How Augmented Reality Is Reshaping the Way Customers Experience the World | Featuring Irena Cronin | Ep. #2

Apple, Facebook, and Microsoft are just a few of the companies investing billions of dollars into augmented reality. But why? Irena Cronin from Infinite Retina joins me to share why spatial computing is about to change how customers experience the world. Find out why companies big and small are vying to build a presence in this space and why it will change how businesses interact with their customers once it catches on.



Interview Transcript:

Adam Helweh: Irena, you’ve been active in a lot of different disruptive technology spaces: AR, which is not completely brand new, obviously, and robotics and AI and autonomous driving and all that stuff. That’s interested you for a while. What’s drawn you to these spaces? What is it that interests you, that keeps you doing work in that space, even until now?

Irena Cronin: It has to do with improvement of what currently exists. I’m always captivated by something that seems so obvious to me that it could really change things for the better, whether it’s getting better data and then figuring out what to do with that so that lives are changed to the better, having new technologies, like whole vehicles and new technology, autonomous, that could really solve a lot of issues, make people’s lives easier. It’s like, I don’t know, I’ve always been like that. I’ve looked ahead. I mean, back in ’98, I was thinking of being able to download a film in a park and watch it in the park and all my friends called me crazy. You can do that now.

Irena Cronin: It’s like I see something. I have an appeal towards both for entertainment and usefulness. I think the usefulness is going to catch most people. It’s that productivity increase, it’s that major corporations see that there’s a need for it and it gets used that really gets me excited. All these things, what I include in spatial computing, which is every kind of technology that you would need for moving through a three-dimensional world. That’s AR, VR, sensors, AI, machine learning, all that kind of stuff, I think is just natural to human beings. People want to see things as realistically as possible and if you can replicate that in all kinds of different digital situations, I think that’s a positive. That’s what appeals to me.

Adam Helweh: You are now the CEO of Infinite Retina. We’ll talk about your book by the same name in just a little bit. You’ve doubled down on one space in particular at the moment. You guys at Infinite Retina work with and talk with companies and consult on spatial computing. I want to dig into that a bit more. Can you explain to folks what spatial computing is and why are companies like Apple and Facebook and Tesla and others that we haven’t even heard of, I know that you guys have talked to a lot of folks, why are they heavily investing their time and energy into it?

Irena Cronin: Great question. I think it makes a whole lot of sense to bunch many technologies into spatial computing under that umbrella for the reason that those technologies can all be used for a human being, virtual being, or a robot to be able to move through a 3D space. The commonalities are there. You can’t just talk about AR because AR in the future, and even now, we’re using aspects of machine learning, but in the future, is going to use it extremely heavily. Autonomous vehicles are using camera-sensor technology, AI, all that stuff that is spatial to be able to figure out where the car is. You’ve got also Sebastian Thrun is working on flying cars, eVTOLs, that uses the same kind of technology in terms of sensing what the environment is about. VR obviously uses sensors. AI is being used now in experiences for entertainment, but will be heavily used for more useful and practical things in the future. All of these things combine these technologies into the idea of how do we actually get to move through a three-dimensional world? Yeah.

Adam Helweh: I know you work with the Robert Scoble and Robert and I both, we love our Tesla Model 3s, right?

Irena Cronin: Yeah.

Adam Helweh: Just as an example how spatial computing is already being applied, which it’s being applied in a lot of different ways, like you said, both on the business side and on the consumer side, but just as an example, right, there’s so much technology in a Tesla vehicle to allow it to do a lot of things, but the fun stuff of not having to worry about traffic, for instance, and do the autonomous driving on long trips, I know Robert tested that quite a bit going on a trip all across the entire US in his Model 3 when he first got it. That’s one of my favorite examples of something that’s already in consumers’ hands that’s definitely leveraging spatial computing.

