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The Unbundling of “Augmented Reality” — Behold the Bionic Eye

September 13th, 2009, by Giovanni Rodriguez | located in Conversations | No comments yet | trackback

In a story that got a bunch of reporters and bloggers excited this week (check out the post on CNN.com), Babak Parviz, a professor at the University of Washington, recently wrote about LED and radio-powered contact lenses that could both monitor health and display information over the user’s visual field. The latter functionality — information display — was the bigger story this weeks, exciting the legions of writers who are following each and every advance in “augmented reality.”

In case you haven’t been following the trend story, augmented reality is a set of technologies that enable consumers to digitally display relevant data over the image of an object. Most AR projects and experiments, however, are being conducted on the screens of smartphones. For a great demo, see the video below, by the very hot Netherlands-based AR company, Layar.

The excitement — and hype — that the Parviz article is generating is understandable. While the bundling of various technologies on smartphones — computation, video display, GPS, compass technology, messaging — appear to be driving the adoption of augmented reality, in theory there’s nothing stopping savvy technology vendors from unbundling these technologies and adapting them to the way the body naturally performs in the physical world. The Parviz lens is not the only attempt to unbundle technology. Earlier this year, a team from the MIT Media Lab unveiled a prototype for an AR-like product that enables the consumer to project data on any surface.

On a more theoretical level, just this week Nokia released a demo for a group of products that work together to create a “mixed reality” for the consumer. The most interesting of the products was a pair of spectacles that project data — e.g., the weather, news headlines, text messages from your — above the main field of vision.

Critics of these various unbundlings claim that consumers will never allow themselves to be encumbered by new tech appendanges. But that’s what makes the contact lens so provocative. There are many of — people who are too vain — who would never wear glasses. And there are many of us — people who are too fussy, too lazy, or too disorganized — who would never wear contacts. But I’d bet that there are even more of us — people who just fear looking dorky — who would never walk down the street pointing our phones at people, places, and things. With the options for “better vision” ever increasing, AR is beginning to look like it’s really going to happen.

Call Center Robots Will Answer the Most Annoying Questions

September 11th, 2009, by Giovanni Rodriguez | located in Conversations | No comments yet | trackback

A Minneapolis company called Subjex is claiming a big first in artificial intelligence: a service that enables call centers to replicate the human voice — in text — for complex conversations with human beings. According to the press release (crossed the wire just a while ago):

The AiNDEE™ hosted dialogue customer service system is intended to simulate a call center’s best employee with text voice and animated chat, all from a website. It’s designed to empower organizations that operate call centers with a more cost-effective first tier customer sales and support. It’s different from traditional online help systems because it is 100% autonomous, does not require a live human operator to answer each question, yet rivals a human’s ability to converse in a narrow area of expertise. Its uniqueness is its ability to carry on true bi-directional conversation, where questions and answers are given and answered by both parties for clarity and understanding. It handles the redundancy questions that typically clog a call center and it facilitates a more natural and cost-effective escalation path to higher levels of support.

I like the bits about “redundancy questions,” and simulating a call center’s “best employee.” How about the system’s ability to answer annoying questions? Much has been written about the dangers of robotic technology. But one of the big plusses is the capability of doing things that the best employee cannot — or simply will not — do.

Nokia’s Future Product “Mix”?

September 9th, 2009, by Giovanni Rodriguez | located in Conversations | No comments yet | trackback

Helsinki-based Nokia has been steadily raising its profile in the U.S., using its Palo Alto research center as a hub for innovation. Today, the center released a video on YouTube that nicely articulates the company’s vision for one of the most innovative — if not just over-hyped — areas of innovation in mobile tech: augmented reality. The video — Nokia Mixed Reality — is well worth a look.

For the uninitiated, augmented reality is a set of technologies that enable businesses to overlay data on top of a consumer’s view (say, over a mobile phone). The technologies have been embraced by an army of marketers and developers, mostly outside of the U.S. But with recent news that some U.S. mobile phones can now run augmented-reality applications, U.S. consumers can expect to hear a lot more about the category over the next few months.

And what is Nokia’s vision? It’s a world turned on by augmented reality that doesn’t necessarily depend on the phone. That’s a rather evolved view for a phone manufacturer. But perhaps Nokia’s world, too, has become augmented.

What Does it Mean to be “Real-Time”?

September 2nd, 2009, by Giovanni Rodriguez | located in Conversations | No comments yet | trackback

What it takes to be real-time is both the philosophical and practical commitment to be real … and to do this in the face of one of the most exciting new opportunities in the history of business. As always, the temptation to do things the easy way will be extreme.

Over the past few weeks, a great deal has been written on the topic of real-time communications. And in case you haven’t been following it, the big driver of the conversation has been Twitter. What’s becoming increasingly apparent to technologists, marketers and other business people is that Twitter is much more than just a wildly popular consumer service. It’s the first successful instantiation of the real-time social media. But what does real-time actually mean, and why are business people — especially marketers — so excited about it?

