Augmenting Enterprise Productivity, with Altoura’s Jamie Fleming and Bharat Ahluwalia

One of the best use cases for XR technologies is training and enterprise solutions, as long-time listeners know. Today’s guests, Jamie Fleming and Bharat Ahluwalia from Altoura, pop by to explain how they’re optimizing workplace productivity.

Alan: Hey, everyone. Alan Smithson here, with the XR for Business podcast. Today, we’re speaking with Bharat Ahluwalia and Jamie Fleming from Altoura about augmenting enterprise productivity for frontline workers using spatial technologies. All that and more coming up next on the XR for Business podcast. Jamie and Bharat, welcome to the show, my friends.

Jamie: Hey, thanks, Alan. Super happy to be here.

Alan: I’m really excited. So, Bharat, I know offline you were just– you were mentioning that you were part of the original Hololens team. So I know how you got started in this. Jamie, you’ve been building experiences for 15 years in technology. So maybe just give us a bit of your background and we’ll go from there.

Jamie: Sure, yeah. For starters, this is Jamie. So I actually started out in architecture. I have a masters of architecture, and worked as an architect for a number of years. And that’s really where I was given an introduction to 3D modeling and building out immersive experiences in the day-to-day practice of design and got the spark of an idea of, hey, I could create a company where we really just focused on creating experiences, and making them more and more interactive that helped — in the early years, particularly — help designers understand what their designs were. And over the years, that has just become more and more sophisticated and we’ve gotten deeper, deeper into the software side of things. Now we really have a lot of interesting ways that we can leverage these digital twins to help augment enterprise productivity.

Bharat: And this is Bharat here. I got started in this space when I joined the Hololens team. It was an interesting experience. The project was top secret, as you know, and I wasn’t even told what I would be working on until I agreed to sign the offer letter. But I knew a couple of key people then said, “OK, these guys get involved and it will be an awesome product.” And it was. The first time I saw the vision video and the vision of the device, it was, wow. That’s what I want to work on. So I worked on it for a few years, shipped the V1 of the device and was so in love with this technology, that I decided to leave the company and build experiences on top of the device and the platform that I was part of. I did a small startup that led to being acquired by Studio 216, which is now named Altoura. And here I am. And I have been building Hololens and VR experiences since then.

Alan: It really comes down to the experiences, because the devices themselves– the Hololens 2 is a magical piece of kit, but if nothing’s on it, it’s kind of useless. So you decided to go into the experiences. And what are some of the things that you’ve been building? Because I’ve seen some of them, but I’ll let you guys speak to them. What are some of the experiences that you’ve been building?

Jamie: Yeah, we’re really– the one that we’re super excited about right now is the work that we’ve been doing with Qantas Airlines. So what we’ve done with Qantas is we’ve taken the 737-800 cockpit and we’ve re-created it as a digital twin. And then using Hololens 2, we allow you to interact with that cockpit as if you were there, so you could be sitting in your living room or a classroom or anywhere really in the world, networked together and interacting with functions inside the cockpit, the same way that you would do in a physical simulator. So as we know with Hololens 2, it’s tracking all 25+ points on each of your hands. You just– there’s very little training in terms of understanding a new way to interact with a new UI. You can really naturally just grab levers and buttons as if you were really there.

Alan: I was watching the video as you were talking about it now. You’re in a cockpit of this plane where you’re actually interacting with it. You’re with another person. But in the real world, there’s just two people sitting on chairs in a room. It’s crazy.

Jamie: Yeah. You know, it’s important as cool as Hololens 2, is — and it does definitely open up opportunities in terms of training, because it is so natural — but we understand that people need to have different devices to support them at different times, for what they’re trying to achieve. So we see a lot of people also using tablets or phones or PCs to do the same training and be networked across devices. So it’s super important to match the right kind of device application device type to the use case.

Alan: Also, you can’t expect everybody in a corporation to use Hololens. It’s just not the perfect device for everybody until– it will be, maybe, in a couple of years. But I think you’re absolutely right being able to do that, and maybe the future of that is in Web.

