A look behinde the scenes of HP Labs


(Published in The Produktkulturmagazin issue 3 2017)

The place where inkjet printers and programmable pocket calculators were once invented is where the focus is now on other topics. The HP Labs, the innovation lab of the eponymous corporation, are currently on a quest to research mixed reality applications – albeit ones that are user-centric and therefore as mass market-compatible as possible. 

According to current industry forecasts, the augmented and virtual reality market is expected to achieve sales of 162 billion dollars in 2020. For technology behemoths such as HP, this is reason enough to search for examples of mass-compatible applications. Here, the focus is above all on professional applications. And instead of virtual realities, where the user moves around on their own in an artificially-generated space, we are increasingly focusing on augmented and mixed reality models. Although these enrich reality with virtual elements, they are however more permeable than purely virtual applications in this respect, as they do not completely isolate the user and permit interaction with the real, analogue world at all times. 

Games such as Ingress and Pokémon Go made the technology well known in the mass market. Niantic, a development company belonging to Google, asked players of both versions of GPS-games to explore their environment and to search for virtual objects while doing so. Pokémon, the mobile version of the videogame, in particular caused a downright hype just a few weeks after it had been released. During the first 19 days, the game was downloaded more than 75 million times onto iOS and Android gadgets. How the approaches used in these games could be transferred onto applications of the technology in other industries and areas of life remained an open question. To answer this, the HP Labs are pursuing a consistently user-centric approach to design the interaction between human and machine, and hence also the workflow between the analogue and the virtual worlds, as seamlessly as possible. For this, they carefully observe how the interfaces provided are utilised, in other words, all forms of interfaces, text or audio input. The navigation and the logical sequence from the user perspective can also play a central role here. Based on the findings from these interaction loops, we can draw conclusions from which we can develop intuitive interaction design, in the best-case scenario. This could be particularly relevant for design professionals such as architects and engineers, for instance. The overarching objectives of the lab have meanwhile become anything but modest. ‘Reinventing the future through transformative technologies that will disrupt industries and economies around the world’ is their motto. We spoke to Alex Thayer, Chief Experience Architect at the Immersive Experiences Lab, about what this vision harbours in detail.

Alex, please tell us more about HP Labs. Which range of products and research do you cover?

The Immersive Experiences Lab is one of the four HP Labs, which are part of the Office of the CTO. All of the research we conduct in our lab is grounded in our mission statement: We strive to understand people and their practices so that we can craft the best experiences with future technologies. The order of those words is important because we are about understanding people first. We perform a lot of foundational research at the intersection of human-computer interaction as well as how culture and technology are interwoven in our lives. As we develop rich understandings of people’s messy, complicated lives, we identify ways in which cutting-edge technologies could improve life for everyone, everywhere. That latter bit is part of the overall HP vision statement, which I am very proud of. I am excited to help lead the Immersive Experiences Lab; in a lot of ways, this is my dream job. I rely on my social science research background and product design experience as the basis for my approach to the lab’s research agenda. But I also work with my peers to weave the “megatrends” that HP has identified through the work that we do. We need to think beyond the next 20 years and understand the different forces shaping our world, and then we need to work backwards and decide how to design the future in which we want to live. Given our mission to understand people and their practices, we have developed three areas of focus for our research. The first is called “Supernatural Productivity,” which is all about augmenting human capabilities and helping us do more with the tools at hand. The second area of focus is “Resilience Technology.” When people are resilient, they have a strong sense of purpose, connection, and control. We believe resilience is critical to living a healthy, fulfilling life, and we work hard to understand how we might improve feelings of resilience through carefully-crafted experiences with technology. Finally, “Printable Interactivity” involves a variety of projects that blend our understanding of self-expression with future print technologies.

In which industry and which application do you see the greatest economic potential in the field of augmented and mixed reality?

