Month: April 2012

Apr 30 2012

Hack With A Sphero In Boulder – Win $5,000

Last week President Obama played with a Sphero. This weekend you can win up to $5,000 at the Sphero Hackathon in Boulder. It starts Friday May 4th at 6pm with a Welcome Reception (which means beer and Spheros) and runs all day Saturday and Sunday where you can hack with Spheros and the Orbotix SDK. I’ll be around Sunday from 1pm to 3pm taking a look at what people have done, playing around with the apps, and answering any questions about why I think Sphero (and Orbotix – the company that makes Sphero) is so awesome.

Two new apps have recently come out for the Sphero. The first, Chromo, allows you to play with Sphero in a whole new way. While Orbotix’s other apps allow you to control Sphero from your device (kinetically and via a digital joystick), now Sphero is the controller. The video tells the story better than words.

The other app is MacroLab. Did you have a Big Trak as a kid? If not, you missed out, but you can relive those missed moments with MacroLab. As before, let’s start with a quick video.

MacroLab is a tool Orbotix developed for internal purposes that turned out to be so powerful they decided to make it available to all Sphero users. It is essentially a high level abstraction of the API that runs in the ball’s memory that commands the robot. It makes the API accessible to people who don’t know how to program an iOS or Android app.

When a user creates a macro they send a series of commands to the ball. Macros are made by stringing together 27 basic commands (by comparison the SDK has about 300 commands – most are UI/robot housekeeping based but 100 are ball control related). Each command is executed in sequence. Following is an example (called “test”) along with an explanation.

– Calibrate – this zeros out Sphero’s heading so you know which way he will go after you aim him
– RGB – this changes the color of the LED to purple – the numbers are the RGB settings
– Roll 0.5 0 0 – 50% speed (0.5), 0º heading = straight ahead, 0 second wait time before executing next command

If we stopped here the LED will flash purple and Sphero would run away at 50% speed and only stop when you exit the macro. Basically the macro runs for a fraction of a second with an open ended roll command. The Sphero goes white (his default color) after the macro is run. In order to not have an open ended command we need to add some more stuff.

– Delay 5000 – this means to wait for 5 seconds, Sphero uses milliseconds so 5000ms = 5 seconds
– Roll 0.0 0 0 – 0% speed (0.0), 0º heading, 0 second delay
– RGB – change LED color to orange
– Delay 1000 – Wait for 1 second

The entire macro runs for 6 seconds. Sphero will turn purple, drive for 5 seconds at 50% speed, stop, turn orange for one second and then end by turning white.

The commands for MacroLab are very basic but powerful enough that Orbotix uses them to run tests on the factory line and form the basis of programs like “Draw N Drive” (every line you draw gets converted to a macro and the ball executes the command). The complete command list follows:

  • Roll – sets the ball in motion
  • RGB – changes the main LED color
  • Calibrate – zeros heading
  • Delay – wait time in ms before executing next command
  • Fade – fade between two colors over a set period of time
  • Back LED – turn the blue aiming LED on/off
  • WaitUntilStop – don’t execute the next command until Sphero has stopped moving
  • Rotate Over Time – turn xº in y seconds
  • SD1, SD2 – global variables for system delays – useful when you want a bunch of commands to use the same delay
  • SPD1, SPD2 – global variables for ball speeds – useful when you want a bunch of roll commands all at the same speed
  • Roll SD1, SPD1 – roll command that uses the system SD1 for delay and SPD1 for speed
  • Roll SD1, SPD2 – roll command that uses the SD1 for delay and SPD2 for speed
  • RGB SD2 – change LED to RGB setting but use SD2 delay time for duration
  • Rotate Over TIme SD1, SD2 – rotate over time command but uses the system delays SD1 and SD2 respectively
  • Goto – calls another macro or restarts the same macro
  • Rotation Rate – set how fast the ball can turn
  • Stabilization – turns the control system on and off -when off the robot will not move inside the ball
  • Raw Motor – command the motors without any control system enabled
  • EMIT – Displays a message on the phone when the ball hits that point in the macro – useful for debugging
  • Sleep – Puts Sphero to sleep
  • Loop For, End – Create loops within the macro
  • Comment – ability to add comments to your macros – no effect on the ball

When I first heard the idea for MacroLab I smiled a huge smile. It’s the beginning of Orbotix opening up their robot control language, which is part of the magic behind the premise for our investment in Orbotix. I’m amused when people say “why did you invest in a toy ball company?” when what we really invested in was a bunch of geniuses working on a robotic operating system that happens to start life out as a robot ball that you control with your smartphone.

