Posted tagged ‘emerging technology’

A use for 3D Printing in the corporate sector

6 September 2016

I’ve often wondered about the relevance of 3D printing in the corporate sector because we rarely produce a thing. Our products – such as bank accounts and insurance policies – are essentially 1’s and 0’s floating in the ether.

Then I attended a webinar presented by Jon Soong from Makers Empire. This Australian startup is active in the K12 sector, helping teachers bring 3D printing into their classrooms.

With the right hardware, software and guidance, teachers and their students can visualise abstract concepts (Mathematics, Science), produce replica objects (History, Geography) and create original objects (Art).

As the following video demonstrates, the technology can also be applied to problem-based learning.

I like what I see at St Stephen’s School, not only because of the pedagogical benefits that 3D printing affords, but also because it makes sense to familiarise our children with emerging technology.

This particular technology is already impacting manufacturing. A diverse range of products is currently being 3D printed, including clothes, jewellery, candy, teeth, prosthetics, tools, car parts, architectural models, furniture, toys and accessories.

I predict one day in the not-too-distant future, hospitals and medical device companies will dispense with their warehouses. Instead of stockpiling surgical equipment in big rooms – or worse, waiting for products on backorder – a hospital will be able to build the device it needs on-demand. No more need for storage and transport; just a licence to print the proprietary design.

A 3D printed umbilical cord clamp

In the corporate environment, however, we don’t make widgets.

In this context, I suggest we turn to the students from St Stephen’s for inspiration. When the kids use 3D printing to solve a problem, a by-product of that activity is collaboration. Following their lead, we could split our colleagues into teams and task them with producing a 3D artefact; whether or not that artefact has practical application is irrelevant. What is relevant is how the team members work together to achieve the goal.

The technology is the vehicle with which a collaborative situation can be engineered, experienced, observed, and reflected upon.

And we can go further. Consider a methodology such as Human Centered Design. By baking HCD into the task, the team members can practise it in a low-stakes scenario – for example, creating an office mascot. If the artefact doesn’t gain the target audience’s approval, it’s relatively cheap to make the necessary modifications or even go back to the drawing board.

After the team members build up their experience with the methodology via this seemingly silly exercise, they can apply it to the organisation’s real products and services.

3 uses of Virtual Reality in workplace education

19 July 2016

I’m always surprised when someone makes a sweeping declaration such as “No one’s using virtual reality in the workplace”. I heard this very statement recently at an e-learning conference. Yep, an e-learning conference.

Sure, VR is an emerging technology, but as 20 real-world examples of Virtual Reality can attest, early adopters are indeed putting it to use in the workplace.

I suspect the dismissiveness among some of our peers stems from their uncertainty about how they might apply it in their own contexts – particularly if that context is corporate.

However, I propose the opportunities for using virtual reality in the workplace – or more specifically, in workplace education – remain consistent across sectors according to the 3 use types that I outline below.

We corporate folks can learn from our peers in other sectors who are pursuing these uses, and translate their ideas in our own workplaces. All it takes is a bit of imagination.

1. Virtual reality can substitute the real environment.

Virtual reality may be a feasible alternative when the real thing is infeasible – perhaps due to expense, logistics, or sheer impossibility.

Exemplars that spring to mind include: Google Expeditions which teleports you to wonderful places like Machu Picchu; VR Mars which let’s you walk on the surface of the red planet; and The Body VR which takes you for a ride through the human circulatory system.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t see myself visiting any of these places anytime soon. But I can visit a duplicated environment now, virtually. Of course I’m not really there, but it’s the next best thing.

This substitutive use of VR is being leveraged by a range of players in the workplace. For example, real estate agents offer virtual property tours; hotels show off their rooms; while architects visualise their designs (and modify them quickly and cheaply). The technology allows us – their customers – to experience each environment without having to physically go there.

Similar applications are more difficult to envisage in corporate L&D, so my advice is to return to the value proposition of the substitutive use of VR. Ask yourself: where would you like your colleagues to visit though it is currently infeasible to do so?

In my case, my employer is currently trialling new-look “concept stores” to transform the provision of financial advice. This strategic imperative relates to the overarching transformation of our organisation, so it’d be great if all our employees (and prospective customers!) could experience our flagship store in-person. But with people in different locations all over the world, that’s never going to happen. A 360° virtual tour is a feasible alternative.

2. Virtual reality can prepare you for the real environment.

Virtual reality can be the first port of call when the real thing is high stakes – perhaps because it’s dangerous, emotionally charged, or financially sensitive.

