Want to see a robotic ball controlled by a smartphone? Take a look at the Orbotix Sphero Sneak Peek Video below.
My friends at Orbortix will be at CES in Booth #5422 North Hall from January 6th to 9th showing off real working robotic balls. So psyched.
Fred Wilson emailed me a link to Dennis Crowley’s post I’m running the NYC Marathon tomorrow! Fred knows my obsession with human instrumentation, marathons, and social media. And if you recognize Dennis’ name, that’s because he’s the founder / CEO of Foursquare.
As I write this from my house in Eldorado Springs, Colorado, I can see that Dennis is at mile 4.64 of the NYC Marathon via RunKeeper. He just checked in at mile 5 on Foursquare. And yes, Twitter and Facebook are active also.
While some people may not like this future, I love it. Yeah, it’s kind of a pain to carry a bulky iPhone around on a marathon, but there are armbands for that and – in a decade – it’ll just be a thing you inject into your arm under the skin. But for now, guys like Dennis are helping us create the future.
Oh – and he’s running a marathon. He’s now at mile 5.64. Way to go Dennis!
This summer I made two new friends who completely blew my mind – Ian Bernstein and Adam Wilson. I met them through TechStars – they were founders of Orbotix, one of the 11 teams to go through this TechStars Boulder this summer. Today, Foundry Group announced that it has led an investment in Orbotix.
I’m always on the lookout for what I consider to be genius level software engineering talent. As an MIT graduate, I’ve been around plenty of it, but I also know that it shows up in unexpected places. A few weeks into TechStars, I realized that not only was I hanging out with genius level software talent but that Ian and Adam thought about hardware and the combination of hardware and software in unique ways. For example, take a look at a robotic ball controlled by a smart phone.
As part of my involvement in TechStars, I choose one or two companies from each program to mentor. We believe the magic of TechStars is the mentorship and while I tried to work with all the companies in the first two Boulder programs, given that there are now over 40 companies a year going through TechStars (10 each in Boulder, Boston, Seattle, and New York), I realized I needed to act like every other mentor and focus at most on two companies per program.
While Foundry Group has investment in two other TechStars companies (both from the TechStars Boulder 2009 program – Next Big Sound and SendGrid) this is the first company that I’ve mentored that we’ve invested in. One of my goals with my mentorship is to work with companies that are both within our themes and outside of our themes – this keeps my thinking fresh in other areas. So, I set the expectation early with the companies that I mentor that it’s unlikely we will invest. For example, the company in the TechStars Seattle program that I’m currently mentoring is absolutely killing it, but it’s far outside any of our themes. But, I’m learning a lot and they are also.
In the case of Orbotix, I knew they’d be within our human computer interaction theme, but when I started working with Adam and Ian, I didn’t realize how profound what they were doing was. Fortunately, by mid-summer I did, and began encouraging one of their other mentors, Paul Berberian, to engage more deeply with them. Paul, Adam, and Ian quickly started talking about teaming up and used the last four weeks of the program to “pretend” they were partners. By the end of the program they decided to join forces with Paul becoming CEO of Orbotix.
While this investment has resulted in endless teenage humor for my inner 14 year old, it is also another step in my personal strategy of making sure that if the robots actually do take over some time in the future, I’ve helped create some of their software.
I’ve written in the past about my obsession with measuring things. While my manual measurements via Daytum include miles run, books read, flights taken, and cities slept in, I’ve become much more focused in the past year on what I’ve been calling “human instrumentation.” This resulted recently in Foundry Group leading a $9 million financing in a San Francisco company called Fitbit.
If you want to see the type of data I’m tracking, take a look at my Fitbit profile. For now, I’m focused on the data that Fitbit tracks automatically for me, primarily derived from the step and sleep data. But from my profile page you can see a variety of other data which I can currently enter manually (I’ve entered a few examples) even though I use other sources to track them (for example, my weight using my Withings scale.)
