Alan and his guests often espouse investing in XR on this podcast, but that comes with the implicit understanding that you should expect a return on that investment. Cameron Ayres from Sector 5 Digital discusses strategies for maximizing that ROI.
Alan: Today’s guest is Cameron Ayres, the director of innovation at Sector 5 Digital, a digital agency specializing in augmented reality and virtual reality applications for the enterprise. His primary role is developing the strategy and implementation of emerging technology, to best enhance digital projects. Sector 5 Digital helps companies transform their brands by creating brilliant digital content for marketing, communications, sales, and entertainment. Clients include many Fortune 100 clients, including American Airlines, Bell, IBM, Intel, and many more. You can learn more about Cameron and Sector 5 at Sector5Digital.com. Cameron, welcome to the show.
Cameron: Thanks for having me, Alan.
Alan: My pleasure. I’m so looking forward to this. Some of the stuff you guys are doing is mind-blowing. I had a chance to look at some of the things you’re doing — bringing Bellll helicopters, their new drones, to VR, and allowing people to experience these. You’ve done work with airlines, with car companies, with Harry Potter. Describe what Sector 5 digital does, and some of the projects and things that you’re most proud of.
Cameron: Sure. At a high level, what we focus on is coming into these companies that are doing a lot of great work, but they just want to kick it up to the next notch. They want to tell stories in a new way. They want to increase their ROI, is the bottom line to a lot of it. “How can we do things faster, with exerting less effort and less man hours?” That’s where virtual reality, and augmented reality, and a lot of other different media come into play. We come in and we’ll actually sit down and brainstorm around, “what are the problems, and how can we come up with solutions?” And it’s funny how many clients you’ll interact with that come to you with a solution. “We want a hologram,” or “we want virtual reality.” But what we specialize in is taking a step back and saying, “let’s do a deep dive. Let’s talk about what virtual reality accomplishes, and if that is the best medium.” And then, if it is, we can move forward with brainstorming. But it’s so important to not fall into the trap nowadays, of trying to make the next gimmick… or, to do it just because the technology’s cool. Let’s do it with a sense of purpose.
A lot of what I do is try to take new and emerging technology — obviously right now, VR/AR/XR; all that falls into it — and using that to enhance messaging and storytelling, training, simulation, all of that type of stuff. It boils down to two words for me, which is “presence” and “experience.” You have the presence, for things like training, for things like real-time engineering. You really feel like you’re there. Then you have the experience side of it, which is more the storytelling, the marketing; let me actually go on a mission, and something that doesn’t exist yet, and get a feeling for how that’s going to change warfare, how that’s going to change my ride to work every day. A lot of it focuses around messaging, storytelling, and training.
Alan: You’ve done everything from — like you said — storytelling and training. What are the big, open spaces for companies? Let’s say you’re a medium-sized business. You see XR, you’re going, “well, I have no idea where to get started.” What is that low-hanging fruit for businesses to get involved, and just start with this technology?
Cameron: I’ve noticed that — and this is a bit of a sideways way to look at it — I’ve noticed that, with companies that come in and they’re looking to dip their toe into virtual reality or augmented reality, that sometimes they fall into the trap of investing so much into the hardware. The software suffers because the budget is taken from that. I feel like some products, such as Google Cardboard, and some of the lower-end pieces of hardware, have actually done more harm than good to the reputation of virtual reality. People get in it, and they see, “this as a medium-to-low-quality image or video that I’m sitting in,” and there’s not much interaction if it’s a Google Cardboard. That’s one thing I would stress; if you’re a medium-sized company looking at emerging technology as a whole, any bit of XR — it’s all about ROI. How do you bring back the investment that you’re making into the technology; into something that’s going to pay you back 5-, 10-, 15-fold in the future? Some of the ways of doing that is the marketing and storytelling, where you travel through a destination that you normally couldn’t do. It could be something as simple as a neat 360 factory tour. But it’s so important that it’s done in a tasteful and high-quality way. It ruins not only the reputation of the company, but of the reputation of what virtual reality is doing today.
There are plenty of products like the Oculus Go, which is just a few hundred dollars, that give you more of a robust kit than something like a Google Cardboard, where you can dip your toe in. One of the coolest examples that I think of, which may not apply to the everyday medium-sized company, is training in a way that is location-agnostic, and it could even be marketing; meaning, you could have a salesman or a lead engineer in Dallas, and you could have another engineer in Detroit. The way that VR works, you can both be in the same virtual environment, working on the same virtual engine, and actually doing call-outs and instructing each other. You’re not paying for a hotel, you’re not paying for flights to get someone to come down for a day when, instead they can spend three-to-four hours together with each other each day over the course of a week, and never get out of their office. It brings a lot of value in those ways, but the bottom line always gets back to ROI; how is this going to drive more money than you’re going to invest into it in the long run?
