Brian Mullins
Redefining what is humanly possible with augmented reality
TEDxSanDiego 2017

Don’t color outside the lines. You have to be tall to play basketball. These toys are for boys. We’re taught, programmed even, to accept limits too easily and even seemingly benign ones, can pave the way for more malignant ones. You’re not smart enough. Your people don’t belong here. Be realistic. But limits are not real, and there’s a lot of ways to define limits, and that might be part of the problem, but to me, it’s always been things that hold people back.

Things perceived as absolutes, barriers that you can’t go across, but they’re not real. A speed limit is a great example of that. It’s not an absolute limit in the sense that if I’m going 55 mph, and I push on the gas pedal, Bam 56, like magic. It might be a good idea to go the speed limit. There might be consequences if I choose to exceed the limit, but it’s not an absolute. And you might say that maybe the engine, or the transmission, or the wheels can only go so fast, but those are just constraints.

I can put a bigger engine in, I can roll it down a hill, I can put a rocket on the car. It’s not a matter of possible or impossible. We cage ourselves in, when in reality, there is no limits that should actually hold us back. So what does hold us back?

It’s fear. Limits are the normalization of the fears that hold us back. It’s a lot more obvious when it’s something like a dictator using fear or the threat of violence to control a population it’s less obvious when it’s ourselves. Because it builds up over time. Do what you’re told, fall in line. These things make us afraid, afraid of what we can do, afraid of embarrassment.

What could we accomplish if we could remove these fears? But how can you overcome something if it’s so ingrained in our minds and our society that we can’t recognize it. I think a part of that solution is augmented reality. Now for those of you who have only experienced augmented reality capturing monsters on your phone, let me tell you what it can really do.

I’ve been in augmented reality for almost ten years now, and I realized early on that it empowered people in a completely different way, because it was human centric.
You could read a book about chemistry or you could hold it your hand. Augmented reality can make things that you couldn’t see before visible to you.

It can share ideas in a whole new way, and those two things come together to create a bridge between the physical world and abstract ideas. We get from the physical world the ability to apply pattern matching and develop an intuition around things and solving problems. And with augmented reality, we can take those abstract ideas, we can format them for the real world, and we can take advantage of those mechanisms. So learning doesn’t have to start over, it can become knowledge transfer.

And this isn’t just a crazy idea, this is things that are being used every day around the world to solve real problems for real workers. And in study after study, ours, others, independent academic studies, augmented reality has been found to transfer knowledge better than any technology that’s been available before.

Now let me tell you about one of the studies that we did. We used augmented reality in the assembly of a gas turbine power plant. And in just one step in that assembly required eight hours of classroom time and 450 minutes to complete the task. And it was taught in that way so that the workers could perform the work without having to worry about making a mistake. Now, with augmented reality the difference was staggering.

With no classroom training, and putting it to work right away, the workers got it done in less than 50 minutes, 50 minutes. So they learn faster, they put it to work faster, and they told the researchers that it made them feel safer. The ability to learn things faster, to put it to work right away, and the understanding that having knowledge when you need it, removes fear.

Now about the same time in my life, my second son was born. This is Valentine. He’s an amazing boy. He’s brilliant, he’s curious, he’s carrying. One of the scariest things as a father was when he was diagnosed with cerebral palsy. He was born with a condition called spastic dysplasia. If you’ve ever had a painful muscle spasm, you know a little bit about what that’s like, because every moment he was awake, all of his muscle spasm, and he couldn’t send signals from his brain to his legs in order to control them and walk. And he couldn’t send the signals to his diaphragm to talk.

His mother and I searched for options, and we were lucky enough to be connected with the head of pediatric neurology at one of the best hospitals in the world. And in a 15 minute appointment we were told, as CP goes, it’s not that bad, you should feel lucky. There’s nothing you can do. He’ll never walk. One of my biggest regrets in life is that I was so afraid when I walked out that door I accepted that limit for a minute. And my wife, my son, reminded me how wrong I was, and that limits are not real.

We met Dr. Park at St. Louis Children’s Hospital, and he was performing a transformational surgery for patients. Valentine would have spinal surgery. They’d open up his spinal cord and they’d cut the nerves that were spastic so that the brain could make new connections. And the surgery was a success. Now Valentine is walking, and if you see him, ask him about it, he’ll tell you. This transformational procedure was performed for over 10 years. The best pediatric neurologist, at the best hospital in the world, didn’t know about a transformational surgery in their specialty. And it wasn’t their fault.

They’ve dedicated their lives to helping people. They would have told us about if they knew. The problem was that knowledge wasn’t flowing. I know how scary that is. How many people died because the knowledge is not flowing? I’ve made it my mission to try to make it so nobody has to go through that, and I thought, how could augmented reality start to address this problem, what would it look like?

You know what I found? I found that it could potentially change the lives of billions, that the surgical industry, the microcosm of surgery, is a two trillion dollar industry, and it’s available to less than one-third of the people on the planet. That means there’s five billion people that don’t have access to it, and if they need a simple procedure like an appendectomy they die, they die.

Now we can argue that augmented reality makes the best surgeon better. I would say yes. The data clearly says that it could, but we don’t have to make that argument. All we have to do is teach new surgeons, or teach new procedures through experienced ones. All we have to do is get the knowledge flowing in augmented reality, because then we can make a general practitioner, or a good Samaritan anywhere in the world, a surgeon when they need to be.

And it’s not just about surgery. It’s about anything that you can learn. Have you ever struggled to learn something new, or watched your child struggle? That struggle to learn new things is ultimately why people stop learning at all. I can’t learn that I’m not smart enough for that. These are limits, limits that grow to a societal level. It’s something that we can change. And there’s one more story I’m going to tell about a project that gives me more hope that augmented reality can play a part in that, than anything I’ve seen.

Last year I met James Robinson, the head of the development division for the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, and he told me about his tribe of over 10,000 people, and that even though that there were jobs available on tribal lands and in neighboring communities, they couldn’t access those jobs because they don’t have the skills.

This is what augmented reality does best, knowledge transfer, skilling up workers to take on new responsibilities. James also told me that even though they had one of the best tribal high schools in North America, they didn’t yet teach programming, but he wanted his people to learn how to program the augmented reality too. If they were going to make content to teach their workers new things, they wanted to be able to share it with any of the other tribes that wanted to teach their workers new things.

So this is Coby, and Coby never programmed before, but that’s James learning how to assemble an electrical circuit with augmented reality the Coby made, a work construction that trains electrical technicians how to assemble circuits, and how to understand how they work, over the course of a week. Now this is early days. This is just first steps. But if a community can take charge, and control what they’re able to do, that’s a world that I want to live in.

If you can put on a pair of glasses or a helmet and know how to do any job, learn any skill, you can start to think differently about fear and limits, and with a tool like augmented reality we can all start to ask ourselves the question, “Is this a real limit, should this hold me back?” Because the only limitations that can hold us back, are the ones that we accept.