I now have a house full of personal measurement devices and an iPhone full of apps to track various things. A few are still active; many have long been relegated to the “closet of dead, useless, obsolete, or uninteresting technology.” During this journey over the past year, I feel like I tried everything and finally found a company – in Fitbit – that has a team and product vision that lines up with my own.
A year ago when I first encountered the company, they were just launching their product. I was an early user and liked it a lot, but hadn’t clearly formed my perspective on what the right combination of software and hardware was. As I played around with more and more products, I started to realize that the Fitbit product vision as I understood it was right where I thought things were going. The combination of hardware, software, and web data integration are the key, and the Fitbit founders (James Park and Eric Freidman) totally have this nailed. That made it easy when we explored investing again to pull the trigger quickly.
One of the things my partners and I love about products like the Fitbit are the combination of hardware, software, and a web service that lets the product continually improve without having to upgrade the hardware. Fitbit is a great example of this which I expect you’ll see over the next quarter if you buy one today.
I firmly believe that in 20 years we’ll simply swallow something that will fully instrument us. Until then, we still have to clip a small plastic thing to our belt or keep it in our pocket. But that’s ok since it now knows how to talk to my computer, which is connected to the web, which is getting smarter every millisecond.
As investors, we believe that the way we interact with computer technology will be radically different 20 years from now. We’ve got a few new investments in our human computer interaction theme that we are in the process of closing so HCI has been on my mind lately.
I just watched a great video from our first HCI investment, Oblong. It’s a 30 minute presentation by Mary Ann de Lares Norris, the Managing Director of Oblong Europe, that is an excellent overview of Oblong’s technology.
The first five minutes are an intro to Mary Ann and how she got connected to Oblong. The next five minutes are an overview of Oblong and a high level demo. From there Mary Ann gets into “Pools & Proteins” and starts talking about the architecture and design philosophy of g-speak and how it works.
She then shows an example of how Oblong’s “common operating picture” works in a real logistics application. Using g-speak, she shows the integration of a VT-100 app, Java app, HTML app, a native g-speak app, and a video conferencing session. Mary Ann then finishes up with a sneak peak at some multi-user / device / screen activity.
When my partners and I started Foundry Group, one of our key principles was to be “theme-based investors.” At the time the phrase “theme” wasn’t being used in VC-land so we got to make up what it meant, at least for us. We decided that a theme was a “broadly horizontal technology area that would have dramatic impact and opportunity over the next 10+ years.” (see Jason Mendelson’s post titled What Is Thematic Investing for a deeper explanation.)
At Foundry Group, our themes have become our intellectual filter to the world of what we invest in. As a result, they are always evolving, expanding, and changing as we learn more and as technological innovation continues its tireless march. We try to spend as much time as we can rolling around in our themes, playing with stuff, spending time with smart people in each theme, and just thinking and talking about stuff.
Several years ago a guy named Eric Norlin reached out to me after I wrote a blog post in 2006 titled Intelligence Amplification and suggested we start a conference around the idea, but with a better name. The Defrag Conference resulted from that discussion, as did our now four year old collaboration with Eric and his conferences. Not surprisingly, since we referred to one of our popular themes as “Glue” it made sense to start a Glue Conference several years ago.
Last year Eric and I started talking about doing a conference around our human computer interaction theme. We’ve now made a number of investments in this theme, including Oblong, Organic Motion, EmSense, and Sifteo. It took Eric about a year to get comfortable that the timing was right, but he’s now ready to do it. As a result, he’s launched his latest conference – Blur.
The Blur Conference, like our human computer interaction theme, is based on the premise that the current models of human computer interaction are undergoing a rapid change. Technologies that were until recently science fiction or university lab projects are now showing up all over the place. From the promise of the tablet computer to touch computing to motion capture to augmented reality to the “minority report” interface, the ways in which we interact with computers are moving far beyond the keyboard and mouse.
Eric’s goal with Blur is to have it be massively participatory. Everyone will get to use all tech at Blur, hack on it, explore it with their colleagues, and figure out new and inventive ways to work with it. Because the goal of Blur is so participatory, Eric is going to limit the number of attendees in year one to only 250 to make sure he nails the experience.