Bharat: It definitely feels like it. What we have seen is there are two types of usage scenarios. There’s a usage scenario which is more like a console or gaming console, in the sense you decide that I’m going to be in this experience for an hour or 30 minutes. And in that case, for you to be inside a Hololens actually makes a lot more sense, like if you’re going through that flight simulator training. And then the other use case which we have seeing — say, in real estate vertical — is much more casual. When people come in, they pick up a device, they explore the space, they walk around, they change some options, and that gives them more confidence in their purchase decision. But that’s like a five minute experience. Having to wear a Hololens for that experience may not be worth it. So that’s where we’ve kind of seen how the devices have worked out. If you know you’re going to be in that experience for a large amount of time, then that initial investment of wearing the device and getting acquainted by it gives you back the ROI you need. Whereas if you’re going to come there casually move around for five minutes and change a few options — very basic interactions — then the tablet device works out much better.

Alan: And that’s something that you guys have worked on with one of the telco companies.

Jamie: Right. With Sprint, I’ll just give you kind of a quick introduction to how that project came into being, which was was really interesting. We do a lot of work with Microsoft in helping serve their customers across a variety of use cases. And we were in Atlanta talking to a group of Sprint– the different leaders within Sprint. They were spread between the training, the retail layout team, and the network team. And we went in quickly with our solution. We were able to build a digital twin of a Sprint store. They didn’t have the CAD drawings to support that exact store. So we just– through a process called photogrammetry, we quickly were able to recreate the digital twin of that retail store, and bring it and show the team.

Alan: And I know you– one of the previous podcast guests, Jonathan Moss, he was spearheading that project. Is that correct?

Jamie: Yes, exactly. And Jonathan was very instrumental in helping us understand the connections of really how to leverage that digital twin to fit seamlessly within an L&D team’s typical process of how they would go through and engage their employees on doing things like how to interact with different customer personas. Jonathan was really visionary in leading and helping us understand that better.

Bharat: We are not training experts, right? We build the tech, but having Jonathan and his team on the other side really helped us complete that picture, so we could see what they were wanting to achieve, and the process that they followed. And that helped us mature our platform in giving the toolsets to L&D teams to use. And we’ve seen that very successfully adopted by some of our later clients, where they look at that and said, wow, that’s super interesting. In fact, what we want to do is change our content, just a little bit, to use the same tools. So that’s been great learning as well.

Alan: You guys re-created the store using photogrammetry. How did that translate to other stores? Like if it’s a different layout type of thing, or was it just a generic one-store-fits-all kind of thing?

Bharat: So it was just one store. And I believe they have roughly 10 different store layouts that each of their store follows. So we had to cover one of them. So it was a great learning ground for them to say, “Okay, how does this play for different products in this particular layout?” The important thing over there is to create the content in such a way that their team can change it as needed. So they typically will not change the geometry of the store, but they do want to change the posters inside it, of what’s the latest–

Jamie: Product.

Bharat: –offering or product that they’re offering through it. So that, their team can do very simply using existing 2D workflows of Photoshop, etc. So that was important for them, to be able to make those changes without having to come back to us, once they bought the solution.

Alan: So that they could easily just transfer out some of the things. Did you have to build something for that, or how did that work? How were they able to edit it so easily?

Bharat: We built an auditing system that helped them edit it easily.

Alan: Now is this multi-device, I guess — or do I say agnostic — can you pull this up on any smartphone, or can you bring it up in VR? What are the limitations of it?

Bharat: It’s completely device agnostic. As long as you have a recently-modern device — iPhone, Android phones, tablets, laptops — and when it’s AR enabled device it works in an AR mode, so you can place it around your physical environment. If you’re not on an AR device — like a laptop — then it behaves more like a virtual environment, so you can just move using keyboard and arrow keys or mouse.

