At the recent PTC LiveWorx 2018 event in Boston, Alex Lipman spoke about his passion for innovation and the future for mixed reality
Alex Lipman joined Microsoft almost two decades ago. Over the intervening years his star has risen as he guided several innovative products to fruition for the technology giant. But gaining that traction, even inside a company created on a wave of innovation such as Microsoft is no simple matter. When asked how he made his mark and imbued his vision into Microsoft’s strategy, his answer is succinct and simple, he says he did it very carefully.
Turning a vision into a cause
“If you think about it, vision by definition is something most people cannot see otherwise you would call it common sense not vision,” he says. “If you’re shooting to be innovative, you have got to shoot to be ten times better than whatever else is out there today. You are shooting for a whole order of magnitude of improvement. If you are going for something that is ten times better, people should not understand you, it is a good metric.”
By his standards, if you go to someone and you tell them your idea and their response is that it is a good idea, then it is good, not visionary. If the response is that you are crazy, then that presents two options; either you are crazy, or you could have a chance. “If that is the game you are playing, you must get good at telling simple stories,” he explains. “Essentially selling people on your dream, on your vision. But you want to translate that vision into a cause. Cause is something that is intoxicating, people lose themselves in cause. But that means writing code and telling simple stories.”
Lipman believes that for a project to succeed, that transformation from a vison to a cause is essential.
Building a team of visionaries
One of the toughest jobs in this journey is surrounding yourself with a team of like-minded visionaries. Lipman explains how this works in the context of recruiting his team at Microsoft. “Imagine that I was trying to recruit you for something that does not exist,” he says. “In fact, I cannot even tell you about it because it is a secret project.
“I am trying to hire you into the team. It is the equivalent of taking you up a big mountain, looking down the cliff, and saying, ‘jump off with me’. Now you do not know me, I do not know you, and I just asked you to jump off the cliff. Often, 99 out of a hundred people will say, ‘no’. They meet, they shake hands, life goes on. Now one in a hundred people will look at you and say, ‘interesting. Where is the parachute?’
“You look at them and explain there is no parachute. Only one out of a hundred of these will stay, so you have a 99.9 per cent leave. One person stays. That person that stays looks me in the eye and does not even ask the next question, they just jump off the cliff. If you could freeze that moment in time, pause as that person is approaching terminal velocity you think, ‘what would possess you to jump off that cliff?’
“That person, a 100 per cent of the time will tell you the joy of knowing that I tried building a parachute approaching terminal velocity, and again one of two outcomes. I died, but man it was fun, or I broke a few bones, but I did it. That is a cause. You want to find people around you that are like that.
“You can put 100 smart people, the smartest people in the world in a room, and tell them something crazy. Ninety-nine of those people, they are so smart, they will tell you why you are wrong, why that thing is never going to work, and they will prove it to you on the spot, because they are smarter than you are. One in a hundred people in that room will say, ‘Let us just try to figure it out’. Which to me goes back to what made us successful in Microsoft as a team over the last decade. We just write code.”
Lipman refers to the first time there was talk about identity recognition as an example of this theory. This was something that Lipman was working on with Kinect in 2008. He went to talk to academics and scientists to explain that he wanted to track two people in real time, 20 joints on a body, 30 frames per second. They told him that it was just not possible and explained why. “I said look, got in front of the sensor and it was working; code wins, simple story.” he explains. “It is about getting enough people to get the ethos of that product to be able to push that idea forward. Once you have enough of them, this is the point where you move from vision, a singular thing, to causes. This snowball effect, each little dot of snow, before you know it, it is an avalanche. And then it becomes a movement.
“Nowadays, we look at Microsoft, mixed reality is more than just a single device in HoloLens, it is even more than just a single platform, it is all pervasive in our world view, intelligent edge and intelligent cloud. It took a decade of great persistence and hard work.”
