Orbotix just released a new version of the Sphero firmware. This is a fundamental part of our thesis around “software wrapped in plastic” – we love investing in physical products that have a huge, and ever improving, software layer. The first version of the Sphero hardware just got a brain transplant and the guys at Orbotix do a brilliant job of showing what the difference is.
Even if you aren’t into Sphero, this is a video worthwhile watching to understand what we mean as investors when we talk about software wrapped in plastic (like our investments in Fitbit, Sifteo, and Modular Robotics.)
When I look at my little friend Sphero, I feel a connection to him that is special. It’s like my Fitbit – it feels like an extension of me. I have a physical connection with the Fitbit (it’s an organ that tracks and displays data I produce). I have an emotional connection with Sphero (it’s a friend I love to have around and play with.) The cross-over between human and machine is tangible with each of these products, and we are only at the very beginning of the arc with them.
I love this stuff. If you are working on a product that is software wrapped in plastic, tell me how to get my hands on it.
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
- 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?
I believe that science fiction is reality catching up to the future. Others say that science fact is the science fiction of the past. Regardless, the gap between science fact and science fiction is fascinating to me, especially as it applies to computers.
My partners and I spend time at CES each year along with a bunch of the founders from different companies we’ve invested in due to our human computer interaction theme. In addition to a great way to start the year together, it gives us a chance to observe how the broad technology industry, especially on the consumer electronics side, is trying to catch up to the future.
We are investors in Oblong, a company who’s co-founder (John Underkoffler) envisions much of the future we are currently experiencing when he created the science and tech behind the movie Minority Report. Oblong’s CEO, Kwin Kramer, wandered the floor of CES with this lens on and had some great observations which he shares with you below.
Looking back at last year’s CES through the greasy lens of this year’s visit to Vegas, three trends have accelerated: tablets, television apps platforms, and new kinds of input.
I gloss these as “Apple’s influence continuing to broaden”, “a shift from devices to ecosystems,” and “the death of the remote control.”
Really, the first two trends have merged together. The iPod, iPhone, and iPad, along with iTunes, AirPlay, and FaceTime, have profoundly influenced our collective expectations.
All of the television manufacturers are now showing “smart” TV prototypes. “Smart” means some combination of apps, content purchases, video streaming, video conferencing, web browsing, new remote controls, control from phones and tablets, moving content around between devices, screen sharing between devices, home “cloud”, face recognition, voice control, and gestural input.
Samsung showed the most complete bundle of “smart” features at the show this year and is planning to ship a new flagship television line that boasts both voice and gesture recognition.
This is good stuff. The overall interaction experience may or may not be ready for the mythical “average user”, but the features work. (An analogy: talking and waving at these TVs feels like using a first-generation PalmPilot, not a first-generation iPhone. But the PalmPilot was a hugely successful and category changing product.)
The Samsung TVs use a two-dimensional camera, not a depth sensor. As a result, gestural navigation is built entirely around hand motion in X and Y and open-hand/grab transitions. The tracking volume is roughly the 30 degree field of view of the camera between eight feet and fifteen feet from the display.
Stepping back and filtering out the general CES clamor, what we’re seeing is the continuing, but still slow, coming to pass of the technology premises on which we founded Oblong: pixels available in more and more form factors, always-on network connections to a profusion of computing devices, and sensors that make it possible to build radically better input modalities.
Interestingly, there are actually fewer gestural input demos on display at CES this year than there were last year. Toshiba, Panasonic and Sony, for example, weren’t showing gesture control of TVs. But it’s safe to assume that all of these companies continue to do R&D into gestural input in particular, and new user experiences in general.
PrimeSense has made good progress, too. They’ve taken an open-hand/grab approach that’s broadly similar to Samsung’s, but with good use of the Z dimension in addition. The selection transitions, along with push, pull and inertial side-scroll, feel solid.
Besides the television, the other interesting locus of new UI design at CES is the car dashboard. Mercedes showed off a new in-car interface driven partly by free-space gestures. And Ford, Kia, Cadillac, Mercedes and Audi all have really nice products and prototypes and employ passionate HMI people.
For those of us who pay a lot of attention to sensors, the automotive market is always interesting. Historically, adoption in cars has been one important way that new hardware gets to mass-market economies of scale.
The general consumer imaging market continues to amaze me, though. Year-over-year progress in resolution, frame rate, dynamic range and cost continues unabated.
