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Setting the stage
The people that do the work are the best people to find the right solution because they have the experience, they have the knowledge, they are the ones their boots on the ground. AI can’t do that. Immersive tech sort of gives us that human interaction, that human interface to that digital.
I’m Jane McConnell and welcome to Imagize.World, where we talk with forward thinkers, pioneering organizations and writers of speculative fiction. We explore emerging trends, technologies, world-changing ideas and above all, share our journeys, challenges and successes. Today my guest is Mark Grob, a futurist and pioneer of virtual reality, and currently he’s the immersive tech guy for UPS. Yeah, that’s UPS. You heard, right. The logistics company delivering packages around the world. UPS is over a hundred years old and they have half a million employees around the world. Fast company recognized UPS as one of the 10 most innovative logistical companies in 2023.
Mark has actually worked in the virtual reality world for decades, in fact, funny since 1999 at the beginning of this century. In our conversation today, Mark’s going to share with us what, why and how UPS is using cutting edge immersive tech. But first I’d like to take a look at the big picture, why this matters no matter what your line of work is. Immersive technology is a general term. It describes a range of virtual reality techniques that we all need to pay attention to, especially if you’re in the field of learning, education, management, HR, communication, and more. Basically all managers and workers, whatever your role is. It may not be appropriate for everyone and every organization today, but it’s fast evolving to meet a surprising range of needs.
Take education for example. The future of education is beyond time and space. It’s beyond the traditional age categories we have in universities and schools. It’s beyond classrooms as we know them today, and this is relevant for companies and organizations as well. Learning in the natural flow of work is what many companies are proud to say that’s our educational slogan. I’ve heard that hundreds of times with all the companies I’ve worked with. The intention is good, but immersive technology will help us accelerate the way we learn even before new work or new tasks begin or to upskill people who are already in the workforce. Virtual reality will transform learning.
It lets people take control of learning. It saves time, it increases engagement, helps people retain what they learn, and it removes the fear of making a mistake. And finally, something not to be neglected is it saves money. It’s essential for the future and we need to take the initiative to shape it to meet our needs.
Mark Gröb, the Immersive Tech Guy
Well, greetings and hello, Mark. I’m so happy to see you again. We talked like this a couple years ago and things have changed a lot for you since then, and I can hardly wait to hear about all the interesting stuff you’re doing at UPS. I did something funny yesterday. I know your title is immersive tech for UPS. I did a search on LinkedIn for immersive tech and I found nobody. Immersive technology, I found nobody. So I have a feeling that you are a pretty unique person in the virtual world. Could you talk to us just a little bit to start off about where you’re at today and how you got there?
Sure. So to kind of first define what immersive tech is. Immersive tech, what I do is really I’ve, from a technology standpoint, I focus on technology that allows us to sort of wrap data around us. So things like virtual reality, augmented reality, mixed reality, they all fall into what I define as immersive tech. And there’s those in the VR AR community, we generally are now starting to call this stuff immersive tech because there’s the advent of more groups, not just myself. More groups are using AI or cognitive services as we used to call it, to provide scale and enterprise and really make VR and AR successful tools for business.
To say immersive tech encompasses not just these cool headsets, but also the infrastructure. The idea of in our business of logistics, we have business or Web 4.0 where it’s a case of you have on-premise GPU servers doing fancy amazing calculations in real time. That type of technology still in my opinion, falls within the scope of immersive tech. Because in the end, what we’re doing is we’re trying to make an immersive simulation or experience that provides us a tool or some sort of learning aspect to what we do in our business.
The path leading to UPS
How did you get into that? You must’ve had an interesting path or trigger or something that got you into it.
It kind of goes back to my days of being… In my previous life I was actually an accountant. I went to-
Yeah, I went to Plattsburgh State for business and strategic management, and while I was there I had an opportunity to internship at a defense contractor up in Montreal. And in doing so I experienced virtual reality or some people might call it now virtual remote digital remote control immersion in an internship. And with that, I was accessing, back in the day, they had these virtuality headsets, which were basically big bulky VR headsets that connected to, I would describe them as multiprocessor furnaces. They could heat your apartment up in Canada. And having that immersion, that experience, that’s where it all started. It’s from that, through the years I’ve done startups around 360 degree operating systems to simulation for training using augmented reality for training and that sort of thing. But it all sort of stemmed from what I call that light bulb, that eureka moment of saying, wow, this technology is amazing. So from that point, I really sort of got the bug.
