NC State Innovation Incentives and Startups

A recent article on reports on Governor McCrory pitching funding for innovators…or rather that “North Carolina should invest more in turning the innovations developed at the state’s public and private universities into marketable products.”

The article continues with Governor McCrory’s comments to the UNC Board of Governors, where he says that his aim was to turn the Research Triangle area into an innovation center that rivals Boston and Silicon Valley. One of these ways he says is figuring out ways to turn research dollars coming into the state into products.

I don’t believe that incentives to “lure established companies” to North Carolina, or pouring more dollars into University driven research is the best way to go here and won’t have the kind of impact on job growth that other approaches might have.

Before I get to that, I should mention that last year North Carolina ended tax incentives for film production in the State, replacing it with a limited grant program, effectively nerfing it. Showtime’s Homeland moves to South Africa (filmed in Charlotte and Wilmington), and it looks like Fox’s Sleepy Hollow is on its way to Atlanta if the series is renewed for a third season (filmed in Wilmington and New Bern).

Also repealed last year was North Carolina’s Qualified Business Venture (QBV) program, which basically afforded accredited investors up to a 25% tax credit on investments in startups with QBV status. This program was instrumental in very early fund-raising efforts for several startups I have been involved in over the years, and I know it has helped many others get off the ground as well.

I think that North Carolina needs to change its approach and focus more on helping startups. Here is how:

1)      Renew the QBV program. ASAP. I’d use this as an opportunity to engage with well-known and active investors in NC as well as entrepreneurs that have had experience with the program to evaluate how it has worked in the past, and look for a few ways to improve it.

2)      Pass legislation for crowd funding. Note that a bill for this was defeated last year (it was linked to some other tax-capping bill) and a new bill is now on the table. 

3)      Reinstate the film tax credit (and improve it to make it competitive with other states in the region). I think we had a good thing going and bringing a lot of talent and jobs to NC from this, and I hate to see it leave for greener pastures.

4)      Matching Funds Grant...One of Governor McCrory’s steps listed in the article that was targeted at growing new NC companies was investing $120M in new venture capital companies. In this case, these new venture funds would need to raise at least at least $2 for every $1 of state money invested.

This sounds good in theory, but I think that it would be better served to take that $120M and use it as grant funding directly to startups as sort of a matching-fund model. Keeping with the 2:1 ratio, a startup that raises $200k could get an additional $100k in a grant from NC. I would maybe cap it at a total of $500k. In this case, it would limit the funding to go towards early stage startups, supplementing funding from angel investors, incubators, or early stage angel networks.  I think this would also attract out of state capital, primarily from private angel investors, or established early stage venture funds that have had North Carolina on their radar but have chosen not to open an office here.

If I can sidebar for a moment, the venture funding ecosystem here in North Carolina is somewhat broken and fractured in my opinion. It is extremely difficult finding initial capital (commonly referred to the friends and family stage) and very difficult finding seed stage capital. There are sources here for both, but more often than not the startup is expected to have a product, customers, revenue, and at the starting point of scale. This is more appropriate in my opinion for startups going after their first full round of funding (Series A), but the tendency here is to want to do smaller investments at low valuations (the sweet spot seems to be a few hundred k at a pre-money valuation of under $1M) for companies that are at the stage of growth.

There is a fantastic infographic on why startups fail (from the Startup Genome) here.  In my experience, and the same goes for a good number of my friends and colleagues, is that NC early stage funding sources want to invest in startups that are at in the third activity stage of “efficiency” (that is, refining the business model, improving customer acquisition, and scaling), but treating it like other regions (i.e. Silicon Valley) would treat a startup in the first or second stage (“discovery” and “validation” respectively).

You would be amazed at how many times I have been asked (and others) to provide five year financials for a software startup that is still in the prototype/seeking customer validation stage. Anyway, take a look at that infographic. Good stuff there.

Getting back to #4, I think the secret to competing with Silicon Valley, Boston, New York, Austin, and several other hotspots of startup activity and innovation, is a focus on making it easier for startups to attract and find that very very early stage funding. If NC adopts the stance of investing (through grants) directly to startups that are already getting vetted by sophisticated angel investors, tech incubators, or other funding sources, the funding will have an immediate impact, and we should see a flurry of new startups, and new capital being invested. I would also predict new capital coming to the State to take advantage of this and effectively leverage the State dollars.

Other advantages to this approach would be minimal government involvement in determining where this grant funding would go. One of the other McCrory steps would be a $10M per year program to “help start-up companies transition from concept to marketable product”. How exactly are those companies going to be selected? Will there be an onerous application process with rewards throughout the year? How much could a company get? $25k? $50k? $500k? How much exactly does it take to transition from “concept” to “marketable product”? I have an idea for a rubber spoon. I can make it marketable by making it come coated in candy flavors and for sale at $1.00. That doesn’t mean it will be a successful product (anything can become marketable in my opinion). Wouldn’t it be better to have a simple process where the market (investors, early customers, etc.) validate the idea and demand by their investment dollars? This is why I think matching funds works much better…if a startup can’t get a prototype or proof of concept developed and attract some capital, making their concept “marketable” isn’t going to do much other than waste dollars.

Moving on…

5)      Eliminate the State Capital Gains Tax: Other steps mentioned by Governor McCrory are a) eliminating North Carolina’s capital gains tax rate for “innovation-related companies” and b) taking steps to lure North Carolina natives “involved in innovation” back to the state.

Well, I’m not sure how you would quantify “innovation-related” or “involved in innovation”, but I do believe that there are more opportunities and more available capital outside of North Carolina, especially for startups. You can graduate, create a startup, and struggle to find $100k-$200k, or you can move to San Jose and spend less effort to find ten times the capital, plus be in an environment that is vibrant, vigorous, and culturally driven by innovation and startups.

Yes, dear readers, I’ve had people on the West Coast tell me I am an idiot for staying in North Carolina. That happened to me more than once, and one of those occasions was in the office of a venture capital fund in Menlo Park.

But North Carolina has so much fertile ground. Everything is here, and the State is awesome. How many times have you heard about cities in NC ranking in the Top Ten, Top Five, or Number One places to live in America? We have great cities, great Universities, great companies (big ones too!), and great beer. What we don’t have, is a great system for cultivating innovation and the early stage funding necessary to go from Napkin to MVP or an early launch with those valuable first customers.

The NC legislature has the opportunity to do some pretty amazing things and put NC up in front. We can’t just do little things here and there. If you want to play with the big boys (Silicon Valley, New York, Boston, etc.) you have to be aggressive. Yes, there is a dollar cost to all of this, and startups are always a very risky proposition. But if you want to light a bonfire of innovation, job growth, excitement, and draw in talent and even more capital, we need to fix the funding ecosystem in the State.

In summary…reinstate the QBV program, bring back the film tax credit incentives, improve both, create a grant fund that matches investment dollars (a 2:1 ratio with a cap sounds good), approve crowd funding legislation, eliminate the capital gains tax, and maybe create another incentive for startups to collaborate with Universities and their tech-transfer programs.

This will result in more startups, more activity, more capital flowing, more jobs, and an accelerated rate of new products and ideas getting to market.

One side note: I think a lot of people associate startups mostly with tech startups in the mobile, consumer and app spaces. When I say startups in this article, I mean any startup (software, hardware, bio, textile, energy, whatever) in any sector, but generally with some type of technology or innovation. This excludes new businesses…like a restaurant or a company that develops web sites.

If you are a startup founder, please email me directly with your experiences raising early stage capital in (and out of) North Carolina. I’d also like to hear from you if you were able to leverage the QBV program (or if this is the first time you are hearing of it).

If you are a member of the NC Legislature, I would strongly suggest that you reach out to startup founders in North Carolina (call me!). We have lots of ideas, and we know how to make them reality. It is what we do. Innovation is brightest and fastest in startups…and much slower in large companies and universities. Innovation is life or death for a startupyou don’t get that kind of motivation elsewhere. Talk to us.

