Taking XR from Pilot to Finished Product, with Foundry 45’s Dave Beck

Developing a pilot or a proof of concept is among the first steps to introducing XR into your industry, but that’s only going to provide so much ROI unless you can fully implement that idea. Dave Beck from Foundry 45 discusses how to make that leap.

Alan: Hey, everyone, Alan Smithson here. Today, we’re speaking with Dave Beck, founder and managing partner at Foundry 45, an immersive technology company that develops enterprise level virtual reality training experiences. They’ve created over 250 experiences for notable clients such as AT&T, Coca-Cola, Delta, and UPS. We’re going to be discussing going from PoCs, pilots, and case studies to full scale deployments. All that and more, on the XR for Business podcast.

Dave, welcome to the show.

Dave: Hey, Alan, thanks so much for having me on here.

Alan: It’s my absolute pleasure. I’m super excited. You guys have been doing so much work in the VR training space. First of all, let’s just talk about, what is Foundry 45? How did you get into this? And we’ll kick it off from there.

Dave: I guess first off, it’s nice to chat with you again. I went back and checked my email, and it looks like the first time you and I talked was way back in 2016. So a lot’s happened in that time, hasn’t it? So, OK, we put VR to work by creating virtual reality training experiences for enterprise partners. And we specialize in industrial– think hard skills type training. I’ve actually been working in immersive technology for almost a decade now. Initially it was in augmented reality, which was something that we added on the side for a SAS product we built, that was actually our main business during that time. And we did a lot of stuff where you would hold up your phone or a piece of industrial equipment, and it would tell you where to wrench on it or how to change the filter, things like that. It was cool technology, but we pretty quickly realized that no one was going to hold a phone or an iPad over a piece of industrial equipment on an oil rig. They weren’t going to set it down and start wrenching on something, and then pick it up with greasy hands. [chuckles] So what we wanted to do was hands-free AR, but the technology just wasn’t there. We exited that company in 2014, and we were trying to figure out what we wanted to do when we grow up.

Alan: You exited your company in 2014. Most people didn’t even know what this technology was when you guys were exiting your first one and getting into the second. Think about that.

Dave: Yeah. I mean, we were trying to figure out what we wanted to be when we grew up. And one of my co-founders bought an early innovators edition of Samsung Gear VR. Do you remember that one?

Alan: I have the one with a solid strap on top.

Dave: Yeah. Did you strap the Android phone into the headset?

Alan: Exactly.

Dave: Yeah. And you could use that camera on the back of the phone as a pass-through.

Alan: Yes. Well, not very well, but yes, you could.

Dave: Well, yeah, it’s funny. You know where this is going, right? Because we wanted to use it for hands-free AR, but it didn’t work at all.

Alan: Not without making people very sick.

Dave: Yeah, the processor wasn’t good enough. It was super laggy, which kind of made it nauseating. So that wasn’t going to work. But wow, VR was awesome. That’s when we made the decision to start down our current path.

Alan: And that was before ARCore and ARKit. So planer tracking really wasn’t a thing. Slim mapping, it was not that easy to do.

Dave: Yeah. I mean, just being able to do something on a 2D plane was one thing. But yeah, if you wanted to actually render something in three dimensions on top of a physical product, it was super hard.

Alan: We did one of the very first WebAR projects in the world, and it sucked. Oh my god. It was so hard to do. We got it done, but man! There was no tools, there was no nothing, you’re just guessing at things.

Dave: You make it up as you go.

Alan: Indeed. Carry on, Dave, sorry.

Dave: Yeah. I was just saying, that was basically how we started down our current path. We had spent most of her time in AR, but we were blown away with this new VR device. And the toolchain for developing in virtual reality was — is — very similar to augmented reality. And just kind of never looked back.

Alan: So, OK, now you’re doing training with glasses. The headsets have come a long way. We have tetherless, wireless headsets. On the other end of the spectrum, we’ve got the Varjo headset that’s got human eye resolution. Where do you find your customers are kind of gravitating towards? Are they looking for photo-real or does it matter to them? Is it just about the experience in training? What is your experience in that?

Dave: I think it’s all about the experience. Different headsets work for different environments. We have played around the Varjo but have not actually developed anything for commercial use on it, because the people that we work with just have kind of a hard time stomaching the cost. It’s amazing, it’s pretty. I think that’s where everything’s going. But today, the biggest thing, the biggest trend that we see is moving from the PC based platforms — the HTC Vives and the Oculus Rifts — to the Android based platforms like Quest and Vive Focus Plus. Pico Neo 2 is another new one that that’s just come on recently, it’s pretty interesting.