I got addicted, and since then, just through startups or through my career previously in entertainment, getting my master’s in the technology back in 2008. Been a while. I conjuled and things have changed, just being receptive to opportunities and how things are changing. That’s kind of how I’ve gotten here. And now at UPS, I have a great role where I’m actually building that practice of immersive tech or the immersive tech practice alongside amazing groups like our advanced tech group, our advanced analytics groups, as well as also what I would describe our traditional business groups for safety and training. So Intergrad or Autograd, where these specific business groups are sort of the driver safety institutions inside of the organization of UPS. Having the experience when I came on to utilize this technology to provide them simulation for training has been just a phenomenal experience.
UPS, digital pioneer 27 years ago in Jane’s book
Yeah. Well, we’re going to go into detail on a number of those points. But first, Mark, I wanted to tell you, I think I mentioned it to you when we briefed each other a couple weeks ago, I wrote a book in French that was called “L’avantage Internet pour l’entreprise”, like the Internet Advantage for Companies in French for a French publisher and this was in 1996, and if you calculate that’s 27 years ago. And in this book, I and my co-author identified nine, what we call pioneers in internet technologies, and UPS was one of the nine pioneers, and I can even… We’re not going to read the book to you here, but there’s a copy of the book there and I’ve got a post-it on a couple of pages I love because UPS was doing things that nobody was doing. One of the screens we have here is a screen that people could use to book a same day or next day pickup from UPS.
Again, this is 27 years ago. There was another screen they shared with us where people could track. I mean, today it’s normal. You get a notification, you can track your package, you know when it’s coming, but this was 27 years ago. And then there’s a map of the United States where you could follow your package across the United States if it was crossing state borders. And this was UPS 27 years ago. And in fact, we’re going to go into detail about all the good stuff you guys are doing now because I can tell you are still on the edge of new things in technology. And my surprise question at the end, and we’re all going to wait to see what you think about it is where do you think you all will be and the world will be 27 years from now in 2050?
That’s not a fair question. That’s not fair.
I know it’s not fair at all, but you’ve got 30 minutes, 40 minutes to sort of mull it over in the second part of your brain while you talk to us about what UPS is doing today. So where should we start? What of your great innovations would you like to start with?
UPS still an innovator, with a human interface into data
Well, I also answered to your comment, UPS still is, I think in my opinion and what’s really attracted me to stay at UPS is they’ve been in the innovator. They still are an innovator. Since your piece so many years ago, UPS has applied things like their ORION technology, which is adopted into things like Google Maps and things like that. We now-
Sorry, what kind of technology did you say?
So things like ORION, which is a geospatial tracking system, which is what you were referring to. Back in the day, long lat and altitude and the amazing things you can do when you’re tracking a package. Logistics, that’s the business. Now, those systems are way more complex and they have much more capability, and that one system is ORION and they’re doing some amazing stuff in that group. But now we’re at a stage where we’re designing and building facilities that are what we use, utilize or call our smart network, where it’s really that Web 4.0 industry web type stuff where it’s robotics, it’s highly automated, it’s all that technology. I get this sort of glimpse into that space because we use a lot of the immersive technology to provide what I call a human interface into all that data. The ability to realtime see what is going on in that digital twin world and to properly align it to the real world. So UPS is doing all these amazing things and more.
Definition of virtual reality terms: XR (extended), AR (augmented), MR (mixed)
One of the things we talked about before, which you just mentioned briefly earlier, is safety, driver safety. What do you do in the area of driver safety that has to do with, I don’t know what you’d call it, VR, AR mixed reality. In fact, maybe Mark, you could explain to us between VR and XR, mixed reality, how you use those terms.
Sure. So the XR would be now the new container for all those other terms, that’s called extended reality. Some of us call that immersive tech or it’s all lingo within the business. So that’s extended reality. Mixed reality is becoming the new AR, where it’s a case of you’re merging in some fashion to the user experience, the amazing abilities of virtual reality, but also the abilities of augmented reality to the real environment. So the ability for a spatial device. So we talk about Apple because that was their word that they revived from Microsoft Hololens and mixed reality stuff. A spatial computer is really a mixed reality device where it’s a device where just like it knows what your mouse and keyboard is doing, it also knows the environment around you because it’s actively scanning in real time.
