It wasn’t long ago that the concept of having a personal relationship with computers was the stuff of science fiction — everything from HAL 9000 to V’Ger posited a far-out future when that would start to happen. Well, according to Mike Pell — author of THE AGE OF SMART INFORMATION — that time is now.
Alan: Welcome to the XR for Business Podcast with your host, Alan Smithson. Today’s guest is somebody absolutely spectacular. Mr. Mike Powell, he is the head of the Microsoft Garage and the author of “Age of Smart Information,” a new book about how artificial intelligence and spatial computing will transform the way we communicate forever. Find the latest on Mike at futuristic.com and excerpts from his new book, at theageofsmartinformation.com.
Mike, welcome to the show.
Mike: Thank you, Alan. My pleasure to be here.
Alan: It’s so exciting. I was gifted your book actually by a good friend of mine, John Bizzell. And we had lunch and he’s “Oh, you haven’t read this book.” And I guess he sent it to me on Amazon. I got it the next day, and I’ve been just voraciously reading this book since, I’m about halfway through. But man, your book has really opened my eyes to how everything around us will not only have the data available, but it’ll be in context to our personal needs. And it’s really incredible. So how did you– just kind of walk us through your journey of how you went from inventing PDFs, to writing books on smart information?
Mike: It’s a long story, but I’ll try to keep it really short. You’re right, a lot of this did sort of form when I was back in the early 90s when I was working on Acrobat with some of my friends at Adobe. Back then, when we were working on the very first electronic documents for interchange, it was very apparent that people were not going to enjoy reading these things like sitting upright and being uncomfortable. You really needed some hardware and software that didn’t exist at that point to enjoy the information, right. To enjoy whether it was book or documents or reports, whatever it is you were reading. And so at that time, I started to think a lot about how the information itself — you know, the thing that we were reading — was so dead and lifeless. I guess it was amazing that you could now transfer to other places when people around the world could see exactly what you were trying to say. But the thoughts about how there was always more to it started to percolate back then. And over my career, I’ve always had the good fortune of working on the leading edge of technology. So I was very early into 3D and interactive graphics and visualization, and I started to do a lot of experiments with bringing information to life. I’ve always been fascinated with communications, helping people communicate as clearly as they can. And so that was really the start of a lot of this, was trying to see what we can do to help people be able to understand and communicate better by using the information, the things that we create every day, whether that’s tweets or emails or books or movies or music, doesn’t matter. Whatever the medium is that you’re communicating in, there’s always so much more that can be brought out that we as people understand inherently, but yet are never reflected in that final form, that piece of communication comes in. So that’s where we started.
Alan: So let’s unpack that. So, you know, I’m reading a PDF, then you guys probably added the ability to have hyperlinks and then what else can you add. Now you’re looking at, “OK, what does the world look like when the computers are no longer bound by the 16 by 9 rectangular shape?”
Mike: Yeah, exactly. That was part of that original thought. You need to be able to enjoy, or absorb whatever it is, or create whatever it is in the current context of what you’re doing. So lots of people have worked on this problem, but now we’re getting to the point where it’s getting easier and it’s getting easier for us to understand what you’re doing right now, where you are, what the situation calls for. And then having that information — that whatever it is, that artifact is that you’re looking at or creating — having that reflect the best way for you to absorb or communicate in your current context. And that means that everything, all these objects that we create and consume will be very flexible in the way that they can present themselves, depending on– if you’re walking down the street with an Airbud in, you’ll be getting your information in audio. If you’re in your home and you have a large screen available, maybe it will be presented or projected based on that. If you’re in the office or at school and you have access to laptops or other people’s mobile devices, being able to share things on that. So the information itself is the one that’s going to become more smart. People will have to do less work to be able to consume. And the computers and the systems that we create will be doing more of the work to help us get the best information in the right way.
Alan: You know, I read a quote yesterday and it was, “It’s no longer about what you know, because everybody has access to Google, and Google knows everything. So it’s no longer about what you know, it’s how you use that knowledge to create new and novel things.” And I thought that was interesting. And one of the quotes from your book — I’m going to read a bunch of quotes from your book because I think people need to hear this stuff — “In the not too distant future, our most frequent interactions and conversations may well be with our devices and information, rather than real people. Oh, wait, that already happened.” That quote there just stuck with me because I was thinking, “Oh my God, how much time do we spend looking at our phones?” And I look at my teenage daughter — she’s 15 — she’ll be sitting with a group of her friends, and they’re all together, all on their phones.