Alan: My next question was actually, “describe the way you measure success; goals, key performance indicators, and ROI — what is the typical measurement of this, for brands?”
Cameron: A lot of the ability to take ROI, and how much money is saved and how much time is saved, gets down to, “where are we going? And where did we come from?” I’ll give an example in automotive and aerospace. There’s a common practice that’s been around for a while where, in building mockups or aircraft, that the first iterations might be built out physically with, let’s say 2x4s, or really, any type of physical implementation. You can imagine the amount of time that it would take to build a physical cockpit, or a car that you would sit inside of, and — say — a test pilot would sit inside and look around, and they can say, “well, this doesn’t feel quite right. I need the seat to come back a little bit, I don’t really like where the cyclic or the collective are placed,” in an example of a helicopter. Now you need to go back, and you need to not only redesign, but then you have to rebuild, and so on and so forth. It becomes this really long feedback loop. Virtual reality: you can see the immediate return on investment, because we take that super long feedback loop, and now a test pilot can come in and sit inside of a virtual helicopter, and they’ll actually be able to, in real-time, communicate with me or another one of our engineers and say, “I don’t really like this. I need you to cut the glass back a bit because I don’t have good visibility over the shoulder.”
So all of a sudden, in real-time, we make that change, and then save out the edited model that they’re now interacting with. Because we’ve done that, we’ve just cut down the feedback loop monumentally, so that you don’t have to fabricate a single physical piece until the model is signed off and the design is locked and it’s gotten all of the proper signatures and thumbs up that it’s going to need. To me, it’s about time, and what kind of time can we save people? One of our projects — I’ll say briefly — last year was the Bell Air Taxi; this year, we talked about the Bell Nexus. I really love the messaging that their V.P. of Innovation Scott Drennan has talked about around it, which is not to think about some of these things as a helicopter, or an air taxi, or whatever you want to call it. It’s almost like it’s a time machine, because it’s giving you time back in your day. It’s about, what does that commute mean to you? At the end of the day, time is the most precious thing. That is the measurement of success, is how much time can we give back to you, to prioritize other things in your life that you want to take care of, or other things that your job need to get taken care of? And how can we use emerging technology to do that?
Alan: Well, that’s… I mean, I was making notes, here. “Time is the ultimate measurement of ROI.”.
Alan: I’m going to quote you on that. Speaking of time, you mentioned Bell. This got some press, because HTC VIVE released a press release with Bell, saying that their latest helicopter was created 10 times faster using VR, and you guys were the company doing that. This is a monumental shift. We’re not talking, “we designed it better with a new software.” This is like, a whole new way of designing. If you look at this from that standpoint, this is a 10x return. What other technologies that we have seen, other than the Internet, and maybe mobile phones, telephone, TV… like, this is not just another app. This is an entire new way of doing things. It’s really amazing what you guys are doing, and the fact that you guys have been able to create time out of nothing.
Cameron: It’s very cool, too, because there’s some stuff that I know we’ll be talking about in the upcoming months. But we take that whole idea too, and now we’re even applying it to our own internal design process. And that’s something too, is stressing how important all this technology is for… I mean, really, any industry. But now, we’re able to take it, and instead of having our concept artist draw on a sheet of paper, now they’re getting inside a virtual reality application and sketching in 3D, which now makes us faster, because then that 3D model comes out and it’s already a skeleton for us to start modeling off of it. It’s incredible when you start digging into these technologies, the amount of applications that they’re going to have for everyone in every industry.
Alan: What do you think are the low-hanging fruit for industries in this type of technology? What are the things that are easiest for brands to do right now, that they can get their foot in the door with this?
Cameron: So there’s one really cool example, that I’m actually working on a few projects internally, just kind of having fun with some of the new technology. There are two relatively new pieces of AR toolkits, called ARKit and ARCore for iOS and Android. Essentially, it takes the most brilliant idea and essentially exposes it to all of the developers, and that idea is that — while VR is having somewhat of an issue with the mainstream consumer, because most people don’t have a virtual reality headset — it flips that on its head with a AR and says, “but wait a second, everyone in the world (or rather, a majority of people) own some type of device that could see something through a camera screen.” We’re taking that, and essentially — because people have these devices in their pocket already — we can capitalize on that, and you can build something at a very reasonable, low cost. That’s a simple augmented reality app. What you do is have someone pull out their phone, and… let’s say you just want to give your business card a bit more pop. If you’re in the business of selling, let’s say, belts and tensioners — I mean, it could literally be anything; you might think that’s a boring topic, but it doesn’t need to be — you put your business card down on the table, you pull your phone out, and you look at your business card. All of a sudden, one of your key products animates out and then tells the story about what this does for people, and does a few callouts about how does this actually work. And that’s something really quick that leaves a lasting impression.