And then based on that data in mixed reality, it’s kind of really fancy stuff. It’s able to coordinate holographic or virtual reality content in real time in a real overlay in the real space. It’s really exciting. It’s a really exciting space. And then we have our traditional augmented reality space. A lot of us use our phones to project Pokemon and play video games on our way to work or something, but traditionally that’s augmented reality where the environment is triggering an activation or an experience that’s also coordinated within the real world. And a big signifier between say, AR and MR is AR requires, it needs the environment to fully do the experience versus mixed reality might say, okay, I can use parts of the real world to coordinate spatially or scale or level something based on what it sees in the real space. Hopefully that helps.
That helps a lot.
Using MR mixed reality to train drivers rapidly and safely
So then to talk about safety, when I first came on at UPS in 2017, the Intergrad group, which is the Driver Safety Institute where they teach practices where we have a UPS drivers that have gone 50 years plus with never having a crash or an accident. So this institute that trains those methods, I came on board and we started using things called virtual reality in the VR headsets where in their institutions they had a place where someone could be virtually inside of a packed vehicle or packaged car and they could practice methodologies say of learning how to properly drive and scan or actively scan as you’re driving. So maybe seven points within the vehicle that you’re scanning or switching between to really improve and maintain safety as you drive, plus things like space between you and the vehicle in front of you, plus also identifying hazards and responding specific scripts or methods to ensure that nothing goes wrong initially in 2017. UPS is looking at using these VR headsets to provide scale to that type of simulation. Since then we’ve done a lot of amazing things.
Late in the news out of Arizona, our amazing group at Goodyear, the facility in Arizona started exploring mixed reality. So now what we’re doing is we’re taking that tech back in 2017. What we’re doing is we’re moving those things into what’s called one-to-one simulators on a particular facility site. So imagine you as a driver, it’s your first day on the job. You come into UPS and they say, okay, you’re mandated to spend an hour each day, your pre-trip going through a curriculum activity at a one-to-one simulator before you head out on the road. You go to that simulator and it’s really just a retired package car that’s been revamped to be basically a car simulator. So you sit down at the driver’s seat and you can drive and do proper simulation space there, but you can do other things now.
Now what you can do, say in the driver’s shotgun seat or the passenger seat in the vehicle, we’re running 360 degree video shadowing programs where the shadowing program is really active recordings of previous drivers that have been trained in the methods and they’re talking through a verbal script as they’re actually driving on the real road and using a VR headset, the person can sit in that passenger seat and from the same perspective as the content was shot, they’re going through someone’s actual daily trip learning about how to identify hazards, doing certain practices as they drive to be extra safe, while that person that’s at the simulator with the wheel and this person’s doing the 360 degree video, we have other people that are wearing mixed reality headsets that may be in the package area or just outside the simulator. And what they’re doing is they’re doing other activities all within sort of what I describe as traditionally would be just one person in one space.
Mixed reality arcades
Now what we’re doing is we’re building this what we call mixed reality arcade method that’s anchored to the actual simulator itself. And we’re finding a lot of really pickup because mixed reality and virtual reality, augmented reality typically is very engaging when it comes to its use and how they’re designed. So in a way, if you think back to the 80s, we used to go to the quarter arcades and put quarters in and play video games. The method here is this traditional one-to-one simulator for a package car now becomes the arcade for our drivers. So now they don’t need a supervisor to say, “Okay, we’re going to go in the classroom and we’re going to go through a very linear training process.” Instead, it’s a case of, hey, they may notice a particular headset is available, no one’s using it.
So what they do is they put that on, they may be in the package area, and then what will happen is it’ll trigger a mixed reality activation, and then they go and walk them through, hey, how to properly sort or position your packages within your package car so you can be efficient and also maintain fluidity as you’re going through your day. Or if another device is available, they may say, “Hey, I’m going to relearn or reaffirm my pre-trip.” So the process of checking your vehicle to make sure everything’s operational and correct before you go on the road. In some countries there’s mandates by regulation that you have to do that. So we now have a mixed reality experience that actually lets them go through it by themselves. You don’t need an instructor, and there’s data elements behind that we can actually track and say, hey, they’ve actually successfully completed this through assessments and such.
