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Business as Usual Explores XR Technologies with XRconnectED

Business as Usual

No fooling around, we welcome Karen Alexander, Ph.D., Founder of XRconnectED, to give us a complete primer on all things Extended Reality (XR).

Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality, Mixed Reality and 360 video are rapidly developing and becoming important productivity tools in every industry. Many people are not yet aware that XR can be used for purposes beyond gaming. 

Karen founded XRconnectED to connect businesses and educational institutions to the burgeoning field of XR technologies and to build community around XR in the Pittsburgh region. 

Join us for what will be a fascinating and educational conversation.




So good afternoon, everyone. This is Audrey Russo, President and CEO of the Pittsburgh Technology Council. Great to be here before a long holiday weekend, Easter, and tomorrow, we are going to take Good Friday off. And but we're wrapping up the week with a great conversation on a topic that I actually really care about, which is always way cool, even though I care about most of the people that are on the show today is it's fun, interesting and transformative. So in a moment, I will introduce our guest, Karen Alexander more formally. But before we get started, I want to thank to our partners and friends Huntington bank for the for the belief in us in the work that we do in telling stories and making sure that people understand what's happening here in Pittsburgh, right in our backyard, as well as bringing people from all over the world to Pittsburgh, also give a shout out to 40 by 80. That's the longitude and latitude Pittsburgh, and it is our wholly owned subsidiary of the Pittsburgh tech Council, our charitable arm. And that's where we focus on on talent, particularly workforce development, as well as entrepreneurship. So Jonathan kersting, is with us today as he is every day making sure that our audience who has questions who have questions they can be answered, and he monitors the chat. If you don't know, Jonathan, he's all things media and marketing for the tech council with over two decades of experience in hearing every story on the ground. So we're very, very thrilled to have him on our team. And listen to our radio show and podcast, we do lots of things. And he's at the helm of that. So we also are just asking you that, you know, we've muted you. And we also have asked that if you have any questions in the chat, let it be towards our guests, and about our guests, not about you selling your wares or shining light on your own self or companies. That's not the time for this. We have plenty of outlets for that as well. So I'm going to jump in and I am going to introduce Karen Alexander, who is the CEO of a company that is just I'm going to let her really talk about it and do a dive and it's called xR connected. And we'll put the link out there so you can see her work and all the work that she does. But why is this way? Cool? A couple of reasons. And we'll get into that one second, because I want everyone to just to get to know Karen. So welcome, Karen, thank you so much for being with us today. And, you know, let's just talk a little bit about you. You are you're relatively new to Pittsburgh, you've been here a few years, then and one of the questions is, you know, why Pittsburgh and a little bit about your journey?

Sure, yes, well, um, so I've been working in xR technologies now for almost five years. And I started out with an academic professional background, I worked at Rutgers University for a long time, I was an academic journal editor, I was the Dean of junior and senior year programs with a women's college there. And I sort of came to xR technologies. Through my interest in the work that women artists were doing with technology that sort of sparked it, actually, it goes back a little bit further to my PhD dissertation on an experimental literature and digital poetry and electronic literature. But um, I heard a TED talk by a guy named Chris mill in about 2015, in which he called VR, the ultimate empathy machine. And I already had this interest and but that was what really hooked me in to this technology. And I started reading everything I could get my hands on about it. And then I decided to pursue it and I made a complete life change in 2016 was it was a nomad for a while and decided to settle here in Pittsburgh in 2017. And to start my company, I've been doing some higher ed consulting, and I decided to focus on xR because that was what I really wanted to be doing.

Wow, that's great. That's, that's so why Pittsburgh?

Well, I'm so I'm originally from Louisville, Kentucky. And most of my friends are on the east coast. Pittsburgh is right in the middle right between them. And I love being surrounded by the lush green trees here, the hills and the rivers. I just really liked the landscape. And it was a city that had culture was big enough to have culture and be a real city. But it also is small enough that you know there is a sense of community and then I really wanted to in my previous life I had because of my long commute and an intense job, I didn't have a chance to really get involved in the community where I'm live. And I wanted to be someplace where I could do that.