Mike: Yeah, I’ve observed that a few times myself. Well, the interesting thing, too, is people are starting to get more comfortable talking to devices, especially in public places. Now, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen people talk to Siri, or ask Alexa for something. And they’re just getting more and more comfortable having conversational exchanges with pieces of hardware and software. And that’s kind of a big leap over where we were. People even talk to their remotes now, right? Like, if you have Comcast Xfinity, they have the remote that will do all of the finding your favorite shows just by talking to it. That’s become so easy for some people, that it’s just natural now. For that to extend into what we do in the enterprise and certainly in school, being able to be more conversational with our information, with the things that we are working with the most.
Alan: I got to– when I was at CES this year, I got to try Kopin. They make glasses and stuff for– they make the actual hardware for smart glasses. And one of the things that they had was this thing called Whisper… something technology, and it had microphones built into the glasses that allowed me to command the glasses to do whatever I wanted. I could ask them questions, whatever. But the great thing was that the person standing right in front of me was seeing the same commands and it wasn’t triggering it. And so being able to whisper commands because, you know, not everybody wants to sit on the train into work and be yelling at their glasses. My wife and I have the thing where you see people walking down the street: are they crazy, or are they on the phone? Do they have a earbud in, or are they just talking to themselves? So it’s one of those things where we still haven’t really figured out what the interactions are gonna be. Is it, am I going to look at something and wink, or am I going to wave my hand, or am I going to talk to it? Obviously, speech is going to be a big part of it and it’s probably gonna be all these things. How do you think we’re going to interact with the technology as we move into glasses?
Mike: Yeah. So glasses won’t be the only thing that we’re interacting with. You just touched on it very well. Whether it’s your mobile device, or your laptop or desktop at work or school, or your X-Box, or Alexa, whatever you have at home. We’re gonna have to be able — as designers, as experienced designers — we have to do a better job of figuring out how to let you have those conversations when they’re appropriate and when they’re needed with a device, without making it feel strange. Like you were just saying, someone walking down the street talking to themselves. Well, it’s hard to avoid that because there’s not someone walking next to them, right? Like, of course you’re going to look a little strange. But in the office, if you’re working out in an open space — like many of us do — we have conversations all the time, right? You may be sitting at your desk and sort of shouting across the room or talking to someone sitting next to you. That’s all considered very natural. But it’s because there’s a person, right? There’s sort of an entity that you’re conversing with. And in the same way, the agents that we have today — the Siris and Cortanas and Alexas — those will become more personified, right? Sort of embodied AIs that will feel like you are talking more to something that has the characteristics of a person. So it won’t be so strange even for people around you because of the conversation, the back and forth and the interaction with those agents will feel more natural.
Alan: It’s getting interesting how the conversations with Siri and Alexa and Google Home, they’re just– I don’t know if we’re learning how to ask the right questions, or it’s getting smarter in knowing what we actually mean, or a little bit of both. And you have this part of the book where you talk about engineering clarity and quantifying the science of how to synthesize the moment of clarity is our quest now. Can you unpack that a bit?
Mike: Yeah, so go back to what you just mentioned, we’re still sort of in the uncanny valley of conversational UI, right? There’s still something a bit strained and a bit unnatural about it. But we will cross that very quickly. But in the getting to clarity, that’s one of the things that’s fascinated me for a very long time is — as someone who does of talks, I talk to people all the time — being clear is sort of an art, right? There’s not a lot of science to it. I guess you can prepare slides in a particular way. You can get your talking points down, very articulate and in proper order. But there is still something a bit intangible about getting somebody to that that a-ha moment, that that moment of clarity. And there is no reason with all of the things that we have at our disposal right now, machine learning, reinforcement learning, all of the presentation technologies involved with XR. There’s no reason why we can’t apply a lot of our engineering talent and time to figuring out what is it exactly that gets somebody to that moment of understanding. You know, it’s not voodoo, right? It’s not like this black art. There is a way to do it. And with so much work and brain science going on, coupled with AI and XR, we will be able to actually get you there faster, which has huge implications for education, certainly, and enterprise communication.
Alan: Well, you spoke the right language for me. My mission in life is to inspire and educate future leaders to think and act in a socially, economically and environmentally sustainable way. And I believe truly that we can completely democratize education, give everybody the best possible education, by– my goal is by 2037. I just picked a random date in the future.