Have you found that drivers… You started off talking about drivers with what, what’d you say? 50 years experience did you say?
Well, I can’t… Yeah. Do they go through this too? Do they use this?
Yeah, basically what it is, you think of it as a shift. A lot of the learning that we do is based on shift management. So we have drivers that are young and such, but we also have the older users. And part of I’d say probably my last three years, four years at UPS is also learning and understanding and perfecting how to properly deploy this type of device so that the majority of the population can successfully use it and do it easily. So yeah, our older drivers, they love it too. They’re like, wow, this is cool. This is like, to them it’s magic because they’re drivers. They’re not computer nerds like myself that like building video games.
It’s the ease of just simply placing the device on your head. It prompts you for fit so that they’re wearing it correctly. And then at that point really it’s a spatial device that’s smart and says, “Hey, you’re here to do work. I’m a tool and let’s go through what you have to do.”So it’s interesting. And the pickup by any age is generally very good. It’s a case where we do have cases where I call it the wide parts of the spectrum where the devices themselves have limitations from the standpoint of someone may have a very wide face or a very narrow face, which sometimes can create issues because the devices are just engineered within a certain scope, but we have ancillary, we have other ways of which they can do that now. They can do it through the phone, through an AR sort of projection or presentation. It may not be as interactive because it’s not, they’re not able to pick stuff up virtually, but they’re still able to go through the core curriculum and get the points done that they need to get done.
Building a wall quickly and safely
You talked at one point in an earlier conversation about how you fill a packed car. Apparently there’s a lot of technique and knowledge involved. You don’t just put the packages lined up in the back of the car, the truck rather. Do you have training for that? I’m sure you must.
Yeah, probably since I think when we last talked in 2018 was probably the time we last talked. We were at the point then starting to finally deploy VR training at the time to operations where you have things like box line and belt line training on how to load a package car. We had simulations for that as well, and they’ve been going for a while. And we’re in the phase now of where we’re looking at applying the same newer mixed reality technology devices into that type of training. And the reason for that is those mixed reality devices are safer to use because they’re more aware of the environment around the user and just generally from the standpoint of experience, they’re not going to become a digital meme of someone crashing into a wall.
That VR unfortunately, when it comes to training sometimes has that sort of stigma. But yeah, so we have those areas covered and then we’re expanding to new areas. For example, things like hazmat actually training our responders when we have say what we call the leaky package. It happens. So having somebody properly trained to properly respond based on the type of hazmat that it is is key because we obviously want to make sure employees are safe and they’re operating successfully.
Hazmat, you mean hazardous materials, I think.
Correct. Yeah. It may be something as silly as shampoo that’s coming out of a package, but shampoo creates a slippery environment, so you may slip and fall. Two, it may be a low acidic type of substance, so you may not be realizing it, but it may actually be burning your hands as you think you’re traveling and moving around to the negative ones like LiPos. Maybe it’s a hot day and God forbid the thing starts to ignite. Having knowledge to identify and respond to that is key to safety and to our business.
Yeah. Very interesting. Your area you’re in is a very physical area in packages and loading.
Yeah, we call that hard skills. So from the standpoint of traditional business logistics package world. When I say build a wall, it’s the physical operation of a package handler picking up packages and building what’s called a wall inside of a trailer, a package trailer. The point of building a wall is creating… Think of like you ever look at a brick wall, the way the bricks are laid, there’s these T’s between the lower two and the upper top piece. Building a wall is about, there’s sort of a method or a science to how to create those T’s to create a secure wall. So traditionally we’d have people go through that training and it may take a few days, and then they would go out into the operation and they would go and you have to build the wall and they have to build a wall that’s tight, secure, have a lot of T’s on that wall.
