Hardware's Next Little Things by Dan Weingrod It seems that we’ve finally passed the point of expecting some sort of big breakout hit to come out of SXSWi.  With its size and scope most of the concern of attendees was focused on dealing with the usual long lines for highly featured speakers and panels, snagging the invites for secret parties or waiting on even longer lines for the sponsored ones.  On top of this, its become clear that with no-one wanting to try anything remotely daring outside of SXSW approved events, ((homeless hotspots anyone? (and by the way it looks like they worked)), we’re left with the organizers to try and create the foundation or groundwork from which we might find the next big, or little, thing.

The problem with this of course, is that much of the programming for SXSW was sealed pretty much six months ahead of the festival, which means that the “latest and greatest” breakout hit may already have happened. This pretty much seemed to be the case looking at the lineup of keynote speakers: Bre Pettis from MakerBot, Elon Musk, Tina Rosenberg and  Julia Uhrman of OUYA. What did all of these speakers have in common? At the core of their offering and interest is the strong theme of creating physical products in a digital age. Nowhere among these high profile speakers was a new killer mobile app or a hot new social network. In fact there wasn’t really much “New”. Pettis and Musk did manage to inject some serious new into their presentations. Pettis by announcing MakerBot’s new prototype 3D scanner and Musk by showing off this amazing freshly minted, video of a reusable SpaceX rocket practicing a short take-off and landing. But without the pull of a breakout hit it seemed to me that a theme of physical applications to digital technologies had become at least a major thread this year.  Here’s a few of the strings:

Big Sensor

It started for me in a Friday Healthcare App session with a questioner who asked about how the presenters were planning to take “Big Sensor” into account.  Big Sensor? I’d been hearing plenty about Big Data, but this was the first I heard about defining a more specific subset of it as the massive and rapidly growing amount of sensor data available. In the new world of the quantified self where we, and perhaps our doctors, are all tracking our own information, sensors from fit-bits to blood meters to some scary workplace motion tracking sensors are becoming the physical appendages of data networks. Their growing use is creating a deeper need for developing a more designed approach that can integrate how we use sensor data, how we control it and how we can take advantage of it while retaining privacy and humanity.

Crowdsourced Cars

The day following Elon Musk’s presentation I went to a far more sparsely attended session that took Musk’s approach to physical production and turned it on its head. Local Motors is a company I had heard about before from via Neil Perkin, who has championed its crowdsourced approach to automobile production.  What’s impressive about Local Motors is their ability to leverage a worldwide network of enthusiasts, experts and professionals, connected by software, to design, develop, build and constantly improve a complex physical product i.e. an automobile. While their Rally Fighter is in production and street legal in the US, they are also developing a limited edition pizza delivery vehicle for Domino’s pizza and natural gas powered concept cars for Shell. But the most impressive part of their story was how they worked with DARPA to concept a vehicle for specific requirements in Afghanistan. The result, the XC2V went from concept to delivery in 14 weeks an amazingly short period of time for vehicle, or any sort of, government procurement project.

Listening to the Local Motors story it became clear theirs is a case of hardware learning from software. By using the distributed model of design they are able to use over 35,000 employees, by adapting Agile and Lean approaches of startups to their, related, Toyota Production System they are able to produce limited editions of automobiles, that are limited for the purposes of continuous improvement.  The approach is to build 1,000 vehicles and then pause and optimize instead of the expense and hassle of the traditional mass model. All of this goes to the way that hardware is rapidly becoming more customized and customizable to a defined user experience. We’ve all gotten used to software that can be tweaked and refined to our specific needs, hardware is now rapidly approaching these same capabilities.

Leap Motion

Leap Motion wasn’t new to me, but it rapidly became one of the smaller scale breakouts of the show, even though its product had been announced and on pre-order since at least December.  The biggest reason for this lies in one of the critical differences between physical and digital adoption, hands on experience. Leap had set up a tent for attendees to sample the controller and the lines outside the tent, along with a presentation by its founders, created a strong word of mouth buzz around the product.

