Everyone is talking about the metaverse, but what is it actually, and what does it mean for digital government and the public sphere? How is it different from the promises of virtual reality made in the 1990s? In this episode, host Ryan Androsoff talks to Jen Schellinck, an expert in data science and artificial intelligence, and Meghan Hellstern, a user experience and human-centered design specialist to break through the hype.
Cold Open Source: ABC News Primetime Live
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ABC News: Fly over Mars. Take a trek through a prehistoric jungle. Tour a house that has not yet been built. It's called virtual reality, and as Jay Shafer found out all it takes is a special helmet and a glove, and you are off.
Ryan Androsoff: I'm Ryan Androsoff, and welcome to Let's Think Digital. Today's episode is gonna be all about the metaverse, talking about what it is, what the hype is, and what it might mean for the future of digital government. We've got a couple of great guests joining us in just a few minutes to, to unpack some of these concepts around the metaverse, talk about how we've actually been experimenting with it in, in, in the real world, so to speak. But before that, I'm really happy to have Wayne Chu, our podcast producer, joining me for today's episode. Welcome, Wayne.
Wayne Chu: Hi, Ryan.
Ryan Androsoff: And Wayne is actually joining me in the Metaverse. For those who are listening to this on a podcast platform, we're actually filming our intro inside one of the Metaverse platforms that we use at Think Digital.
Ryan Androsoff: This is actually our, our VR think digital office, using a platform called Spatial. And, I'm having a conversation right now with, with Wayne's avatar and vice versa. So, Wayne, welcome to the Metaverse. What's, what's your take on all of this?
Wayne Chu: Well, I'm glad to be here. So, you know, I'm really intrigued by this topic, not just because it's buzzy and everyone's talking about it, but also because it seems like we've been talking about this forever. One of the clips we played in the, in the old cold open was back in 1991. You heard ABC News talking about this quote, unquote, new technology called virtual reality that would change how we interact with other people with, with reality itself. And you know, the funny thing is, is that when you, you know, think back to Mark Zuckerberg on stage announcing the, the change of the name from Facebook to Meta and his vision for the Metaverse. He's kind of basically saying the same thing.
Ryan Androsoff: Yeah. Well it's funny cause I, I think, you know, virtual reality, which, which is kind of one of the technologies that people associate with the metaverse, you know, it's one of these technology trends that people have been saying is just around the corner, it seems like for decades now. Right. Going back certainly into the nineties. And you know, I remember this must have been mid 1990s. I was a, you know, a student still back home in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, and I remember we were going to buy one of the first kind of real PCs for my household. My dad had taken me down to a computer store in Saskatoon and I, it must have been like a 386 or a 486 like Intel processor back then. And I remember talking to the sales guy and so let's say this is probably 1995, 1996, somewhere around there. And we were talking about, you know, computer monitors and what the right one to get is. I never forget, he kind of said to me, he said, yeah, he said, you know, you can get this one. He's like, but it's not gonna matter. He's like, because by the time you need your next computer, three or four years from now, hopefully we're all just gonna be using VR headsets to, to kind of interact with everything that's going on. Well, you know, here we are 25 years later and, you know, arguably VR is still kind of in its infancy. Though, I though I do kind of think in the last couple of years it's, it's turned the corner a little bit and it's, it's moved from being something that’s, you know, purely the domain of kind of high-end, you know, gaming sites or research labs to being, you know, now a consumer product for the first time.
Wayne Chu: Yeah, I mean, well certainly cost is a factor. I mean, that report that we played was talking about how a VR system could cost up to $200,000, which in today's dollars is about, you know, $400,000, you know, half a million dollars. And so.
Ryan Androsoff: Right. Thankfully now we're down to about four or $500 for, for a headset so big difference.
Wayne Chu: And I remember, you know, I remember, I remember, experimenting with, what was it called? Google Cardboard, which was, you know, almost nothing. So, you know, that was really, really, really cool, really interesting. But, you know, to be frank, you know, what I'm seeing is in the media and what, how people are talking about these VR systems, it's all about gaming. And, you know, frankly, it's about, you know, sometimes it's about porn. So, I'm a little bit skeptical and I'm wondering, you know, why are we talking about it on Let's Think Digital?
Ryan Androsoff: Yeah, I mean, listen, I think that's fair, right? Because a lot of the media hype about this, and it's probably true if a lot of new technologies, you know, it tends to be like entertainment, right? That is kind of the entry point for a lot of people into some of this new tech. But the reality is, you know, from my end, I do kind of see that there's now some, some real applications where, where the technology has gotten just mature enough that you can start seeing how this might be able to get applied into the real world, so to speak, and, and actually to kind of help people solve problems.
Ryan Androsoff: But it's, you know, it's challenging, right? Because I think there's a lot of hype, as there is with any new technologies and with, with VR, there's certainly some, some of the discussion around it right now very much is hype. And so being able to kind of, sort through that and understand, you know, where there might be some actual value, particularly for, you know, for governments and public sector organizations, which is, you know, the lens that we're kind of taking through this show. And, and where, you know, might be just, you know, kind of entertainment and, and kind of a glorified toy. That's, you know, that's kind of the, the tough spot for us to kind of sort through. And so that's what I'm hoping in today's episode we'll get a chance to kind of dive into that a little bit more. And, you know, really excited to have two great guests joining us.
Ryan Androsoff: Megan and Jen, who are both associates with Think Digital, but have been part of this, you know, what I will call an experiment with me over the last couple of years where we've brought virtual reality into our digital leadership program and have been actually using it with, you know, well over a hundred now government executives to actually understand, you know, what some of those real use cases might be.
Ryan Androsoff: Jen, I'll go to you first just to give a very quick introduction.
