Oculus’ Rift VR headset. Credit: Wired Magazine

Catherine Henry knows spatial computing.

She is currently an SVP with global digital production company Media.Monks, where she handles growth strategy for 5G and VR/AR/XR innovation—a position that has her working on mixed-reality projects with some of the globe’s biggest brands. On top of that, her company Palpable Media has spent the last five years delivering educational content like XR industry intelligence reports and market research, as well as services like innovation strategy design.

Henry has rare first-hand experience with the challenges and possibilities of the technology in business applications. That’s why we caught up with her to discuss a variety of topics, including the true potential of 5G, why VR can offer much greater value than mobile AR, and why your company should get into XR technology ASAP.

Sean Higgins: How did you start working with spatial computing technology? Can you give us a little bit of background?

Catherine Henry

Catherine Henry: My post graduate studies were in economics, at Johns Hopkins, and then I did an MBA focused in marketing. Both of these disciplines concentrate on trends—drawing from the past, making sense of all the information we have today, and trying to project where we’re headed tomorrow.

These core skills helped later when I worked in finance, where I headed marketing for emerging tech investments in Asia and Europe. My task was to travel around the world, meet with institutional investors, and explain where future technologies are taking us, why they are important, and why they merited attention and investment.

While visiting New York City, I walked into the Microsoft Store on Fifth Avenue and I tried on a VR headset. I was already familiar with VR, but putting on that headset made all the difference. While the demo was rather basic, it was still groundbreaking and exciting. I thought, “this is it.” I kid you not, from that day on, I decided I had to dedicate my career completely to XR.

What did it look like, turning your career entirely toward XR?

It wasn’t easy or obvious! I went back to school in 2016 to study immersive technologies and VR filmmaking at the New York Film Academy.

That was very exciting, because I was learning about how these immersive technologies were being used in a variety of ways. I loved filmmaking but I chose to draw on my specialty, which is communicating the importance of these technologies, and showing how they could be applied for important stakeholders in the future. The need for this skillset became apparent when, in my meetings with advertising, brands, and tourist bureaus, nobody understood how these new technologies could be applied. And those were the obvious use cases!

That seems like a big task, teaching a broad range of people, in a variety of industries, about these new technologies. How do you do that?

Last year, I held a live series on Linkedin about how XR technologies could help businesses operate “contact free” during the pandemic. XR technologies are extremely helpful for communicating, collaborating, distance learning, and remote assistance. I called upon many of the technology leaders that I knew around the world, including Tony Vitiello, Kathy Hackl, Sol Rogers, and Alan Smithson. In these interviews we discussed how XR technologies could help companies innovate their business operations, branding, and consumer engagement.

I continue to do this work as I publish different XR intelligence reports. For six months, I had a show in VR about great VR experiences. In all of my work, I try to track industry developments and communicate how XR technologies can advance different industries. It’s my personal passion.

5G is a gateway, it’s the thing that’s going to help us move into this new era.

Looking at your reports, it seems you believe in hard data as an educational tool. Is that right?

Exactly. I think one thing this world doesn’t need is more pundits. There are a lot of people who are putative experts in VR, but to be honest, nobody’s really an expert. It’s too big, and moving too fast.

So the real lessons are in the data?

I research trends and look at the numbers. I’m really passionate about understanding the data behind the growth and projecting forward. And you’ll find that my reports are very heavily data-driven. And even though I don’t do my own original research, I depend on it pretty heavily.

It’s very important to me that we dig into the real numbers and then extrapolate what we can to project where these different industries are headed. I will look at specific company history, their trajectory their growth rates, their retention rates, in terms of the audience and stickiness. I will also look at a lot of different factors, including what I call “top down” cultural and social trends. And then based on that, I make my future projections.

Henry argues that mobile AR isn’t immersive enough for companies who want to truly engage their customers.
OyundariZorigtbaatar, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Do you also draw on the histories of other kinds of technology when you make predictions? Here at Spatial Reality, we like to talk about WiFi as a great learning example of how a technology can develop over time, from hype to real-world application.

I think it’s interesting to look at history, for example, as we think about who the likely winners are in the XR race. I look at the early internet and think about some of the players that we thought would own and command the Internet. It seemed obvious at the time, but now a lot of these names have long been forgotten.

