Driving & Collecting Big Data at Road Atlanta
Last week I drove across the United States to take my car to Road Atlanta – from San Francisco to Tuscon, then to San Antonio, next through Texas to New Orleans, and finally to Atlanta. Not many people have heard of Road Atlanta, but in my view this racetrack is one of the wonders of the automotive world. Like Laguna Seca in California, and the Nürburgring in Germany, it incorporates huge changes in elevation. Unlike Laguna Seca (but like the Nürburgring), it has a huge back straightaway that allows a driver to build huge velocities. It’s a lot like that old, 1920’s house in your neighborhood – they don’t build them like this anymore. At Road Atlanta, the walls are close to the track, there isn’t much runoff room if you exit the racetrack in most places, and there’s a LOT more danger. Yet, like that house from the 1920’s, it has a special feeling when you enter past a white picket fence (literally) that feeds your soul.
It’s that awesome.
Of course, I decided to wire up my car with modern technology. I mounted my iPhone 5S to the windshield and ran a $30 iPhone program called Harry’s Lap Timer. So-so UI, but unbelievably great functionality. About 80% of the time, the UI was intuitive and functional. About 10% of the time, I wondered which of the two options given to me would erase all data from my last set of laps on the track. And about 10% of the time, I was simply confused. But overall, a great experience. In addition to Harry’s Lap Timer, I mounted three GoPro Hero2 cameras (front, back, and interior), a VBOX Sport, and a GoPoint Technology OBD II dongle on my car. The VBOX Sport is a specialized device that records GPS data at a rate 20x higher than that of an iPhone 5S, leading to far more accurate positioning information, so that I could review my exact line on the racetrack. The OBD II dongle fed engine speed, throttle, and gear information into Harry’s Lap Timer on my iPhone. The video above was produced from Harry’s Lap Timer, which gathered information from these other devices and overlaid performance data on top of the iPhone video recording.
Using that data, I’ve been able to go back and look at my performance on each lap. What was my line? When did I hit the brakes? Did I hit the brakes hard enough? Could I have used more throttle in each turn without breaking the car loose and sending it into the weeds? Using the power of a modern iPhone and Bluetooth peripherals, I was able to rapidly improve my real-world performance – and in a way that didn’t involve as much danger as trial-and-error on the racetrack itself.
Now I’m hooked. I’m planning to drive on as many different racetracks as I can as part of my bucket list.
I’d love to hear ideas on which tracks I need to visit.
Driving & Collecting Big Data at Road Atlanta
No Dimmer? Really?
Earlier today I finally got around to installing a couple of Belkin’s WiFi-connected wall-mounted WeMo switches. I’ve been excited about the prospect of IFTTT integration and triggering the lights remotely - but ended up deeply disappointed by the lack of dimming functionality in the switch.
What was Belkin thinking? How could a product manager let this get out the door? There’s nothing worse than taking the time to buy and install an expensive product that delivers on several dimensions - solid industrial design, good packaging, easy-to-use software, and personalization capabilities as shown above - but then fails to live up to the product promise of customization that a cheap, dumb dimmer switch has delivered for decades.
If I wasn’t about to test out the IFTTT functionality, I’d probably be ripping the WeMo switches out of the wall right now.
The Internet of Things is On its Way to the Flyover States
I’m utterly fascinated by the “flyover states”. Earlier today I flew back from Boston on a clear day, and spent hours looking down at fields, mountains, and deserts. What did I think about? I thought about the people going about their daily lives far from the coasts. What goes through their minds, what are their hopes, their fears, their aspirations? And what’s the latest they’ve heard about technology?
At some point, the concept of “the Internet” made it into the flyover states. So did Google. Then the iPod. Then Facebook. So what’s next? The Internet of Things. Look at the exponential curve above. Over the last few years, searches for “the Internet of Things” have taken off. This wave will be as big as the consumer Internet wave - and possibly bigger, as we enter a world of enchanted, magical objects connected to each other over wireless and the Internet.
Arthur C. Clarke
I’ve always liked this quote, and with the advent of the Internet of Things, it’s more relevant than ever. Later this morning I’ll be moderating a panel on the future of Wearable Technology at GigaOm’s Mobilize Conference in San Francisco, where we’ll be talking about where we’re headed next with Internet-connected watches, glasses, and even socks.
What happens when everything around us connects to the Internet? We enter a world of enchanted objects, brought to life by creative new spells, also known as software. “Internet of Things” entrepreneurs are creating products now that are increasingly indistinguishable from magic objects.
When WiFi is Cheaper Than Water, This is What You Get…
Parody bait for Saturday Night Live.
The Saturday Night Live parodies based on Kickstarter and Indiegogo are coming soon, if they haven’t started already. There’s a clear formula for crowdfunding videos, and as you can see in this video, they’re coming hand-in-hand to every prosaic product category you can imagine. Forget water bottles - imagine parodies about Internet-connected pizza boxes and toilet paper. In fact, the reality is probably not that far off, when you imagine power scavenging technology + WiFi + CPU power that costs next to nothing in terms of price and power.
Soon we’ll be in a world somewhat indistinguishable from magic. Where the spells are software written to conjure action and meaning from every object around us.