Jen: Thanks, Ryan. I'm very happy to be here today. And, I'll just say that my background is in data science and cognitive science. So I have a particular focus on artificial intelligence and machine learning, and right now I'm really interested in the democratization of these technologies, how artificial intelligence is really becoming accessible and prevalent. So I'm looking forward to talking about that in the context of the metaverse today.
Ryan Androsoff: That's great. And, Meghan?
Meghan: Yeah, really happy to be here as well. So, my name's Megan Hellstern. I'm a specialist in human-centered design and user experience design. Been doing that for about 15 years, primarily in and around the public sector. I'm also a lifelong early adopter and someone who's fascinated by the different potential that technology brings to help us connect with each other across great distances. So, really excited to chat all things Metaverse with you all today.
Ryan Androsoff: So probably a good starting point for the conversation is, you know, what is the metaverse, right? Because I think it's this term that has been, you know, floating around now for a couple of years. It's kind of high on the hype cycle but I think a lot of people don't, you know, probably have a really good kind of deep grasp of what it kind of means underneath the surface. You know, the fact that Facebook renamed itself Meta in terms of the parent company, you know, they've certainly tried to kind of link their brand to the Metaverse, but clearly it's about much more than just one company, right. Or one set of platforms. I'm curious, Megan, Jen, whoever wants to jump in first, you know, if, if you're trying to explain what the Metaverse is, you know, to friends and family, how do you tend to kind of describe it or conceptualize it?
Meghan: Yeah, I can jump in maybe to start. So, I'm a huge fan of science fiction and Neil Stevenson Snow Crash, I believe is maybe where the Metaverse originated,
Meghan: and I,
Ryan Androsoff: Megan, I brought the prop here. I have, I've got the book right here, so I, I was prepared for this.
Meghan: Perfect! Perfect, so, I remember reading that as a teenager and feeling fascinated by that potential, right? This sort of idea that you could sort of jack into a parallel universe in a way, right? That's that kind of origin of that sort of metaverse, right? The universe, but a parallel universe where, you know, you can kind of be anybody, you can interact with people across, again, great distances, you can customize and interact. And so in my mind, the Metaverse really is this kind of parallel world that we can enter into through the internet, through computing and interact with each other, whether that's in the context of games, learning from each other, collaborating as we've done with our digital executive leadership program work, or any other number of use cases that I don't think we've even begun to scratch the surface on. So maybe over to you, Jen, to hear what you think or how you define the metaverse.
Jen: Yeah, yeah. And I, I'm so, so happy that we're talking about Snow Crash. So that's, that's, that's really great. But as you say, where, where are we at with it now? I, I often use the word immersive to try and get a sense of it for people who haven't tried it yet. And I say, oh, it's an immersive digital environment that you can enter into. And I use that in the context of the term digital reality, because I'm often trying to explain to people, not just with respect to the metaverse, but in general, that increasingly we're building this digital reality on top of our physical reality and the metaverse is, is sort of the ultimate realization of that digital reality. So that's, that's, that's how I talk about it.
Ryan Androsoff: Yeah. No, I mean, listen, I, I think both of those are, are great kind of definitions, of, of, you know, what this kind of emerging term means. There's this other term that people have been talking about in recent years of kind of web3, right? And it's this evolution. We talked about, you know, the initial worldwide web back in the nineties. Then we had about, you know, 15, 20 years ago, people started talking about Web 2.0, which was really about social media. And there's this term now of kind of web3, which has gotten, you know, a lot of, it's kind of gotten caught up in like cryptocurrencies and decentralized, you know, platforms. And there's a piece of that there. But certainly Metaverse kind of gets talked about, part and parcel with it, and it's, you know, I, I think as, as both of you were kinda. There's this notion of immersiveness and, and people will sometimes talk about persistence, this idea of kind of a persistent digital experience. Right? And, and I almost sometimes conceptually think about, you know, the internet as it's evolved into has become a bit of a two-dimensional medium. And how do we essentially take the internet and make it three-dimensional where you could kind of, you know, walk through the internet, you know, engage with other people. And, and in some ways, you know, maybe, and this is where some of the futurists are getting on this, that you've got a whole kind of economy that is entirely online, right? This kind of metaverse economy, metaverse experiences that are completely separate from your, your, your day-to-day life. I mean, that's where, you know, you both mentioned Snow Crash, you know, which is kind of where the, the term got coined. There's Ready Player One, which people might be familiar with the book, and also the, the movie that came out a few years ago, you know, which is, I think is a lot of people's kind of conception around it. And you know, and clearly the tech isn't quite there yet for those who've kind of dabbled with, you know, using, you know, virtual reality or augmented reality, which, which can be part of that. And it's worth, actually, maybe just I should mention for a second, you know, when we talk about virtual reality or VR, we're talking about kind of the, the headsets that you've got kind of on your head that people have seen or heard me talk about in, in kind of the intro for this episode. You know, where you're fully immersed in a digital space. And in augmented reality is where people are using a smart glass or even like their smartphone, to have digital imagery kind of overlaid over top of the real world in front of them. And we can talk about this later, but I think a lot of people are really excited about where augmented reality might take us for some of those kind of professional and, and business applications.
Ryan Androsoff: But I'm curious your thought on, you know, I mean, there's been a lot of hype around this, right? And this is always the challenge, right? We get this, these new shiny tech things that kind of come up. Although VR actually isn't that new in some ways. I mean, it's been around for decades in one form, but it's finally kind of, I think it's reached that inflection point where it's cheap enough and good enough that people can start using it in kind of interesting use cases. Obviously, you know, a lot of companies are starting to throw serious money and resources at it and you know, and there's this kind of hype cycle that goes on this, and we're probably definitely somewhere high on the hype cycle right now. But I'm curious to get kind of a gut reaction from both of you as to, you know, when we're talking about the Metaverse as a concept or talking more specifically around things like virtual reality or augmented reality, like do you think this is hype? Is it all kind of BS or is there something real there that you think might actually be, be useful for people? Jen, I'll go to you first if you wanna dive in on this.