Thank you for reading.

PS: I wasn't joking about the beer in NC

Header image of NC Legislative Building Source: Wikimedia Commons, JMTurner Photographer

Microsoft Steamrolls Everyone with HoloLens

Within days of Google cancelling its Glass Explorer program, Microsoft just steamrolled the whole augmented reality and virtual reality industries with the announcements (and demos) of the new Microsoft HoloLens.

The take-away: Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality are coming. They aren't just fads. There is still a long way to go to reach what we all imagine and hope for, but Microsoft just made a giant step forward, and has the capability to drive hard and go big. 

Before I dig into this, let me make a few points for clarification:

  • No, they aren't really holograms. The HoloLens is another wearable device with transparent displays, just like more than a dozen other companies have on the market.
  • This is augmented reality, not virtual reality. If you aren't sure about the difference, read my other blog posts on the subject. 
  • And no, I have not had a hands-on experience with these yet, so keep that in mind as you read through my comments. I'm making a few assumptions about the tech and experience, and accepting what other people are saying (including the marketing) at face value (for now).
  • This post is based on my initial thoughts about what I've read so far regarding HoloLens, and some general observations about the industry.
Microsoft's HoloLens

Microsoft's HoloLens

Shock and Awe

For me at least, HoloLens is quite unexpected, especially the timing, and how well put together everything seems to be. It seems like a more complete package than anything else out there, and the demo examples were very compelling. I mean, come on...exploring mars, playing minecraft in the living room, and having a remote person guide you through a task and literally marking up objects in front of you with arrows and stuff. Pretty awesome.

The reliance here is on the demo, not some fancy concept marketing video. I feel like I could expect to have this in my hands any time, compared to some other products that feel like they are going to be in development for a few more years before anything substantial is released.

After reading a few articles on the demos from USA TodayCNet, Wired, The Verge, and others, I got the sense that those that were fortunate enough to experience HoloLens were pretty blown away and excited. I mean, this is MICROSOFT we are talking about. When was the last time you heard someone really excited about something Microsoft is doing?

All that aside, I think that the eventual impact of HoloLens is pretty understated right now. Sure, people will talk a lot about augmented reality and minecraft or whatever, but there is more at play here, and the shockwaves are still tiny right now, but they will turn into a major force as the Spring turns into Summer.

Name of the Game

Why did Microsoft go with "Holo" for HoloLens, and why are they calling everything Holograms? While technically incorrect, this is definitely a master stroke by some genius at Microsoft.

  • Everyone knows what holograms are. Most people are clueless about augmented reality, even if you give them the usual Iron Man and Minority Report examples. Virtual Reality is easier to explain, but I find that you still have to explain it to people and even then, more blank stares than not. But holograms...very accessible. "It's like real 3D holograms in your living room! Imagine Princess Leia and R2D2!". Done. People get that.
  • When you name or label something, that puts you in control or at least makes you the perceived authority. 
  • "Augmented Reality" is a mouthful and not very euphonic. I've had this discussion with many people in the industry and most have expressed some desires to find another name or description for the tech. Microsoft just did it for everyone. Watch now as everyone (especially marketers) start using variations of holograms and holo-. Heck, I bet every domain variation with the word holo in it will be scooped up in a matter of days. How will Microsoft respond? Will they try to enforce branding and trademark to some degree?

Augmented Reality's Dirty Little Secret

Well, two dirty little secrets. Dirty secret number one...augmented reality, seen through wearables with transparent displays are, well, transparent. Without some black or opaque background, any graphics on a transparent lens will be see-through. It doesn't matter how photorealistic it is, it will look a bit ghostly. Obviously this is different when you experience augmented reality on a mobile device like a smartphone or a tablet, but that is because the AR graphics are overlaid on a video on a screen that is not transparent.

This is definitely a negative, but since we are calling virtual objects and data that you see in AR holograms now, it suddenly makes sense and resets our biases and expectations a little bit.

The other dirty little secret is the actual window or field of view for wearable displays. The world doesn't magically change when you put on a pair of displays, but rather there is a small square or rectangular-ish space in each lens that you are looking through that can display graphics. This is one of the reasons why people wearing these move their heads around a lot, instead of just their eyes. We can still have some amazing experiences with the current-state-of-the-art, but this is one area where the hardware guys will be chipping away at for years to come, until we have full peripheral augmented, er "holographic" I mean, vision.

So, all those awesome concept videos videos for AR HMDs (head mounted displays) aren't quite what the actual experience is. Fortunately though, there is a growing number of researchers, developers, and startups working on this sort of thing. It won't be long.

Indoor, Outdoor

One thing that struck me about the HoloLens videos and use cases, is that they were all indoors. 

  • Transparent displays offer a dismal experience in brightly lit areas. This will ultimately be fixed when the whole opacity issue is sorted out. In the meantime, a dark shade or lens behind the transparent lenses helps, but that also diminishes the real world part of the experience and makes it harder to see real objects indoors.
  • If I'm going to wear some augmented reality glasses outside, they need to look like a pair of sunglasses. Not a Robocop dome or a bulky headband.

Having said that, all of the use cases were indoors, and that is likely where HoloLens and other AR products will excel. Microsoft played this well here. HoloLens doesn't have to be this amazing thing you use everywhere that does everything, helps you pick up dates, or make you look smarter or like a successful valley hipster.

Let's not forget about privacy

Remember all the complaints about Google Glass and privacy? HoloLens has a camera on it as well. I think the difference is you aren't likely to see someone wearing HoloLens at a bar, a stripclub, or at the movie theater, but still, the point remains. You need a camera feed for all of these awesome experiences (especially the one where your dad is giving you tips on how to fix the plumbing under the sink and needs to see what you are doing). 

Personally, I think all the privacy alarmists with Google Glass are making a big deal out of nothing. If Glass just added a tiny red "recording" light, it wouldn't be any different than snapping video with your smartphone. Everyone knows your camera is on and recording. If it is just on for computer vision tracking or image recognition of objects, no one should care and the light shouldn't need to be on. 

Anyone that complains about privacy with HoloLens is just going to be looking for attention or trolling.

Why is HoloLens such a big deal?

There are a variety of reasons, but the biggest one here is that we are talking about Microsoft. Microsoft is going to take augmented reality mainstream. Watch how many startups will suddenly appear to develop games and other apps for HoloLens. If Google doesn't wake up, Microsoft is going to eat their lunch, in more ways than one. Apple can keep filing overly broad patents all day long and hinting at i-this and i-that, but Microsoft is doing it now. Everyone is going to play catch up. I meant it when I said steamrolled. 

Something else to consider...the showcase of HoloLens at the Windows 10 premiere event is not to be ignored. I expect that there is more going on behind the scenes that is going to tie a lot of interesting things together, which is going to be awesome for consumers and developers.  We aren't talking about some fun hardware and maybe an SDK or yet another app store, or a cool AR demo based on one of the off-the-shelf AR platforms already out there...HoloLens is going to be tightly integrated into the whole Microsoft ecosystem and culture and all that entails. Half of the story is the HoloLens itself (hardware) but the real big deal in my opinion is everything else. Just think of these things will be integrated with the XBox. 

The industry is drowsy and mumbling in its sleep right now, but I expect that sometime in the very near future a lot of companies, developers, and investors are going to jolt awake as they realize what is going on, and the augmented reality war will really kick off. One happy result will be an acceleration in innovation and advancement (hardware and software) as everyone starts to try to leverage the platform for more amazing applications or compete directly with another ecosystem for market share. Anyway you look at it, Microsoft's HoloLens is going to make waves. 

Personally, I plan on surfing those waves. Speaking of which, Investors, Venture Capitalists, and the Press are always welcome to contact me and chat about the industry, what trends are evolving, where the opportunities are, and of course, what I'm working on. 

Thank you Microsoft. The future just got a bit more interesting. 

