Nicolas Robbe is the CEO of Hoverlay in Acton, Massachusetts. In 2016, he left his job as Chief Marketing Officer at Dynatrace and re-engaged with one of his passions—augmented reality. The space was going through a profound transformation, and his goal was to create new technology and cool new tools for the public.
In this episode of More Intelligent Tomorrow, host Dave Anderson talks to Nicolas about his work bringing augmented reality to screens. Nicolas describes how AR can bring deeper meaning to our experiences, associated opportunities and challenges, and the need for technologies that have a positive influence—promoting empathy and understanding instead of distancing people from one another.
Augmented Reality (AR), he says, has the power to activate cognitive circuitry to convey emotion, promoting community connection and generating empathy and understanding.
As we live our lives, we’re seeking meaning, looking for a deeper connection with the places we go and with the people around us. This medium is designed extremely well for that task, the same way the web is well-suited for sharing information and transacting.”
Reducing the Cognitive Load
Nicolas has always had a passion for understanding the nature of interactions between humans and systems and reducing the cognitive load on people when trying to transmit information to them.
He describes multiple layers. One involves figuring out how to use visual metaphors to communicate and bring information into the physical world through a screen. Another involves getting off the screen to where the camera becomes a sort of browser—something a user can place content into just as they place images on a webpage.
He explains how it works from a user perspective: They hold their phone, open the app, and see the video feed go through—as if they were taking photos. However, with AR, the camera is able to insert pixels and content into the field.
The magic is that the user creates the illusion of presence to help them feel the content. There are many techniques for creating the illusion so the brain accepts that it’s real. The user holds their phone, sees the content, and plays along. The content is usually meaningful to their location.”
He offers a simple example. The Robert Gould Shaw Memorial, the famous Revolutionary War monument in Boston, was created to honor the first African-American regiment raised during that war. When people pass by, he says, they likely don’t understand its significance. The National Park Service and the conservancy in charge of Boston Common decided to play holograms off of the monuments to explain the history as visitors watch from nearby. They now see life-sized people telling the story of the regiments and how groundbreaking it was from an artist’s perspective to put African-American soldiers in a monument.
In 1897, when the monument was unveiled, it was a major departure from everything that was done in terms of public art. Visitors can now hear how the monument relates to racism and social issues that still exist in the United States. So it’s an enriched experience as people look at the monument and hold their phones, helping them better understand the history.
VR vs AR
Asked how virtual reality compares with augmented reality, Nicolas says,
VR is about taking you away from your reality and giving you, perhaps, a better reality or an experience you couldn’t have in the physical world, with everything that entails. AR, on the other hand, tries to reconnect you with your physical environment. It could be a park, a building, (or) a kitchen. But it starts and ends with the location—the context—then augments it so your experience of that moment and location is more meaningful, more fun, more engaged. It’s trying to connect you with the moment and the space versus taking you away from it.”
Another benefit of context is retention. Nicolas cites a study at MIT where two groups of students were tasked with memorizing 30 years of Super Bowl winners. One group had to memorize a list. The other had an AR experience where, between the subway and the media lab, icons representing the winning teams had been placed in order of winning years. Retention immediately after the exercise was about the same for both groups. But after 90 days, the results were completely different. For the group that memorized the list, retention collapsed. For the group that had the AR experience, retention remained almost the same. Those who experienced the information in the context of a certain location were able to retain that information over a long period of time.
Listen to this episode of More Intelligent Tomorrow to learn more about:
- How augmented reality deepens our understanding of history
- How AR can be used to create connection and understanding
- How context affects the experience and retention of information
- How augmented reality is different from virtual reality
- How ethical concerns relate to AR, including fake news and virtual trespassing