Vectorform Breaks the Nerd-Human Barrier

Vectorform’s new Communications, Strategy, & Planning Manager Shauna Nicholson admits that before she got the job, she didn’t know that Vectorform existed.

“They’re like this secret in Metro Detroit,” she says. “I’d heard of their work, but I hadn’t heard of them.”

Nicholson isn’t alone. With high-profile customers like Microsoft, Nokia and Volkswagen, a lot of people are familiar with the apps, games and technology developed at Vectorform. Given the prevalence of their work, it’s hard to believe that the technology company with satellite offices in New York, Seattle, Germany and India was born, bred and is headquartered in an unassuming office building on Rochester Road in Royal Oak.

Vectorform’s mantra is that the company helps other companies develop cutting edge technology with the human experience in mind. Those words alone may sound like the type of generic technology jargon that means little to most non-techies, but company’s work makes sense of the description: they made the Associated Press’ reader more user friendly; they’ve developed an app for Volkswagen that allows customers to “see” the inside of a new car through their iPad, and explore the interior by moving the device through space, viewing the virtual car as if they were sitting inside of it. Vectorform has even developed a new kind of Digital Pathology Viewer that runs on the Microsoft Kinect platform – as in Microsoft Kinect of the Xbox gaming system fame.

It all started in 1999 the way technology companies were wont to, the garage of two guys with an idea. These guys -Jason Vazzano and Kurt Steckling- just happened to live in Royal Oak instead of Silicon Valley.

“Our original vision was to use technology to improve any aspect of our customer’s businesses,” says Vazzano. “I suppose that might sound boring now, but the reality is that in 1999 the web was a totally new and exciting frontier and the possibilities were endless. I remember dreaming about the day we could do online banking – or buy airline tickets on the Internet.”

As the Internet age developed, so did Vazzano and Steckling’s business. Their big break came in 2003 when DaimlerChrysler Financial Services was looking for a company to help reinvent their main web property.

“We did not get the job,” says Vazzano. “However, our work caught the attention of their communications director who decided to try us out on some smaller projects. The relationship lasted for years and was a major factor in our growth at that time.”

That foothold helped open the doors to the numerous global companies who now use the ideas generated at Vectorform to reach their customers. Today, Vectorform has 100 employees around the world, and pride themselves on the special kind of human capital they have amassed.

“I don’t know if you’ve ever met an engineer,” says Nicholson, “but they don’t have a reputation for people-to-people. Here, it’s mandatory.”

Vectorform takes the approach that most technology companies concentrate so hard on gadgets and capabilities that they lose sight of what humans might actually want do with their products. The engineers at the Royal Oak-based business are asked instead to begin by looking at the user experience – to think first about people, then the technology.

“That’s not to say they’re not nerds,” Nicholson says. “They definitely have a focus on engineering and developing, but they do it with an eye for the human experience.”

That’s how the idea to develop new a colonoscopy viewer using Windows Touch and variety of other preexisting Microsoft programs came about. The technology dramatically reduces the amount of processing time, as well as the cost of the procedure. Nicholson explains that Vectorform asks their clients to be open to new ideas, as sometimes they’re developed organically by the company’s unique approach.

“People didn’t think there was anything wrong with colonoscopies, until we saw an opportunity,” she says. “That’s what happens where you’re tearing down those walls and focusing on human experience.”

That’s why the right people are so important. And finding the right people is one of the reasons the global technology company that was founded in Metro Detroit is still right here.

“Detroit has an excellent labor pool,” says Vazzano. “We have never staked our future on customers from the Detroit area, due to our concerns with local economic conditions. However, we continue to be surprised by how much demand we have from the Detroit-area. At this point, we are bullish on the area from both a customer and a labor prospective.”

For as many Vectorform products the typical Metro Detroiters has likely already come across in their daily lives, the frequency of those encounters is most certainly going to become greater. Though Vectorform’s current projects are all kept under lock and key, Nicholson can barely contain her excitement about the scope of the company’s future work.

“It’s incredibly exciting,” she says. “We’re always looking to take the project [our clients are] working on and really disrupt their industry. When you’re on leading edge of technology, it’s about disrupting the industry for the betterment of people everywhere.”

That seems like a convincing enough to hint to keep an eye on that quiet office building in Royal Oak, not to mention the global technology innovations coming out of it.

Natalie Burg is a freelance writer, the news editor for Capital Gains, and a regular contributor to Metromode and Concentrate.

All Photos by David Lewinski