Feel free to chime in if you have a comment or a different perspective on what I'm talking about here. Seriously, leave a comment. Lots of comments means I'll publish blog posts more often (I know, I'm a slacker). Also, feel free to get me introduced to Alex Kipman at Microsoft. I want to see these things first hand. 

Augmented or Virtual Reality?

While Augmented Reality (AR) has been buzzing in the tech industry for a few years, Virtual Reality (VR) has made a huge splash and comeback with the recent announcement of Facebook acquiring Oculus VR for about $2B.

I've heard some conversation lately about whether VR just knocked AR out of the picture, or if one is better than the other. The recent Facebook acquisition at such an enormous buying price is likely going to spawn a bit of a gold rush as people suddenly try to get on the bandwagon, and this might make it harder for AR startups to find funding (already a hard thing to do).

I think first, we need to understand the differences between AR and VR as well as how these technologies are going to be used. Both have the potential to be massive agents of change, but not in the way that most people think.

Augmented Reality

Augmented Reality (AR) is best described as a digital layer of information superimposed on what you are looking at. Most people are familiar with the term "heads up display" or HUD (as you would see in an airplane cockpit) or the digital yellow first-down line in football. That line isn't actually there, but it is added to the video feed as a layer of information.


Many implementations of mixed reality are referred to as Augmented Reality. Unless you are really picky like me, or an academic, its probably fine to refer to both as Augmented Reality or AR. 

I wanted to make the distinction here for a couple of reasons, but if you are new to all this, just think Augmented Reality when I say Mixed Reality and you will be fine.

Mixed Reality

Mixed Reality (MR) is essentially the same as Augmented Reality (and almost always referred to as AR) except instead of an overlay with information (for example, imagine people's names floating over their heads), the experience would have digital 3D objects placed in the environment around you, which in some cases you could interact with. Examples of this would be 3D Zombies shambling around a college campus, or replacing your head with Darth Vader's helmet while you are on a video chat with your friends. 

Mixed Reality, or the full blending of the real world and the virtual, is where I think the greatest potential for amazing things is at, and certainly (in my opinion) the coolest stuff to work on.

Virtual Reality

Virtual Reality (VR) is where you are fully immersed in a virtual environment or virtual world (VW), generally through a wearable display, like those that Oculus VR makes, much larger and complicated contraptions (see image to the right, lol), or through something like a bunch of giant screens around you or a dome that you would stand inside.

VR really captured the minds of the public in the late 80s and through the mid-90s with a bunch of very popular and high profile movies. Unfortunately, these movies set the bar of expectations as to what the current day technology could do, and VR was ultimately a huge disappointment. It eventually faded away, with barely a handful of VR evangelists still proclaiming the world-changing implications of VR.

Still though, with the right interface and experience, VR is going to be pretty mind-blowing.

Double Rainbows! What does it all mean?

Augmented Reality (both types) and Virtual Reality are pretty damn awesome and compelling when you think about it. 

AR is ultimately going to have an effect on every day life much in the way the Internet and the Web has so far. You can disagree with this all you want, but it is coming. It might to envision right now while things are still so early, but at some point critical mass is going to occur, and some tremendously amazing application in an area like education or entertainment (early on in any case) will blow the industry up and we will see another information age evolution and rapid revolution occur before our eyes. Some people today are worried about competitors in this industry...honestly, I think they are missing the point. AR is going to spawn entirely new professions and industries, and ultimately change the way we think about and interact with the environment around us and other people. Pick an industry and I'll tell you how it will be reinvented with AR.

VR on the other hand, is, at first glance, much more compelling and engaging. While AR is all about who and what is around you, VR has the potential to take you to an entirely new place (real or imaginary) where you can be anyone and experience anything. Even the rules of physics can go right out the door. Imagine experiencing the world from the perspective of a fly, or exploring something while you are no bigger than half a dozen atoms. On the other end of the scale, flying through space and seeing galaxies in the palm of your hand. What about traveling through time and seeing an event unfold, first-hand, from the point of view of someone that was actually there? Anything and everything is possible with VR, and I haven't even started talking about things like new ways to learn or interact with pure data and information. Of course, I'll be first in line to see the digital frontier like TRON did. 

Remember, AR is about the world around you, blended with digital objects, whereas VR is about an entirely different world, and all immersive. Both of these have tremendous potential and great promise, provided that we don't give up on getting there, and we can get away from horribly designed and implemented gimmicks, just for the sake of a quick buck, or trying to get on the bandwagon.

Having said that, the really smart people out there understand that there are very similar underlying technologies in both AR and VR. It may make sense to differentiate the two for marketing of some product or another, or in some academic discussion, but the real power of both is going to happen when the technologies mature to some level, and we start seeing some convergence and coadunation of both, along with other elements like the internet of things and sensors, new control devices, and a reinvention of information display (are windows and pages really the right metaphor for AR and VR? I don't think so).

Not so fast Buckaroo Banzai!

The best way I can describe the state of the industry compared to what people expect from all the marketing is to use a time machine as the example.

What everyone expects because of all the marketing hype: Dr. Who's T.A.R.D.I.S

Step right up folks!

Step right up folks!

What is actually available on the market: A cardboard box with some blinking lights, a fan blowing some air, and a questionable looking guy outside shaking the box and making sounds like  "EERrwWwoooooSHHHh" "EERrwWwoooooSHHHhEERrw" as loud as he can.

Joking aside, we have seen glimpses of what AR and VR could be like in the future mostly thanks to Hollywood. This sort of stuff is coming, it may just take a while.

Having said that, the question of whether or not AR and/or VR are just technological fads still remains for many people. It is fun for a couple of minutes and then...meh? What's the point?

Virtual Reality still has a few things to work out with the head mounted displays, the big thing being the irritating sense of dizziness and motion sickness that a lot of people experience after only a few brief minutes wearing the gear. I expect that will be conquered very soon. The other issue is that of user do we interact with these amazing virtual worlds? Right now, we have to stumble blindly using a keyboard we can't see, or some other type of hardware like a joystick, motion controller, or maybe a glove studded with sensors. This too will probably be sorted out in the near future, but for all of the glorious experiences we see with VR on TV and in the movies, we will have to wait until we can jack into our brains directly, or something else that can record impulses from our spinal cord and interpret those to control a 3D avatar in the virtual world. This by the way, is quite different from the traditional approach of trying to "read" the mind by using generic EEG sensors to identify certain brainwave patterns. This is commonly referred to as reading the mind by a lot of companies and a few recent tech toys, but nothing could be further from the truth. 

Augmented Reality has its own issues. It is one thing using printed "markers" (basically black and white patterns) or simple image recognition to tell the software where to display the content associated with those markers, but it is an entirely different beast to do full-on AR like in the videos under Mixed Reality at the beginning of this post. To do that, you have to understand the environment around you (I call this spatial intelligence) and that is a bit tricky. Even trickier trying to do that for an experience that multiple people are engaging in at the same time. More on this later in a different blog post. I have a lot to say about this : )

Needs more cowbell


In any case, at the end of the day, both AR and VR need "more cowbell". Even if the technology is getting where it needs to go (albeit slowly, mostly due to lack of risk capital available for innovation and R&D, but also lack of enough visionaries really trying to push things forward with ambition), there still remains the quality of the experience itself, and what the application is. 

For now, VR, in all of its glory and recent industry excitement, still lacks killer experiences. Most of what I've seen out there, is essentially just replacing the monitor on your desktop with a wearable display, and then calling it a day. VR is unique in many respects, and I don't think it will take off as much as it should until there are experiences and content designed specifically for VR instead of just being tacked on.

AR is probably in a worse position right now...the industry has been flooded with a bunch of novelty gimmicks meant to attract attention, but without giving any real substance or added value to the experience. There is plenty of hype coming from people releasing awesome concept videos that look good, but have little to do with what their tech or app actually does, and in some cases, there is little thought given to the realities of what is necessary to pull off some of the capabilities shown in these videos. I'll save my comments for what AR needs and how the tech needs to evolve to get where it needs to be for the magic to happen for another post soon.