What are you waiting for? Buy a Sphero today and get started. And come to the Sphero Hackathon in Boulder this weekend.

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Apr 29 2012

My Minotaur and Horsechild

Amy and I collect contemporary art. If you’ve been in my office, or my house, or many of the companies in Boulder we’ve invested in, you’ve probably seen some of it. We ran out of wall space long ago and now have a bunch of it in storage. So we started collecting sculpture a few years ago.

Sculpture is a lot harder for us – we know what we love when we see 2d art so it’s a quick decision. But we have different tastes in sculpture and struggle with “do we like it” or “do we love it.” We subscribe to the “buy it if you love it and want to live with it” approach and don’t really care what the future value potential is. Some of our art has gone up a lot in value, so I suppose we are probably considered good value collectors, especially since we often buy early in an artist’s career and then keep buying deep when we find artists we love. But that’s not why we do it.

One of our favorite places to hang around in New York is the Chelsea gallery district. Many of the galleries are priced out of our zone, but we’ve made friends at a few like Danese and have bought regularly from them. Others, like Bertrand Delacroix, are regular stops for us when we are into.

Yesterday we wandered into Bertrand Delacroix. I immediately fell in love with two pieces by Beth Carter – the red Horsechild above and the Minotaur below. We now own both of them – the Horsechild will keep me company in my office and the Minotaur will guard my office door.

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Apr 27 2012

Captio: iPhone App Of The Day

I love apps that do one thing extraordinarily well and become part of what I use every day. Captio is one of these apps. And I have Dave Tisch to thank for turning me on to it about a year ago. Here’s how it happened.

I sent myself email reminders on my iPhone constantly. I hate paper and don’t carry any around with me. In general I don’t take notes (I have an excellent general purpose memory) but if I want to remember to do something specifically, I send myself a short email to do it when I have time. Then, as I grind through my inbox I do all of the quick tasks that have piled up during the day.

I was with Tisch and we were going through a bunch of things. He saw we typing on my iPhone each time I took a note. He noticed that I was opening up the iOS Mail app, clicking in the bottom on the new message button, typing bra and then selecting my name, clicking in the Subject field, typing a one liner to myself, and then clicking Send.

He said in his Tisch-like way “Why aren’t you using Captio” as though everyone on the planet used it. I said “what is it?” He handed me his phone and said “Try it – it does what you are trying to do but just fucking works – I use it all the time.” I tried it, gave him his phone back, downloaded Captio, and never looked back.

Now when I want to send myself a note, which I do 10 – 20 times a day, I open Capito, type whatever note I want, and hit send.

“Why aren’t you using Captio?” Now, if I could only just speak to Captio. Or maybe if Siri was a tiny bit smarter and (a) didn’t ask me which email address to use and then (b) didn’t ask me what I wanted the email to say my life would be complete.

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Apr 26 2012

A Logical AND With @ In A Mainstream World

Irony alert: A lot of this post will be incomprehensible. That’s part of the point.

I get asked to tweet out stuff multiple times a day. These requests generally fit in one of three categories:

  1. 1. Something a company I’m an investor in wants me to tweet.
  2. 2. Something a smart, respected person wants me to tweet.
  3. 3. Something a random person, usually an entrepreneur, who is well intentioned but unknown to me wants me to tweet.

Unless I know something about #3 or are intrigued by the email, I almost never do anything with #3 (other than send a polite email reply that I’m not going to do anything because I don’t know the person.) With #1 and #2, I usually try to do something. When it’s in the form of “here’s a link to a tweet to RT” that’s super easy (and most desirable).

