Technology of the future…

I’ve been reading some of the coverage in the tech press about the Facebook acquisition of Oculus VR, including the always excellent insights from Michael Mace in his Mobile Opportunity blog. One thing that’s clear from the commentary and the acquisition itself is a shared belief that there’s a virtual reality “killer app” out there beyond gaming, the (so far) primary use case for the Oculus Rift headset and other similar VR gear. As Mace puts it:

Isn’t it interesting how companies impose their own mental paradigms on technologies? Google looks at glasses and sees a way to search and consume web services on the go. Facebook looks at goggles and sees a new means for social communication.

Investors, I imagine, see dollar signs, and hope that one of those big smart companies figures it all out. Meanwhile, as Mace notes, the fans of Oculus just want a great gaming experience, as the founder of Minecraft explains.

What if, though, there is no “killer app” for VR? I’m not convinced that there is another compelling use case for immersive virtual reality (as opposed to “augmented reality”, of which more below) beyond games and specialized engineering and simulation uses.

I write this based on some experience, having been very active in the last round of the VR “revolution” in the late 1990′s. True, the technology was far inferior to what we have now, and the resolution of the headsets was poor, but as we discovered at the time, there are many limitations to 3D immersive computing that are human, not technological.

VR demo, 1994

The last VR “revolution”, circa 1994

Mace disagrees, predicting a new age of “sensory computing” that includes 3D displays, 3D interfaces, 3D gestures, and 3D printing. This prediction is based on an assertion that humans are comfortable in a 3D environment:

In the real world, we remember things spatially. For example, I remember that I put my keys on my desk, next to the sunglasses. We can tap into that mental skill by creating 3D information spaces that we move through, with recognizable landmarks that help to orient us.

In fact, we humans are very much 2D creatures. Gravity keeps us constrained in the Z-axis, as it were, so we mostly move around in two dimensions (X and Y, to continue to metaphor), and so (I believe) relate better to two-dimensional concepts and interfaces. To Mace’s example, you put your keys on the desk (a 2D space) next to your glasses (and not above them). This “3D” model takes place on on a 2D plane.

In addition to the cognitive limitations, there are other limits to the immersive VR experience, at least today, starting with the odd experience of being able to look around you but not see your own body.

Of course, I may be completely wrong, and not able to see the true potential of immersive virtual reality. I am, though, much more excited about augmented reality (AR), where instead of removing yourself to a virtual world, you add information and interactivity to the real one. This is a case where better technology will make for a completely different experience. Current AR “browsers” like the Wikitude app are cool but cumbersome on a phone. A more seamless AR experience will require more seamless hardware. Google Glass (for better or worse) is one big step in that direction, supported by AR software like Wikitude, Metaio, and many others to come.

Mobile Diary: Who’s failing whom?

The word from the ad biz: Facebook is not your friend. Forrester reports that “Facebook is still failing marketers“, referring to a piece on Digiday that interviews disgruntled ad agency execs about the “failure” of Facebook to give them the reach and results they want.

One quote seemed odd, from James Del, head of Gawker’s content studio:

“Facebook may be pulling off one of the most lucrative grifts of all time; first, they convinced brands they needed to purchase all their fans and likes — even though everyone knows you can’t buy love; then, Facebook continues to charge those same brands money to speak to the fans they just bought.”

Hold on: if “everyone knows” you can’t buy love, why did a bunch of brands buy fans and likes in the first place? Sure, Facebook wanted them to do that, but why would experienced marketing and advertising professionals believe a bunch of kids from northern California?

Mobile diary: mobile in Arlington

I’m still very happy with my Nexus 7 tablet, which I bought several months ago. When I’m not using it to play Candy Crush, I can use it for most of my browsing and media consumption needs. It’s also a great companion on my music gigs.

This morning, I had an opportunity to try out the Nexus in more of an enterprise mode, when I had to dial in to our daily developer call from the auto dealership, where I was waiting for my car. I connected to the Android GoToMeeting app from the tablet and was able to participate in the call from the comfort of the waiting area. Very smooth!



Mobile Diary: the keyboards are back!

The new Blackberry CEO, John Chen, plans to focus on devices with physical keyboards in the future. This from an article in Bloomberg BusinessWeek, reporting on an interview with Chen at CES.

Chen said “I personally love the keyboards,” and will be more aggressive in promoting that now-unique feature of Blackberry smartphones, starting with a patent infringement suit against the Blackberry-like Typo Keyboard, which was announced at CES.

Happy to see that Mr. Chen is taking my advice

A good year at work

I’ve been working at PBS (the US public television network) since March 2012, as head of product management for PBS LearningMedia, an on-demand streaming media service for elementary and secondary educators. I led the effort to rebuild the site and content repository from the ground up in 2012, which we completed in time to launch the new version in January 2013.

To celebrate a year of the new LearningMedia, here’s a quick summary of what we’ve accomplished (thanks to Rachel and Michael from our station relations team for most of the data):

  • The new PBS LearningMedia site serves 500,000 registered users and attracts over 2 million page views per month, nearly 5 times the traffic of the old site
  • 134 PBS member stations in 51 states and territories are now offering a localized PBS LearningMedia Service to educators in their communities.
  • 35,000+ digital resources make up the PBS LearningMedia content library, with over 66% contributed by local stations. 
  • 10 states have school districts that are implementing the Custom Service, offered in partnership by local PBS stations, including WGVU, KET, WNET, SCETV, WTJX, WGBH and WHRO. The PBS LearningMedia Custom Service launched last spring and offers access to state educational standards, additional content and account management features, and enhanced reporting and analytics
  • Two CODiE Awards for excellence in education where bestowed on PBS LearningMedia in 2013. This is one of the highest accolades available in the digital education space – Best K-12 Solution.

2013 was a very productive and successful year for our team and for PBS in general, and I’m looking forward to a new round of activity and achievements in 2014.

Best wishes for a happy and successful 2014!

Not so mobile diary: Vinyl is back!

WP_20131109_001This is not a mobile story as such, but worth noting anyway. According to Digital Music News, vinyl records seem to be back, at least among a small section of the music buying public. What’s more, it’s not the older folks (like me) buying those big plastic disks:

Michael Kurtz, [Record Store Day]’s co-founder, told USA Today that RSD vinyl sales are trending younger. In 2007, the average customer age was 49, now it is 23.  Kurtz also estimates that customers under 25 are buying 70 percent of the vinyl, saying: “It’s the young generation’s thing. They’ve adopted it“.

I remember hearing from the user experience team at Vodafone that their goal for any mobile app or service was something like “5 seconds to enjoyment.” Our assumption in the mobile world was always that customers want more stuff, more quickly and conveniently. It’s interesting to see this evidence of at least some desire for slower, and perhaps higher-quality, experiences. Slow food, meet “slow music”?