Future Realities come to Wellington

New Thinking 5 June 2017 Rupert Burton & Steph Beaumont

The future is here now! So said Wizzy from IBMNZ on behalf of his childhood self who once dreamed of joining Astroboy, the artificially​ intelligent robot boy on his interplanetary adventures. Well, almost.

We might not actually be able to visit other worlds yet, but we can do so virtually. We can also communicate with an artificial intelligence using our voices and in certain advanced examples expect them to understand us, not just verbally, but emotionally too. They can analyse the data we feed them, come to logic-based solutions, learn from the mistakes made and interact with us in a meaningful way.

This was just one example from an enlightening conference on Wellington's waterfront – ‘Future Realities’ – that explored Mixed Reality (MR), Virtual Reality (VR), Augmented Reality (AR), Internet of Things (IOT) and Artificial Intelligence (AI). Speakers from around the globe, but with a heavy local presence came together to discuss the present state and future of the technology that they’re now working on.

But it wasn't just a tech talk. Two recurring themes stood out for me – ethics and the importance of user-centred design.

'Do no harm'

Caitlin Burns kicked the conference off stating her guiding principle of 'do no harm' and how these technologies have huge potential to help people. For example, the use of Virtual Reality to help people suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder or social anxiety through therapy professional VR-guided re-enactments of a past traumatic event.

Tim Rastall from NEC talked about how they are helping local government with the smart cities initiative and how they're using VR to help visualise very complex data sets in not only 3D, but in four dimensions with the inclusion of a temporal component. They're using WCC open source data and the unity game engine to make data accessible to more people. Not only is it a 3D map, but it can be overlaid with data from car park usage to tsunami vulnerability.

Paul Fitzgerald from Lumaten showed us their Shopper360 software that helps businesses to make decisions about product placement and packaging based on the user experiences of real shoppers in a virtual countdown. He introduced the concept of dual process theory, how people often make very quick decisions based on system one thinking – subconscious beliefs, biases, experiences and emotions, rather than system two – considered, rational decision making. But when asked, they will rationalise using system two because they often can't vocalise system one processing.

Lumaten is using IBM Watson AI to process millions of data points and calculate the best placement of products in store and draw conclusions from the length of time a person spends engaged with a product before making the decision to purchase or return to the shelf.

Steph making that important frozen dessert choice – but is it a system one or two choice?

One of the highlights for us was Mark Billinghurst’s talk about the research he has been involved with for the past 15+ years. He described two terms that we'd not previously heard of – ‘tele-presence’ and ‘tele-existence’.

  • Tele-presence is the concept of enabling ‘remote people’ to have a virtual presence in the real world, enabling ‘mixed space’ collaboration. Consider being able to attend a live demonstration taking place in another location, but being able to interact with the remote participants in the same ‘space’
  • Tele-Existence is the concept of enabling a person to feel like they are sharing a remote view

Picture an emergency worker being able to call on assistance from a remote colleague who can be ‘virtually’ in the same environment – maybe a fire fighter seeking medical advice as to whether it's safe to move an injured victim from a damaged building.

Alina Siegfried from the Edmund Hillary Foundation talked about the essential nature of storytelling and reiterated the moral and social aspect of development asking ‘Is our technology connecting people or making them more disconnected?’

Future Weta projects

Future Realities also hosted an interesting conversation between Neal Stephenson and Greg Broadmore of Weta. Their conversation – while notably restricted by Wetas’ strict confidentiality around upcoming projects – focused on the works of Neal, a writer and game designer most prominently known for his works of speculative fiction (The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O, Seveneves, The Mongoloid), and Greg, a concept designer, artist, writer, and sculptor who has worked on well known films such as ‘The Lord of the Rings’ and ‘District 9’.

While the main conversation focused on the processes of creativity and storytelling in their work, there was mention of Greg’s involvement with Mixed Reality Magic Leap technology in an upcoming project. Exciting, mysterious stuff! What exactly that will be, we’ll just have to wait and keep an eye out on the Weta websites – here and here – to find out what it is at a later date.

Not only is the future of technology looking fun and exciting, but it’s being developed now. We can all help to shape it. All it needs is for you to get involved. Everyone is needed, not just the technologists but the storytellers, the facilitators and everyone in between – and not forgetting those who are needed to keep them all honest and ethical.

Here’s the link to the conference site with details of the speakers. It was a sell-out so it’s looking likely there will be more of these conferences in the coming years. Keep an eye out for the ProjectR VR AR centre that has recently opened in Wellington! Thanks for a great show Jessica Manins. This was a conference to be remembered.