Makers of The Metaverse: Vishal Shah Of Lenovo On The Future Of The VR, AR & Mixed Reality Industries

An Interview With Fotis Georgiadis

Good timing — This industry will grow and change significantly in the next couple of decades. Unfortunately, quality solutions could come too early or too late as adoption rates for the technologies fluctuate. Stay as vigilant and nimble as possible.

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 Vishal Shah.

As Lenovo’s GM of XR and Metaverse, Vishal Shah leads the ThinkReality solutions team. Vishal leads Lenovo’s XR and Metaverse practices and is responsible for building and managing strong cross-functional teams for holistic product management, operations, and sales. Vishal has a 20+ year track record of successfully conceptualizing and launching consumer electronics products, software solutions, and cloud services in the mobile industry.

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?

Mine is a typical first-generation immigrant story. Growing up in India, I was always in awe of the great melting pot that the United States was and a true “land of opportunity.” I admired its great university system and how it prepared you for global roles. During the time I grew up in India, computers and PCs were rare, hard to afford, and restricted to large corporations. My first experience with a PC was in the early 1990s at a close family friends house, when they called me over to install it for them. Needless to say, I was instantly enamored with the potential of what it could do, and after installing Windows for the first time (from DOS), realized the power and potential of the “user interface” in technology. I virtually moved into their house and spent just about every waking hour out of college in front of that PC, to the extent that they thought I had been disowned by my family. After my Bachelor’s in Computer Science from India, I came to the Pennsylvania State University for Master’s in Computer Science, during the early days of the Mobile Communication and Internet 1.0 innovation cycle.

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?

After my Masters, my first job was at Motorola where I took a Dale Carnegie course. As part of the course, we read How to Win Friends and Influence People. I was blown away by the simplicity of its timeless yet important principles. As a manager, I made the course and book an essential part of the new employee on-boarding curriculum, and to this day I have colleagues thank because the book helped them both professionally and in their personal life. More recently, I was really touched and inspired by Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime, which chronicles the grit of Trevor, and the support from his mother, as he navigated the worst elements of apartheid South Africa to become one of the most successful comedians and TV personalities in the world.

Is there a particular story that inspired you to pursue a career in the X Reality industry? We’d love to hear it.

I had read Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, where the term “Metaverse” was first coined at an early stage in my career and thought it was fascinating but a little far-fetched. However, when I got to experience the Oculus VR device after it was acquired by Facebook, I was blown away. At the same time, I had a chance to see Qualcomm’s Vuforia platform developed for phone and tablet-based 3D AR rendering and crafty devices like Google Carboard. I was convinced that XR is the “visual interface” of the future. The computer industry has been restricted to the 2D rectangular space for decades now, and I saw XR as the means for it to evolve into a true 3D, immersive and infinite environment.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began this fascinating career?

My most interesting story is a personal one. I am blessed to have a 95-year-old grandfather who still loves to drive, travel and see the world. During the Covid 19 lockdowns, I had him experience various tourist sites and experiences on VR headsets and he was blown away at how realistic the experience was and that it transported him there. The other areas where I have seen XR have a huge impact are in mental/physical health, rehabilitation, and K-12 education. XR and the Metaverse can truly be the “great equalizer” when it comes to impact on health and education.

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 don’t know if it is a funny mistake, but nevertheless, during the early parts of my career when I was launching AR headsets and solutions in 2014, there were a lot of lessons learned. One big mistake we made was being too early and ahead of the curve. Although our products were world-class and groundbreaking, not having the component supply chain and partners being able to scale at the same pace was a major reason for some of the failures in the early days of the XR journey for a lot of founders and innovators.

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?

I will be forever grateful to my parents who have supported me to get the best education and opportunities with the limited means they had. To this day, their support and encouragement is a major pillar in my endurance system. Professionally, I have stood on the shoulders of some fantastic managers and mentors. Most recently, I am grateful to the senior management at Lenovo for the opportunity to lead the XR business unit for them and build the roadmap for our enterprise metaverse solutions. Last but not least, I am supported by a talented team that challenges and motivates me to do my best each day.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

I lead the ThinkReality business unit at Lenovo. ThinkReality is our portfolio of solutions for commercial AR/VR. Lenovo’s ThinkReality platform is making it easier for enterprise customers to scale into the enterprise Metaverse — virtual platforms where work is enhanced by spatial computing. ThinkReality is among the first truly device and cloud agnostic AR/VR software platforms to enable commercial customers to build, deploy, and manage applications and content on a global scale, with global support. ThinkReality XR Services provide vendor agnostic, end-to-end, white-glove services to help customers plan, deploy and scale XR solutions. ThinkReality also offers a growing portfolio of XR devices, including the award-winning ThinkReality A3, the most versatile smart glasses ever made for the enterprise and the Lenovo Mirage VR S3 headset, built for the workplace and designed for comfortable use throughout a busy day.