Irena Cronin: Yeah. Well, let me just give you another quick example. Everyone knows Pokemon GO and Niantic, right? They’re working on a headset now with Qualcomm to be able to leverage the new kinds of software that they’ve been building. They couldn’t find a hardware company that would be able to take advantage of the things that they wanted to do, so that’s why they have to partner for this AR headset.

Irena Cronin: Their software heavily uses obviously spatial, because just like the autonomous car knows where you are in your location, it can track where you are, it remembers where you are, it sees what’s around you. It takes advantage of that from Niantic software placing things that are virtual that you can enjoy and play around with. It knows where your friends are and how to utilize that. With their new software, they’re able to actually put in tens of thousands of people to be able to play a game together. It’s that kind of expressiveness that you can have with new kinds of spatial computing technologies that combines both the AI and the sensoring and AR clouds and AR, all of that together that brings in new kinds of ways of doing things.

Adam Helweh: That’s interesting to me because, and I’m a person who’s played Pokemon GO, and obviously, that’s all being run off of our mobile devices that we all have. You’ve used the word “sensor,” right?

Irena Cronin: Yeah.

Adam Helweh: These devices have all kinds of sensors and have had them for a while and continue to innovate on them. Apple has done so with their, I don’t even know if it’s called an M1 chip anymore. It’s an M-something chip these days, but a completely separate processor to process all of that motion data, knowing that they were moving in this direction towards more and more sophisticated spatial computing. What you were describing is a company, Niantic, that is a pioneer in that space for the sake of consumer software apps on mobile devices because they’ve had Pokemon GO, they’ve also done a Harry Potter property, they did… What was the name of the original one that they did that was primarily, it was done with Google, but it was a very similar concept that actually spawned the Pokemon side of things? What you’re saying is these guys as the pioneers had a broader vision for what could be done and currently-

Irena Cronin: Ingress, yeah.

Adam Helweh: … Ingress, that’s right. Currently, the hardware that was available could not help them manifest that vision.

Irena Cronin: Oh, yeah. Yep. Yeah, I mean, this is nothing new in terms of pushing the boundaries, but you only hear about it internally if you’re an employee in the company and usually when you’re on the project, so things like this don’t go past those boundaries, but right now in spatial computing, let’s take AR for an example, there are tens of companies, I’m not going to say “a hundred” because I know that’s not true, so there’s tens of major AR sets that are being created, not only being specced, but are actively being creative right now. That will be out within the next two to three years. It’s not only Apple that is working on two or so headsets. Qualcomm and a whole bunch of other companies are doing it. There’s going to be a lot of competition in that space very soon.

Irena Cronin: Along with the hardware, there’s a lot of software that needs to get built that’s pushing those boundaries. There’s been problems with battery, with the materials getting too hot, people can’t stay in the particular headset that they’ve made for too long, so many different issues that they have to test over and over again, change materials, all that kind of stuff that eats time and money away. I mean, just look at what happened to Magic Leap, right?

Adam Helweh: Yeah.

Irena Cronin: There’s a hundred reasons why that went down, but the money went into testing. There are a lot of things happening that most people, even technologists don’t know about because it’s happening behind closed doors, but lots of new things will be arriving within the next two or three years in the AR space.

Adam Helweh: I’m glad you brought up AR because folks for so many years spoke of VR and that has manifested itself in so many rudimentary ways and then ultimately, into the cardboard-style stuff and some of the other really basic headsets that don’t have a lot of freedom of motion or controls for the consumer side of things. Now AR is been talked about a lot and really has manifest itself in a number of different ways between Apple’s AR kit and that sort of thing on the user side. You talked about Niantic and all that. Through the productivity side of things, we’ve got Microsoft HoloLens that’s been just developing, developing, developing for a long, long time.

Adam Helweh: I’m probably missing a number of the big players that have been actively showing off some of what they’re doing or showing peaks into what they’re doing with all the stuff going on, even Apple, for instance, released a new iPad Pro with a LIDAR camera on it, right?