Jen: Yeah, I mean, it's good. I think it's, I, I, I think it is, as you say, it's kind of reaching a next level. I mean, there's always these sort of levels and then plateaus and then levels. Artificial intelligence is like this as well, for sure. But I do think, I've been talking to a number of skeptics and I'm often saying like, no, no, I think that we're starting to reach a point where a lot of people know what this is. A lot of people recognize the technology, and it's just starting to be more pervasive. And, in my experience, people are quite skeptical about it until they have actually tried it. So to me, that's kind of like the biggest obstacle.
Jen: People will be like, oh, I don't know about this. Like, you know, I'm not, I'm not convinced. People have been talking about this for a while. And I'm like, well, would you like to, try it out, put it on the headset, and then they go, oh my gosh. And so, so there's a bit of that going on too.
Ryan Androsoff: Yeah. Megan, what's your, what's your sense of kind of like the hype cycle level in all this?
Meghan: Yeah, I mean, to build off of what Jen was sharing, I will say there are definitely skeptics out there, and I might have even been one of them, to be honest, when Ryan initially approached me about, you know, his wild idea about, you know, teaching executives about, you know, design and cutting edge sort of digital practices in VR. I definitely had a moment where I was like, this is either Ryan's craziest idea and worst idea or best idea, I don't think there's gonna be a middle ground. And in my case it was a lot of my past experiences with less accessible, more clunky, not quite as immersive to use Jen's term, technology. And I was sort of like, I don't know how people are gonna react to that. And then we tried some of the latest hardware and I really started to see how we've hit this kind of point where that measure of kind of accessibility, you know, ease of learning it you know, again lots to be critiqued on the onboarding and learning curve, but it's way better than it ever has been in history. I think we are hitting that point where sort of the widespread consumerization is really well underway, and in my mind, even if there is sort of that peak of inflated expectations, it's rapidly gonna approach perhaps a dip as Gartner kind of argues, but likely that mainstreaming is gonna become more and more sort of normalize, especially as again, the, the costs go down, the number and, sort of variety of use cases increases. Right. I'm seeing games, I, I'm a big gamer, so I not only use VR for our teaching and some of our other educational work, but I'm also using it for gaming and I'm noticing just this explosion of different types of games. Everything from very relaxing, zen, you know, puzzlers, or not even games, sort of just these immersive experiences to, you know, cutting edge triple A shooters that are online and, and collaborative. And to me that's all kind of indicative of this movement towards a more mainstreamed, sort of approach, and I think a lot of that can be traced back to, again, as controversial as it was when Meta slash Facebook got into this space. That kind of money, that kind of talent, right? That kind of mainstream, sort of, company getting into this has really helped accelerate, I think the movement towards that normalization wherever we are on the particular, you know, hype, hype curve from Gartner at this present time.
Ryan Androsoff: Yeah. And you know, Wayne and I were talking about this a little bit in the, in the intro to the episode. I, I mean, I, I think, you know, as you were saying, the reason Meta's kind of introduction into this has been so important in my view, is they brought that kind of price point down in the hardware, down to a place where you could start actually imagining in a practical way using this for certain applications. And I think that's actually a great lead in to talk a little bit about how we've been using VR in the digital leadership program that we run, with the Institute on Governance, which is one of our, our partner organizations, based here in Ottawa. So, for the last four years now, we've run a digital executive leadership program, which is, it's kind of like a week-long boot camp-style program for executives in government to help them kind of understand what the big trends are in the digital world. We do deep dives into a number of topics including a day where we do a deep dive into, into Megan's topic area around design thinking, a deep dive into data science that Jen leads, and so, you know, March 2020. Covid hit, we had to move all of our programming like everybody else in the world, fully online. And I remember in kind of those early weeks and months of, of us kind of re-imagining how we're gonna do executive training like this for, for the digital world. You know, aside from obviously moving to video conferencing using things like Zoom, you know, I was starting to think in the back of my head and I had already started experimenting with VR in kind of a personal capacity. You know, maybe this is an opportunity for us to kind of give people both that immersive experience as part of this learning journey they're on, but also, you know, get them some hands on experience with the tech. I mean, to Jen's point, I think when people actually try it, it just gives you a bit of a different flavor for it and, and one of the things we always try to do in the digital leadership program is, you know, to take government executives and both kind of bring them up to speed to where the world is today, but also get them thinking about the future, right? What are those future trends around technology and how is that likely to impact their world going forward. And you know, as Megan said, I had this crazy idea to say, you know what? What if we actually gave everybody a VR headset to use during the program and actually try to kind of take some of our content and adapt it into this kind of, three-dimensional experience they can have in VR. And, and I appreciate Megan and Jen being willing to kinda humor me on this crazy idea, which, which I hope Megan has now turned out to be one of my better ideas. Cuz I, I, I, I, you know, like to think kind of this far in, it's, it's, we've had some good success, but I, I, I'd love to kinda maybe get both of you to explain a little bit, and Megan, maybe I'll start with you, you know, on, on, in your modules in particular, I think you've really kind of embraced bringing virtual reality into it. So Megan, you know, on the design thinking front, it'd be great to have you walk everybody through, you know, how we've incorporated virtual reality into our training around design thinking.
