LiveWorx 2019: AI, AR and the Future of Life
Michael Alba posted on June 17, 2019 |
A section of the LiveWorx 2019 show floor.
A section of the LiveWorx 2019 show floor.

Software provider PTC held its annual user conference this week just minutes away from the company’s headquarters in the Boston Seaport. LiveWorx 2019 started off with a bang as PTC President and CEO Jim Heppelmann took the stage for the opening keynote. With pumping bass and flashing lights, attendees could be forgiven for thinking they’d accidentally walked into a rock concert rather than a tech conference.

Heppelmann has the presence of a rock star, and he strummed the chords to a song called digital transformation. He presented his vision for how new technologies will change the way products are made,but first assured his core users that “CAD and PLM are never going out of style.” He then spent the rest of his presentation focusing on three different acronyms: AI, AR and IoT (it was starting to feel a bit like alphabet soup at this point).

The first demo of Heppelmann’s presentation was of Vuforia, PTC’s AR platform. Heppelmann pointed a smartphone running Vuforia at three different parts on a table, and the app was able to recognize and identify them for the user. Heppelmann explained later in a media Q&A that the software works by generating around 10,000 fake photos of 3D CAD models and using those images to train a neural network. It’s limited by the memory and processing power of the user’s phone, and it probably won’t work with parts that are closely similar, but it was an impressive demonstration nonetheless.

Example of using Vuforia to identify an object. (Image courtesy of PTC.)
Example of using Vuforia to identify an object. (Image courtesy of PTC.)

That was far from the last AR demonstration, as Heppelmann was keen to show off Vuforia to the LiveWorx crowd. He told the audience that Vuforia sales are growing about 80 percent a year, and will account for 7 percent of PTC’s software sales in 2019. Heppelmann used a Vuforia-enabled iPad to inspect an engine, receiving step by step instructions along the way; similarly, attendees saw a 3D printing expert record his expertise in an AR walk-through via Vuforia Expert Capture. Though Heppelmann maintains that PTC is a software company, and not a services company, he revealed to the media crowd that PTC recently acquired a European AR services company called TWNKLS.

The keynote also featured a showcase of prominent PTC partners, including Volvo (with a demonstration of generative design), Howden (with a demonstration of digital twins), and PTC’s new bestie, Rockwell Automation. PTC’s partnership with Rockwell was announced at last year’s LiveWorx conference, and Heppelmann brought Rockwell CEO Blake Moret on stage this year to announce how swimmingly their partnership is progressing. Heppelmann revealed in the media Q&A that next year’s LiveWorx will likely be combined with Rockwell’s annual Automation Fair in one big happy family event.

Heppelmann and Moret sharing the stage at LiveWorx 2019.
Heppelmann and Moret sharing the stage at LiveWorx 2019.

Speaking of partnerships, PTC has a new one: Matterport, a 3D scanning services company that targets realtors. PTC wants to use Matterport’s technology to scan factories. Heppelmann showed off the concept with a mini factory that was scanned by the Matterport team to create a virtual factory replete with ThingWorx analytics data.

If you’re wondering about the status of PTC’s partnership with a certain large Chinese customer, you’re not alone: when asked how the U.S.-China trade war is affecting PTC’s relationship with Huawei, Heppelmann explained that, while his company can’t legally do business with Huawei right now, he’s confident that both companies can just wait it out. “My perspective is, let’s be patient,” Heppelmann said. “There’s a negotiation going on right now. And the leader of the United States of America has a very strange negotiating style. He’ll punch you in the nose, and then talk.”

The takeaway from Heppelmann’s keynote was that true digital transformation will be enabled by a convergence of the technologies found in PTC’s key offerings: CAD (Creo), PLM (Windchill), IoT (ThingWorx), AR (Vuforia), and AI (throughout its offerings).

Summary of PTC’s product offerings for digital transformation.
Summary of PTC’s product offerings for digital transformation.