Alan: I guess what was the feedback from the real people that matter, the employees? Did people like this? Was this something that– in both, in the Quantas example of XR training and the retail Sprint training. What was the feedback with people? What do people think?

Jamie: That’s part of the joy, and why it’s fun coming to work every day, because you are creating and giving people experiences that really do spark a lot of joy. And it takes maybe a session that you weren’t as quite excited about watching some tutorial videos or working through a PDF. Suddenly you’re in that environment, you are interacting with that environment, and there are definitely a lot of oohs and ahhs. And from the trainer’s perspective, having a captive audience that is in this virtual environment, you know they’re not spaced out checking their cell phones or not paying attention. You can see exactly what they’re doing. They’re engaging with one another. And it really is transforming. We’re seeing in feedback that we’re getting more customers, it really is transforming the way that people are engaging with this learning content.

Alan: Two users as well? Could you have multiple people using the same experience at once?

Jamie: Yes, absolutely. So you can have multiple people in that same environment. Those people can be either physically located in the same area, or they could be totally separated across geographies. They can be on different device types. So some people could be in a headset, others could be on a phone. Maybe the instructor’s on a tablet or a computer. So, yes, we really accommodate people knowing that the value– a lot of this, Alan, comes back to what are– what problems are you solving with immersive training? Why is immersive training interesting, or should enterprises be thinking about it? And it comes down to, there are several different ways to measure the ROI of these applications. And one is, does this save me any cost as an enterprise? And so we know that a lot of cost and time and energy is wrapped up in people traveling to venues, to specific physical locations, to receive the training. And so the importance of having– giving people the ability to stay where they are, but still be networked together in a single training session, that is critical, I think, for immersive training, too; to show out and prove out that ROI. I think there are a handful of different data points of ROI, in different problems that you’re trying to solve. But reduction in travel is certainly a huge one.

Alan: I don’t know the exact number — because the podcast was recorded a year ago — but I know that that Sprint one from Jonathan, it saved them millions in travel costs.

Jamie: Right. The team– that travel team, I believe the stat was that they were on the road about 80 percent of their time. The trainers, they’re just constantly on the road. And being able to stay centralized but network in and train a session of people anywhere at any time, without even leaving your home. That was transformational.

Alan: So you guys have built some pretty amazing experiences. You’ve got experience in kind of building the hardware platform. You’ve built experiences. What’s next? What do you guys see as the ultimate potential of this? Where does this go from here?

Bharat: So just the technology as a whole is still evolving, as I’m sure multiple guests have said this. We do expect augmented reality to be as pervasive as mobile is. It may take years. At Oculus, they said 10 years. I personally believe that should be less. I don’t know who said the same, I think Bill Gates said this, “You will always overestimate what you do in one year, and underestimate what you can do in ten.” So this definitely feels like– at some point the glasses will be thin enough and small enough that you can wear them, and when the battery life will last the whole day. When that happens, you would see a switch to being a consumer phenomena, just like mobile devices was. But currently it is definitely an enterprise-first technology. It is similar to how PCs came about. They first got introduced into the workspace, and then over time got into everybody’s home. Unlike mobile devices, which kind of did the other way around, people bought them for their own use and then kind of started putting your own devices into the workspace stream. So we do think this is a wave that’s coming, and it’s going to be used across all kinds of industries. But in the next two to three years, enterprises is where it is. And we’ve chosen this very deliberately that it’s what the frontline workers where your environment influences your productivity. That’s where this technology is so applicable. And that’s what we are seeing. We are seeing it in training, whether it’s flight simulator training, because, of course, your productivity depends on the flight deck you are in. Or in retail or training because you’re selling in the store. So the more training you can have in the store, the better your attention is. We’re also seeing you can real estate sales and marketing, it is so much easier to sell a house or lease out commercial office spaces if the person buying or leasing can actually see the space, can design in it. So definitely enterprises is where the focus will be. You’ve seen Magic Leap pivot to enterprises. Hololens pivoted between 1 and 2, if you see the experiences that shipped with Hololens 1 was much more gaming and entertainment, whereas Hololens 2 was much more enterprises. So that’s where our focus is as well.

