The responsible development of XR technology requires a diverse community of voices to help build it. To celebrate the limitless number of perspectives in the XR industry, the XR Association sat down with Noble Ackerson, the President of CyberXR Coalition. Ackerson is also a member of XRA’s Future of XR Advisory Council (XRAC).
Below is an excerpt of the interview with Ackerson, which has been edited slightly for brevity and clarity.
1. How did you come to work in the XR industry?
I started out doing full-stack software development. When Senator Mark Warner was running for the Virginia Governor’s Office, which he did win, I became a policy official working under him in Richmond, Virginia. From there, with the remainder of my time, I started doing consulting. Somewhere along the line, I decided to build a product, and so I chose to build.
I started a research company that looked at untapped emerging tech spaces; this was back in 2010-2011. When Google Glass launched, I was obsessed with fitness. I decided I would build a fitness experience on Google Glass, an assisted reality device. Through that, I honed in on my product management and product leadership skills. I also learned a lot about data; data stewardship, consumer trust, learning about things like biometric data gleaned from the sensors in wearable devices, and who owns that data to create value for those users.
I cut my teeth with AI, and a lot of data governance work. So today my career is shaped by this. You can find me squarely sitting at the intersection of data stewardship and product leadership. I work at Ventera as a Director of Products, and I lead the artificial intelligence group. I support causes like the XR Safety Initiative, and I’m currently President of one of their programs called CyberXR, focused on diversity and inclusion-related topics for the XR domain.
2. Where do you think the industry is going, and where do you see your path in AR?
I’m going to say something that’s super opinionated: The industry is moving towards blurring AR, MR, and VR through spatial computing experiences and the devices that support the XR continuum. The one constant for this continuum is data and I see my path designing, building, and promoting the responsible use of data and artificial intelligence.
The Meta Quest and Microsoft Hololens are great examples of why I don’t distinguish between AR and VR.
For responsible use of data and AI, I want to continue advocating for, and making sure that people with my skin color have the same positive experiences as others do. That raw images from the sensors on these devices train and process with privacy as a baseline; on-device. And that they enable accurate recognition and tracking of darker skin in an AR ‘world space’ for example.
I admit that [my goal in] life is to build reliable, safe, ethical products that land with customers while creating value for us and for our business.
3. Do you think we are ready for AR glasses? Is society prepared to go down this road? Have we changed? Has technology changed?
I believe that the market will reward or punish an organization based on how transparent the company is or the value they deliver. It will reward the company if [the public] trusts the company or punish the company if there’s a consequence to some misaligned issue that might come like a data breach or something where [a person] is not protected.
4. Where did this interest in technology come from? What has led you to pursue this career path?
I like to think I’m a left-brain [and a] right-brain individual; creative-and-technical. I can credit my interest in science fiction to shows like Star Trek. [In the show] you’ve got a holodeck that sort of materialized and an experience where again, the physical and digital interact. Fabricators just generate coffee or food, out of the blue — that just blew my mind as to what was possible. I came to learn that a lot of the technology that we use today is influenced by science fiction to some level.
What really got me into the AR space, as we know it today, was that in 2010, late 2011, I was fortunate enough to be amongst a select few individuals handpicked by Google to do user research trials for Google Glass. Later in 2012 when Glass was publically announced, I was again lucky to be among a select few who participated in this hackathon that built apps for the device. Those experiences, essentially, got me to quit my job and start doing this full time — as an engineer, designer, and an experienced ACI designer. [I was able to] nerd out, partner with folks, hitch on to thought leaders and technophiles in the space that were doing it better and learn from them. And, here I am.
5. Can you credit any mentors or teachers for how you went down this path?
During research for my AR fitness startup, I was influenced by a Thad Starner whitepaper on interpreting motion through wearable computers. His research inspired my understanding of what was possible.
As a product manager in the field of AI, I have had countless mentors. They helped me hone in on what I felt could do better than anyone, which is turning ideas into solutions in a responsible way. I spent time doing a lot of market analysis and problem space analysis and finding adjacent domains that enabled me to find creative ways to help solve human problems that matter. This is why I invest so much of my career in the responsible use of data, ethics, data privacy, and stuff like that.
I love to work in the open, showing my work as I go along. And somewhere along the line, I make an impact.
6. It sounds like you weren’t passive. That you were filled with confidence to make it work.
I got a lot of feedback [from others] that I failed. But I guess that’s where — it’s cliche to say — passion comes in. But that doesn’t matter because you have to have the stubborn habit of being mission driven, learning from mistakes, repeating success drivers and overall consistency.
7. What advice do you have for people looking into joining the XR industry or looking into getting into AI?
The benefit of XR and the technologies that enable it is that it isn’t homogenous. I look up to influencers that are showing what is possible and planting a seed. I look up to artists, musicians, educators, mathematicians. This XR domain is so diverse. XR it’s open to all and by nature, it should always be available to all.
What advice would I give folks? That is through repetition, consistency, and passion, align yourself with people who are better at what you think you’re better at. Understand the domain well and learn continuously. Break into spaces you may be excluded from by default, or you think you may be excluded from. Sometimes they may claim there is a pipeline problem, you can just give them the answer: ‘here I am’, which is easier said than done. Then start finding adjacent domains that complement your skill or your area of focus.
8. We often talk about the limitless future of XR. What does that mean to you?
I think it’s aspirational. It’s not easy to estimate the limits. For me, realistically, I like to focus on the foundational needs for each market and the solutions that are value drivers for consumers across the industry domains that they care about. It’s hard to know what value will come with XR — it happens with every industry. I’m excited for the known unknowns that XR brings. We will incrementally learn what adds value to the market. The market will punish or reward the industry based on the ethics in which they deliver – and how they deliver.