So I chose Pittsburgh. And I know there any community things that you're involved in right now. But since you've been here,

yes, actually, in some of them have unfortunately had to be stopped, because so I, I started a program in early 2018, called PGH and 360. new perspective. And I worked with community organizations to teach teams to create 360 degree videos about issues that matter to them. And this goes back to this idea of VR is the ultimate empathy machine, allowing people to sort of stand in their shoes and see what life looks like from their perspective. I've also worked with a number of other community organizations to teach even younger children how to create using xR tools, I mean, kids, as young as seven is at a CH clear pathways then. And that's been a real joy was frightening for me, someone coming from a higher education background to work with little kids, but, but I actually really loved it. And I was I was teaching there. And I've worked with other organizations in March of 2020, when they had to be shut down. I've also started a program with Pittsburgh community television, called Community xR in which we had rotating events, they would move to different parts of the city. And it was a digital literacy project, you know, allowing people to come in and try out this technology for themselves and see what it was about and get some resources if they wanted to learn more. Our last event was scheduled for March 14 2020. And March 13, everything shut down. I became ill myself and yeah, so so that is tough, but I am currently working with some local dancers on a project to to film their dances in 316.

Wow, that's, that's really great. Now, you know, I, I like to pitch in myself, and hope pigeonhole myself and say that I am an early adopter on things. I like to play with toys. I always like to break things. And I like to figure out what the new world is. And I've always been fascinated and believe that the sort of holographic and VR future in augmented reality is real. And many businesses don't have not believe that they feel like there's been doubts, right in the XR technology. And then just what I'd like you to do is before we get into my question about, you know, yesterday that, you know, Microsoft got a $21 billion contract with the US Department of Defense. And what I want people to understand is, what is xR? What What is that x mean? And what does that mean, inclusive of? And then let's talk about the Microsoft Project.

Okay, sure. Well, the X and X are I think of as a variable that stands for the V in VR, virtual reality, the A in AR, augmented reality, the M and M are mixed reality. And I include 360 degree video in there because it is optimally viewed in a VR headset. So it's an umbrella term, when you're talking about those technologies. Collectively, we use the term xR Of course, in some cases, it's appropriate to use a specific term augmented reality or mixed reality. But xR is the one that encompasses them all.

So here we are. And yesterday, Microsoft gets awarded this $21 million. Right, and I say, I hope that that's a wake up call for businesses for innovation and for what's to come. But what's your take on that?

Oh, yeah, well, I completely agree. And there was there was an earlier contract that Microsoft had with the army in, I think, 2000, late 2018. That was for about 780 million. And that seemed like a big deal. But that was to work on these prototypes. And then that led to led to this. Another thing that has happened recently is that Microsoft Mott launched their mesh platform, which allows people to collaborate using different devices in the same space, and to work with objects, 3d objects, or holographic objects that they can collaborate on. And that will be persistent in the world. So for example, let's say somebody wanted to make a note about this particular piece of machinery or equipment that they were working on. They could be annotate that, leave some kind of note on it, and then this whole team could leave that space and come back later and it would still be there the way they had left it. And so these are some of the capabilities of Microsoft is developing and using their HoloLens device for it's not a consumer device, its cost $3,500 but It's very powerful. And, you know, it'd be interesting to see where they take it next. But yeah, so it allows a lot of capabilities. And that is a mixed reality device. That is a term that Microsoft uses for all their devices. And you can kind of see why but it's it using. The HoloLens allows you access to all the Microsoft suite. So it kind of allows you to go into your Microsoft documents and other assets that you that you have already in the Microsoft ecosystem.

Oh, so you would wear your headset, and it would allow you to access that.

Sure. And and and you might draw on, on some content that you have for things like these collaborative meetings, where you're working on the design of a piece of equipment, for example.

So that's almost $22 billion Microsoft has gotten in four years. That's that's a significant amount of money. It is yes. And

teesta had said, recently, I think that the augmented reality market in 2021, was worth about eight or 9 billion. And now we've just come to this extra 22 billion. So yeah, it's a it's a really big change.

And so and Facebook, here is our reality Labs is here as well working on some really incredible things. So we are seeing the proliferation of this, what do you want to tell businesses that are not Facebook and Microsoft about xR?

Well, I want to say get started now, figure out what this is, and start doing some sort of small projects to implement it. You know, don't try to boil the ocean. But but start small. But start now I like to say, because these technologies are really coming in rapidly. And for those businesses that don't adopt them, you're going to be left behind.

And so being left behind, are you saying like all businesses are there's some market sectors where you think are just particularly right.