Alan: I figured, it’s going to take 15 years for us to figure out all the tech and then another two years to scale it. But if you think about, let’s say in five years we wear glasses, and all the processing power is moving to the cloud. I just did an interview with the head of XR for Verizon, and they’re building systems that will allow cloud edge computing that are real time edge computing, meaning I no longer have to have any computing power on my phone or device or glasses. I can push it all into the cloud. And as long as I’m within a 5G radius, I have the world’s most powerful computers working for me, real time. You know, that will unlock education and training and learning at a whole different level. And then when you apply specific algorithms around personalization and contextualization of that data as needed real time, but also delivering more of that. So, you know, Netflix delivers content as I watch more movies, but we don’t do that for education at all in our education systems. They’re not really set up to take advantage of exponential technologies. In fact, they’re set up to not take advantage of any of those technologies. And over the years, it took 20 years to get computers in schools. We don’t have 20 years to wait anymore as these technologies start to move. In the next 10 years, majority of jobs that will be created don’t exist yet. And we don’t know how to start training people for jobs that don’t exist yet. So being able to give education at scale at the time of need and hyper contextualized is very important. And what you’re talking about here is figuring out that interaction between us and the devices that is natural and simplifies our life rather than complicates it.
Mike: Yeah, that’s precisely why we started an experiment here in the Microsoft Garage, working in conjunction with Dr. Fabio Zambetta of RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia. I had this idea — based on some of the work in the book and based on Fabio’s work with reinforcement learning — of creating what we’re calling the adaptive textbook. It’s an experiment in figuring out how we can actually make what you described, that hyper contextualized textbook or way of learning that adapts itself to the way that the person learns, the right message or the right medium for the situation, and also their history of what’s worked for them and what hasn’t. So it’s been a very successful partnership. It’s super fascinating to work on this because it’s going for what you describe. How can we be the best we can for students? How can we present the information in the best way for them to be able to make sense of it and be able to build on that?
Alan: It’s a big undertaking, right? But as these technologies start to– and I think it’s going to start — and you’re probably already seeing it — it’s starting in enterprise. All the big companies are starting to go, “Oh, OK, well, we’ll experiment with it. Oh, the experiments yielded 100 percent better results. Amazing. OK, well, let’s let’s move it forward.” And so, I think personally it’s gonna be this road to development using enterprise as the guinea pig, I guess, would be the easiest way to describe it. Well, how do you see kind of schools adopting this this new adaptive textbook?
Mike: Well, right now, it’s just an experiment. But the ideas are out there. And certainly teachers are grasping onto this notion that virtual reality is a great boon to immersing kids in particular things, whether it’s physics or being able to study, you know, things about the ocean. There’s lots of applications for that. Augmented reality is being used in different ways, being able to actually be able to put more than what’s on the surface level. And that’s sort of where I dug in, as far as education and the enterprise. I tried to sort of take it a step further and say, you know what, it it’s not enough to augment physical object or something digital that already exists. Let’s actually inject some intelligence and presentation capability into those digital artifacts themselves and see how that can actually help propel all this forward. So that’s sort of where I laid out a roadmap in the book of how this will work, where it will go, and education and the enterprise itself will be the headpins for this, because there’s just such fantastic applications for it, it’s so obvious to everyone how this can help people immediately. And that’s probably why you’re seeing a lot of the big wins in the enterprise coming in the training space, because you can take something that’s been difficult and costly and really make it not only better, but super successful for those people.
Alan: What are some of the use cases that you’re seeing that are starting to be used, not just experimentally? Because I think that’s one of the problems with this technology is people– companies will jump in, they’ll do a POC, they’ll do a pilot, and then it gets stuck between that pilot phase and then rolling it out at scale because, change is difficult. Where are you seeing things moving forward in a real measurable way?
Mike: Yeah, yeah. I always like to say “change is good unless it’s bad.” Yeah, there’s some really great applications that we’re seeing in the enterprise. Certainly if you look at the Microsoft Dynamics line of mixed reality products that we brought out. Being able to do first line worker assistance, right? Having someone be able to help you with a task or be able to guide you through something is super interesting, valuable, and something that’s not going to go away. Being able to have a Hololens on and interact with people, get to the documentation or training that you need on the spot is something that we’ve all known would come along eventually and now actually exists. And we’re doing quite well with that. Same thing with laying out and moving equipment within the manufacturing or factory floors, being able to use all the power of mixed reality to place objects, scale them, align them, make sure that construction projects are going on the pace that they should be going. Those are the applications that are really paying out in the short term.
Alan: I think so. I think the next phase of this is –band you touched on it in the book — allowing people to author content. You have this kind of mantra that you can be a consumer of content, which we all are, and you can also be a creator of content, which I think more and more people are, with things like TikTok and Instagram. People have become a lot more creative, they’re starting to make things and author things, and being able to create tools that allow anybody to make AR or VR simply, I think will unlock the true potential of it.