Flight simulators are the obvious exemplar of this use of VR. These systems enable trainee pilots to test their skills and learn from failure in a replicated environment, without the fear of losing their life or causing millions of dollars worth of damage.

This preparatory use of VR is also being leveraged by a range of players in the workplace. For example, engineers preview the hazards of mining; electricians manipulate high-voltage switches; while someone I know in a rural fire service is looking into using 360° video to help volunteer firefighters get a sense of what to expect in a bushfire.

Again, similar applications are more difficult to envisage in corporate L&D, so my advice is to return to the value proposition of the preparatory use of VR. Ask yourself: what will your colleagues be doing that is high-stakes? Bearing in mind that in the corporate sense, “high stakes” is probably financial.

In my case, my employer is progressively remodelling our office building into an Activity Based Working environment. This represents a significant shift in how we go about our day-to-day business, so the project team has been running regular group tours to prepare each batch of employees who are scheduled to occupy the newly decked-out floors. I dare not calculate how many hours multiplied by the number of tour leaders and tour followers have been spent on this. A 360° virtual tour would have allowed everyone to learn the basics at their own pace at their own desk, without any loss of learning outcome.

3. Virtual reality can foster empathy.

Finally, but no less importantly, virtual reality can foster empathy by putting you in another person’s shoes.

An exemplar that springs to mind is Fear of the Sky which uses 360° photos to immerse you in Syrian towns ravaged by barrel bombs.

This empathic use of VR is also being leveraged by players in the workplace. For example, doctors experience the hospital system as an emergency patient; while aged care workers see life through the eyes of someone with dementia.

The need for empathy is not restricted to charity and healthcare. Consider a retail environment in which your sales people can interact with a virtual customer, then have them replay that experience through the eyes of the customer. I also see an opportunity with VR for police officers to experience what it’s like to be hassled on the street, and conversely, for the public to appreciate what it’s like to be a police officer.

Returning to the corporate sector, ask yourself: where are the social interactions? In my workplace, the retail sales example that I suggested could be similarly applied to financial advisers, while our claims assessors would benefit from experiencing our company in the shoes of a grieving claimant. Then there are meetings, presentations, performance appraisals, and myriad other scenarios to simulate.

VR headset

In summary, sweeping statements such as “No one’s using virtual reality in the workplace” are nonsensical. Plenty of people are using the technology in their workplaces, and they are doing so according to 3 use types.

The substitutive use of VR allows us to experience an environment without having to go to there; the preparatory use of VR allows us to experience an environment before we go there; while the empathic use of VR allows us to experience our own environment as someone else.

I encourage you to consider how you might explore each of these use types in your own workplace.

In the meantime, those who say it cannot be done should get out of the way of those doing it.

Paper cuts

1 March 2016

I’m late to the party, but finally I’ve gotten my hands onto Google Cardboard.

I’ve been tinkering with it and, in the spirit of Virtual Reality Working Out Loud Week, I’ve decided to share with you what I’ve learned so far.

I’ll also share my problems – and there are plenty of them – so if you can solve any for me I’d be grateful!

An assembled Google Cardboard VR mount

The device

The ROI for Google Cardboard is through the roof. For about $20, you gain access to a world of wonder.

While high-end virtual reality hardware is available – and more will become available this year – the folded paper option is the perfect gateway for exploring this emerging technology.

InMind VR screenshot

Apps

Some brilliant Cardboard apps are available at Google Play.

Vrse showcases the 360° nature of VR, while Inmind VR is a somewhat childish game that nonetheless demonstrates the order of magnitude that immersive 3D animation offers over 2D. I foresee biotech companies leading the way on this.

Evidently, though, VR apps are still very much in their infancy. While a sizeable number are currently available, they are accompanied by reams of poor reviews. Many are free, but an astronomy app I tried stopped part way and wanted me to buy the premium version to continue.

I also found it tricky to identify the apps that were compatible with Cardboard. Most that are have the little goggles icon integrated into their artwork, but it would be preferable if the Play Store simply let us filter the results.

MythBusters: Sharks Everywhere! screenshot

360° videos

These are great! A couple of my favourites are Red Bull F1 360° Experience and MythBusters: Sharks Everywhere!

On your PC, you can use the navigation arrows or your mouse to shift your point of view; on your smartphone, you can physically move your device; and if you watch it through Google Cardboard, you get the full immersive experience.

Strangely, 360° videos don’t work on my iPad. I either get the Cardboard-oriented double vision, or else the regular pov stuck in one direction.

I also find the videos a little blurry. This may have something to do with the age of my S4, but I recently read that Facebook is getting serious about resolution.

The good news is you can record your own 360° videos using special cameras that are reasonably priced IMHO. A virtual tour, perhaps?

