Cooking up new technologies

hololens1016

Northeast Wisconsin firms create software applications to rival those coming out of other more recognizable tech hubs

Story by Lee Marie Reinsch

Sure, we know we’re more than beer, cheese curds and lazy autumn afternoons at the pumpkin patch.

We know we have high-tech firms in northeast Wisconsin that do space-age, whiz-bang things we wouldn’t have thought possible a few years ago.

But thanks to companies like Apple and Google, the most famous technology valley in the world is not the one called Fox. Yet, there’s an increasing number of information-related and technology companies from northeast Wisconsin that – while they may not get a lot of ink – they are changing the way people around the world do business.

Mixing up reality

If you’ve seen or played Pokemon Go, then you’ve been exposed to this thing called augmented reality. Unlike virtual reality, which steeps you into a virtual world, augmented reality takes your actual world and puts virtual elements into it – you’re in your own living room and suddenly Ted, the foul-mouthed, computer-animated bear from the movie “Ted,” appears on your couch.

With mixed reality, those virtual elements can move and interact with you. Think Ted again, not just popping open a beer and offering it to you, but you having the ability to see the beer bottle in your hand, move it around, and set it down. Granted, you can’t actually drink the beer, and the expensive headset you’re wearing would probably clunk against the bottle if you could chug it down. But even so, mixed reality is changing the way people experience the world around them.

Microsoft’s new baby, HoloLens, uses mixed reality to enable holograms to “look and sound like they’re part of your world,” according to Microsoft.

Green Bay-based Cineviz received early permission to use HoloLens in development several months before Microsoft released it. Cineviz is an experiential design company, which means it creates experiences – mainly for education and museums – using technology.

“HoloLens, being mixed-reality, really projects that augmented-reality experience into holographic imagery, but takes it beyond just the holographic image to the point where you can interface with that piece of imagery,” said Scott Koffarnus, Cineviz CEO and creative director. “So you can control it, you can work with it, you can build it – there’s an interface in it. When we look at it from our standpoint as an experiential design and technology company, it really fits in with a lot of the things we’re trying to do.”

HoloLens removes a barrier between user and experience.

“HoloLens is going to allow people to open their minds to different things and release limitations that you have today on a phone, where you’re limited to that boundary,” Koffarnus said.

He indicated Cineviz is planning to use it for educational applications, learning experiences, gamified learning experiences, building collaborative work environments and in designing products.

“A lot of the stuff we do is built around an educational type of experience, often using gamification techniques, so when you apply that to something like the Microsoft HoloLens, it allows us to do a lot of different things, building gaming-like experiences that can be educational for a museum-type of experience that (guests) can actually interact with,” Koffarnus said.

It could even be used in more practical applications, such as in a manufacturing facility or to train firefighters to react to varied circumstances.

Cineviz has carved out a niche and made a name for itself in the eight years it’s been around. Koffarnus founded the firm in 2008 out of another business he started in 2003 and merged the two. Cineviz bore full speed ahead in the local and national advertising sphere, having worked with Disney, Nickelodeon, the NFL, Playboy, Axe, Diet Pepsi, Gatorade, Betty Brinn Children’s Museum in Milwaukee and The Children’s Museum of Green Bay, among others.

Although Cineviz uses gamification technology, it’s not a gaming company, Koffarnus said.

“We created an interactive soccer game for Nike where you kick a ball into a net, but you have a bank of monitors behind it so you have to kick the ball into a moving target,” Koffarnus said.

For Axe, Cineviz created a gestural application wherein people could manipulate virtual bubbles on the image of a model to create an experience. For Super Bowl XLVIII, they built an interactive speed track. For the Wisconsin Potato and Vegetable Growers Association, they designed a mobile museum called the Spudmobile that lets visitors experience what it’s like to be on a potato farm.

The KI Convention Center in Green Bay hired the firm to develop its visual communications network, which encompassed seven interactive wayfinding signs, five interactive registration kiosks, 29 digital room signs and two large video walls.

