Innovation Heroes

TRANSCRIPT - Who needs a Holodeck when you’ve got THIS!?

June 8, 2021

Peter 

This episode is brought to you by Microsoft Azure. Visit shi.com/microsoftazure to learn more.

 

Peter 

Holograms are amazing, but they're lonely today, right? You want to be able to, like, engage with other people. I want you to see what I can see. I want you to experience my world. I mean, you can hear my voice, and on video you can see me. But with holograms, while we can experience each other's spaces, right, I can see-- we can create arts of work together, we can do job completions together, we could build a house together. Like that the opportunities are endless.

 

Peter 

Welcome to SHI's Innovation Heroes, a podcast exploring the people and businesses giving us hope in our drastically disrupted world. I'm your host, Peter Bean.

[music plays]

 

Peter 

It has been my lifelong dream to use a real life holodeck. You know, the kind they have on Star Trek.

 

Data 

This woodland pattern is quite popular, sir. Perhaps because it duplicates Earth so well. Coming here almost makes me feel human, myself.

 

Riker 

I didn't believe these simulations can be this real.

 

Peter 

In the world of sci-fi, the holodeck was so real that it felt like you were being transported to a whole other world. [laser shooting] One with its own environment and inhabitants, where you and your friends could interact together in a space just like the outside world, only better. I've yet to experience anything as magical as the long awaited holodeck. And frankly, it stinks. And I know I'm not alone in feeling this. Immersive virtual reality is a concept that we might have all laughed at 20 years ago as mere fiction. But it's actually happening now. And the real life applications they're designing for it might just surprise you. Eric Kamont was one of the first people Microsoft hired to run business development on the HoloLens headset platform six years ago, long before there was even a real market for it. After he saw his first demo of the HoloLens, he was all in. He's now the Director of Mixed Reality Strategic Partnerships at Microsoft. Eric, welcome to the show.

 

Eric 

Thanks a lot, Peter. Appreciate it.

 

Peter 

So, I don't want to put you on the spot-- but I also kind of do. I've got to ask-- when am I gonna get my holodeck?

 

Eric 

In the context of Star Trek, it's probably a little bit further out. But there's actually-- one of my partners, their space that they do all of their holographic work in, where they bring in objects and they turn them into 3D objects and do all this speculation and work with partners, they actually call it the holodeck. It's up in British Columbia. So, they actually have this, like, logo outside the door called "The Holodeck". Because of course, you're not the first person to connect those dots saying, "Hey, I want what they had on Star Trek with HoloLens!"

 

Peter 

Well, I might have to go check that out, especially considering I live in Canada.

 

Eric 

That's why I was making the joke. [laughter]

 

Peter 

Yeah, I'm definitely going to check that out. Alright, now that we got that out of the way let's get into the details of what is out there right now and how it how it was all built. I know you've been with Microsoft, from the very beginning of the HoloLens mixed reality business before there was even really a proven market case for this tech. How did it all start for you?

 

Eric 

You know, in the early days we didn't know what we didn't know. I mean, you have this technology that mimicked physical objects, and it created these holograms. And so, the power was, well, is this a consumer play, or is this an enterprise play? And when they decided that they wanted to pursue enterprise, it was-- well, how do we do that? Who are the customers? What are the industries that are interesting? What kind of solutions are we trying to solve for? The beginning there, there weren't products in market. It wasn't like anybody else had done this, there wasn't a road map, or a treasure map, or whatever kind of map you want to call it. We were all kind of starting from scratch with a lot of great ideas. You know, it's one of those times in your life when you go, if you're the kind of person that really likes process, and technology, and step-by-step instructions-- this was not the place necessarily for you. Like, if you can deal with ambiguity and literally, like, changing on a dime, Tuesday, we're doing something Wednesday, we're doing something else. This was the business. I mean, very entrepreneurial in spirit.

 

Peter 

I mean, in many ways, Microsoft was way ahead of its time, right? The hardware was there, but not really the apps or industrial use cases yet. I've heard you equate the software desert that you started in to having a smartphone with no App Store, right? How did you build the ecosystem and platform for mass commercial adoption before there were any open software tools, or any of the things that we have now?