Names like Netscape, AOL, or even Yahoo, which were the dominant companies are now the stuff of history. So even though we assume that Apple or Facebook are going to own the metaverse, we don’t know that.

Can you give us a quick example of a trend prediction? What important trends are you tracking with data?

Among the trends I’m looking at is 5G, which is a catalyst for edge computing. I am also looking at trends like the gamification of everything, from banking to concerts, the experience of being on Twitch or AR branding. I am looking at the future of content generation as an industry.

I look at a lot of trends like this, and then I ask, what kind of technologies or use-cases do these trends enable? I think about how this is going to change the way we work and play.

“Too many people are under the impression that AR is going to be exponentially bigger and more commercially viable. I think it’s okay, but for the real “wow,” we have volumetric capture that can do so much more. “

Let’s dig into 5G. I don’t think some people understand exactly how much this tech will change the ways we can use XR. But it’s going to be a huge change, right?

Right. A lot of people think that 5G is just a technical upgrade, but it’s about delivering more power, faster.

Start by thinking about the early internet. It would take so much time—even 10 minutes—for the computer to connect with the printer. And for the printer to print out one single page. If you remember, it felt like forever. But today, 5G can reduce download speeds from 20 milliseconds to less than one, which is less than a snap of a finger. It’s closer, actually, to the flash of a camera. It’s that quick. Can you imagine downloading a webpage that quickly?

And this is transformational for experiences like VR and AR. They have such heavy graphics that they need to be able to download and update really, really quickly so that you can act, and feel that sense of presence, and experience what’s magical about it.

So everyone has been waiting for the 5G spectrum to open the highway for faster internet, but it’s also opening the highway for all of these other technologies that have heretofore been dormant. I mean, VR was invented initially in 1838, right? But it’s only now that we have the technology and the speed and the bandwidth and the computing power for it to come together.

5G is really a gateway, it’s the thing that’s going to help us move into this new era.

In your work, you spend a lot of time looking at the ways these XR technologies are being applied around the world. What excites you the most?

I’m really lucky that I work at Media.Monks, and so I’m privy to a lot of projects around the world that are using cutting-edge technology. Some are public and some aren’t as well known, but they’re crazy exciting, so I’m really lucky.

To be honest, though, I’m seeing mostly augmented reality applications, which aren’t very exciting for me. I’m just going to admit that I’m not a big mobile AR fan. The screen is so small, so it’s not immersive enough for companies. And I love virtual reality because of the immersive nature.

I would like to see some evolution of the AR experience, so that it does feel more immersive and hence more magical. I do believe we’re going to get there, but I think that there’s too much of a heavy reliance on AR experience rather than exploring the immense potential of VR right now.

Media.Monks worked with AT&T to produce a Batman-themed VR skydiving experience at 2019 Comic Con.

Why do you think that is?

Too many people are under the impression that AR is going to be exponentially bigger and more commercially viable. I think it’s okay, but for the real “wow,” we have volumetric capture that can do so much more. We have VR social experiences which create a much deeper, more meaningful set of experiences and connectivity than Zoom could ever do in a million years.

So I really encourage people to try these new technologies—really try them, get on the headset and explore. Don’t just try games and a physical experience, but try going to the social experiences and try some of the beta worlds. It’s just so magical that it’s hard to imagine this not evolving further.

I would say that a lot of brands that virtual reality is a non-starter for their brand presence, because the number of people using VR is relatively small, right? But it’s growing exponentially.

It sounds like VR has immense potential for commercial applications, but businesses don’t quite understand what the technology can do for them. Maybe you could help out—How can businesses use VR to their advantage?

Think about what’s important in your industry. In branding, the important thing is to remember that everything is about sharing and engagement. The more people that can do that, and the more they’re excited to do that, the better. There’s a lot of competition out there for people’s time and attention so these tools can help you do something that’s extraordinary and different.

And that extends beyond branding because we’re in an experience economy. That’s true in education, medicine, entertainment, and even construction. I’ve seen construction training done in VR, for instance. It’s all about engagement with the experience. With the headset on, you can experience the training, hands-on, using expensive equipment simulations that are very photo-realistic.  Statistics show that the retention rates for training in VR are much higher than traditional in-class training methodologies. As much as 80% information retained over one year vs 20% by traditional methods.

