How local authorities can utilise immersive technologies

This week, we went international and caught up with Chicago based Aaqib Usman, Founder & CEO at Midwest Immersive. In July 2016, Aaqib set up Midwest Immersive which is an interactive technology studio that works with brands and agencies combining new media art forms and emerging technologies to create one-of-a-kind consumer experiences. They’ve worked with a number of major brands including Nike, Adidas and Cadbury and we wanted to know how the public sector could use immersive technologies such as Augmented Reality (AR) to better engage constituents. Aaqib came up with some great examples so if you’re looking for ways to better engage your community, grab a cuppa and have a read/listen.

Can you tell us a little more about yourself and your journey that led you set up Midwest Immersive?

I have always had two parallel passions: film and technology. I ended up going to college for film in Chicago where I studied for four years. After graduating, I worked in the film space and at the back of my mind; I always had a bit of itch to get back into the technology space. Even while working in film I was constantly wondering what kind of cameras and technology we were using to build things. That curiosity has been with me throughout my journey. 

A couple of years after graduating I ended up working at a technology company in Chicago. A start-up was creating immersive experiences using live streaming so people could travel all around the world without physically travelling. That was something I found engaging. I did that for a couple of years, and it was around that time that Facebook purchased a company called Oculus, which was a virtual reality company in San Francisco, in Silicon to put on a headset and be in a completely different world.

When I put on a headset, I was in awe of the possibilities. It got me thinking, “What are the possible uses of virtual and augmented reality?” It felt closer than ever before. It was as if something out of a movie had popped into our reality. I could not help pursuing it. 

If you think about it, it was a perfect marriage of my skills in film and technology. This headset almost did both. That led me to start a meet-up group called the Midwest Immersive Technology Meet-up and get people talking in a room together about immersive technology. Our meet-ups grew from twenty people to over two hundred in the space of seven months. Seeing this increase, I realised that there was a demand. People want to know about the technology, and they are keen enough to pay and go to the meet-ups. I also realised I had a short supply of speakers in Chicago; it was hard to find people at the time who could speak intelligently about these subjects. I put these two together, if there is a shortage of people coming to speak from Chicago while many people are coming to the meet-ups, there is something here. I was able to find some clients early on and developed it into Midwest Immersive as you see it today. We still want to do the tech meet-ups, but we just have not had the time recently. That is our journey so far.


I love how you have married both of your passions.

Thank you, it has been a blessing so far and I am looking forward to continuing to explore them over the next few years.

Massive congratulations for the awards you won recently: Best Augmented Reality 2018 and Shorty Social Good Award for Best Use of Augmented Reality.

Thank you! The particular project that actually won us those awards is very interesting. Snapchat at the time had released a new functionality that allowed developers to produce their own filters and lenses. Around the same time Matt Smith, one of our interns, introduced us to Kimish Moxley, a fashion designer in Chicago. He was showing us her work and told us that she had an upcoming event launching her new collection for that season. Encouraging other entrepreneurs is certainly a large mission for our company. We created a custom Snapchat lens for her event, which was created hype among that demographic. For those around the age of 20-21 years old, Snapchat is the perfect tool. The idea was that people would find a Snapcode at the event, which could only be accessed at the event. It got about 299 scans from a room with 300 people, gaining 24,000 views within four hours of the event. It was quite successful from both a social media and technology perspective. It got people intrigued as to what was going on in their environment.


That is so cool; I actually have a background in fashion. What was the lens?

We put in elements of her new collection, which was inspired by the early 2000s, into the lens, like cassette tapes. For Kim her collection was all about that nostalgia for her childhood in the 2000s so including those elements was important.


In addition to working with entrepreneurs who are just starting out, you have worked with some massive brands like Adidas, Nike Cadbury, Tech Week and the list goes on. What are some of the most exciting projects you have worked on with those bigger brands?

I am constantly looking forward to the next project. We have been able to increase the size and scale of our projects consistently. So, if you ask me what our most exciting project is, I am always going to say the next one! That said, I feel like the Adidas RV was especially interesting.