There must have been a social media online course somewhere that told people “email all people you know with big twitter followings and ask them to tweet something out for you. Send them examples for them to tweet, including a link to your product, site, or whatever you are promoting.”

Ok – that’s cool. I’m game to play as long as I think the content is interesting. But the social media online course (or consultant) forgot to explain that starting a tweet with an @ does a very significant thing. Specifically, it scopes the audience to be the logical AND clause of the two sets of twitter followers. Yeah, I know – that’s not English, but that’s part of my point.

Yesterday, someone asked me to tweet out something that said “@ericries has a blah blah blah about https://linktomything.com that’s a powerful explanation”. Now, Eric has a lot of followers. And I do also. But by doing the tweet this way, the only people who would have seen this are the people who follow Eric AND follow me. Not OR. Not +. AND.

Here’s the fun part of the story. When I sent a short email to the very smart person who was asking me to tweet this out that he shouldn’t start a tweet like this since it would be the AND clause of my followers and Eric’s followers, he jokingly responded with “that’s great – that should cover the whole world.” He interpreted my comment not as a “logical AND” but a grammatical AND. And there’s a big difference between the two.

As web apps go completely mainstream, I see this more and more. Minor syntatical things that make sense to nerds like me (e.g. putting an @reply at the beginning of a tweet cause the result set to be the AND clause of followers for you and followers for the @reply) make no sense to normal humans, or marketing people, or academics, or – well – most everyone other than computer scientists, engineers, or logicians.

The punch line, other than don’t use @ at the beginning of a broadcast tweet if you want to get to the widest audience, is that as software people, we have to keep working as hard as we can to make this stuff just work for everyone else. The machines are coming – let’s make sure we do the best possible job with their interface which we still can influence it.

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Apr 25 2012

Getting President Obama To Play With Your Product

Yesterday, President Obama was in Boulder. The guys at Orbotix showed up and got him to play around with a Sphero. Watch the video (it’s pretty awesome) and then I’ll tell you the story of how they made it happen. The short answer – always be ready to demo your product – you never know when the President (or a key customer) is nearby.

Our main characters for this story are Ross Ingram and Damon Arniotes.  Ross is the one demoing Sphero to the President. Ross is Mr. Everywhere for Orbotix – his job is to handle every hack event, be at every party, and show up everywhere that might be interesting with a bunch of Spheros. Damion is the guy filming everything on his iPhone. His full time job is to video Sphero in the wild and tell the story all the time.

On Monday night after Ross and Damon found out the President would be at CU Boulder they starting talking about how awesome it would be to get a Sphero into Obama’s hands. No one knew Obama’s route around CU and Boulder, but Ross and Damon drove around the Campus and the Hill (next to CU) to scope things out. I’m betting at least one beer was consumed.

On Tuesday, they drove to CU with Spheros in hand but still didn’t know where Obama was going to be. They had to leave Damon’s camera gear behind because of security and the fact that Damon isn’t press (apparently only press is allowed cameras).

While they were driving to campus they saw a bunch of yellow police tape and took a guess that this was a spot that might see some action. If you are a fly fisherman, you know this drill. Go where you think the fish are going to be and wait. They found a parking spot near the Sink (one of the venerable old college hangouts on the Hill) and parked.

Ross called Paul Berberian, Orbotix’s CEO around 6pm and asked Paul if they should drive Sphero past the yellow tape towards Obama. Paul, who went to the Air Force Academy, responded with “No fucking way – you’ll end up in jail – remote control ball rolling to the president – bad idea.”

Around 6:45 Secret Service starts cherry picking folks from the crowd to be in the receiving line for the President. Magically Ross and Damon get picked – they get screened with metal detectors and are allowed in with Sphero. A girl with a Slurpie had to throw it away – apparently Slurpies are more dangerous than robotic balls. I bet she had one of those neon blue ones.

The President rolls up minutes later and starts shaking hands. Damon starts filming on his iPhone. Ross greets the President and asks him to see his iPhone to drive the robot ball. The President immediately gets it; Ross asks him if he wants to drive it  – and the rest is what you saw on the video. While this is happening, the Secret Service rushed in around Ross and Damon as soon as the President engaged, but the President kept going with Sphero so they hung back.