A little critical...

I might be a little bit critical with a dose of cynicism in my posts here and elsewhere, but this is more about the state of the industry and not so much about the technology itself. Most of my frustration comes from over-marketing, get-rich-quick people, and venture capital pouring into dumb ideas and companies instead of seeking out real innovators that have the potential to make a difference. So, whatever you think, don't let me discourage you about the tech or the industry. Some amazing things are going to happen, and relatively soon.

A few companies I like to keep an eye on:




These guys are all doing it.  Really smart people, solid technology, and thoughtful roadmaps. One step at a time, but that is the way to go. 

You won't get a bunch of razzle dazzle from these three companies or concept videos that strain the sense of credulity. There are too many of those already in the industry (and they shall remain unnamed here). It is safe to say (in my opinion) that at least half the industry is either full of it, a waste of time, or just trying to ride the hype and repacking something else and making it seem great. You know who you are!

In the Movies

In case you still don't know what AR or VR is, here are a couple of movies you can watch easily enough to get a better idea. Have fun.

AR in Movies: Terminator, Minority Report, Iron Man, Avatar, Robocop

VR in Movies: The Matrix, Lawnmower Man, Johnny Mnemonic, Virtuosity, and many more.

You should also check out Dennou Coil (anime), and read stuff like Neuromancer (one of my all time favorites), Cryptonomicon , Diamond Age, Rainbow's End, and Dream Park. There is a ton of fantastic material out there that will blow your mind. Not hard to find. Speaking of which, feel free to list your favorite movies or books that have anything to do with AR or VR in the comments. Other readers will appreciate it.

See you in the future.

AR Fiction: Forensics and Crime Scene Analysis

This was originally posted in my personal blog (Dec 17, 2009), and I thought it would be better placed here in this section. I couldn't just move it without losing the comments or the original URL, so I'm just going to copy it here. Enjoy.

- Robert

In a recent post, I mentioned that I was a contributing author to Working Through Synthetic Worlds

Anyway, the format of the book is unique. As the description says:

The editors use a distinctive format for the book, consisting of a set of chapters composed of three parts: a story or vignette that describes work conducted within a synthetic world based loosely on the question, ‘what will work be like in the year 2025?’, founded on the expert authors’ expectations of plausible future technologies; a scholarly review of the technologies described by the stories and the current theories related to those technologies; and, a prescription for future research required to bridge the current state-of-the-art with the notional worlds described in the stories.

What I wanted to do here was share part of my chapter with you, at least just the fiction part. The rest of the chapter gets into the technical analysis, scholarly review, etc. This is the unedited version (the final is much cleaner), so please ignore any glaring writing errors. I hope you enjoy the short story…I might continue it at a later date depending on reader response (I had a limited amount of space to work with in the chapter).


The call had arrived at a little past two-thirty in the morning and Kendra had drawn the short straw to venture out in the freezing rain that had been cascading from an inky black sky for the last several hours. She waited at the stoplight, listening to the soft hum of her electric car and the turn signal’s metronome clicking away little segments of time. She was tempted to let her mind wander while staring at the glistening raindrops snaking their way down her windows and brightly lit by the stoplight. Kendra had always felt something mysterious about inclement weather in the middle of the night, especially when there were only few people on the roads heading to some unknown destination.  The only thing that could make the atmosphere a little more surreal would be snow materializing out of eternity and blanketing the city in silence, with only the reflections of street lights free to echo through the night.

The light finally changed to green and Kendra turned her mind back to the task at hand and drove the rest of the way to the crime scene, preparing herself for her work.

Kendra arrived at the scene and shouldered her way through the overly eager press reporters that had already gathered like hungry vultures desperate for a meal. She ignored their barrage of questions and ducked under the police cordon, showing her badge to the officers attempting to control the growing crowd. This was the fourth murder in as many days and the public was beginning to demand answers. She made her way across the driveway and up the brick stairs leading to the front door of the house, dodging the growing pools of rainwater that would soak her feet if she wasn’t careful.

She entered the house and waited while most of the other officers cleared out to give her some room. The medical examiner had already been on the scene and the bodies were taken away. Kendra could sync up her databases with the examiner’s later, it was time for her to do her own work now. She set down her bag and reached up to her glasses, tapping a barely noticeable touch sensitive key at the corner of the frames. A softly glowing heads up display pulsed into existence in front of her, immediately sensing her location in the real world and on the meta-net.

“Initialize.” she commanded. “Voice authentication: Alpha-Zulu-Romeo-Bravo-Zero-Niner-Seven.”

A nondescript male voice spoke in her ear. “Authenticated, Lieutenant Kendra Jackson, Enhanced Sensory Perception, ESPer Team 5”

“Begin scanning, crime scene, domestic, murder.” She began to look at every area of the room, making a few mental notes of things she would pay special attention to when she returned for her detail and evidence collection sweep. The voice spoke in her ear again. “Location confirmed. Date and time confirmed. Scanning in process. Comparing visual point cloud to public architectural records and builder plans. Synchronizing. Process complete.”

“Display wireframe” she said.

“Wireframe active. No anomalies detected.”

Faint blue lines appeared, following the course of the walls, the floor, the ceiling, the doorframes, and every other part of the house that she could see. It was like seeing a 3D blueprint of the house overlaid on the real thing. This served multiple purposes, but for now she needed it to act as a reference for the scale, positioning, and orientation of everything in the house, particularly any evidence she would come across. She remembered hearing stories of a SWAT team that had used augmented glasses and the wireframe to navigate through a pitch black office building where terrorists had cut the power and had set off multiple smoke bombs. They never knew what hit them. After that particular incident, Fire departments all over the country began requesting the same gear. Not being able to see where you were going in a smoke filled building was no longer a problem. You simply needed to follow the blue lines or the floating translucent red arrows that pointed towards the nearest exit. Life was so much easier with augmented reality and the glasses.

“Activate WATSON” she requested, almost without thinking. She had grown accustomed to working with the artificial life intelligent agent. Originally he was not much more than a tool that helped gather information and run intelligent semantic database searches, all wrapped up in a life sized human representation. Kendra had spent a lot of time and a fair amount of her own money to customize him to her liking and upgrade his program with a more realistic personality and some law enforcement grade functionality that was not available to the public.

“WATSON is now online.” The voice stated. She wondered if she should change her settings and give it a personality or if she preferred it to be completely devoid of any emotion. Having WATSON around was more than enough she guessed.

Kendra turned her head slightly and regarded WATSON, who was now standing in the middle of the room wearing his usual Victorian garb and peering at his surroundings while muttering to himself. He was faintly translucent, which was required by law for any virtual person, human controlled avatar or AI-driven persona. There were some public safety reasons for this and people generally preferred to keep it that way, mostly for the same reasons that humanoid synthetic androids were restricted from being too lifelike.

“WATSON, access the domestic security system and copy the logs from the last 72 hours” she said to her virtual companion while she began to start walking around each of the rooms on the first floor, observing everything.

WATSON nodded and pulled a worn leather-bound journal from thin air and started to make notes in it. He stopped muttering to himself and looked quite intent on his recording task. When he was finished, he walked out of the room, waddling slightly (he was a tad overweight, and it affected his walk cycle) and caught up with her.

When Kendra completed her initial walkthrough, she returned to where she began and started collecting evidence. Every bullet and casing were recovered, lasers used to determine angle of the bullet holes in the wall, fingerprints lifted, bloodstains sampled, and so on. By the time she was done, a highly detailed 3D mirror of the entire house had been created on the servers back at the station. Every photograph she took and corresponding video clips of everything she saw were also stored, but each was tagged with appropriate time and location data. She had taken the time to attach some notes and observations to a few key items and places of interest in the house. Anyone looking at the 3D version of the crime scene would have ready access to all of the data and her notes.