Nest Reinvents Another Mature Category
Earlier today, Nest Labs launched their second major product, the Protect smoke and carbon monoxide detector. First, Nest tackled the biggest source of wasted energy in the home - HVAC control. Now, Nest has reinvented the most important safety device in your home - the smoke alarm. 750 million smoke and carbon monoxide detectors are installed in the US alone, and millions of them have dead batteries. This is a huge, important, and overlooked market. And a better product will save more lives.
All of us at Shasta are thrilled to be early Series A investors in the company, when it was a 10-person team working out of a squirrel-infested garage on Alma Street in Palo Alto. They’re a mission-based company focused on saving energy and saving lives by making overlooked but important products sexy.
What Happens to the Hardware When the Software Goes Away?
Last week I got this email from Sonos that really made me panic. To paraphrase, it said “…if you own Sonos equipment and upgrade to iOS 7, you might lose the ability to play back your music.”
Since then I’ve reflected on this a bit. Just two weeks ago, I bought and installed several Sonos units in my home that I expect to last for years.
What does this mean for Internet-connected hardware?
As long as the software that powers the hardware is actively updated and maintained, the hardware will stay alive and improve with time. But what happens when that software is no longer actively updated? What happens when the smartphone vendors stop supporting old operating systems and you can’t control your hardware with software that won’t run on the latest smartphone operating systems – which are getting massive updates on Android and iOS every single year? What happens if the company that sold you the hardware doesn’t update the software? The answer is simple: the associated hardware dies.
Look at a Sonos box, for example. It has three buttons: mute, volume up, and volume down. To work, it requires an operational smartphone. What happens if the smartphone software goes away? As one of the most successful hardware startups of the last decade, Sonos is going to be around for a very long time. But what about the less successful hardware startups?
It’s a strange conundrum for consumers. People buy hardware and expect it to last forever. But modern Internet-powered hardware has a finite software horizon and each device effectively delivers a service. Over the next few years, expect consumers to increasingly shift their expectations of hardware - and think of it as a service, not property in perpetuity.
I just spent the last two days deep in the woods, a few hours north of Montreal, at Bitnorth - a small little get-together organized by a friend of mine, Alistair Croll. On a cold rainy September day on a lake in remote Quebec, our group of about 40 people gave short presentations to each other on our favorite topics - ranging from demonstrating how to make cement, to kitchen knife design, to satellite mission optimization.
Halfway through Saturday, during a break when discussing the presentations over early afternoon beers, one of the other participants reminded me about this great quote from Albert Einstein. No matter how complex the topic, this is absolutely true. It applies to physics, philosophy, politics, and even a startup pitch contained within in a 60-second elevator ride. It’s one of my favorite quotes of all time.
Love is the Primary Goal of Branding
Earlier tonight I put the finishing touches on a presentation I’ll be giving at the Make Hardware Innovation Workshop in New York City on Wednesday. The upshot? Branding has to be considered at the same time you start to design your product. The primary goal of branding (and design) is to build a deep positive emotional connection with your users.
If you can achieve this goal:
- Your product will rise above the noise,
- You can charge more for the product,
- Your customers will actively advocate your product to other people - and you’ll leverage the scalability of social media to acquire more customers.
Earlier this year I talked about these ideas in an article you can find here. The key idea for hardware companies is that touch represents a critical element of building that emotional bond - via tactile feedback and visual design. “Old Guard” companies that do a great job include Apple, BMW, and Lego; “New Guard” companies that excel here include Sonos, GoPro, MakerBot, and Nest.
There was some really big news in the recent iPhone announcements that’s largely flown under the radar - the introduction of Apple’s M7 Motion Sensing co-processor.
Not familiar with co-processors? Graphic Processing Units (GPUs) made first-person shooters possible. People might be laughing at the 5C, but Darrell Etherington at Techcrunch just highlighted another technology advance in the 5S that rivals the fingerprint sensor - the Motion Co-Processor.
Have you ever tried to use Strava, Runkeeper, Life360, or other location-tracking apps on your iPhone? You know what happens … you rapidly kill the battery. The M7 motion co-processor allows the 5S to track location without incurring huge power losses. This is really bad news for the guys building quantified self armbands.
Why? Not because you’ll attach the iPhone to you everywhere you go, including sleeping in bed. But because this technology is going to get baked into Apple’s iWatch.
When It Comes to Branding, Sometimes Slow is Better Than Fast
The more I use my Withings scale, the more I think about ways in which consumer hardware companies can design products that build deeper emotional bonds with their customers.
The Withings scale is a beautiful, Internet-connected WiFi device. But that’s only part of the story.
When you step onto a Withings scale, it takes a moment for the scale to autocalibrate and calculate your weight. Then a progress bar shows up. Next, it displays your body fat percentage, and then your Body Mass Index. Each result shows up in turn, over an elapsed period of about 30 seconds.
I’m pretty sure there’s no good technical reason the measurements take that long. My suspicion is that the designers actually stretch out the results to create a bit of theater. Storytelling! “This machine is working for you, calculating your results.” As a consumer, you wonder: How will I do? Did I lose weight? How about my fat percentage? The suspense builds a bit, deepening engagement. Not too long a wait to discourage use (it’s still less than 30 seconds), but long enough to build a stronger emotional bond with the user.