Suffering for success
Looking back at this success it may appear from the outside to be a linear path, from idea, through vision, cause and success, but that could not be further from the truth. “In retrospect it makes it seem like there was this ten-year journey from when we got permission to go on this crazy ride to where we are now at a multi-billion-dollar investment for the company; that it just happened,” he continues. “The reality is that life does not work that way. You must suffer each little step of the way from something that is very small to something that is what it is today. You are on the chopping board every single day. There is no one moment where the thing goes from non-credible to credible, or it goes from ‘I don’t believe you to I believe you’.
“That happens every single day. We are still running with that today, a decade later. Believe it or not, it is still something that as an organisation we need to fight for. As we should. The fact is that mixed reality at mass scale is not here today.
“The investment from Microsoft is a mass scale investment because we believe in this as the future of computing, that takes grit and that is why we have had to prove it every single day over the last many years, and I am sure for many years to come still.”
Near death experience
Nurturing a project in such a high-pressure environment is clearly a day to day challenge and Lipman readily concedes that the HoloLens project had several near-death experiences along the way, every single day as he puts it. “Today, I think we are fine,” he says. “I am excited to continue working on it and can’t wait to share the next version with the world.
“We started working on the first version in January 2010, that was ten months before we launched Kinect in November of that year, so there was an overlay in the programmes. But we did not talk about it outside Microsoft until January 21st, 2016. Look at that time span. That is six years without talking about that programme. This was on the chopping board at different points. Yes, every single day. It started in Xbox. We moved to Windows phone, started with Steve Ballmer then we moved to Satya Nadella.
“When you think about the change of the company over the last decade, and the fact that the HoloLens programme has been part of that change, and enzymatic to some of it, but in that process, every single day is a chopping opportunity.”
A common way to describe the lifecycle of a product is in its seasons, with technologies going through spring, summer, fall and winter. “Mainframes still exist today,” he explains. “There is a lot of mainframe work still happening around the world. But it is hard to argue that they are in the prime; mainframes are in the winter, PCs are in the fall and phones are in their summer.
“If your technology is an innovator, and Microsoft is a technology innovation company, you have to keep betting on spring. You must ask what is the next spring of computing? It can be any number of choices, and everybody is auditioning for the part to become the next secular trend. But you have got to keep at it.
“This is something I love about Microsoft. I have worked here for the last 17 years. This perspective of always betting on spring. I will always be able to go back and say we were here before there were PCs, and we will be here long after. But that takes reinvention of self and the ability to continue betting even when you miss a spring.
“We missed the mobile phone spring, which is why we do not have Windows phones anymore today. It does not mean you do not continue betting on springs. You must do that with value to customers, and you need to bring that customer obsession to fruition. And you know, it is something that again motivates me. You ask if this spring, this new thing that we are working on, can empower people and organisations to do something they could not do before? If the answer is yes, it is worthwhile betting on that spring.”
How to be creative and innovative
In a culture of innovation such that Microsoft is built on there is an environment that nurtures that process. Outside the technology bubble it can be harder to be such a disciple to transformation. Lipman takes the view that creativity, like any other craft, is something that you can work towards. “It is like working out,” he says. “If you go to the gym every day and you work out, you end up being a fit person. Creativity is no different. You have just got to practice at it and look for opportunities every single day to find creativity.
“I define creativity as ultimately believing in the energy in the universe being finite; you cannot create any more, you cannot destroy anything, at best you can just transform it. That means none of us gets to create anything. But transformation is what it is all about, which is then the core of what creativity is. Can I see something in the world then apply that in a novel way in a different space? Then you start looking for that connected tissue.
“Start putting yourself out there to experience new things. You start by making yourself very uncomfortable. And through that discomfort you are exposing yourself to new experiences every single day, and through those experiences, you are building taste. And through that taste, you are building creativity. Like anything in life, it is something that you work on very deliberately, and from that perspective, it is something that you can work into your daily routine.”
The path to an immersive future
Both augmented and mixed reality are gaining traction but Lipman describes the growth of the technologies as a journey. Whether it be augmented reality on the phone, virtual reality, or holographic computing with HoloLens – the journey, which is still ongoing, will require these devices or these experiences to be more immersive.