One of the things you mentioned in the book is “authoring content will be hugely affected by an injection of services and platforms to create smart information containers, that are capable of housing multiple representations of the same information in a multitude of forms.” Whether you’re wearing a Hololens or you’re wearing Bose AR glasses. You’ve got a smartphone, a computer screen. There’s so many ways to consume content. How do we make it easy for people to build once and have it recognized by all the different mediums? That I think is a big challenge as well.
Mike: Yeah, well, as discussed in the book, the tool sets are really where all of the work is gonna be done. We’ve relied on people to create multiple forms of content forever, right? And we all know it’s a giant pain to do that. It’s just sometimes we just don’t even have enough time; even if we have the talent, just don’t have enough time. So, for example, we could take this podcast in the not too distant future. You can use it as just audio only or you can get the transcript. You can have that transcript translated into however many dozens of languages instantly. You can have this turn into, let’s say, a visual presentation just by the topics that we’re talking about being auto pulled in by some AI machine learning programs. So there are things that we know are possible, but the tool sets have just not been updated yet. And that’s where we’re getting to right now, is being able to have these AI assisted authoring tools that will do a lot of the heavy lifting for you, whether it’s for creating educational plans. So a teacher is preparing a plan on physics. They can do what they normally do. But in the course of doing that, the tool that they’re using will actually pull in a whole bunch of other information and create different forms of that. So the students can either listen to the lecture, or see the lecture, or experience it even in a virtual reality or mixed reality environment.
Alan: That’s really exciting. And to your point, we actually use an AI subscription service to transcribe all of these episodes and then we actually have a person go through and pick out all the quotes and do that. But we’re using like five different SAS based services to take the podcast interview, to transcribe it, to create it into a little video that’s like a video header and then make it available as a blog post. Make it available. I’d never thought of different languages as well. But yeah, this is something that we’re already doing and we don’t even think of. It was like, how do we maximize the content?
Mike: Yeah, so the service that we’re using — you and I are using right now — to record this conversation can easily be adapted to generate all of those different forms. It’s just a matter of the tool manufacturer. You know, the service provider took it all together. I mean, all of the tech exists. It’s just in different places.
Alan: Well, that is interesting you say that because our new business model — and then we’ve been working on this for about six months, trying to figure it out — is actually to build a centralized hub that allows all the different startups to tap into one central hub, standardize their product offerings to a certain level that is commensurate with doing business with corporate’s. And then that way, they can do business with corporate’s without having to pitch everybody in. You have one centralized platform for learning and any technology that’s invented as we move forward — whether it’s AI or VR, XR, or whatever it is — can just plug right into this platform. And that way companies don’t have to be constantly on the lookout for new technologies. They have one platform with all the new technology always there. And it’s almost like an Amazon model where we take a small percentage and and go from there. But the idea with that is that we couldn’t possibly build even if it was just 360 video. If we just focus on 360, you couldn’t possibly build all the tools necessary to deliver that and keep it future relevant. So by building the platform by which other startups, other smarter people around the world who are constantly developing new tools can plug into. I think that will future proof learning for the long time. For the long term.
Mike: Yeah, it’s always great to put a platform together where you’re building on the amazing work of other people. It certainly is something that has shown its value in lots of different applications. Just take the XR space. I mean, look at how many people have now banded together to try to get some standardization, right? Whether it’s in the tooling or the playback.
Mike: Yeah, I mean, that’s definitely the way to go. It’s difficult to get this stuff to go quickly because when you’ve built tools for a very long time, when you’re building tools, you’re trying to add the next most relevant thing for your customers. And as you describe very well, this is a big investment, to create a better platform that’s more powerful to be able to have things plug in to do this autogeneration. But it will happen. It’s so obvious that that’s the missing piece for what we’ve been trying to do.
Alan: Yeah, you’re absolutely right. I just kept thinking how can we possibly build all the tools that are gonna be needed for learning? It’s impossible. You break your brain on it, you’re going, “Okay, well, this…” You end up just crying in the corner, shaking a bit.
Mike: Yeah, well, everybody, every entrepreneur and everyone, and any size company who wants– has big dreams like this and really wants to make it happen, realizes very quickly that you’ve got a call on the community, and do it at that level. So I’m sure that you’ll have a lot of success in pulling people together for that reason, because it is the next big thing for us to work on. And for me, throughout the book I’m just trying to show people that there’s more to it than this, that things are actually going to invert. So we will no longer be spending all of our time on the tools, because right now you and I and everybody else spends an inordinate amount of time on our tooling. Whether that’s Twitter or Word or After Effects or ProTools, whatever it is you’re using. People spend so much time in the creation phase and we can help so much. You know, there’s so much more to be done from the tool side to help you create even more forms. And then on the playback side, now, the playback mechanisms — as we talked about earlier — will get so smart they’ll realize what the best form, what the best medium is to communicate to you at that particular time.
