Interview with Nicolas Augustin, DevOxyz

Digital Transformation in training, decision-making and modelling, using 3D, AR and VR

Let me first start by wishing you a very Happy New Decade, The Twenties! Finally, we can call it something intelligent!

In this edition, I took time with Nicolas Augustin of DevOxyz here in Martinique, to ask him about his work, the challenges and how Digital Transformation is helping his clients. It’s an appealing look at how small businesses can use digital tools to not only create products and services but serve the globe from a small island in the Caribbean. I hope you enjoy it.

My gratitude to Nicolas for lending me time for the interview.

Note: I have lightly edited Nicolas’s answers for clarity.

On to the interview:

DevOxyz, a digital company with digital products, built for a digital world

Can you introduce yourself to let us get to know you better?

I’m Nicolas, owner at DevOxyz since 2008. We design and develop bespoke serious game applications helping our professional customers leveraging the power of Real-time 3D, Virtual and Augmented Reality to solve their decision making and training challenges.

Tell me a little about your background and how you got to where you are currently?

I have a computer programming training with a computer graphics programming specialisation. Between 1998 and 2008 I was part of a great team in a company called Virtools (acquired by Dassault Systèmes in 2005). As solving professional challenges using 3D is a real and deep passion, I started DevOxyz in 2008.

So you started DevOxyz in 2008, and you are looking to extend your reach more globally — currently, a majority of clients are overseas, but you’d like to do more, I understand. Can you tell me a little more about what you do and what it is you’re trying to achieve?

DevOxyz has been focused on international development from the start with final clients like Procter & Gamble, EDF R&D and Le Musée du Louvres. We constantly look for niche markets where 3D technologies, 3D storytelling and training can help our customers. We actually search for customer pains in various traditional domains (industry, architecture, safety, ...), everywhere there could be “I did not see it like this on the paper blueprints” or “this could better be understood if our employees could experience it and train beforehand” issues.

We are also looking for international partners to handle customer detection and customer relationship. On several projects, we generally have a middle-sized company (our client) who have a good relationship with a much bigger client like Siemens or Microsoft. We wish to streamline this way of working having region partners that have access to key accounts.

I’m interested in diving in a bit more about solving customer pains. As you’ve noticed in my writing in this newsletter, I have a big interest in the idea that products and services can be deliberately designed to resolve pain points and reduce friction. Can you describe a project that really got to the heart of this? What pains did the project resolve, how did you go about discerning the pains? What was the final measurable outcome?

Well, sometimes the pain is inherent to what the project is about. For example, in the VR Driver safety application, I did for a client, we could not, of course, create actual car accidents in training. The client had to come with a solution that would keep the trainee safe but also immerse him/her in a vivid experience. As you can guess, we wanted to avoid the classic presentation-based training with trainees just listening and taking notes, at best. Virtual Reality was the perfect solution for this: the trainee is immersed, living the training and we could create road danger situations and car accidents that we could not have done in real life. Here the outcome was that VR allowed living this that are not possible living otherwise.

Sometimes the pain is clearly explained by the client after discussing his process hurdles with him.

But sometimes, while exploring a technical subject the client and I find an improvement, an added value, like this time I had to convert a 3D file format to another with a pre-processing step and I discovered that the pre-processing step was not mandatory and that I could convert the 3D file format in real-time. The outcome here was automation: we have removed a step in a production process using code.

What would you say have been or currently are the main challenges?

Well, there are 2 main challenges: find niche markets customers and find international partners that can relay our offer.

Can you expand on that? The niche market is obviously difficult to enter as much is based on reputation and word of mouth, do you specialise in any particular niche?

Yes, I focus on 3D data and metadata conversion plugins into industries: PLM/CAD and AEC/BIM. For example, I recently created an Autodesk Revit export plugin to a client custom 3D file format. I constantly make efforts to add special ingredients to what I deliver. In the Autodesk Revit case, I focused on converting and exporting Autodesk materials to the client's PBR (Physically Based Rendering) materials. With the client giving me access to its BRDF (Bidirectional Reflectance Distribution Function) code, I could really deliver bespoke conversion code. I feel I just got carried away there for our non-technical readers, but in a nutshell, I constantly look for the high added value that would make my client happy, beyond basic requirements. It's just like I'm constantly looking for the niche in the niche.

