Makers of The Metaverse: Adam Hintzman Of 3M On The Future Of The VR, AR & Mixed Reality Industries
An Interview With Fotis Georgiadis
Mistakes are opportunities. When something is new, there are aspects that aren’t fully understood until it’s implemented. For instance, we developed an application for internal use. After it was developed, we realized it didn’t do what we wanted. Ultimately, we decided to redesign most of the app. It happens as part of the learning curve with any new technology.
The Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality & Mixed Reality Industries are so exciting. What is coming around the corner? How will these improve our lives? What are the concerns we should keep an eye out for? Aside from entertainment, how can VR or AR help work or other parts of life? To address this, we had the pleasure of interviewing Adam Hintzman.
Adam Hintzman is a machine design engineer and the AR, VR and MR technology leader at 3M. During his career he has worked to deploy this technology at 3M corporate offices, labs and manufacturing sites worldwide. His passion to empower 3Mers with X Reality has shifted mindsets and prepared 3M for the future.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit about your backstory and how you grew up?
Growing up, I watched sci-fi movies, played immersive gaming systems and invented gadgets. These moments always kept me thinking of what could be, instead of what is. For instance, I turned unused lawncare parts into a go-kart, raced for first place in a 90s NASCAR videogame headset, and always wondered if the future of tech would look like anything in the movies. Eventually, these passions grew to a career in which I engineer machinery for a vast array of 3M products and lead some of the company’s efforts to leverage the latest X reality (XR) technologies.
Is there a particular book, film, or podcast that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
Star Wars is easily the most influential movie series to me. Even though it is set in a universe that is apparently different (e.g. space travel, hovering vehicles), it can captivate you and make you believe this could be our near future. As a kid, I was always fascinated by this, especially by the tech.
Some of that technology correlates to what I’m doing now. For instance, Boba Fett’s helmet mounted display resembles a lot of current AR headsets, and R2-D2’s holographic messaging is very similar to the experience with the latest MR headsets. It is exciting to think that what was thought to be futuristic technology just a few decades ago is now reality.
Is there a particular story that inspired you to pursue a career in the X Reality industry? We’d love to hear it.
I have always been interested in the XR industry, but I was focused on the entertainment aspects before working at 3M.
My pursuits into XR for enterprise began at my first 3M engineering picnic when I met my director for the first time. He introduced himself and he asked if I knew about AR and VR. I replied, “It’s augmented and virtual reality,” and he said “Alright, you’re in!” From there I was part of the AR/VR Venture Engineering program, which allocates resources to investigate or develop new techniques, processes and technologies. I capitalized on this opportunity to influence XR at 3M, and I’ve been fortunate to be part of the 3M’s major AR, VR and MR (mixed reality) efforts ever since.
I saw this technology as a means to unite my project stakeholders and break the barriers between the digital and real world. For example, I could use VR to display an interactive model of a new machine design that accurately portrays ergonomics, safety and maintainability. After the design has been approved, I could use AR/MR to review equipment being fabricated or support equipment that has been installed.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began this fascinating career?
The 2020 Consumer Electronics Show (CES), which happened right before COVID shutdowns, was pivotal. I was given an amazing opportunity to represent 3M at CES and explore the latest and greatest XR products. It was like a dream come true! I was able to meet a ton of awesome people and put on tech that I never thought I’d be able to try — like a VR haptic bodysuit that sends electrical charges to your skin to simulate interactions with the virtual world (e.g. wind). It was a “pinch me this isn’t real” situation.
The CES show opened my eyes to a lot of possibilities and helped me realize this isn’t an industry of one, but an industry of many — many individuals and companies that are approaching various industry issues in innovative ways. I also had opportunities to hear some of these individuals discuss how they’ve implemented this technology at an enterprise scale, which inspired me to think about how we can do more at 3M. Let’s keep pushing. Let’s see where we can go with this technology.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I recall facilitating an MR demo before we deployed MR headsets globally in a glass walled room. I noticed the curious, borderline concerned looks from passersby as their colleagues were rapidly gesticulating and tapping the air. So, I guess my funniest mistake was not picking a more appropriate conference room to conduct product demonstrations.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
Four people come to mind:
Cale Schwalm, my director, enabled me to work on 3M AR/VR/MR when I first started at 3M. He always pushes status quo boundaries and he’s very supportive of 3M’s “15% Culture” of allocating a percentage of your work week to explore areas of interest that aren’t directly related to your day-to-day job. He has been a hands-on supporter of this technology, always willing to help set up for internal demos, coordinating stakeholder meetings and ultimately supporting XR in any way he could.
Jeff Rasmussen, IT risk specialist, is a mentor within the IT organization. Jeff always says “yes, if” rather than “no, because.” He found ways to relate new headsets to existing approved equipment, which significantly helped gain buy-in from IT. His mentorship allowed us to cultivate a strong working partnership with IT that continues to support VR, AR and MR technologies.