Alan: Yeah, and I think one of the points that you make is making things contextually relevant, you know, meaning when you’re looking at a space, the data that you require. And then if we fast forward maybe 10 years — let’s take 10 years out, put our crazy hats on and look out 10 years — we should be able to just think something and the information appears to us. We shouldn’t even have to talk to it, it should just appear as we need it in context. There’s a list of–
Mike: Which is exactly how your brain works today, right?
Mike: We already know how to do that. That’s sort of my point, too, as we’re trying to build mechanisms for people to create things in the way that’s convenient for us, the tool builder. Not in the way that’s convenient for people. And as the industry experience designers have gotten better and better over the last decade at trying to make things more natural. That’s where a lot of the great work with Alexa and Siri and Cortana and those types of agents have come from. And we will close that gap. And I don’t think it’ll be 10 years. But you’re right. At a certain point, you will be able to conjure whatever the information is, whether by thinking or by speaking or by gesturing. And it won’t be as difficult as it is today.
Alan: It is difficult today. It’s a pain in the ass. You put a Hololens on, it’s great. And then I have to point out something, and click it in a certain way and– as we move to eye tracking, I think that will add a whole new element. Being able to collect millions of people’s information about their eye tracking, what they’re looking at, that will create this contextual loop of information, meaning we collect information, we study what people were actually looking for because, of course, it’s going to make mistakes when you ask for directions to X and it gives you directions to Y and then, of course, it gets corrected. So it’s kind of like autonomous vehicles in a way that when one car gets in an accident, every car learns to get better. And I tried to explain this to my brother and he couldn’t believe me that within five years we’ll have long transport trucks on the road that just drive themselves and don’t have anybody driving. Because I said, “look, every time a car gets in an accident, you know, with a person driving, nobody gets smarter, nobody gets better.” That person just goes, “Oh shit, I got in an accident.” But when an autonomous vehicle gets in an accident, every single car in the fleet gets updated with new information on how to prevent that from happening again.
Mike: Exactly. That’s the new network effect, right? We saw it first with Moore’s Law, with hardware and electronics. Now we saw with social media groups growing, and the power of social. But now you’re right, with these networks, the interconnected neural networks that are always learning machine learning algorithms, always running in the background. We are able to get smarter all the time to everyone’s benefit. And the same holds true for information, whether it’s for education or in the enterprise. That kind of stuff is super exciting because all of a sudden something that was in isolation is now connected. And not only is it connected, it’s getting better or more correct or more accurate or more clear by the network effect.
Alan: Absolutely. And it’s every day improving. I’m actually speaking with one of your colleagues, Dan Ayoub from Microsoft Education, at the Orlando Science Center. And we’re talking about how extended reality or XR is transforming education and training globally. The work that you guys are doing in the Garage, you’re probably working on things that won’t see the light of day — or may never see the light of day — but they’re building foundations for things that will come in five, ten years. So what is your roadmap look like, as far as where everybody wants to know what are what are we gonna do in the 3, 5, 10 year roadmap, 15, if you can look out that far. What is your roadmap look like? As far as when will we wear glasses? How will they work? How will it all work together? Where do you see this going in the next five to ten?
Mike: Yeah. Well, clearly, you know, all the trends that we see now will accelerate. So I’m a big fan of how Ray Kurzweil studies the acceleration of our technology trends. And so I do think everything that you notice today will be sort of perfected within the next few years, meaning we will be able to have multi experience or multi-person experiences that are seamless, right? And just feel right. Whether it’s glasses, or headsets, or earbuds, or some new type of mobile, or like whether it’s a watch, or some kind of other wearable device. The technology, just as it always has, will continue to get smaller, be more embedded. I do think that we are going to get to a point very quickly where the wearable aspect of things will become more important. So right now, we carry our laptops, we carry our mobile devices and we carry our headsets even for that matter. And we will sort of crossover to the point where it becomes a more normal and regular part of our wardrobe, like the kinds of things that we will always have with us. So I think that’s–
Alan: Yeah, I have a pair of North glasses, actually, and they’re pretty cool.
Mike: Yeah, yeah. Well, just imagine, there’s just lots of people as interesting as how my conversation with someone the other day about Apple Watch. And I think it’s great news, like nice piece of work. It’s created an interesting side effect, which is, you know how when you’re in a meeting and someone — or at the dinner table for that matter — and someone pulls out their phone and they start fussing with it and your ear’s sort of put off by that.
