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Battle of the Buzzwords

During Boulder Startup Week, one of my favorite tracks was the tech track. These talks focused on up and coming technology like AI , Robotics, AR , VR , MR (mixed reality), IoT, and blockchain. Most of this technology is in its infancy, and I believe most of it will influence our lives in the hopefully near-ish future.

The connectivity industry is thinking A LOT about this technology and how it will influence the ways people connect with each other and enhance their lives. It made sense for me to attend these panels full of the techiest geeks you can imagine helping me better understand where our industry fits in. I thought I knew a good deal about some of this tech, but I was wrong – there was so much to learn in these talks!  Here are some of the highlights I wanted to share:

Adoption is an Issue

For VR, adoption rate is slow. There are a few reasons for this, according to a couple of the panelists. Robert Ottinger, founder of Reality Garage (a VR lounge space basically) says that “Availability, price, and usability” are hindering adoption rates. “The systems are all new, and still need to get better because they are not cheap, they take up space and are a little quirky to use.”

Pascal Wagner, founder of Walkthrough (VR for Real Estate) mentioned that since there are not a ton of users out there, there is not a lot of investment yet in VR. But it will change.

For AI, adoption rates are encouraging, especially with the emergence of AI assistants like Google Home and Alexa. And there will be exponential progress if you take Moore’s Law into consideration. As Vikas Reddy, co-founder of Occipital remarked, “One thing my professor at University of Michigan said as he held up a crappy Nokia phone was, ‘this is how everyone will get a computer.’ I didn't believe him at the time. But now, everyone in India has a smartphone - even the poorest of the poor.”

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Speaking of smartphones, Robert Ottinger doesn’t believe that VR will ever be quite as ubiquitous as that. Pascal chimed in saying that “We have a bunch of VR headsets in the office, but we aren’t wearing it all the time. Unlike TVs and smartphones, VR tech takes you out of the world.” Both mentioned that AR had some interesting potential, as it doesn’t take you fully away from reality, and it could be done really well.

Some Challenges to Overcome

Mark Manes, the Director of Mobile Development and VR at Markit on Demand felt more optimism for the ubiquity of VR, but did acknowledge that there were some challenges with the technology, namely that the frame rates and display tech needs to change. He believes that those things are making some users uncomfortable when using VR. Evan Fletcher, Hardware Lead at Occipital mentioned that latency, the “screen door effect” and a limited field of view are also some problems with VR. Evan also said that eye tracking is difficult with VR tech as it stands now. You can track eyes, but you can’t really predict yet where they may go.

Heather Armel, Head of Operations at Walkthrough talked about the “Hierarchy of Needs for VR.” Comfort is at the top – does the headset make you feel good? Or is it making you itchy and nauseous? At the next level is usefulness – where is the biggest use cases for VR? And then, below that, how well does the tech understand the space the user is standing in? And, how do you bring someone back quickly from VR without making them feel disoriented?

The Promise of Tech

It is not all doom and gloom for VR, though. Mark Manes mentioned that with so many PS4 consoles in houses today, VR gaming has a lot of potential. He said, “I don’t think we will always have these big ugly headsets like we have today. We used to think it was inappropriate to have your cellphone at the dinner table, now look at us. I think it could be as ubiquitous as smartphones because that is how you will use your VR.” I have to agree with him on the gaming part especially. I once played a VR zombie hunting game and I walked away from that experience feeling like a total badass that is ready for the impeding zompocalypse.

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Vikas Reddy talked about the “bodiless robot” that can understand where you are and map everything around you. Once you have software that understands the world around you, there is a whole lot of stuff you can do. “We are excited about the social implications of people feeling they are in the same room together, even when they are far apart.” AI and VR can go hand in hand. VR with built-in AI can start to understand things like, “oh this is a human I know”, or “this is a chair in my way” adding to the overall experience of the user.  

Empathy and Tech

Jackie Ros, co-founder of Revolar and one of our Innovation Showcase alumni brought up the topic of empathy as something we need to solve for. For example, what happens when a jaywalker crosses in front of a self-driving car? Does the AI hit the pedestrian, or swerve and potentially hurt the passengers? Another challenge is understanding that as robotics replace humans, those humans are losing their jobs. And this is not just a challenge in the US, as I learned from Erik Schweikardt, the founder of Modular Robotics. “Even here as we displace people by sending business elsewhere, they too are doing it in the third world.”

A potential solution, Jackie pointed out, is programs like they have in Detroit. Training people who used to be in manufacturing to work in new tech holds a lot of promise for people displaced by automation. And tech companies might need to become more active politically to help tow this line. “Tools are morally neutral, and that is why tech leaders stay away from public interaction,” said Erik. But as we learned in the last few months, “companies like Facebook are still reeling from the implications of what their tech does,” Jackie said.

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But there is good news here, too, within the actual technology itself. Brandon Minor, Computer Vision Engineer at Occipital mentioned that “empathy through VR is unique, because you can actually experience someone else’s reality in a sensory way.” And that is pretty cool. I think most of us could agree that seeing things from another’s perspective would do us all good!

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Also in the “good news bucket,” a recent study found VR can reduce pain in hospitalized patients. It is not exactly known why the technology helps, but it is possible that it is due to the immersive nature of VR and it completely distracts the brain from the pain, at least for a time.

In the end, much of this technology is just starting to bloom and there are many obstacles and challenges that will need to be solved before any of these really hit mainstream culture like the smartphone did. But given the potential of VR, AI, MR etc., I believe it is only a matter of time until we are hanging out on a virtual beach while sipping a mai tai made by our robotic AI assistant (or maybe that is just my fantasy…)!

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