Traditionally, UPS would have a training period of say three weeks. So now with VR or XR, as we’re now calling it, the instructor can say, “Hey, we have a prebuilt simulation that we can confidently can to you as a new person that’s never done package before, you can put this wearable on and in 45 minutes…” Because we’re going to have repetition. The simulation will repeat numerous times, add little factors in that typically always happen, and within that time period of 45 minutes, they may go and say, you know what, one, I’ve learned how to properly lift up packages with two hands using a proper power zone and also the importance of the T and how to build a wall from left to rght . So in 45 minutes, they go through a simulation sequence where they learn that and our findings have shown they have a high level of confidence after that, where typically we’ll get to a point where someone, okay, got to go build the wall in the real place.
Learning soft skills, voices and interactions
People feel they’re not confident enough to even do it or engage with that, and they say, you know what, I wasn’t trained properly. I’m done. I’m out. And they walk out. This new technology basically says in 45 minutes, we have a high level rate of confidence that a user will be confident and engaged to want to do that activity, and then we can do a cross analysis of those that did simulation to those that did not and to retention. This immersive simulation really accelerated the employee’s ability to understand, operate safely and have the confidence to engage in the real space. So there’s hard skills, which is very physical, procedural based type training. And then we have soft skills, which is kind of like what we’re doing now. How do you as an executive speak to people? What sort of tone should you be using depending on the situation. We’re exploring those aspects as well with the technology, because like we all know now post COVID, a lot of things are done virtually, and the way you do something virtually might actually be slightly different to how you do something face to face.
And how do you organize that kind of training? Do all managers go through it?
Currently, right now, I would describe it as we’re sort of in a pilot phase with that because we’re also working with some of our partners like Accenture and other vendors that provide same solutions like I’d say at Jensen8 where because soft skills, they have a lot of variables in itself, you need things like AI that understand your voice inflections and things of that nature. So we’re still, I would describe it as in a pilot phase, but how we plan to roll that out would probably be similar to how corporations currently do workshops.
Someone may get the headset in the mail and say, “Hey, you’re in remote Michigan, but we’re asking you to come to a soft skills training virtually.” So in their home, at home, they’ll put on the wearable headset and virtually through the immersion, they’ll join the rest of their colleagues in the training.
XR doers, boots on the ground and and getting things done
Fascinating. When we talked, you talked about a phrase called XR doers.
So XR doers inside of UPS, the way I describe them, XR doers are what I call my subject matter experts. Part of our practice at immersive tech inside of UPS is we train subject matter experts per the business groups, and I always call these members of my extended team, I call them XR doers because what it is the subject matter experts are really the people within that business group that get the things done. You always have somebody that gets trained and says, okay, they know how to do it, but what we currently look at inside of a company like UPS is we want people that are going to act, they’re going to do things, they’re going to be unstoppable, as Carol loves to say, and that’s where that term XR doers comes from is we have amazing people like I would say Andrew Hatford in Intergrad where he’s actively still extending and going further in the technology with his team.
Or we have Terrence Thompsons in operations or the Sharon Alexanders where these are people that they’ve sat down, they’ve learned about the technology, they learned about what we describe as our best practices or standards or guidance around that, because it’s those people, not senior executives, not Mark Grobs, it’s those people that actually get things done because they’re the ones that boots on the ground, the people that do the work are the best people to find the right solution because they have the experience, they have the knowledge. AI can’t unfortunately yet do that.
In my opinion, I think it’s something realistically, depending on what the work is, it never will happen because a lot of things in logistics do not transfer digitally well because it’s a very physical aspect of getting something from point A to point B. So it’s one of those things where immersive tech gives us that human interaction, that human interface to that digital, and that’s where these XR doers are so important because they’re the ones that identify the pain point and they say, “Hey, you know what, this is the problem.” Is it a case where maybe this technology is useful to solve that problem or is it not? And having people that understand the limitations of the technology improve and create successful use cases.
It’s interesting because they are more neutral than people like you because you may be neutral, but you may also be perceived as a strong promoter of XR solutions, whereas they will be seen-
Oh, yeah. I always make the joke. I go and say, I am the digital evangelist inside of UPS where when someone or some research group comes to UPS and says, “Oh, you do digital twins, you do advanced analytics, do you have a VR or XR group in that group that does it?” Yeah, and they’re typically shocked to find out, no, well, actually we have a mature practice at UPS. It’s been doing this for three years. They specialize in this. So yeah, there’s a lot of jaded, people are like, oh, you want me to buy an expensive VR headset or MR headset? And my usual answer is, well, actually no. The key part here is we’re a resource to help you navigate that misconception. So yeah.
