After more than a week on the road — first in transit, then at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, then in transit again — Brian Ballard returned to work on fire for the wearables industry he has worked in for close to a decade.
He was also happier than ever that his company changed its name.
Ballard is the CEO of the company that was, from 2010 until late January, called APX Labs. It had carved a niche developing software for some major names in the oil, gas and defense sectors, and later picked up General Electric as an investor and a customer, along with work from Boeing and two of the five largest companies in oil and gas. Today, though, its name is Upskill.
“We had been planning to rename (the company) for a very long time, but we were hesitant to let go of the brand value we had built,” Ballard said. “Everyone knew us as APX — I still say it — but it’s something we knew we would outgrow, which has made it easier to move on. In Switzerland, so much of the conversation revolved around skill. I feel good about aligning our mission to what is clearly a global problem right now.”
Ballard discussed the need for workers to upskill — and reskill — as well as the present and future of wearables, other lessons learned in Davos, how science fiction and video games influence our current tech, and plenty of other topics in this broad conversation. Unfortunately, it reads best on a standard desktop, laptop or mobile screen. There are no augmented reality bonus features …
IndustryWeek: The last time we talked, in late 2015, you predicted that 2016 could be a banner year for wearables: “You’ll start seeing them used on a much larger scale, moving from one line to the whole factory, or from one factory to the whole bullpen of factories that support a process.” Good call.
Brian Ballard: The market itself has really matured as far as people’s expectations of what technology can do for them. And this is a crazy time because there’s a backdrop of what technology is going to do to get rid of people’s jobs, and there’s a lot of freaking out about that.
I can’t imagine going back to doing everything with a manual Phillips screwdriver when I have a DeWalt drill just sitting right there. There are parts of our lives, particularly where it’s a dumb tool, where we’re not threatened by it and we happily embrace the capability that it brings. I think where you can’t see some of the intelligence inside technology it becomes harder to trust. With augmented reality, that problem is solved: you quite literally see the technology and what it’s doing for you, and the results speak for themselves. … All that is going to change. It’ll get sleeker, get smaller, get more powerful. I think the fact that we’re already down this path, that there are real companies finding real value, this is going to be the common way people do work for a lot of jobs in the future, and the more the industry can do to build a value chain around it, the better we’re going to be served by it and it will help people stay competitive and useful in the market significantly longer than if they don’t think about their skill on a continuum.
IW: Outside of the Industrial Internet of Things, of course, augmented reality seems like the most important technology just because of the role it can play in helping to fill the millions of jobs that will open up over the next decade.
BB: The number of people affected by the skills gap over the coming years for high-skilled jobs is crazy. I have to look it up, but call it roughly 2.3 million people. That’s half the total of the unemployed population of the country. What if we could actually get those roles filled, by getting people something that makes the apprenticeship quicker? I spend a lot of time with customers, going out to sites to see how they do training, and it’s an industrial-era process. … You go through these archaic training processes, you’re expected to memorize them, then you might never see that problem for years, and by the time you do see it you have no idea what to do. We’re far better off training people with the techniques they need to understand and to make the information needed always available.
IW: If you were one of the two dozen CEOs on the new administration’s job initiatives committee, what would be some of your suggestions beyond, as you just said, Hey, look, AR can fill half the unemployed population?
BB: I ran into some of those guys (at Davos), so I actually am trying to suggest some things to them. I won’t get into super specifics, but the skills gap is a very real problem for a lot of these companies. How do you solve that? These very large company CEOs, they have a lot of tools at their disposal. They can build factories, they can build automation, they can reconfigure their workforce. … If you’re dealing with the fear of your job going away, that’s a corporate culture problem for a lot of these CEOs. You have to engage with the people, you have to show that your technology investments are about helping them and the company, rather than trying to solve a problem. That’s a culture thing.
Whether I’m dealing with my own company, whether I’m talking to a CEO who has a multi-hundred-thousand-person workforce, these are still people who look at their companies very much like family. You want to do good by your people, but we have to engage in what we say and in what we do. The term I heard a lot was “Bring the workforce along”. First, we accept that technology is changing, businesses are changing, industries are changing at pace we’ve never seen before. Technology is disruptive to expectations around timelines, so we have to bring the economy along with us in that transformation, and you can’t do it by ignoring people. You have to equip them with the tools that they can use to forge their path through this.