Blur is taking place on February 22nd and 23rd at the Omni Orlando at Championsgate. The facility looks awesome and Eric assures me Florida is a lot warmer than Colorado in February. Early bird signup is up for $995 (the full price is going to be $1495) so get a jump on things if this floats your boat. I’ll be there!
Gearbox, one of the teams that I’m mentoring in this year’s TechStars Boulder program, is starting to blog about their product. One of their taglines is “reinventing the ball” and while this potentially generates plenty of 14 year old boy jokes it’s pretty amazing stuff.
The ball, which consists of a custom circuit board inside a 3D printed spherical shell (which is pretty cool all by itself) with lots of fun things on it, is completely controlled by a smartphone (in this case, an Android).
The software is still evolving rapidly but if you know anything about trying to control a spherical shell remotely, watching this video will make you pretty excited.
They are planning to release at least one Android based game by demo day along with an open API to let anyone write applications that incorporate the ball. I’m totally psyched to get my hands on one of these.
Jason and I were at an Oblong board meeting last week and spent the entire day at the company. It’s grown a lot over the past few months and it was fun to spend time with a number of folks we hadn’t met before. The first Oblong baby was born while we were all eating lunch which resulted in lots of good cheer, karma, and the revelation from another member of the Oblong team that his wife recently found out that she was pregnant.
But the best part was playing with a bunch of the new cool shit that Oblong is working on. It’s one thing to look at what Oblong is building (as in the TED Video below); it’s a whole different experience to actually get your hands on it. Fortunately they are driving hard toward that and we expect a Q3 product release that will start bringing Oblong’s g-speak spatial operating environment to the masses.
In the mid 1990’s I used an email client that did a pretty good job of “threading conversations.” The UI was kind of crummy, but it did some interesting things. It was called Lotus Notes. I also invested in a company called NetGenesis that made the first threaded web discussion software based on a construct that had been deeply implemented in BBS’s and Notes; in fact, we referred to it as “bringing Lotus Notes like threaded discussion functionality to the web.” That product, net.Thread, was acquired by another company I was an investor in (eShare) which went on to be have a very successful acquisition by a public company called Melita. I have no idea where net.Thread ended up but as a master-emailer I’ve always wondered why the very simple concept of a threaded conversation never became a standard part of the email UI.
Suddenly, it’s everywhere. It started being talked about a few years ago when it threaded conversations appeared as a core feature of Gmail. A conversation view existed in Outlook 2007 but it sucked. When I upgraded to Outlook 2010 I was pleasantly surprised that the conversation view was excellent, although it was bizarre to me that it wasn’t the default view.
On Saturday when I started my month of a diet of only Apple products, I immediately found conversations in Mac Mail. It’s implemented perfectly. Then, when I upgraded my iPhone to iOS 4 voila, conversations again!
Within a year, a UI construct that has been bouncing around for 15 years but never really crossed over into the mainstream took hold. And it makes email much better to deal with, especially if you are part of an organization (or group of people) that have a heavy “reply-all” culture.
Ironically, it’s a pretty simple feature conceptually, but the UI implementation makes all the world of difference. I can’t figure out if the Gmail implementation set the baseline that everyone is now copying or if email conversations just entered into the zeitgeist. Regardless, it’s an interesting example of how a simple construct can lay dormant for a long time and then suddenly be everywhere.
I only hope someone doesn’t get a patent on this next year. That would just be stupid.
“In five years when you buy a computer you’ll get this.” John Underkoffler, Oblong’s Chief Scientist, at 14:20 in the video.
I’ve been friends with John Underkoffler since 1984 and we’ve been investors in Oblong since 2007. Ever since I first met John I knew that he was an amazing thinker. John, his co-founders at Oblong, and the team they have assembled are creating the future of user interfaces. This year has started off incredibly fast for them – they’ve spent the last five months scaling the business as the result of several large customers and are in the home stretch of releasing their first “shrink wrapped product” in Q3. Get ready – the future is closer than you imagine.