Alan: It sucks. Stop doing that. It’s a pain in the ass. You’re disconnecting from the conversation you’re in. Sorry.
Mike: Right. Well, it’s right, right. So the same thing is now– the same thing that happened with phones is now happening with watches. So people in meetings are messing with their watch. You know, disengaging from the conversation. And now, of course, they’re getting a gazillion text messages. You can make phone calls from your watch. So, it’s great tech, but it has created a social side effect that was unintended, perhaps and maybe misunderstood. And that will keep happening, right? Keep happening with whether it’s glasses or, you know, your shirt or whatever that might be, like a bracelet, whatever that device is that we will use to create and communicate and stay in touch. If we don’t get better at what we talked about earlier, which is the interaction with other people. So we have to make it feel like you’re interacting with a person. So it’s more natural to the people around you. And that’s the other part of the equation. It’s one thing to interact naturally with your phone, watch, glasses, whatever. But it’s another, as you talked about, to be doing that with other people around you. And that’s where we as experienced designers have to get better at taking that into account. We have the sensors. We can tell that there’s other people around. We can tell where you are. We can tell if you’re moving or stationary, it’s all those factors that we sort of pull in. But we really need to understand the context better. And I talk about that a lot in the book, too, where it’s not enough to be good at communicating clearly or to get you the right information. It’s within the current context, meaning there’s other people around that you’re bothering, or not paying attention to, or disengaged from. And that’s a huge sort of area for us to explore and get right as we go into this, as you’re talking about the next three to five years. That’s where we’ve really fallen down, and we have to figure that out.
Alan: You know, what’s really interesting is North just pushed an update, and the glasses recognized conversation and won’t show you — unless you click the ring — they won’t show you notifications when you’re having a conversation with somebody.
Mike: That’s great. And there’s two sides to that. Well, I wish you did tell me that this is not actually the person I thought that was, right? I love that sci-fi scenario where your glasses tell you who you’re talking to. We have to get that balance right. It’s like, it’s good. Like, that sounds fantastic that they realize “You know what? I should be present when someone’s talking to me or I’m in a group of people.” That’s fantastic. But there is always more to that. Maybe I did actually just call that person the wrong name and maybe my glasses could tell me that that’s not actually them.
Alan: Yeah, I think the North glasses, they figured out– my daughter’s, well, she was 14, but when I showed her them, she said “These are really beautiful. They get an 8 out of 10 for fashion, but a 2 out of 10 for function.” Because the field of view is so small at 15 degrees, and she had to wiggle them around to get them to work. And really, at the time that she tried it, you could only check your messages and the weather. Now, there’s you know, you can change your Spotify and you can order a Uber. There’s all sorts of things you can do. But from the mouth of babes is very, very important to listen to because they got the form factor right. I mean, they’re a pair of glasses that are light and they sit on my head and they look great, but they have very limited functionality.
Mike: Yeah, that’s another fun thing that I think you’ll get to in the book is when I talk about our desire as designers and technologists sometimes to be clearly beautiful first, rather than being beautifully clear. As your daughter said: come on, fashion first. It’s got to look good. You don’t want to be wearing something that looks like a pair of ski goggles on your head. But the way that we go about that is we have to have the other part. It has to be functionally — as she said — functionally there. But it does need to be appealing. It does need to be something that we want to either wear or possess or interact with. And there’s a balance, always.
Alan: I think Snapchat’s done a good job with their camera glasses. The first pairs, there was a huge demand, they got this pent up demand. And now they’ve come up with a new pair. They’re even sleeker looking. They’re always looking for the forward fashion. But to your point at the beginning is, when it’s just a pair of Ray-Bans that I can just buy off the shelf and they just have this capabilities built into them. And then you can buy any frame you want off the shelf that fits your face, not just two designs or one design that may look great on somebody else, but maybe not on me. I mean, I like my North glasses, but I don’t wear glasses.
Mike: Yeah. You don’t have to be a futurist to predict that that will happen before too long. I mean, everything’s getting faster and cheaper and smaller. Always does. And it will continue in this particular industry. And so we will get to that very sleek piece of eyewear, or watch, or bracelet, or necklace, or whatever the case may be. That will happen before too long.
Alan: Have you tried the Nreal glasses?
Mike: No, I missed those when I was at South by [Southwest].