 

Eric 

Well, there's two challenges, right? You have this challenge where you have technology at the beginning, and you go well, what can we prove with this? What kind of pilots and early on experiences, no holds barred art the possible, what can we do? And so, we used to take a bunch of our engineering staff and we would put them in rooms with customers, and they would do slam board sessions. In every ideation they would come out and do sketching. Like, it would be-- like, if you were an ad agency and you were doing a proposal for, like, you know, a shoe company or something, they would come out and do all the whiteboarding. And we would work with customers and, I mean, come up with these prototypes in a week of just saying, "Hey, is this...?" It wasn't even a minimally viable product at that point, it was still very, very much, like, framework to go around and say, "Hey, does this concept even connect the dots for you?" But you're right, and it's hard to convince software companies in market to say, hey, by the way, I need to borrow a bunch of your developers to go build something they've never built before, and by the way, they have no skills for. Probably not well trained. And, oh, by the way, I can't tell you what the market opportunity is for that. They're like, "Yeah, dude, just-- thanks a lot. You can go sell your stuff someplace else." There was a time there when a lot of the apps that we would demo were the ones that were out of the box on the device. Here's the kind of the art of the possible demo, you want to take it and run. And people would be, like, "Oh, I get it." Joining the team, that was the thing that was most amazing to me. They had such solid understanding of the vision, they had a mission, they knew exactly what they wanted to accomplish, but they weren't so constrained in the way in which they would accomplish it. And so, when you come to customers and partners, and you say, "Hey, here's this amazing technology, help us figure it out," man, did they sign up fast. They're like, "Yeah, I want to help you! Oh, my God, what do you mean you haven't already figured this out? You, Mr. Microsoft. Like how did you not already--" We have ideas, we have some thoughts, but we'd like to validate them with you. And that was the most engaging conversations. We would have some executive-- I mean, like a CEO, CFO, COO from some company, and they would just be as much involved as, like, one of their IT architects. One of the customers I worked with was in the fire safety business, and we had, like, the president of business with, like, a guy that worked with firefighters. Like, I don't know how many levels were between them, but they were both in the same room and as participative as possible. Day-to-day and their business, they may never have talked once. When we came to holograms, they're like, "We get the business value, we get the technical value, we want to connect those dots together." So, the community was a big part. And then of course you have, like, individual and independent developers out there. You know, the people that are, like, in school. In fact, there's a story-- we had this student, he traded in his, like, tuition money for school to go buy a HoloLens, he was so convinced. And he joined a hackathon we had with one of our customers back in the HoloLens One's days, and he, like, rocked it. I think his team might have gotten first, second place in the hackathon. He went out and he got some, like, internship with the company and later went out to go work with a couple of the partners in the ecosystem. And now he's like his own, and, like, if you go watch him on LinkedIn, he's like a shining beacon of what's possible in the mixed reality space. All because he said, I'm gonna spend whatever the five-grand of his tuition money was on a HoloLens, and to whatever his parents did to support him or not, I-- it was amazing. Like, he made the right decision for him. And there's lots of examples where people, you know, they took a bet, like I said. I mean, those bets could have gone the wrong direction. But thankfully, we knew what we had with them. And we kind of, you know, brought them along for the ride.

 

Peter 

So, I want to pivot to some of those actual outcomes that have come to be now, right? There's some really amazing and inspirational stories tied directly to your tech, and hugely varied, too. You know, you've made your mark in space, medicine, COVID response, autism. Tell me a few stories about how this tech is changing the world.