Alan: We’ve been working on a platform that will allow anybody to create an augmented reality experience on any print, themselves.
Cameron: Absolutely. And that’s another key there, too, is when you say “print,” I don’t want to limit it to business cards either. Anything that you can print and graphic on–
Alan: Business cards to billboards.
Cameron: Exactly. The main thing is, what’s your utility around having the object? Is it something that is just there as a gimmick? Or that someone’s going to use once and throw away? Or is it something that they’ll keep around, and maybe have on their desk, or maybe be on a billboard that they see when they’re walking to the office every day? So it’s a lot about the utility of augmented reality right then and there, but then, how is it going to stay around, to then be used to be a neat thing for them to show their coworkers later on that day?
Alan: One of the things that I saw that was really cool — and I brought this up in a different podcast — was the LeBron James poster, where you point your phone using Snapchat, and LeBron James comes out of the poster and slam dunks a basketball right in front of me in three dimensions. We’re only scratching the surface of what’s possible with ARKit and ARCore. I love the fact that you guys are shifting focuses not from VR, but including a AR, as well.
Cameron: Absolutely. And they did a great job with that LeBron activation, too. It was so purposeful. It wasn’t, you hold up an AR device, and all of a sudden, this video plays over LeBron saying hi, or anything that would feel kind of gimmicky and not as impactful. But it’s that the entire mural comes to life, and he jumps out of it and slam dunks it. That, to me, is the messaging and the storytelling. It’s so important to have something that is not a gimmick. If you’re going to have LeBron do a slam dunk, don’t have a video that’s just pinned to a wall when you move your phone around; have him jump out of that wall and dunk right above you. That’s what’s impactful.
Alan: Absolutely. And that’s not to discount the fact that adding videos to print may be interesting, as well. We have one client who have unfettered access to creating augmented reality experiences, and their default is just adding videos. And their customer base is actually pretty accepting of that. They don’t want 3D, they just want to add a video and add that extra spiciness to their print. I think it’s going to be the full gamut; we’ve only just started to figure out what can be done and what people will do with it. Everything from automobile manuals to textbooks.
Cameron: Absolutely. And that gets back to to the start of our conversation; it’s all about taking a step back. Who’s the target market, and who’s going to want to engage with what type of media? There’s so many different solutions now for the everyday developer. You have a giant toolkit, and there are so many solutions that will fit for every different type of customer.
Alan: Maybe you can discuss some of those solutions. A lot of companies that we’re seeing and we’re consulting with, they’re starting to look to build their own internal teams. They’re hiring a Unity developer or a 3D modeller. It’s not something that every company will do. But at the same time, for those companies that do have that and really want to bring things in-house, what are some of the tools that you’re seeing — besides ARKit, ARCore, and Unity — that are standing out to you?
Cameron: So, I’ll start with the software side of it. What we’re seeing is really impactful for various industries. Really, in architecture, I feel like it’s stood out, that you’re able to go in and walk through an entire model, or an entire warehouse, or an entire stadium; who knows what it could be? And make real-time changes to materials, and get a perspective of everything. We’ve talked to a variety of folks that are in the architectural engineering sector, and whether it’s virtual or augmented reality, being able to visualize things that don’t exist yet is so absolutely key to a lot of these industries. And you’re seeing things too, like being able to — with augmented reality — try on a watch or a shoe. It’s funny, I had this conversation on LinkedIn the other day — I think it might have been with you, — with Amazon actually implementing new software around 3D scans for people, where instead of having to necessarily order clothing online that you don’t know if it’s going to fit you, you might be able to go into — in the future — a brick-and-mortar Amazon store, get a 3D scan of your body, and now all of a sudden, the physics that exist within whatever engine is being used [in] web at that time can show you exactly how that cloth is going to fit around your shape of body.
Alan: There’s actually a company — and I cannot remember for the life of me — they send you a suit, and the suit’s got a bunch of dots on it. By using computer vision to measure how the dots fit and how they look on you, they can tell within 5 percent of your body size.