We created a digital experience inside of a physical space, which was an RV. We used an iPad where customers could put in their player style, favourite player and why they inspire them. This information was then used to assign customers in different siloes - X, Nemesis or Predator – that are different Adidas shoe styles. Once you walk into the RV, there is a locker-type setup, lined with LED lights to give you a custom light show that then reveals which shoe you are a part of. A brand ambassador inside the RV then lets you try on the shoe and takes you over to the next part where we installed six screens with videos playing all-around you educating you about the shoe. LED lights on the walls and ceiling work in tandem with the various videos. At the end of that, you have a photo opportunity that is then sent to you via email. Having all of that in an RV was exciting!

There are a couple of other projects we are working on at the moment, but I can’t talk about those yet! I think we will be ready to announce them in the next few months.


augmented reality


We will look out for them then! In terms of the technical side of it, you are merging digital with physical in innovative ways; can you talk us through how you do that?

The way we merge the two varies depending on what we are doing. Our focus has been on augmented reality, which we look at in three different ways. One way is through headset where you have augmented reality glasses and there is a layer of digital information between you and the real world. Another way is through smartphones, a similar concept to the previous one, where you use your phone to access that digital information. It can be done via an app, either one that has been specially designed or an existing one like Facebook, Snapchat etc., or even the web. The last way is through spaces, like the RV, we use a lot of projectors and displays - anything that goes beyond the screen without using smartphones or headsets – to create our experiences.


The Botcast primarily focuses on digital transformation within the public sector, so we talk about how local authorities can improve their services and increase efficiencies using technology. How do you think public sector organizations can use immersive technologies to help constituents better?

From a public sector perspective, there are a couple of different routes. When you are dealing with the public, you have a lot of data, which you need to back up any decision you make. One of the current trends is data visualization, going away from the traditional spreadsheet and creating a 3D experience of data. That way you can walk around it and understand what happens when you change certain parameters. For example, if a government is planning new roads and is trying to figure out how traffic and transportation might be affected they can simulate the scenarios visually in 3D as opposed to on a screen. I think that is going to lead to significant benefits for the public and those making these decisions.


What would you say the first steps into immersive technology are for councils?

I am always of the opinion that running a pilot programme is an excellent idea. Identify your potential solutions and try to get stakeholders to buy-in. See if it is a possibility for your organization and whether it really affects change. Once you assess its viability, it is highly likely your organization will buy-in because the efficiencies are unmatched.


It is about testing the water initially. What would you say the public sector could learn from the private sector, especially when it comes to experimentation within immersive technology?

Experiment more! One of the hard things from a public sector perspective is that they are constantly short-staffed because of the pressure to cut budgets. Technology allows you to try different things rapidly and see what clicks. Instead of enabling a top-down policy, see if you can implement a horizontal policy – discussing with the government employees who are running these systems. We have also seen bottom-up change, helping the people working in the field who are actually working with your constituents.


Could you think of an example of how a public sector organization could implement immersive technology?

Immersive technology can create a layer of digital experiences atop the real world. Imagine you could create a digital Post-it anywhere in the world; you could personalize it and share it. For example, at the moment you see a pothole and have to describe it to the maintenance team, which could lead to misunderstandings about its location or size. Instead, you could place a digital arrow and Post-it. You can take that concept and apply it to any maintenance issue. You do not have to hand someone a manual, you can hand a Post-it and attach media to it, like a digital manual. That way decisions can be made more quickly and efficiently.


We created The Botcast to build a library of resources about digital transformation. Can you recommend any good podcasts, books or other resources you find useful?

I listen to all my podcasts on Spotify but the podcast I am referring to is by Naval Ravikant, founder of Angel List. He provides an up-front, honest perspective, providing his opinion without trying to sell something or tell you what to do. It is interesting to hear how he took investing, which is generally hidden from the public eye, and made a platform on the internet which has helped investors and start-ups find each other on such a great scale. That is the one podcast on digital transformation I really recommend.