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VR, AR, and more: Nonprofit Tech of the Future
Learn about cutting edge technology from 3 nonprofit tech experts with decades of experience and a deep interest in tech innovations. Johan Hammerstrom, CEO of Community IT Innovators, Steve Longenecker, our Director of IT Consulting, and Nura Aboki, Senior IT Business Manager and Consultant, discuss topics that are getting a lot of buzz – and dig into how ready these technologies are for the market, and how ready nonprofits are to invest in cutting edge tech.
In the first episode of this series of interviews, Johan, Steve, and Nura delve into Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality, and what nonprofits are getting excited about this technology for meetings and remote work, training, and volunteering.
Is your nonprofit forward looking? Are you thinking about ways to use VR to deliver services or to enhance your office and work life, outside of the games you play at home? Wondering what VR is going to look like 3-5 years from now and how we might all be using it for meetings and trainings? Wondering if VR is a smart investment for your nonprofit or whether you should hold tight and wait for the technology to develop for the market?
Join us for a quick preview of where we think VR and Augmented Reality are going and how we expect this trendy tech to impact the nonprofit sector. We also discuss meeting technology and the ways remote work has acted as an accelerant for new virtual experiences.
In part 2 of this series our experts discuss Cyber, Crypto, and Blockchain, and in part 3 we’ll talk about Artificial Intelligence for nonprofits (AI) and Machine Based Learning innovations. Stay tuned!
Johan Hammerstrom’s focus and expertise are in nonprofit IT leadership, governance practices, and nonprofit IT strategy. In addition to deep experience supporting hundreds of nonprofit clients for over 20 years, Johan has a technical background as a computer engineer and a strong servant-leadership style as the head of an employee-owned small service business. After advising and strategizing with nonprofit clients over the years, he has gained a wealth of insight into the budget and decision-making culture at nonprofits – a culture that enables creative IT management but can place constraints on strategies and implementation.
As CEO, Johan provides high-level direction and leadership in client partnerships. He also guides Community IT’s relationship to its Board and ESOP employee-owners. Johan is also instrumental in building a Community IT value of giving back to the sector by sharing resources and knowledge through free website materials, monthly webinars, and external speaking engagements.
Johan graduated with Honors and a BS in Chemistry from Stanford University and received a master’s degree in Biophysics from Johns Hopkins University.
Johan enjoys talking about all aspects of nonprofit tech of the future.
Nura is a Senior Engineer and IT Business Manager at Community IT Innovators. In that role, he proactively oversees technology infrastructure for clients. Nura started his career at Community IT as a Network Administrator in 2009. In 2012, he was promoted to Network Engineer and assumed a supervisory role in IT service operations.
As an IT Business Manager (ITBM), Nura guides some of our largest clients through complex implementation of effective technology investments and utilizing efficient IT services in direct support of their missions.
The ITBM makes recommendations on IT investments, training programs, maintenance, and licenses. They help the client be forward-looking, and act as a vendor-agnostic, trusted advisor with deep knowledge of the nonprofit IT software and platforms available. Because Community IT works in partnership with clients to manage long-term IT needs, the ITBM relationship with the client makes them a true asset. Nura is always thinking and talking about nonprofit tech of the future and how our clients can benefit from new technology.
Prior to joining Community IT Innovators, Nura served as a member of the technical support team at George Washington University where he provided incident management to over 20,000 end users on computer hardware, software, and networking issues. Nura also held a Network Specialist role at the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Parliament in Abuja, Nigeria.
Nura holds a Bachelor of Science in Computer Engineering and Master of Science in Electrical Engineering, both from George Washington University. He continues development of his professional competence through continuing studies in Technology Management.
As Director of IT Consulting, Steve Longenecker divides his time at Community IT primarily between managing the company’s Projects Team and consulting with clients on IT planning. Steve brings a deep background in IT support and strategic IT management experience to his work with clients. His thoughtful and empathetic demeanor helps non-technical nonprofit leaders manage their IT projects and understand the Community IT partnership approach.
Steve also specializes in Information Architecture and migrations, implementations, file-sharing platforms, collaboration tools, and Google Workspace support. His knowledge of nonprofit budgeting and management styles make him an invaluable partner in technology projects. He loves thinking and talking about nonprofit tech of the future.