That’s so smart Mark. I’ve worked with so many big global organizations where there’s too much of a divide between what you call the boots on the ground and the people in offices, and there’s often that gap is a major, how would you say, blockage to things getting done, and it sounds like in your area of work you’ve broken through that it doesn’t exist or you’ve broken through it.
Proving value of mixed reality means solving real business problems
I was going to say the last three years, part of that is proving to senior management, proving to business the value in those aspects.
That’s my question. How did you do that exactly?
So in the end, you got to go back to business. What is the business? Does it really make sense? And from a practical standpoint, you look at things like ROI, you look at what’s the original business pain point and does it really make sense to apply this type of technology? That’s where a lot of companies still today are going through the learning phase of that, and I’ve been lucky in the past with senior management where I explained to them and say, hey, yeah, I could rush and try to get you to use this technology like a consultant would, but we’re going to create a lot of paperweights. And one thing UPS in my opinion does really well is they’re very practical. They’re very well thought out on whatever it is they do. So when we have these situations of, okay, we’re looking to apply technology in a particular area, it’s having the business actually go and say, okay, we have a problem with retaining people.
So engagement and immersive technology is very good at engaging a user. So it’s a case where when you look at this technology, it’s all these factors, the ROIs, and then looking at really the tech, not as some cool whizzbang magical thing, but saying, hey, if I look at this VR or MR headset as a hammer, how do I think about a hammer? Apply that thought to this VR headset. What does this do well? I can press a button and I can simulate a lot of things through 360 degree video or 3D, and it’s highly interactive. That’s a major factor when you think about scale and deployment inside of a larger enterprise, it’s a media type where we have a lot of aspects to it. It’s not just video like we’re doing now. It’s not just audio and video, it’s visuals. When we talk about VR or XR technology, it’s typically capable of doing so much more spatial, highly interactive. So when you’re thinking about solving business problems, because this is a tool that we’re using to solve a real business problem, the importance of proper design is key.
A lot of people can rush into it. They’d be like, oh, we’re going to make a game about what’s the culture of UPS, and then we’re going to have all these amazing clips of Jim Casey and lovely 2D linear training videos on how to do something, about the poor design because you’re not utilizing the maximum capability of the medium or the platform that you have at your access. So there’s a lot that goes into that from your subject matter experts or what I called the XR doers. People that are really the boots on the grounds they know best because they’re most familiar with the problem and the context around it. So having them involved in the designing process is really key because now at this point you have someone that knows what the problem is and the knowledge required to solve that problem, able to discuss it, design it, integrate it into this really amazing interactive platform that when it’s properly designed, it really accelerates the point of their learning.
If someone can do a particular activity and it’s as realistic as possible to that activity, and they don’t have to rely on a real circumstance or a real business problem to happen, starting simply press a button and the problem happens. The reps to solve that problem, accelerate their learning. Having the understanding of what the problem is, the knowledge elements behind it are key to the design of how you build it. Because one of the disadvantages to this type of technology is it is actually so personal. You can actually easily go down the wrong road to trying to solve the problem, and that’s why the design is key. Understanding what the pain point is, what is the logical or proper process to solve that problem, and if there’s any sort of safety or regulatory concerns around that process, integrating all that into that particular solution design is key.
ROI is easy to show; saving money, increasing capabilities
So you have to look at as we deploy this technology at say a flat or fixed co-ops per use, there’s a value piece there. ROI over the last few years has improved because the cost of the technology has drastically come down from $9,000 to, if you’re using Meta products, it’s 500 bucks, but for enterprise generally the average is about $1,500, so that’s a big price change just in a few years. So now that helps your ROI. Then you have aspects of scale. 3000 employees can take 45 minutes each to learn how to properly and confidently build a wall and say trailer.
It’s a huge deal, and then the aspects of data behind it, I call them lemon tests. The aspect of in 45 minutes a supervisor can very quickly see that, okay, maybe this particular recruit is having issues with actually building a wall, so now we have data telling us in real time that maybe this candidate isn’t the right choice for this role, and then it’s a case where you can redirect them to the right role that matches what they can do. All that additional value is key when we start thinking about deploying this technology in our space.