Alan: I saw this thing when I first got into this, I said, “I’m not interested in games. I want to figure out productivity.” So you’ve done training stuff, you guys been working– you used to be called Studio 216. Why the change in name? Or was it just because you merged and they said, “You know what, we’re gonna be altouristic.”

Jamie: [laughs]

Bharat: I’m going to use that line from now on.

Jamie: Yeah, I know, right? That’s great. You better quickly trademark that, Alan.

Bharat: [laughs]

Jamie: The history and the legacy of Studio 216 was really about content creation. We’ve done literally, I would say, tens of thousands of virtual objects and environments that we’ve built out of the last 15 years. A lot of that was focused on real estate, of building out projects that didn’t yet exist and helping pre-sell or pre-lease them. And it was really through– kind of a couple of events happened for our company, one which we just mentioned that we acquired Bharat’s startup and to help. We were very excited about the cloud component of what he had built for extended reality and saw it highly applicable to the work that we were doing with Studio 216. The other kind of major milestone for us is that we raised venture capital, and as part of that we raised money to focus on the software applications. And as part of that we rebranded as our flagship software product, that we call Altoura. And so we just transitioned the name from Studio 216 to Altoura.

Alan: What does the flagship Altoura software actually do?

Jamie: So I’ll give you kind of a high level view of it and Bharat can take you into the weeds, if you’re interested. But at a high level, our software allows the creation or– we take a digital twin of an object or an environment, and we bring it into our software, which immediately allows it to work across devices. You’re connected with voice-over-IP. You have avatar representations of the different people in the sessions. And you can easily make that digital twin interactive, depending on what application you’re trying to solve for. If that is sales and marketing, maybe you want to explore different finishes or different layouts of an environment. In training, maybe you’re following different steps of how you operate a piece of machinery or how you interact with customers. And then the other piece that’s really critical for us with Altoura is that we allow our customers to create their own– for example, in training just using a web portal, you can easily integrate your existing L&D content into our software and expose it in that 3D environment and make it interactive.

Alan: That’s super cool. What does that mean?

Bharat: We basically have a cloud software. Our app runs in the cloud. It is– we have clients with each of our devices that we support from mobile tablets, PCs to headsets. But the app that’s running the state of the app is in the cloud. So if– let’s say if you are on your iPhone, looking at a space that we generated, and I’m here in my Hololens looking at it. If I was to move a table around, you would see that table being moved as well, because the app’s kind of running agnostic of the device, it’s running in the cloud. And so that allows us to do, for example, what in for one of our clients, there was a slide deck that they had to go to learn about the product. And yes, you can go to a slide deck on your laptop, it’s a 2D space. But to be able to pull that slide deck inside the experience and see it next to the product within having the product OK’d and give you a visual to associate that training was very important for the client. So that was something we could easily do. Similarly, for that product, there was a companion app that the sales representative had to learn as to how to operate. So we could build a walk-through of that app within that experience. So you wear the headset or you’re on your phone, on your PC. You’re navigating the store, you bring up the device. You can say, I want to learn about it, I want to see how to use it, or I want to see how to sell it. And the “sell” would be a roleplay. There would be a virtual customer come up and have– you could build up a whole decision tree where the customer would be saying, “I want to to do this.” And your response as the trainee would be, should you start selling now, or do you want to understand the requirements better, or do you still just want to kind of empathize with the customer? And you could choose your path and go down and complete the roleplay and get feedback back, like was this the right thing to do or was that the wrong thing to do? All this while you’re feeling like you’re inside the store that you would be actually working in.

Alan: Super cool. So people could do the training from home before they even stepped foot in the store?

Bharat: Exactly. And this company used to have people come in post store closure to do this training at odd hours, because they couldn’t do it while they were customers in the store. So this allowed them to scale that up pretty well.

Alan: So does your system allow them to make it themselves?