No, no, that’s great. Get as technical as you like 😀. Getting back to you looking for international partners. What is it you’re specifically looking for in potential partners/clients?

I'm looking for Business developers that have close relationships with companies that already use real-time 3D technologies to solve their challenges in the PLM/CAD and AEC/BIM industries. I came to a realisation that most technical 3D challenges can be solved but there is a missing link, someone that can "hunt" for technical challenges. Using my 3D math, 3D data structure and real-time 3D skill sets, I can help final clients quicker than they imagine.

The final client is often a big company whose decision-making process is time-consuming. My added value here is based on development time flexibility and high-quality 3D code.

In terms of structural challenges, what have been the most difficult to overcome, and how did you overcome them?

Our main structural challenge is our location. While we have the technical and Internet-based tools to produce 3D applications remotely, most of our clients are located in the USA and in Europe. We have to reach these clients and maintain good relationships.

The main challenges are not technical as one may think (our more than 20 years experience in 3D and linear algebra helps a lot here) but rather in terms of customer identification and relationship. However, this challenge is turned into a competitive advantage: we constantly make efforts to deliver the best possible technical products to our niche markets customers. We generally solve this challenge by being recommended by clients.

Financially, getting a startup off the ground not only takes a lot of time and passion, but finance is clearly needed. How did you start out?

One word here: bootstrapping. Using that method forces us to choose customers to maintain the best possible profitability and customer value. At one point, we may look for private funding to move the company to another level.

Haha! I feel exactly the same thing. I’ve bootstrapped my business for the simple reason I wanted complete control and to be judged early on by my quality. I developed a unique business model in consulting to avoid the wet and dry seasons as it were. How do you price and bill your projects, is it on an ad-hoc basis?

Our bespoke 3D development service rate is generally between €600 and €750 per day. This rate can vary depending on the project since we perform an in-depth evaluation for our customers to get the best service at the best price.

One of the difficulties in providing “virtual” services is the justification of value. Can you tell me a little more about your experiences?

I generally have clients who are aware of the technical challenges I address because they are tech-savvy. For those who have less understanding of what development is, there are 2 cases: the first case is that they kind of freak out because they don't understand how it works and this induces tension in the business relationship. In the other case, a trust relationship exists between the client and the contractor. This trust is key. It's our responsibility as a service provider to demonstrate that our solutions solve their customer pains or needs.

To build that trust, I tend to build a "before/after" scheme, by showing them what they had before my service VS what they have after my service. Maybe it's easier in computer graphics because they see, on-screen (or in a VR headset) the result of the work.

Another way to build trust can sometimes be splitting the project into small units to demonstrate value. In a nutshell, for some difficult clients, it's our responsibility to build trust.

Can you tell us more about the technical aspect? How does it work?

To keep it simple, high-end video games, CAD software, Architecture and BIM software all use the same technological low-level layer (3D APIs). Therefore, the same programming and mathematical techniques can be used to fight a giant spider, have a stakeholder review of his new plant organisation, train to a new safety procedure in a high-risk industrial site.

As for the application subject itself, we interview experts to build the actual interactivity, “injecting” knowledge and information in the bespoke 3D application. The application can then be used on a desktop computer screen, on a mobile device for Augmented Reality or in a VR headset for Virtual Reality applications.

Yes, and about Virtual Reality, how can professional challenges be solved using it?

VR is now the best way to experience 3D. Hardware costs of VR headsets have dropped along the years. This is the perfect time to leverage something particular with VR: full body and mind immersion. The “trick” here is that the stakeholder or the trainee is inside the 3D world, he/she can look around and move around inside the simulation. After only a few minutes in the VR world, the user is totally focused on the experience or his task. There is a kind of direct access to his mind as his/her 3D vision system (otherwise known as eyes and brain) and his entire body are implied in the experience at real scale. There is no better way to review a building, train to a procedure or treat a phobia, for example.

That’s great stuff, Nicholas. Your work highlights an aspect of Digital Transformation that is both practical in many uses, but also very tangible for clients to understand the benefits of using those digital technologies. It goes without saying that the fact you can be based in Martinique and work internationally without too much of an issue is a real benefit of the digital world.

Thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions, I look forward to following up with you in the coming years to see how tomorrow’s developments have helped you grow. Best of luck!

You can learn more about his services here:

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Matthew Cowen @matthewcowen