 

Peter 

There's not a lack of stories, for sure. With the pandemic, our two major industries that we've seen a lot of uptick in, in mixed reality, are healthcare and manufacturing. And healthcare-- you know, it's really about, for them, teaching differently, or visualizing the human body in a different way. There was a lot of proof points to be made with those things. So, for example, you have Case Western Reserve Medical University. When COVID happened, they disbanded all the kids to go home, they couldn't stay at campus. And they sent them all HoloLens' so that they could continue their cadaver lab. And so, where other students, for example, may not have been able to have been educated with hands-on labs, they were able to keep going teaching med students through holograms with HoloLens and Case Western's holo-anatomy curriculum. And so, like, that to me is so impressive when you go, "Yeah, we just shipped them a HoloLens and they were right back on track, no problem. And by the way, these are going to be doctors in a number of years, right?" You kind of go, "Wait-- like, you trust that?!" And they'd spent years on studies and found the retention levels and the understanding levels of students were just astronomically higher than what they had been teaching for hundreds of years, right? Cadavers. Like, that's been the process for, like, 150 years, or something bananas like that. But now with holograms, they take MRI images of actual humans, and you can dissect something as complicated as the nerves in your body, which you probably would never see in an actual, physical cadaver. They're just so tiny, you would end up slicing through them, or around them. And that's always an example of going, you know, where technology is now outpacing what you could probably do in real life. I would say the other two that always blow my mind...this one that came out of nowhere was with a partner of mine that I work with called Scope AR. And they worked with this baking school, Piece of Cake Bakers based out of Florida. So, this is interesting. So, this Piece of Cake Bakers works with adults with, like, intellectual diseases, so like autism, for example. And they have a patented process that they've put together to teach these adults how to, like, cook and bake products, and that they then actually get jobs in the real world working for bakeries. And they have a color-coded recipe, step-by-step process. I mean, it was just amazing to talk about it. But they put HoloLens and they literally did the step-by-step instructions, color-coded the-- showing them, like, the motions to move the cups to measure sugar and flour, and that kind of stuff. And they walk them through step-by-step as a hologram in the real world. And if you've ever met anybody with severe autism, one of the things that's sometimes challenging is, like, colors-- like, sensory issues, right? Things on their face might be complicated, or whatever. And they tested it with some of their students, and they had great success. Like-- was, like, wow, we were able to put the HoloLens on his face, goes through step-by-step instructions. There was no issue, there was no challenge. It was just like an ordinary daily experience. And so, then it opened up the opportunity to say, "Well, wow, if it works here, what else can you do with it?" Right? It opens up this art of the possible conversation. And if technology that someone uses to install a fastener, you know, on a car is also the same technology you can take somebody with autism and make them much more integrated into the real world and more self-sufficient, I can go home and retire from my job with, like, no weight on my shoulders.

 

Peter 

Wow. I mean, I have to believe that that experience is going to be replicated across all industries. When I think about saving that much time and making people that much more efficient, all I can think about is all the ways they can improve things with that extra time. And that's exciting.

 

Eric 

It is amazing that-- I mean, if you were, you know, a child of the 80s and 90s you saw how many movies had VR and the future of technology. And the thing that is interesting to me is, like, some of the stuff that was like science fiction is like science reality. And within a couple years, right? And we're only talking-- you know, we've been in market six and a half years with HoloLens, and we're on a v2 product. I mean, what happens when you get the V4, V5? I mean, just, like, the iteration that happens when you continuously improve. And you're already solving these problems today. That the other thing, too. We're doing that today. It's not like we're talking about, oh, the art of the possible for tomorrow. If we could do this today, what happens when we talk about another 10 years from now? What problems are we solving? How much faster are things? How much easier are things where people can, as you pointed out, focus on the things that are important to them?

 

Peter 

That's exciting. Wow. All right, I gotta pivot or I'm going to talk about this forever. Recent announcement on Mesh, Microsoft Mesh, as a cross-device collaboration platform for mixed reality. There's another huge story in this, right? Tell me in our listeners more about Mesh.

