For this year's Core77 Design Awards, we conducted in-depth interviews with each of our jury captains to get in a glimpse into their creative minds and hear more about what they'll be looking for in this year's awards submissions.
Joe Hebenstreit is at the forefront of an exciting new product that changes perceptions of augmented reality from an entertainment tool into a viable, highly useful product. As the CEO of Shaper Origin, "the world's first handheld CNC machine" as they've dubbed it, he's helping lead the example for how AR technology can drastically change people's day to day lives. Recently we spoke with Hebenstreit, where the Core77 Design Awards Commercial Equipment Jury Captain shared more about his background in the field of engineering and AR as well as his thoughts on the innovations that will truly influence our future.
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Can you tell me a little bit about your background and how that led you to Shaper?
I started my career as a design engineer in the automotive industry and at some point in time I realized I had certain ambitions outside of just being strictly pigeon-holed within the automotive industry, and I inched to move more into product design to get a lot more general exposure. My time spent at frog design was really quite formative and provided a good opportunity for me to see a huge range of projects at different stages of development. It allowed me to move from just having exposure to the design and engineering side of products to also getting a lot better insight into the overall business impact to our clients. So, I think that was really a pretty formative step in my background and my career.
As an engineer and as a technologist, I developed a reputation at frog for being able to really help the designers pull off the stuff that they wanted to do. I was pulled into Amazon Lab 126, their hardware division, in the early days of Kindle development. Between my experience at Amazon and my experience at Google, I stayed in this area of being able to pull tricky technology out of a lab space and into more peripheralized settings, like actually applying to products.
The Shaper Origin
But, bringing it back to Shaper, I'm also a really hands-on builder, designer, maker and this has really been an interesting opportunity and very exciting to be able to pull together all of these previous experiences. For example, a lot of years of experience with user interactions and consumer electronics and bringing it into a product that really leverages quite complex technology that allows people to pull off things that would've otherwise been impossible to pull off.
In what phase of Shaper development did you jump onto the team?
I jumped into the process soon after I'd seen a much earlier version of a prototype, and that's where I got involved in the conversation with Alec in particular and kind of developed a relationship where he's picking my brain over steps to commercialization, since both of the founders came from more academic backgrounds and didn't really have any experience. So that's exactly where I got involved.
But the challenges of going from that to getting to a product that is now manufacturable and actually shipping to people today, it's obviously a really huge jump. And I'm sure that the Core 77 audience is probably quite aware of all the challenges that exist of bringing any kind of complex, connected device to commercialization. But Origin was especially challenging—it's effectively a handheld precision cutting robot that's quite complex electromechanically, and also along the software side. This thing is entirely powered by computer vision, so a lot of stuff coming together.
But, one thing I'll point out that's pretty interesting, and I think especially relevant to things like new commercial equipment, where innovations are defining new product territories, is that there were a variety of hurdles including even understanding classifications for regulatory certifications. So, for example, is what we're building a computer? Or is it a power tool? I mean, it's actually both, but before this point, that kind of category or classification didn't really exist, so we had to work really hard with regulatory agencies to figure out how to develop it, how to test it, how to make sure that it was safe for consumer applications, so... That's a pretty big challenge to take on, but one worth doing.
Yeah, you're carving out a new, totally new section of the industry. No pun intended.
Also, I think it's worth mentioning that Shaper has done an excellent job just in terms of the branding and look of the product—it's certainly something new for the power tool industry. It seems you found a way to find your audience very quickly.
Yeah. Thank you. That's certainly something that we worked really hard at and it's really important to us. And I think it just does come back to really thinking about where we want to be positioned as a company, but also really what kind of relationship we want to have with our user and how we want our user to be able to approach our tools. We wanted this to certainly be as or more capable than existing professional power tools, for example, but quite approachable and not intimidating and really, really speak to the idea of instead of somebody looking at our tools and thinking, "Wow, I need to go learn how to use this thing." We really wanted people to just grab it and start using it and that's how you do it.
Right. Exactly. The look of some power tools make you feel like, "oh, I have to be part of some special club to know how to use this," you know?
Totally. Very off-putting and uninviting. So much our company and the people within it are mission focused, which has been very important. But I give a lot of credit to our designers who really challenged the status quo. I think the easy thing would be looking at a product in this industry and being like, "Okay, this is what tools are supposed to look like, so let's rinse and repeat this." But I give a lot of credit to our designers for not doing that. There's a fine balance between completely alienating people who would use power tools.
So when you started at Shaper, what drew you in the most?
I've always been, I mentioned, very hands-on and kind of a maker, builder, house remodeler, whatever. Tinkerer, machinist, welder, all that stuff. And I think, no doubt, my various experiences of my past converged [with Shaper]. I think especially my experiences with working on [Google] Glass forced me to spend a lot of the time thinking about augmentation and what that really means for human performance. So, I would maybe consider it a zeitgeist of where my mind was at when I met Alec and Ilan, who are the founders of Shaper.
For me personally, I've never been all that excited about the prospect of, for example, a Starbucks ad being served up into my eyeball at the just the right time when I'm walking down the street. That's not necessarily my ideal state of human augmentation, but when I ran into these guys at a tech conference, I was immediately floored by the concept quite honestly. Not necessarily floored by the fact that it is a woodworking router, but I could very, very clearly see that this is the beginning of something that is inevitable. This intersection between humans and machines; there really isn't a solid line anymore. It's not like the robot sitting over in the corner and it's over there doing his or her thing. It's really this symbiotic relationship between humans and machines. I got really excited about that and it's really what's driven the vision of where we're going.
