The Future of Industrial Innovation Is Happening at PTC Reality Lab
On the 17th floor of 121 Seaport, PTC’s new global headquarters, there are sweeping views of Boston Harbor on one side and the city skyline on the other.
The building itself sits at the center of the nation’s first “Innovation District,” a moniker given to the neighborhood early on in its redevelopment, as a beacon to attract both world-class technology companies and innovative start-ups. It was envisioned as a place where both types of businesses could feel at home.
The 17th floor could be described as a microcosm of this idea.
PTC is a technology company that made a name for itself in the CAD and PLM markets over the past 30 years, but it’s also a leader in the emerging technologies of industrial IoT (IIoT) and augmented reality (AR). On the top floor, the Customer Experience Center (CXC) highlights PTC’s breadth of experience with demonstrations of real-life customer use cases and applications.
Then, tucked into its own space is the PTC Reality Lab, the forward-thinking team of engineers and researchers charged with pursuing uncharted technology. The team of five – all alumni of MIT Media Lab – are at the forefront of industrial innovation, and spend every day exploring concepts and developing technologies that will enhance people’s interactions with the physical and digital worlds.
Valentin Heun is the VP of Innovation Engineering and the lead scientist in the PTC Reality Lab. He holds a Ph.D from the MIT Media Lab and he has long been interested in how to foster better connections between technology and humans – and how user interface design, particularly with augmented reality, can empower workers.
We recently sat down with Valentin to discuss the PTC Reality Lab, its role at the company, and the new space on the 17th floor.
Let’s start with the name. Why PTC Reality Lab?
We could have named it just an innovation lab, but instead of creating a lab with a broad name that could be everything and nothing at the same time, we wanted to set this lab onto a specific mission. The name should represent, at every given moment, where the journey is going: changing the fabric that weaves our reality. This encompasses what we all do at PTC.
The former Media Lab motto, “demo or die” – or nowadays, “deploy or die” – permeates our lab here at PTC. What that means is that one must make something a reality and not just innovate into the blue. When we research and develop technology, we do so with a focus on the needs, problems, and applications of industrial companies.
We’re using augmented reality, generative design, additive manufacturing, artificial intelligence, industrial IoT, robotics, digital twin, just to name a few technologies, all in the context of the physical reality. These are technologies that influence or empower at least one version of what we call “reality.”
To me, this is the essence of what PTC and the PTC Reality Lab does – to shape a seamless and intuitive user experience that is only one reality.
What’s the vision for PTC Reality Lab?
The vision for the PTC Reality Lab is to be a sandbox for new ideas and new ways to improve people’s interactions with their physical environments. It’s about applying human-centered design and human-computer interaction to new technology, ultimately empowering people – workers, especially – with more intuitive and practical user interfaces.
While not everything we experiment with or create has immediate applications for our customers, we explore our interests, try new things, create prototypes, and keep iterating on them.
From a cultural perspective, we wanted to bring an open and innovative experience to PTC, similar to the culture that we all experienced at the MIT Media Lab. When visitors or colleagues can see what we’re doing, what we’re working on, they will walk away with an idea of the future. We want to inspire them with an understanding for the technologies that are ahead of us.
Your new space was designed for and by your team. What are some of its special features?
The biggest change is the size of the space – it’s big! There is enough room for each of our projects and demonstrations. And that’s what our research requires because augmented reality is a spatial problem, so this space is organized and designed to help us solve AR problems.
Here we’re able to exhibit our research and curate what people see when they visit or walk by. It has a similar feel to the Media Lab – we’re able to move the tables around depending on what we’re working on, there’s interactive whiteboards, large screens, so we have all the technology at our fingertips necessary to brainstorm and play around with ideas.
Also, the skyline view is incredible.
The PTC Reality Lab is located within the Customer Experience Center (CXC). What are the benefits of that co-location?
The CXC provides a great experience for customers and visitors, it gives insight into what PTC is doing now and what’s possible in the future. Our role is to be the future research lab – nothing in here is a product that PTC sells, but all of it could be.
It is a wonderful experience being closer to customers and having more opportunities to converse with them. Our work doesn’t materialize in a vacuum and when we have a meeting with a customer or a partner, we’re able to have a mini-brainstorm session and that’s extremely valuable to us. We learn from them, spark new ideas together and develop a deeper understanding for their day-to-day problems. Our lab is a wonderful place for cutting edge research and a strong understanding of the problems to be solved.