Boston-based PTC makes software used to design physical products, and to connect them to the Internet of Things. In 2017, the $1.8 billion company created a new Reality Lab to explore the ways that virtual reality and augmented reality will add digital layers on top of our real-world surroundings. To run it, PTC hired a former MIT Media Lab staffer, Valentin Heun, who’d been doing academic research into ways that augmented reality software could control or analyze what was happening with machines.
Heun talked about the lab’s objectives, and how it connects to the rest of the company, in one of our interviews for the research report “Delivering Value Through Emerging Tech and Innovation.”
Uncharted territory. At the Reality Lab I run at PTC, we’re looking into uncharted territory, three-plus years into the future. We’re an interdisciplinary team, [looking at] virtual reality, mixed reality, augmented reality, physical reality, things that profoundly change our perspective of reality. We want to build tools that give you a better understanding and control of the connected world around you. We want to give you a more intuitive user interface to the physical world.
Our desktop interfaces are really good for desktop work, but your computer mouse might not be the best tool to fly an airplane. The core of our lab is to give you a more intuitive user interface to the physical world.
Where we sit. I report to the CTO, and we have regular check-ins with the CEO. We’re a relatively small team, but we are part of the Office of the CTO’s ecosystem at PTC. We look at problems in the company that cannot be solved wth short-term business perspectives. Even the R&D team [at PTC] has a mission that is to support productization. By contrast, our mission is influencing strategy and supporting the overall mission of the company.
We’re a special group that has no performance requirements, because that’s a really hard thing to do with innovation. How do you measure it?
We don’t have metrics. We are connected to pretty much every corner of the company. [But] we are not held to any metrics. We’re a special group that has no performance requirements, because that’s a really hard thing to do with innovation. How do you measure it? For five years you can feel unproductive, and then you have a eureka moment. The way I handle that is I balance between the long-term ideas and the shorter-term rewards. You always have to keep that balance, with good support around you.
An equation for the impact of a new solution. [To understand] the impact of something you might want to work on, I suggest taking the amount of people who can potentially benefit from your ideas, multiplied by the time of use. That’s kind of an equation for impact. So, how impactful is the solution I can build? How many people can I touch, and what will it take for me to build it?
How far into the future can you go? I break down problems into their components — their smallest bits — and then try to estimate how long will each bit take. Then from there, it’s a dance. You have to look at what is your organization willing to invest in that problem, and how far into the future can I go. Can I go a half year into the future? A year? Do I have enough trust to go five years into the future? For a 10-year problem, I probably should be professor for that. At PTC, we have executives who understand well the value of innovation, and the horizon that innovation requires, and the balance between something I can show now, but having enough space to develop and explore.
If you want to give somebody a lens into the future, you have to inspire, and that means that the output of your lab has has to be inspiring.
You have to inspire. There’s a big communication component with it. You need to balance the innovation that you can show — the things that will amaze your customers and your organization — but you also have to have a pipeline of other ideas. One example of a tiny problem that we solved sounds unspectacular, but it’s so profound that I tried to solve it for eight years. Right now, the word “metaverse” is a big topic. The concept is you can have many different stakeholders develop their own applications and services and bring them into the same digital space. However, in 3D graphics, that concept doesn’t exist. [We created a piece of code for PTC’s Vuforia Spatial Toolbox that] allows us to create these multi-stakeholder applications in the metaverse. (See video demo below.)
If you want to give somebody a lens into the future, you have to inspire, and that means that the output of your lab has has to be inspiring. That’s my job — and I can’t inspire by sitting around and saying, “come back in five years.”