You hear people talking about this, but it hasn’t entered the national dialogue yet, it’s still an Us vs. The Machines rhetoric, or Us vs. Other Countries. This is something that’s happening in every country in the world. People are concerned about how the future looks because of technology and how it relates to their industry. At the same time, the world is consuming an unbelievable amount of products at a pace that has never happened before, either. There are people who look at that as opportunity.
An Opportunity, Not a Problem
IW: You probably see the opportunity, more than the problem.
BB: When I look at it, I think there’s a massive opportunity to solve the skills gap problem, there’s an opportunity to not just upskill but reskill. We have people who have not entered the workforce who have set down a path that is their identity. I might be a steam fitter, or an automotive technician, or a power-line repair expert. What happens if you move, or if the industry changes, or if you go to a town that doesn’t have the strength it used to? These are all opportunities where wearables can help people stay current with their process through technology. They can be given information to reskill over to something new. I’m encouraged because I’ve seen it work.
IW: When you were at Davos, what were some of the things you heard, you saw, you talked about with others, and maybe you go back and apply to your own company?
BB: One of the things that was interesting: There are touchpoints where one area touches another. Take AI. It’s great, I can use it in my living room, but what happens when that AI follows me into my job through a wearable? That’s a really powerful capability, and that’s something that is central to our mission. How do we make that additional intelligence, how do we make that bot capability available for people who need help on their job? 2017, for us, is focused on how we connect to the workforce. The future, for our industry as a whole, is focused on how we really increase the capability of the workforce. Not just that first time. Can we continually give them better capabilities so that performance improvement just keeps coming over time?
IW: What were some of the other more interesting panels whether they had anything to do with what you’re working on or not?
BB: Yeah, one that was just fun to hear: I sat on a panel by Nico Rosberg, the Formula One champion. As a startup CEO, it’s fun to hear just how hard those guys work when they’re performing at their peak. You take for granted that they’re at the top, but it deals with everything from how he eats, to how he sleeps, to the huge number of people on his team supporting him — there are like 1,400 people who manage the car. It was interesting to hear from him how the top team in the world operates. That was motivational.
IW: You probably won’t have anything close to 1,400 people managing one product or one rollout in the near future, will you?
BB: No, no, my board wants me to operate far more efficiently than that. We’d also have to figure out how to put really over-the-top advertising into glasses in order to fund that. I don’t think that’s happening any time soon.
IW: Any other takeaways you could apply today?
BB: One panel discussed how we interact with technology at home has actually taken us out of the moment a lot. Our cell phones are disruptive devices. They’re not really helping us, say, go to bed on time. It’s an interesting concept to see wearables, which are the next generation of mobility, be something that might keep us in that moment instead of having to go chase down that answer.
IW: The last time we talked, the company had a heavy emphasis on military and defense. What are you working on right now that has you really excited?
BB: We operate in logistics, field service and manufacturing, and what the kid in me is (excited about) is that our customers build the most amazing things: aircraft, cars, turbines that are designed to run for 50 years. The science that has gone into these things is incredible, and that our employees build something that helps that happen better, faster, cheaper, that’s a good reason to get out of bed every morning.
At a macro level, I’m excited to be a participant in a sea change. In 2010, we started with the military, we were knee-deep in biometrics and combat medics, and we had no idea how big this market was going to be. It took longer than we thought it would, but the opportunity is so much larger and it’s going to be fundamentally transformative to how people interact with a connected world. It’s cool to see that from the ground floor.
IW: The next couple quarters, the next year or two, as this catches up in manufacturing to where you thought it would be, what are you most looking forward to it? Just that it will be bigger, I’m sure, will be a big plus.
BB: [Laughs] I don’t want to get too far ahead, but fast-forward 18 months, I think there will be traction in markets where you’re breaking down entry barriers for the first time and you can focus on execution and make customers successful rather than just participate. From a business standpoint, what’s the next beach to take?
Science Fiction, Video Games and Other Influences
IW: Software of hardware, what are some other companies that you admire and — I don’t want to say “steal from” — that inspire you, that have best practices you incorporate?
