In our inaugural Meta Staff Profile blog series, we decided to cover the company’s Chief Italian Officer (CIO) a.k.a. our Chief Neuroscientist and Director of Analytics, Stefano Baldassi.
Stefano joined Meta in March of 2014, initially as Visual Perception Science Advisor. His quips and quick thinking keep the mood light and people on their toes. Always down for a good laugh, Stefano is a complete pleasure to work with. His contributions to Meta have been paramount in making tough decisions with regards to the direction of product development. Double-checking gut decisions and supporting all findings with hard, factual data points has made the tough hardware questions a lot easier to answer. Furthermore, Stefano’s vast knowledge about the effects of sensory inputs and neuroscience has made him an excellent and integral part of the Meta staff.
How and why did you get into the research field?
I have been active in the research field for more than 20 years. In 1994, I published my first research study on what is visible during the course of a single eye movement. My primary interest, at the time, was to understand the perceptual and cognitive mechanisms driving performance in top athletes. I was a semi-pro volleyball coach in Italy and my dream was to make it to the Olympics. Then, a bigger dream to become a scientist and help solve challenges in the fields of vision and neuroscience came along via an academia path. I got a Ph.D. in Human Perception and worked at leading labs in London, Pisa, San Francisco, Florence, and Stanford.
After that I studied how people see, search, pay attention, and make decisions based on the complexity of their sensory inputs. Most of those studies were performed under highly controlled, aseptic lab conditions. In 2008, I started taking interest in how humans select and use visual information in the natural world–not only in the lab–and how we interact with it. Wearable computing was far from being accessible at that time. I envisioned utility with the use of see-through displays. I thought with eye tracking combined with motion capture technologies, we could collect data-sets that could give a straight answer to these big questions: How do we use the overwhelming input from our visual world? Which inputs distract us during natural interactions? How do experts and top performers react differently to their perceptions? How can we enhance our focused attention and visual selection?
I applied for an ERC grant from Italy and the reviews came back saying that the idea was great, but too hard to solve from a technological standpoint. Life proved that the reviewers were wrong. One morning in January 2014, I was sitting at my desk at Stanford. I serendipitously came across the Forbes 30 under 30 list in an Italian newspaper, La Repubblica. Meta CEO, Meron Gribetz, was listed along with the Meta 1 product. It was what I had been dreaming about for the last five years! I wrote the Meta team an email as I wanted to chat with them. Meron and Ben, the co-founders, replied and hosted me at the Meta HQ ranch. The rest is history…
What do you do as Chief Neuroscientist & Director of User Research and what's the end goal?
I plan user research across the entire lifespan of product development stages, ranging from hardware to software, business and marketing. I create the tests, setup the test protocols, analyze the data, and build reports. And of course, lots of meetings with various stakeholders and with my team. All this with a big goal in mind: making the 3D interface more intuitive and easy to use.
How will Meta's future products be improved by your rigorous work?
I rely heavily on my deep expertise in neuroscience, behavior, and performance, stemming from my academic career. These areas are extremely important, not only from a theoretical standpoint, but also because of the robust methodologies that I can transfer to the research in Augmented Reality. Furthermore, I believe that research is fundamental for informing product decisions. Qualitative conclusions may have important consequences but are subjective and less reliable. Decisions or data interpretations made by a single person may be limited and misleading. Therefore, working with a wealth of knowledge and my wonderful team, future Meta products will be improved through thorough and methodical research, testing, and retesting.
What do you find most challenging as Director of User Research?
Meta AR technology breaks computing paradigms. Additionally, working on the Meta 1 Dev Kit pushes new frontiers in User Research. We are writing the book, as it were, by doing human engineering while dealing with hardware problems, sensors, ergonomics, gesture performance, visual registration and so forth. Yet, in some cases we are still perceived as the eyeball research department of a web firm that looks at design and sticks post-its everywhere during testing. My “Data Of the Week” presentations, at our company meetings, have improved this perception incredibly and aligned most of the company with our core capabilities. But the biggest challenge with a growing company is to get everyone on board with what our User Research team can or should do for their departments. Furthermore, time constraints (tremendously stricter than in academia) are a huge challenge which I consider to be very fun indeed!
What gets your blood pumping when you aren't working?
Never ask a Mediterranean guy what gets his blood pumping ;) Family first. I have a wonderful wife, Francesca, whom I have also worked happily with for many years. I also have a 12 year old girl, 9 year old boy, and a very cute little rescue dog, Pongo. Sports – running, volleyball, skiing, a little bit of cycling, and soccer (check out our Meta team!). I like photography, though I’m not doing it much lately, and I am a great cook (don’t forget I’m Meta’s Chief Italian Officer). I do quite a bit of volunteer work. I coordinate the After School Sport board at my kids’ school in Menlo Park, and fundraise as a Ronald McDonald Team runner at the Big Sur Half Marathon over the last 2 years (> $4.5K raised). Last but not least, I love to hang out with friends and tease (or get teased by) my coworkers, Todd or Ashish, on work breaks.