Irena Cronin: Mm-hmm (affirmative), yep.

Adam Helweh: That’s starting to creep its way. As a person who’s watched Apple for over a decade now, it’s interesting always to see Apple test out these little things on one device or another to eventually a year, two years, three years from then, make it a major cornerstone or piece of their innovation across multiple pieces of technology. I’m actually quite surprised that that LIDAR doesn’t end up making its way onto the next iPhone coming out fairly soon as well, again, as dipping their toe into the water and see what data they can get back before they release their broader real AR product.

Adam Helweh: We’ve talked about some things that are on the side of the fence for the average consumer and we’ve talked about some of the things that are on the business side. Which of those sides do you think are going to be the biggest driver of making AR in particular a real day-to-day thing for people?

Irena Cronin: Okay, so I’m a huge believer in practical use being the motivator for people to even notice AR. I think it might take until Apple enters the market with their headset in about two years for this more widespread use to actually happen. Obviously, the Apple name and brand is really huge with people and that will initially prick people’s ears up to this actually being a product. Just by virtue that is Apple will bring the average regular consumer who’s not even into tech interested in a new AR headset that they would offer.

Irena Cronin: Then beyond that, that’s the initial first kick of interest, I think you have to offer people something that really changes their lives. It doesn’t have to be in an extremely significant way. It could be something as easy as giving you information in an easier way than if you have to look at your phone or computer. If it uses voice, which it will, you could easily get information that way on your head there. It’s going to be light, it’s going to be good-looking. Even really simple informational apps available on an Apple headset I think will enable millions of people to want to have it.

Adam Helweh: Yeah, and Apple has always been in that interesting position, right? Early on, we had digital music options when it came to devices. They weren’t really necessarily great, but they were there. Then came the iPod and we had mobile devices as well, and then came the iPhone. When Apple ends up introducing elements into their ecosystem or just into their devices alone through software updates or the latest greatest phone that they have, they seem to really propel the entire market, it seems, because now folks who are purchasing those devices, not as necessarily only productivity tools, but in many cases, it’s their sole computing device, or it’s their own personal thing that they’re using on a day-to-day.

Adam Helweh: It’s fashion and lifestyle in many cases as well, they go and they grab that device and it’s one of the most important possessions they have. I mean, I don’t know if you’ve ever heard Warren Buffet talk about how one of the reasons he’s so bullish on Apple is because he could go ahead and sell his personal jet and he could pay somebody else to fly, but he couldn’t get rid of his iPhone without feeling like he was missing out, right?

Irena Cronin: Yeah.

Adam Helweh: But in this case, what you’re talking about is when that change happens on that front, it’s likely going to kick in behaviors and expectations that are going to bleed into the other industries, maybe on the consumer side, but probably also on the business side as well-

Irena Cronin: Absolutely.

Adam Helweh: … similar to where the iPhone, it took a while for businesses to go ahead and drop their Blueberries and end up adopting the iPhones, but I remember there was a number of years there where Apple was trying to make inroads into the enterprise. I think Cisco was probably one of the first places that it was just trying to get it into the hands of this company and add all of the features so that enterprise companies would find it acceptable security-wise and all that sort of thing. That’s part of what you’re saying.

Irena Cronin: Yeah. Okay, the enterprise market is very interesting. As you know, Microsoft currently has the HoloLens, too, and will be iterating a new product soon for their AR headset. They obviously push more towards enterprise. I mean, that’s always been Microsoft’s way, right? Apple obviously has another entry point into their market, but I think all of this is going to converge, as you were saying. Just like the computer and the personal computer, if it’s useful and practical and easy to use and doesn’t fail, just like a light, turning on a light switch, when you turn it on, it should work a hundred percent of the time the way that it should work, if the product is finely tuned as that, it’s going to have mass uses for both consumer and enterprise.