Alan: They can literally ship you this fabric; you put it on, and you take a picture of it, upload it, from front to back. And now they’ve got an accurate size of who you are.
Cameron: I was going to mention one other thing as far as hardware, in regards to what we’re up to nowadays. We found a really neat solution for virtual reality, but really more of a trainer for any size of group, that goes all the way back to old 3D screens. And it’s funny, because 3D televisions are almost archaic. People rarely will go buy a 3D television. But you look at it, and the technology is actually pretty great. And if you repurpose it in a way that makes sense, instead of trying to add a gimmick to a commercial film, and you make it so that you can add a layer to a training simulation for a group of… surgeons (it could be a group of anyone), but now everyone in the audience is able to put on a pair of glasses, and watch a 3D experience that the lecturer or the trainer can go through and control at their own pace. Now you’re adding something that, again, is experiential. It’s memorable and it actually adds something, if you need that depth in the way that you’re going to train someone. So there’s a lot of hardware that’s awesome, because it’s coming out and it’s brand new — the VR and the haptic space and whatnot — but I’m always cautious with seeing how many products are out there, and some of it might be this vaporware; you never know if it’s a lot of smoke and mirrors.
Alan: How many things have you bought on Kickstarter?
Cameron: Exactly! And I could name a couple, but I’ll save them the embarrassment. But there are a few that were, just, really disappointing. But then you look at some of these older technologies that can be revitalized and repurposed in a way that is incredibly impactful.
Alan: I think one of the ones is doing that amazingly is a company out of San Francisco called zSpace.
Cameron: Exactly. We actually have one of their products in our office that we’ve created a demo for. And it’s it’s essentially… it’s almost a single-person version of what I was mentioning with the 3D, and that it actually shifts perspective, based on where the user’s head is. And it works great, almost like a VR without the headset on. And it does it in this really brilliant way that feels a lot less confined to them necessarily having a headset on. And it’s great for learning environments. It’s just one of those things where you’ve got to find the right peg for the right hole. A lot of our clients that we’ve had in and we’ve shown that type of product; it’s either they want to go forward with that and they love it, and then we make something awesome with them; or, a few others are saying, “well, we really want five, 10, maybe 100 people to watch it at once.” In which case, you just need to finagle it and see what the right solution is for that client.
Alan: I think the zSpace thing could be used for retail on location. “Check this thing out!” There’s so many ways these technologies can be used. We’ve only scratched the surface. Speaking of that, what is one of the projects that you’ve worked on that you are most proud of? When you have a client come in, and you’re like, “this is one we did.”
Cameron: So there are a couple, and I’ll limit myself to two, so I don’t take up the whole amount of time that we have with them. But there’s one that I’m particularly proud of, because I feel like it is really a game-changer in the industry. And then another that I’m particularly proud of, because of just how much time and effort went into it. The first one is some of the work that I’ve done with American Airlines. We’ve fundamentally changed how 3D assets are reused, and specifically the “reused” part of that. You can commission someone to make a pretty CGI image, or a 360 lookaround, and that’s great. You’ll have a good experience, and you’ll use that to its purpose. But then what about that asset that’s been made, that’s now being looked at? How can you reuse that and get more ROI out of it? Again, measuring how much time do I have to spend of my day getting new assets from new agencies, et cetera, and what can we reuse that we’ve already made? What we did is, we have quite a few CGI interiors of a few different planes, and we created a new microsite that allows you to go through all of these CGI interiors that were created — for completely separate reasons and other shoots and things like that — on green screen. But now, you can explore them in an interactive, animated, 360 lookaround. And this is live on an American web site right now.
Alan: I was on it earlier today, actually; it’s awesome. You can find it on Sector5digital.com in their work, but it’s really amazing. Click the button. Now you’ve got a plane that’s kind of flying — it’s a little bit of motion — but then you hover your mouse around it, and you can see the first class, business class, regular. And when you click on it, it now takes you into fully three-dimensional space of the first class cabin, and you’re sitting in a seat, and you can look around. You can go to the bar, you can do these things. And I thought it was amazing, actually, I was gonna bring it up. The interesting thing that you mentioned is reusing these 3D assets; one of the things that we started working on — and we’ll be bringing this out next year — is a content and digital asset management system for spatial computing. As more and more companies have these 3D assets… again, that 3D asset of the plane. You probably had to make some changes to make it work on Web versus VR, versus AR, right? What people don’t realize — and this is a learning lesson for all of us — is that there’s different file formats, and there’s no standardization right now. So, being able to use that asset across Web and Snapchat and Facebook and, in the future, LinkedIn and Instagram, and also on VR and a AR and Hololens and Magic Leap; being able to use that across everything. These things are not cheap to make. Making a 3D asset of a plane in photo realism is not an inexpensive endeavor, I would think.