Someone in the crowd took the Sphero while Ross and Damon frantically played back to video to see if they got it. They did and the rest is memorialized for history – this is the first time we are aware of that a President of the United States has played with a robotic ball controlled with an iPhone.

There are two big lessons here. First, always be ready. Second, hire amazing guys like Ross and Damon and let the loose on the world. Guys – incredible!

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Apr 24 2012

Gluecon Is Less Than A Month Away (And Special 10% Bonus Code)

Gluecon is now slightly less than a month away, and if you’re not going, you should. Gluecon is a phenomenal gathering of developers working in the big data, mobile, and cloud computing arenas (where the topic of the API comes up continually). Yet, Gluecon is not “expo-big,” so you’ll be able to actually interact with everyone there, and not feel like you’re drowning in a sea of people amidst a concrete hall full of vendor booths.

The sessions that are assembled for Gluecon are done the right way — namely, there are no panels (zero), and they’re technically deep. Sessions like:

“The Badass Beyond Hadoop: Percolator, Dremmel, Pregel”
“Why MongoDB + Node.js is the new server-side stack”
“Architecting for Performance in the face of Mobile and APIs”
“Building the best mobile libraries to consume all kinds of backend APIs”
“Scaling Mobile Services on Diverse Networks”
“Big Pipes: Architecting for High-Volume Realtime Social Data”
“Securing Your Pocket to The Cloud: OAuth and Mobile Devices”
“Model-Driven Deployment: The Best Practice Successor to Virtual Appliances”

Beyond the sessions, there are three, 4 hour long workshops being presented. They cover:

“Constructing Cloud Architecture the Netflix Way”
“Developing polyglot applications on Cloud Foundry”
“Inside the DevOps PaaS Toolshed”

And there’s a hackathon. And there’s a CloudCamp.

No matter where you live (east coast or west coast or anywhere in between), you should get to Gluecon. And if you’re a developer that lives in Colorado, it’s an absolute must.

Use “brad12” to take 10% off of your gluecon registration. See you there!

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Apr 24 2012

A Great CEO Is Always Building Muscles

I get to work with a lot of great CEOs. When I reflect on what makes them great, one thing sticks out – they are always building their muscles. All of them.

As a marathon runner, I’ve got massive legs. Marathoner legs. They’ll look familiar to anyone who runs a lot. In contrast, I have a wimpy upper body. I’ve never enjoyed lifting weights. So I don’t spend any time on it.

Dumb.

I’d be a much better marathon runner if I worked on a bunch of other muscles as well. I’m starting to get into a swimming regimen, I’m riding my new bike around town and this summer I’ve got pilates three days a week as a goal of making it a habit. By the end of summer I hope to have a bunch of other muscles developing and a set of habits that enables me to finally maintain them.

The key phrase above is “I’ve never enjoyed lifting weights.” When asked, I say I’m bad at it. Or that I simply don’t like it. Or, when I’m feeling punchy, that jews don’t lift weights.

Of course, these are just excuses for not working on another set of muscles. If I don’t like lifting weights, surely there are things I like doing instead. I’ve always been a good swimmer – why don’t I have the discipline to go to the pool three days a week and swim? Most hotels I stay in have a swimming pool or have a health club nearby. Swimming is as easy as running – you just get in the pool and go.

“I’m bad at it and I don’t like it.” That’s what runs through my head when I lift weights. For a while, I used this narrative with swimming. But when I really think about swimming, the narrative should be “I’m ok at it and I like it.”

So why don’t I do it? I don’t really know, but I think it’s because the particular muscles I use when I swim are intellectually linked to the weight lifting muscles, which gets me into a loop of “I’m bad at it and I don’t like it.” So rather than break the cycle, I let my muscles atrophy.

Yoga is the same way. I struggle with Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga. It’s too fast for me, I struggle to remember the poses, and my glasses constantly fall off, and I can’t follow what’s going on. So I say “I’m bad at it and I don’t like it” and then don’t do it. But I do like Bikram Yoga. It’s slower, there are the same 26 poses, and I like the heat. So why don’t I do it? Once again, the narrative gets confused in my mind and it turns into “I don’t like yoga.”

