Toward Our 3D Future

Editor’s note: Antonio Rodriguez is a partner at Matrix Partners where he focuses on the future of computing, including virtual and augmented reality, wearables, and collaboration applications. He has made investments in Oculus VR, MakerBot, The Echo Nest (now Spotify) among others.  

If the past couple of years have been about one theme for me investment-wise, they have been about exploring the bridge between bits and atoms with a series of bets aimed to make a path between the digital world and the physical one we populate.

And no, I am not talking about ordering a pizza from my smartphone or getting a maid on-demand to come clean my house within an hour. I’m talking about turning the bits on your screen into something you can touch or turning the room in which you are reading these words in into a digital model that you can inhabit. I am referring to the worlds of 3D printing and virtual reality.

Having made early investments in both the former (MakerBot, MarkForged) and the latter (Oculus VR), I am often asked when I decided that “hardware was hot.” (The short answer is that it’s not and will be one of the first investment categories decimated when the current cycle corrects.) The question fewer people have asked is: What connects 3D printers, virtual reality, augmented reality and drones to a possible investment thesis and what might we expect to see emerging as important sub categories for investment over the next year?

We’ve been stuck in a 2D world, with our collective imagination for what computers can do crippled by the obsession with the next app or newly emergent social phenomenon.

Until now, it’s been all tailwinds for the entrepreneurs and companies looking to make stuff happen in 3D. Recently, though, I’ve come to worry that the two tent-pole categories (virtual reality and 3D printing) are about to enter the “trough of disillusionment” as known in the Gartner Hyper Cycle. This is an unfortunate but necessary period during which expectations for the new technology and the reality of what each can deliver today can cause people to doubt. What follows is one way we may get through this trough a little bit faster.

First, a little context. The reason this bi-directional bridge between bits and atoms matters is because of the large multiplier effect this will have on getting back to solving the world’s big hairy problems with technology. Big as in energy, health, education and infrastructure.

As Neil Stephenson has written in the context of the decline of aspirational sci-fi, we’ve spent 20 years inventing, exploring and wallowing in the Internet and, as history’s most democratic source of information and channel for human collaboration, I’m certainly not going to complain. But much like the flatlanders from the story Flatland, we’ve been stuck in a 2D world, with our collective imagination for what computers can do crippled by the obsession with the next app or newly emergent social phenomenon. This excludes, of course, a couple of million mechanical engineers and high-end game designers who need our collective help given the magnitude of the problems they can now tackle.

Two examples that make the point, though there are probably a dozen really compelling ones, are Education and MOOCs and mass customization.

Education and MOOCs. We’ve put the power of a global network to democratize the classroom into effect by offering postage-sized resolution rectangles for instruction and ETS-like multiple choice questions for assessment. And yet we wonder why statistics courses are abandoned faster than JavaScript frameworks on GitHub.

How about using some of the 3D immersive capabilities provided by the Oculus SDK to simulate the power of probability in simulations or to model physical phenomena with calculus? The VR scape is being nibbled at from the edges by folks looking to develop immersive training experiences, but as I’ll argue below, we are far away from being able to move beyond the YouTube-ification of the classroom with today’s tools for the bulk of the most creative educators.

Mass customization. We are all unique snowflakes when it comes to the shape and size of our bodies and yet we live at the bottom of the industrial machine funnel for everything from the shoes on our feet to the prosthetics we use to see, hear and move in the world. There have been good economic reasons for mass production but those economics are changing. And outside of truly bespoke prosthetics, we are only now scratching the surface of what is possible when you take distributed talent, insight and experience and marry to it the means for low volume manufacturing.

While there are “success stories” for both these types of companies that grace the pages of our favorite techno-utopian blogs, looking beyond the headlines you see a recurring pattern: “Professor from XYZ university and team of slave grad students puts together a barely workable demo for more grant funding.” From this, the smell of the future does not emanate, even if William Gibson was correct in his claim that the future is here but just not widely distributed.

In order to move beyond demos, what this 3D world desperately needs is its Hypercard moment. And by that I mean a 3D authoring/simulation environment for the rest of us that ideally comes with about as steep a learning curve as Hypercard, and that treats both the bits and the atoms as two ends of the same continuum — not two totally separate worlds.

In order to move beyond demos, what this 3D world desperately needs is its Hypercard moment.

Tinkercad is closest on the 3D printing side — a web-based CAD tool that almost anyone can master with a little patience but has been bumped around enough to be stripped of product vision beyond aping CAD in the browser (I do love how both of my children can use it expertly, though, so it has been truly a force for good in CAD).

On the VR side, Unity and its associated ecosystem has done an admirable job of getting us out of the cycle counting “hardcore” age of performant game design. But this is only because of the starting point. It is hard for me to see the school teacher from Peoria with a better way to teach fractions sitting down to make a VR experience when he/she would need about a year’s worth of domain-specific knowledge to get there. If the Internet has taught us anything, it is that good ideas come from anyone and anywhere, so expecting the “experts” to give us the next Minecraft for the 3D world is unlikely to happen.

And while I am on Minecraft, let me end there. As far as 3D environments go, Minecraft is the LOGO (if not the Hypercard) of this generation. Through its simple model of crafting blocks, millions have recreated extremely complex real world environments. Minecrift was in fact one of the first Oculus demos I ran, and this MIT project showed great promise to going in the direction of the virtual-physical bridge mentioned above.

Teachers have taught classes entirely on Minecraft — both because it is easy to learn and incredibly powerful in terms of what it can express. Add the fact that its new owner has also announced a fairly impressive offering in VR/AR with Project Hololens and the possibilities become mind-bending.

Still, we can do more. What Hypercard did that was revolutionary was engage not just gamers or musicians or even programmers, but all sorts of professionals, each of whom saw the elephant from a different vantage point. For some it was an everyday database. For others a powerful multimedia tool for storytelling.

In much the same way, the 3D creation/modeling environments of tomorrow will not be just game engines or CAD tools, but software environments where we can ingest, modify and output the very atoms needed to get after the big problems technology will solve over the next 20 years.