BB: What Microsoft and Apple did for the desktop PC, it solved so many problems for the white-collar workforce. We’re trying to do that for the blue-collar workforce. Solving that skills gap in other industries has been done. We’re getting to do it for a group that has been ignored. Now Microsoft is pushing the envelope on mixed reality. That’s been in sci-fi for so long it’s amazing to see the pieces come together to do it. I admire Google for having the (fortitude) to roll out Google Glass way ahead of when anybody though that would be possible. They stood behind it, took some heat for it, but it ended up being a great product. You see a lot of companies that do surprise you in the market. Like, who saw Amazon’s Alexa coming? How transformative has that been? It’s taught us how to talk to computers. Your living room reacting to you feels tangibly different from even Siri.
IW: A lot of people have lamented Google Glass, especially with the prototype falling by the wayside and now a new model in development. When we look back maybe three or five years from now, is that’s what’s going to be remembered?
BB: No. It’s not like it tanked Google Glass.
IW: Of course. Just a rare not-perfect hit for them.
BB: Honestly, I don’t think it was so much the product as it was misaligned with what the market wanted. Sometimes you just don’t launch a product right. That happens. Like, can you imagine if the term “Glasshole” never happened? Whoever came up with that really should get some sort of branding recognition because that really stuck. Had that not happened, could perception have been more open-minded? Who knows. It was a pretty good product and it has informed so much of the way the rest of the market thinks about it.
Five years out, if people want to give credit where credit is due in the impact wearables are going to have on the workforce — guys like Vuzix and Intel and Microsoft and Google, and even guys like ODG — Google should get the credit for making this market finally happen. There are going to be asterisks about what went right or wrong, but it couldn’t have happened without people trying.
What other product could you put on an employee and give them an instantaneous 50% bump in capability? It doesn’t exist. We’d be searching for another technology that may or may not have been invented yet. I think we’re kind of lucky that there’s even one solution to the problem available when the problem’s most pronounced.
IW: The way you rather nonchalantly talked about Alexa opening up how we audibly talk with computers makes it sound like you were a big science fiction fan growing up. Were you?
BB: Huge. One of my favorite sci-fi books growing up was called Mutineers’ Moon, by David Weber, and the lead character had some augmented vision capabilities.
IW: This seems very appropriate, and maybe a little prophetic.
BB: I think a lot of great things come from some kid, or even some adult, sitting there, thinking, “Wouldn’t it be cool if …” It’s the opposite of all the stories that end badly. … A lot of invention is inspired by ideas that somebody could conceptually think of but didn’t know how to build it at the time.
That same book, by the way, a lot of its focus was on gravitational technologies and two years ago, they discovered gravitational beams. Interview David Weber. He might be on to something.
IW: For as big an influence as science fiction has on modern tech, video games always seem to come up in conversation as a major driver. So many engineers come from that field.
BB: I think you can look at video games as a source. I think Nintendo’s VR Boy is still the highest-selling headset of all time.
IW: Maybe not for much longer.
BB: Something tells me that pretty soon it will get a run for its money.
IW: Are video game backgrounds consistent with your engineers?
BB: Yeah. Actually, the director of all our product design came out of the gaming industry, a couple of computer engineers did, one of our first hires — even in the military days — was out of that world. If you assume that our world will eventually have some mixed-reality capability, it makes so much sense. Even outside mixed reality, in the augmented and assisted reality realms, the gaming industry has design language that’s been refined over decades for how to get people critical information about what they’re doing. If you think about the immersive VR movie concept, how do you steer someone through a narrative when they can go freeform within it? First-person shooter video games have mastered that. They can move every player who has ever touched it almost seamlessly through the narrative while still giving them the freedom to explore.
So on one side, the video game world has a really good sense of interaction, … and it’s an aggressive industry when it comes down to people who can cut their teeth from a programming perspective, so you get a lot of high quality.
IW: So you tell a kid, Read science-fiction, play video games, you’ll be set for life.
BB: Yeah, and one other piece of advice: Play a team sport. Very few roles these days don’t rely on some sort of interaction with other people, and I think learning how to win and lose together is a life skill.