Panoramic phot of an Italian piazza

360° photos

These are just like 360° videos, but they’re static. Don’t let that put you off – they’re surprisingly immersive.

Google calls them “photo spheres” and they remind me of Microsoft’s Photosynth. Whereas Photosynth stitched together discrete photos, you record your photo sphere in a continuous circular motion.

Here’s my effort from a friend’s rooftop. (Note: This link is not supported in the mobile web version of Google Maps. Oh the irony.)

All you need to record your own photo sphere is the Cardboard Camera app. Having said that, I found it highly temperamental. The app is not very forgiving of human shaking, so a tripod would be helpful. It also drops out frustratingly easily. Clearing the app’s cache and my phone’s RAM appears to help, as does keeping a super-tight turning circle and moving painfully slowly.

Any kind of movement in the scene is a no-no; I tried it at Circular Quay and had no chance. Again, this could be due to the age of my phone, but still I’m surprised there is no photo-stitching option as per Photosynth.

Yet I struck more problems. My photo sphere works perfectly within my Cardboard Camera app; I wear my papery goggles and it’s like I really am surveying Sydney Harbour. Alas, that’s where it stayed.

I tried to upload my photo sphere to SphereShare (not a Google site) but it doesn’t play nice with IE11. Even in Chrome I received the following error: Please provide valid Photo Sphere JPEG image. Umm…?

Then I found out Google had a site called Views, but not any more. It appears they now want photo spheres uploaded to Google Street View. There’s an app for that, but I couldn’t open it – and I’m not the only one. (It appears I need Android 5. My phone only goes up to 4.4.2.)

Google has a slick Street View website, complete with PUBLISH subsite, which inexplicably fails to explain how to publish photo spheres. Thankfully I stumbled on this article by Phil Nickinson and learned that instead of starting at the map and uploading your photo sphere, you start at the photo sphere in your phone’s image gallery and share it to Maps. Then nothing happens, which is disconcerting, but Phil warns that Google must approve your photo sphere which takes about a day or so. It would have been nice for Google to have explained that. A week later, I’m still waiting.

However a more pressing problem was that my photo sphere was rendering in Maps as a photo. This I could not understand, given the file was being transferred from one Google application to another Google application via Google’s operating system. I even tried uploading it via PC, but again it rendered as a regular photo. I posted this conundrum to Reddit’s Google Cardboard subreddit and to one of LinkedIn’s virtual reality discussion groups, both in vain.

Thankfully I stumbled upon this discussion thread in the Google Photos Forum about a different problem, for which Russ Buchmann refers to the Photosphere XMP Tagger app (not a Google app). Hurrah! After using this app to tag my file, it rendered in Maps as a photo sphere.

A final tip: Populate your tagged file’s property details (eg title) in Windows Explorer prior to uploading it to Maps.

Google Cardboard icon

Milestones and millstones

My VR learning journey thus far may be described as joy punctuated by disappointment.

I applaud Google for giving Average Joe the gift of virtual reality – not only to consume, but also to produce.

Yet I am astonished by the lack of interoperability between Google’s own platforms, our reliance on third party products to perform seemingly simple tasks, and the tech giant’s customer uncentricity.

No doubt the boffins at Mountain View know exactly what they’re doing… but how about the rest of us?

They’d probably tell us to Google it.

The Average Joe imperative

24 June 2014

There once was a time when I thought Second Life was going to take over the world. Well, the virtual world.

I was so impressed with the technology – and amazed at its availability for free! – that I saw it as an unstoppable force.

Yet more fascinating for me was its implications for education. Web conferencing was starting to become popular around the same time, and while these days Skype and FaceTime are de rigueur, back then webcamming introduced a sorely needed human element to distance learning.

However, I noticed something peculiar with web conferencing. While the webcam presented the human face, the learning experience remained undeniably isolated. We were all together, yet each alone.

Second Life was different. Its animations reproduced not only the full human form, but also the learning environment: chairs, tables, stage, etc. Now (at least visually) we were all together. The irony was that by making the interaction entirely artificial, it made it more real.

A virtual learning session in Second Life

Alas, Second Life had an Achilles heel. While it was drop-dead easy to participate as a consumer, it was relatively difficult to participate as a producer.

For a start, if you wanted your own space, you had to buy your own virtual real estate. But worse, it was surprisingly hard to make stuff. I remember trying to build simple objects using the developer tools, but I struggled. So I’d give up, go back to it later when I could steal some time, only to abandon it again. Until I finally gave up for good.

