CHASING THE DREAM
Benjamin Braddock, played by a young Dustin Hoffman, has just returned home after graduating from college. He comes into contact with Mr. McGuire, who has just “one word” for Ben, “plastics.” Mr. McGuire was right about 1967. Modern plastics were the newest product of technology at the time. Everything that had always been glass, metal or wood was being produced in new forms of super polymers. Ben’s world was changing in more ways than one.
IS AUGMENTED REALITY OUR PLASTICS MOMENT? Summer 2016 will forever be remembered as the moment in which augmented reality entered everyone’s stream of consciousness. It came in the form of Pokémon GO. Pokémon GO launched on July 6 and within 13 hours became the top grossing smartphone app in the U.S. By July 23, it had 20 million daily active users in the U.S., resulting in $500 million in revenue by Sept. 15. It was a technological phenomenon.
Apple CEO Tim Cook recently stated that while he believes augmented reality will take a while to reach mass adoption, when it does, we will all wonder how we lived without it. Juniper Research forecasts revenues for augmented reality business apps at $5.7 billion by 2021. This includes e-commerce, digital marketing, geolocation, education, industrial, military and medical applications. Jay Van Buren envisions the future of augmented reality because he is currently on its leading edge. Jay is co-founder and CEO of MembitTM, a geolocative photo-sharing app that allows pictures to be placed and viewed in the location they were taken. Users can find and view images left by other users, and can also take photos and leave them as membits for others to enjoy. “Our use of augmented reality is an illusion, but it’s an emotionally compelling one. The image is on the user’s phone, but to the user it looks like it’s floating in space in front of them. When you make a membit, you feel like you’ve left your mark on the world,” Jay says. The tech industry has taken note. Macworld called it, “The closest thing we’ve seen to a time machine,” while naming Membit in its list of 20 best apps at Tech Crunch Disrupt in September 2015.
A TOPEKA CONNECTION The Membit story actually begins in Topeka. It was at Topeka West where Jay, the son of Lynn and Marjorie Van Buren, discovered a passion for the arts, specifically painting, which led him to the University of Kansas where he remembers seeing the World Wide Web for the first time. “I had this strong feeling that the Internet would change the world. With my painting, I also understood how really good art could affect people’s emotions,” Jay recalls. “I realized almost immediately that there would be opportunities to combine both, and this is ultimately how I would focus my career.” Jay’s talent as an artist led him to graduate school in New York City in 1997. He followed his instincts and took a position with a website company that provided financial information to investors. “I had really good timing, because websites were just coming into their own as a communication medium,” Jay says. Early Adopter now thrives as a boutique website development firm, specializing in design of oneoff websites.
INTRODUCTION TO AUGMENTED REALITY Jay’s single greatest development was meeting Katy Garnier in 2006. Jay and Katy would marry and start a family. With Early Adopter going well, everything was in place. It was Katy who suggested using augmented reality in 2012 for a project at Avenues World School in Manhattan, where she was working on ways the school could better use the non-classroom spaces of the building for educational purposes. Jay used an early augmented reality technology (Layar) that allowed the team to turn a wall into an interactive learning experience for the students. He saw firsthand the potential of augmented reality, but ended the project frustrated with the state of technology. The limitations of GPS made placing digital content in a precise relationship to the real world difficult, and computers lacked the ability to lock AR content onto anything but static scenes. Seeing an opportunity, Jay went to work. In 2013, Jay presented at several conferences on augmented reality, and began to put together his solution to the problem by having the human do what a computer or GPS could not. He set out to create a smart-phone app to do just that. “Our cellphones are smart, but nowhere near the processing capability of the human brain. Our solution ended up being rather simple—why not rely on the human user to get themselves in the right place and design an app around that functionality,” Jay recalls when thinking about his aha moment.
MEMBIT IS BORN The result was an app that works because of what Jay coined the Human Positioning System (HPS™). When a user selects a membit thumbnail on their phone, a photo is presented at 50 percent translucency. The user then moves into a position in which their view of the world lines up with the photo. Once in the correct place, the user presses the “here” button on the phone screen, and voilà, the app displays the augmented content over the camera view in the precise place in which it belongs. One of Jay’s first questions early in the development process was who else was working on the same problem. It turns out there was a family of entrepreneurs in New Jersey that had already filed a patent application with the United States Patent & Trademark Office. Not to be deterred, Jay met with them, and after a series of meetings, the group joined forces. Today, Membit has a patent on the human positioning system for AR apps, effectively blocking all other developers from using their discovery. Along the way, there have been numerous challenges. The language required to develop an app is different from HTML and PHP. “If I had to do it over, I would take six months off and learn to program in Swift,” Jay says. “Instead, we had to rely on a series of programmers to develop the app. We have a great team now, but it has been a process. Most of our programmers are working for equity, which has allowed us to bootstrap the start-up, but it delayed development.”
THE MAGIC Jay’s favorite part of his journey is sharing the augmented reality app with people that he meets. The typical response is always one of amazement; it is like seeing a magic trick for the first time. If the membit is meaningful, like a photo of a loved one or a significant moment, the feeling can be absolutely visceral. Jay knew he had created something special when he shared the membit he had created of his grandmother standing at the gravesite of his great grandmother. “Here I am in Talmage Cemetery with my mom viewing the membit and it was like my grandmother was right there. We were able to connect in a profoundly different way; it became real. It was an emotional experience for both of us,” Jay shares. Videos on the company’s website, www.membit.co, will give readers a sense of the experience. More examples of membits, found both in New York and Topeka, can be seen on their Facebook page at www.facebook.com/ membitinc. However, the best way to view a membit is to download the app and search the map for pins that indicate where membits are located. To download the Membit app, go to www.membit.com.