Alan: They’re really good, big field of view, lightweight. They’ve offloaded the processing power to a phone, I guess. They can wire through USB-C. But the form factor is like a pair of glasses. And if you’re walking down the street and you saw somebody wearing them, you wouldn’t actually know that they were AR glasses, very similar to the North. They’re just very incognito. The only difference is they have a huge field of view compared to the North glasses. And they have absolutely no apps or anything available. So, it’s more of a developer kit and trying to get that. But I think that’s where Apple, and Google, and even Facebook have a massive advantage over companies, even like Magic Leap with 3 billion plus in funding. They don’t have the developer ecosystem. And I think that’s where Apple is really going to shine because they’ve introduced a ARKit, and Google’s introduced ARCore. And in my opinion, those are the training wheels to true spatial computing.
Mike: Well, let’s not forget about Microsoft and our incredible developer community and all the great work that’s been happening with mixed reality. And in the Hololens development kits. Especially when you look at our focus on the enterprise, I mean, we’ve gotten very serious about business and applying this technology to people getting their jobs done more efficiently. And I think that there’s huge inroads that have been made. And so something to keep an eye on, especially for your interest in the enterprise and what XR is doing. Microsoft Dynamics Group is doing amazing work and delivering some very, very useful software for the enterprise. But this brings up another interesting point for you to think about. So imagine whether it’s for education or for the enterprise, imagining a room full of people, whether it’s a classroom of 30 kids or three hundred at a lecture, all having whatever, watches, glasses, and they’re all basically immersed. What is that like? You know, if you’re in a business meeting in a conference room with six people or, you know, there’s two of you and three or four other people are remote and everybody’s using a different type of immersion, you know, a different type of augmented reality or mixed reality. What does that feel like? And so that’s where we spend some time thinking about that type of interaction. And what’s the value prop and what is the experience of being there and having to deal with so many people, having so much at their disposal? What does that do to the dynamics of our normal conversation?
Alan: I think– You know, I had the opportunity — well, I was one of the first people to buy a Hololens — and I got to try the Hololens 2. And hands-dow,n an amazing device. But what I really found intriguing about the Hololens is that they moved it from the devices department to the cloud compute. And when they did that, it allowed me to kind of see the vision for Microsoft as using these devices in the future, because it’s no longer about just building a device that is cool. This is a tool that runs on the cloud that is bringing real enterprise value now, and that is connected to the entire Microsoft ecosystem. And that, I think. is really powerful because that’s one of the problems that I see with the other headsets that, you know, you put them on and they’re great and you’ve got like 10 demos and that’s cool. And every single one has the same problem. People go through the demo, they go, that’s cool. And they put it down. Never put it back on. I’ve seen it time and time and again. We’ve done thousands of demos for people and it’s the same thing: They put it on, they look around, they go “Oh, this is cool!”, they experience it, they take it off, and they never want to put it on again. They don’t say, “Hey, what else can I do?” And I think we need to kind of bridge that gap. Whereas the path that Microsoft took with the Hololens was “We don’t really care about cool.” I mean, the first thing I saw was this aliens blasting through the walls, which was neat and it got my attention. But really what it’s premised on now is the ROI driven results. And I think that’s really the exciting part about this. When you can go into a company and say, hey, by using this technology in this way, you will save or make this much money.
Mike: Yeah. And I’m sure you’ve seen this firsthand every day. The people who want VR or MR or AR to become mainstream, that are sort of fixated on “What are the sales numbers going to be? When are we going to break through into mainstream?” They’re sort of missing the point, that these devices and this technology is incredibly useful in its current form for very particular tasks. And it’s that specialized nature that is its true advantage right now. Someone made a great analogy for me a couple of years ago. They said we don’t even think twice when we see someone wearing a welder’s mask, right? We know exactly what they’re doing and why they’re wearing a welder’s mask. And in a similar way, that’s the value of using these headsets right now, there are very particular specialized tasks that they are incredibly useful for. And that’s what we should be thinking about and not fretting because they haven’t broken into 500,000,000 sales, right?
Alan: Yeah, yeah, I think that’s more of a VC investor mentality.
Mike: Well, but it’s also the industry itself. There are many people who get down on VR, whether it’s the media or the people that are actually building these things, because there are not– in some cases breakout, you know, huge number of successes yet, the value they provide are more than paying for the investment in these types of scenarios, and I’m sure you see this with your clients and people you deal with all the time in the enterprise.
