Waiting in line at the Department of Motor Vehicles hardly spurs thoughts of “cutting edge” technology. But inside a small, blue room in Olathe, John Herrman is pulling the two worlds closer together.
He’s one of the tech types at NIC Inc.
Their mission: Use new and existing technology to make the dealings between governments and their citizens happen more quickly, more easily and more efficiently for both sides.
For example, NIC came up with an app that tells Arkansas hunters with an Apple Watch that it officially is sunrise and OK to start hunting, or that it’s sunset and time to stop. NIC also helped two states offer residents new ways to use their Amazon Echo, a sort of “smart speaker” that has sold an estimated 3 million units.
They’re experimenting with pricier Oculus Rift goggles to bring virtual reality into those must-do dealings with governments. They’ve got ideas for what the augmented reality technology behind Pokémon Go might do for the DMV or state parks.
“There’s such a huge lesson in Pokémon Go. Nothing there was new,” said Herrman, the company’s lead research and development analyst.
The game app’s success came from combining old technology that Yelp had used with GPS tracking and the Pokémon game to produce a huge hit. Maybe, Herrman said, the same GPS-enabled exploration could entice visitors to state parks.
NIC looks for technology applications for states themselves, such as ways virtual reality or thermal cameras can fit into training programs or work that government employees already do.
“A lot of things they do is trying to foster creativity and get some of the employees thinking creatively, and who knows some of them may take off,” said Pete Heckmann, an analyst at Avondale Partners LLC who evaluates the company’s stock for investors.
What Heckmann hasn’t seen is much revenue associated with these tech ties. NIC said the effort is aimed mostly at boosting the company’s core business.
NIC’s first big success came in 1991 when it agreed to build — for free — the website that Kansans now use regularly to renew license plates and conduct other state business. The company has built and runs websites for 27 other states, though not Missouri. It provides similar digital services to two other states and an assortment of county, city and federal agencies.
With the rise of smartphones, NIC has turned many of those digital dealings into mobile experiences. A tap of the phone can pay property taxes or buy and download fishing and hunting licenses on the spot.
The payoff for NIC comes in the form of convenience fees the states collect on each digital transaction and share with NIC.
Last year, $273.5 million landed in NIC’s till, and the company took in an additional $18.9 million from software and licensing fees.
Many of the what’s-next innovations aim to help or encourage residents to step out of line and into NIC’s income stream by dealing digitally with their government.
Herrman works on what’s next in that small room in Olathe, which someone dubbed the blue room because of its lighting and wall color.
The space is more like a laboratory.
Smartphones and tablets stack up on a short table. On another surface sits a Pebble Watch and beside it a FitBit, a Microsoft Band, some high intensity programmable LED light boxes called Lume Cubes and assorted other gadgets. A glass desk holds headsets for virtual and augmented reality experiments.
A cable with a hook at the end hangs from the low ceiling. It means cables that connect some of those headsets to a computer won’t yank the computer onto the floor.
Herrman said NIC techs take a couple of approaches to the task. They work with popular devices and technology to see how they could apply to citizen-state interactions. They also look for new technologies and ways NIC state partners can be ready to tap into those that catch on.
Recon Jet is one of those get-ready cases.
It is wearable technology, similar to Google Glass. Essentially, Recon Jet is a pair of eyeglasses with a tiny computer that displays information to the wearer’s right eye. Its maker targets triathletes and cyclists, helping them track and boost their performance and collect information to analyze.
NIC bought a Recon Jet prototype with the thought that maybe law enforcement or park rangers could make use of it. But the battery life was short and, so far, the Recon Jet idea hasn’t quite blossomed.
Recently, however, someone got Pokémon Go running on a Recon Jet at a hackathon.
“That probably will sell a few more of those,” Herrman said.
Recon Jet and Google Glass, like Pokémon Go, are examples of augmented reality. They combine the real world with the virtual.
Last May, NIC got a Microsoft HoloLens for its little laboratory. This is a $3,000 augmented reality headset that more recently became available to the public.
Slipping it on revealed a crudely stylized hologram of a rain cloud near the ceiling of the small room and a similarly crude dog hologram sitting on the floor.
Because it augments reality, HoloLens allows the wearer to still see the rest of the room while walking around to see the other side of the cloud or the back end of the dog.
