By Kyle Burnham ’15
Ask John Werner ’92 about how we’ll live and work in the future, and he’ll tell you to expect some changes. An innovator and community builder, Werner’s passion for the future and technology has brought him to the cutting edge.
“In the last three waves of computing — desktop, laptop, mobile — we’ve conformed to technology. We’ve figured out how to type or how to swipe. I think in this next wave, technology can meet us where we are,” Werner says. Control won’t be limited to keyboards, but will be through hand gestures, voice commands, and eye tracking. Interactions won’t just be visual, but will include sound, touch, even smell.
And we won’t be bound by screens, staring at handheld devices inadvertently cutting us off from the world — we’ll be accessing digital content with augmented reality (AR).
Werner is vice president of strategic partnerships at Meta, an AR startup he’s helping to shape into a leader at building partnerships, recruiting talent and investors, and thinking innovatively about the unknowns of a new product in a new space. Werner did similar work with the MIT Media Lab as head of innovation and new ventures for its Camera Culture Group, which creates technologies to augment vision.
Before Werner’s involvement in society-changing technologies, he taught special education around Boston and co-founded Citizen Schools, a national program that provides apprenticeships to students in low-income communities. His ability to connect people led him to curate TEDxBoston.org, organize TEDxBeaconStreet, and innovate at the MIT Media Lab. He also founded the AR in Action conference, an annual summit connecting futurists, designers, practitioners, and investors.
There’s agreement that while virtual reality (VR) may be making headlines now, it’s AR that will change how we live and work. VR transports us to different worlds. But AR, Werner advocates, can connect us to the world we’re in. AR overlays digital data onto our physical surroundings, data that can be tied to specific locations or interact with objects around us. “AR, where you see the physical world and there’s digital information that you can mix with it, can facilitate people’s curiosity and learning, and connect people,” Werner says.
Simple AR already exists in our daily lives. When you watch a football game, the yellow first-down lines on your TV screen are AR, overlaid digitally onto the field. AR is increasingly common on our phones, like Snapchat filters that place dog ears on our heads or play sounds when the camera detects an open mouth. Werner compares this limited AR to the Internet in its early days.
Instead of television or phone screens, Meta makes headsets, like the helmet Iron Man wears. Guided by neuroscience, Meta’s headsets use our hands, our voice, and our gaze to immersively interact with software and 3D content. To Werner, this represents the beginning of a major paradigm shift to “contextual computing” — computers that understand our context, enhancing how we navigate the world and connect with one another.
“We should think of AR as helping us make choices,” Werner says. For instance, we can see how furniture looks in our homes before purchasing or visually highlight specific products in supermarkets based on our unique dietary needs.
AR will improve how we understand and use data, helping us visualize and find patterns. Werner recently presented to the data-driven real estate company Zillow, on invitation from Chief Business Officer Greg Schwartz ’94, observing that with AR, we could interact with 3D information from data about neighborhoods, carbon footprints, mortgages, what’s been done on a house, and what could be done.
With AR we’ll learn as we experience the world, similar to learning language through immersion. We’ll see the laws of physics as objects move around us, historical information about the places we visit, and biological information about the plants and animals we encounter. We’ll bring 3D digital content into the classroom to do things that are too dangerous or costly in the physical world.
Werner sees particular use for the future of science education, something he’s discussing with Harvard University. He’s also helping a medical school in Buffalo explore the use of digital cadavers and AR-enhanced surgery.
Werner believes it will be hard to find industries not impacted by AR. He imagines applications for marketing, design review, architecture, and even postulates we may take AR selfies for health, capturing digital data on our vitals. “Going from these screens that are two-dimensional and limited in size to these devices where you can experience the world, I think there’s a lot of potential,” he says, speculating opportunity for creative Hamilton alumni dreaming up use cases and business ventures.
This story was written by Kyle Burnham ’15, who formerly worked with Hamilton’s Library and Information Technology Services as an educational technologist. As someone whose job it was to help faculty and students incorporate emerging technologies into their learning and teaching, including 3D printing, VR, and AR, Burnham found “talking shop” with Werner virtually amazing!