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.
Mary Ann de Lares Norris speaking at #TDC10 from Herb Kim on Vimeo.
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.
I do not want to tangle with an army of 10,000 of these. Especially ones that have lots of sharp pokey electrocution things built in to their foreheads.
I wonder what my golden retriever would think of these dudes. Now, what would have really been sweet is if I had one of these when I was 10 and could put it in my brother’s bedroom at night. Bwahahahahahahahahaha.
Following is an outstanding 30 minute presentation by Jesse Schell at DICE 2010 explaining how our life is just one big game.
Points everywhere, followed by an optimistic call to use this to make us better.
I talk about human computer interaction (HCI) a lot on this blog. We’ve invested in a number of companies in our HCI theme, including Oblong, Organic Motion, and EmSense and have a few more that we are working on that hopefully will be announced shortly. When I think about the areas I’ve been paying the most attention to and am the most intrigued with as an investor, HCI rises to the top of the list.
This morning I read an article on SeattlePI titled UW researchers look to reinvent the graphical user interface. While the headline is a bit sensational, the project (Prefab) is very cool. At first glance I thought it was simply rewriting HTML pages (clever, but not that big a deal) but then I realized it was doing something more profound. The five minute video is worth a look if you are into these types of things.
The bubble cursor and sticky icon examples are great ones. Starting at 1:45 you see the bubble cursor and sticky icons in action on Firefox in Vista. At 2:05 you see it on OSX. At 2:45 you see it in action on a Youtube player. The magic seems to be around pixel level mapping, which anyone working in adtech knows that’s where the real action is. It’s pretty cool to see it being used to map UI functionality.