Herrman sees potential training applications for arson inspectors or restaurant licensing inspectors. Or a driving test.
“Maybe you could have a (hologram of a) car and you would have to walk around it and do your safety prep,” Herrman said.
Also visible on HoloLens is a “window” where the Internet is accessible. He said HoloLens technology could replace current computers and monitors. The headset amounts to a fully enclosed desktop computer so there are no wires to constrain the wearer.
Even when no immediate uses for a new technology emerge, NIC’s innovators keep working with it. Something might pop up and click into place.
“That’s the fun of the job. I don’t know what it will be six months from now,” Herrman said.
NIC’s blue room also hosts experiments with virtual reality and citizen-government interactions.
Lots of people have those Google Cardboard VR goggles or something similar. They contain special lenses that turn a smartphone into a kind of VR headset. The difficulty for users has been finding things to watch.
The idea at NIC was to combine seven GoPro cameras into a special rig and record a 360-degree view of Indiana’s capitol building. The result, Indiana’s website offers a virtual tour.
“Facebook has a 24-camera rig. I haven’t gotten permission to invest in that yet,” Herrman said.
Another use could be a driving test that shows the test taker an intersection scene and then asks which vehicle had the right of way.
Technically, those cardboard sets involve “immersive video” rather than virtual reality, which Herrman compared to listening on a radio rather than attending a live concert.
“The idea of VR is to trick the senses into a whole other experience,” Herrman said. “Their purpose is to exclude your outside environment, to make you think as much as possible that you’re on a roller coaster, you’re hunting in the woods, you’re in a spaceship.”
The blue room’s inventory includes an Oculus Rift, a newer HTC Vive and lower-cost Galaxy Gear virtual reality headsets.
Another device NIC has worked with are thermal cameras available for the iPhone. These take pictures of hot and cold spots.
“What if restaurant inspectors, when there’s a violation, can take a thermal picture and show exactly how warm the refrigerator is?” Herrman asked. “We were already working on an app for them to do mobile inspections. Why not add a little value to it by adding these thermal cameras?”
Beyond the blue room, ideas swirl at each of NIC’s satellite offices in the states where its team works directly with state officials.
In Utah, the innovation team built a practice driver’s license test that the would-be driver can take verbally using the Alexa voice recognition technology on an Amazon Echo.
Mississippi’s team picked up some tips from Utah’s experience and, two weeks later, launched its own Alexa “skill” that residents can add to their Echos.
“Alexa, ask Mississippi when my driver’s license is due,” Dana Wilson, NIC’s general manager in Mississippi, said echoing an Amazon commercial for the device.
Using voice-activated services like Alexa is still in its early stages, said Craig Orgeron, chief information officer for Mississippi. But, he said, given the small screens on Apple Watches and the fading vision of an aging population, voice is the next frontier for personal interactions with technology.
“We all know it’s a little clunky,” Orgeron said. “We’re excited about it, and it puts Mississippi in the forefront.”
Robert Knapp, NIC’s chief operating officer, said the shared Alexa experience with Utah and Mississippi shows developments in one state can benefit residents in another.
“If somebody’s already cut the cookie in Utah, it makes it so much easier to bring it to a new state,” Knapp said.
NIC’s Arkansas team and the Olathe headquarters came up with what they’re calling a personal digital assistant for all interactions with the state.
Gov2Go creates a personal calendar that includes when a user’s property taxes, vehicle tags and other due dates will come up. Residents won’t need to know which state agency handles what, just track the calendar.
Though still early in its development, Gov2Go plans call for allowing residents to complete those transactions with a tap on their phones, helping to drive more activity through the NIC-built state websites.
Gov2Go hasn’t spread to other states, yet. For those residents, it’s still on the what’s-next list.
About NIC Inc.
Develops and manages digital government services for 4,500 federal, state and local government agencies across the United States.
25501 West Valley Parkway, Suite 300, Olathe
CEO Harry H. Herington
930 employees, including 218 in Olathe headquarters and 25 in Topeka
Founded in 1991, re-formed in 1997 as National Information Consortium Inc. to combine affiliated businesses covering work performed for Kansas, Nebraska, Indiana and Arkansas. Became NIC Inc. in 2002.
Stock first traded publicly in July 1999 under the ticker symbol EGOV, which some still use as an unofficial monicker for the company.