Steve’s appreciation for working at Community IT Innovators is rooted in respect for the company’s vision, and for his excellent colleagues. Before joining Community IT, Steve was an 8th grade science teacher at Takoma Park Middle School, and – though that was a long time ago now – he still draws on lessons learned in that first career.
Steve is MCSE certified. He has a B.A. in Biology from Earlham College in Richmond, IN and a Masters in the Art of Teaching from Tufts University in Massachusetts.
Carolyn Woodard: Welcome. My name is Carolyn Woodard, and I am the Director of Outreach for Community IT.
We always have so much good information to pack into our webinars that today we are trying something different. Three of our senior executives and engineers interviewed each other on emerging trends in high tech that we get asked about and how they will impact the non-profit sector.
I have edited these interviews into three episodes, and I’m happy to start out with this discussion, which is on
- virtual and augmented reality and
- where this technology might be going and
- when it might become standard at nonprofits and
- how it might be useful.
They also touch on
- how meetings have changed in the pandemic and
- what meetings might be like in the future.
I’ll let our experts introduce themselves and get right into the discussion.
Johan: My name’s Johan Hammerstrom. I’m the CEO at Community IT. I’ve been with Community IT for 23 years. I started off on the technical side and then moved into management. But I missed the technology and I like talking about it with non-profits specifically, but also any of my colleagues who are willing to still let me pretend like I’m technical. I’m happy to have these conversations. So I’m happy to be here today with Steve. Steve, introduce yourself.
Steve: Sure. I’m Steve Longenecker. I’m the Director of IT Consulting at Community IT, I have been at Community IT for 18 years. I know that because I joined Community IT about a month after my son was born, and he is in his first year of college now. So that’s how I mark the passage of time for myself and my career at Community IT. I also really enjoy technology, obviously working at an IT company, and look forward to this conversation with you, Johan.
Nuradeen: My name is Nura Aboki. I’m an IT business manager and a senior consultant at Community IT. I have been at Community IT for 13 years. Currently, I advise our clients on best practices for managing technology infrastructure. I also conduct technology assessments, develop IT plans, and build strategic IT roadmaps including budgeting for our clients. So it’s really great to be with you, Johan, and I look forward to our conversation about future trends in IT and the nonprofit sector.
Introduction: What makes tech buzz?
Johan: Sometimes it takes a long time for technology to become mature and even though we all saw the cloud coming, even though we all saw that mobile devices were going to be a big deal, it took a long time. It took 10 years in some ways for that to work itself out as consumer and business ready technology solutions that could be implemented effectively at a reasonable cost.
Cloud is not a buzzy term at all anymore. It’s become so common, so much the normal way that technology is hosted and implemented that it almost doesn’t make sense to talk about cloud anymore because it’s just the standard.
So, as we think about where technology is going over the next 10 years, and specifically some of the things that are the buzziest right now, I think it’s important to remember that it could take a while. We don’t exactly know where these things are going, and if anything, I feel like it’s even less certain now.
What’s coming over the next 10 or 15 years to me feels even less certain than things like cloud and Office 365 felt back in 2012. I think there’s a lot of unanswered questions about what’s happening next with technology that makes it hard to predict what’s going to happen.
So it can make some of the buzzy things seem far fetched or unrealistic. But I think the reality is that most of the tech that’s buzzy right now or that gets a lot of hype, will probably eventually turn into something that we are all using in some form or fashion – once Microsoft figures out how to commercialize it and incorporate it into their product scheme.
But when I think of IT buzzwords, obviously, AI, artificial intelligence, machine learning, virtual reality and crypto are the ones that I think always seem to come up. I don’t think any of those technologies are purely hype. I think there’s some potential area of development with each of those and some interesting things that are starting to happen in those different areas.
Steve: Right. Maybe it’s not as buzzy, but another trend that is sort of sneaking up on us, probably on that time range, not so much the demise of the traditional document, but this idea of going paperless has been around since 2012, I’m sure. In some ways it has matured to the point that there’s a lot less paper floating around than there was 10 years ago.
There are now so many more ways of disseminating information that aren’t harkening back to something that you would print out. It used to be the case that you could always print it if you wanted to. We’re seeing more and more things now that you can’t really print anymore. You only can interact with it on a screen. Maybe at some point it won’t even be on a traditional screen, it’ll be on a VR headset that you have to interact with. So, that’s kind of exciting to think about. I know that there are start-ups that are trying to change the way documents work, what they are and what they’re not – documents 2.0 almost.
