Much like the best machines that fill his customers’ factories, Roy Ashok has little unplanned time.
The augmented reality veteran stepped up to succeed Brian Mullins as CEO of Daqri in early October, then guided the first real significant product rollout — shipping not another version of the Smart Helmet that grabbed so much attention, but rather its newer, slimmer Smart Glasses — in early November. He has no seismic life or work events on the calendar this month. Yet.
Ashok joined Daqri less than two years ago, but his history with both the company and the augmented reality space stretch back years earlier. In August 2009, when he was still at Qualcomm, he founded a project called Vuforia, which developed into the de facto augmented reality choice for mobile devices across platforms. Through that success, he started talking with the DAQRI when they were still deep in research and development, their first Smart Helmet a distant dream.
“They were trying to change how we do things in enterprise,” Ashok said. “People still sell a bulldozer pretty much the same way they have for decades. There have been incremental improvements, but fundamentally the task and the training are the same. The opportunity with Daqri was to go and rethink how we work.”
Ashok still has far fewer days as CEO than Daqri has major industrial customers — early customers included big names like Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Siemens, and more companies have been buying in — but his affinity and energy for the position are obvious. Here, he talks about early goals for both the company and the space, as well as some early lessons learned.
Oh, and Tesla Autopilot. He talks about Tesla Autopilot, too.
IndustryWeek: This latest product shipment is a major shift from Smart Helmets to the sleeker Smart Glasses. This feels like a potential game changer for you.
Roy Ashok: The helmets were a great development platform for us. They helped us flesh out all the technologies and really refine the use cases for our customers. At the end of the day, we have to show clear ROI and that’s something the helmet allowed us to do on the business side — really home in on the use cases, the use in actual environments, tests with end users. All of that learning was used in the development of the Glasses.
To be successful in AR, you have to do the hardware, the software, the computer vision — all have to be tightly integrated as systems. These are not off-the-shelf components that anybody can put together. You really need the core capabilities and optics — display technologies, computer vision, hardware design, software, of course.
IW: I haven’t used either product on the floor, but I have tested both out in more controlled spaces. I feel like I could wear the Glasses for a far longer period of time, and I felt more connected to reality beyond the lenses. Has anything surprised you during testing?
RA: The Glasses are much more appealing — in form factor and price point —but definitely for use in a more horizontal fashion, the glasses are a good fit. Nothing has surprised thus far. Everything has been consistent with our understanding of the space. Bear in mind, we’ve been working with many customers through the helmet programs, so they’ve already finished their innovation projects and now they’re looking at how to roll this out within their organization. You have to be careful about how you roll these out. The last thing you want is some bad experience for a customer, especially at this point.
We’ve gotten to a nice base of customers and units where we’re seeing this used regularly, tested quite intensively, and the products are holding up really well. From a use case point of view, it’s consistent with what we’ve seen. Little bit too early to actually give figures on the new rollouts.
IW: You have a little more than two months as CEO now. What are your goals for your first full calendar year in that position?
RA: As we entered the fourth quarter, I think the challenge was to get production up and going at the right level of quality, yield. We’ve largely ironed out those issues, so that challenge is on the downswing. As we move into Q1, it’s really about how we listen to our customers and respond to feedback quickly — if there is anything negative, especially. In some senses, we’re living with our customers and making sure their investment in these devices doesn’t just become shelfwear. We need to make sure this is being used every day and there is a clear ROI.
IW: Anything interesting — or potentially as major as the Glasses — in development?
RA: Any kind of device that goes into enterprise today doesn’t stop at being just the device provider, right? We want to devise a lot more value. You invest in your glasses and there’s a lot more in the pipeline coming. … There are some interesting R&D technologies we have going on and I’m interested in bringing those to market. Some of those, you’ll see in Q1, specifically around the use of DAQRI mapping, DAQRI Maps, which allows users to map their indoor environment — equipment, tools, work bench — and capture the as-is state in a nice detail, high-resolution 3D map with full visual geometry. I’m excited about that. We’ve started testing that out with some customers and are beginning to move that into the product phase.
IW: How do you forecast that being used industrially?
RA: There are interesting opportunities when you’re able to capture the environment around you and then provide it back to the customer. An example: You map a piece of equipment today. You come back six months down the line, the equipment breaks down. The first thing you do is send a service technician to see it. The technician asks what is the as-is state today, to compare it to what it was when it was deployed. It’s huge, a big requirement for things like turbines and other things that cost millions of dollars, and cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to service and maintain. Doing that is a time-consuming process. We have the ability to do it in minutes, rather than days. It’s exciting what we can do once we have these powerful devices out there.
IW: What technology inspires you?
RA: I’m very interested in new display technologies and the potential for machine learning to disrupt the space. I know everybody in the space is looking at machine learning and AI, but for me, if I look at what’s going to make a difference in this new paradigm of visual computing, if you will, it’s displays, and then intelligently delivery data to those displays. The display technologies are pretty good, good enough for enterprise, but we want holographic displays. We’ve invested in that space, and others have invested in that space, and there’s a lot of innovation, but nothing that’s moved from the R&D space to the labs. There’s a lot of work going on.
Then there’s the whole AI space. There, the companies that will be successful will be the ones that have will be the ones that have access to the data and can develop the right algorithms that deliver the insights from that data. … What AI is doing is taking that data from sort of a simple statistical model to something more natural, interesting and useful. That is hugely disruptive. Whoever figures that out will have something interesting on their hands.
IW: Other than your phone, what tech can you not live without?
RA: I have a Tesla Model S, and I cannot live without Autopilot. I love it, it’s related to the space I work in, I appreciate the technology. I live in San Diego, so I drive from San Diego to Los Angeles. On a good day, that’s an hour and a half commute, on a regular day it’s a three-hour commute. Autopilot is huge. I don’t know how I would do it without that.
When I use Autopilot — and I use it a lot, probably over 70% of my driving time — I’m looking for flaws in the system, simply because I know how this thing works and I know the limits of it. Every time I get an update from Tesla, I’m curious to see how it performs and whether the performance has improved. Technically, it’s supposed to get better over time.
IW: At the same time you’re sitting there and thinking about Autopilot, you’re probably thinking how you can apply it to DAQRI, right? How can we take what Elon’s done and plug it in over here?
RA: That’s exactly right. That connection happens instantly. The space is so related, right? Computer vision is such a nascent space and there’s so much headroom for development in so many different fields. There are some learnings that are applicable to everything. You have to constrain your use case, you have to set the right expectations for end user as to where this thing can work.
IW: What surprises have you had as CEO? And what’s been better or worse than expected?
RA: What surprises me most, even though I’ve been here two years and I thought I knew everybody, is how people in one role have such great ideas and can be pushed beyond their comfort zones. What can we do better? We can move a little faster, we can try to restructure some of our processes.