As Kendra was packing up her gear and preparing to leave, she had a sudden hunch. “WATSON, display all augmented reality content and channels associated with this residence please.”

“Ah, yes yes, good idea Ma’am. Complying.” WATSON looked like he was staring off into the distance at something vaguely interesting, while a wide variety of virtual objects began popping into existence. Normally, this would only be visible to the residents and friends that have access to their channels. Some abstract art materialized on one wall, shifting patterns and undulating waves rippling across the largest piece, their smooth motion was mesmerizing. A few virtual pets popped into existence next and started scampering around playing at some learning game intended for young children. A wonderfully detailed plan for a new house slowly appeared on the dining room table complemented by a soft woman’s voice reciting a sales pitch and mentioning a number of optional additions that could be purchased.

WATSON frowned and coughed politely. “I’m sorry, but there seems to be some additional content here that is restricted. It is not listed on the normal public and private channels. It may be an illegal hack. Shall I attempt to access?”

Kendra considered for a moment. Normally, law enforcement personnel have access to all AR content, public and private, within the domain of a crime scene, but there were some levels of protection and privilege that required a court order or security clearance to access. In cases like these, discretion was usually prudent and it was safe to obtain a warrant first. Then again, there was a strong possibility it was an illegal hack and this was a murder scene, not a regular crime scene. Kendra’s curiosity and intuition got the better of her.

“Force access WATSON, on my authorization. All means necessary.”

“Yes Ma’am. I shall do my best”. WATSON’s eyebrows furrowed and little beads of sweat began to form on his virtual brow. A few long minutes passed and Kendra started wondering if WATSON had locked up…he hadn’t moved in a bit and even flickered a few times, which was extremely unusual. She was about to give up and restart his program when he lurched with a gasp and a pained look on his face.

“Ahem, that was extraordinarily difficult, but I seem to have succeeded. A spot of tea would be really nice methinks.”

“Thank you WATSON, what is the location of the hidden content?”

“In the living room I believe. Shall we investigate?” queried WATSON.

“Of course; this should be interesting.” Kendra grinned and headed towards the living room. She stopped short at the doorway and stared at the center of the room in disbelief. A massive floating black skull hovered there, blood-red fire silently blazing in its hollow eye sockets, and a nasty black ichor dripping out of its mouth on to the carpet. The pools of liquid that formed stretched out and oozed across the rug to form intricate letters spelling something out in a bizarre language she did not recognize.

“Oh, my, this cannot be good.” WATSON said, stating the obvious.

“No kidding. Begin scanning the usual databases for gang signs, military unit insignia, secret societies, tattoos, and ancient symbology. I think we may have stumbled onto something that we weren’t meant to discover” said Kendra. “Let’s head back to the office and start putting the pieces together.”

The next several days were a blur for Kendra. Most of her time was spent processing evidence, populating the database with all of the information and media, and focusing every remaining waking moment trying to research the origin and meaning of the skull. It didn’t take too long to establish a timeline of the crime and how the murders occurred, but her research efforts resulted in a lot of dead-ends and few leads.

It was Thursday afternoon and Kendra headed over to the simulations room to tweaking her presentation before the staff briefing the next day. The higher-ups were demanding some progress and wanted to look at her work so far. She went to Room Three, which she had reserved earlier, and looked around. Room Three was entirely empty and slightly larger than a racquetball court. The walls and floor were painted a light grey color with thin black registration marks at every corner. She thought it was pretty depressing and wanted to get started.

She touched the corner of her glasses and went through the usual initialization and authentication process. “Load SIM four-zero-three, set location to living room.” Kendra paused and waited while her command was processed. After a few second a photorealistic 3D mirror of the crime scene faded into existence. Every detail was reproduced exactly and to scale, all based on the visual data she had recorded during her initial walkthrough and subsequent evidence collection at the scene.

Kendra continued giving the main computer additional commands, and after half an hour or so, the victim’s bodies were also visible. Faint red beams crossed the room, originating at each of the areas where the bullets were recovered, giving her a good idea where the killer or killers had stood and fired from. All of the fingerprints that were taken were also referenced, faintly glowing various shades of green. She touched a pair that was on the coffee table and a small window materialized above the prints with a zoomed in version and information about who the prints belonged to. In this case, the prints were marked as unknown and not in any of the usual fingerprint databases.

She moved on, making notations and observations to each area of evidence. Everything was checked and rechecked. Kendra reviewed all of the collected data and media, making sure everything was properly linked to the relevant objects. If there were any questions at the meeting, she literally wanted everything at her fingertips. All it would take was a brief touch on anything (or anyone) and all of the reports, photographs, video clips, and lab data would be instantly viewable to anyone in the room.

Once she was satisfied with everything, Kendra started tweaking the reconstruction of the crime based on the evidence they had so far. She started by tracking backwards from what the Police discovered when they responded to the crime, continually adjusting the position of each of the victims as she worked through the timeline. When she finished, she directed the system to fill in the blanks based on the forensic data already in the database.

After the processing was complete, she would be able to view a realistic recreation of the crime from any angle and perspective. The combination of the 3D objects, advanced physics modeling, and actual forensics data made these simulations incredibly lifelike. She had heard stories of the occasional jury member being shocked after witnessing these simulations in court, particularly if the crime was unusually brutal and violent. It felt like being an unseen ghost right in the middle of the crime as it occurred, and was much more compelling than the old way of relying on photographs, charts, and awkward animations on a projector screen. This put you THERE and left little doubt as to what happened. Kendra wondered how long it would be before the engineers would figure out how to implement smell and tactile feedback.

She ran through the simulation a few times and checked all of the datapoints once again to make sure she hadn’t missed anything. It was good enough she supposed. Maybe she should take another hour or two and check in with some of her contacts that were helping her with the skull research and then call it a night. Her boss didn’t take kindly to oversleeping or flubbing a presentation with the brass due to lack of sleep. Tomorrow should be interesting. She hoped the press didn’t show up, that always made her nervous.

“Save all files, backup, and copy to private storage. End simulation.” Kendra looked around at the empty room once more and left for her office.

(To be continued…?)


-Excerpt from Working Through Synthetic Worlds, Chapter 11, Augmented Reality Tools for Enhanced Forensics Simulations and Crime Scene Analysis by Robert Rice

Facebook to Acquire Oculus Rift for $2B...


So, yeah, Facebook just announced it is acquiring VR headset company Oculus Rift for $2B. Wow and holy cow, what does this mean for the industry?

Take a look at Mark Zuckerberg's Status Update announcement. Mark discusses the amazing potential of virtual reality as a new platform and some pretty amazing experiences, but doesn't really mention anything about how this relates to Facebook, other than their mission to make the world more open and connected. 

This acquisition is certainly going to make the founders and investors at Oculus very happy, and if they are allowed to continue operating independently, this huge cash influx should hopefully accelerate everything that Oculus is working on, but there are still a lot of remaining questions about age-old problems with VR headsets, the main one being the eye-strain and motion-sickness that tends to occur after using the headsets for several minutes. We will probably see a bunch of VR-enabled games hitting Facebook, but honestly, creating good experiences for VR is COMPLETELY different from just making a 3D game or mobile app. We will probably see some conversions or whatever just to build up a portfolio, which will either be great and really amazing, or it will fizzle out very quickly as gimmicky and novelty as everyone tries to get on the bandwagon. 

Having said that, I am generally optimistic. There are some great people at Oculus and they are making tremendous strides in an industry that went *poof* in the mid-90s. The hardware isn't quite there yet, but it is getting pretty damn close. Once the hardware is right, all of the amazing experiences we have been promised for many years about virtual reality (VR) and its potential will start coming true. However! Who are the VR developers? Where are they? Where are the investment dollars going into VR startups? Who is pushing the edge of innovation for VR in terms of user interface, user experiences, immersion, and so forth? What happened to all of the VR pioneers and innovators from the 80s and 90s? I'd say that they are out there, but they are disillusioned or disinterested... try talking to a venture capitalist with an idea for changing the world or technology now if you are over 25. Good luck with that. I'd argue there is a lost generation of expertise and vision for virtual reality out there that needs to be recovered. 