While waiting in suspense, the consumer is in the Withings world - looking down at the display and the Withings brand name on the scale. Engagement effectively goes up - Withings captures more mindshare in the consumer’s mind - making the user more likely to talk about and share their Withings experience with others. These are the design subtleties that set the great consumer hardware companies apart.
Everyday Objects Will Turn Into Robots Sooner Than You Think
What is a robot, anyways? According to Wikipedia, it’s essentially a mechanical agent that is guided by a computer program. A robot senses, learns, and then takes autonomous action.
Earlier today I took this picture of a “Diet Coke robot” (using a new Eye-Fi Mobi card and a Canon T2i DSLR) in my living room at home. Clearly this is just a silly little toy - for now. Before long, for the cost of a beer koozie, makers will be building little devices like this that can follow you around the house or deliver cold beers to you on your sofa during a ballgame. All of the technologies are getting cheap enough - the location sensors, the batteries, the machine vision, and the actuators.
This week, I’m speaking on a panel at TechCrunch Disrupt with some of my favorite robotic startups: Nest, Anki, and Skycatch. The basic premise? The robots are already here - they just don’t look like what you might have expected.
The robots from Nest, Anki, and Skycatch (unlike the Diet Coke robot shown above) don’t have humanoid forms. Respectively, they’re thermostats, toy cars, and flying drones. But all three robots sense from their surroundings, learn and improve with time, and then take action in the real world. All three are connected to the Internet. All of them get regular software updates and utilize machine learning. This unique mix of characteristics is what makes a robot a robot. And leads to products far more valuable than products that only incorporate one or two of those characteristics.
The World’s Most Dangerous Amusement Park
I still remember driving two hours from home in Connecticut for several summers in a row as a teenager to visit Action Park in Vernon, New Jersey. If you haven’t heard of it, watch this video. I vividly recall walking by this loop-the-loop water slide near the entrance. The slide didn’t work correctly - which they discovered after a few weeks of operation - but the park’s owners were too cheap to demolish and remove it.
This was a place where you KNEW that if you weren’t at least a little bit careful, you could get badly hurt. In fact, every few years somebody died. But for the most part, you’d get friction burns, sprain an ankle, or maybe break a few bones.
This place really existed. And, predictably in hindsight, it eventually shut down due to lawsuits in 1996.
A lot of people from my generation still remember riding our bikes through neighborhoods all summer long, without helmets or plans for the day. For most of the summer, we would yell goodbye in the morning, wander for miles all day long, and usually get home in time for dinner. No cell phones, and maybe a call home during the day if we were going to stay over at a friends’ house for dinner. Kind of like a daily trip to Action Park.
Startups are a lot like Action Park. There’s real risk involved – risk to your finances, risk to your health, and risk to your reputation. But the rewards, like spending summer days at Action Park, are equally sweet. Do you want to spend your life at Disneyland, mostly waiting in line for a few minutes of antiseptic thrills? Or do you want to spend it jumping off of cliffs and speeding down hills without guardrails at Action Park?
Power Scavenging is the Next Great Enabling Technology (for the Internet)
Battery technology has always held back portable consumer electronics and the Internet of Things. What I’ve recently come to appreciate is that Moore’s Law is reducing power requirements just as rapidly as it’s increasing CPU speeds and memory capacities. One way to improve the “battery life” of a portable device or sensor is to reduce the power draw of processors and sensors - using the same batteries as before. It’s the short cut around a lack of fundamental progress in battery technology.
So what happens as power requirements get smaller and smaller? Magic.
Electromagnetic radiation is in itself a source of energy. This is what powers the entire earth - energy from the sun. Over hundreds of millions of years, photosynthesis built the fossil fuels we all depend upon. Light is just a small part of the electromagnetic spectrum. So what happens if we can start to harness other, non-visible wavelengths as a source of energy, just like solar cells?
You can connect the Internet to trillions of devices, without the need for batteries.
Researchers at MIT have started to build devices that harness TV signals to power devices. This stuff starts to feel a lot like magic. Imagine a world of trillions of devices, powered by radio waves rather than batteries and plug-in power supplies. Or powered by vibration and movement, just like old mechanical watches. It’s a lot closer than you think.
R.I.P., Metal Keys (870 - 2013)
Low-cost consumer 3-D printing marks the beginning of the end for traditional mechanical keys. All it takes to copy a key today is a camera on a modern smartphone, and soon, anyone can create an .stl key file for a 3-D printer that never needs to fall under the watchful eyes of a licensed locksmith.
The Internet of Things, combined with the modern smartphone, is about to disrupt another huge industry that’s never seen real change.
What’s next? Bluetooth Low Energy, with keys delivered via smartphones. The highest security consumer application - car keys - already have wireless codes built in. Next up: the front door of your house from companies like August and Lockitron. After that, wireless locking codes will work their way down into lower and lower value applications, until at some point mechanical keys become as common as turntables, 8-track players, and payphones.