You talked about Microsoft and that’s the mark at which technology has matured is when Microsoft has finally been able to productize it for their purposes.
There’s a lot of truth to that, but I’ve also wonder, and I’m not predicting the end of Microsoft at all. For a huge corporation, they’ve been impressively nimble in changing their approach from being a Windows centric company to a services/Microsoft 365 centered company.
But so much of their power comes from the fact that people still really live in Word and Excel. At least I do. But I’m old. My son’s 18 now, so I wonder whether that reliance on the traditional document will ease and if that’ll change things. I wonder whether virtual reality would change things, if you could look at data three dimensionally and not just something that you print.
Johan: I think that’s a really great insight, the whole moving to a printer-less world, and I think there is a generational aspect to it. I happened to go to a number of baseball games this year, at a variety of different ballparks. It wasn’t that long ago, I remember going to see the Nats in 2015, 2016, and you could buy your tickets online, but then you had to print them out and carry these printouts with you down to the ballpark. And now, the default is, it’s on your mobile device and if you want to go to the trouble of printing your tickets out, you have to go through a lot of extra steps.
I think in a lot of different parts of our society, the pandemic really pushed that along because people were printing a lot of stuff at work and when they couldn’t go to work to use the printer, well, I don’t have access to a printer anymore. All right, well, we’ve got to move to a printer-less society and find ways to convey information without a printer.
And young people are way beyond that. They can’t recall a time when you would actually print something out and physically sign it. Those things make less and less sense to them.
It’s interesting that pretty much all legal contracts now are DocuSigned with a few exceptions. Our bank requires us to physically sign certain documents, but most documents are DocuSigned and the format of DocuSign, is you go into a website and you click a button, and what that button does is it puts a sort of re-creation of your physical signature on an electronic document. It’s so antiquated! I imagine 20 years from now, no one’s going to be doing that anymore.
Steve: Right. That’s true.
Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality
We were talking about virtual reality. What are the use cases for virtual reality that you could imagine hitting the non-profit space at some point?
Right now, my sense is that the headsets are too clunky. They’re heavy, they’re expensive. They’re not that high res. The battery’s not long enough. There’s all these problems that are the same problems that at one time were also for a mobile device. You were carrying around a briefcase and that was your mobile device. That was a long time ago, but I remember those days and then at some point, they got it into a size that would fit in your pocket.
And then it just became more powerful than the computers used to be not that long ago. So one can imagine that they’ll solve the engineering challenges of the mobile device. But what are the business cases that are driving this investment that people are envisioning?
Obviously you can have virtual meetings that are much richer than the one we’re having now, where you’re just a flat image in a window on my computer screen.
It would be that we’re both wearing some sort of lightweight helmet and it feels like we’re actually in the same room together. Sounds really cool. I’m not convinced it’s all that compelling, although you and I both listen to a podcaster that has experienced it and says that it really is a different experience and it really does feel like you’re in the same room.
And if there’s something powerful about that. Community IT provides services to clients that have spent a lot of money to build out conference rooms to provide that experience to the best of their ability. When three members can’t physically be in the conference room, they want that experience for those board members to be as good as it can be, so they don’t go cheap. They have a nice AV system in their boardroom or their conference room. And I guess a VR headset will someday displace that.
What else do you think VR does, or is that it? What do you think?
Johan: Yeah, I think it may take over that job. Although it’s funny that you mentioned the AV systems, because if there’s one component of modern offices’ IT that is unreliable, difficult to use, and internally frustrating, it’s audio visual systems.
Johan: Even getting those to the stability that the rest of the IT environment has would be a win, much less like getting it into the realm of virtual reality.
One of my big skepticisms of VR is there’s a lot of hand waving that goes on. When we figure out all the technical challenges, that’s not an aside, that’s actually a key issue. The laws of physics have certain limitations that simply cannot be overcome.
There’s no reason to think that Apple, for example, who’s supposedly working on a VR headset and has done some remarkable things with technology, it seems like if anybody were able to figure out how to make VR work, it would be Apple. There’s no guarantee that it will. But if it does, I also wonder if it also creates new ways of working that are hard for us to imagine yet, because we don’t have them.