Virtual Reality isn't going anywhere any time soon until sources of capital (angel investors, seed funds, venture capitalists, etc.) decide to embrace the vision and potential of the technology (and its inherent risks as "new" technology) and start pumping capital into new startups. These startups must be driven by the pioneers and visionaries that already understand this tech and how to apply it...young guys with an idea for a facebook VR game just aren't going to cut it. Much more is at stake, and the potential for really changing the world is huge. 

Now, I'm not knocking the young guys, I've been there myself. But with VR in particular, there is already a wealth of knowledge, expertise, and vision (pardon the pun) that can be tapped into, and I'm just not seeing it happen. I really don't want to see Farmville VR, Flappy Bird VR, or Snapchat VR. 

I would guess though that Facebook's move here might just open the floodgates for VR companies as everyone starts thinking that hell, if Facebook thinks this is the future, we better get on the bandwagon or we are going to miss out. This might be a good thing, as capital will flow, but on the other hand, in the past when this sort of thing has happened, it has created a bubble and tons of really stupid ideas and teams get crazy funding, which just goes up in smoke as they are busy burning the cash doing "cool" things instead of building something really awesome

Getting back to Facebook though, I'm still not clear on why Facebook decided to acquire Oculus...I sincerely hope we don't see a Facebook VR application any time soon. VR is about immersion and experience, not 2D windows full of status updates, "likes", or selfies. There is nothing about VR (now at least) that will contribute to Facebook's mission of making the world more open or connected. Dean Putney has an interesting post on boingboing that is worth reading. I think that it would have been better for Oculus (and the world) if Google or Apple had acquired them instead. It would have made much more sense, and would align with their efforts in other areas, like augmented reality, wearables, and so forth. 

All in all, I think that Facebook's acquisition will ultimately prove out to be a good thing, but in the short term I think there is a big risk of novelty gimmicks running on the buzz of VR for a money grab, and very little actual innovation. Time will tell I guess.

I do believe that there is insane potential for virtual reality, augmented reality, virtual worlds, wearable displays, wearable devices, and the internet of things, particularly in areas where they intersect or are complimentary. Anyone interested in changing the world and building the future is welcome to contact me. 

I have to hand it to Zuckerberg though, this is a really interesting development in the industry and I'm looking forward to seeing how it plays out and what Facebook is ultimately going to do with Oculus. 

Just remember, there is no spoon. 

Really, there is no spoon.

Update: And now, there is no Minecraft VR for Oculus Rift.

My first tech job was creating virtual reality

Oculus Rift Virtual Reality Wearable Display

Oculus Rift Virtual Reality Wearable Display

I am sure you have heard about Oculus VR by now. They have an awesome head mounted display for virtual reality. Great company, great team, and they just scored another $75M in funding. They even managed to get John Carmack to leave Id, which is something like getting Steve Jobs to leave Apple. While Carmack is known for his immense contributions to 3D graphics and the game industry, not many know that he had a connection to Virtual Reality a good twenty years ago. I'll explain in a minute, but I need to provide some background. 

AWT's Reality Rocket

AWT's Reality Rocket

After working for a few years in various interesting jobs, I started my first business, a comic book store in the early 90's. This lasted for a little over a year (maybe a year and a half) when I closed the store down and took a job as the first employee for the first virtual reality game company based in the US, called Alternate Worlds Technology (or AWT). This was around 1993 or 1994 I think, I don't remember off hand. I was their first full time employee and had the lofty title of "Senior Multimedia Engineer" which meant that I knew how to use a computer, I could teach myself graphics, 3D modeling, animation, and sound effect design. Plus I could handle other design, user experience, and whatever else the CEO wanted me to do. 

Somehow or another, the CEO of AWT managed to convince Id and John Carmack to agree to some sort of license to Wolfenstein 3D (at the time, Doom was still in early development). AWT was going to do a virtual reality conversion of the game for arcades. We were developing stand-up and seated arcade game cabinets (the seated one had the unfortunate name "Reality Rocket").

Clip from the AWT Marketing Brochure

Clip from the AWT Marketing Brochure

Not only did we end up finishing and releasing Wolfenstein VR (which was a huge amount of fun), but built a whole new game on the engine called Cybertag VR...the first multi-player VR arcade game if I remember correctly. Cybetag is my first real game design credit...I did the overall design, gameplay, character design, graphics, animation, and sound effects. 

Those were fun times. I had to teach myself to do a lot of this from scratch and then figure out how to train other people. Deluxe Paint ,Animator Pro, Pre-release version of 3D Studio, Wave for Windows, the list goes on. I had to stumble through trial and experimentation with some of this software...didn't have manuals and certainly didn't have Google to go search Youtube for tutorials haha. 

Anyway, I remember John Carmack being very interested in virtual reality, even back then. I'm really excited to see what Oculus is going to do in the future. We live in interesting times!


Your Augmented Reality concept video is awesome, but...

 I love watching new augmented reality concept videos. It seems like all of the cool kids have one these days. While these are fantastic at communicating the potential of augmented reality (including perceptual computing, mixed reality, virtual reality, sensor fusion, and much more), these videos are a little problematic.

First, they are setting unrealistic expectations from the consumers that are watching them, and I'm willing to bet fooling potential investors and venture capitalists that are looking at funding these companies.   

lots of windows.jpg

These videos are sometimes used as marketing pieces, and for the common man who doesn't know better, it looks like this is what the company is developing, when the reality couldn't be farther.  

It seems to me, and I could be wrong, that very little thought is being given to the technical elements required for these experiences or any consideration at all for design challenges, particularly around areas like user interface, cognitive overload, information visualization, and much more. Have you noticed that there is a good amount of mind-reading in half of these videos, not to mention context driven experiences that would probably require a quantum computer or two to actually pull off?

At least make it clear that your concept video is a work of fiction and be sure to pair it with actual videos of what your product or tech actually does, or what you expect it to do within a reasonable amount of time, maybe not more than a year or so.  

Here are a few examples, good and bad. 

There is sooo much that is misleading about some of these, it is almost embarrassing.  


2010, Year One: Decade of Ubiquity

I’ve blogged in the past about Future Vision and the coming Decade of Ubiquity and my predictions for what might occur between now and 2012, which is a bit beyond the current crop of 2010 predictions by some really smart people as aggregated by Games Alfresco. I’ve always had a knack for thinking ahead, and more often than not, I’ve been too early. I started a company in 1995 to build the first real-time 3D MMORPG (during the days of VGA and 2D sprite “3D” graphics) with a strong emphasis on social gameplay, and in 1999 I was evangelizing the digital nation as a virtual world community platform, and in 2000 I shifted to 3D interfaces to the Internet along with virtual goods and microtransactions, and I made a scathing indictment of online worlds and MMORPGs back in 2006 about the decline of that industry’s craft and lore which many people are finally beginning to see and agree with. Of course, back then many people attacked my point of view (notice the low rating of the book and comments on

2005-2006 was around the time I was designing Immortal Destiny, which was meant to be a true next-generation virtual world and MMORPG. The whole world was designed to be AI-driven and a fully adaptive and evolving ecology that would change based on what players did (or did not) do. We even found some really interesting genetic computation algorithms that we were going to leverage as sort of an artificial life intelligence to control many of the game systems and mechanics. The full scope of the world was to give players the chance to finally be important, and the drivers of the story, on both micro and macro levels, instead of just churning through static canned content. There are a lot of other problems with MMORPGs and Virtual Worlds right now (which I addressed in my book, and are still relevant). Sure, some games like World of Warcraft are successful financially, but they could be so much MORE successful, the market could be bigger, and games could be more engaging and interesting.