Well, you know, I I believe that they're, these tools are relevant to every industry. And they just to give you a sense with some of the Tim Cook has said that AR augmented reality is not a product, it's a core technology, like the silicone in my iPhone, right when he says it will pervade our entire lives. Mark Zuckerberg has called xR the next computing platform, and has predicted that, you know, very soon we will have these augmented reality glasses that will, he said, will change our relationship with technology. So this is like the next revolution after the PC and the smartphone. Now it's time for the XR revolution.

And so that that can apply to manufacturing that can apply to almost every sector of innovation. And so do you think what do you think the timeframe is for this? Like, if you you know, listen, we just came out of COVID. And the rapid digitization of so many things occurred in a compressed period. What's your prediction? Yeah, well,

you know, a lot of industries are already using this attempt to be the larger companies, the automotive industry has really adopted augmented reality, in particular in a big way. a year or two ago, Porsche in North America was rolling out augmented reality to all of its dealerships for the technicians to use in repairing autos, there's no need for a paper owner's manual anymore. You scan something with your phone, and the information comes up there in context. Or if you happen to be wearing augmented reality glasses, the AR glasses, and there are rumors about the ones that Apple is going to be bringing out soon. I've seen a lot of different predictions. Some people say later this year, something not till 2023. I would be surprised if they came before late 2022. And what I'm talking about here are glasses that look not all that much different from mine, or from numerous Audrey, but that we would wear as normal devices. And in many ways they're going to replace our smartphones. At first, we might have our smart phones still in our pockets, and they would be powering the glasses like some smartwatches function with the phones. But eventually, all of this functionality is going to be in the glasses that we wear on our face and then they're not going to be these necessarily these big master headsets. Yeah, that's our augmented reality. Yeah,

it's hard to walk around on those headsets as an Oculus 360 I've almost killed myself a couple of times. If I'm sitting still, I'm absolutely fine but not if I'm walking around and I that could be just spatial disability are something that I have. But needless to say, it's just incredible beat. What about like in markets like health care? What do you think? You know, what do you think about that? I mean, that's we have major presence here in terms of health care and health tech and Life Sciences. So where do you see some of that even right now?

Yes, yes, well, it is happening. Um, there are ways to assist surgeons by for example, presenting a 3d model of a particular patient's organ, so that they can explore it in advance and practice with the surgery also to have guidance while they're performing surgery. There are other there are plenty of health and wellness functions, helping people to reduce pain so that they can avoid getting on too many opioids through some some VR applications. There's a woman I have worked with here in Pittsburgh. In fact, she was recently a guest at my xR women group works for Oxford medical simulation. It's a script writer, she's she's a nurse, but she writes the scripts for the simulation trainings and in medical simulation, they're often these very expensive dummies that they use. But in this case, you are in virtual reality interacting with patients and you also get the opportunity to practice your soft skills. Soft Skills Training is a big area for xR. There are some regulatory issues to contend with one project I was working on to try to bring the remote expert function in augmented reality to frontline health care providers in a rural area. We ran into problems with the telemedicine billing constraints. And, and the FDA is, you know, certainly they've held conferences, and they're looking at approvals for some of these devices, but they're being very cautious and very detailed about it as I suppose they should be.

That's great. So there's just a couple of questions, Jonathan, if you want to be great.

Start with Nishi. Here, always good to see her on the call. And he wants to know, do you see xR and how it plays out within education?

Oh, okay. Um, well, yes. I mean, it certainly becomes part of the education and other things like a dissection, like virtual dissection, not having to have animal cadavers or human cadavers.

You see frogs everywhere. That's great.

Yes, exactly. Yeah. No, and this is something that's happening now. There's a company called victory xR that runs classes on dissection in xR and so you know, that's, that's a huge savings. And, and it's something that can be done from anywhere where someone has the device and has the connectivity to access it.

Okay, great. Very cool.

How about VR and being stunted? You do too. COVID. Speaking to the fact that people need to touch and put on the headsets and so forth.

Yes, well, that is an issue. And then we'd like community xR project. Of course, we have people sharing devices and we you know, we were careful to wipe them down in between, but not quite enough these days. And there is a woman Amy Hetrick who her company, clean box, developed a UV sanitisation device that is made particularly for xR headsets, but also can be used for things like smart them and other small devices. So using UV light for sanitation is is something that is happening now that company has been very successful. They launched before COVID and have really grown some fun.