Cameron: Absolutely. You hit the nail on the head with that; that’s one of the things that we do pride ourselves on. You have to be able to build things that are going to be redeployed. Otherwise, it’s a one-off, and it’s just a lot of costs for something that you don’t get a lot of mileage out of. If you’re going to build, let’s say, a virtual set: turn it into an online microsite, and then turn it into a Super Bowl commercial (like we have in the past). You can get so much mileage out of any of these assets. And that brings up my second-favorite example of what we’ve been up to lately. We actually won Wired’s Best of CES in the Transportation category at CES this year. And that was in our work with Bell. It was really cool because we had three different activations there, and they were all using different technologies, but all of them were using some assets and communicating in special ways that made it work really dynamically.
The main area that I was in charge of, and really led the development and the creative side of, was called Future Flight Controls. It’s a fully-interactive, virtual reality motion-based flight simulator, where you fly right down the Las Vegas strip. And it’s just this incredibly engaging experience. You earn a high score, and you get on the leader board, and everyone gets so competitive. It’s just the most fun. But on the back end, what we’re doing is collecting as much data as possible to find out which of these three flight controls that we brought to CES is actually going to be easiest for the average user to fly. Because in the future, if you have hundreds of air taxis, you’re going to need a much lower barrier to entry than a typical pilot going through years of training right now, as someone that needs to be equipped and able to possibly handle any type of flight maneuver going forward. So it’s interesting to run all of these tests. On the front, it’s all education and entertainment,and on the back, it’s all data analytics and really potent information that helps drive the future of flight as we know it.
Going off of that, too, we had another experience in the same booth with an augmented reality application, and this is another one that I’d really strongly recommend towards that medium-level business that’s looking to dip their toe into AR/VR. And this one, it’s great; you pick up an iPad and you pick if you want to see the story of how the Bell Nexus — which is their on-demand mobility solution that they unveiled at CES — if you want to see how it handles logistics, or if you want to see how it handles moving people across the city, depending on which one of those you select on the iPad, you then watch an entire story unfold on the table in front of you, about how this family gets on the Nexus to make it to the airport in time. Or about how this logistics carrier actually gets their package to the proper reseller in a good amount of time. And that was a really cool way to tell the story.
Then the last thing that we had was a bit of AR, but using a lot of different cameras that were set up all around the booth. And we actually had — again, it was Scott Drennan, their V.P. of Innovation — up on stage, giving a speech about the Nexus and talking about their partners and who’s done what on it. And we were able to cut between all the cameras in the booth, but in a real-time, overlay on top of the physical aircraft in the booth, all the stories happening as Scott was talking about people making it to wherever they need to go on time with their family. All this, and then an augmented reality family walks up and gets inside the Nexus that takes off. Or if he’s talking about one of their partners like Safran, you can actually show the internal components of the aircraft. It’s just incredible to add that extra level of narrative, because that alone, you see a lot of people coming up and they’ll listen to a talk at CES and they’re engaged and they’re loving it. But then all of a sudden, you see the rotors start to rotate, or you see an animated family get in. And that’s when all the phones come out; everyone starts recording. That’s when the viral social sharing starts coming in, is when you have something that everyone in the crowd can see. It all the sudden becomes a really special moment that people are going to see on LinkedIn or Facebook or wherever and say, “damn, I really wish I was there.”
Alan: I was actually lucky enough — fortunate enough — to be at CES this year, and everybody wanted to know my input on what was the hot thing in VR and AR. The hottest thing at CES this year was the Bell Nexus helicopter. It looks like something out of Avatar! It’s massive and it just this show-stopping beautiful piece of giant hardware that has rotating rotors that light up. It’s mind-blowing. So, if you haven’t seen it, take a look online. It’s the Bell Nexus helicopter that was unveiled at CES this year; it is a show-stopper. And basically, the idea is that you can transport… what is it, six or eight people, or something like that?
Cameron: Yeah. So, this one — and I don’t want to step on any toes on Bell’s end — but right now it’s configuration of 1-2-2. So, you have one seat in the front, and then four passengers. And the idea — as long as I’m OK with saying this — is that essentially, the front seat is a pilot/flight safety officer, but someone that is more equipped to take the reins and the controls, should the need arise. But over time, eventually [the plan is] for it to be an autonomous aircraft.
