One of the many benefits of taking job interviews despite being employed is seeing what other companies are working on and how your existing skill set might be challenged in such an environment. This was certainly the case when I responded to a headhunter's email last week regarding a position at a company in town that is working on AR — Augmented Reality — technologies.
AR is something that I've looked at but not seen the allure in. Asking people to wear a heavy and uncomfortable headset or burn through full phone batteries within an hour, contend with visual distortion and perspective shifts, and generally unimpressive graphics resolutions while embarking on some kind of lame game or unrealistic experience is not something I'm interested in. Sure, we're still in early days of the technology and there are teams of brilliant people around the world working on making it all better, but I've just not seen something interesting enough to capture my attention. What interested me about the headhunter's email was that the position I'd be interviewing for would involve building the infrastructure and the API that would interface with the AR tools that were being built by another team within the company. There would be plenty of opportunity to work with cutting-edge hardware and build brand new software tools. Regardless of how one feels about AR, building new things and pushing one's boundaries is really, really cool.
So with this in mind, I decided that it would be silly to ignore the window of opportunity and agreed to meet with someone from the company in order to see if their goals aligned with some of my own.
The meeting took place at their office, and a cursory glance around the place revealed that most people are using Dell workstations with two or three monitors attached. Headphones were everywhere, so there's likely very little conversation taking place during much of the day. Most chairs looked slept in, and the air carried a whiff of sweat and parking lot odours, which is to be expected in the summertime. The person I met with was the CTO but, when I learned the company had fewer than 20 employees, the title seemed a little inflated. Small companies are great, as every person counts, but the titles are almost meaningless. Roles are more cooperative and dynamic.
Semantics aside, the meeting went rather well. The host arrived ten minutes late and, as we're both roughly the same age, we started by talking about tech in the 90s and what we'd like to accomplish. Later I talked about 10Centuries and its objective to be a non-profit service available for 1000 years, as well as some of what I'm doing at the day job. He talked about wanting to make holodecks, replicators, and transporters from Star Trek. An enjoyable discussion, though a bit rough at times as my Japanese is nowhere near native level.
Eventually we got to the subject that mattered most, what the company needed and whether I would be a good fit within the organization. The role was explained quite clearly, and I outlined some possible solutions to problems that were brought up, such as how to offload some of the AR work to a web server from a cell phone without introducing too much lag or requiring the web service to buy an entire data centre. Things were going well, up until one of the company's current projects was discussed1.
The first project would be an AR "imaginary friend" system. A character with the appeal of Clippy and an anime body of your choosing would essentially be a semi-interactive avatar that simulates a house mate. The system would be targeted at seniors living alone — who I can't imagine looking through a phone all day long — and NEETs who never leave their apartments but need companionship. My job would be to work with a team to build an API that takes the visual data from the cameras of the area, generates a 3D map, stores it on local servers, and then gives the digital pet a floor map from which they're expected to walk and avoid obstructions. This doesn't sound too crazy, aside from the storage of detailed maps of inside people's homes complete with geolocation positioning and other highly sensitive information, and could be an interesting challenge. I had a question.
This sounds very involved. The technologies required to make this a reality will not be cheap. How much will this software cost?
One of the biggest problems facing software companies is the lack of income from the people who use the services. Customers do not want to spend money on applications anymore regardless of how much time and money development of that system cost. Everything is expected to be "free".
This project was no different. I was told the app would be available for some Android and most iOS devices for about $3 after a promotional period where it's free. After that, people would be encouraged to buy their avatar things from the in-app "store", such as clothes, treats, voices, and other add-ons. Interestingly enough, the avatar itself would ask you to get these things if it didn't feel wanted.
Emotional blackmail as a service, anyone?
The goal would be to take the maps and character interactions from this system to use later when the company tries to build a complete VR game with very realistic avatars to interact with. We didn't talk too much about that project, though, and stuck to just this initial idea. The more questions I asked, though, the more it rubbed me the wrong way. The avatars were primarily gold diggers and secondarily spies, returning inventories of people's homes in incredible detail to servers. What's to stop anyone from "adding value" by delivering ads as verbal suggestions? Agreeing could then trigger a purchase, which could then result in the delivery of that product. Convenient? Sure. A little too convenient, though … no?
I'm all for providing some kind of companionship to people in need. Heck, done right, something like this could act as a confidante to people all over the globe. However, this company seemed to have their heart set on making this AR system into an ad delivery mechanism. When I asked whether the service might have a subscription option for people who didn't want to buy digital goods, the answer was a pretty quick "no" as "subscription services don't enable growth".
As the meeting wrapped up, I was asked if I'd like to come in next week to meet some of the team and ask some questions. Not being one to reject right away, I asked for a day to check my work schedule. Soon after leaving, I shook my head and decided this wasn't a place I'd feel comfortable working at. Just because the technology is possible and the tools are sophisticated enough to accomplish this sort of goal does not mean I want to be part of its creation or propagation. It all seems so … inhuman.
One saving grace is that I don't need this job. I still have full time employment and am earning a good amount for what I do. Not everyone is fortunate enough to have this sort of luxury. This does raise a question, though: if I were unemployed or still working in the classroom rather than behind a keyboard, would I accept this job? I've turned down others that do not align with my set of moral beliefs, but I wasn't responsible for a little human back then. I could certainly work at a place that I objected to if needs be, but for how long?
Of course, given how many organizations are using technology to strip away the last remnants of personal privacy and dignity in the name of "convenience" or "share holder value", I wonder how long a career in technology I might have …
I was not asked to sign an NDA, so I'm free to talk about the project in detail. That said, I'll keep it vague in the event there are problems going forward.