Koffarnus said most of Cineviz’ business falls into three categories: experiential design (which encompasses everything from museums to a corporate lobby, creating an immersive environment using technology); visual communications (which encompasses digital signing and wayfinding); and content capabilities (including design, animation and overall content).

Robo investing your wealth

Automated financial advisers aren’t all that new, but they’re shaking up the financial-advising industry, according to Tim Landolt, managing director for ETF Model Solutions in Appleton. But they aren’t perfect. So he and his partners created My Robo Adviser (myroboadviser.com) using the company’s endowment investing philosophy, along with adding some features they felt other robo advisers lacked.

“It’s a digital way to provide our endowment investment strategies to individuals, and it’s set up – because it’s on a digital platform – to be more scalable and expand our geographic footprint to basically anyone in the country with any amount of money,” Landolt said.

There’s no minimum investment, and that makes endowment investing more accessible to those who aren’t typical investors. It’s also available 24 hours a day, even when markets aren’t open.

“The types of services we provide with our full-service endowment wealth management are more for people with a higher net worth and more resources …. whereas My Robo Adviser is for people who know that they need some help and are looking for advisory services but they don’t need a full-scale platform or a concierge service,” he said.

Most individuals who invest have a general familiarity with stocks, bonds and mutual funds. But large-scale institutional investors often seek alternative investments for their globally-diversified portfolios, which requires seemingly endless research to evaluate.

“With My Robo Adviser, we’ve democratized this institutional type of asset allocation for individual investors,” Landolt said.

Users can transfer or set up a Roth or traditional IRA, set up automatic transfers from a bank account into their investment account, and more.

“You would log on, answer a couple questions, such as what is your goal and what is your time horizon, and the digital algorithms would determine which of up to 100 existing portfolios that we’ve set up is most appropriate to meet your goal,” Landolt said. “The system monitors where you’re at relative to your goal and lets you know if you’re on track or off track and if you need to add some money to get back on track. The system automatically moves you to other portfolios, say, as you get closer to your goal and need to get more conservative.”

Once you have your financial goal set up, My Robo Adviser handles itself, Landolt said.

“It does automatic rebalancing, where let’s say the equity portion of the portfolio gets out of balance by more than 3 percent, it will rebalance your entire portfolio,” he said. “If you’re in a taxable account and something has declined, it will automatically ‘harvest’ tax losses and reallocate proceeds into a very similar holding.”

Users have control of My Robo Adviser, so if they think their investments are a little too conservative, they can change or modify the investments themselves or set up multiple goals.

“We’re really unique and different from other services like this because many of the other ones have very simple allocations, like they’ll work with equity and fixed-income only. We add these alternative investments to the mix,” he said. “We thought there was an opportunity in the market to provide a more sophisticated investment solution based upon an endowment-type approach.”

My Robo Adviser’s allocated portfolios consist of 18 securities, based upon the firm’s proprietary Endowment Index calculated by Nasdaq OMX, Landolt said. His firm developed the index by analyzing the asset allocations of portfolios from more than 800 college and university endowment funds. It’s innovative work on My Robo Adviser made ETF Model Solutions one of the finalists for the 2016 Wisconsin Innovation Awards.

Despite its many advantages, Landolt doesn’t think robo advisers will completely replace financial advisers.

“As with medical services, there’s a lot of trust involved between doctor and patient and the same with adviser and client,” he said. “It’s a relationship business and probably always will be.”

But technology is changing the way some people do business.

“It’s enabling businesses to purvey their services to people who prefer to purchase them a certain way and who don’t want the interaction, don’t need the interaction, and find it much more convenient to use an app on their phone to obtain the services they want or need,” Landolt said. “They’re very comfortable doing their banking online, getting transportation, and making reservations online. This is just another revolution.” 

Lee Marie Reinsch of Green Bay worked 18 years at daily newspapers before launching her freelance business, edgewise, in 2007.