Anyway, I tried finding funding for Immortal Destiny, but at the time, I just couldn’t do it. Much of the interest in the industry had moved on to casual and social games and worlds, large MMO projects were getting shut down left and right (remember Sigil and Perpetual Studios?), and it seemed that the only way to find funding was if you were a baseball star or a former employee of blizzard (regardless of what you actually did there). So, I made the call and suspended development. Sometimes, if you aren’t getting any traction, it is best to stop and move on. I still plan on creating Immortal Destiny and shaking up the game industry, but unless one of my blog readers has $20M to drop (and no, you do not need a $500M budget to blow the industry out of the water), I’ll be self funding this in the future.

So, back to the topic. In mid 2006, probably around August when I was at the beachhouse on our annual trip to Topsail Island, and was making the decision to close the doors on the MMO, I started thinking about technology. What the obvious trends were, what trends were developing in the underlying currents of various industries, what was happening on the internet, in virtual worlds, in games, in social media, in mobile, in hardware, software, telecom, etc. etc. This is about the time where I discovered QR codes, Datamatrix, and found a handful of videos about augmented reality on youtube.

I admit that this was a huge surprise to me. The beginning of my career in interactive media was in the very early 90s at the first virtual reality arcade game company in the US (Alternate Worlds Technology), so I was quite familiar with all things virtual reality, which is not a huge leap from augmented reality. I didn’t think that the state of things was as far advanced as it seemed to be, and certainly not accessible. After a bit more research, I discovered ARTag, ARToolkit, DART, and a few other things. I immediately saw the potential here, and a lot of old ideas came flooding back.

To me, the full potential of augmented reality can only be realized when we can break away from the desktop, making it mobile and ubiquitous, while moving beyond the handheld “lens” (i.e. hold up your iPhone and look through it) with wearable displays. Even then though, the wearables must be in an eyeglass form factor, and the lenses must be transparent. This combination is still a few years off (sooner if I had my way), and is the absolute basic requirement for the impending media evolution.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I firmly believe that the state-of-the-art of augmented reality has an insane amount of potential on its own, but to be honest, most of what came out in 2009 was desktop marker based (stable, looks great, lots of uses, but ultimately deployed in ways that were pure gimmick and schlock) or directory services that are pseudo AR. Almost all of the so-called AR Browsers out there fall into this category (and some don’t qualify as AR to begin with). I think what we are seeing right now, and definitely through 2010 is more like the emergence of location based content and mobile experiences, wrapped and marketed as augmented reality. This is ok though. The industry is still barely born, and we have a long way to go. A few more years of technology advancement and industry maturity is required before we start seeing real things that will have a lasting effect on our daily lives.

The point though, is that all of these things calling themselves augmented reality now are just the start. Everyone is getting their feet wet, experimenting, exploring, and beginning to innovate. We can argue about what is or isn’t augmented reality, but it doesn’t really matter. What does matter is the continual push for advancing the technology, the industry, and getting people to start using it. My own company, Neogence Enterprises, has been working quietly in the background on our own stuff with an eye to the future, but I think our goals have been too ambitious for the short term. I’m not satisfied with the current state-of-the-art, and I want more. However, the longer we take in development, the less ability we have to build our own brand and compete for marketshare and eyeballs. So, we are shifting gears a bit and will be releasing our own AR Browser and a few other nifty things in the near future to stake our claim, while we continue developing the other stuff, and solving the really hard problems that others haven’t even begun to consider yet. Remember, I like to think very far ahead, and work backwards…developing a roadmap that lays out a plan to execute. That is what we are doing.

But what does all of this have to do with the title of this post? Yes, I agree that augmented reality effectively exploded on the blogosphere in 2009 (even though its been around for years) and it will really start taking off in 2010 (expect AR startups coming out of the woodwork, venture capital starting to flow, a couple of failures and closings, some mergers and acquisitions, and some really interesting applications (but not until later in the year at the earlist)). But what is really going on here? If you set aside all of the glitz of augmented reality and consider what is happening on a very subtle level, you begin to see the beginnings of some other trends. Augmented reality just happens to be the umbrella that all of this is getting lumped under and is the easy buzzword to throw around.

* Mobile Paradigm Shift

I’m not going to go into much detail here about this beyond saying that mobile devices aren’t just for making phone calls anymore. The mobile device is becoming the replacement for laptops, and for most casual computing. Even as dramatic as this shift is here in North America, we are still half a decade or so behind what is going on in Asia or some third world countries where they skipped the whole “copper wires in the ground” phase that we are still dealing with as legacy. You might not believe it, but some countries are moving towards a cashless system and the mobile device is replacing the wallet. Think about that for a minute.

The rapid development of smart mobiles (the explosion starting with the iPhone) is nearing fever pitch. The new devices we are going to see over the next year or two are going to be amazing. The things we will be taking for granted by the time 2012 rolls around would stun us today to even consider, yet it is coming.

* Location, Location, Location

I mentioned directory AR earlier as very early implementations of location based content. If the buzz in 2009 was around AR (at least in some circles), I’m fairly confident it will be location based content and services in 2010. As I have said dozens and dozens of times in the past year, who you are, where you are, and what is around you will be important. In the past we have gone to places on the internet to get information, now we will start seeing information served to us on a silver platter that is relevant to where we are. This too will take a couple of years to really get cooking, and we have already started seeing early efforts here (have you heard the rumors of Google considering an acquisition of Yelp for $500m? (Update: More rumors report that Yelp has spurned this offer)). My favorite app for location based anything right now is probably Foursquare. I checked into a local pizza place yesterday (Sauced Pizza) and Foursquare gave me a $5 off coupon on a large pizza. Holy cow. How awesome is that?

* Ubiquitous and Pervasive

Ubiquitous: existing or being everywhere at the same time : constantly encountered

Pervasive: to become diffused throughout every part of

When I talk about the decade of ubiquity, I mean to say that during the next ten years (sooner, really, but it is such a great line, I’m sticking with it), what I define as augmented reality (in broad terms) or “the blend between the real and the virtual” will definitely, absolutely, and unavoidably occur. Computing will become smaller and almost unnoticable, and be part of nearly every aspect of our lives. The various implementations and modes of this will change and evolve to be sure. For now, we are holding up our mobile devices and peering at the tiny screens. In the future, you will simply walk into a room and it will know you are there. You will buy things by swiping your phone over a sensor. Your car will start when you get close to it. You will never have to punch a time clock at the office. You will always have directions to get where you need to be, without having to look it up. Intelligent agents (running on a mobile device) will recognize your voice and order pizza for you, make calls, book appointments, and arrange airfare. Interactive 3D virtual goods and characters (appearing like holograms) will be all over the place along with dynamic data overlays…all designed to your tastes, preferences, and habits.

Every industry and way of life will feel the effects of mobile, ubiquitous computing, augmented reality, smart devices, embedded sensors, and automation. It used to be fun talking about this, reading science fiction, and watching movies, but we are finally at the point where we can see light at the end of the tunnel, and the future we (well at least the older folks) have been dreaming of is rushing towards, gaining speed every year.

Of course, there are obstacles along the way…the economy, world politics, the strangulation of commerce and innovation funding, apathy, bad business models, greedy people, and misdirection of talent and resources, but we will overcome. The golden technology utopia of the future that we all desire is too bright and the siren call is too strong. Yes, it might take longer than we would like, and it might not turn out like we hope (try reading 1984 and Brave New World over the same weekend), but as long as we strive, and refuse to capitulate to failure or weak minded individuals who swear the sky is falling and every ambition is a waste of time, we will get there.

At least, that is what I aim for. As Tesla once said “The present is theirs ; the future, for which I really worked, is mine.” Don’t be satisfied with the status quo, and don’t be discouraged when you see someone else building (and profiting) from things you have imagined or had the idea for on your own. Do it anyway, do it better, and always strive to reach higher and farther than anyone else. Success will find you sooner or later.