Meghan: Absolutely. And you're totally right, Ryan. I'm now converted from skeptic to believer in this stuff, and I really do believe we are just scratching the surface on the potential of virtual reality, especially in the education space. There really is something, especially in design, which is a very sort of tangible practice that is best learned through doing. You know, the VR space allows for some possibilities that, especially when you have folks who are distributed over distance, I'm not sure you can have in any other way really, to be honest. Especially for things like physical product design, but increasingly for other spaces as well, which is what I'll tell you about the way that we use it in, in our course. So, when we were delivering these in person, we had a sort of simple design sprint exercise where we would get executives to learn a bit of the theory up front and then actually work through applying it to a sort of real world example that was ideally relatable to the sort of public sector context that they were working in. And so we chose to use air travel, as a sort of relatable domain. It's got lots of regulations, lots of constraints. It's something that most people have experience with. Most people probably have opinions on, you know, fixing or improving in some way. And so for, you know, many, many cohorts, we had been doing this kind of in-person design sprint where we would get them to improve the air travel experience through, you know, user research ideation, coming up with some new improvements, and then prototyping those, building sort of actual models or, you know, sort of, versions of those changes and what they could look like. Whether that's a, you know, poster for a new service improvement or a new waiting line model. They might build a little kind of 3D character sketch, things like that. And so, it was actually so cool to see how easily and even better it was to do that in virtual reality. So typically we're in a classroom, you know, we have sort of whiteboards and things like that around us, but you really have to imagine yourself at the airport. Well, in VR, we were able to actually build a model of an airport, and we could have folks in this sort of waiting lounge area building prototypes in the context that they might be used. And so we had, you know, background ambiance that kind of really put you into that space. And so not only is it really powerful for providing that context, we also allow folks to, you know, bring objects into the space, physically move them around, show how, for example, a new method for doing security screening might be able to speed things up or, you know, improving the in-flight sort of experience of entertainment. We had a, an actual model of an airplane, which was a kind of exotic thing during the pandemic when none of us could travel. But people could actually show, you know, what that new in-flight entertainment monitor might look like, things like that. And so between the kind of collaborative potential and then also this really deep ability to jump into your context. And, you know, airports are just one example, but imagine that you're trying to design something for a Coast Guard ship, or you're trying to design something for super sensitive ecological environments where you can't just go there easily and you can't just mess around with prototypes at the early stage. The VR really allows you to, again, test things with real users potentially in a much more contextually sensitive way that I think is so powerful. And again, as far as I know, some of what we're doing with this program is really cutting edge. I don't know of many other comparables anywhere in the world, and it makes me very excited to see how we continue to layer on, you know, additional ways to dive into that sort of mix of live collaboration, context dependent sort of space and really world building in a way that can enrich so many aspects of learning and, and teaching, of course, as well.
Ryan Androsoff: Yeah. And I like that Megan. It's a great way of putting it, of kind of, you know, world building for learning and, and you know, I think you're right. It kind of gives you context on, on these concepts in a way that's tough to do if you're doing it a bit more, kind of two-dimensionally in one way or the other. And I think Jen, that leads in really well, you know, to the piece that you've been doing is around thinking about, okay, how do you take kind of data and think about the possibilities around data in, in the world of virtual.
Jen: Absolutely. And I was, it was as, as Megan was talking and she was talking about how it's great to reproduce the world, some version of the world in virtual reality, I'm thinking about digital twins that we can maybe talked about later. But my use was quite different because in my case, we were doing something that was… we weren't reproducing the world. We were doing something that you couldn't do in the actual world, because my use was to use it to do three-dimensional immersive data visualization. And so basically, taking a data set, coming up with novel types of visualization. So moving away from, you know, your, you were talking about how the internet right now is, is very two-dimensional and you know, so in visualization you can think of, oh, you have bar charts, that kind of thing. Whereas in this case, you're creating these visualizations that are three-dimensional. You can move into them in, in a space. And unlike a situation where you're very familiar with that space, in this case you start out in sort of almost like a, a void, like a, a black void, like you're in outer space and then you basically zoom into the data visualization and you can move, and so you can see it at different scales. So, so that's basically what, what I was doing with people in the, in, in the, in the, in the workshop I was taking a data set or multiple data sets and we're using some visualizations, some that we had created, some that were created by people who used the software that we were using called Flow Immersive. And then we were sort of exploring what that experience was like to look at data in a three-dimensional, immersive context.
Ryan Androsoff: Yeah. And, and you know, I think both of these have, have been really kind of interesting, kind of use cases for people, you know, again, who's, who's, whose kind of context around this might just be entertainment, right? Like, I think a lot of people think about VR and they think about gaming, Megan, as you mentioned, or you know, VR videos, you know, like the, the classic one, you're on a kind of a roller coaster with the helmet on and, you know, experiencing kind of the thrills of, you know, of, of going through a roller coaster experience or something like that. You know, I think, I think for a lot of our participants, when they did this, most of them, I, I would say almost across the board, 90% of them have, haven't really used VR before. Certainly not in any kind of intensive way. And, and I think the reaction to trying this is always really interesting. I mean, I'm, I'm, I'm curious, you know, from both of you. What, what your ex- what your kind of experience has been around that. You know, I certainly find that a lot of our participants in the program come into it and they tell us this, you know, as, as skeptics on VR. But I think, I think Jen, a little bit to your point, you know, that you made earlier, once they kind of put the headset on, try it, I think at the end we kind of see people really have these aha moments of, you know, this is actually, there's some real possibilities. I mean, curious, Jen, on the, on the data side, if you, if you have any kind of reactions that have really stuck with you, you know, in terms of participants who've used this and, and what they've kind of found has been useful about it or, or not useful.