Yeah, because all those examples you’ve given me come down to money and I don’t like to say that money is everything.
But it’s business. Exactly. And if you can save money and achieve things you couldn’t achieve before, which is also part of it, you’re going beyond what was done before. You’re not just saving money, you’re giving new capabilities to people. And I think that must be appreciated by management. Most management would really understand that, and it sounds to me like you have the kind of management who does understand that.
Luckily that is the case. They’re still keeping me around, so that’s always good. I was just going to say, it’s about just being practical and really being focused on the business, not on the tech. We’re not measured by some amazing app we’re building. We’re measured by the productivity of an employee and their ability to get ramped up and go. For me that’s a big advantage. I’m not a Meta where I’m trying to create the next iTunes store to sell apps. Instead, it’s a case of we’re really just trying to solve business problems using this technology so that it’s easier and it’s scalable for our business folks, and to me, coming from entertainment and tech, that’s been a big cultural change, but it’s exciting because companies like UPS are very receptive to it.
Mark believes mixed reality in education will augment learning
How do you think everything you’ve been talking about will impact education in general outside of UPS, outside of companies, but in terms of education in general? I’m guessing that there must be a lot of ways in which these technologies can be used. You talked about hard skills, soft skills, I imagine. Have you thought at all about how they might be used in high schools or professional schools?
I had a previous startup with one of my old colleagues. We looked at AR technology in that space, so I might be a little jaded or biased, but I think generally the XR technology has a lot of opportunity potential, but I would kind of throw in the little caveat of be careful because a lot of people, when it’s something technology is new, they always have the assumption that it can replace something instead of augment learning. I see the future of education and this technology having a role in the sense of accelerating that learning process, not replacing the technology, the core education aspect, but really giving teachers tools, curriculum, material to teach their students faster, teach them in a sense of immersive learning is far accelerated. People will talk about when they use VR or AR, when it’s properly designed, people will discover that to them it may feel it has been two hours, but the reality was it was 10 minutes. So that concept of learning, they feel they’re learning two hours of material, but it only took them 10 minutes. That aspect to me is where I see this space really that, and you see that right now in the medical areas as well. A lot of the medical fields, doctors are able to virtually practice and get “reps” of certain procedures in a simulated environment where simulated environments is low risk, high reward. That in education is where I see a lot of this really going. The idea of the Jetsons and wearing a VR headset and 10 minutes later you now know how to fly an Apache or whatever it is, the Matrix.
I think that’s a little science fiction. There’s a lot of research and science that still has to go into that, but I think as an augment learning tool within education, I see that as two years, three years, I think hopefully it’ll be accepted and we’ll get away from the concepts or the mentality of what a lot of people have right now around VR of it being really just a VR console or video games. A majority of people, when you say VR, they think video games. It’s sort of the core because a lot of the technology comes from that space, but I think in the future and in education, my hopes is that this technology will have more activity within that space for sure.
Where will we be 27 years from now?
I mentioned at the beginning that I was going to ask you where you thought things might be 27 years from now. I chose 27 simply because I wrote my book 27 years ago, and it takes us to a nice number of which is 2050, the year 2050. Now, it’s a sort of a crazy question and we can’t predict the future, but I wondered if you feel certain, if you see certain trends, ideas that you have that you feel are moving in that direction that could have a big impact on our lives over the future years.
27 years, that’s a long way. So I suspect some of the things I say might happen sooner than 27 years. I do see XR going into the education space because we see a lack of interest of people becoming teachers. So the technology I think will be more accepted for scale reasons. Generative AI is going to be better. So the aspect of hopefully by then we’ll have tools and frameworks in place where AI itself can dynamically or create some sort of unique learning experience for each individual. I think that would be really exciting and cool. Less dystopian, and we’re just going to live in VR headsets and ignore the planet. Hoping that the planet’s still here in that timeframe. Those are sort of my expectations.
I see a lot of scaling and automation, more integration of different types of technology into this space, but it sort of becoming the end all be all …we’re going to live in that space. Some social media people, network people feel that’s where they want it to go because there’s revenue motivation for them. I think for a company like UPS, I really just see it as in 27 years, maybe there’s more robots. Maybe there’s flying drones delivering things, but there’s going to be people behind that. There’s going to be humans behind all that, in innovation. I kind of see that’s where the space is going.