So, here is an early welcome to you to year one of the decade of ubiquity. How will it change your life? What are you going to do? Are you going to jump in and make it happen? Are you going to sit back and watch? Are you going to slow down the visionaries and workers making it happen by complaining about things and marginalizing their efforts? Are you content? Or are you driven? The future is yours to create and invent, or you can fade into the past.

As for me, I’m going for gold. I’m never going to quit, I’m never going to be satisfied, and I will never settle. I may have to walk in smaller steps at times, but every one of those steps is leading to a leap.

I can’t wait.



"Working Through Synthetic Worlds" now published...

on Amazon. Check it out!

I am a contributing author to the book and I wrote Chapter 11. My title for the chapter is: Augmented Reality Tools for Enhanced Forensics Simulations and Crime Scene Analysis. Long, yes, but to the point.

Amazon’s Product Description:

Virtual environments (VE) are human-computer interfaces in which the computer creates a sensory-immersing environment that interactively responds to and is controlled by the behaviour of the user. Since these technologies will continue to become more reliable, more resolute and more affordable, it’s important to consider the advantages that VEs may offer to support business processes.

The term ‘synthetic world’ refers to a subset of VEs, having a large virtual landscape and a set of rules that govern the interactions among participants. Currently, the primary motivators for participation in these synthetic worlds appear to be fun and novelty. As the novelty wears off, synthetic worlds will need to demonstrate a favourable value proposition if they are to survive. In particular, non-game-oriented worlds will need to facilitate business processes to a degree that exceeds their substantial costs for development and maintenance.

“Working Through Synthetic Worlds” explores a variety of different tasks that might benefit by being performed within a synthetic world. The editors use a distinctive format for the book, consisting of a set of chapters composed of three parts: a story or vignette that describes work conducted within a synthetic world based loosely on the question, ‘what will work be like in the year 2025?’, founded on the expert authors’ expectations of plausible future technologies; a scholarly review of the technologies described by the stories and the current theories related to those technologies; and, a prescription for future research required to bridge the current state-of-the-art with the notional worlds described in the stories.

The book will appeal to undergraduate and graduate students, professors, scientists and engineers, managers in high-tech industries and software developers.

Augmented Reality: Not exciting to "normal" users...

Chris Dannen, over at Fast Company just put out a post called Put Your Phone Down: Augmented Reality is Overblown where he dismisses augmented reality offhandedly and doesn’t appear to really understand what it is or could be. The opinion in his blog post is myopic at best and he makes a few subtle stabs, like the following:

…few of the “normal” smartphone users I talk to can get excited about augmented reality. Sure, they’re not thinking five years ahead, as we’re told tech visionaries do.”

Is he suggesting that those people getting excited about augmented reality aren’t normal, being nothing more than the techno-fringe? The next bit feels slightly sardonic as well…presenting tech visionaries as people who say they are thinking five years ahead, and being dubious about that.

In the next breath, he gets a little enthusiastic about AR being right around the corner and not five years in the future, and that it is in its “last trimester”, but then saying that few people seem to care. The recent issue of Esquire, featuring marker based AR, is highlighted as the example proving his point.

Then, shockingly, he quotes Jonathan Wegener, a developer of an AR app as saying that he thinks that consumers will get tired of AR and that it won’t catch on. Wegener’s app (NYC Exit Strategy Subway Map) sells for $4.99 in the Apple app store. Why bother if you don’t think consumers are interested in it?

Dannen ends his blog post by shifting positions again and saying that:

AR isn’t bound to fail—that’s not what I’m arguing. Iteration after iteration will be pushed on consumers until the technology finds its niche.

See what he did there? iterations pushed on consumers and niche. He seems almost annoyed and irritated that augmented reality apps are being shoved down his throat on a daily basis, each one slightly different than the one before it, and that maybe, after as much trial and error as Thomas Edison went through to perfect the light bulb, the industry will finally find a niche for the technology. Anyway, what exactly is he arguing? Nearly the entire post is a little sarcastic and almost mocking of both augmented reality, the people developing it, and the consumers that are interested in it.

The last line:

But if you’re expecting apps like Layar to drastically change the way you live your everyday life, well, that’s just not reality.

I’m not aware of anyone out there suggesting that apps like Layar, Wikitude, Robotvision, Yelp, Bionic Eye, Accelair, etc. are going to change the way everyday life is being led. I am aware of some people challenging whether or not these apps should even qualify as augmented reality, and a vast number of people realizing that these apps are barely the equivalent of outputting “hello world” in BASIC. So much more is to come, and is already in development. We haven’t even scratched the surface.

But Chris ignores almost everything else in the emerging industry and the phenemonal technologies beginning to creep out of the Universities, and focuses on very basic implementations of AR. His opinion is validated by his “industrial designer” friend who didn’t think the Esquire magazine implementation was all that. What kind of industrial designer is his friend? If the guy designs next-generation toilet seats and urinals, I doubt he can make any kind of authoritative judgment on user interface, multimedia, or a unique technology like augmented reality. The point isn’t that you need a PC and a webcam to experience the AR in Esquire, the point is that you can experience the magazine in an entirely different way.

I’ve spoken before about the dangers of industry hype, setting the right expectations, avoiding the wrong judgment of the technology before it matures, and of course, the need to strive for innovation. Chris’ post is short sighted, does not add anything of value to the discussion of augmented reality (negative or positive), and is unfairly dismissive in a condescending manner.

It is opinions like this one in forums like Fast Company that are making it harder for the guys on the ground to gain traction with their efforts and is demoralizing. Is it any wonder that the spirit of innovation and entrepreneuring in North America has been beaten down?

Take a look at “augmented reality” in google trends and judge for yourself.

Is augmented reality just a fad? Are only the out of touch tech-elite and basement nerds excited about it? Is it true that “normal” and intelligent people are merely tolerating augmented reality, giving each other knowing nods like wise adults humoring elementary students excited about Santa Claus?

I think not. If Chris had done his homework and spent any real time researching instead of making an off-the-cuff blog post characterizing an entire industry and technology on the opinions of a few friends, he might have come to a different conclusion.

A few more things for you to consider:

US Post Office, GE, Best Buy, Proctor & Gamble, Molson Beer, Lego, ING, Wimbledon, Mattel, Topps, Facebook, Adidas, Nickelodeon, Doritos, Eminem, John Mayer, Papa Johns, Canon, Philips, Ray Ban, Sony, HP, Disney, Esquire, Popular Science, Wired, Burger King Toyota, Volkswagen, Fiat, Ford, BMW, Citroen, Nissan and many others…

have ALL used augmented reality technology in some fashion or another in the last twelve months, mostly for marketing or advertising.

Companies like Microsoft, Intel, IBM, Cisco, Nokia, NVIDIA and others that include multiple branches of the US Military are using augmented reality applications in real and practical manners. If you take some time and do your own research, you will find that augmented reality has potential applications in nearly every industry and sector…manufacturing, education, entertainment, industry, military, libraries, simulations, chemistry, telepresence, business to business, visualization, biology, forestry, farming, design, etc.

Yes, augmented reality will change the way you live your every day life. Just not tomorrow or through the very early stage implementations we are seeing now. Normal people are indeed excited about it. The ones that aren’t excited, or that are quick to dismiss it, fundamentally don’t really understand it, or are incapable of making that intellectual leap to anticipate where things are going.

This particular blog post by Chris reminds me of some other famous quotes:


“I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.”

- Thomas Watson, chairman of IBM, 1943


“I have travelled the length and breadth of this country and talked with the best people, and I can assure you that data processings is a fad that won’t last out the year.”

- The editor in charge of business books for Prentice-Hall, 1957


“But what…is it good for?”

- Engineer at the Advanced Computing Systems Division of IBM, 1968, commenting on the microchip


“There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.”

-Ken Olson, president, chairman and founder of DEC