Jen: Yeah. I, I mean, I think that in my case, they just have a really strong visceral reaction to being able to get into, like literally get into the data. And so one of the, the, visualizations we have relates to City of Ottawa bicycle data and just them being able to, I, well, I have to describe a little bit the application a little bit more, maybe. So, like I said, you're, you're, you’re started in basically in outer space, and then suddenly these visualizations appear in front of you and people are basically maneuvering. They have, Ryan, I'm going to borrow your phrase, because they have like a, what we call like a broomstick that they can like fly around and, and check out the visualization. And so you, you can see them kind of exclaiming over, oh my gosh, I can go see this over here. And, and that they're like, they're, I really love the fact that they can go in and look at certain parts of the visualization really closely, and they get really into that. But then you see them also kind of like zooming way back out and, and having that larger perspective. And so there's kind of, I just, people seem really excited to be able to experience data in this visceral way. And this is important because for a lot of people, data is really abstract. It's really hard to engage with. And so getting to see them like being able to essentially physically interact with it is just, really exciting. They seem to really like that.
Ryan Androsoff: Yeah. And, and even I find for myself when you're in there, just that ability to kind of, you know, I consider myself fairly data literate, but that ability to kind of, like, feel the height of like, you know, the data and see it. I just, I, you know, I think our, our human senses have evolved to process three-dimensional information like that cuz we're, you know, we're hardwired right to perceive the world around us. And so I think, you know, when you kind of bring that to data, just like to me it gets me thinking about how much more effective would like briefings for decision makers be where they can actually kind of feel the data versus it being this kind of abstract thing on an eight and a half by 11 piece of paper.
Jen: Yeah, it's, it's a difference between looking at a picture on a page and walking into the page and walking through the space. And so as you say, we're, we're very much hardwired for that type of interaction, so.
Ryan Androsoff: Yeah, Megan, in, in the design thinking activities you do, in Spatial, which is, you know, one of the other VR platforms that we use, and actually had a chance in the, in the intro, our, our listeners heard Wayne getting his exposure to it. We brought him into our Think Digital metaverse office in Spatial. What, what, what are some of the reactions you've seen? And I, I'm curious, Meghan, if anything has surprised you about, you know, the reaction of these government executives that we bring into, into our metaverse spaces.
Meghan: Yeah, it has definitely been a wide range of reactions, I would say. Some folks immediately get it and there's just that feeling of awe and like, I think one person literally said, where was this? The entire pandemic. You know, I really miss this kind of feeling of collaborating in person. I'm air quoting there, obviously you're not really in person, but it does replicate a lot of that feeling of being in a room and that kind of fluid open exchange, right, of ideas that is often what we're looking for when we wanna have, you know, a collaborative meeting in particular. So there's definitely that sort of group. I would say too, there's of course a learning curve. What is a little different, I would say about Spatial, the software we use for the design thinking activities is that it really is an immersive environment that you need to learn to navigate. And I've noticed that learning curve, you know, even things like, I remember I was coaching one person and I said, oh, you know, you need to move the joystick in this direction.
Meghan: And she's like, I don't even know what a joystick is. You know, and like kind of really being reminded of sort of this unfolding set of skills and literacy that, you know, I think increasingly we're gonna need to be adopting, you know, ideally from a young age, but even as, you know, technology changes, finding those ways to help folks feel comfortable and really, get into it. Now, all that's to say, in general, I think the accessibility of this is better than it ever has been. I would say, I don't know, Ryan, there's maybe one in 10 folks who really struggle with some of the physical effects, whether it's feeling a little nauseous or things like that. But in general, I was really surprised cause I must say, coming into it, thinking it was one of Ryan's wildest ideas. I was ready for every reaction from like, I hate this, I don't want to do this at all. You know? And, and onwards, and it's been very little of that. It's been a lot of curiosity, interest, folks kind of starting to think, you know, to build on what Jen was sharing around briefings, right? Hey, like, instead of me showing a floor plan, why can't I just build a model, and have you walk through the new service center and actually see what it might look like. You know, instead of me kind of showing you a static webpage, can I not show you in context what that might look like? Someone at the passport office doing this. Right. So that kind of potential seems to be pretty apparent pretty quickly to folks.
Ryan Androsoff: Yeah. And, and, and I think Meghan, what's, what's interesting about it is, you know, we've, we've now run this with, you know, five or six cohorts of the program over the course of, of two years. I think we've got a pretty decent sample size. I think well over a hundred people now who've kind of been through these VR activities with us. And you see some patterns and, you know, and I think it's important to recognize, right? Like, like, I don't think, you know, I, I don't want us to come across as completely just being, you know, cheerleading for, for VR. Because I think there is some reality of, of there is some challenges still. Right? And, and you know, we ask people afterwards if they if they have challenges with nausea or feeling motion sickness when they're using it. And we do find about like 50 to 60% of them, you know, do tend to have some kind of discomfort when they first use it. But I think, as you said, Meghan, you know, it's usually only about, I'd say 1 in 10 who find it to be kind of a persistent issue, you know, using it over the course of a week. We always try to make sure with any of the VR platforms we're using, that they also have a, a kind of web-based version that people can use if they really do have physical discomfort with using the headsets, you know, and of course, I mean, there are some legitimate issues around accessibility and certainly folks, who might have, who might require kind of a additional support, one way or the other. You know, VR is not gonna necessarily work for everyone. But I think elements of it, you know, can be quite powerful and, and is, and you know, when you have that kind of backup version that is browser-based it helps to kind of bridge that gap a little bit. You know, but I, one of the things I kind of wonder when we're kind of thinking through, you know, some of the equity considerations around, not just, you know, metaverse, but I think in general when we're thinking about kind of new tech coming in, right, is, you know, this is great for big companies, big, big governments that have lots of resources that they can kinda throw at this. You know, the question always becomes, is this gonna be realistic for small, you know, lesser resource communities? You know, and, and Jen, I was just kind of thinking about, you know, in, in the data space, I mean, you and I do a lot of work with, with government agencies and departments, you know, who frankly sometimes struggle to get resources to do pretty basic, like data management, data governance work, you know, and, and so on the one hand I think there's this argument that we have to do a lot of that more kind of, basic plumbing work to get things to work. Yet on the other hand we're saying, Hey, you can have really impactful data visualization and improved decision making if we bring kind of virtual reality, three-dimensional data visualization in. I'm curious if you have thoughts on kind of how we rectify those, you know, some, what kind of seems almost like diametrically opposed, like, views to it.