Bharat: Yes. In some cases, there are companies that have dealt with 3D content like the construction companies. They already know how to deal with 3D. And for them, it’s a very simple training to understand how to transform assets from standard authoring tools like Autodesk, 3D Max, or Maya into something that our system can understand. And that’s absolutely about forward. And in some cases retail clients or airlines that right now don’t have the 3D skillsets, they just have us do it. But what we have starting to see, interestingly, is people are thinking about investing and hiring people with 3D technology experiences, so that they can take more control over the content and how this progresses through their enterprises.

Alan: But I think as we move forward, 3D is just going to become like video and like audio. Everybody can do it. One of the stumbling blocks you mentioned is bringing in 3D models. It seems to be kind of the stumbling block everybody runs into. Because let’s be honest, there is no standardization yet. So do you guys have your own file format that you’re working with? Or do you use certain specific file formats?

Bharat: That’s a great question. And yes, you’re absolutely right. When we were pitching to investors, for them to even understand that, oh, 3D doesn’t have a well-defined standard format. It’s taken for granted in 2D. So that was interesting. We have our own format, not a file format. So to be clear, we went after the most optimized format for Unity, which are Unity AssetBundles. That’s the format we support. What we’ve done is, we have added a lot of decorations to that AssetBundle. So in the content itself, you can say, “I want this chair to be interactive, but I don’t want this table to be interactive. I want this table to be–” Or you could say “This is the product that I want to associate this decision tree that I created using a web portal.” So you can decorate the content, and our system understands that and brings up the right experiences. So this allows us to do a 3D model once and give it to the client, and then the client can just link 2D content or the decision tree roleplays to different objects in the 3D space, thus minimizing the need for 3D changes.

Alan: So is it a specific model, then? Are you using glTF or…?

Bharat: No, we are using Unity AssetBundles, so that’s the format.

Alan: This is all built on Unity, then?

Bharat: And Unity AssetBundles is the most optimized file format that Unity understands and that’s very important, especially for Hololens or any other — like Magic Leap — because their processing powers are so, so limited on what kind of content they can process.

Alan: So exciting. I’m just– the questions are so many. I guess the question would be why wouldn’t they just build it on Unity, then?

Bharat: Unity is a big platform for developers. To reach where we have reached, we’ve invested decades of– personal decades of our team into a place where we are, where an AssetBundle can be consumed on multiple device types and work together in a coordinated manner. Yes, you can open up Unity and create a simple experience and sure, if that’s how you want to do it, that’s not a bad format at all. Unity is growing exactly for that reason. But if you want a scalable enterprise ready system, then that part is a really hard part. Then having our solution ready, where you can still take that AssetBundle learning, but use it on our platform, which does the rest of the things, like distribution, making sure it is running on all devices, that it’s networked. All of those benefits you get by putting it on our systems.

Alan: Do you guys manage device management as well?

Bharat: No. We tend to integrate with an MDM kind of systems, our Hololens MDM is a good system for us to use. Mobile– anyway, they already have mobile MDM systems. Actually, our apps are in the app store. So that’s another way, easy way for them to get, like they don’t have to go and install it from someplace. They can just go download it from the app store, log in with their credentials and they will get the experiences that they signed up for.

Alan: I guess it’s all running on cloud, you said. But I know some companies, they want to run it on premise. Is that possible as well?

Bharat: Yes, we have– our system is built on containers. So it’s a containerized system, so we can move it to their cloud. So some of our clients wanted to run it on their tenant, rather than in ours. So, absolutely. That’s easy enough. And we can run it on local machines, because it’s all running within the container that we can take anywhere. That has been on us, that sometimes they don’t have cloud connectivity in locations that they want to do training in, for example.

Jamie: Sometimes there are security issues–

Bharat: Or security issues.

Jamie: –they don’t allow them to do that.

Alan: Yeah, it’s– there’s all sorts of reasons why. Well, you mentioned doing photogrammetry of the store, for example. Maybe you can elaborate on ways people can acquire these models?

