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The Explorers

Oracle’s R&D labs prepare for future technologies.

by Minda Zetlin

August 2015

A nurse works in a hospital all day, using her tablet to record patient stats and write notes about their treatment. Her shift over, she leaves for home, taking her tablet with her. As she steps through the hospital door and walks into the parking lot, all HIPAA-protected patient data is wiped from her device, leaving her personal data and apps intact. She can use the tablet for whatever she likes, and her employer has no concerns about private data being compromised if the tablet is lost, stolen, or accessed by an unauthorized party during her off-hours.

This scenario, using geo-fencing technology, is one of the many concept demos created by the R&D teams working at Oracle. Their goal: as technologies gain marketplace acceptance, be ready with applications and use cases that will create business value—allowing Oracle customers to quickly take full advantage of emerging technologies, tools, and devices.

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The period from the introduction of a new piece of technology to when it is either declared niche (think Google Glass) or achieves widespread acceptance (think GoPro) is getting shorter and shorter, observes Jake Kuramoto, senior director of user experience emerging technologies at Oracle. “The time it takes for a new technology to gain mass adoption is compressing, causing innovations to spread more quickly than ever before,” he says.

Kuramoto goes on to note that 20 years ago, people started using the internet at work; eight years ago, people started bringing smartphones to work; and five years ago, people started bringing tablets to work.

Once users adopt a new technology and become comfortable with and dependent on it, they soon want to use it for their jobs as well. The ultimate goal for Oracle’s R&D teams is to have applications ready and waiting when that moment arrives. To that end, they check out each new piece of technology, come up with use cases or concept demos that demonstrate those concepts, and then share those use cases and demos with customers. Depending on the reaction, they may go forward to the prototype stage and eventually launch a product. The key is to move ahead of the market, learning everything they can about new technologies and devices well ahead of when customers want to start using them.

The JD Edwards Labs team, a research group focused on customers using Oracle’s JD Edwards solutions, is like “the Lewis and Clark of our organization,” says A.J. Schifano, senior principal product manager at Oracle. “They are the risk-takers and pathfinders who clear the way for us in product development to synthesize emerging technologies into enterprise-class solutions.”

The key is to find the intersection between gee-whiz new technology and solid business value, explains Gary Grieshaber, vice president of product strategy at Oracle and head of JD Edwards Labs.

“You don’t just use technology for technology’s sake,” Grieshaber says. “If you look in the industry, there’s lots of technology that’s just great but doesn’t materialize for us because it doesn’t have that business value.”

Smartwatches: Everything at a Glance

One example of that pioneering spirit is Oracle’s approach to the smartwatch, a technology that seems to have captured everyone’s attention recently. The smartwatch trend is nothing new to Kuramoto’s team, which has been playing around with smartwatches and creating use cases for them since 2012. That year, Noel Portugal, emerging technologies user experience development manager at Oracle, bought a Nike+ FuelBand. Portugal, a tinkerer by nature, was interested in portable sensors and Nike’s development ecosystem. Meanwhile, Jeremy Ashley, group vice president, Oracle Applications User Experience, became a devoted Pebble smartwatch user and backed the original Pebble’s record-breaking Kickstarter project. As other smart fitness trackers and smartwatches came on the market, the team continued to watch them closely.

The time it takes for a new technology to gain mass adoption is compressing, causing innovations to spread more quickly than ever before.”–Jake Kuramoto, Senior Director of User Experience Emerging Technologies, Oracle

“They all have SDKs and APIs to write real code against,” Kuramoto says. So the team did just that to determine what was possible with smartwatches and how customers might use them. “We start with an idea, build a small use case, test it out, show it to people at conferences and other events, take that feedback, and make changes.”

By 2014, there were many more wearables—both fitness bands and smartwatches—on the market. “Apple hadn’t thrown its hat in the ring yet, so we were still early enough,” Kuramoto recalls. At that point, Kuramoto paired a designer and a developer to investigate five popular, wearble devices: Fitbit Force, Google Glass, Jawbone UP24, Pebble, and Samsung Galaxy Gear. The five pairs researched and evaluated each device, and from there, the team developed a framework for how Oracle solutions should work with smartwatch platforms going forward.

First, all processing would be cloud-based and consistent among devices, with only the front end to customize for each device. The team also took note of what users most want from their smartwatches—the ability to get important information with a quick look at their wrists. That led to Oracle Glance, an application for Oracle Applications Cloud, currently at the demo stage and perfectly timed to launch when (or if) adoption of Apple Watch—or smartwatches in general—becomes widespread. Since processing happens in the cloud, Oracle Glance will work with the Android Wear, Android Auto, and Pebble platforms as well.

