Meet the Aussie resellers profiting from artificial intelligence, VR, drones, 3D print and more

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This article appeared in the October 2017 issue of CRN magazine.

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Meet the Aussie resellers profiting from artificial intelligence, VR, drones, 3D print and more

The rewards of being an early adopter can be huge – it’s not called ‘first mover advantage’ for nothing – but so can the risks of adopting unproven technology. Those risks can be greater still for reseller partners that choose to bring new technologies to market.

Emerging technologies are often pioneered by vendors who themselves are brand new, and lack the support services common with more mature organisations. Then there are the problems of a lack of skills, marketing support, proven use cases, reference sites, and the general question of whether the new technology can actually do what it says on the tin.

But these risks have not dissuaded a brave cohort of channel partners from taking on the challenge; some have even made a habit of it. And for those that get it right, the benefits can make all that risk worthwhile.

ASI Solutions: Virtual reality

ASI Solutions might be more than 30 years old, but it is more than willing to take a plunge into emerging technologies. In 2015, ASI became Australia’s sole distributor for the zSpace immersive virtual reality platform, which uses a special computer and lightweight glasses to present images that appear to float above the monitor.

ASI initially pitched zSpace to the education sector, but the reseller’s interactive technologies channel manager, Jacqueline Bergin, says inquiries are now coming in from furniture makers through to transport companies, and the company has sold 30 units into the defence sector.

But she says the local market wasn’t always so receptive. “For the first year I slogged around the countryside showing the technology, but we were too early – people weren’t ready to take it on,” Bergin says. “But in the last three months we have had people knocking on our doors, so the market has definitely turned.”

Bergin says the opportunity in education is just getting started. She says the true value in zSpace is the wealth of content that supports it – something competing solutions can’t offer. And she says the learning and insight that ASI has gained by getting in early with the technology has helped uncover numerous related opportunities.

“A lot of schools are making up green rooms or maker spaces,” Bergin says. “So we don’t want to be just the one solution. As these vendors come on board and are ready to go to market, we’ll be ready to go with them and be part of a total solution out to education.”  

Carrington Associates: Cognitive computing 

New concepts can do a lot to attract the attention of clients, but they can also present a long sales cycle for those bringing them to market.

For the Sydney-based regional software services business Carrington Associates, the key to success is in introducing clients to new technologies in bite-sized chunks. That reduces risk on both the client and supplier side.

The latest foray for Carrington is into cognitive computing with IBM’s Watson platform. Managing director Sachin Khisti says working with the Watson APIs via the Bluemix cloud platform provided a perfect introduction to the technology.

“We come from a strong BI background, so we thought Watson and AI could be the next logical thing,” Khisti says. “Once we got confident with the project we started doing some proof-of-concepts with customers, and got a feel for it.”

Carrington has since invested in its own instance of Watson – at a not insignificant cost – and has trained up a number of staff. But Khisti says the interest he is receiving from startups, commercial clients and government agencies is making the investment worthwhile.

“They are looking at innovative ideas and how AI and machine learning will help them,” Khisti says. “We are not here to sell the product, we are here to solve a business problem and create a solution. And it doesn’t have to be expensive. But by being an early adopter we are getting a lot of experience.”

Opaque Studios: Virtual reality

The idea of adapting gaming technology for business use has been a focus for the Opaque group of companies. Working with game engine technologies such as Unreal and Unity, the company has now spun out two entities, Opaque Studios and Opaque Space. 

According to Norman Wang, founder and CEO at Opaque Studios, the group was founded initially to leverage emerging technology to help solve problems across industries. Hence, its investment in VR technology is being applied in both film and television and aerospace and defence.

“We are a factory for IP, and with this IP we can create a lot of ventures that have genuinely unique capabilities that most other ventures don’t have,” Wang says. 

One of its projects saw Opaque combine an Oculus VR headset with Microsoft’s Kinect motion sensing technology to create a spacewalk simulator. That has brought Opaque to the attention of NASA.

“People that can truly build excellent VR content and understand design and underlying technology can apply it in ways that other people cannot,” Wang says. “And the best ways to build that capability is to invest in research and development on sometimes immature technology. Sure, it’s a risk that the technology won’t go anywhere, but the knowledge itself is always valuable.”  

3D Printer Superstore: 3D printing

As an industrial designer, Mark Pestkowski got to have early experience with the world of 3D printing and scanning, often being asked to take a client’s 3D scan and convert it into a CAD model. Even back then, he could see the technologies coming together, and eventually getting cheaper and easier to use, and knew that at some point every school would want one.