Jen: It is a bit tricky and I mean, I've seen, I've seen this with artificial intelligence as well, so VR, these new technologies. And there can be a, a gap, as you say, where there's certain people who are really trailblazers and they wanna bring in this great tech. And in some ways that's really exciting because they push the envelope and they, they give people something to aim for when they're trying to do some of that other more basic work. So, so in some ways I'm, I'm a proponent of people who are, are pushing the envelope and bringing in the new tech, but as you say, there is a tension there. And so I think that people have to be aware that when they're bringing in that new tech, very quickly after that, they have to start saying, or even at the same time, “But, but what is the infrastructure and what is the, you know, governance and, and, and all of those pieces that we have to have in place to support this tech?” Because you, you don't want to run before you can walk. So yeah, it's great to have that goal, but let's say, okay, it's not gonna be next week before we can all do this. Let's make some realistic plans to get us here in good shape. And that way people don't get turned off of the technology as well, because that can happen where people get excited about it, then it doesn't work, and then everybody goes, oh, well it's not that exciting.
Ryan Androsoff: Yeah. Yeah. But I, but I, I like that idea of, of kind of using what I might call aspirational technology to inspire people to sometimes, you know, fix the more basic issues that let you be able to get there.
Ryan Androsoff: Yeah. I mean, I feel like we have the same conversation when you and I, you know, do work or talk about artificial intelligence and other, other things in that area, which, hopefully we'll have a chance to discuss on a future podcast, as well.
Jen: Well, these are all, all of these technologies are, I mean, when we think about data, you know, I talk about data as being the fuel. So in a sense, all these technologies require a lot of fuel. And so yeah, they, they can be aspirational, but you have to realize they do need that fuel. So you, you have to, you have to be prepared for that.
Ryan Androsoff: Jen. While, while, while we're kind of on some of these aspirational topics of, of how this tech can be used, one of the terms you mentioned earlier was digital twins. And I'd love for you to kind of unpack that a little bit because, you know, I think one of the really interesting spaces to me around where some of these kind of metaverse technologies can play a role is on improving decision making. Right. And you know, we're talking about like, how do we help decision makers kind of literally visualize kind of the, the, the policy options ahead in front of them. I think there's some really potentially compelling use cases around this as this matures. And one of these things that's being talked about, I find a lot in the last few months is digital twins. So can you like, define that and talk a little bit about how that links into the discussion about the metaverse?
Jen: Definitely. And I will say, yeah, I've been hearing it a lot increasingly as well, and I feel like it was maybe even a couple of years ago, you, Ryan might have been one of the first people to talk to me about this, as you know, because you're always on the cutting edge. You always. You're always knowing, knowing, knowing what's up and coming. But, and so I was very intrigued because my background is in simulations. And so digital twins have some of that. So what a digital twin is, it is, it is, you can think of it as, a simulation of a real world object, but it's a very high fidelity simulation. So if you think about something, like, if you play video games, then you know that often they'll, they'll create a fascinating virtual world, but it, it's not really real. It's very like, it's very cardboard. There's no substance to what they're creating. A digital twin is like the opposite of that, where it is tied to something in the real world and there's a stream of data that's coming back and forth between the two. And so it really reflects sometimes from a moment to moment perspective what is happening with that real world object, and this is being made possible by the Internet of Things. So you can have sensors on the real object and then you know it, it gets translated into this simulation that's very realistic. And then you can go in the other direction too, where your simulation, you can have some artificial intelligence, machine learning components of that, that might say, you know what? In 10 minutes this machine component is gonna break. So you have to replace it right now before it breaks and, and keep everything moving. And the simulation is happening sometimes at the level of something very specific, like a part of a machine. But now they're starting to do this for things like entire airports. Meghan, speaking of airports, they're trying to make digital twins basically entire airports, including all of the pieces in the airport. So they can understand from on a moment to moment basis what is going to happen next. So yeah, so it's very exciting technology and I think you can see how it meshes really well with the virtual world because if you wanna interact with the digital twin, we're better to do that than in a virtual reality context because you can put it right into that virtual reality context. So that's, I dunno, that's, I could talk about a lot, but that's just like a, a high level description.
Ryan Androsoff: No, that's great. I mean that, I think that's really helpful. I kind of, you know, I, I, I think about this, you know, the, the movie Apollo 13, right? Where, you know, looking back in the, in the sixties and, and you know, they were, you know, stuck in spacecrafts having issues. They had the folks on the ground and the simulator of the capsule trying to like, you know, was, was essentially was, it was kind of a simulation twin, you know, but that ability to have like a digital version of that, to your point, you can spin it up quickly, you can have really high fidelity on it. And again, this all, like in my mind again, this links into this notion of kind of improving decision making as as a result of this. So, sorry, go ahead, Jen.