The use cases for AR and VR in the enterprise are varied and have proven ROI. The three most common use cases for AR are Remote Expert — which is having and expert viewing what a worker sees through the glasses and assists in guiding tasks, Workflow — having automated guidance on tasks appear in the wearer’s field of view, and Visualization — users can view and work with 3D models or ‘digital twins’.

Because of the immediacy and fidelity of new digital tools experienced through AR/VR devices, workforces will barely be constrained by time and space. The ability to create and work in 3D environments will amplify collaboration and accelerate productivity.

Thank you for all that! Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. 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?

The convergence of technologies and the vision of the Metaverse, 5G technologies, and the impact XR solutions will have on the enterprise market all excite me.

The convergence of technologies, from computing power and optics to haptic interfaces and 3D content, is very exciting; we now have a more complete vision of what this will mean for businesses, users and creators. The Metaverse is a future state of technology where 3D data is easily created and universally readable, resulting in 3D applications as the norm for business processes, productivity, and entertainment.

5G enabled devices have a bright future as the Metaverse for the enterprise continues to develop. Enterprise 5G scenarios are increasingly common now while universal 5G coverage remains on the horizon. Use cases include the ability to quickly and seamlessly push content, as well as deliver location experiences regardless of Wi-Fi connectivity. This is very useful for the enterprise managing global device fleets and applications for its employees and customers. Lenovo is developing new 5G technologies to enhance AR and VR experiences, including a wearable ‘neckband’ smart phone and 5G ready PCs.

And finally, I’m excited about AR and VR’s impact on workers. A good example is in the manufacturing sector. Deloitte recently predicted U.S. manufacturing is expected to have 2.1 million unfilled jobs by 2030. This shortfall is a result of several trends, including retiring ‘baby boomers’ and the loss of skilled workers in the sector. VR is incredibly efficient in training workers because of its inclusive nature, and AR enhances workers’ skill levels by providing access in digital information hands free to help complete tasks. These technologies hold abundant potential for closing the skills gap and increasing opportunities for workers and their employers.

What are the 3 things that concern you about the VR, AR and MR industries? Can you explain? What can be done to address those concerns?

The three things that concern me all have to do with this being a young industry and the inevitable growing pains that come with that. They are: Awareness and Understanding, Interoperability, Privacy and Data Security.

The first concern is awareness and understanding about the capabilities and ROI of XR technologies. There are still a lot of customers in the market that don’t realize how AR and VR can improve worker’s performance and enhance efficiency. I’d urge any C-suite executive or IT decision maker to start reaching out to solutions providers, start taking meetings and begin their journey into the Metaverse sooner rather than later. There is a steep learning curve with the technology, and every organization has their own specific needs that are likely to grow over time. The sooner you start the sooner you can make progress.

The second is interoperability. The ability to unify economies, 3D assets like avatars, and systems across platforms should be a defining characteristic of the Metaverse. There are significant engineering, business and design challenges to achieving this vision. It will take a lot of industry coordination and cooperation to make this happen. Some firms will push for ‘walled gardens’, gated solution in which only their cloud services, hardware or property apps will be used. This is probably unavoidable. However, if that becomes the norm, and the industry fails to build common ground for the Metaverse, we’ll never achieve some of the fantastic experiences the Metaverse could offer.

And last is safety and security. In the rush to building and commercializing the Metaverse, there’s a risk bad and irresponsible actors will create distrust amongst users by failing to secure data or misusing it. We have several very clear examples of this happening from the history of the development of the Internet. With the advent of the Metaverse we have the opportunity to learn from our mistakes and do much better.

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?

This is a great question, technologies and use cases previously thought as primarily being applicable to entertainment are increasingly crossing over to the business world. For example, the 3D graphic engines used to create video games are also being used to create virtual spaces for meetings and retail, because of this we can expect to see a lot more social and business collaboration and better experiences in the Metaverse.

What we are also seeing with the growing use of AR/VR in the enterprises is the gamification of training and learning. For example, you can virtually place workers in scenarios like dealing with difficult customers or responding to a hazardous industrial accident and let them ‘play’ through the situation and score their responses. The immersive nature of these experiences makes them more memorable and instructive. Also, because they are held on digital platforms more data can be captured and analyzed, i.e., many participants made mistakes in the same area, teams and personnel with particular backgrounds have faster response times, etc. That is very useful.

