'MIT: AR In Action' Highlights

'MIT: AR In Action' Highlights
January 22, 2017
The Billion Dollar elephant in the VR room: Google’s Pokemon Go. Is it AR? Does it matter?


Over a thousand people gathered in Boston’s wintry rain to ruminate over the future of Augmented Reality at the MIT Media Lab’s first “AR in Action” Conference, January 17–18. The conference, loosely organized but well curated by the former Media Lab innovator, John Werner, allowed presenters with different perspectives on the emerging field to share their thoughts with an enthusiastic crowd of professionals midwifing this emerging field. The atmosphere was optimistic, buoyant, and expectant. Everyone there, as many pointed out, has a stake in the success of AR.


Pattie Maes of the Media Lab was a spectacular lead off hitter. Well known for her compelling TED talks, she gave a mesmerizing big picture presentation on the state of modern life: living simultaneously, imperfectly and superficially in the real and digital worlds, multitasking, continually interrupting ourselves by checking our smart phones 100+ times a day. Tech has become part of us, she said, but the form is all wrong. Yet we all know there is no going back. Instead, we need to make our integration with technology more seamless. In the short term, our technology is making us less mindful and attentive, but in the long term it will make us much, much better. Better learners, better workers, better able to reach our potential. We will become augmented. Cyborgs. Many of the Media Lab’s forward thinking projects seek to accomplish this with wearables, biometric scent dispensers, and even tattoos. I always thought VR meditation was utter new age bullshit, but when Maes showed how we can use brainwaves to levitate and move objects in a 3D digital world, I shed my cynical disbelief.

We are augmenting and evolving ourselves.


Juan Enriquez, self described “optimistic curmudgeon, author, life sciences VC, synthetic bio, futurist” amplified some of the themes Maes introduced. He worried that we have replaced natural selection with unnatural selection, but exalted in the possibility that by reordering genomes we can augment and therefore evolve ourselves, without the random interference of nature.

Robert Scoble, dramatic, insightful, and entertaining, dished Apple’s most secret plans for AR.


Lovable futurist and the VR world’s favorite consultant, Robert Scoble, looking rumpled after taking the red eye from CA (and leaving his laptop on the plane) took the stage wearing his Hololens (a creative flourish) and presented convincing evidence that Apple will introduce a significant AR product this year, possibly creating an industry changing “big bang”. Tim Merrill of Digi-Capital agreed. “It’s all about what the guys at the top of the pyramid do”.

PTC’s demo showed how AR can make low skilled workers into high skilled ones.


PTC CEO Jim Heppleman then got real. He took a sleepy IT company and turned it into an AR Enterprise powerhouse, helping over one thousand companies transform their workforce with AR.


Amber Case, Harvard Fellow and author of “Calm Technology + An Illustrated Dictionary of Cyborg Anthropology”, studies the impact of technology on how we live. Reggie Watts called her “one of the greatest people on the planet”. She made a case for minimal disruption. “A good tool is invisible,” she said.

Reggie Watts: Wilson tennis balls are coming to AR. They also taste great.


Reggie Watts received star billing but turned in a rare, lackluster appearance. Many of us expected him in person, but instead here he was on Skype, ready to be interviewed, and clearly surprised that everyone, including the organizers, expected him to perform. Ooops. One the spot, he improvised.


“MIT is just one building, right? There’s a guy there, with a freeze ray pointing to the ground, saying “I’ve invented cold fusion!” He added, “Also, I hear they have some bad ass robots”. After a modest inside joke about the Hololens’ field of view (“It’s like you’re a knight”), Watts signed off after just fifteen minutes (he was scheduled to speak for an hour). Awkward. It’s too bad, as Reggie’s recent performances in the social VR world AltSpaceVR have cemented his cred as a pioneering VR entertainer.


The demos outside the conference’s three lecture halls were just plain fun. One, in particular, caught my eye, H0loTats, from Balti Virtual (of Baltimore, natch ;) Balti makes its dough working on AR marketing promotions for giant ad agencies, but it’s homegrown product for kids, HoloTats, showed the potential AR has to create experiential marketing.

Nothing but good clean fun, right? All HoloTats needs to be the next Kinects is distribution at Toys r Us, WalMart, Target and Amazon, and a ten million dollar television ad campaign on Cartoon Network. And maybe Twitch.


Werner, who has organized TedX Beacon Street for five years, told me he hopes AR in Motion will become an annual, platform agnostic event, which attracts industry leaders. Attendees this year included representatives from Amazon, Magic Leap and Microsoft. With more lead time for next year’s conference, Werner plans to improve the curation, and make the event a powerful, must-attend AR networking opportunity.

Event organizer John Werner (L) with speaker Robert Scoble.


I don’t want to shortchange the long speaker’s list, which included superstars like Nolan Bushnell, Bob Metcalfe and Alan Kay, but you get the idea, so instead I’ll leave you with a few somewhat out of context quotable quotes from the many speakers.


“Google was the killer app of the Internet. The search for the killer app of AR and VR is on.” — Bob Metcalfe


“We are in the pong phase of development, but this is an accelerated path.” — Nolan Bushnell


“Technology is anything invented after you are born.” — Alan Kay


“AR will breathe new life into old industries like mining and construction.” — Christine Perey


“Ever forgotten a name? That’s the addressable market for consumer facial recognition software… it is the killer app for AR.” — Christopher Grayson


“In the long run, the consumer will be a much bigger business than enterprise.” — Chris Croteau


“We live in a world that is monitor heavy and mouse rich.” — Dr. Raj Gupta


“It’s our job to keep the magic alive.” — Suyash Josh, high tech magician

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