Now I’m a fairly tech savvy kind of guy. While I can’t hack into NASA, I’m confident enough to give any software a go and not be put off by shiny new toys. But I was put off by this. And so too, it would seem, was the rest of the L&D world.

Graph of Gartner hype cycle showing that all new innovations follow the same predictable trajectory from hype to eventual application

The moral of the story is deeper than the Gartner hype cycle.

In fact, while we experienced a peak of inflated expectations with Second Life, and then the trough of disillusionment, I don’t think as a profession we ever reached the slope of enlightenment, let alone the plateau of productivity. Sure, some educators such as Sydney Medical School are doing wonderful things on the platform, but that’s hardly universal.

So what happened?

To me it’s simple: Second Life failed to accommodate Average Joe. If Joe wanted to attend a virtual conference or a meetup, he could do so with ease; however, if he wanted to host a virtual conference or create a meetup venue, that was beyond him.

And so Second Life sailed off the edge of the virtual world.

Statue of Achilles Thniskon

Compare Second Life’s journey to that of other products that have emerged recently. For example, everyone says that Articulate Storyline looks and feels like Microsoft PowerPoint. Well guess what… that’s the point.

Love it or loathe it, PowerPoint is easy to use. So hundreds of millions of people use it.

Articulate’s master stroke was to piggyback the usability of PowerPoint for their own purposes. And the proof of the pudding is in its eating. I am seeing Average Joes everywhere who wouldn’t touch other authoring tools with a 10-foot pole expressing an uncharacteristic willingness to give this one a go. That’s not by accident; it’s by design.

I predict a similar fate for other emerging technologies, be it Tin Can, augmented reality, responsive e-learning, or whatever else lay on the horizon.

Address the Average Joe imperative. Lest your Achilles heel becomes your fatal flaw.

When augmented reality isn’t

29 August 2011

I’m a big fan of the Powerhouse Museum.

In a world in which everyone loves to bang on about emerging technology, relatively few ever do anything about it. The PhM, however, has the guts to give it a go.

So I was excited to stumble upon their Augmented Reality browsing of Powerhouse Museum around Sydney app for Apple and Android.

Website of Augmented Reality browsing of Powerhouse Museum around Sydney

I love history, I love augmented reality, and I own an iPhone – so a combination of all three proved irresistible.

Unfortunately, though, I was a little bit disappointed.

Here’s why…

1. The title is meh

Exciting initiatives should have a catchy yet self-evident title to attract users like bears to a honey pot. However, Augmented Reality browsing of Powerhouse Museum around Sydney is boring and clunky.

I’d prefer something like Pocket Time Machine: An augmented reality tour of Old Sydney. A bit cheesy, I know, but a lot more interesting.

2. The app focuses on south CBD and the inner west

As the first European settlement on the continent – with a rich indigenous history – Sydney is teeming with sites of historical significance. However the app conspicuously misses the most obvious ones (eg Sydney Harbour Bridge, Sydney Opera House and the AMP Building).

Sydney Harbour Bridge under construction

Of course you have to start somewhere and the PhM website does promise a new version, but it refers to contemporary photography and gamification. I’d rather they expand their range into The Rocks and Circular Quay.

3. The app barely augments reality

Since the app is built on the Layar platform, it connects to Google Maps. Select the “i” icon at the relevant location and a photo pops up from the museum’s collection showing you what it looked like 100 years ago. This functionality is excellent, and frankly it could stand alone.

Screenshots of Augmented Reality browsing of Powerhouse Museum around Sydney

The augmented reality component comprises those floating “i” icons, which you’re supposed to select as you hold your device in front of you. Plainly speaking, they’re annoying:King Street on Augmented Reality browsing of Powerhouse Museum around Sydney

There are too many of them – which is confusing;

They are difficult to select – which is frustrating; and,

They have a tendency to get in the way – which defeats the purpose!

In short, the augmented reality component is redundant.

All is not lost

Of course, there is an alternative to abandoning augmented reality.

I suggest PhM follows the lead of the Museum of London and leverages the technology more fully. How? By laying the old photos over the real background.

Screenshot of Streetmuseum

This is what edtech is all about: transforming the educational experience.

Put a map on a smartphone? A crumpled tourist map is just as good; Plug in some photos? Nice touch, but those can be printed too; Lay century-old photos over the modern world in real time? Now that’s novel.

Even better, why not complement the visual with narration to provide a richer multimedia experience?

Who dares wins

As you would have gathered earlier, it is not my intention to pick on PhM. On the contrary, I salute them for having a red-hot go at something new.

Having taken the first step, they have earned the right to sit back and evaluate their app, with a view to making it even better the next time around.