 

Eric 

So, Mesh, I think that the most-- and if you haven't picked up on this, and I think it's core to the product, you know...mixed realities are really about enabling the human experience, right? To get time back in their day. We allow people to see the world in front of them. We're not trying to obstruct them, you know, from engaging with one another. You know, we're trying to make it a much more human experience. And Mesh to me is an interesting angle because it adds this nuance about collaboration, right? Holograms are amazing, but they're lonely today, right? You want to be able to, like, engage with other people. I want you to see what I can see; I want you to experience my world. I mean, you can hear my voice, and on video you can see me. But with holograms-- wow, we can experience each other's spaces, right? I can see-- we can create arts of work together. We can do job completions together; we can build a house together. Like, the opportunities are endless. And so, the moment you add collaboration, then you unlock a whole bunch of stuff. And Mesh is really about that next big step for us, which is unlocking that collaborative environment. And that happens, ideally cross-device, right? You know, in the cloud, cross-device. So, if you're on a VR headset, and I'm on HoloLens, and someone else' is on their mobile phone, we can all play in some form or fashion in that experience. Versus, you know, as it is probably today, it feels much like a sandbox, and sometimes those sandboxes only have a few people in them, right? We would much rather have a whole playground of toys we can all interact with together with no judgment. Again, you know whether that-- those are third-party products and not Microsoft products, that'd be great, right? Being able to pull that universe together. Because again, when you're a customer, you rarely go, "Well, I'm an Apple person or an Android person," or "I'm a Microsoft person, or I'm a this person," or "I'm a Ford or a Buick," like, whatever, like whatever the thing is, you want to unify versus separate. We've had plenty of separation in the world, we'd rather pull the world together, right?

 

Peter 

I was looking and reading about Mesh, and, you know I come from the collaboration industry. I've been spending a lot of time in the last year since COVID talking to people about how bringing everyone home and leveling the playing field into the same environment, the video conferencing environment, has really made, you know, meeting and collaborating more inclusive for people, right? It's brought everybody together. And I've had a lot of people asked me, since this was really noticed-- I'd say about six months into the pandemic-- so how are we going to preserve this after? And to be honest, I haven't been happy with the answers the market has been putting out-- until I saw Mesh. And now I look at Mesh-- and you tell-- I want you to tell me, debunk this or agree with me, tell me what you think. Mesh to me seems like the best and closest way to replicate just that, but in a more engaging environment where we can literally bring everyone to the same level and make meetings, and collaboration, and working together more inclusive. Am I right or wrong with this?

 

Eric 

The idea that the whole world has shifted from a from-anywhere scenario-- there's something that's so amazing about the fact that, you know, organizations were already embracing from-anywhere scenarios. The technology, the cloud was allowing this to happen, right? I can sit in a Starbucks with my laptop, and I can't just write screenplays anymore, I can actually do, you know, presentations and phone calls, right? That's like, the idea that the Internet access is ubiquitous. People have become much more empathetic, which I think is the other side of this challenge, which, you know...this is my personal opinion, work life and personal life hadn't-- like, they didn't interconnect, right? You had your work, you went to work, and then you went someplace else. And even if your work was from someplace else, your personal life didn't really intertwine, right? They may have known you had kids, they might know that you, like, don't shave, or whatever the thing is. Today, those two worlds collide. And to do those collisions, you have to have empathy with people. They have to appreciate the fact that you have kids, and you’re teaching from-home-school, or the dog's running around, or you're, like, on your back deck while you're trying to, like, do something. Like, the-- people are much more patient now, because they have to be. They've been taught to be patient. And so, I think it's an opportunity, when you say, "Okay, we're changing the entire paradigm, from where you're going to be," right? "I don't care where you work from, as long as you're productive." Cool. "We're much more empathetic, and we're sympathetic to your situation. So, we appreciate whatever your situation is, don't worry about it." Super cool. "And by the way, we're gonna give you technology, because we kind of have to, that allows you to do all those things." Now, triple cool. So now you have companies that have an appetite to go, well, we didn't think about this before. We were so worried about putting people on airplanes, and meetings, and doing off-sites that we never thought about adopting technology that could potentially replace all of it or augment it. So, yes, I think now is a great time when people are going to start noodling and going, okay, I haven't quite looked at this mixed reality thing. But does it solve collaboration? Can I do the meetings from anywhere? Can I have six people in a real room, you know, three people at home on different locations and by-- somebody is on VR, somebody is on a tablet, you know, like conference calls, Skype, like, whatever. Can we pull all that together? And the answer is, that's the vision.

 

Peter 

This episode is brought to you by Microsoft Azure.