Martin Pozniak, digital software engineer, close friend, and AR/MR technology leader is a crucial member of the team. He started the train-the-trainer support network, which has allowed us to support this tech without additional headcount. He always pushes the team to consider how else it can help 3M, and always considers our users with every decision we make.
Elizabeth Harris, Six Sigma black belt, oversaw our business relations with our internal stakeholders. She was an early supporter of the tech and enabled a swift deployment of MR headsets during the start of COVID to enable 3Mers to communicate with each other without needing to travel. She was crucial in helping bridge the gaps between our technical expertise and our stakeholders’ needs.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
From an enterprise perspective, there are four main categories of use cases: communication, training, design and data visualization. Some of which are currently being used, while others are being actively worked on.
Communication: We rolled out mixed reality in 2020 with the Microsoft HoloLens 2 to alleviate communication issues caused by COVID travel restrictions. By using the built-in head mounted camera, 3Mers were able to stream various aspects of their work environments to remote participants, giving a virtual first-person view. It allowed 3Mers to engage in complex situations with vendors, customers and coworkers, and it even assisted with 3M’s respirator production when we had to ramp up production to meet rapidly growing demand.
Training: Training can be broken down into two main categories: virtual and hands-on. For virtual training we use various VR headsets in different ways. For instance, our Personal Safety Division uses VR to train customers on how to use our safety products. This is extremely helpful because you can simulate dangerous experiences without exposing the trainee to any inherent danger. 3M also uses it for tradeshows to showcase how 3M products act in real world simulations (e.g. a driving simulator with various road conditions to demonstrate 3M reflective films on road signs). Personally, I think our work in VR allows us to engage users in ways that traditional media can’t and provides users with a deeper understanding of the content.
For hands-on training, we are actively looking into how MR can elevate the training experience. Since MR allows trainees to view the content hands-free, they can actually go through training steps while performing the tasks. For example, with hand detection you can naturally progress to the next step of the training guide by placing your hand on the next tool. Or, it can be more traditional, appearing as pictures, videos and text. Because the content is holographic, it’s like a 30-inch TV that you can put anywhere you want — above your workspace or wherever you feel like it’s most ergonomic — and see it while you work. It’s more immersive, quicker, and easier to understand than simply watching videos beforehand.
Design: As with training, design is broken into the VR and MR applications. As a mechanical engineer, VR is extremely helpful to make quick iterations with equipment I design. One can quickly view designs in a 1:1 scale from an office and make iterative changes for ergonomics, safety and maintenance-conscious design. VR enables engineering stakeholders to engage with the design by walking around it and interacting with the different touch points. For example, I have seen someone from maintenance simulate a task of replacing a part, which led to accessibility improvements that would not have been addressed without this tech.
For MR, we are looking into holographically placing equipment to check fitment and cohesion with the existing space. This is extremely beneficial as engineering can proactively catch issues with interferences and confirm that assembly and installation of equipment is as designed.
Data Visualization: The holy grail of XR is data visualization. This is the most complex and time-consuming application, but it is the current pinnacle of XR. By interlacing real world parameters with the digital space, you can overlay machine data over the sensors that are creating them. In theory, allowing you to interact with the data and equipment in the real space.
Another exciting development at 3M is that we recently hired our first mixed reality designer, so now we are essentially building the 3M design language for AR, VR and MR. If you consider brand recognition and app development, there is a specific style and format that has been carefully optimized for traditional platforms like phones and laptops. XR brings new modalities, which require a completely new way of designing.
With our own designer, 3M now has the skillset to internally design digital content in this space that is optimized for each platform. For instance, typing is easy on a phone but difficult in XR. And instead of having the limitation of a single screen, you now have a head mounted display. You have something that you can manipulate in any way you want. It opens avenues for a lot of design challenges, but also affords different ways to leverage the technology. So now we’re looking at how we can best create content in this space, not just leverage existing platforms.
The VR, AR and MR industries seem so exciting right now. What are the 3 things in particular that most excite you about the industry? Can you explain or give an example?
I would say it’s accessibility, accessibility, accessibility. Technology is driven by interest, and interest is a product of accessibility.
If you look at VR, it began to reach critical mass when devices became no more expensive than most gaming consoles. In turn, that increased the opportunity for developers to reach a wider audience and justify the cost of their games.
Now, companies are developing new technologies for these industries to further increase their overall accessibility. For instance, 3M developed a folded optics product that significantly reduces the size and weight of VR headsets while improving optical clarity.
What are the 2 things that concern you about the VR, AR and MR industries? Can you explain? What can be done to address those concerns?
- Personal safety: There are reasonable concerns from enterprises when adopting XR headsets since they can occlude or augment what you see. Fortunately, the industry has responded to most of those concerns. For instance, VR headsets use pass-through video feed to help ensure users don’t walk into or trip over nearby objects in their immediate real world while they’re interacting in the virtual world.
- Metaverse ecosystem: Many companies are trying to create a metaverse of some kind, and the trick will be coming up with a way for all these different devices, operating on different platforms, to interact with each other.
