20-Minute Leaders

“Whenever I have to think about whether I should do something or not, my approach is yes, do it"

Dotan Knaan, a senior software engineer at Samsung Research talks to Michael Matias about the still unfullfilled promise of augmented reality

CTech 09:1409.02.21
For Dotan Knaan, senior staff software engineer at Samsung Research America, there is nothing more exciting than the technology of augmented reality and its future applications. Knaan was initially drawn to the field of AR because of its unique visual graphics, and though he thoroughly enjoys the development side, he does note that several challenges have yet to be resolved. As he explains, issues with head tracking and proper object location coupled with the lack of affordability have all delayed widespread acceptance of AR technology both by professionals and the general public. In an interview with 20MinuteLeaders creator Michael Matias,Knaan explains why despite these issues he remains excited about the field’s potential and emphasizes that there is a huge opportunity for the technology to help connect the world in a time of unprecedented isolation. Augmented reality is clearly a fascinating industry, and Knaan is looking forward to working at the forefront of this innovation for years to come.


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You mentioned that you traveled with your wife with bikes all across Europe, and you even traveled with the whole family on a non-competitive cycling event through Iowa, right?


I try to avoid my car. I'm using the bike whenever I can. As a student, I cycled with my wife for two months in Europe. In the United States also, I cycled a lot, including with my family; one week we crossed Iowa from one side to the other.


You're a researcher at Samsung. You're an expert in computer vision in augmented reality. Can you take me back a little bit about your journey into this computer vision space. Then tell me a little bit about where we are.


My big one is more computer vision and also a bit of computer graphics. Why I like (augmented reality), it is about integration. You take computer graphics and computer vision and integrate them and have something that you see. Also something that for me is very important is the feedback. I don't need someone to tell me if it's better or not. I see if it's better. I see the reality in front of me.


What drew you into computer vision starting out?


That's because of the visual aspect. Because I see what I get and understand the world and how the computer can understand the world, and how a computer can learn. The direction, being able to see what you're doing, that's what I like the most. What's also very interesting is for us, the human, (when) you see something, it's so obvious what you see. But to teach a computer to understand what you see, it's a big challenge. There's virtual reality where you see only the virtual, only the graphics. You don't see the actual world. And there's augmented reality or mixed reality. You have the world, but on top of the world, you have some object that adds some information to the world.


Dotan Knaan. Photo: Courtesy Dotan Knaan. Photo: Courtesy

Personally, I prefer as a developer to work with the glasses. For me, that's the magic because then you really see the world and then you put the graphics on top as an extra layer. But that's even more challenging because you really have to understand, not only the scene and where to put something, but also track the head motion. Everything also has to work very efficiently in real-time because you cannot have any latency.

For many years now, it's been considered as the next thing. But it's still promising. In the future, if I have something with augmented reality, I’m going to get more information than someone without it. And so, one day maybe, if you want to be in and know everything, you'll need augmented reality whether you like it or not.


I had a great chat with a product manager at one of the leading autonomous vehicle companies on this show. She said we've advanced a lot, and we've reached this 95-96% threshold. And now we're realizing that the last 5% is harder than we thought. Is that the same thing with augmented reality?


I think yes and no. I think it is yes because if you want something perfect, there's still a lot of things to do to make it work. I think the problem with augmented reality is the awkwardness. There’re no stable, killer applications. With Google glasses, you get more information, but you look awkward. The technology is really getting there, but it’s expensive. That's something that has to be solved before people can use it. In the future, they are talking about lenses instead of glasses. The hardware, it's very creepy. I don't know. But I believe that's something, even if you like it or not, it's going to happen.


You don't really see me and my friends talking about these AR technologies as much as we did even five years ago, which is counterintuitive. But what I'm hearing from you is that I can be optimistic and I should be planning for a nearby future when it will be less awkward and more beneficial to take part in this new humanity.


Yes, I think that's the direction. There is so much we can learn and do with that and so much extra information you can get. I think it's going to happen. Maybe not as soon as they thought, but it's going to happen.


So, now is the part that I'm most excited about. Where are we heading? Let's say, 10 years down the line or 20 years down the line, what do you envision our world will look like with augmented reality as part of our society?


Maybe we have to separate what I want and maybe what I think is going to happen. I like the technology as a developer, from contribution, production, integration. But I'm not sure that as a user I really like it. I'm not sure I really (would) like to have it in the future. It's also scary for me. If I want to make a meeting with you and we want to discuss something that is here on the table, with AR glasses, we can discuss it. It's already possible with some with more advanced headsets that are too expensive. It is so easy to forget about your environment, especially with virtual reality. That's something that I think, if we find some applications, that can do a lot of good to people.


I'm terribly excited about the prospect of being able to talk with my grandparents from afar. Due to Covid-19, I can't go inside their house and visit them. I want to be able to be in the same room with them because it feels to me that we’re almost there.


One more thing, there's haptic feedback. That's something that is still missing and that's more expensive. That part is a bit behind. You want to hug your grandparents, and there are some controllers that just vibrate a bit, but it's not much more than that and the better ones are very expensive. Maybe in 10 to 20 years, I hope that this will get much, much better because that will make a lot of difference.


I'd love to get three words that you would use to describe yourself.


It's active, calm, and not regretting.



Michael Matias. Photo: Courtesy Michael Matias. Photo: Courtesy

Michael Matias, Forbes 30 Under 30, is the author of Age is Only an Int: Lessons I Learned as a Young Entrepreneur. He studies Artificial Intelligence at Stanford University, while working as a software engineer at Hippo Insurance and as a Senior Associate at J-Ventures. Matias previously served as an officer in the 8200 unit. 20MinuteLeaders is a tech entrepreneurship interview series featuring one-on-one interviews with fascinating founders, innovators and thought leaders sharing their journeys and experiences.


Contributing editors: Michael Matias, Amanda Katz