What the Leap controller represents is another step in the growing world of gestural interfaces. Kinect got this off and running, but Leap takes it a number of steps forward especially when you consider its price, small form factor and ability to connect with multiple systems. What Leap also brings is a new relationship between physical and digital and the promise to interface with them in the same way. It also begins to ask serious questions about our basic device controllers such as buttons, keyboards and menus, but ultimately it starts blending the gap between physical and digital in ways that I am looking forward to imagining.

There were more examples of the deeper blending of the physical and into the digital landscapes, most notably full scale replica of NASA’s James Webb telescope, but one of my favorites brought it back to how marketing might start to use this combination in a far more interesting way than QR codes. During their presentation called Art Copy & Code, Google demonstrated some interesting and whimsical directions for marketers that start blending digital and physical to create more personal communications experiences. My favorite was this version of an arduino enabled basketball shoe that talked trash to its owner:

A funny, and admittedly very early, attempt at bringing advertisers into the new environment connecting digital and physical. But when you consider how hardware is making so many small, innovative advances on so many fronts its hard to imagine that we won't wake up soon to a new normal where connected communications is part of the physical world all around us.

A CD Solution by Dan Weingrod

Photo of CD's

Image courtesy

We recently decided to let our son take our 1993 Toyota Corolla, (amazing old car with only 95,000 miles), off to college. But before he left he surprised me with a request. He wanted to see what it would take to install a CD Player in the car.  The car still has its original sound system: 4 crappy speakers, AM/FM radio and a non-working cassette player. So my immediate question was “Why a CD player”? Wouldn’t you want something more up to date, like an auxiliary jack so you can plug in iTunes from your phone?. No, he said, that was the problem. He didn’t want to have iTunes available, he expressly wanted to be able to use CD’s. And therein lies a tale of abundance and curation.

Turns out that there’s a problem with his use experience for music players in cars. Whenever he’s been driving with friends, even over the shortest of distances, the first thing that happens is a race for someone to plug their device into the car audio. Not only that, but as soon as that person’s first selection is done, someone else immediately demands to put his or her track on, or grabs his phone to look for their favorite track or asks him plug in their music player so they can play it. What bothers him the most about this is that it quickly degenerates into a completely dysfunctional music experience. (I did point out that there's also a bit of a safety issue, but I'm just the parent). So the real problem is that while he doesn’t mind listening to multiple music sources at times, in this case he’d really like it if he and his friends could focus  one single coherent stream of music instead of jumping all over the place.

So out of desperation he decided to turn the clock back 30 years to CD's. Why CD's? It’s really all about curation and control. The plan is: Buy a few hundred CD’s, rip them with full albums of artists he likes, (and maybe a few mixes), and then have them available as the only music source in the car. The rationale? First, if all the car has is a CD player, the only thing that can be played are CD’s. Second, once a CD is cued up and playing it become very difficult to make instant switches to other artists or songs. Finally, and most importantly, he can now create the kind of user experience he really wants: Listening to a single coherent stream of music without constant interruption and perhaps to impress his friends with some interesting mixes.

I’m regularly fascinated by the way we are constantly cobbling together tools to try and curate the digital abundance surrounding us. What I really love about this scenario is it’s retro aspects. Its all about making an overall user experience better by going back to an older technology and making it more difficult. It feels very much like some of the strategies we’ve all seen, and used, to avoid the multitasking: Software that locks you out of your browser, shutting down your email client or setting alarms to focus your time for an hour as I did when I started writing this blog.

In a way this is all about one of my favorite Clay Shirky’s quotes:  “Its not information overload its filter failure”, but taken deeper and into more specific context. In this case we start with the obvious abundant overload of music, but in this case the technology, specifically music players, cause the filter failure by allowing filters to get mixed and delivering an experience that, for him, is less about choice and more about dissonance. So even though our devices allow us to  access and filter better than we had ever imagined, when we combine our filtering capability in this particular instance we get filter failure. Generally the usual answer for filter failure is to design a better filter, but in this case the solution is an inelegant opposite. By rolling back to an older, more difficult, technology  he ends up with a filter that forces less choice, and perhaps a better experience.

Is Our Future SoLoMo? by Dan Weingrod

Mobile is going to change things faster and more fundamentally than we expected.