Alan: I read SkarredGhost’s — Anthony Vitillo’s — review on it. It seems amazing, actually.

Dave: Yeah. We got a chance to play around with one of the early beta editions. Right now, the big challenge in that space is that the best quality headset that’s out there is the Oculus Quest. Unfortunately, the terms and conditions of Oculus/Facebook are such that it doesn’t play nice with the enterprise IT infrastructures that we work with.

Alan: And that’s a massive market opportunity for Pico.

Dave: For sure. It definitely is.

Alan: I want to focus this this question, because I want to get right to the meat and potatoes of this. The headsets are out there. You guys are making training. What types of training? You said physical things, where you’re training on maybe a rig. Where is the most value being created and how do you scale that?

Dave: Where we find the most value is really on the procedural training side. That’s training where there’s only one right way to do things. So as I was saying before, think hard skills, things where there’s a standard operating procedure. There’s a lot of great VR training experiences for soft skills, but at heart Foundry 45 is a company of engineers and scientists. So we’re good at taking complex training procedures and realizing them in VR. And I think most importantly, the benefits are measurable in that space, so we can actually demonstrate an ROI for our clients there.

Alan: So where is the ROI? If I’m an oil and gas company and I say, “Hey, look, we got all sorts of training. Nobody can train properly, COVID times. Where do we start?”

Dave: For us, there’s probably three main areas where we most often find the ROI. The first is quicker time to mastery. So we’re currently working with a Fortune 100 logistics company that’s actually cutting their training time and almost half, by using virtual reality. And that’s gigantic savings. The second one is less equipment downtime. A lot of areas where we work, process line downtime is a huge cost. So training operators or maintenance personnel virtually, that saves a ton of money. And then the last one is lowering costs on travel to training environments.

Alan: Well, now you can’t even travel.

Dave: [laughs]

Alan: So lowering costs… none of your people can travel, but that means they also can’t train.

Dave: Yeah, right. I mean, you want to train your US-based team on your new production line, but it’s being produced in Germany. Yeah, you can’t get over there, but now you can do it in VR.

Alan: So are you seeing [that] most of these are kind of bespoke to the individual customers? And if so, how does it scale in terms of how does a customer then take maybe a base scenario and start to make changes themselves? Because if you have a training department, they don’t want to be coming to a third party for every single thing. So how does that work?

Dave: I think we’re pretty much in the early stages of that. There’s a lot of platforms out there that are purporting to be the WordPress of VR, for example.

Alan: Is there anything you’ve seen that– the only one I saw so far is Enduvo, actually. It allowed you to import some videos and 3D models. It was very intuitive, but not at the level of what you’re talking about, I think

Dave: Most of what we’ve seen are things that are more on the 360 video side than the immersive VR space, which is where we exclusively work. I mean, there are a few that are in early stage right now, that are promising. We productize our offering by having a kind of standard toolkit that we work from. But today it’s still a relationship where if we work with somebody and they want to hit pause and move forward, then they’re going to have the intellectual property that we’ve developed for them as part of the process, to be able to actually work on as well. But having an instructional designer at a Fortune 100 being able to create their own content, in my opinion, I don’t think we’re quite there yet.

Alan: Ok, how long do you figure? Because the tools are getting better day by day, like it’s just leaps and bounds. So based on the stuff that you’re working on, because you guys know what it takes to make this.

Dave: I guess there’s two ends of the spectrum. So what’s good enough to actually get value from? What’s the minimum viable training product, if you will? And if there’s something there that’s– the things that I see that are on the more generic end of that spectrum are typically going to be opportunities that are ones that get stamped out that are the same — could be diversity inclusion training, or slip and fall training, or something like that — where the same piece can be sold over and over. And we do some work with cleanroom training that can actually be sold over and over as well. Those things, that’s kind of the first step into that before being able to have somebody, I think, actually be able to develop their own.

Alan: It’s mainly about making some content that can be reused by multiple entities, maybe just change the logo on the wall. And it’s the same kind of– so almost like WHMIS training, or chemical training, standard fire safety training in places. I actually tried a weird thing at a conference once that it’s like– if you ever tried the one where you kind of walk and your feet are slippery and you kind of walk on a disk?

Dave: Oh, like an omnidirectional–

Alan: Yeah, like an omnidirectional [treadmill].

Dave: There’s actually one in our building. Not that I’ve been there recently but…

Alan: Oh, this was crazy. So I was walking, and as I’m walking — because I was harnessed in — and it was pivoting up and it was a fire safety training. So I was walking around in VR but I was using my feet to walk, which was a strange thing, because you’re kind of hanging from this thing and your feet are kind of dangling below you. It made me so sick. [laughs] I was like, “OK, we can’t use this.”