Steve: That’s what I was talking about with the 3D presentation of data. That’s hard to imagine, but could potentially be really powerful the way that power BI and the visualization of data now. You just couldn’t do it before those systems came into being.
Data visualization is a whole new thing that is enabled by technology. It’s not that new, but back when I was in grade school, you would make graphs on graph paper and it’s just so much faster now. So the idea that you could add another dimension to your data analysis visualizations is kind of cool.
Johan: Yeah. And think back to Facebook and Twitter in 2006, before the iPhone came out. It was there, they were browser based. You got to Twitter and you got to Facebook by going to a website on your desktop and posting and scrolling and reading. On the one hand, what those apps do on mobile is in theory similar. But the social and human impact of having those apps with you all of the time has completely changed how they get used and how their use impacts society. It wouldn’t have the same level of impact if it weren’t happening in a mobile way. So there could be subtle changes to how we work that VR brings about.
We just have a hard time anticipating VR and AR and the different possible use cases and noting that Facebook Meta entered into a partnership with Microsoft. The thinking is that Microsoft is interested in creating a VR experience for Teams so that when you meet with somebody, you could meet in more of a virtual reality environment. But you could imagine that in medical environments AR could be useful. What do I know about surgery? Right? So I’m just making stuff up.
Nuradeen: Yeah, it has potential in remote training for volunteers and in a variety of sectors. And I know that the first AR example I saw was through a mechanic, where they’ll ask you to put on these glasses and then they’ll walk you through how to fix your car or component of you car. That’s when I first got introduced to it. It definitely has a lot of potential for us in the tech sector providing support as well as even our clients that volunteer, they can train their volunteers in a variety of programs.
Steve: It’s not my idea, but you can put a helmet on your head and see this huge field of vision with sharp graphics.
One of the things that I find frustrating right now is that if I’m sitting in my home office and I have my laptop, I also have a nice big, very large screen right next to it. I can have a lot of different windows open at the same time and that creates a lot of efficiencies for me. But if I take my laptop out of my home office, I’m done. I’m suddenly back down to my 14 inch screen and it’s not like I can’t get work done, but it definitely is impacted by that.
Perhaps at some point what we need to carry around is a not too big thing that gets right over your eyes and then you suddenly have, not an infinite workspace, but you could see even more words and texts and graphics that you’re working with. That’s kind of, that’s kind of cool.
I know that Microsoft has some sort of VR or augmented reality. If they’re ubiquitous enough and cheap enough all of our clients might have them and they can flip one on. Then my perspective can be the perspective of the person I’m talking to, and they can walk over to something that needs to be solved on premises. I can see what they’re seeing and can even maybe point in their field of vision: look, look at that. That’s what I want you to look at.
Whereas now, when those situations occur, you see a black thing about the size of a cigar box, which of course I realized when was the last time any of us bought a cigar or used a cigar box?
My point is it would be great to have that headset where it can be a camera onto a reality, but that can then be sent back over the internet to someone else and they can see what the person’s seeing.
It does seem like something that could have enough uses, that there is probably money to be made, which is always the question, is there money to be made? People invest in these things on the faith that there’s money to be made to some extent. But technology will get better, whether it gets to be good enough, your skepticism on that is noted. The stuff is going to come.
Johan: Yeah. What you hear is that augmented reality is probably happening sooner than complete virtual reality. And you could imagine, like Amazon’s data center, Microsoft’s data center, they just have rows and rows of racks. Racks and racks filled with servers. And all of those servers have components that are being monitored and managed.
If something fails, if you could plug that into a set of augmented reality glasses, then the engineer just walks into the server room and the augmented reality glasses start lighting up arrows that lead them to the rack. They look at the rack and there’s augmented reality overlays like red over the server that’s failed. And that seems to me like a really compelling use case. And especially for those large tech companies, that’s the kind of augmented reality solutions that may already be in place, so that they’re most likely to be the early adopters.
Steve: Right. We should probably turn to other topics. You can just go ahead and give a shout out that the blogger and podcaster I was talking about is a guy named Ben Thompson. He writes a lot about technology. He does a lot of analysis of technology and technology companies.