The idea behind Oracle Glance is to quickly give users key information and notifications and allow them to complete tasks with a simple touch or swipe. So sales reps can glance at their watches for the most up-to-date information relevant to the deal at hand. Technicians can use their watches to track their time on a specific project. And everyone can get important alerts and messages right on their wrists or in their cars, so they can see them and even respond without having to pull out a smartphone—which, depending on the setting, may be distracting, dangerous, or rude.

Though Apple Watch’s initial reception has been lukewarm, there’s no doubt that smartwatches are the way of the future, says Gurbinder Bali, director of JD Edwards EnterpriseOne development at Oracle. Recent research shows that 60 percent of users find themselves using their smartwatches more than they anticipated, he notes. “That’s a pretty sizeable number. It means that at a human level, the wearable platform is successful in allowing people to consume information and interact with their devices.”

So Bali and his team are building smartwatch apps with a more industrial focus. In addition to the notifications and alerts all smartwatch users want, these apps could interface with JD Edwards solutions to send an alert that a machine on a shop floor requires attention. The watch’s near field communication (NFC) capabilities or its linked smartphone could deliver specific information about a particular machine when the supervisor or technician is near it.

“Machines Are Our Biggest User Community”

Wearables are only one technological area getting close attention from Oracle’s R&D teams. Another is the Internet of Things. The geo-fencing use case in which medical records are automatically erased is not the only demo to emerge from this exploration. In another, a JD Edwards partner inspired by the work of JD Edwards Labs created an onsite scavenger hunt at a conference, where players collected points by touching their NFC-enabled smartphones to Raspberry Pi devices located throughout the event. This could easily have real-world applications, where users need to check in or prove their presence at a specific location.

And this is just a small glimpse of what’s possible with the Internet of Things. “I kid people all the time and say, ‘Our biggest user community has yet to be explored, and that’s machines,’” says Lyle Ekdahl, senior vice president and general manager of Oracle’s JD Edwards family of products. He’s not entirely joking. As Ekdahl points out, as of October 2014 there are more machines than humans on the planet.

The key is to find the intersection between gee-whiz new technology and solid business value.”

A third area the Labs team is exploring is visualization around data and storytelling, to make information more quickly and easily absorbed by the visually oriented human brain. “In one demo we take dry reports such as a quarterly earnings report and create a short video that will tell you the story of the quarterly earnings, walk you through the numbers, and explain what’s happening year over year,” Kuramoto says. Meanwhile, within JD Edwards Labs, Bali’s team is considering 3-D visualization use cases using the Microsoft HoloLens, which could allow a user to “handle” and examine a holographic 3-D object, such as a human heart or a malfunctioning part within a machine, from different angles.

Though each of Oracle’s several R&D labs has its own mission, the free flow of information among them benefits all. For instance, Kuramoto and Bali have a standing monthly call where they exchange ideas about new technologies and how they could be used to benefit Oracle customers. “A single smart person thinking about something could be productive, but the human mind can only think about so much,” Kuramoto says. “Working with these teams has helped us all raise our game.”

What It Means to Be Modern

Creating independent R&D labs helps Oracle remain a modern organization, Ekdahl explains. “The keys I see to a modern enterprise are that you have to fundamentally recognize that we are in a period of massive change—along the lines of the change that happened with the Industrial Revolution.” The rapid pace of technological innovation, combined with global macroeconomic changes, has created very fertile ground for this kind of rapid evolution, he adds.

For Oracle customers this means that previous ways of running an organization are no longer sufficient. “It’s not just all about top down, making sure everybody follows a standard process,” Ekdahl says. Instead, the challenge is to become a bimodal organization that can incorporate both a top-down hierarchy and a flatter, less structured approach. “You have to have a mindset that says, ‘Yes, I need to execute, especially on some of the traditional pieces of the business. But at the same time, I have to start embracing some form of holacracy.’”

That bimodal mindset helps organizations ask themselves fundamental questions, he adds—not only, How do we do business? but also, What is the business? “That,” concludes Ekdahl, “leads to more-innovative thinking.”

“The pace of technology has increased rapidly over the past five or six years—almost to the point of not being able to predict more than two years out,” says Ashley. “Now we have to look at emerging technologies and very quickly assess the merit for enterprise users. This is very applied R&D.”

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