“I saw myself placed in the middle of all that, so I thought I’d be one of the first ones to introduce it,” Pestkowski says. 

“In those days you couldn’t buy a 3D printer from Australia, and there was no expertise here. People weren’t going to spend $5000 on a credit card to purchase something from overseas, especially with a product you can’t touch of feel or see.

“I had the background, I knew the technology, I knew what it was capable of, I knew what requirements industry had in terms of print quality and mechanical properties. So I started with a 3D printer and knocked on doors of schools and talked about how it could be integrated into their curriculum.”

From there he created the 3D Printer Superstore in Port Melbourne, supplying devices, consumables and advice to clients all around the country. 

“We are looking at creating our own brand and being a distributor for some more interesting consumables, because there are so many different printers out there,” Pestkowski says.

That also puts him in a good position to capitalise on the opportunity he first spotted as an industrial designer. 

“Every school in the next two years is going to have a printer,” he says. “It’s not that big a gap.”

Guava Insights: Unmanned systems

While interest in drones is high, in the commercial world, interest is also high in the data that drones can gather. It was this realisation that led former technology consultants Simon Szwarc and Jonathan Ivanyi to found Guava Insights two years ago.

“Organisations thought they could buy a few drones and train up a couple of pilots, without really understanding anything about the technology itself,” Szwarc says. “But how does that link into their operations, and where are they going to store all this data?

“And how are they going to leverage it? Because the value is in the data, not in the collection process.”

Guava Insights has now expanded beyond drones into other unmanned systems, including boats and submarines, as well as having developed expertise in imaging technologies such as LiDAR, thermal imaging and multispectral analysis.

But Szwarc says the real value is in the consulting services that Guava offers around these. “We really wanted to pull our clients out of the world of drones and into the mindset of business strategy and innovation,” he says. “We understand their business, because that is what our background is.”

It’s this perspective that helps the company create solutions that solve real issues for clients. “The data and the analytics and the business consulting is where we are generating a massive amount of IP,” Szwarc says. “And when you have that IP and specialisation, you walk alone.”  

Readify: Augmented reality

Melbourne-based developer Readify has built a solid reputation for innovation around the Microsoft technology stack. It’s no surprise to see it at the vanguard for exploring the potential of Microsoft’s HoloLens augmented reality platform. 

Former managing director Graeme Strange, who was recently promoted to a larger role with Readify’s parent company, Telstra, says it is not in the company’s nature to wait until the market is made before jumping in. But at the same time, the company is careful not to go chasing “the next flashy coloured bead”.

“We have a methodology that helps us work out which technologies we think are going to be the most relevant into the future,” Strange says. “Something in the two- to three-year range is actually really good, because there is real stuff being released, yet it is going to come with its challenges.”

This was the approach Readify took to its investment in cloud and IoT years ago. 

“We knew they were going to be important, and we started investing in early-stage discovery, getting people their professional development, letting people play in sandboxes, and finding those brave customers that were willing to trust us to try and create something for them,” Strange says.

The HoloLens engagement began two years ago when Strange saw the technology demonstrated at Microsoft’s Worldwide Partner Conference. 

“That was a significant investment on our part to get involved in that, but we will learn a whole lot,” he says.

Often those learnings can be monetised. Readify was subsequently able to attract the interest of an existing client, construction firm Laing O’Rourke, and began exporting its 3D CAD designs for presentation in augmented reality.

Readify says working with leading-edge tech early can translate to engagements around more established services and technologies later on.

“Early on, margin’s not great, because there are mistakes made and extra capability required to fix up where the vendor hasn’t told you stuff, or the product doesn’t do what it should do,” Strange says. “But ultimately there is a sweet spot where you are the only ones with the real expertise to implement something, and what happens then is we see greater margins.  

Aptira: Software-defined networking

SDN has remained stubbornly on the fringes of mainstream adoption in Australia, something that Lumina Networks is working hard to change. 

It is relying on partners such as Sydney-based Aptira to bring that technology to market.  Aptira’s chief operating officer Roland Chan says his company has found a way to reduce the risk in bringing SDN to market.

“What we have put together is a consortium where we can each stay within our specialities, and have a group of organisations that are like-minded that work together to provide the solution,” Chan says. 

Chan says the requirement has been to make SDN appealing to clients who are traditionally conservative in nature, such as telecommunications companies. 

“They are always looking to the future, but what they build has to be solid,” Chan says. “We think the technology is close enough that they can realise the gains of SDN without sacrificing quality.  

