Sean McDonald is a designer and entrepreneur working at the intersection of data visualization, interactive software and lesson-based storytelling. Sean cofounded Sweet Spot, a Social Network Analysis firm for the enterprise, and currently works as a consultant for product design and prototype development. He is also a co-founder of the COLORBOX Project, a creative venture at the intersection of information visualization, photography, art and dance – with a bit of software engineering.
VOX: The 4D Summit features an amazing line-up of hands-on workshops that allow participants to work directly with the daqri 4D augmented reality platform. Workshops will foster innovative and interdisciplinary solutions in 10 broad categories. Sean McDonald will be leading a workshop on Revealing Reality: Using AR Tech to Broaden Human Senses & Teach Science. An interview with Sean follows.
Human sensory systems are amazing, in many ways, but they’re also limited to a small range of reality. We cannot, for example, see electromagnetic energy. Nor can we see radiation or know that we are touching it. But our bodies interact with these forces and others all of our lives: especially in an age of cell phones, wireless routers, electric lines spanning the globe and satellite geo-coordinates beaming down on our heads every second of every day.
With the support of augmented reality tech we can take the data that we’re able to collect about these invisible forces that comprise reality and make it accessible to us as a sensory experience. When we do this, we make knowledge that was formerly only attainable through abstract, intellectual learning attainable through sensory experiences.
What changes about education when a kid can “see” energy? What is really difficult to learn in a textbook that’s pretty easy to learn when you can use your senses? What do we teach in 10th grade if AR Tech helps 5th graders of the year 2020 learn what 10th graders of 2012 learn; and how does that help evolve our species?
In the Revealing Reality workshop we’ll focus on teaching scientific lessons with AR Tech. The plan is to brainstorm and prototype three functional scenarios as quickly as possible, then judge them on their technological potential, their market potential and the scale of problem they solve. Participants should take this opportunity to ponder science lessons that were particularly hard for them to learn in school: those challenges are our starting point.
1. What is your passion? What energizes you every day?
I am passionate about human evolution – especially as it relates to the cutting edge of what our species is capable of and how our advancement can solve problems that truly threaten us, especially the destruction of our habitat. I believe that human-computer interfaces often push us to be better, faster, stronger and smarter and that we are, very much so, co-evolving with the technologies that are ubiquitous to our species. The small piece of the global design thinking movement that I choose to contribute to is where interactive data visualization, storytelling and learning meet. So I design tools and projects (which sometimes grow into companies) to help people tell data-driven stories that teach other humans something important.
I’m energized by difficult challenges, big opportunities and brilliant
2. How did you come to be in your current line of work? Is it something you always knew you would do, or did it come as a surprise to you?
As a kid I was “gifted” with computers and “slow” with other things, so I ended up starting a computer repair company when I was really young because it was way better than mowing lawns during hot Florida summers. That was my first foray into entrepreneurship and technology. It just made sense.
I worked my way through college doing all types of computer work: from ultra-secure gamma wave transmission towers for high-security bank data transmissions to teaching Microsoft Office for the Federal Government.
But I actually veered to a new course in college and, after graduating, I went to work for a prominent DC Lobby. I quit six months later because I became profoundly convinced that technology could solve more problems than politics.
Since then I have studied “the masters” of design thinking, from
Buckminster Fuller to David Kelley and Bill Moggridge (IDEO); the masters of interface design, from Bob Moog to Ben Shneiderman; and have had the good fortune to work with some of those people and their colleagues and proteges. I’ve also built more prototypes and half-baked projects than I can count. And I’ve started a few projects and companies.
In retrospect, it seems pretty clear that I put myself on this trajectory
some 20 years ago, but I can’t say that I always knew I would do what I do now. I think 15 year-old Sean would have thought he’d be more business, less art.
3. What was your favorite story or game when you were a kid?
Whatever story my Dad was telling was the most interesting thing to me at any given time. He is a master storyteller and could get me excited about almost any story. Sometimes those stories were classics, especially Mark Twain shorts, and sometimes they were real stories from his life, which ranged from being a homeless kid to a special forces officer in the Army. He also made computer science a game; he made the computer a living, breathing thing that could be damaged and repaired; that could be understood as a system with personality traits, not just a bunch of electronic parts.
It’s hard to say what my favorite game was, though. Sometimes chess; sometimes make-believe, which was almost always about being a James Bond type character. I also really really love Legos and I can sincerely say I spent last Sunday building Lego robot statues.
4. What’s most exciting about Augmented Reality as a storytelling medium?
Where would you like to see it go? If applicable, share the achievement in augmented reality are you most proud of.
The work I’ve done in AR is probably better described as “Revealed Reality” not “Augmented” because I don’t typically build fictional storyworld elements, but rather focus on using AR tech as a means to show something that our wimpy human sensory systems can’t perceive. So my version of AR work reveals things like electromagnetic energy, radiation, “under the skin” biology and other things that are very much real but mostly impossible to sense. So I like to augment human senses, rather than human spaces.
Certainly the most popular “AR” project I’ve done is with The Reality
Inspectors, which is a science art group that uses AR tech to teach science in fun, interactive environments. We built something called a Theremin Inspector that allows people to see electromagnetic energy as they interact with it. Two things are great about that project: most important, kids can learn a lesson about energy at about half the age at which they are taught the same thing in school because it’s a sensory experience, not an abstract intellectual experience; also, it has toured the world, having been featured at the World Science Festival (2011), Science Gallery Dublin, EYEBEAM and other venues like HATCH in Bozeman, Montana. It’s currently in Singapore, then it will go to Manila, Moscow and Chicago before its run ends.
5. What do you hope to get out of VOX: The 4D Summit?
I think what’s exciting about VOX is that daqri has chosen to focus on
“creative types” instead of geeks. AR tech has been around in various
iterations for a long time now and there has yet to be a “break out” use that re-defines human-computer interfaces at a large scale. I’m a firm believer in using art to solve problems, including business challenges. So being in an environment rich with “creative types” instead of engineers will be very interesting.
VOX: The 4D Summit will be held September 13-14 at the Queen Mary in Long Beach, CA. To request your free invitation, please visit: http://voxsummit.com.