In a recent conversation with a prospective client, TCG learned about an interesting phenomenon, long known to marketers in consumer-packaged goods: by 4PM each day most people don’t yet know what’s for dinner. That’s a pretty exciting statistic if you are in the business of marketing the stuff — the food, the recipes — that make up what’s for dinner. Real-time is human time, and it’s every consumer marketer’s dream to “own” the conversation at a particular time of day (think “Miller time” (end of day), or the “pause that refreshes” (any break in the day). But unless you have a live and practical way for connecting with people at that time of day (forget the soaps; those days are gone), the opportunity may be lost. A new raft of tools and services might help, but there are a few things worth noodling over before you venture out:

The Irresistible Lure of Twitter. John Battelle has often described Google as a “database of intentions.” This is a particularly good way to frame the value of the engine because it helps to explain how the once-small company with a simple consumer service could grow so quickly on advertising revenue. Before Google, there was no viable database of intentions for advertisers. But for most businesspeople, Twitter is still seen as the consumer service rather as the owner of a rival “database of intentions.” Every moment of the day, people all over the world are telling their followers on Twitter what they think, what they like, what they dislike, etc. The database is nowhere close in scale to Google (yet), but this database has at least three advantages to marketers. Unlike Google, the Twitter database is open — anyone can study the ebb and flow of the chatter. Two, unlike Google, Twitter is designed to be social - when someone shares a comment, say about Miller beer — anyone following the comment will notice. Third — and perhaps most important to this conversation — unlike Google, the Twitter database is real-time. When a consumer says they like Miller, it’s not just simply time stamped (though timestamps are very useful for marketing research). The person is saying it “now,” giving the marketer the irresistible opportunity to engage “now.”

Encroaching on Someone Else’s Time. But here’s one reason why a marketer should resist the temptation — or at least pause before giving into the temptation — of respond in real-time. Once you cross-over from the mindset of the consumer (the user of the service) to the mindset of a marketer (the user of the “database of the intentions”) you need to remind yourself that you can’t just go back out there without putting your consumer cap back on. Imagine you are a fan of hyper-caffeinated soft drinks, and you blurt out to your Twitter followers that you are presenting enjoying one, you might be surprised, not in a good way, to be interrupted by a representative for Jolt. The nature of the interruption should be carefully considered. Is it simply to peddle more product, or is it something that has value to a consumer who clearly is interested (e.g., consumers who complain about a product may not mind hearing from customer service, which is one reason why so many companies are using Twitter to field consumer complaints). This should be obvious, but marketing professionals as a class have never been particularly sensitive about interruptions (door-to-door, telemarketing, spam), and there’s little evidence to suggest that we will not misstep here.

Human versus Machine. Finally, there’s another kind of misstep which marketers — who now wear two hats — need to think about. As a backdrop, I’d like to go back to another thing that John Battelle has said, this time on the topic of conversational marketing: “Companies who are going to be very good at having conversations at scale, mediated by high technology are going to win. Companies that are bad at that are going to lose.” The key phrase here is “mediated by technology.” Because if marketers is ever going to have a fighting chance to have real-time conversations at scale, no doubt many will conclude that they will need to have those conversations mediated, somehow, by technology. The Twitter “database of intentions” is too vast, too unwieldy, for human hands, and already a number of useful, practical tools have emerged for enabling human beings to navigate that database. The problem is that it’s too easy to rely on machines to do the work of humans. We can expect businesses to misstep here, and do the real-time marketing equivalent of sending form letters. We can expect others to use these tools in a more intelligent way, offloading work that’s better handled by machines (e.g., using sophisticated semantic and sentiment analysis tools to identify people they should engage, something that technology vendors like MustExist do particularly well) and freeing up people to do what they do best. For in the final analysis, what it takes to be real-time is both the philosophical and practical commitment to be real … and to do this in the face of one of the most exciting new opportunities in the history of business (it’s bigger than marketing). As always, the temptation to do things the easy way will be extreme. Resist the temptation.

The Networked Body

September 1st, 2009, by Giovanni Rodriguez | located in Conversations | No comments yet | trackback

I had an out-of-body experience a few weeks ago, reported here on Twitter. Background: Before my Monday flight from San Francisco to Minneapolis, I had picked up copy of Fast Company at the airport. Had just enough time on the flight to read most of the magazine, and I really enjoyed it. But the entire time I was feeling dizzy, something approximating vertigo. I felt myself floating above my body, disoriented from the experience of reading a technology magazine in print. Yes, it’s been that long.

My odd experience came soon after reading about a 2006 blog debate about whether print or online offers the reader the more serendipitous experience — the experience of being able to discover things more easily, because of the way a particular world of information (print or online) is organized. What was making me dizzy was just how much stuff I might have been ignoring over the past few years when my reading was largely circumscribed by search, RSS and bookmarking (with two big exceptions: The New Yorker and The New York Times Magazine). Sure, I probably read a lot more today than I did when I subscribed to every “new economy” magazine in the market. But my consumption of technology stories has been more structured, less daring, less serendipitous.

Which brings me to my favorite discovery during the flight — the emergent market for “body computing,” as evidenced by a string of mini-profiles in a section entitled “The Networked Body.” All sorts of interesting stuff happening here, much of it in the health-monitoring market. As it turns out, I was getting ready to train my searching robots on the general topic, but the magazine — one of the purest examples of bundled content, the driving business model in so many pre-2.0 markets — put the stuff right in front of me. And because I’ve been thinking about the topic (for this blog and another project) I especially joyed my magazine experience. I wouldn’t argue that this is the most efficient way of learning about something new, but it certainly was pleasurable.

One of the toughest things about life today is how much is planned and deliberate. A moment of freedom from the network — that is, pulling your body of the network — and you might feel an incredible surge of energy. And before we off off riffing on how technology might be developed to provide a digital equivalent to the print magazine experience, let’s not. No doubt we will have that someday. But let’s savor this moment a little bit longer. May not come again any time soon.