Jamie: We use a variety of methods to capture and create a digital twin of an environment. So photogrammetry is one. Doesn’t– it’s not — I would say — the best for every type of application that you’re trying to create a 3D environment. But I think right now it seems like you’ve got a few choices. You can buy some generic 3D scenes from digital asset stores. But more typically, I think you– if you don’t have the experience in-house, you need to find someone that can create the digital twin of whatever environment that you’re looking for. And doing that in a cost effective manner, that’s going to allow you to interact with it in the ways that you want to interact with it. So maybe that’s a long-winded way of saying that I think the advantage right now — where we’ve seen a lot of advantages with our customers that don’t have the 3D capability — is they can engage with a group like ours to create these environments and then quickly optimize them and distribute them across devices using our software. The other piece that we’ve seen is there’s just such a wild price, an effort range for creating a, say, a training experience, or a sales and marketing experience. And we all know the industry is maturing. It’s evolving every single day. There are all kinds of fantastic news out there. But one thing that where we have really benefited is the ability to quickly stand up for a very low cost, to stand up the digital twin of an enterprise’s environment, and allow them to start using it in a very short period of time. So it doesn’t require a lot of– really, it requires no coding in terms of getting these training set up. It’s just the effort of building out an environment usually takes anywhere from a couple of days. It may take a couple of weeks depending on the size and scale of this environment. But for an enterprise to be able to begin training in something within a few weeks after signing a deal is really transformational.

Alan: That’s another issue that comes up with people, is that they don’t want to be locking into a year long production schedule, to have something made where by the time it’s made, it’s obsolete. So I am going to ask you guys one last question, because we’re at 30 minutes here. And what I want to know from you personally and you can each answer this is, what problem in the world do you want to see solved using XR technologies?

Jamie: That’s the million dollar question. Coming back to what we have had the opportunity to build out lots of different– to solve lots of different problems already with extended reality. And I think the ones that we’re really interested in are around training, just to be able to give people the ability to train anywhere in the world, to network with experts anywhere in the world, to preserve the legacy of what other people have figured out, and interesting content in the past, to be able to preserve that and extend it to people in the future. So I would say it would come down to, there’ll be more and more interesting and exciting ways to propagate training.

Bharat: And in the long term, if you look at this technology as it was and kind of predict out maybe even a decade out, it’s strongly, strongly believed that this will be as pervasive as mobile. So maybe the question that I would like to answer is not that which problem it will solve, but the capabilities that it will give to us will be so different from what we have now from mobile phones — which were so different from PCs — that I would be surprised if there is any problem that is not impacted by this technology. This will solve or this will create solutions or create opportunities that you can’t even think of, just like before the mobile phone arrived. Like if you were to go maybe in the 1990s, who would have thought an Uber would be possible? It is only possible because you have this device with you that you carry at all times. Or things like Instagram, where you can communicate so effectively, because you now have a device that can take cam– that can take pictures and apply filters on that. So I feel similarly as this technology grows and especially as it gets into consumer adoption, it will impact every aspect of our lives, and it will create opportunities and experiences that we really can’t think of right now.

Alan: If you look back 10 years — well, I guess 12 years — iPhones didn’t exist. iPads didn’t exist. And now everybody in the world’s got one in their pocket, or some sort of device like it. What will be the things we do with these glasses?

Bharat: They will impact every aspect of communications. I think they will just enhance your quality of life, in my point of view.

Alan: I couldn’t agree more. Where can people find you guys?

Jamie: They can find us in Seattle, Washington. Or they can find us at altoura.com.

Alan: Amazing. Well, thank you guys so much for joining me on the show.

Jamie: All right. Thank you, Alan.

Bharat: Thanks, Alan. Great to talk.

Looking for more insights on XR and the future of business? Subscribe to our podcast on iTunes, Google Play, or Spotify. You can also follow us on Twitter @XRforBusiness and connect with Alan on LinkedIn.

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