Because of that, he was trialing the Quest 2. This is Meta’s product that’s not the newest greatest one, but the one that has been out for a little while, and he was using them for virtual meetings with his team of developers. And he was just saying that it really made a different experience of the meetings than a Zoom meeting.
That’s a single data point, so who knows. But it’s interesting that he was getting that experience with what I’m sure five years from now will be viewed as a very antiquated, very old fashioned piece of equipment.
Going back to the games that I played when I was a kid; I played computer games. If you go back and look at them, the graphics are terrible, but I had a lot of fun playing those games. It could be that we don’t realize it because we haven’t had a chance to use this equipment enough, and it hasn’t become part of our regular lives enough.
And that might just happen over time anyway. You may not need to feel like you’re in real reality when you put these things on for it to still feel like it has a real good use case. In other words, I may be interacting with you in virtual reality and you may look like a cartoon figure instead of like Johan. Anybody can see that. I’m done with this and I take it off and I throw it away. That may not happen. I might be like, that’s a cartoon version of Johan, but it’s still somehow creating a sense of presence and it’s still working. And that could happen. If that’s the case, there is a technology improvement.
I think the heaviness and the battery and the degree of trouble it is to put this thing on and take it off and some of the motion sickness, there’s some things that need to be solved. I’m not sure that the graphics need to become like I feel like I’m in reality, like in science fiction movies for it to start really being useful.
And that’s an interesting trade off, because if that’s true, then really it’s not such a hard lift, getting the heaviness down, getting the battery better. I don’t think that would be that hard. And then it’s a matter of changing our habits and that might take a while, but we’ve already seen how much more we’re using Zoom than we were. That took a worldwide pandemic to get that to happen. But I think that was an accelerant. I think in fact, we are all more comfortable having virtual meetings and we barely ever use the telephone anymore.
Johan: I think [online meetings are a] great example of how things can change both quickly, but also subtly and the degree and the extent to which small improvements can have an enormous impact, right? Like, the fact that we’re able to talk over video and not rely solely on a phone call, I think has made an enormous difference for everybody running businesses and organizations over the course of the pandemic. I just can’t imagine having to do all of this solely through phone calls, which would’ve been the case 20 years ago, probably 15, maybe even 10 years ago.
Steve: Not just because we can see each other, but because we can share our screens. That’s really different.
Johan: We can share a screen. Yeah. Like, there’s so much more interaction that can happen. And, when you consider this compared to what might be coming 15, 20 years from now, this is going to feel rudimentary.
But what’s interesting is that Skype was around in 2005. Video calling has been theoretically available for 15 years, but it wasn’t really until 2017, 2018, that it started to become a real option. There were bandwidth issues, there were technology issues.
Microsoft once again is so illustrative cause how many versions of this did they do? They had Link. They bought Skype, they had Skype for Business, and we used all of those and they were all terrible. They were pretty much unusable. And then suddenly, somehow Teams seems to work pretty well, not perfectly, the format is kind of the same as what we were trying to do back in 2005. But they finally figured the technology out, so they have the minimum viable product, which is what I think you’re saying, like what’s the minimum viable product here.
Steve: That’s part of it. And, and some of that was just bandwidth. The fact that we all have enough bandwidth at our homes is driven more by the fact that some of us grew up with teenagers in the house that wanted to be able to do their gaming or wanted to stream Netflix.
I wonder how much those things are all like flywheels, Netflix can’t exist without bandwidth, but the presence of Netflix and the fact that everyone’s chattering about whatever the greatest streaming show is drives those of us who don’t have it yet to buy more bandwidth. If there’s more people buying more bandwidth, the bandwidth delivery companies can get more efficient. More customers on the block means drawing that cable down to that block gives them more revenue so they don’t mind doing it and then they can deliver cheaper prices to each.
So all of these things reinforce it. And then once in a while, not that we should be asking for this, but the pandemic was an accelerant. All the ingredients were in place and then suddenly the whole world adopted Zoom and Teams and whatever else was out there, because suddenly they couldn’t go to their offices anymore, at least for a while.
Carolyn Woodard: Thank you for joining us for part one of this discussion on high tech and non-profits. You can find part two (crypto) and part three (AI) if you subscribe wherever you listen to podcasts. You can get in touch with us on our website [right here!] to suggest future topics you’d like us to talk about.