Fidelity’s Irish iLab team envisions the future of work through a VR lens

8 Jun 2017

Members of the iLab tech team in Dublin: Kieran McEnery, George Wang, Mike Quinn and Michael Khan. Image: John Kennedy

A tech team at Fidelity Investments’ iLab in Ireland is laying the foundations for the working world of three years from now.

You hover over a series of buildings that are, in some ways, a metaphor for your investments. Moments later, you are in a conference room with other people, negotiating the value of your pension fund. As you take the podium, a quick glance around the room tells you the ages of the people you are talking to, as well as the performance of their investments.

No, you are not dreaming. And, no, you are not having an out of body experience.

Just whip off the HTC Vive virtual reality (VR) goggles and you are back in the Fidelity Investments iLab in Dublin, back three years from the future.

‘It’s our job to look at emerging technologies that could be the norm three years from now’

As I adjust my senses to the physical rather than virtual world, the iLab’s tech team leader, Mike Quinn, explains how this scenario demonstrates how we might well be attending corporate events in the very near future.

The future is so bright, I gotta wear goggles

This iLab is one of a series of iLab locations dotted around the world, with responsibility for creating realistic working environments based on emerging technologies.

“We are pretty much living three years out,” explained Quinn.

The iLab team in Dublin is a small, compact team that consists of Quinn, a senior product manager who is a recovering software developer; Michael Khan, a senior data analyst; senior developers Kieran McEnery and George Wang; and “new guy” Peter McCormack, a senior UX designer.

It’s an interesting team. Both Khan and McEnery are graduates of Fidelity’s Leap programme, a six-month long programme designed to accelerate the development of IT graduates in business, professional and technical skills.

Wang transferred to Dublin from China, where he also worked in Fidelity Labs, as well as a number of start-ups.

McCormack comes from the start-up world, and loves to build prototypes and test them on users.

Quinn, originally a software developer and analyst, joined Fidelity four years ago and, with the company’s support, completed a master’s in innovation and product management. He completed his master’s, became a dad, and joined the iLab, all at roughly the same time.

Making emerging technologies tangible

The iLab is used by the team to develop and showcase innovation that is happening within Fidelity Ireland, and to create a tangible, visible presence for visitors and employees to experience and share innovation.

This could involve anything from VR and augmented reality today, to future scenarios involving emerging technologies such as blockchain, 5G, connected cars, robots, you name it; it’s a vast canvas.

Scattered around the lab are all manner of toys, from games consoles to VR headsets, and Lego to a video conferencing robot that helps visitors from anywhere in the world be present and mobile within the lab.

The scenario described earlier began when the team experimented with a VR system to transform an investor’s portfolio into a city that conveys information about stocks.

Quinn explained that the team has developed an interface to help people to interact with information and large, complex data sets.

The scenario in the form of a VR experience is a reaction to Fidelity’s own research, which found that 72pc of employers surveyed ranked “low employee savings” as one of their biggest concerns.

Could VR be the answer?

“It’s our job to look at emerging technologies that could be the norm three years from now,” Quinn explained. “We generally forge our projects around three brackets: customer delight, business inspiration, and technology learning and understanding.

“We then build proofs of concept to learn how these technologies could be used. This is valuable because, if these technologies – like VR – start to become ubiquitous, then we are ready for them and we have learnings that we can pass on to the various business units.”

I suggest that the iLab is a kind of skunksworks for Fidelity. “To a degree,” Quinn replies. “We are not like Google X, which can focus blue sky, moon shot stuff. Instead, our mission is to look three years out and how these technologies will complement the industry we work in.”

Quinn said that the findings are reported up through the main Fidelity Labs business.

“Every associate would have a certain amount of freedom to chase technologies that interest them, but it is also a balancing act with project commitments.

“Our normal proofs of concepts are about three months, typically, depending on what the project is, of course. Some things are tighter to deadlines; others are more flexible around the delivery.

“But we believe the best innovation always comes out of having time constraints,” Quinn said.

Commenting on the virtual reality system based on HTC’s Vive and the Valve platform, Quinn said that the team has built a proof of concept that can potentially be used for marketing tours within Fidelity Investments.

And it could be harnessed even by frontline sales people to illustrate to clients how their investments are – or could be – performing.

“VR is really finding its way into the world right now, and there is interest in the technology from business as well as consumer perspectives. We can use these technologies to illustrate data in a way that could be more immersive.”

I couldn’t agree more – you definitely have a better feeling towards data and the experience if there is a physical representation within VR of what that data represents.

“It is early days on this,” Quinn concludes. “This team was only set up last year.

“The next step will be handing this over to other units to see if they want to build on this proof of concept, and we will move onto a newer proof of concept with a different, emerging technology.

“Implementation of this VR application in the real world is probably two to three years out, but to see it being used would be what success would look like to us.”

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years