they want.
As we continue to grow, so, too, do our offerings. Customers can book a coach for their session. And in the near future, single players looking for a partner will be able to match with players of similar skill.
Our goal at PingPod is to be accessible to everyone in New York City. Our Pods are currently located on the Lower East Side, Midtown West, Upper East Side, Williamsburg, and Astoria. Additional Pods will soon be opening on the Upper East Side, Downtown Brooklyn and the Upper West Side – as well as in other cities around the country.
PingPod delivers a convenient, affordable, and accessible experience. No need to maintain your own equipment. No showing up and waiting for a table. With a few taps on your phone, we grant easy access to a fun, active, and healthy experience, right in your own neighborhood.
Research has shown that experiences have a much stronger relationship to happiness and well-being than possessions. Experiences can have a direct connection to purpose and passion, play a significant role in the formation of identity, and are at the core of our relationships. More often than not, the stories we tell are about things we did together. We use technology to amplify this community orientation, allowing customers to book coaches, join open play events, enter league play at their own individual skill level, follow along in our community slack channel, and register their kids for classes.
At PingPod, we offer customers experiences that are fun, active, and have the most potential to build social bonds within a community. Our motto is: for fun, for fitness, for everyone. Playing Ping Pong is a fun and safe form of exercise for anyone. Exercise burns calories, boosts immunity, and is great for mental health. Ping Pong is particularly good for reflexes and hand-eye coordination. Studies show that playing Ping Pong slows down and potentially even reverses degenerative brain diseases like Alzheimers and dementia.
Reshaping Urban Spaces
According to a recent study, 74% of Americans prioritize experiences over goods/products. At the same time, 153 million Americans, or 65% of American shoppers, have an Amazon Prime account. These days, if we can buy it online, we probably will. It’s cheaper, more convenient, and there is greater selection. Taken together, these two trends suggest that the highest and best use of retail space in urban spaces is increasingly for the delivery of experiences, not goods.
Technology is powerful. It can connect us to others – but it can isolate us, too. Social media and screen time have become a serious societal issue. Who among us has not annoyed a loved one by scrolling on our phone distractedly while they tell us about their day? Who hasn’t scrolled through Instagram, tracking the unfoldings of others’ lives and feeling as a result that ours are somehow lacking?
Autonomous experiences offer a way to use that same technology for the better. We promote active engagement. We give people an alternative to the loneliness and isolation of a life lived online. We let people use their phone to put down their phone, and engage in an active experience, in their neighborhood.
See you at the Pod!