Are there other ways that VR, AR and MR can improve our lives? Can you explain?

Smarter technology can absolutely improve people’s lives. I’ve already mentioned some of the impact on workers, but other fields like education and healthcare are already benefiting. VR learning is a wonderful opportunity for children to ‘see’ and experience abstract concepts in math and science. For example, it’s much more engaging and memorable to walk through a pyramid or sphere to learn geometry. And if you want to understand photosynthesis or how a human heart works, a virtual tour of a plant or the body’s circulatory system provides students with memorable visual lessons. AR has a place too in education, for example, trade schools can improve their lessons with hands-on experience learning about and repairing machinery of all kinds with instructor feedback or automated workflow guidance.

In healthcare, VR has been used for a wide variety of treatments, including pain management and recovering from PTSD. And AR is being used to extend the reach of physicians by connecting them with first responders attending patients onsite so doctors can see what EMT crews are seeing and consult on how to treat them — an excellent way to enhance physician productivity when we have shortages of qualified practitioners.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about working in your industry? Can you explain what you mean?

One myth that I would very much like to dispel is that either hardware or software by itself will determine which firms attain a leadership position in the new XR industry. If you read a lot of popular media, the leading discourse is about which AR or VR headset maker is going to reign supreme and capture the market, or which platform is going to be the most desirable real-estate in the Metaverse. I believe people are thinking about this the wrong way. In the Enterprise Metaverse, where business uses XR technologies to improve operations or create new services, it will be the sum benefit of hardware, software and services that will matter the most. Customers are looking for technology partners that can help them build and scale into the Metaverse with an end-to-end solution.

This is a very young industry, and the enterprise use cases are the cutting edge where innovation is occurring, and ROI is being achieved. The consumer sector will follow. This is similar to the early days of the PC market. There was a small group of hobbyists and tech aficionados that bought PCs in the 70s and early 80s, but it wasn’t until PCs became ubiquitous in offices that consumers decided to put them in their homes. The same is true here, and businesses don’t buy new technology solutions off the shelf, they get them from large, experienced firms with a track record of innovation, success and great service.

What are your “5 Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Career In The VR, AR or MR Industries?”

Because it is such a new field with enormous potential for growth and impact, if you obtain these five attributes, I’m confident you’ll have a successful career in the XR industries.

  1. In-depth knowledge of the tech — The Metaverse will be the culmination of Web 3.0 and immersive computing technologies; haptics, lidar, optical sensors, AI, 5G and blockchain are just some of the technologies that are going to be combined to create new experiences and business models. Having a good handle of how these technologies are developing, covering and being leveraged is the foundation for seeing opportunities and building successful products or strategies.
  2. Vision — It’s difficult to get somewhere if you don’t have a clear vision of where you are going. After you understand the relevant technology start building and testing models for the future of the market. Ask yourself questions like which kinds of workers will benefit most from AR or VR solutions, what are their use cases and specific requirements, etc.
  3. Customer-centric mindset — As you start building your models about the future of the industry, NEVER lose sight of the fact you only win if the customer wins. It’s all about the customer, how do you design solutions for better price, comfort, durability, security and scalability? What services will customers need? How are competitors failing to meet these needs and why?
  4. Network — XR solutions are highly complex, they can’t be built alone. Having good relations with the wide variety of software and hardware vendors that you’ll need to make your product come to market and evolve is critical.
  5. Good timing — This industry will grow and change significantly in the next couple of decades. Unfortunately, quality solutions could come too early or too late as adoption rates for the technologies fluctuate. Stay as vigilant and nimble as possible.

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. 🙂

When you read books like Ready Player One and Snow Crash, the worlds they are set in are unhappy places and the OASIS or Metaverse is primarily a means of escape from a bad reality, rather than technology that improves human society. I think AR/VR technologies have a tremendous potential for good. They can help create more influence and empathy for worthwhile causes. They can help alleviate symptoms and achieve better health, and so on. I’d like to see more young people look at AR/VR and what the Metaverse could be and ask themselves, how can I make the world better with this opportunity?

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? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

I am an avid fan of your column and a regular reader. I thank you for the opportunity to share my experiences and journey. Coming back to your question, I would love to have a breakfast/lunch with Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft. I am a big fan of his leadership style, and how he transformed Microsoft into the trillion-dollar market-cap league and primed to grow even further.

Thank you so much for these excellent stories and insights. We wish you continued success on your great work!

Makers of The Metaverse: Vishal Shah Of Lenovo On The Future Of The VR, AR & Mixed Reality… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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