All of this is incredibly self-limiting. Rather than fight with “I’m bad at it and I don’t like it” how about changing it to “I’m not good at it but I’m going to try new approaches and find something I like.” There are many different approaches to building a particular muscle so rather than use a one-size fits all approach (e.g. I must go lift weights, which I hate), search for a different approach that you like.

If you want to be a great CEO, you need to be constantly building all of your muscles. There are going to be a lot of areas you think you aren’t good at. Rather than avoid them, or decide you don’t like them, figure out another way to work on these muscles. You’ll be a better, and much more effective CEO as a result.

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Apr 23 2012

What I’m Obsessed About At Work

As the endless stream of emails, tweets, and news comes at me, I find myself going deeper on some things while trying to shed others. I’ve been noticing an increasing amount of what I consider to be noise in the system – lots of drama that has nothing to do with innovation, creating great companies, or doing things that matter. I expect this noise will increase for a while as it always does whenever enthusiasm for startups and entrepreneurship increases. When that happens, I’ve learned that I need to go even deeper into the things I care about.

My best way of categorizing this is to pay attention to what I’m currently obsessed about and use that to guide my thinking and exploration. This weekend, as I was finally catching up after the last two weeks, I found myself easily saying no to a wide variety of things that – while potentially interesting – didn’t appeal to me at all. I took a break, grabbed a piece of paper, and scribbled down a list of things I was obsessed about. I didn’t think – I just wrote. Here’s the list.

  • Startup communities
  • Hci
  • Human instrumentation
  • 3d printing
  • User generated content
  • Integration between things that make them better
  • Total disruption of norms

If you are a regular reader of this blog, I expect none of these are a surprise to you. When I reflect on the investments I’m most involved in, including Oblong, Fitbit, MakerBot, Cheezburger, Orbotix, MobileDay, Occipital, BigDoor, Yesware, Gnip, and a new investment that should close today, they all fit somewhere on the list. And when I think of TechStars, it touches on the first (startup communities) and the last (total disruption of norms).

I expect I’ll go much deeper on these over the balance of 2012. There are many other companies in the Foundry Group portfolio that fit along these lines, especially when I think about the last two. Ultimately, I’m fascinated about stuff that “glues things today” while “destroying the status quo.”

What are you obsessed about? And are you spending all of your time on it?

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Apr 21 2012

The Physiological And Emotional Fallout Of My 50 Mile Race

Two weeks ago I was at about mile 40 of the American River 50 Mile Endurance race.

Today I went for my first run in two weeks.

Physically, I was ready to go running four days after the race. By 4/11 my legs felt fine. I consciously decided not run for the first week so on Saturday 4/14, while at LindzonPalooza 5 with my dad,  I contemplated doing an easy three miles on the beach. As I was changing my clothes, I laid down in bed. I woke up three hours late. No run.

Every day last week I thought about running before I went to bed. When my alarm went off at 5am each morning, I set it again for 7am (or 8am if I could get away with it) and slept in. This morning, I woke up after almost 11 hours of sleep and was still tired. And no, those 18 minutes to fall asleep wasn’t sex, I was just restless as I have been almost every night since my race. Apparently I had to pee at about 12:30, 3:30, and 4:30.

Today I decided it was time to get started running again. So I did. And it felt really good.

While my legs have felt fine, I’ve been completely exhausted for the past two weeks. It probably didn’t help that I spent the first week on the road (San Francisco, Los Angeles, and then San Diego) but I was home all last week in Boulder. I usually sleep 6 – 7 hours a night during the week and then binge sleep on the weekend (10 – 14 hours) but I’ve been sleeping 10+ hours a night for two weeks. And I’m still tired. As I type this, I could easily go take a nap.

As I expected, I’ve had lots of emotional ups and downs. The day after the marathon I usually feel really flat, followed by a really dark, pseudo-depressed day on day two after the marathon. By day three I feel ok and I’m back to normal on day four. While I know that pattern well, I didn’t know what to expect this time around after a 50 mile run.