Irena Cronin: A lot of people don’t know that AR is being used in enterprises right now actually quite a bit. It’s obviously not sexy and it doesn’t make media because it’s ultra-practical, but even going back to 2008, there has been certain aspects of AR, although not fully three-dimensional, that have been used in logistics and manufacturing. Now, clearly logistics is a big place where AR is really useful where if you’re wearing a pair of glasses and there’s information overlaying on top of it, as well as voice and recordings and all that kind of stuff that you could use, is really helpful to somebody who needs to find an object amid all kinds of literally thousands of pallets. They need to find one object or one pallet. This has been used. AR is being used now and will be used even more often for logistics. It’s gotten much better. The voice technology really works now. More kinds of video conferencing can be done with a lot more people than ever before. The headsets in terms of FOV have gotten better, although you don’t need really high FOV for logistics because-

Adam Helweh: Just share what FOV is for people.

Irena Cronin: … Oh, sure. Field of view. Basically, just to be really simple about it, let’s say you have this virtual object in front of you. How big does this thing appear to you? Does it fill the whole lens of the glasses that you have, or does it fill a third of the size of it? Right now, a lot of the [inaudible 00:19:33] for enterprise, it fills a third or less for a very good reason because the person behind those glasses has to have ability to see other things for safety reasons much better.

Irena Cronin: Probably, the FOV for consumer is going to be awesome, but then again, there’s going to be safety there, too. Let’s say walking down the street, you want to be able to limit that FOV or turn it off, even, turn on and off the capability of being able to get visuals as you’re walking down the street, right? I mean, you even have car manufacturers that are thinking about what these glasses will mean for when you’re driving. This is prior to everything being autonomous, obviously, to be able to use for directions and all that kind of stuff, so that there again, you need to have the capability of making that rectangle bigger or smaller as you need it to be.

Irena Cronin: But yeah, just let me add a little bit more about the enterprise. It’s not only logistics, it’s manufacturing, they’re using it often in reality paired with robots that they’re calling “cobots.” Yeah, it’s really cool when you see it. They’re more efficiently making things, they’re much more efficiently fixing machinery and other things that break down because the person who before would need to have many classes and carry around lots of books to be able to see what the parts are, et cetera, it’s now on a piece of software in front of your eyes and you could fix things much quicker. It’s stuff like this.

Irena Cronin: Then retail obviously is using AR, not only for the consumer, but inside companies. That includes logistics as well. We covered transportation will be autonomous vehicles and not-autonomous vehicles. There are actually seven different industry verticals that Robert and I focused on in our book, The Infinite Retina, which just came out. In all of these industry verticals, actually, AR is useful: transportation, technology, media and telecommunications, that’s a TMT vertical, manufacturing, retail, healthcare, finance, and education.

Adam Helweh: I’m thinking of the brain of the folks listening to this going, “Okay, this sounds like it’s not going to necessarily apply to me anytime soon, or maybe it’s something that’s a little…” Always with new tech, there’s folks that just think, “How much tech is too much tech? Do I need a smartphone? I have a regular phone. Do I need to use email? I have this and that,” and so on and so forth. Or this may be for the folks that are really embracing the tech, but not necessarily for a lot of the other folks.

Adam Helweh: I mean, how far are we out, do you think, from seeing a lot of this come to fruition? I mean, you mentioned the Apple iPhone and that sort of thing. I think some of the limitations that even Apple will end up having also has to do with adoptions of certain technologies that are beyond what they’re rolling out. For instance, 5G. What does 5G and some of those other elements, what role do they play in making this a reality? Roughly how far are we maybe to having, I guess, maybe AR in public infrastructure that needs to be created to support this for being in your car and using it while you’re walking down the street and doing things maybe at work as well?

Irena Cronin: That’s a fantastic question because there is such a great opportunity for entrepreneurs to set up new companies that have to deal with this infrastructure, which is coming. All kinds of things, whether you’re talking about being able to navigate who owns what of the virtual space. Probably the virtual spaces need to be caught up just like the Internet in terms of ownership of particular virtual areas. If that’s the case, there’s all kinds of different businesses that will come in to try to claim that and then other companies that will have to figure out the systems that would run that. Then how does this get figured out? It’s just a huge undertaking.