Alan: Absolutely. At the end of the day, we started doing marketing things because at the beginning, you’d go into a meeting and they’d say, “OK, well, who’s done it before? How much does it cost, and what was the ROI?” You’re like, “Nobody, a lot, and we have no idea. Still want to spend a million bucks?” It was a really hard sell. And now when we go and have these conversations, it’s a totally different conversation. We go in, we do a quick demo, and then it’s about how we can drive real measurable ROI, measuring the key performance indicators against what you’re traditionally using. So we’ll set a benchmark and then we’ll use VR and AR to deliver results and then we’ll compare the two. And then based on those, you can either move forward or not. But everybody moved forward, because the results are ridiculously awesome.
Mike: Especially in education, where you’re sort of focused right now, is so dramatic. And I’m sure that the KPIs will bear all this out over time. But you can just tell immediately, if someone asks you what are the numbers around ROI, you ask a student, let’d try this and that’s what they need to know.
Alan: Absolutely. So what are the most important things that businesses can do right now to start leveraging the power of XR? I mean, you’re already seeing it across many enterprises. But let’s say it’s a small or medium sized business that wants to start getting into this. What’s the most important thing businesses can do right now to leverage this power of the technology?
Mike: Yeah. In the book, there’s a chapter about surfacing the invisible, which I think is one of the key benefits of any type of XR technology. There’s so much under the surface that we never get to see. And so I think any sized business, small, medium business or large enterprises can use the power of XR, both AI and XR together, to surface these things that people don’t normally see, whether that’s value, functionality, additional information, levels of detail. There’s all the obvious things that people always talk about. You know, you can use augmented reality to show off some interesting facets of your product or service in the sales cycle, certainly, but there’s more to it. And if you sort of flip it over and look at how you run your business. There is so much to be unlocked. You know, our businesses are complicated, whether they’re small, a family owned business, or a medium sized corporation, or a global company. We all have so much complexity and there’s so much going on. Being able to visualize — that’s one of the key things that I work on — is being able to visualize complex systems, processes, being able to show people things that we know. We form our own mental models and we sort of know how they work. But this technology helps us see it, for that matter, be in it in a way that we’ve never been able to do before. You talked about painting in 3D earlier in the podcast, right? That is just mind-blowing to any designer or artist, right? Being able to– It’s completely life changing. There are very similar types of experiences in the enterprise, when you can visualize how your process is really working or how your sales cycle is not working or how your manufacturing business could be so much better if it were to be this way. People do this in Excel spreadsheets today. They do it in PowerPoint, they do it in conversation. But rarely do you get to actually visualize and experience with other people how this could really be different. So you can play the what if, you can simulate, you can do all kinds of forecasting. So things that we all do on our minds today are now able to be seen and experienced through XR. And the enterprise or small business is a great place to do that. Certainly, like no question, there’s easy wins on the sales and marketing side. But for me, and possibly for you, the more interesting part is how we run our businesses.
Alan: Absolutely. I have one more quote I want to read from your book, and I think this sums it up. “Through the combination of artificial intelligence, spatial computing and human ingenuity, we have the perfect storm of elements to create the most compelling immersive storytelling tool for the informational aspects of our biggest global challenges. Let’s all do our part to learn how to best utilize these new approaches and technologies to tell these stories of hope and change before it’s too late. And make no mistake, the hour is getting late.”
Alan: I think we’re going to end this conversation on a high note. The world is on fire, we know that, we’ve done unspeakable things to our planet. We’re still kind of worried about US versus China versus who gives a shit. We’re all on this planet. It’s on fire. Let’s fix it as humanity and figure it out together. There’s enough wealth. We need to use these technologies to foster new innovations that can stave off our existential risk of humanity.
Mike: Yeah. It’s clear to me and I think anybody else that we do need to get mobilized to tell the story more clearly. You know, regardless of where your politics or your beliefs may be, there are some important things that we need to communicate more clearly than we ever have. Because once people realize that we can do something about it, they will. And I think that the kids that they call the Gen Y, Gen Z, they’re doers. They want to fix the world, they want to really focus on this. And they will be the ones who probably use this technology in the best possible way to go save the planet.
Alan: Amen. I have nothing else to say to that, my friend Mike. It has been an absolute honor speaking with you today. If you if you’re still listening to this podcast. Thanks for listening this far. The book is “The Age of Smart Information: How Artificial Intelligence and Spatial Computing Will Transform the Way We Communicate Forever.” If you’re going to do anything in this industry, this book is a must read and I highly recommend it. Go get it on Amazon or you can go to theageofsmartinformation.com. And if you want to learn more about Mike, you can visit futuristic.com, or you can Google the Microsoft Garage for all the cool, crazy things they’re making to make our world better in the future. Thanks, Mike. I really appreciate you joining me.
Mike: Thank you, Alan. Take care.
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