Dave: I mean, the one that we have is the Omni by Virtuix.

Alan: Yeah, yeah, the Virtuix.

Dave: Yeah. I mean, for me, I guess in general, when we develop experiences for people, there’s always questions around can we use haptic gloves, or can we use a special vest, or all these kind of peripheral things, or create something that’s really specific to a chair or something.

Alan: A level of– it’s exponentially more difficult, each thing you add, for now. until they all become–

Dave: We always encourage people to, until those things are more baked, I think there’s very good use cases for them, so there’s very specific use cases for them, but typically when we’re developing things, we want the headset to be applicable to more than one specific operative. So, for example, Delta Airlines could buy a deicing VR simulator. But it’s a $100,000 piece of equipment that only does deicing and sits in one place.

Alan: I’ve actually been in that boring simulator.

Dave: Which is really cool.

Alan: It’s super cool. But you’re like, “Wow, this job sucks.” Because it just goes very slow. It’s exactly what the machine does. And you can’t have this thing flying around.

Dave: Yeah. And so for 1/100 of the cost of the hardware, you won’t have the same exact feel. Your muscle memory may not be exact for some of the pieces. We do training on light rail. And there’s a throttle, and we spent a long time talking about, well, you’re not going to get the feel of the throttle, or in industrial you’re not going to get the torque of the wrench.

Alan: But does it matter?

Dave: Right, exactly. The idea is that you need to get these steps, you need to do these steps in order, and you need to understand them. If the point is that we’re trying to teach somebody how to turn a wrench, that’s just not– it’s not good for that right now.

Alan: Understood. I’ve actually tried it. I’ve tried weighted controllers and I’ve tried the haptics gloves. And it does add a whole new dimension to things, but not ready for prime time. I agree with you on that, 100 percent. So you’re saying then the standalone headsets is kind of what’s driving this mass adoption, and when I say mass adoption, I mean within the enterprise, because the whole idea is that you’ve been building lots of PoCs and pilots and building on a body of knowledge, and now you’re executing this at scale. So what is the kind of feedback, can you talk about any specific things where this company saved X amount?

Dave: There’s a little bit of a challenge today, because there’s so many different– there’s a lot of internal data that shows huge returns of investment. But the companies, most of the large companies we work with are very hesitant to share their data externally. They talk about qualitative things, but not actually hard numbers. That’s been a challenge for us, because that question comes up all the time. So what we’ve done is we partnered with a local university to create our own data. It’s slow going, because of all the pandemic concerns. But we do– we actually started on it in the spring and then it’s been pushed off. So we’re hoping to have some good data by that we can share before end of year. So there’s kind of more to come there.

Alan: That’s great. It’s one of the questions that we get asked most. And it’s the same answer. People don’t want to share exact numbers and it’s interesting, because I’ve been able to pull out a lot of data out of people on this podcast, they’ve been gracious enough to share it. Mohamed Rajani talking about returns at Macey’s and giving specific numbers, and Jonathan Moss at Sprint talking about specific costs and numbers. When people are able to share these, that’s when it really helps the industry a lot. So I’m glad to see what you’re doing with the university.

Dave: Yeah, I do have one kind of piece of anec-data that was interesting. Just in the last week, I was at a senior leadership meeting at a Fortune 100, and they’re literally talking about the effect on their share price that the VR training work that we’re doing could potentially have. If that gives you a sense of how important this is to some folks.

Alan: People are looking out like, what are you doing to be an industry leader now? What are you doing? Are you– why aren’t you using the kick-ass technologies that exist? I think there’s a definite shift in mindset around this, and the fact that they’re thinking about the link between deploying this technology and their share price, that’s very interesting.

Dave: Yeah. And I mean, if you want a specific example from a different company, one that we’ve been working with for a while is Delta Airlines, and they have this huge challenge to train the people that are on the ramp, which is the area underneath the plane, to get a plane in and out quickly and safely. They can’t train on an active jetway. They can’t take a plane out of service, and they can’t even get employees badged by the FAA for ever. So their solution’s VR training and the results after putting thousands of employees through it are– the less concrete one is just the employee satisfaction piece, where they’re actually saying they want to do more training, which never happens. But then–

Alan: Never, ever. No one ever says, “Please give me some more phone training.”

Dave: Yeah. “Take me out of my actual job to do training.” The cost of travel are way down and all these other pieces actually get them excited to do a lot more. And those are the things that get us excited.

Alan: How ironic that an airline would think about the cost of travel reduction?