JVC is showing a 4k video camera that will retail for $5,000. And the new cameras (and lenses) from Nikon and Canon are stunning. There’s no such thing anymore as “professional” equipment in music production, photography or film. You can charge all the gear you need for recording an album, or making a feature-length film, on a credit card.
Similarly, the energy around the MakerBot booth was incredibly fun to see. Fab and prototyping capabilities are clearly on the same downward-sloping, creativity-enabling, curve as cameras and studio gear. I want a replicator!
And, of course, I should say that Oblong is hiring. We think the evolution of the multi-device, multi-screen, multi-user future is amazingly interesting. We’re helping to invent that future and we’re always looking for hackers, program managers, and experienced engineering leads.
If you follow our investments, you know that one of our core themes is Human Computer Interaction. The premise behind this theme is that the way humans interact with computers 20 years from now will make the way we interact with them today look silly. We’ve made a number of investments in this area with recent ones including Fitbit, Sifteo, Orbotix, Occipital, and MakerBot.
Last week Bloomberg did a nice short piece on Sifteo. I’m always intrigued on how mainstream media presents new innovations like Sifteo in a five minute segment. It’s hard to get it right – there’s a mixture of documentary, interview, usage of the product, and explanation of why it matters, all crammed into a few minutes combined with some cuts of the company, founders, and some event (in this case a launch event.)
I find the Sifteo product – and the Sifteo founders – to be amazing. They have a lot of the same characteristics of the other founders of the companies in our HCI theme – incredibly smart, creative, and inventive technologists who are obsessed with a particular thing at the boundary of the interaction between humans and computers.
We know that these are risky investments – that’s why we make them. As we’ve already seen with companies like Oblong and Fitbit it’s possible to create a company based on an entirely new way of addressing an old problem, product, or experience with a radically different approach to the use, or introduction, of technology. Having played extensively with the beta version of the Sifteo product, I’m optimistic that they are on this path.
If this intrigues you, order a set of Sifteo Cubes today (it has just started shipping.) In the mean time, enjoy the video, and our effort to help fund the entrepreneurs who are trying to change the way humans and computers interact with each other.
If you don’t know Orbotix, they make Sphero, the robotic ball you control with your smartphone. And if you you wonder why you should care, take a look at Sphero on his chariot being driven by Paul Berberian (Orbotix CEO) while running Facetime.
We are looking for two new full time positions to fill as soon as possible. We need talented iOS and Android Developers that are not afraid of a little hard work and a little hardware! You must have an imagination. No previous robotics experience necessary but it doesn’t hurt. We want someone that can help make an API, low level protocols, implement games and work on other research and development tasks for Sphero. We expect some level of gaming history and previous experience in the field. There are online Leaderboards and some side tasks include coding up demonstration apps for our numerous interviews, conventions and for fun! We pay well, have plenty of food and beverage stocked including beer, redbull and the famous hot-pockets, are in downtown Boulder and literally play with robots all day/night long. Read our full jobs posting at https://www.orbotix.com/jobs/ for more info. Take a chance…. email me at email@example.com.
If you are an entrepreneur working on something HCI related, you are also missing out if you don’t come to Blur. I’ll be there as will my three partners at Foundry Group. We will be fully engaged for two days in one of our favorite themes that has spawned investments like Oblong, Fitbit, Organic Motion, Sifteo and Orbotix.
In case you wonder how a conference like Blur can impact the trajectory of a young company, just take a look at the backstory of how we (Foundry Group) ended up meeting and investing in Gist. TA McCann, Gist’s CEO, came to Defrag (another conference like Blur that Eric Norlin runs and we participate in), hunted me down, and took me for a few runs. TA got me hooked on the product and a few months later we lead the Series A financing with Vulcan. This particular story has a very happy ending as RIM acquired Gist yesterday for an amount that put big smiles on everyone’s faces.
The agenda at Blur is awesome. Eric Norlin is an absolute master at putting on highly relevant conferences around a theme (his other two are Defrag and Glue.) Once again my friends at the Kauffman Foundation have provided some great scholarships for Blur and – like all of Eric’s conferences – there will be lots of time for people to spent together talking about and playing with the great stuff they are working on.
Oh – and for anyone tired of winter, it’s in Orlando. Sign up and come hang out with me, my partners, and a bunch of amazing HCI stuff for two days next week.