It’s been said that the problem with predicting the future is that in the short term we underestimate and in the long term we overestimate. So last summer when I saw this slide estimating that smartphone sales would outstrip PC’s by 2012 I was shocked.

What’s even more shocking was the fact that it just came true, and in the fourth quarter of 2010!!

What’s behind this unanticipated growth is not just generous subsidies from carriers. It’s also the growing availability of useful, engaging and relevant tools on mobile devices which have made them a more compelling and desired purchase. These tools are opening up a world of new communication, activity and behavior. Sixty percent of the time now spent on smart phones is spent on new activities such as maps, gaming and social networking. Apple’s App store is growing at an astronomical rate when compared to the growth of the iTunes music store. iPad growth is eclipsing the sales rate of the iPod and iPhone and topping it off President Obama sounded like a Verizon ad yesterday when he announced a goal of bringing wireless access to 98% of all Americans.

All of these changes herald a rapid shift in communications and culture which John Doerr, of the high tech venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins, calls SoLoMoSOcial for its role in maintaining always-on connections with friends, events and activities, LOcal for its ability to gain relevance from location and real time activity and MObile for its ubiquitous, available and anywhere presence. For marketers the rapid rise of SoLoMo culture will require a swift change in our perspective and approach to messaging and communications. Opportunities will grow for those who will be able to connect to consumers with relevant, useful and engaging applications, solutions and messages. As migration grows from desktop web to mobile web, mobile sites will need to become increasingly sophisticated and take into account the combination of relevancy, location and timing. The deployment of NFC chips in mobile devices will create an opportunity to interact with consumers at the point and the time of purchase. Reward driven marketing and social gaming will begin to take a larger role as engagement becomes a critical factor in maintaining relationships between brands and mobile consumers.

While this is happening very quickly it’s important to remember that, as Google named their mobile marketing conference, "It’s Not Too Late to be Early". The unprecedented growth of mobile is coming as a surprise to most and the best thing we can do is to start learning,  testing and adopting mobile based practices. If we can’t predict we can at least prepare because if the good news is that we’ll have 50% smartphone penetration in the US within months, the bad news is that we’ll probably never get jetpacks.

What’s your prediction?

Crowdsourcing a Bird by Dan Weingrod

A new, crowdsourced concept for a mobile device from Mozilla. They don't want to build it, just show us the possibilities.


Mozilla, the folks responsible for the FireFox browser, have just released an inspiring concept for a mobile phone that re-imagines the mobile future that will shortly be upon us. They’ve done this by rethinking approaches to design, sharpening our understanding of mobile and proving that software is the critical element in product development.

Before reading any further it’s worth viewing the video:

What’s quite inspiring about this video is that, unlike Facebook and many others, Mozilla isn’t planning or even rumored to be building a phone. What Mozilla is doing here is looking at the potential of mobile and throwing out a concept for us to aspire to. And what a concept it is, there’s so much to like that it is hard to know where to begin. I’m particularly taken by the idea of the multiple pico projectors and the way that they are able to create a “desktop” environment without a keyboard or a monitor. I also appreciate the slightly “bulged” form factor that allows for an easier desktop or fully mobile experience. But most of all I like the attitude and thinking that brought these ideas about.

The first is the element of crowdsourcing involved. The lead “designer” Billy May, (not the TV pitchman), is a member of the Mozilla Labs community. He first sent out the call to the community to help collaborate on this concept. The finished product reflects his curation of crowdsourced community input.

The significance here is that while crowdsourcing is not a new concept it is rapidly a mainstream activity and a signpost towards product development of the future. There is already crowdsourced encyclopedia, crowdsourced software and even crowdsourcedadvertising agencies. When you consider the quality and high level of thinking that ended up in the Seabird concept it is not hard to imagine brands and enterprises across the spectrum accepting and mainstreaming crowdsourcing as a method of product development or consumer knowledge.