Alan: Yeah, I think they mentioned that. I don’t think you’re overstepping at all. I think that was definitely the messaging that they drove home at CES, is that this thing will do all the piloting for you. But for now, we’ve got a stick to make people feel more comfortable.
Cameron: Absolutely. And thanks again for the nice words. That’s incredible to hear.
Alan: No, it’s fantastic. I love the work you guys are doing. Now, let’s get into some details here. A lot of people are asking, “well, it’s OK for Bell Helicopter, because they lots of money,” or whatever. What does something like these things cost? What are you guys seeing as far as costs are concerned? And what do these experiences range from, so that people can budget for them?
Cameron: It’s one of those things that — I know this isn’t an interesting answer — but it’s essentially the chicken or the egg. There are so many ways to implement emerging technology that suit different budgets, so I know that we can come up with a solution for any range. I think a good ballpark for most people, just to stomach it immediately and get over that hump, is probably looking at an interactive virtual reality or augmented reality experience, probably beginning in the $25,000-$50,000 range. Really, it all depends on the scalability; how many levels do you want? How many environments do you want to be able to go into? How much messaging do you want to tell? It gets down to how many days will it take a modeller to model? How many days will a programmer need to program? Et cetera. So it just all scales up from their end, really, how you’d want to go. I feel like a good base level is in that range.
But if you’re looking more into the $10,000-$15,000, I feel like at that level, it’s possible. But I would almost advise for that type of getting bang-for-your-buck, that you’d be better-suited to get something like a really well-crafted CGI image or maybe some short video work. That’s the one thing I don’t want to undersell, is that it is an investment to go into emerging technology. But it is so important that, when it is done, that the investment is made and that it’s not made half-heartedly. That’s when you end up with a product that the client is kind of okay with, and the consumers take it okay, but it isn’t a great deal for everyone involved. It’s important to know when you go in that if you invest the right amount, and you wholeheartedly believe that this is going to help your company, then that is what’s going to happen. So I just want to make sure that I put that out there.
Alan: No, absolutely. I think that’s great advice. I think companies are dipping their toes. They’re starting to do proof of concepts. And this range of $25k to $50k to get started is what we’re seeing as well. It’s kind of the bare minimum to get going. Certain things are really helping; Unity’s assets store is getting filled with really amazing content that you can buy for less. There’s also 360 videos where you can now buy, 360 stock photos from a company like Blend Media, and also 3D assets on CGTrader or Sketchfab. There’s places where you can now start to buy this 3D content. The barrier to entry is dropping dramatically. I think if I would have asked you this question three years ago, it would have been $250k to $500k.
Cameron: No, absolutely. You’re 100 percent on that. Even when it gets to things, like you were saying, the CGTrader and the assets, it is so important to partner yourself and align yourself with a group that knows the landscape. It’s so easy to jump into something that looks really sexy and new, and either spend way too much and not get enough, or to just get something that’s way off-base of what your target was initially. And that’s where I feel like folks like you and I can come in, and help people make sure that they’re staying on-track with what their objectives are, and if this is the right way to go about it, and how to maximize your return based on what you have the budget to provide.
Alan: One of the things that we’ve been very careful to do as we’re advising clients is to keep platform-agnostic. We’ve been approached by some of the bigger headset manufacturers — Microsoft, Hololens and Magic Leap — to build exclusively for them. But if you were advising a dozen different companies, and you’re advising them on their XR strategy, it can be anything from a mobile phone — and maybe that’s good enough, to just put some 3D content on a mobile phone and push it out — vs. creating a multimillion dollar solution on a Hololens. It gets to the point where what is right and what is the best thing for the customer, and keeping a platform- and hardware-agnostic opinion of this, really has served us well in being able to serve many different types of customers.
Cameron: Yeah, definitely, that’s our goal as well. And I was really happy to see at GDC this year — unfortunately, I couldn’t attend, but I watched quite a few of the talks — and there was actually a lot of talk about cross-platform development, and how we’re going to be able to start building one type of output for VR, and have that associate with all of the different headsets. You’ve got all these players, like the Windows headsets, and the VIVE, and the Oculus, that are all coming out with different products, that all have different pros and cons. At the end of the day, when you can reduce the amount of time it takes a creative studio to repurpose or reprogram something for simply a different type of output, the less you’re gonna have to spend overall on the product. So it’s better around for everybody.