Heppelmann’s wasn’t the only LiveWorx keynote speaker. After a day of exploring the show floor and attending breakout sessions, the LiveWorx audience reconvened to hear from Peter Diamandis, founder of the XPRIZE Foundation and Singularity University. Diamandis treated attendees to a fantastically optimistic vision of the future, in which abundance is abundant, where humans will live for years, decades, and maybe even centuries longer than ever before, and we ultimately realize our species’ full potential as technological gods.

“The day before something is truly a breakthrough, it’s a crazy idea,” Diamandis is fond of saying.

Peter Diamandis (right) on the LiveWorx main stage with Master of Ceremonies Mario Armstrong (left).
Peter Diamandis (right) on the LiveWorx main stage with Master of Ceremonies Mario Armstrong (left).

The next day saw a healthy counterpoint to Diamandis’s unbridled optimism in a superb presentation by MIT physicist Max Tegmark, author of Life 3.0: Being Human in the Age of Artificial Intelligence.While Tegmark is every bit as optimistic as Diamandis about the potential of technology to create a radically better world, he advises caution in how we proceed. Thus, he cofounded the Future of Life Institute to “catalyze and support research and initiatives for safeguarding life.” For instance, the institute has published the Asilomar AI Principles, a set of 23 principles to safely and ethically guide AI development. The principle of failure transparency, for example, states that “if an AI system causes harm, it should be possible to ascertain why.”

Max Tegmark was on fire during his presentation at LiveWorx 2019.
Max Tegmark was on fire during his presentation at LiveWorx 2019.

While we’re on the topic of technological safety, another theme of LiveWorx 2019 was cybersecurity, with a section of the show floor,called Cyber Safety Village,dedicated to exploring the topic. In a presentation to the media attendees, PTC’s Chief Security Officer Josh Corman shared some harrowing examples of cybersecurity breaches. The Mirai botnet, which used compromised IoT devices to shut down the Internet for much of the United States on one dark day back in 2016, was but one example. The real threat is what happens when biomedical devices are targeted. Though it’s never been confirmed that hacked medical devices have resulted in fatalities, in Corman’s opinion, that eventual outcome is a near certainty.

“If you can’t protect it, you shouldn’t connect it,” he summarized.

PTC has come out quite strongly for IoT security, publishing a whitepaper on the shared responsibility of the players involved. The whole issue deserves an article of its own—look out for it soon here on engineering.com.

Before heading to the final keynote, we visited one of the liveliest recurring LiveWorx sessions. The Ask the Experts: Creo panel saw about a dozen Creo product managers occupy the hot seat as expert users grilled them about their frustrations and feature requests. “That’s on our roadmap” was the oft-repeated response to the 30 or so user questions, though no definitive timelines were ever given, and many users will likely voice the same concerns at LiveWorx 2020. But for all the vagueness, the panel was candid and humorous, and the audience left in good spirits for the last keynote of the day.

That keynote was another inspiring one, delivered by Michelle McKenna, CIO for the National Football League. McKenna spoke of the disruptive technology she’s seen throughout her career, which has wound its way through Disney, Universal Studios, and now the NFL.As CIO for the NFL, McKenna has deployed next-gen stats tech, embedding sensors in the shoulder pads of every single player to gather a plethora of performance data (swap quarterbacks and linebackers for conveyor belts and load stackers and you’ve got the IIoT). But most impressive of all was that McKenna delivered her keynote on her first day back at work after recovering from breast cancer—a fact that elicited a much-deserved ovation from the LiveWorx audience.

Michelle McKenna, CIO of the NFL, giving her keynote at LiveWorx 2019.
Michelle McKenna, CIO of the NFL, giving her keynote at LiveWorx 2019.

If there was a single message to take away from LiveWorx 2019, it was this: the future is coming fast—faster than any of us can truly comprehend. We no longer have the option to sit around and wait for others to pioneer new ways of designing, manufacturing and servicing products. Companies that drag their heels on digital transformation won’t find themselves behind—they’ll find themselves extinct.But if you act quickly, the future is yours to shape.


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