[music plays]

 

Let's talk about choices. Life is about choices. Do you wear sweatpants, or swim shorts today? Hit the snooze button for the third time, or brew up some coffee? Burgers and fries again for lunch, or go with your favorite healthy restaurant? Is it just me, or can it sometimes feel like each day we are faced with new challenges-- projects we never imagined having to solve for. Growing demands from work and leadership. Adopting new technology solutions overnight that businesses were not ready to support. And all of this during an unprecedented, once-in-a-lifetime, universally shared human experience. If you make decisions about your organization's cloud infrastructure, security, and setup, don't forget you have a full team of Microsoft Azure experts at SHI to support you. The experts at SHI are Azure-expert MSP certified, a status bestowed to under 100 organizations globally, which means you work with the best cloud architects in the world. Our services and certified experts can help you build the infrastructure that meets your requirements using Azure's flexible and secure cloud platform. The SHI team helps you make the right decision that's right for your business. Whether that's migrating to the cloud or integrating your existing data center using a hybrid solution, all while unlocking the right strategies for managing, governing, and optimizing your environments over time. From migrating workloads to modernizing your applications, Microsoft Azure Solutions, paired with SHI Services, are designed to bring real change to your organization at every step. For today's hybrid world, and every innovation that comes next. To find out how our team can support your next Azure project, get in touch with SHI today. Visit SHI.com/microsoftazure to get started.

[music fades]

 

Peter 

It sounds like the changes in the world for the last year and a half have been a definite accelerator for MR. I mean, is that safe to say? Or are there some ways that maybe things have-- innovation has slowed down that I haven't clued into, that I might not catch because I'm not an expert at this.

 

Eric 

[Eric chuckles] I think it's a little bit of both. I think there's definitely been a spike in innovation, and I think you had some challenges. I mean, when you're an enterprise focused product, you know, when enterprises aren't making money, or they're closing your doors, or, you know, they're on lockdown-- so, look at the aviation industry, right? So, if you were working in the aviation industry pre-COVID, things were really busy. Until COVID, and you stop flying. It's not like they're spending money, right? Immediately. So, you have furloughs and layoffs that have to happen. And unless you're tied to some very strategic initiative-- so let's say you're Boeing, right? What was the first thing they were working on? Getting the 737-Max flying again, right? Like, that was like, "If you are not involved in that, go away. Don't talk to me." Right? If you're in healthcare and COVID's on your front door, they're not really interested in elective surgeries, they're interested in how do I manage COVID? Right? And so, the moment you can align to those vectors, then yeah, you can certainly have-- you can offer value. But in certain industries, for example, like retail, they're trying to change the way they do it because people aren't coming to their stores. They're being forced to look at other technologies. And if they don't-- I mean, it's survival of the fittest in any business. Or this conference business went away. Nobody was going to Vegas for shows, it didn't exist. So how do you do some big, huge, you know, 100,000 person event virtually? So, you had things like AltspaceVR, which is a product we have. But like, that are doing these massive VR events. You know, like, you start going, "Oh, that's interesting. What are the implications of that?" So, you see acceleration in people picking up technology they probably would never have picked up for another four or five years. And then places that were already looking at it is going, we just need to reprioritize this to where it's going to be of value to us. So, like, that's why I say it's a little bit of a slow, and a little bit of an accelerant elsewhere.

 

Peter 

Yeah, I imagine retail's gonna be big for you. All that money, time, and effort that was put into getting people to come into their stores and create those in-store experiences is now being pivoted to virtual. And, I mean, this is a level above what Mesh can do, what MR can do, AR is 10 levels above what they're talking about doing to lure people into digital store fronts now. So, I get that. I want to ask you one more question, back to something you mentioned before. You mentioned entertainment. I think a lot of people when they think about MR, and VR, and AR, they think about gaming and movies, right? They don't think about the applications that we've just spent the whole show talking about. I'm curious if you think that MR and VR will be big in entertainment or not or participate in a holo-novel one day. Or is this technology really destined for commercial and industrial applications only?