Jen: And I was gonna say, the exciting thing about it if, if you think about it from a virtual reality point of view, is that if you start to have these in virtual reality, you again, you move away from that almost sort of cardboard fakeness of virtual reality. Where, if you're, I don't know, Meghan, if you've had this experience where you wanna explore an object in virtual reality, like a plant or something, but it, it's not very well created and so it, it, it still feels fake. Whereas from a digital twin perspective, if you had a plant in virtual reality that was basically a digital twin of a plant somewhere in the world, then you would really be able to interact with it in a way that was very real. So I see, I see interesting synergies.
Ryan Androsoff: Yeah, Meghan, I know you've done a little bit of work around or had some experience with digital twins as well. Curious your thoughts on this.
Meghan: Yeah. Yeah. I will definitely share a little bit on that. This is also an interesting link back into some of the equity questions we were talking about, because, you know, Jen mentioned it, right? This type of high quality and really immersive, really true to life, sort of, replication, really requires extremely high speed internet. The ability to, you know, have high cutting edge technology to interact with it as well. Like the Oculus Quest that we use for a digital exec, executive leadership program is a really great sort of serviceable model, but it's not gonna be able to interact with like the highest quality digital twins out there. And so there's a really interesting access question, right? Of which companies or which organizations or things like that actually get access to this and who has, you know, sort of the infrastructure even, to support, you know, the level of high speed internet and things like that, that are, are required. But I, I do have an interesting example, from some work I've done in the past on housing. And so housing, as you can imagine for digital twinning is just, this is a huge breakthrough, particularly around things like participatory design and getting feedback on new developments. So one of the biggest struggles, and you've probably been to these, if you've ever gone to a consultation on a new condo or something going up, they have, you know, sort of a non-digital analog twin, right? The little models that you can kind of interact with. But again, they're lacking context. They're not to scale. They don't usually show you how that fits into the existing environment. And so people are being asked to give feedback on something that's still very abstract, even though it's a literal physical model. And so there's been some really cool studies done around trying to understand, for example, people's perception and the impact of things like high density housing on their physiology, on their psychology and things like that. And so imagine, you know, being walked down your local street and there's sort of a scenario A, B, and C, and you can kind of see what it looks like with very high density, lots of condos and new things going up, medium density, maybe some missing middle houses beside you, and then kind of current state. And you can really viscerally understand how this might impact both yourself as well as your community around you. And so I'm really, really excited to see that continuing to become more and more widespread and accessible. Cause I really think it can revolutionize and perhaps overcome some of the sort of, you know, fud, right? That fear, uncertainty, doubt. We see the little model, we can't quite contextualize it and so we often knee-jerk to say, oh, I don't want that. And so I think there's a real opportunity for us, especially again in that civic, and sort of government space to really help people see the changes that are coming down the pipe and feel more comfortable with them as a result because of these digital twins and these immersive experiences.
Ryan Androsoff: Yeah. I, I, I love that. And I think, you know, I think there's this real opportunity, frankly, if it's used right for, for these kind of metaverse technologies like virtual reality to build empathy, right? I mean, I think they can be actually very powerful empathy building tools. You know, I've seen examples from organizations like the UN and International Human Rights Groups that essentially kind of build immersive documentaries so you can get the experience of what it's like for refugees, right, who are dealing with conflict and you know, that ability to, you know, Meghan as you're illustrating to kind of experience things as if you were there. But also to be able to kind of put yourself in somebody else's shoes in quite a literal way. I mean those are powerful experiences and we often talk about, you know, the, in the digital world, empathy's actually kind of the most important digital skill. Cuz if we're truly gonna build user-centered government, you've gotta be able to understand the people that you're serving. And, and I kinda hold out hope, you know, there's a, there's, I, I think it's kind of easy to, to, to kind of, you know, be concerned about, you know, the dystopian future that, you know, the, the metaverse might enable and, and people kind of like to hate on it a little bit, but I do think if, if it's used responsibly like any other tool, there's, there's potentially a real upside to that. And, and then maybe that kind of gets me as, you know, as we kind of close the conversation off, and, and Meghan, maybe I'll ask you first, you know, what, what do you think the future of this is gonna look like? You know, if, if we kind of look back on this five or 10 years from now, you know, is, is this gonna have just been like a hype bubble where we're like, man, what, you know, what, were we smoking that we thought this was gonna be a real thing? Or do you think we're all gonna be walking around, you know, with, with, with AR glasses on our heads on the street? Like, I’m kind of curious, like, what, what kind of future world do you think this is gonna bring to us? You know, if we kinda look out, you know, a decade or so down the road.
Meghan: Absolutely. Well, I'm a big, as I mentioned, big sci-fi fan, and so I'd be remiss not to quote one of my favorite authors, William Gibson, who says that the future is here is just not evenly distributed. Right? And so I do feel that we're already seeing pockets of where this could go, all over the place, including the program that we're doing, I think is a good example of kind of what this could look like in the context of education. I wanna share one example of a very cool experience. I haven't had the privilege of trying, but to me, this is where I hope it goes in terms of empathy and sort of immersiveness. There's, this artist, that did this, uh, it's actually an Oscar winning sort of film, but it's in a VR context. It's called Carne E Arena. And it's actually meant to be a replication of the experience of being a refugee trying to cross the border. And so you're wearing VR headsets and a haptic device, which gives you sort of physical feedback. Every person has a different role, so every time you go through it, you're gonna have a different experience than the last time. And essentially it's meant to be this sort of visceral empathy building. And in my mind, this is really where I hope it goes, is that we push the edges of this technology. We use it to sort of build connection and not move towards that kind of disconnected, you know, sort of very, you know, like a dystopia-type future that there's lots of sci-fi that, you know, has explored, but really towards this place where we are able to use these technologies to connect over time and distance and really understand each other in a different way. And I’ve definitely seen that with our program and I'm really excited to see it continue. And, and I hope that, you know, folks are inspired by this conversation to go out and start experimenting with it, cuz it is, if I've learned anything from our early VR pieces, it's that it's actively being co-created right now. We've given feedback to some of the programs that we are working with because it is so new. And so we need lots of different types of people interacting with these, advocating for things like greater accessibility, equity improvements to the software and hardware. And through that I think we're gonna be able to get to somewhere pretty magical and amazing.