In the end when you look at it from the standpoint of business, really you want to create efficiencies and you want to maintain the quality. My hopes is for this technology, it will improve that space just like we see with digital twins, digital facilities, digital networks. I see this technology becoming more accepted and giving the human the ability to see this mass amounts of data, and that’s where these wearables become tools. Maybe by then the wearables will look like my glasses from a fashion standpoint and give me all the features and functionality of maybe my phone. Maybe we’ll be there in 27 years. I would like to think positively that that’s maybe where we’re going.
Advice how to start up the mixed reality path
If a company came to you and said, look, we really admire what you’re doing, we want to start up something similar in our company, what advice, just few little tips of advice or some sort of profound advice that you would like to give them?
The first thing would be know that there’s probably people already in your organization that are very passionate about it. Look to find them. If not approach people like myself. I work at UPS, but also UPS understands its community. We’re here to support everybody. Be open to fail. I say it’s a very important part exploring the technology because your business is unique to your business. What UPS and how UPS does something may be different than even our competitors, but having the willingness to explore, make mistakes, but adjust and learn and accelerate forward is very important.
I would say make sure you involve your people. Don’t make the mistake that a lot of companies make where they think the consultant’s going to solve their problem. I would say because this technology should be very business focused to you, I would say start the discussions, maybe involve a consultant to sort of be the catalyst to get things going, to find their XR doers inside the organization, but be open to, it’s something you as a business have to develop. Someone can’t just come in and make it happen. You’re just going to have a paperweight. You’re just going to have a fancy in six months outdated lab for VR or AR or XR. You need the people. You need individuals. You need employees that are passionate about the technology so that they’re going to drive it, they’re going to carry it. The saying we have at our UPS is who’s going to own it?
I can make a really cool fancy flashy experience for some sort of business application or business tool, but who’s going to own it? It can’t just be the Mark Grobs. You need someone within that business space to actually own it and be passionate about it. Otherwise, six months later that wearable is going to sit on a desk somewhere and no one’s going to use it. So yeah, that generally is my advice is organic approach is going to be more successful in your business than solely relying on a big conglomerate consulting firm to come in and give you the subject matter experts. The issue there is the subject matter expert that they’re providing you doesn’t have the insight, doesn’t have the experience that you need for your business, and I think that’s the typical mistake more so than rushing to apply technology. So I would say, look, internally, chances are you have someone in your organization that’s already very passionate about it. You’ve got to find it. You have to talk to your employees. You mentioned earlier certain organizations have that gap.
Where to find advice and support outside your organization
Uniquely with this type of technology, it identifies that that’s happening and it’s an opportunity for your organization, your business now to adjust, to change, and these individuals that you find are very passionate about it will help with that. They won’t just simply go say, “Oh, you got to pay me better,” and they leave. I would definitely say it’s be open to fail. Again, look at your business. It may be a case of your typical type of business is not at a point where it’s ready for it. There may be some other businesses out there where you guys are falling behind. You got to catch up, and there’s business like UPS has been taking advantage of it with competitiveness by implementing it so long ago, but in the end, community’s very open. So I would say get in touch with organizations like the VR AR association or area arena. These are groups or associations in the fields that have representatives like myself that will work with them.
I’ll put notes about that in the transcript of our conversation so people can discover those groups and discover you if they want to. Although it’s not very hard to do, just do immersive tech on LinkedIn and there you are.
Yeah, usually one of the first hits on that one so yeah.
So Mark, it’s been really, really interesting seeing where you’ve gone since we last talked, and I hope we can schedule another conversation. I don’t know when, in a couple years, not 27 years from now, but maybe a couple years from now.
Even three I thought was a little long, so-
It was a little long. Yeah.
Maybe we’ll catch up in two years.
That would be real great.
Maybe by then it… A nice glass of wine and we can go from there. How’s that sound?
Yeah, that would be even better than the way we’re doing it now. That would be great.
So thanks again, Mark. I really appreciate everything you’ve shared. Looking forward to talking to you again in a couple years, not three years, not 27 years, but in 24 months. That should be long enough.
Thank you very much. Okay.