History has shown that different digital ecosystems tend to segregate users, think iOS vs Android. Without synergy in the metaverse, users will struggle to build a digital community, which is especially troublesome with technology that is still being adopted. Fortunately, companies working in this space acknowledge this concern. If they are able to follow through with a device- and platform-agnostic metaverse, then we are going to see tremendous growth in this industry.
I think the entertainment aspects of VR, AR and MR are apparent. Can you share with our readers how these industries can help us at work?
As I mentioned earlier, VR, AR and MR currently have four main use cases at work: communication, training, design and data visualization. Depending on which technology you use, the benefits within these categories change.
VR is a fantastic tool to simulate experiences that would otherwise be costly, dangerous or logistically challenging. If you are a new fork truck operator, you can simulate driving a fork truck in different simulations that prepare you for operating one for the first time.
AR displays digital information in the field of view of the device. If you are stocking a grocery store, now you can pull up your phone and have a digital compass pointing to exactly which shelf the product goes on.
MR combines the benefits of both, allowing a worker to see and interact with holograms that interface with the real world. If you’re an engineer installing new equipment in a specific space, you can overlay your design and visually confirm that it is being installed correctly.
Are there other ways that VR, AR and MR can improve our lives? Can you explain?
There are many different use cases for XR. VR has the power to build friendships while removing geographic limitations. You can attend virtual parties and through body trackers dance away the night. With these technologies, you can pull out your phone and have your GPS app show you how to navigate around a city with overlaid arrows and business information. You can ski and have performance data like heart rate, speed and elevation appear in your goggles. You can showcase the benefits of your product in different conditions without having to transport heavy and elaborate demonstration equipment.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about working in your industry? Can you explain what you mean?
The one myth that I would like to dispel is that new tech can completely replace old tech/processes. In reality, new technology is more of an evolution of current ones, and rarely is it better in every way. For instance, there isn’t a substitute for physically troubleshooting equipment if you are available and travel is possible. In situations where that isn’t the case, new technology can help you get “eyes on the problem” by streaming a first-person view at that location. MR communication isn’t a substitute for travel but it is a powerful solution when travel isn’t possible. In other words, new technology is about adding a tool in the toolbox.
Another myth is that adoption follows innovation. You must focus on real-world use cases to cultivate support and adapt the technology as new uses cases and issues arise. It is easy to forget that most of our technology also had many years of growing pains before it became commonplace. The cutting edge isn’t easy, nor is it quick.
What are your “5 Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Career In The VR, AR or MR Industries?”
- Always say “yes if” instead of “no because.” When we first deployed this technology and we were seeking buy-in, finding ways to assimilate, correlate or compare a new technology to something existing was helpful in changing or shaping perceptions. For example, rather than saying no we can’t use an MR headset because we don’t have the policies in place to manage it, you can say yes if you consider this new headset operating system is roughly similar to a tablet we currently use.
- Partnerships and endorsements are crucial. Identify the individuals who will help you and guide you through the obstacles you will almost inevitably encounter, such as negotiating licenses, managing devices or funding new equipment. You can’t navigate these obstacles alone.
- Mistakes are opportunities. When something is new, there are aspects that aren’t fully understood until it’s implemented. For instance, we developed an application for internal use. After it was developed, we realized it didn’t do what we wanted. Ultimately, we decided to redesign most of the app. It happens as part of the learning curve with any new technology.
- Passion is essential. There’s no reason to get involved with this if you don’t have the passion to do so. You must be driven because you’re going to face a lot of obstacles and you will easily lose your drive to continue. Given time, you might eventually see a technology you have been passionately advocating for become advocated by others — including some who were initially the biggest skeptics.
- Vertical integration. Having in-house expertise makes it much easier to create an app or an experience that is exactly what you want. We’ve been doing this for quite some time in the VR space and we have expertise that allows us to create content that we couldn’t necessarily get from the outside.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I would inspire people to break corporate and individual silos. It is very easy to have the mindset that this is my process/idea/specialty without realizing that others in the company might benefit from your experience. I have seen this firsthand with AR/VR/MR and I have been working toward a corporate-wide community of users. It’s incredible when an individual posts about an MR project they are working on and others in the company chime in to offer suggestions or draw inspiration for a different project. Ultimately, we are stronger together and benefit from everyone’s experience.
We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why?
Two people came to mind:
- Sandy Monroe: He’s an automotive manufacturing engineer by trade and he has become popular on YouTube for pioneering a new genre of vehicle reviews that seek to understand the engineering behind the vehicles being reviewed. This is the first time I have ever seen anyone review a car that went beyond stating that a car is efficient and address how it is efficient. He demonstrates to a global audience what great engineering looks like, and as an engineer I love to see industry leaders advocate for my passion.
- James Hoffman: From a high level he is a coffee connoisseur and has an amazing YouTube channel dedicated to brewing the best coffee. There are few good engineers without coffee, and his videos inspired me to buy my own coffee machine and locally sourced beans. I’d never thought I’d be a coffee aficionado, but here I am!
Thank you so much for these excellent stories and insights. We wish you continued success on your great work!