Irena Cronin: I think in terms of that happening, it is going to start when Apple comes out with the glasses. Then I’d say somewhere between three and five years, you’re going to start seeing companies coming in with all kinds of novel kinds of software and systems to back up what’s happening in VR. Obviously, government is going to come in to restrict or regulate what’s going on there because we’re talking about a new space, just like airspace is for telephone companies and that kind of thing. They’re going to try to regulate that as well.

Irena Cronin: I think for regular, everyday people for AR, just like I said, if the app is useful, practical, and the simpler it is, but the more likes that it has in terms of usefulness, it will penetrate the consumer market really, really well, and that’s all you need to do. Then it just builds from that really simple app. I mean, if you go all the way back in time to when there was an app called VisiCalc before Excel, many people think that this application was basically the breaker for people using digital apps because it was useful, it was like using a calculator, but you had the computer, you could do it on your mini computer, they could do it on their computer.

Irena Cronin: Then, of course, there were other apps that came in after VisiCalc and Excel won that game, right? I think Apple with a really, really simple AR app is going to be the breaker for this and then all kinds of complexity will come in and it will be useful complexity for people. In terms of adapting those AR headsets and what could be done for it, I think three or four years from now, that will happen.

Adam Helweh: As you were saying, finding that killer app that makes people want it and find that utility, not just entertainment value in that application is very, very interesting. That happened a lot, right? When The Apple Store, the ecosystem opened up to having third-party developers develop those apps, one of the things that Apple does really smartly and I think more of these large companies, most of the consumer companies that are also working the business side, even Microsoft to some extent and Google and Samsung have started to take note over the last few years, is that Apple almost never comes to the party announcing something like this without having already created relationships with content creators or app creators and seeding the initial launch with some big cornerstone applications that it believes will be entertaining, but also find usefulness and maybe some whimsy altogether so that as soon as you get it, the momentum has already started right from the get-go.

Irena Cronin: Exactly. Yeah, there’s a buzz about it. I mean, there’s just been a buzz about it. There’s a buzz about it now. This thing, actually, AR Apple headset has been talked about even going back like three years ago. People really want it. It’s not only the heavy-duty tech people, but everyday people are like, “I want to see it. I want to see what this looks like. Is it going to look like a pair of glasses that are [inaudible 00:28:53] and that aren’t heavy?” If that’s the case, tons of people are going to buy that.

Irena Cronin: It’s not only Apple. Let me just mention, obviously, Apple is going to… Just like the iPhone-versus-Android companies, right, Apple’s just going to begin it. They’re probably going to be the forerunner just by way of their brand, right? But lots of different companies going can come in and be able to leverage because of Apple and it’s going to become a real industry. Right now, to me, AR is something that is almost inevitable, but it’s not completely a real industry yet until Apple comes out with the headset. It has a ton of promise. I know what the usefulness is. It needs that push to be able to make it through.

Adam Helweh: As we get close to wrapping up here, I mean, that leads me to your book. I want to make sure that I share that with folks. The book is called The Infinite Retina. Congratulations, because literally, as of this recording, it’s been two days since I think it’s been available, not just to preorder, but now to get. I pre-ordered mine, so I assume it’s coming here any day now.

Adam Helweh: The Infinite Retina: Spatial Computing, Augmented Reality, and How a Collision of New Technologies Are Bringing About the Next Tech Revolution. As I was saying before, you’ve been in this space for quite some time. I’m really interested to know, in the process of writing this book, was there anything that you learned? Any big surprises, any epiphanies or revelations that just because you now went on in this specific journey in this direction that with the book and you’ve interviewed some folks throughout the book as well and really sort of synthesized it down to some really good concepts, like you were talking about the different industries that get affected and so on, did you have anything that surprised you was a little bit of a revelation, even though you’ve been in this space for a while?