On Sunday after the run, I was wildly depressed. I was alone – I’m sure that contributed to it – had brunch at Mel’s Diner in Sacramento, and then took a car to San Francisco. I got a massage at the hotel, got a veggie burger and a shake and then went to Hunger Games to try to disconnect from reality. It was Easter Sunday and downtown San Francisco was quiet, the Westfields Mall was closed except for the movie theater, and while Hunger Games was good, when I walked back to the hotel I was very lonely.

Monday was more of the same. I slept a lot, felt sore but wandered around a little, hung out at Fitbit, and had dinner with some Stanford students. But I was emotionally flat.

I went to LA on Tuesday and had three super busy days in LA where I hung out at Oblong, LaunchPad LA, MuckerLabs, and gave a talk in Valencia. I’ll put this time frame in the category of “manic” – I was tired the whole time, physically felt better, had plenty of up moments, but then at around 3pm every day just wanted to lay down wherever I was and go to sleep. At this point, I felt a dark depression looming – the activity with people probably kept it at bay, but it was lurking right beyond the horizon. Each night I tossed and turned for a while, which is unusual for me as I usually fall asleep right away, but when I slept I was out. Deeply deeply out. When I woke up, I was down, tired, and disoriented, but once I was around people I got back in the groove.

By Friday I was in San Diego with my dad. I was feeling a lot better emotionally, but the fatigue was still heavy. I took a three hour nap in the afternoon each day – not your quiet nap, but the toss and turn, sweat like crazy, wake up and have to take a shower nap. Hanging out with my dad was safe feeling and I had a great time at LindzonPalooza with a bunch of friends and a some people I didn’t know, but the heaviness lingered.

I was back home Sunday. I hadn’t seen Amy in ten days and we had a tough first 12 hours of re-entry. I was disoriented, cranky, and probably emotionally distant. That’s never a good way to be, especially when you haven’t seen your beloved for ten days. We had a tough night Sunday, woke up fine Monday morning, and tried again Monday night where we had a lot of fun together. She then left on Tuesday morning for Boston for the week so I was again alone.

My three P1s this week were (1) the Foundry Group annual meeting, (2) close a financing in a new company, and (3) rest and recover. As I reflect on the week, I accomplished all three (the financing will close first thing Monday morning). So that’s good.

I’m still a little tired feeling, but the kind of tired I have after working a long week. I have some anxiety floating around – not bordering on going to a bad place, but atypical levels for me. But underneath it all I have a deep stillness as I consolidate all of the physical, emotional, and psychological changes and experiences as a result of this run.

This has been a really powerful experience for me. The physical act of running 50 miles was about twice as difficult as a marathon. But the emotional act was at least four times as hard. And I’m still not sure I’ve really processed it. It’s taken me two weeks to feel like I’m back on balance with all the things coming at me every day and I know that I’m still tired. But now that I’ve got two weeks behind me, I’m contemplating a few deeper concepts that have been rolling around in my mind that were stimulated by this run.

Most of all, I want to thank everyone out there who has been supportive of this endeavor. A few people had a profound impact on the experience, but many people I know have contributed support, emotional energy, encouragement, and suggestions. Thank you.

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Apr 20 2012

Get A Free Flight To Boulder For Boulder Startup Week

Boulder Startup Week, a five day celebration of the tech scene here in Boulder, is offering several free plane tickets to people who would consider relocating.

Since I moved to Boulder in 1995, I’ve watched and participated in the evolution of an amazing startup community which I believe currently has the highest entrepreneurial density in the United States. On top of the the hundreds of open tech company positions, Boulder has an incredible quality of life which I believe makes it the best small city in the United States to live in.

May 16th-20th will be packed with several dozen meetups, events, parties, and outdoors activities. It’s a great way to learn a few things, socialize, job-hunt, and discover the magic of Boulder.

Boulder Startup Week is open to all, and full of (mostly) free events. Come visit and, if money is tight, see if you can convince the organizers to fly you out for free.

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