Several of the companies we’ve invested in are launching products at CES this year. The first one up is Sifteo. Today, Sifteo launched and you can preorder Siftables as part of their early access program.
You may be familiar with them from a well known TED Talk that co-founder David Merrill did in 2009.
Or maybe the recent TEDxMonterey Talk that David did earlier this year with a more in-depth demo.
We invested in Sifteo in May 2010 along with our friends from True Ventures. Sifteo is another HCI investment with its roots in the MIT Media Lab, joining Oblong and EmSense in this part of our portfolio. If you are at CES, check them out in North – 3317A.
As 2011 kicks off, I think we are in for a ton of innovative software and Internet stuff this year. Yeah, some of it will be “just like everything else but different.” However, of the areas we invest heavily in – human computer interaction – has an incredible amount of activity going on. I’ll be at CES in Las Vegas this week so I expect to have a dose of nerd-eye-candy (e.g. the latest TV sets) along with a bunch of cool / amazing / clever / intriguing new HCI things.
I expect CES will be a classic case of “a mile wide and an inch deep.” If you want to go really deep with HCI, consider joining me at the Blur Conference in Orlando on 2/22 and 2/23 especially if any of the following topics appeal to you.
- markerless motion capture
- phone controlled robotic gaming devices
- augmented reality apps
- alternative input mechanisms
- neuro-physiological measurements
- all kinds of Kinect hacks
- 3D/digital sculptures
- social robotics
- multi-touch interfaces
- speech recognition
- human instrumentation
- natural user interfaces
I’ve accepted the reality that the computers are going to take over during my lifetime. I just want to help be involved in writing some of the code to hedge my bets. Register now to come join me in my quest.
CES is just around the corner and I’m psyched to be going again this year. Toss in a BigDoor board meeting early in the week in Las Vegas and I’ll be getting my annual allotment of sin city in the first week of the new year.
Lots of my friends and a number of our portfolio companies will be at CES this year. Lest you think it’s just a VC boondoggle, one of my favorite moments of all time happened at CES in 2009 when my dad bought the very first Pogoplug. We went on to fund Cloud Engines (the company that makes the Pogoplug) which just closed a new $15 million financing that includes Softbank and Morgan Stanley Alternative Investment Partners. Oh – and they have had a totally kick ass year.
Last week, I noticed an article about Orbotix in Wired’s Gadget Lab titled Phone-Controlled Robot Ball, Like Marble Madness in Meatspace. Orbotix is going to be at the CES ShowStoppers event the night before CES begins (and at CES). As you can see from the article, Wired just challenged Engaget to a Sphero-off. As Paul Berberian, the CEO of Orbotix said to me in email, “it doesn’t get much more fun that this.”
If you are going to be at CES and are showing off something cool that you want me to see, toss your company name and booth number in the comments and I’ll make sure to come by on Wednesday or Thursday.
Periodically I promote the conferences we helped create with Eric Norlin – Defrag, Glue, and most recently Blur. If you’ve been to any of these conferences, you know why I get so excited about them – it’s a chance for me and my partners to spend two days immersed in a theme we are investing in while surrounded with some of the smartest people working in that area.
Blur is all about human computer interaction (HCI). We’ve done a bunch of HCI investments, including Orbotix, Fitbit, Sifteo, Oblong, and Organic Motion and we’ve spent a bunch of time exploring HCI as we believe the way we will use and interact with computers will be radically different in 20 years than it is today. As a hedge, we believe that if the robots are really going to take over, we at least want a hand in creating some of their software to improve the odds that they’ll be nice to us.
When Eric and I started talking about Blur, he said he wanted it to be a deeply hands on experience. The HCI stuff we invest and play around with is some of the funnest and most interesting tech. The conference should line be equally fun while giving a bunch of smart thought leaders around HCI a chance to collaborate on what each of them is working on.
For example, Kinect Hacks? Yup – a bunch will be there (the hackers and the hacks.) The history and evolution of multi-touch – did you know it was invented in 1982 the USPTO rulings not-withstanding? Want to play with personal robots? Do you know what neuroergonomics means or why it matters?
As with Defrag, the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation has stepped up with a major sponsorship for up to 15 people who are either founders of pre-Series A startups or students doing research around HCI.
Blur is happening in Orlando, Florida on February 22nd and 23rd. Early-bird registration runs through January 14th at which point registration is only available at the full price. Come play!