Ryan Androsoff: Yeah. Yeah. And I, and I think, you know, what you're just sharing, Meghan, kind of reminds us like, we've got agency on this to build the future that we want to see. Right. And so, you know, I think it's important for us to kind of recognize that these are tools that can be used for good purposes and bad purposes, and, and to be, you know, thoughtful and conscientious about that at this kind of still somewhat early stage of development can have big impacts down the road. Jen, what's your, what's your view on this when we kind of look to the future, you know, if we're having this conversation in, in 2033, you know, what do you think we're gonna be thinking about when we kinda look back on these kind of early days of the metaverse and where it went?
Jen: Yeah, I mean, I think, I'm, I'm hoping that things will get a little bit more, I wanna say sophisticated. I often, I'm gonna borrow a page from Meghan's book cuz I remember once we were doing a bit of a, a sort of a, we're, we're setting something up for one of the workshops and we're talking about the user interfaces, and right now they're still a little clunky. So I, I'm looking forward to seeing how those get more sophisticated as the technology develops. You mentioned augmented reality as opposed to virtual reality. And so I see, I think there's gonna be two paths where one is the virtual reality development and when you are using that in a certain context, but I think augmented reality, which is almost, I wanna call it like the little sister of virtual reality is gonna come up the side. And I think that's gonna be tremendously important because it's, once it gets working, we keep talking about the, the glasses, it's gonna overlay a very rich data environment on our regular world. So that I think is something that, I'm anticipating will happen.
Jen: In terms of, one of the things I wanna see, that I would love to see come out of this is actually open source virtual reality, because you mentioned that right now it's the domain of folks like Facebook, and it's true that they have done a huge amount to push this technology forward, but I really wanna see a space where there, there are more options and some of them are open source and and more DIY. So that is something else that I, I hope will also be happening in the next 10 years.
Ryan Androsoff: Yeah, I'm, I'm glad you brought that up because I think there's a whole bunch of legitimate issues around like centralization and control of this. Right, and, and I think personally there's a lot of parallels to what we've seen with social media over the last, you know, 10 to 20 years, and some of the real kind of challenges I think we're having with these, you know, highly centralized, controlled social media platforms that have become so integral to how the world works today. I think we could be having those same conversations 10 years from now if we’re not thoughtful, but, and, and I, I love that idea, Jen, and I know there's some discussion happening already about, yeah. Is, you know, how do you have open source? And also at the very minimum, like open protocols, right? Like one of the reasons the internet became such an interesting place is it was built on this foundation of open protocols so that all the websites could talk to each other. And I think to be frank, like we don't want to get ourselves in a world of like walled gardens where, you know, if you've got Meta’s headsets, you can only access Meta's, you know, metaverse spaces. You know, I want to see a world that kind of mirrors the openness of the internet, you know, in the metaverse space. And so I think, again, being intentional about some of those design choices now and having these conversations at this stage of the game is important because it's tough to, it's tough to unpack these things down the down the road once it's, you know, inertia has kind of set into these new designs that come out. Listen, this has been a great conversation. I really want to thank you both. I think there's, there's a lot more, you know, that, that's gonna be coming into this area in the last little while. And, and we're gonna see over the coming years, you know, where this evolves to. And, and again, it's, I, I think, you know, we wanted one of our, our early episodes, here on the podcast to actually talk about, you know, some of this kind of shiny tech and, and be able to think through, you know, what's hype, what's real, because this is the stuff that people are facing coming down. And I, and I think sometimes we kind of ignore some of these trends that are apparel. And it is important to kind of understand where there might be some real use cases underneath here that can be valuable to folks. And so, yeah, just to say, you know, it's been, it's been a, a real pleasure and honor piloting this with both of you over the last couple of years, I've been really excited about our chance to kind of bring, you know, virtual reality into our, into our virtual classroom together. And, excited to see where some of this can go in the future. So, Jen, Meghan, thanks so much for, for joining today. It's been great
Jen: Oh, my pleasure. It's always great to talk to you two.
Meghan: Thanks for having me. This is wonderful.
Ryan Androsoff: We started this episode talking about hype. Right. You know, talking about the, the hype of the metaverse and if, you know, there's something real there, or if this is really just kind of a, you know, the, the newest Silicon Valley hype from the big tech companies that, that they're trying to get people to buy into, and this I think is always the problem with new technology that's coming on the scene. It can be really easy to both be seen to and to actually be kind of chasing the shiny object, right? We talk about shiny object syndrome often in this space. But the flip side is that if we simply dismiss all of these new technologies coming down the pipeline and that are entering society, it also means we might miss big important trends until it's too late. And so for me, this is why it's so important for us to start having conversations around things like the metaverse. I really do think there is a positive future that these metaverse technologies can contribute to, but it's ultimately gonna be up to us to design that future together. So I want to hear what you think.
Ryan Androsoff: We'd love to hear your reaction to this episode and in particular how some of the ideas we discussed resonate with you. And, and if you've got a different opinion, we'd love to hear that as well. Reach out to us on social media using the, let's think digital hashtag or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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