Very cool. Very interesting question here from Stephen in from Stephen Lewis. He says no, we're we're in a modern day Dark Ages and in 20 to 30 years from now we look back at these times and wonder how we were able to survive with all this technology.

State Wow. Yeah. It's an evolution, our relationship with technology they left, that's really sort of heavy.

I would I would agree that this is an evolution of our relationship with technology.

So So let's talk about events. I want to talk about events, because at the tech Council, we tend to do a lot of events and we're no stranger to that. And you know, with 360, immersive cameras and headsets, people are now attending events like even sudo Burning Man, right and even concert using xR. And given what we've come out of in terms of the pandemic, what are some of the ways that you think events might evolve? And I think you have a demonstration or you want to share some examples of

Yeah, photos. Yes, yes. Well, I have a Burning Man was held in VR this year. In the alt space VR platform, and I have I did not actually attend the event but I have been a number of times since into that world. It was launched by Athena demos and her partner she's the producer. They've just been awarded a Producers Guild of America Award for creating Burning Man in VR. And so the ply is still there you can visit she gave us our xR women a group a tour of it recently and a couple of the pictures that I sent there. If they come up, they might not they might not turn out well but several of those pictures are from our from that.

Bring them up.

Okay, great. Yes. Okay, so these two are from Burning Man and you see I have the ability to fly and so I flew way Up above the world there and you're looking down on the playa they call it down below in the one that's on the left to one on the right I'm on top of a building and have been throwing fireworks off the off the roof and you know, even with the cocktail in my hand. But those those two are from Burning Man. There's one more from Burning Man was with my xR women group. This is the one on the left with Athena was getting us a tour there. And we were just hanging out in this really cool space. There's so many there. The one on the right, I'm on a helicopter in a platform called engage taking a ride to a really trippy meditation space that was that was at this particular event that I went to. So so those are that and that was actually a the web xR awards. The Polly's was the first time those were held, you know, xR and web is huge, because it kind of cuts down some of those walled gardens and makes it more accessible to everyone. So that's a huge trend for the future. And yeah, that particular event and engage I have attended the WebEx, our awards, I am a member of the immersive learning Research Network. And my xR women group is an initiative of ilearn. And we meet weekly, every Wednesday, we meet in the rubella platform, the ilearn instance of the rubella platform. Now typically, I use a desktop for that, because their HMD support is not that great yet, but there are improving it. rubella has seen enormous growth during COVID. Right now, the I triple E VR conference is happening in Marbella, and the ilearn conference will be may 17, June 10th. But I'm in there several times a week at meetings there. And even though it's just on the desktop, it really does give you more of a sense of being in a space with other people and interacting with

them. What's your headset, what headset to use?

I actually have a Samsung Odyssey, which is a Windows mixed reality device. And it's kind of at this point, it's kind of odd to say that it's old, but I pre ordered it. It was available November 1 2017. It's still going strong. So that's what I still use. I have various other headsets, I have several Oculus goes and a mirror prism, ar headset and some others, as well. But that's the one that I use for more high end VR.

Wow. Okay, that's great. And and, you know, what is your advice to those of us that do events? Now? What do you think? What do you think we should be working on? As in particularly as we come out of COVID? And and all that we know about these hybrid worlds? Mm hmm.

Yeah, yeah. Well,

I think you should be should be looking at ways to have your events in these kinds of virtual worlds. It's, it's, it cuts out the zoom fatigue, it's a really different experience. And, you know, you can move through space. For example, at some of the conferences in rivella, there's, there's an expo hall, and people have booths with their their logos, and they can show their wares and that sort of thing. And so you are moving around this whole space, and that one thing that allows for is encountering other people in those moments between sessions, which you can't do in zoom, right, so it's a closer replication of a conference or larger, that tight space. So there are so many of them out there. I I worked on the XR collaboration 2021 Guide, which just came out a few weeks ago, when that was first put out in response to COVID. In May of last year, there were 70 collaborate xR collaboration platforms out there. Now they're almost 250

Well, I think, you know, hopefully that creates some extemporaneous. engagements, which is what we miss on zoom?

Yes, absolutely. It certainly does. Yeah, I even have I have a virtual office this case and, you know, can invite people to come meet me there. Okay. on the board things up on the wall to work on.