“You can cut immersion in many different ways,” Lipman adds. “Field of view of the device as in the case of HoloLens, density of pixels for legibility of text in virtual reality or any number of other things, but immersion is a multi-faceted space and all of these devices inclusive of HoloLens need to get more immersive.”
Another hurdle that needs to be overcome is comfort. “If you think about these devices, and I am very proud that HoloLens is the single most comfortable headset out there by a margin, but it is still uncomfortable, you cannot wear it all day,” he continues. “Before these things really take off you need to be able to wear them all day long.”
Comfort is also a multi-variable problem, but physical comfort could be something like weight on your head, or a movement as you turn around. Or it could be the vestibular comfort, the actual images coming to your eyes and allowing you to perceive this world.”
Finally, to become pervasive, the affordability issue needs to be addressed. “We can say these things come with a different range of pricing points,” he explains. “It is price value ratio in terms of how many hours in a day can you use this and the price points that you are paying for it. Ultimately, you can understand our entire roadmap now from here to the future. Every single turn of the crank for us is going to be about creating devices that are more comfortable, more immersive, and ultimately more affordable to the things we are trying to accomplish with them.
“When those variables cross a certain threshold, these devices will become more transformative as we are seeing in businesses, but it is not going to be something where you are going to be wearing it as your only device all day long.”
Reaching a tipping point
In technology development the tipping point, the critical point in an evolving situation that leads to a new and irreversible development, is always viewed as the goal. The time when the technology is so ingrained in its use that it becomes an everyday item or occurrence. “For all industries it becomes a conversation of can you habituate whatever the experience is? Because to some extent you are able to accomplish something they were not able to accomplish with any other platform or device. Is that something valuable to you as a customer? When those things become true, you end up doing it.
“In pockets you are seeing this today. When we positioned HoloLens for businesses it was because we saw great value there already.” Lipman points to a clear example where Japan Airlines have improved the availability and timeliness of their fleet by using HoloLens as part of their MRO strategy. Armed with information from Rolls Royce, who have sensors throughout the engines of Japan Airlines’ Boeing 787s, they can schedule maintenance as required and if they hit any snags they can connect with a Rolls Royce engineer who can see what they are seeing.
“Think about the human waste of time travelling between these places to do simple tasks that has been saved,” Lipman concludes. “This is a task that is working right now with remote assistance. Suddenly when you run into something you can phone a friend, NASA are using that on the space station right now as well. You can phone that engineer who will be able to see through your eyes, and annotate over the engine, and before you know it, you have solved the problem.
“This is a very clear example where there is a benefit and value today. Guess what? Those Japan Airline people, those Rolls Royce people, those Boeing people are using HoloLens as a habituated thing.”
CV: ALEX KIPMAN
Technical Fellow, AI Perception and Mixed Reality Team, Microsoft
Alex Kipman is a technical fellow who leads the AI perception and mixed reality team at Microsoft. An innovator at heart, Kipman has led four major break-through products for the company, including Kinect in 2010. Microsoft HoloLens and the Windows Mixed Reality software platform are his latest product creations, bringing holograms and immersive experiences to Windows. Kipman is named as the primary inventor on more than 150 patents since joining Microsoft in 2001.
Kipman’s dedication to creating new experiences with cutting-edge technology propelled Kinect to become the world’s fastest selling consumer electronics device. As a result, he entered Microsoft’s Hall of Legends in 2011. This award recognises an individual responsible for creating or directly influencing a visionary initiative through collaboration and technical leadership, creating a breakthrough in the technology industry.
Kipman was born in Curitiba, Brazil and graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in Computer Software Engineering from Rochester Institute of Technology in 2001. Time Magazine featured Kipman consecutively in 2010 in its high-profile Digital 25 list of innovators and in 2011 in its 100 People of the Year. In 2012, he was named National Inventor of the Year by the non-profit Intellectual Property Foundation.
In his private life, Alex puts emphasis on spending time with his wife and daughter on real-world experiences such as camping and the great outdoors.