Yes, Shaper is one of those rare products where you think about AR and it serves a real functional purpose, whereas a lot of technology companies using augmented reality at the moment just use it for fun. It's not so practical.
Right. The industry, in general, is still at this preliminary stage where people are trying to figure out, almost painfully, how do we apply AR to whatever we're doing and what does it mean? But for us, it's very clear.
The most useful [augmented reality] applications will be those where the user can actually impact their physical reality with digital information that's presented or applied at the exact right time and at the exact right place or space.
It's interesting because we see a lot of noise and hype around AR or mixed reality, but this is exactly what we're doing with this product and I think that this is the area where it's best utilized. The most useful applications will be those where the user can actually impact their physical reality with digital information that's presented or applied at the exact right time and at the exact right place or space.
I think that's the really exciting thing and, of course, there is a huge range of opportunities. Entertainment is one that we see...This is definitely what's powering our machine and kind of where we're redefining the intuition-based user interface between what would have normally been a very complex precision cutting operation and making that quite simple for anybody to use within minutes of approaching the tool.
Right. So I'm glad that you mentioned your work in the Amazon 126 lab because you were talking about bringing these technologies that are really complicated into a viable product. How do you strike a balance between bringing something that is really progressive into the world while still making sure it's commercially successful, and what design elements should designers keep in mind when developing something like this?
This is always a huge, huge challenge. When cool, new technology arrives, and you have a team of engineers who are excited about bringing a cool technology to market, I think what's get lost a lot of times is actually the user. So the one overarching principle I like to apply is to always place the user first. And I think it is cliché by now, particularly with Core77 audience in general, but really any time you're working on new stuff the goal should be for the radical new technology to basically just disappear, to be invisible to the user.
If we're doing our jobs right, nobody should really care, for example, that Shaper Origin is powered by computer vision, augmented reality and all of those words. Really what people should care about is that "Wow, I just approached this thing. It was very intuitive, natural. I picked it up. I presented it this view of my workspace and I'm just going to start cutting and I kind of know what to do next because it's obvious what to do next." So, for us, Shaper's core mission is to make precision cutting easy and accessible, so we just keep looking for areas of user friction and existing processes and then we aim to reduce that friction.
The formula that we apply is when something is easy, it is used more frequently. It becomes the go-to solution if users are inclined to do it. Is it easy? Great, they're gonna use it. And so, if we are solving real problems for real users, then commercial success will follow.
What technological advancements as of late are you particularly excited about?
Pretty heavy question! There have been so many things obviously. I think we're obviously in a special time where things are quickly converging and moving rapidly. The really obvious standout ones are things like autonomous vehicles, how that will reshape the landscape of what our road looks like.
Personally, what I'm most looking forward to, especially in industrial scale and applications, is really the convergence of digital design information and the physical world. I really get excited about this concept of bits to atoms and atoms to bits, and having this very fluid loop between those worlds. So I'm very excited about innovations and things like reality capture and innovations, and being able to manipulate physical matter and to be able to, like I mentioned, very quickly move back and forth between these worlds so that it's much more seamless than it has been in the past. I think that's gonna be really important to a lot of industrial applications, whether it's very large-scale, architectural-scale buildings or personal fabrication project.
Right. It's interesting because it seems the role of designer is probably going to change in the future just by the fact that a lot of processes will be more intuitive and now your job is not as much about figuring out all the math as it is finalizing the vision.
Yeah, it will be especially important for designers to just remain focused on end user. I keep coming back to that because I just think it's so important.
As the Commercial Equipment jury captain I think it's important to talk about the idea of designing things for people, and commercial equipment is often about creating something that maintains the safety, comfort and efficiency of operators in a difficult work environment. What are the most important elements of keep in mind when designing for users in this space?
Again, this comes back to the user side. The most important aspects to keep in mind are actually designing for the user in these cases instead of designing machines and then asking users to conform to them. Using Shaper as an example, we are really rethinking concepts around precision cutting. Very frequently when people within the industry think of precision cutting, I think people naturally think of CNC, and CNC is a very powerful concept. Computer control is a very powerful concept applied to a lot of commercial, industrial applications. I would consider it the invisible key-enabling technology behind that drives just about everything that's manufactured.
So, CNC is such a hugely powerful concept, but it's this behind the scenes thing that few people outside a very specific industry know about, or necessarily even need to care to know about it. But the basics of how it operates really hasn't changed since it was developed in the early '50s to manufacture airplane components in very repeated, in large quantities. So I think that's a really good example of something where equipment is very complex and processes are complex. For somebody to be very proficient in CNC it usually takes a lot of years of experience, a lot of knowledge, a lot of trial and error, a lot of just training, right?
And that's a really good example of the way things were done originally, where the user was forced to mold themselves to that environment, so learn the equipment. Learn the complicated interface. Learn the complicated workflow. This was how it had to be. I think that what we're doing at Shaper is turning that around and saying user first and how can we bring the tools and the interfaces to the user to something that would be more natural and intuitive, and kind of change the thought process behind how this is done. That's a driving force.
I think that that is one of the most important elements to keep in mind when designing for users in this space, especially in a commercial environment where, as you indicated, so many things are really on the line. This is certainly, potentially much more high-stakes impact, whether it's a medical device or a big piece of commercial equipment in a steel plant or something like this, where workplace safety would be important.
The winners of the 2018 Core77 Design Awards will be announced this Thursday, June 14th at Core77.com. To check out all of the winners from the 2017 awards, click here.