Dave: I know! But It’s a huge, I mean–

Alan: But it’s such a universal thing. People don’t want to pay to fly people around the country to learn something they can do with a $500 headset.

Dave: Right. Somebody’s got to pay for that seat, right?

Alan: Exactly. So Dave, you’ve done all these hundreds and hundreds of experiences, you’re starting to kind of see the ones that repeat, you’re able to resell those. What’s next? Do you build like a CMS, like a central repository of these experiences and say for $100 a month per employee, you can have access to this? How do you then scale this?

Dave: Yeah. So for us, the most interesting conversation that we’re having right now is all around what’s beyond the proof of concept. How do you actually take VR training and get it out throughout the enterprise? And we usually talk about things in kind of two steps. The first one is to create your experience. And we’ve kind of already talked a little bit about these types of things. But start with your goal in mind. Stay really close to the development process. Get in the headset as much as possible. And then pilot, you have to pilot your content, because there’s bound to be improvements. And once you put it in front of the intended audience, there’s going to be changes, you’ve got to budget time for that. So that’s just kind of the first step. The second step after you’ve– you like what you have, you’ve socialized it around the business, you’re getting buy-in from interested parties. All those are really important. But more important is that how do you actually get a return on it? The next step is to deploy it. And you can either take that content to new plants or locations, get more people involved. You can create more content as you’re honing in on where you’re getting the most bang for your buck. For example, with the Delta thing, they started with plane inspections and then quickly followed with other related activities. People that hold up the flashlights on, that’s called marshalling. That’s a great one. But then, yeah–

Alan: I want to try that!

Dave: It’s amazing.

Alan: Can I try that?

Dave: Yeah, definitely. When next time you come down to Atlanta. So, yeah, the next step that is very important is to actually integrate it directly with your internal IT systems. A lot of people have an LMS or a Learning Management System. Basically what we’ll do is we’ll have the VR content live inside there in the same way that you would have your 2D video content or your online skills assessments. And that’s super important, because you don’t want to have to keep track of your VR training in a file cabinet off to the side or something, and you don’t want to have to have different logins for your employees. So for the VR training work that we do, we’ll tie it in so that everything goes through a Cornerstone or Saba or SuccessFactors or something.

Alan: That really completes the circle. How do you deal with device management? That’s another question that’s come up a few times on this podcast. You figure that’s going to be built into the system kind of thing, or is that a third party?

Dave: So we actually developed our own kind of virtual reality management system to be able to do that, to stand up multiple instances of the same experience at different locations around the world. Ultimately, the way that I believe that should be managed is just there’s plenty of good MDM solutions out there, and there’s a lot of people that are actually working on it right now. And we’re working with some of them directly. I think, especially as we go to more Android based mobile platforms, having a solution out there that is a great way to keep track of that is definitely important.

Alan: And I think the other thing is going to be revisioning or keeping track of who changes what as it goes through.

Dave: Yeah, definitely.

Alan: Today you’re building your own toolset and then you’re going, “Oh, I guess if we need it, everybody is going to need it.” What’s next on the radar as far as out there R&D stuff? What are the things that get you going, like “Man, if we can just solve this problem?”

Dave: Well–

Alan: You don’t have to answer.

Dave: No, no! What’s interesting for us, I think, on the technical– on the hardware side, everything is getting smaller, cheaper, better, faster, the typical technology curve. But with experiences, I think we’re really just scraping the surface. People are just figuring out what’s working, what’s not working. And a lot of that is trial and error. So obviously, working with somebody who’s been there, done that is helpful. Mobile, for me, that’s where it’s at right now. It’s just so much easier to deploy. It’s less expensive. And just put it on and go.

Alan: Indeed, it has the potential for massive scale. What problem in the world do you want to see solved using XR technology and why?

Dave: Overall, I guess for a second, let me mention kind of the the macro environment that we’re in and the effect that’s had on everyone. I mean, it’s been a crazy few months here. Training is more important now than ever. And that’s not just with new employees. Reskilling and upskilling are super important, too. We have one client who’s transitioning from conventional facilities to more automated ones. They have a very strong, very tenured staff, and they don’t want to just push them aside, so they’re using VR training to help upskill them for new roles and new environments. And I think for us, that’s the most exciting thing right now, being able to impact people’s success in their job, workforce wellness for them. That’s what gets us really excited. That’s what gets us up every day and inspires us to do more.

Alan: Amazing. Thanks for listening. This has been the XR for Business podcast with your host, Alan Smithson and today’s guest, Dave Beck. If you want to learn more about the great work Dave and his team are doing, visit foundry45.com.

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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