If you want to stay competitive going forward, you have to innovate. Innovation is hard, it’s scary. It requires change, it requires risk. And it’s a time when so many companies are thinking, we can’t afford any risk. But then I ask you, can they afford to stand by the sidelines?

I highly encourage people to explore new ways of engaging with people, because it could have a much more profound and long-lasting effect than status quo marketing and communication exercises. And on a deeper level, it could also have big operational effects. This is true across the entire spectrum of business activities, from upstream activities like manufacturing, facilities maintenance, logistics shipping, transportation, to downstream activities like retail and customer service. All of those things can be innovated through VR technologies.

Do you have any practical advice for companies that want to get into XR, but don’t know where to start? What would you tell them?

Find the people who are developing technologies for your industry. If you’re in medicine, look at medical breakthroughs, and then find out who’s developing that. Keep diving into your specific industry, find out who’s pushing the boundaries. There are a lot of case examples that aren’t widely shared, but you just have to do a little bit of Google research and you’ll find some tremendous case studies.

And it’s urgent to do this. Here we are today, with 5G, unleashing new technologies that enable us to connect and create in ways that we’ve never been able to do before. And we are at the dawn of the metaverse, which is a fundamentally new way of engaging with one another with these new technologies.  The potential is enormous, but it’s important to educate oneself about the potential so that one can take advantage of it.

Many XR solutions, like Campfire’s plug and play tool set, are very powerful and easy to use. But Henry argues that it might be better to develop your own solution, which can be tailor-made to accomplish your unique goals.

Do you have any quick recommendations for how these companies can start working with the technology itself? For instance, what kind of tools should they look at first?

I would say, don’t just pick something off the shelf. Back up and ask, What is it that I’m trying to achieve? And then find somebody who’s a developer, who’s a producer, who’s a maker, and who has a broad portfolio of work.

They’ll be able to say, “Right, how can we get you there?” They can look at the entire spectrum of tools at our disposal, and create something magical. They can help you explore all the possibilities. That’s important, because right now you can’t discount AR or VR, or any of the other realities, because you’ve heard that it doesn’t work.

At this point, I usually like to ask, What’s the biggest problem with the way that people are using these technologies today? With XR, it sounds like It’s a lack of openness and imagination about what’s possible.

I totally agree with that assessment. People really need to open their minds to what’s possible. And it’s urgent that they start soon.

With this alphabet soup of realities—AR, VR, XR—a lot of people get overwhelmed. And they think that it’s going to happen later. But it’s already happening now. Just because you don’t see it in your everyday activities doesn’t mean it’s not happening in places like upstream activities, manufacturing and production and, as you know, the AEC industry where it’s being used in prototyping and design.

Right now it’s about creating that interaction, it’s about that tool that creates engagement. Whether it’s with your clients and prospects or with your end customers. You have to start asking, how do you create that experience that makes them come back and engage with you and find out more, and want to want to do more business with you?

If you want to stay competitive going forward, you have to innovate. Innovation is hard, it’s scary. It requires change, it requires risk. And it’s a time when so many companies are thinking, we can’t afford any risk. But then I ask you, can they afford to stand by the sidelines?

So the time to act is now—or yesterday. Because these technologies are really about to take off, and soon they’ll be able to do amazing things we can’t even predict.

Exactly. I write an XR intelligence series, which focuses on different aspects of XR. And one that I recently wrote about wearables speaks to the fact that these wearables are in the very early stages, and we should think about them like the iPhone. When the iPhone came out, we really couldn’t imagine what it could do.

The early internet was the same. It was a platform built to share information. Basically they thought I would upload some documents, and you would download them, and that was it. They didn’t imagine YouTube, they didn’t imagine Roblox, or Uber, or any of the other imaginative uses of the technology.

That’s why this is a really important moment for XR. I believe that these new technologies are going to be used in ways that we could never imagine before. I believe that there’s so much that the technology is going to do—and it’s all beyond what we can predict.

Find Catherine Henry on LinkedIn, or check out her company Palpable Media.