Alan: It’s funny you said that, because I got an email this morning talking about the open XR cloud, and basically, it’s a group of different companies — I think Microsoft, Oculus, HTC — everybody got together and said, “we’re making these apps. The distribution needs to be standardized, so that when I push one app, it can be used in Microsoft; it can be used in HTC VIVE; it can be used with an Oculus.” It becomes less onerous on the customer and their development team to build it and push it out. Let’s say, for example, you push out something for the Oculus Go today and then tomorrow you can’t buy the Oculus Go; well, maybe you have to reinvent the whole thing and start over again. But I think if we can standardize these, it’ll really, really help. One of the things that I see as important is also creating some global standardization around letting people know what is AR. So, for example, if you’re reading a textbook, how do you know what page is AR? Charlie Fink was the first episode of the XR for Business Podcast, and we’re talking about his book Convergence, that is fully AR-enabled; you take your phone and point it [at Charlie’s book]. But throughout he thing, it just says “marker” on it. So you know it’s a marker, but there’s got to be some sort of standardization, so that if I’m seeing something, I know — like a QR code — that is in an AR experience; I pull up my phone, I open my camera, and it automatically downloads the app or takes me to the website or whatever. A standardised QR code for augmented reality. I think that’s something that is really necessary.
Cameron: Absolutely. I’ve actually got a copy of that book that arrives tomorrow. I cannot wait to get my hands on it.
Alan: Yeah, it’s amazing. I have a section that I wrote in there, too.
Cameron: Nicely done. Just looking at the images of it, I’m very excited to see it myself, and to show clients the potential of what a simple book turns into when you start applying these emerging technologies.
Alan: In the AR stuff — and it is actually really cool — because what Charlie did was he worked with the partners and the people who helped author of the book and the sponsors and said, “add your own AR.” There’s something from Magic Leap in there, and there’s… I won’t spoil it for people, but some really cool stuff. It’s like hidden Easter eggs within a paper book. So what is the best business use case that you have seen in XR?
Cameron: I’m a bit biased here. I just jump to Bell whenever I hear “best business case” because of the sheer ROI. Because we’ve already talked about that story, I want to take a step back and look at… it’s business, but it’s also a few other things, and that’s what I had a large passion for, going through the MFA program and all that, is how we’re using a lot of this technology to revamp the medicine, the healthcare, the psychology industries. That, to me, is not necessarily looking at dollars and cents. It’s time. It’s how much time can people have healthy and happy with their loved ones? I feel like it’s just as important to talk about as it is a dollar sign ROI.
I’ve seen quite a few things in a lot of my studies. There’s really neat studies; they get into exposure therapy, and a few other technologies and methodologies that go into how to treat post-traumatic stress disorder. How to work with a child who’s autistic that can get into a virtual environment, put a headset on, and walk in and engage in a room full of people. That is ordinarily terrifying, but because we’ve taken away a lot of the social stigma and the permanent consequences of reputation or fear, that it allows people to — over time — take more risk. You look at that, and all of a sudden, you start applying it to dementia. How can we help with reliving past memories? Then you get into things like addiction; how can we start to work to curb the appetite of smoking? And it gets into a slippery slope here, because… I don’t mean to go to off track, but you look at examples of people that do want to stop smoking, and they come to a company that’s created virtual environments to do so. It starts you down the path of, if there’s a company that has the capability to stop you from a craving, could we — if it was the intention of the company — create some type of experience that would create a craving for McDonald’s? Or for Coca-Cola? It takes you down this kind of scary wormhole of a lot of these virtual environments, and a lot of the digital world as we know it not really being well-navigated yet, especially when it comes to legislation.
It’s gonna be so fascinating to see the next five, 10, 15 years around who’s at fault, if someone goes into a virtual reality experience, and comes out of it and has an attitude, and drives a car and maybe hits somebody. It’s all that type of stuff that I feel like it really has to be talked about at some point. And I’m aware I’m way off track of the original question, but really, that to me is, a lot of the health care and the psychology aspect of it is the biggest ROI that personally, to me, means something. My whole family’s military, and that’s what initially set me down the path of looking into post-traumatic stress disorder. The amount of veterans that commit suicide daily is in the 20s. If I could use my entire career to bring that number down by one. That, to me, is the ROI that I’m looking for.