That's great. So you mentioned earlier on, about your consulting work and some of the in education space in particular. So can you talk about your company? And how you can help educators? Or how you have helped educators? Or are helping educators? Yes, well,

I have helped educators high in higher education, figure out how to incorporate some of these tools into their curriculum, and figure, you know, just understanding what they are in the first instance, and sort of suggesting some of the tools that are out there out of the box. So as I said, My philosophy is to start small, but start now. And so you know, providing some of these simple solutions. And once someone gets started with these things, their their ideas just take off. And I've also done education work at the community level, I started a program in 220 18, called PGH and 316. That's perspective, where I taught a youth to create 360 degree videos about issues that matter to them. And then show the affordances of xR tools for education include making the abstract, concrete, or seem to be concrete, for example, there's a program called calc flow, and you can have a calculus equation in it. And there's a 3d graph. So when you manipulate the variables in the equation, you can see how that changed. And you can move the graph, you can view it in any angle, you can put it up above, you look at it from below, you can rotate it. So it really helps create that understanding of what these equations are what they refer to, rather than just trying to imagine it in your in your head. So it's very useful for that sort of thing data. visualization is is huge in xR because you have a very different relationship to the data, your sense of proprioception, your spatial spatial senses are engaged, and you can relate to it in a different way.

So what's your advice? What's your advice to get started? And the other question that I just want to sneak in? Does it require high broadband? You know, high speed?

Yes. Well, that depends on what you're using. Very often, yes. But also, our phones are capable of quite a lot these days. And, of course, 5g helps with that. But yes, and that is an issue for adoption in education, when you think about a lot of the rural areas where, where people don't have high speed broadband. And in some parts of the world may not even have electricity. So you know, there are all these possibilities, but we have to make sure we have the infrastructure in place to enact them. And for for school systems, you know, that leadership needs to take notice of these technologies, and make sure that teachers are trained to use them, and that they have the sort of labs and setups that will allow them to teach their children using these tools.

So so as we wind up, can you tell us, what's your advice to businesses? Now?

That's my advice to businesses. Well, you need to know what these technologies are and what they're capable of, and, and get engaged and win like myself to help you determine what use case you could start with how you might apply it in your business. Again, one small area, do one small experiment, test that out, have your your baseline metrics to start with, so that you can tell how effective it has been for you whether he saved you cost, whether it's increased the safety made you more efficient, and that sort of thing. So yeah.

And so what's a good entry level camera to capture? 360? Yeah, what's a good entry level camera?

Um, well, for for 360 degrees, I would say one of the Insta 360 line, it was the Insta 360 1x that come out with a new one since then. And these would be, you know, several $100 those sorts of cameras. But of course, there's a lot of other there are a lot of other ways to create virtual spaces, right. And 3d modeling is an area where there's going to be huge growth and a lot of jobs before long. Then world creation. Yeah.

Great. So we're ending this on jobs. So what's it What's up? What's the skill set that people need for these next generation of jobs? Yeah, well,

the 3d modeling, again, is a very highly in demand and working with tools like Unity and Unreal Engine, which are game engines that have evolved to create virtual spaces. So those are some of the huge ones and design design as well. So let's say those are, those are some of the key ones. And there's an increasingly low code, no code solutions out there. So, you know, everyone doesn't have to be a coder in order to create an xR.

That's great. I just want to thank you, Karen, for joining us. I think we put your website out there xR connected. And your advice is practical and visionary, no pun intended. That that, you know, this is we can't be afraid of this. This is why we need to get engaged in this and even us at the tech Council, we need to start thinking about how we participate in this kind of arena. So I want to thank you. We'll stay connected to you. Appreciate it. Tomorrow is Good Friday, and we are actually off. We're taking the weekend off. Hopefully everyone who celebrates Easter or Passover any note was holy last weekend. Happy Holidays. We're going to take harass the tech counsels closed. We're back on Monday. And what do we have in store vacate for Monday,

we have bill L, who is the founder of resilient cognitive solutions starting by very cool company, they use some really advanced technologies to help big companies, big decisions. Good stuff.

Okay, there you go. Okay, Karen, thank you again. Thanks, everyone. They did snow today in Pittsburgh, but that was just an April Fool's joke. Thanks, everyone.

Thank you.

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