Ryan Groom is the CTO of Kognitiv Spark, the augmented reality (AR) company that helps connect remote workers with subject matter professionals.
People often conflate AR with virtual reality (VR). They are similar in the sense that they both relate to virtual realities. They differ in one key way: VR is about immersing the user in complete digital world and cut them off from the real one, whereas AR superimposes a digital world on the real one.
Beyond that, there hasn’t really been much buzz around neither AR or VR, despite technophiles having championed the advent of digital worlds and the gadgets supporting them for years. No hype could negate the clunkiness of VR headsets or the inherent privacy issues of Google Glass, which earned the wearers the unflattering sobriquet “glassholes.”
Despite these setbacks, there is now a palpable buzz around VR and AR caused by the advent of the metaverse.
Metaverse hype could kick off AR revolution
Facebook’s founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg arguably started the trend when he publicly announced the rebrand of one of the world’s biggest social media companies to Meta in order to highlight how the company was now a metaverse company.
While some wicked detractors have suggested that The Zuck’s pivot was just an attempt of saving its flailing VR subsidiary Oculus VR, and to boost its bottom line after Apple cut it off from stalking users online, it’s clear that it has created quite a buzz around the metaverse.
However, the Kognitiv Spark CTO believes the AR revolution is coming not just thanks to the metaverse, but despite it as he believes it will fulfil a real need for people.
He explains why in this latest instalment of our CTO Talk series.
Eric Johansson: Tell us a bit about yourself – how did you end up in your current role?
Ryan Groom: I’ve had a long association with IT, having written my first software application back in 1993. University wasn’t for me so I worked on computer-based contracts before setting up my own security company in the early 2000s. During a conference around that time I saw an early version of Microsoft’s mixed reality technology, the Hololens, and I knew that it was the next wave of computing. This led me to the creation of Kognitiv Spark with my business partner Duncan McSporran in 2016.
Where did your interest in tech come from?
I think it’s been from birth. At a young age I read books about science or dinosaurs, and I think it comes from my unquenchable thirst for curiosity and wanting to learn how things work. I received my first computer, the Timex Sinclair, when I was in grade six. It was with this that I started to write code, and that’s where the addiction started. Every nickel I made from jobs went into buying computers, and I would always be the one staying at home on a Friday night instead of going out with friends.
People have been talking about the AR and VR revolution for years. Why hasn’t it materialised yet?
I think a lot of people lump AR in with VR. VR is where someone is disconnected from the rest of the world, while AR combines technology and the real world. It’s because of this that VR is a very synthetic environment that’s not very useful for training. There’s still work to be done though in communicating the practical applications and value of AR.
What will be different this time around?
AR needs to fix real world problems and make the life of the modern worker better. Rather than automation, tools need to be provided to people in their physical space to do their job. It’s easy to devise a cool feature, but if nobody’s ever going to use it, there’s just no point. The industry needs to make things that can enhance people’s lives.
How do you separate hype from genuine innovation?
Take the metaverse. Most iterations just involve putting on VR headsets to talk to people you don’t know about things that don’t matter. Genuine innovation for me is where you can do something real with technology. If a person can pick up a headset and it improves their job, that’s not hype, it’s real. We also need to be wary though that the computer industry hypes up lots of innovations and we need to get away from that by focussing purely on practical developments.
What one piece of advice would you offer to other CTOs?
There’s a CTO that I really look up to, and that’s Mark Russinovich at Microsoft Azure. He still writes code while also undertaking his business responsibilities, which means he has the knowledge to separate innovation from hype when it comes to working with his team. My advice therefore is that CTOs need to have a day every couple of weeks where they use the technology, otherwise they’re just making decisions about things they don’t really know anything about.
What’s the most surprising thing about your job?
It’s actually more of a people job than a technology job. To play off a Canadian analogy, I’ve got superstars on my team, but I can’t play hockey like they can. However, I do know how to coach them. So many deeply technical people are introverts and don’t want to work with other people, but once they do, they make a very powerful team that trust each other. I’ve mainly been working from home since 1996 but I also love going to work because of our people.
What’s the biggest technological challenge facing humanity?
Although we’re moving away from fossil fuels, which is positive, if we replace that with pit mining for elements to make batteries, this can have negative implications. Energy needs to be cleaner. Second is the mass collection of data on people. Someday, networks are going to be so fast that they can be connected and correlated, which could wipe out individualism. We need to keep our humanity rather than being an ID in a system, and ensure technology makes us better instead of it controlling us.
What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever done for fun?
I cracked ice from a 10,000-year-old glacier in Iceland to drink with a can of Coke that I had brought all the way from Canada! When I’m not coding, I like to hike glaciers. I’ve been to Norway, Sweden and Iceland, and I’m going back to Iceland soon with my son. I like to get as far away from civilization as I can when I’m not doing computer stuff.
What’s the most important thing happening in your field at the moment?
I think that it’s cloud computing. Now, people with an idea don’t need the infrastructure to be able to prove it in the same way they did when I was young. Investment can now go on the creation of an idea rather than on the equipment, which used to be expensive and stifle creativity. Now anyone can go to Amazon, Microsoft or Oracle for example to spin something up straight away and scale as needed.
In another life you’d be?
This is a tricky one as I’ve been lucky enough to be part of a Canadian TV show called Trekkit, which involved travelling over 2,300+ kilometres on an all-terrain vehicle over 15 days. I think maybe a fighter pilot as I’m an adrenaline junkie and the technology is extraordinary, or a race car driver. Failing that, possibly a geologist. I love the science of the Earth and when you look at things formed over millions of years, it humbles you as a human and makes you realise that we’re part of a much bigger picture.
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