Another interesting point about the Seabird concept is its approach to the dilemma of creation or consumption in mobile devices. A great deal of the thinking around mobile is developing across these two, potentially contradictory, directions. Many mobile devices, such as the iPad and its many soon-to-be-launched competitors are seen as consumption devices, where the end user sits back and directly consumes media. Laptops on the other hand are seen more as creation devices, devices that are more focused on the creation of e-mail, Word documents or this blog post. The iPhone, and especially Apps, begin to bridge the gap between creation and consumption by providing discreet usable technology experiences that involve some level of creation, from e-mailing and tweeting to video editing. The mobile phone of the future will likely need to combine the best of consumption and creation in one device. Much of what is smart, elegant and surprising about Seabird is about ideas of bridging this gap.

The final interesting point of the Seabird concept is that it demonstrates that software continues to drive hardware development especially in new product innovation. The gulf between hardware development and software development has always been a point of tension, but it has received a lot of play in recent discussions around problems at Nokia. While Nokia is a mobile pioneer that still has tremendous worldwide market share most commentators agree that they are in trouble. Nokia’s primary problem is that they don’t have a smartphone strategy and software to compete with the iPhone, and frankly every other smartphone manufacturer. Why? Apparently Nokia has always been a hardware first company, designing phones more around hardware features such as processors and the phone’s physical “look” than on software, usability and the potential of the platform.  The Searbird concept succeeds by putting end user needs first and playfully and intelligently expanding upon the opportunity that mobile brings.

Of Alzheimer’s and Net Neutrality by Dan Weingrod

It’s hard enough to create viable analogies to explain the Web let alone the Net Neutrality debate, but the recent breakthrough inAlzheimer’s research might just do.

Earlier this week newspapers across the globe headlined an immense breakthrough in Alzheimer’s research. A spinal fluid test was shown to be potentially “100 percent accurate in identifying patients with significant memory loss who are on their way to developing Alzheimer’s disease.” This stupendous breakthrough in a field that has generally seen slow research gains came seemingly out of the blue. One of the most critical reasons for this sudden breakthrough was detailed in a follow-up article that was published yesterday.

In 2003, a number of scientists involved in Alzheimer’s research pushed for a total and open sharing of data between all researchers, universities, corporations and other groups involved in serious Alzheimer’s research. Traditionally each of these groups holds on to their own data and keeps it as un-normalized information that is shared internally. Why? Because the potential for huge profits were too astronomical to share. As it became clear that this was not working researchers realized there had to be a different way.  As one researcher put it: “we wanted to get out of what I called 19th-century drug development” and the sharing of data was key to making that happen. By sharing data openly among all groups, from largest to smallest, capitalists to non-profits, the opportunity was created to blend innovation, technique and insights together to reach this result and others to come.

So what’s the analogy to the net neutrality debate? In their legislative framework addressing net neutrality Google and Verizon proposed maintaining an open internet while prioritizing some traffic on the Web through “fast lanes” in return for additional payment. While this was galling enough to net neutrality advocates, the proposal rubbed salt into the wound by leaving out the rapidly growing wireless market. In addition, the framework also discussed the unspecified “additional online services” that would be outside the regulation of this framework. All in all, the proposal hinted at the idea that some traffic would ultimately receive better, and faster, treatment than other traffic.

So let’s consider what might have happened if this framework had been, even philosophically, applied to Alzheimer’s research. Instead of the unprecedented open sharing of data we might have seen data from corporations or large universities take precedence over the data from the smaller less funded research groups. Smaller, more agile labs or researchers might have seen their data sit on the back burner. How many ideas would have been lost in this process? How much slower would the process have been if researchers working with “fast lane” data had to wait or even backtrack once “slow lane” data arrived? I think it is clear that any prioritization of data or outside control by a bandwidth provider could have significantly disrupted the results of the research.To be clear most of the Web content in the “fast lanes” of the Google-Verizon framework is far more prosaic than medical research data. It’s not like getting e-mail or an old episode of “Lost” at high speed is as critical as gaining insight into an inscrutable, brain ravaging disease. But innovation online takes many forms and has many applications. By putting a premium on one packet of data over another, and especially in the world of wireless, we risk going back to “19th-century thinking” of another sort  and losing the openness that has made the Web the agent for positive change that it is today.