Sphere Drones: Drones

It’s not surprising that Paris Cockinos is a pioneer in new technology. His grandfather started in electronics back in 1954 selling two-way radios, telephones and satellite communications gear to the aviation industry, and was there at the beginning of the PC era in Australia, importing the revolutionary Motorola 6809 CPU.

But it was Cockinos’ enthusiasm for remote-controlled model planes and helicopters that helped him see the commercial potential of a more recent emerging technology – drones  – and led him to start Sphere Drones as a separate business once he’d left high school in 2011.

“That established my understanding of how drones could possibly work, and if I didn’t have that I don’t think I would have been able to adopt them and implement them into a business structure,” Cockinos says.

Today, Sphere Drones is supplying a range of drones to large entities including government departments. It has grown to 15 employees, and now offers piloting and training services as well as sales and support.

And while drones are now broadly available, Cockinos says that having got in early, he is able to see business opportunities that are well beyond anything he might have considered when he first started out.

“There are always people coming up with new ideas and new uses for them,” he says. “People using it for mapping and surveying, checking the coastlines – it keeps developing and new ideas are coming up. I think it is still at its early days.”

DiUS: Virtual reality

While some technology might look appealing on the surface, it can still be hard to find that early adopter customer to prove out its usefulness. But look hard enough, and you might find them.

When Melbourne cloud and digital specialist DiUS began investigating virtual reality, that early adopter proved to be REA Group. 

DiUS head of technology Daryl Wilding-McBride says his company’s foray into VR continues a spirit of innovation and a desire to use leading-edge technology to solve business problems and challenges to create opportunities that goes back to the company’s foundation 13 years ago.

“We are not just a mobile and web software development shop,” Wilding-McBride says. “We build our own hardware and were working with mesh networks and sensors way before it was called the internet of things. So we have always been pushing the horizon out and trying to be always ahead of the game.”

The VR exploration came via software engineer Matthew Butt, who had joined DiUS from a background in gaming, and got the company interested in using 3D models from gaming in real-world applications. 

“We started to think about data visualisation and started to explore how 3D models from the gaming world could help businesses visualise their data,” Wilding-McBride says. 

That led to a series of proof-of-concepts, which piqued the interest of REA Group. The partnership ultimately earned DiUS the Customer Experience trophy at this year’s CRN Impact Awards.

“REA is always keen to experiment and try new things, and so that is how it came about to use VR to visualise real estate,” Wilding-McBride says. “It is still fairly early days, and we are still learning as well about how to make it appealing, and find valuable use cases for companies that aren’t on the edge like REA is.

“That is the challenge for us – how to apply this technology in ways that are valuable. It’s a multi-year play, and we don’t really have a timeframe for return on investment. But we do believe it will happen.”

Similar thinking is also driving DiUS’ current examination of AI, backed by the belief that computing needs to become a lot more intelligent.

“Companies like ours can’t afford to wait until something is a sure thing, because then we are scrambling to build expertise and credibility,” he says. “We need to be doing that now, long before it is a sure thing. We can’t afford to rest on what we are good at today, because it doesn’t necessarily mean that we can prosper in years to come if just keep focusing on that.”  

Servian: Artificial intelligence

When your company markets itself as being at the leading edge of technological capability, you leave yourself little choice but to investigate all relevant new possibilities as soon as they come to market.

So when IBM’s Watson cognitive computer platform emerged, 10-year-old data and analytics company Servian jumped in from the beginning.

“We have been there from the start, because we felt we had to be,” says Servian’s head of digital, Tim Mannah. “We look at technology from the perspective of what value can it bring into the enterprise, but the only way we learn the value that it brings is to use that technology at our own cost.”

Hence Servian was one of the first Australian companies to get access to Watson via IBM’s Bluemix program, and has invested significant time and effort in learning what it can do, starting three years ago with an internal hackathon to see what they could do with it.

Mannah says while the intention is always to monetise any new investment, the learning gained along the way can also be valuable.

“I don’t think the market is prepared to back AI in the ways we read about it,” Mannah says. “Part of what we need to do is help educate and show customers where they can get wins that are realistic, and what is still science fiction. So you back a technology early with the intent of being able to provide professional services down the track, and that does maximise your ability to monetise your investment over time.”

One of those learning tasks was an AI-powered chatbot Servian created for the real estate website 

“When launched, that chatbot was capable of pitching available real estate in an upcoming development,” Mannah says. “And it was asking questions to validate what the potential buyer might want. If it matched the profile of what was available, it would then trigger a phone call to speak with a person.”

Mannah says trials like this are key to maintaining Servian’s reputation among its clients, but are also invaluable in terms of the learnings they deliver.     

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