 

Eric 

No, I am convinced that the consumer innovations are there. I think you have an opportunity with enterprises to solve some problems that will eventually lead to solving them in the consumer space. As an example, I go solve how to do really sophisticated step-by-step instructions on a car, for, let's say Mercedes Benz. Then if I solve all that, and I commoditize that, that becomes the way to help somebody when they're looking at a YouTube video on how to repair their refrigerator. Right? Like, getting the expertise, and the technique, and the tools will eventually just land in the doorstep of the consumer. Right? So, like, the tools will bear. But in terms of, like, watching your-- your holo-novel...I mean, you know, you could put an Oculus Quest on today and watch Netflix. I mean, it's kind of fun to sit on your couch staring at-- look like a crazy person staring at the wall that isn't showing anything just laughing your head off because you're watching it on an Oculus. So, like, you can do that today. But again, like, even if in the consumer space, you've got to solve for collaboration. People want to be in those experiences together, and they've got to be inexpensive and approachable. There can't be something that's out there for the elite few, right? Some 12-year-old who happens also to have a pony and rich parents. It doesn't work out very well for the masses, particularly when your goal is to humanize it, right? "Hey, we want to give education to everyone." Well, the people that need education the most are usually the underprivileged. How do you solve for that? "Well, we don't have any budget for that." Okay, like-- you know what I'm saying? Like, the technology has to come to a place where it can certainly cross those financial borders. And so that, let's go solve that with all the major corporations in the world and be, like, hey, FYI, now we solved it as a byproduct for consumer. Yeah, I am convinced, absolutely. Consumer entertainment is definitely there on the horizon. It's just-- it's a finicky market, too.

 

Peter 

And look, you're right. Build it on the backs of the enterprises, right? Let them spend the money, let them invest it, let the corporate world build this technology, create these applications. And then let's carry it through to everybody all together. I mean, that makes perfect sense, right? That's how it's equitable. That's how it gets to everyone, as opposed to designing, like you said, exclusive experiences that maybe, you know, 2% of the population can afford. That makes sense. Eric, I want to thank you for being on the show. I love what you're working on. I'm honestly enamored by it. I can't wait to get my hands on one of these devices and start playing with all the cool toys that you're building. Especially the meeting, that-- for someone who's been studying how people meet virtually for the last 20 years, this is the coolest thing and the closest thing to being there that I have seen in that entire time. And I really hope you get there. And soon.

 

Eric 

I appreciate the chat, talking to you, and to your audience. And if nothing else, blessed to be working on this kind of technology. Sometimes I wake up in the morning, and I'm like, "Man, I can't believe I get to go to work today work on, you know, holograms." Which is-- again, as a kid of the 80s and 90s was also, like, you know, an obvious nerd, I was excited. The moment they were like, "Hey, man, you want to join this team?" I was like, "Who do I have to pay? Absolutely, count me in."

 

Peter 

[laughing] Yeah, you have an awesome job. I mean, you do. I am definitely-- although I try not to be-- got a little envy going on right now.

 

Eric 

No, no, no, it's alright. We've got bro envy. It's cool, man. It's no problem. All day long.

 

Peter 

Thanks again, man. This was great. Have a wonderful day.

 

Eric 

Thanks, Peter. You too.

 

Peter 

The mixed reality big use cases might not be very Hollywood, but they are inspirational. Like so many other impacts we've seen, COVID has changed MR adoption strategies-- something that people like Eric have been fostering and thinking about for a long time. I might not have a holodeck in my living room yet, but there's something even better around the corner. Something that could really save us, the way it saved the Star Trek crew countless times. But this time, it really exists.

[music plays]

 

Peter 

Innovation Heroes is an SHI podcast, with new episodes streaming every second Thursday on Apple, Spotify, Google and everywhere else. If you like this episode and you want to be our hero, leave us a 5-star review on your podcast listening app of choice. Next time on Innovation Heroes, we're talking all things language-- AI, voice recognition, and what the future could sound like if computers learn how to really talk back. Be our hero, listen and subscribe to Innovation Heroes today.

 

Peter 

This episode is brought to you by Microsoft Azure. Visit shi.com/microsoftazure to get started.

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