On Augmented Reality and Not Sitting at the Back of the Bus

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Cutting edge tech usually takes a while before it reaches low-income or marginalized communities. Hard-working community groups often struggle to train a handful of people to use this new tech so that a trickle of the billions of dollars generated by this tech reaches their community.

But what if instead of being relegated to the back of the bus, these communities grabbed a seat at the front?

To understand what that might look like, here’s a thought experiment using the cutting-edge field of augmented reality (AR).

If virtual reality is about creating objects in an imaginary world, augmented reality is about placing imaginary objects in the real world. Last year’s Pokémon Go craze was an amazing albeit goofy example of one way augmented reality can work: looking at the world through your smart phone, you can play Pokémon in the real life. In the next few years, augmented reality is going to take off like a rocket, and there are billions of dollars of profit at stake.

Next month when iOS 11 is rolled out, ARKit, Apple’s opening salvo in the battle over these profits, will turn newer iPhones into a tool for general purpose augmented reality:

ARKit lets developers build AR apps, which integrate digital experiences into the physical world via iPhone or iPad, a la Pokémon Go. Those apps will be available to consumers when iOS 11 arrives in September. But developers have started tinkering—creating tools that let you see how furniture fits in a room or quickly calculate the area of your kitchen…. Matthew Miesnieks, a VC who led a team researching AR within Samsung, calls ARKit “the biggest thing that’s happened to the AR industry since it began,” and he’s not alone in his enthusiasm. By getting AR in the hands of millions of iPhone users, Apple is poised to become the world’s most powerful and popular purveyor of augmented-reality apps. And by opening up its developers’ kit, it’s powering hundreds of experiments into what, precisely, this medium is good for.

Already we’ve seen examples of using ARKit as everything from using it as a measuring tape to populating your room with dogs and space cats to a really cool interactive music video. Industry analysts also speculate that iPhone-based AR is just Apple’s first step and that they are developing headsets which will provide a more immersive experience.

Meanwhile, Microsoft is so confident about their Hololens, the augmented and virtual reality glasses they started rolling out to select partners last year, that it’s going to skip releasing version 2.0 this year and instead is going release a souped-up, AI-infused v3.0 to the public in 2019. Hololens is already being used in the real world. Thyssenkrupp already has 100 elevator and stair lift technicians testing it out in the field as an AR-driven tech-manual-plus-Skype tool for elevator repair. Case Western is experimenting with using Hololens for creating museum walk-throughs. And when Case Western and the Cleveland Clinic open a new health education campus in 2019, students will learn anatomy using a Hololens AR cadaver.

Because of what’s known as the network effect, battles over emerging tech are almost always winners-take-all. So the titans of the tech world are now in a fierce battle to see which 2 or 3 players will dominate this multi-billion-dollar industry for years to come. As a result, there is a unique opportunity for community groups to influence the outcome — if they work together.

What if groups in communities from Compton to Letcher County, Kentucky to the suburban Rust Belt of Ohio created a network to ensure that as this new tech started taking off, their voices were heard and their communities were involved in the work shaping the course of this new tech and its economic impact?

To make that happen, they could leverage a problem most tech players have. One of the main lessons of my decades of experience in both the corporate and community world is that access isn’t just an issue for marginalized communities; corporations and large nonprofits also struggle with it. Corporations can often paper over the problem by throwing money at it, spending scary amounts of money on consultants and/or hiring just enough techies to do work that regular staff ought to be able to handle if the tech wasn’t so hard to use. But if this network of communities can experiment with the new tech, they should be able to show the major players how to change the tech so it’s also far more accessible in the corporate world. If it’s much easier for people in South Central or Harlan County to use new tech without being uber-geeks, it’ll certainly be a lot more accessible to corporate “power users”– people who aren’t trained programmers but who can, say, make Excel sit up & dance and who often play a critical role in the diffusion of new tech through a large organization. And that’s a huge competitive advantage for any tech players striving to dominate this new tech.

To make this emerging tech more accessible, the community network would need to focus on two tasks:

  • Making the existing tools for this new tech more accessible by creating better trainings and, even more importantly, creating an ecosystem around these tools that provides longer term support. A one-time training is a good place to start, but to gain fluency people need the ability to easily get help as they continue to use the tech.
  • Doing simple experiments to figure out how the tools could be remade to smooth the learning curve. With most new tech, it’s really easy to do a handful of tasks, but as soon you want to go beyond the basics you fall off a cliff. Even corporate power users will often end up wasting an absurd number of hours banging their head against the wall to get this tech to work. Depending on how this new tech is designed — e.g., if it uses an “open source” approach where people can modify the code themselves — it may even be possible to use these experiments to either make the tools easier to use or to build a layer on top that hides some of the more confusing aspects.

But how could these small community groups, who are already severely strapped for resources, have the time and energy to make this happen without being diverted from the important work they’re already doing? By a second act of leveraging: collaborating with techies outside of their groups.

Odds are, for example, there are students in colleges near some of these community groups who would love to help but don’t know how. Similarly, there web designers who would love to learn how to work with augmented reality, which is going to dramatically change their world, and are also passionate about helping the community. There are programmers who’d love to play around with coding augmented reality, both for professional development but also because it’s their idea of fun. The network of communities would give these techies an easy way to have an impact on the world that would be deeply satisfying.

The same thing is also true for experts in the field. One of the cool things about the tech world is that many of the most skilled people in it are remarkably generous with their time. They love the tech and want everyone to be able to enjoy it. Again, the hardest problem many of them have is that they simply don’t know where to begin. They strongly believe in “democratizing” the tech but lack the skills to take this complex knowledge and break it down for everyday folks. But in most communities that would be part of the network, there are people who may not be techies but who are experts in breaking down complex concepts so they make sense to folks in their community.

Best of all, many of the techies who would love to help are themselves part of existing local & national networks that the network of marginalized communities could tap into.

In short, this network of communities could use a “stone soup”-style organizing approach, helping bring together far more resources than they normally could. And that in turn should make it pretty straightforward to get tech players to want to work with them.

But how could groups who are part of this network afford to get their hands on this new tech? If communities are working together, I think that’s a problem that’s pretty straightforward to solve. When the tech is very early, the tiny startups who are driving it forward don’t have the money to donate equipment or sell it dirt cheap. But when the tech hits the stage where tech titans are battling over who will dominate it, these players certainly do. In fact, if they think of it as early market penetration plus great PR, seeding this equipment in these marginalized communities is really just a form of cheap advertising — and these are folks that are going to end up spending an awful lot of money on advertising given the profits that are ultimately at stake.

To people who haven’t had the experience of being involved in emerging tech, this may seem crazily ambitious. But one of the most important lessons of the last decade with new tech is that small groups can have a remarkable impact if instead of trying to build perfect palaces, they iterate using lots of small experiments. The key is to take a low-risk approach: start with a handful of people trying out the new tech, explore & map out opportunities, and then take baby steps. The hard part here isn’t the tech, it’s the people: getting a network of community groups to strategically act together in a new domain is not a trivial task.

In almost every community that our society has abandoned, you’ll find amazing people doing what they can to help their communities get back on their feet. Up till now, it’s been a battle fought on terrain where it’s incredibly hard to win. Maybe it’s time to try some experiments fighting on the terrain of emerging tech.

Up Next: a similar strategy for artificial intelligence, and why focus today on augmented reality rather than robots


UPDATE: two weeks after I wrote this post, Google announced their next big step in AR. Their earlier work was very interesting but aimed at a relatively small set of devices; their newest entry is going for a wider audience, and it’s very impressive.

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