Alan: No, you’re absolutely right, I was just trying to Google DeepMind VR — one of the researchers, there’s a professor that’s been working in PTSD treatment using virtual reality — and I’ll put it in the show notes. But you’re absolutely right that there is a huge need for that. And I think the more we move forward with digital technologies in general, I think we’re going to see this trend towards healthy mentalities and using these technologies for that [grow]. It’s too easy for militaries, or private factions, to use this technology for brainwashing. I actually sit on the IEEE [Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers] Ethics for Mixed Reality Committee, and some of the things we’ve discussed are, who owns the digital space around you? Do you have control? Who owns the eye tracking data? People don’t understand; once you have eye tracking in these glasses…. the thing that somebody mentioned was, if Google’s tracking your eye tracking, they’ll be able to know that you’re gay before you are, by what you’re looking at and how you look at it. These little subtleties, people aren’t considering. And I think we as an industry really need to consider these things. And I think you’re bang on; it can be used for great things, but it could also be used for not-so-great things.
Cameron: Absolutely. And I dug into that — actually, [for] one of my thesis papers back in the master’s program — that was one of the fascinating things is that I looked into; the term that’s kind of taboo, called “subliminal messaging.” And it seems like it was wildly… like, it was discredited, essentially, in the ’90s, as being something that is not a legitimate source of controlling a population. And now that we have this new media we have — especially virtual reality, because it’s so immersive and you have so much presence and agency when you’re in these environments — that, okay, maybe if you flash an image in front of me every once in a while, it might not create a certain desired outcome. But what if — now that you have control of my periphery as well as my main vision — in my peripheral vision, you can set an image out there that just stays there. And no matter how hard I try to look at it, I’m never going to be able to see it. But it is influencing me. It’s fascinating. I could talk with you for hours about the ethics around it, but I find it all…. there are going to be a lot of lawyers that are going to do very well, specifically in digital litigation.
Alan: Dr. Skip Rizzo is the one behind Bravemind, is what it’s called, which is the VR simulators for PTSD. I wanted to just put that in there: Bravemind, Dr. Skip Rizzo. It’s interesting that you brought up the legal ramifications, because this week, the Virtual and Augmented Reality Association, Toronto chapter,is hosting VR and a AR: Through the Legal Lens.
Alan: It’s the first one that Toronto sold out, and I think people are really interested to know, who owns the 3D digital space? What are the digital ramifications, and what are our liabilities? I think it’s really important to dig into this now; we’re really early in this technology, but it’s never too early to think about ethics.
Alan: So with that, what problem in the world do you want to see solved using XR technologies?
Cameron: So, besides the things that we have talked about, I think my biggest passion here — and I know it’s one of yours as well — is education. Not just education for better public school systems in the US. I want a school that has ten dollars of budget to be able to, over the next year, be able to purchase something — anything — that could help students to, essentially, go someplace they could never go. Look at a small school in the Congo, a place where children may never get to go and actually see the Great Barrier Reef in their entire lifetime, and being able to expose them to that. And actually–
Alan: It might not even be there in our lifetime.
Cameron: Yeah, that’s a damn good point. Just being able to take people to places that they can’t go, which to me, is about education, and it’s about everyone getting a chance to see how amazing the world is. But it’s also… it gets back into medical care and psychology. If you can take someone to that quiet, special place in their mind, and help them with visual aids, or can you help them over time by being in an environment that they don’t want to currently be in? And then, also looking into hospice care and things like that, where people can’t physically move around, but you give them this sense of relief. I wouldn’t even be able to quantify. It’s something that’s so important, that people can escape. But it’s also something that ties back to our previous conversation of, if people are able to escape consistently, it can obviously be used for a lot of good. But are we starting to go down the path of Surrogates with Bruce Willis, where everyone just stays home and goes into the body of AI and walks out and engages with the world, because they don’t want to anymore? It’s fascinating, because the biggest potential and the biggest pro of XR, to me, is the biggest potential con for society.
For example, if I go to Japan and I put on AR glasses and I walk out, and it automatically translates all of the signs for me as I’m walking down the street, it’s incredible. That would be life-changing. But now, because I’m not having to work with conversing with people in the street to ask where I’m going, or I’m not having the work to learn Japanese, am I therefore exerting less effort to understand culture, and to try to be more cultured myself? That’s kind of… the joke that I make sometimes is, I just hope that we don’t turn out like the civilization in WALL·E, where everyone is overweight and just flying around, because these technological advances allow us to exert less effort. So, the important thing is just that we — as a society — stay aware of that, and realize that we need to be using all of these advancements to help us use our effort even more so, in ways that can help people tenfold because the technology enables it.
Alan: I think it falls fully in line with my personal mission, which is to inspire and educate future leaders to think in a socially, economically, and environmentally sustainable way. I want to thank you very much for being on the show.
Cameron: Thank you so much for having me, Alan.
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