Irena Cronin: I wouldn’t say exactly surprised, but really validated what I had known inherently by being in this space for a while. How many thousands of people are actually working in this industry, thousands and thousands and adding even with COVID, they’re hiring. It’s just amazing how many different areas are being looked at with the engineers and the different kinds of both hardware and software. What astounded me was how deep AR was actually being used in enterprises already. I knew that, but in talking with these people and specifically talking about how their companies are utilizing it, it became really clear that with enterprises, AR’s already here for that kind of work, that you don’t have to sell a company to use AR for all of those different verticals that I mentioned. It’s now a matter of just increased depth. With the new features coming out with the AR headsets and software, they’ll be able to utilize it even more. That was a really positive thing that I learned.

Adam Helweh: How does that feel? I mean, always to be validated in the sense of knowing a lot of this stuff and seeing a lot of it, but you took a deeper focused look that just again, like you said, validated a lot of what you know. How did that feel to you?

Irena Cronin: Awesome, because I’ve been doing this since 2015 and it was just like, I’ve been using the logic in my head. It’s been guiding me along with, of course, the data that I find. It really makes me happy that my bet is actually coming through. Yeah, sure.

Adam Helweh: I love that. I love that, I love that. Well, I want to thank you so much for spending the time, because it was literally like I got an email that you guys had the book for preorder and I was excited about that and I said, “You know what? I’d love to talk with her, but she’s got to have so much other stuff going on right around the time of that book coming out. That’s going to be hard.” You were gracious enough to set some time aside for me, so I want to thank you for joining me. Congratulations on that new book. Is that your first book?

Irena Cronin: Yes, it actually is my first book in this area. I’ve done some academic pursuits before, yeah, super… I enjoyed working on the book immensely because of all the communications that we had with the people in the industry. It’s really helpful to have these new communications and relationships and I’m going to keep them going forward, yeah.

Adam Helweh: Well, if people want to learn more about you, your work, the book, where would you like them to go look?

Irena Cronin: Okay. Actually, our publishers, Packt, have done a really awesome job and putting up the information on our Amazon book site, so all they have to do is search for the book, The Infinite Retina, or under my name or Robert’s name to find the book. We’re getting a landing page up very shortly, but it’s just going to say basically the same thing that the Amazon book page say, so that’s where they should go, yeah.

Adam Helweh: They can go to to check out all the other stuff that you guys are doing, because it’s not just a book, this is really part of what’s driving the work that you’re doing, working with companies and shaping things.

Irena Cronin: Oh, yes. Yeah, we didn’t talk about that because I’m just doing so many things, but yeah, Robert and I have a company called Infinite Retina that predates actually the title of the book. Packt said that they want the book to be called The Infinite Retina, which we were really happy about. Our company is a consulting company that helps those companies that are interested in spatial understand it better, get funding, do strategy, all that kind of stuff.

Irena Cronin: Most companies from the corporate side don’t have a very good understanding of spatial computing yet. The engineers do. In those verticals that we talked about that are using spatial a lot, like logistics, manufacturing, retail, even healthcare now is starting to use it much more, the people that are the engineers and the tinkers and the makers understand and use the AR, but the corporate people and most of the industries are still lagging behind, so we help those people understand how to use spatial computing.

Adam Helweh: Well, I can tell you know your stuff. Like you said, it’s been validated through the book and I think through the interest in that book as well I think will be further validated. I’m very excited about, about this space. I can’t wait. I know Robert’s been dusting up a storm for some years around what’s going to happen with the Apple device. You’ve already talked about how that’ll have an impact on the greater industry, but I’m, again, very thankful for you spending the time here. I appreciate it. Congratulations again on the new book.

Irena Cronin: Thank you so much, Adam. I hope to catch up with you soon again.

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