Strategic inflection points create a 10X shift in your business – 10X more efficient, 10X more convenient, 10X easier – you get the idea. But they take a while – let’s look at one in progress, the emergence of practical uses for XR technology.
Science fiction writer William Gibson famously proclaimed “the future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed yet!” This insight is core to figuring out where strategic inflection points may be brewing, what stage they are in and when they might cross an actionable tripwire that suggests you should be doing something about them.
The long longing for alternative realities
As long as there have been human beings with five senses, living in human bodies that occupy a given place, people have been looking to augment those senses and extend their reach beyond those given spaces. Indeed, the human ability to posit alternative realities to the ones they experience is core to the uniquely human quality of imagination, as Martin Reeves and Jack Fuller have so eloquently described in their terrific new book The Imagination Machine: How to Spark New Ideas and Create Your Company’s Future. From the earliest days of Plato’s cave and Thomas More’s Utopia, people have wondered about the limits of our senses, speculated about alternative universes and questioned whether reality exists in ways our limited senses simply can’t perceive.
Indeed, some thinkers have gone to far as to suggest that what we perceive as life is actually a simulation. No less a figure than Elon Musk has said, “Forty years ago, we had Pong, two rectangles and a dot…That is what games were. Now, 40 years later, we have photorealistic 3D simulations with millions of people playing simultaneously, and it’s getting better every year. And soon we’ll have virtual reality, augmented reality. If you assume any rate of improvement at all, the games will become indistinguishable from reality.”
So where are we on the journey to this simulated future?
Enter augmented reality glasses
One new-fangled technology that tech firms have been playing around with for a while are wearables, glasses and/or display technologies that one can don that present an altered reality in some way.
Google Glass was the invention that caught the public imagination in a big way – inadvertently hyped by one of Google’s co-founders, thrust into the public eye, and under-delivering on the hype to the point at which it was summarily withdrawn from view. In what is definitely one of the best opening lines of a tech article ever, reporter Nick Bilton wrote “This is a story that involves lots of public intrigue, a futuristic wearable technology, a secret laboratory, fashion models, sky divers and an interoffice love triangle that ended a billionaire’s marriage. This is the story of Google Glass.” As with all inflection points, Glass created a lot of excitement and then disappointed, leading many to dismiss the whole category of wearable augmented reality devices.
But, as I point out in “Seeing Around Corners,” that early hype stage often flushes out the projects and programs that aren’t going to make it. Importantly, the next phase allows the ones that have real potential to demonstrate what the future really holds. Think about how eBay and Amazon survived the initial dot.com bust to define what the next era of the Internet was going to be.
Signals getting stronger
While Glass was attracting loads of public attention, Microsoft had its own entrant into the wearable virtual game. In a 2015 talk, CEO Satya Nadella talked about his excitement that changes in inputs and outputs create new categories. For the first time, digital representations of reality were going to be mixed with actual reality to create then-unimaginable breakthroughs in healthcare, construction and so on.
Microsoft got into the wearable arena with its Kinect add-on to its Xbox gaming system. It’s inventor, Alex Kipman, spent years on Microsoft’s “train wreck” of an operating system, Vista, before getting engaged in the hardware side of things. The Kinect, which allowed the game to sense user movements and interact with it in real life proved popular – selling over 35 million units before it was discontinued.
Unlike Glass, which plunged unpredictably into consumer markets, Kipman’s introduction of the first Hololens product in 2016 targeted commercial applications. As Clive Thompson reported in the Smithsonian, “To keep the HoloLens from falling into the creepiness pit, Kipman pitched it as a tool not for socializing but for working. He imagines an airplane mechanic in Japan using the HoloLens to summon a Rolls Royce engineer to help diagnose a busted engine, or a surgeon having hands-free, holographic access to a patient’s X-rays and medical history in the operating room.”
Kipman’s vision is stunning. As he says, “Why would I have my computer if I have infinite monitors in front of me?” he says. “Why would I have a phone?” Advances in holographic technology, he argues, will eventually replace alternative ways of communicating across space and time. Imagine being in an immersive, virtual reality experience where it feels real to be with other people as opposed to staring at a Zoom screen.
Engineering firm Ulteig makes it real
Given all this, I was intrigued when a client, the engineering firm Ulteig, showed how Hololens 2 technology actually helped them comply with client site visit protocols amidst the COVID-19 pandemic all while ensuring the right stakeholders were able to “be on site”. Their client, Xcel Energy, owns a lot of power infrastructure. In the midst of a pandemic, obviously in-person visits are less than desirable, but you can’t avoid tending to important facilities in person in many cases. The solution? Use Hololens 2 to bring a whole conference room’s worth of people virtually to the client site.
As the good folks at Ulteig said, “When paired with software that merges seamlessly with Microsoft Teams video conferencing, those attending the video conference can remotely view exactly what the wearer is seeing in real-time, all powered securely behind-the-scenes by Microsoft Azure cloud services.
The remote collaborators can guide the site visit by providing directions or asking questions to the HoloLens 2 wearer. Where the HoloLens 2 really differentiates itself is in the ability of remote users to share their computer screen or documents directly into the video conference, appearing as virtual holograms within the real environment of the device wearer. This coupled with holographic arrows and “3D ink,” has allowed our teams to provide guidance to field employees with actual engineering drawings.”
So, back to Gibson – the future, emerging, right under our noses.
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