I am a big believer in what I call the “post-digital” world. Until relatively recently, humanity lived in an “analogue” world. But then, as digital consumer products went mainstream in the 1980s and 1990s, people began trying to make sense of the specific attributes and values that could be derived from combinations of analogue and digital tools and technologies. We live in this post-digital world today, a world in which people can do more with novel combinations of the physical and the digital than was previously possible. Augmented reality, or AR, is just one aspect of a broader perspective on “mixed reality”. In the Immersive Experiences Lab, we have a number of research projects that aim to improve people’s professional lives. These projects in our “Supernatural Productivity” area of focus make use of augmented reality, virtual reality, and a mix of other new input controls and natural interactions. Because we seek to understand people and their practices, we design and test concepts that apply to specific workflows in specific contexts, for example knowledge workers in an architecture firm. I have become convinced that mixed reality will impact all industries and workflows. The real challenge is one of experience design: How will these new technologies disrupt the ways in which we do our work? And, most importantly, how do we actually want to engage with AR as we try to meet our deadlines and accomplish our professional goals?

In your opinion, which type of application is totally overrated?

One of my favourite perspectives on technology comes from Umberto Eco’s afterword in Future of the Book. Highlighting the phrase “ceci tuera cela” (“this will kill that”) from The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Eco makes clear why it is unnecessary to claim that a “new” technology will kill off an “old” technology, for example the e-reader will kill the printed book. He makes the case that disruptive change, rather than total replacement, is the norm as new technologies take hold. He also suggests redirecting our energy into improving people’s lives by selecting the most useful technologies for a given situation, as well as the need to avoid the potential solitude that our digital lives can enable. Rather than thinking about a technology or application as “overrated,” I prefer Eco’s positive perspective about how truly well-informed design decisions can improve people’s lives. I try to instil this perspective as a leader at HP, and I find this approach helps the members of my lab resist the temptation to focus too heavily on a given technology. Lately we have spent a great deal of time studying why printed books and vinyl records have made such a strong comeback against digital alternatives, and how and why people customise their clothing and jewellery as a form of self-expression. We use the learnings from these studies to inform our concepts and designs, which we iterate based on feedback from people in the real world, not just other lab members. Perhaps the “overrated” concept in the tech industry is the notion of a solitary genius with a singular vision who relies on instinct over insights. 

What are the advantages of augmented and mixed reality applications versus virtual reality?

The simple answer regarding the unique benefits of AR over VR is how users of AR can remain “immersed” in the “real” world even as they engage with digital content. But this answer is too simple. I do not see AR and VR as radically different technologies, but as different expressions along the spectrum of “mixed” reality. As I said earlier, rather than starting a research project with a technology in search of a purpose, I prefer to start with people and their practices. The biggest benefit of AR versus VR then depends on the context. Who are we trying to assist, and why? What are they trying to achieve, and how do they get their work done today? Those are the kinds of questions we constantly ask in our research lab. And we do have some projects that apply various mixed reality technologies, but these applications are always in the service of a person trying to achieve a desired outcome.

Are there long-term scenarios in which AR and MR mix with other technologies?

I believe mixed reality is already here today, and AR is just one aspect of the broader movement toward a post-digital world. AR and VR technologies are nothing new: What is new, though, is the mass-market consumer availability of specific expressions of these technologies. The craze over Pokémon Go in 2016 is a partial reflection of a pent-up desire to have new experiences with these technologies. After all, for decades Hollywood movies have promised AR, VR, gestural interactions, artificially-intelligent interactions, and much more. This stuff is cool! But in the face of all this cool new stuff, I always ask the same question: How will the use of a specific product or technology become part of a person’s routine? Stated differently, how will our practices change as future technologies become widely available? And are those changes desirable or helpful for humanity? With his “Hyper-Reality” video, Keiichi Matsuda did a masterful job reflecting just how terrible an AR-enhanced future could be for some members of our society. So perhaps the best point to make is that, at least in the Immersive Experiences Lab, we are working to understand how new technology should become integrated into the daily lives of people around the world. 

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Alex Thayer is the Chief Experience Architect for the Immersive Experiences Lab at HP Inc. Thayer has a PhD in Human Centred Design & Engineering as well as degrees in Technical Communication and Art History. For the Immersive Experiences Lab, Alex guides the research efforts around the future of blended reality, authentic user experiences, and other topic areas at the intersection of people, practice, experience, and technology. Alex has over 20 years of professional experience in the tech industry at companies including IBM, Microsoft, Google, Intel, and VMware.

Picture credit © Serge Vejvoda

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