Broadcasting the wow factor

The Graham Norton Show

TV chat shows can be great platforms to introduce a new product, create interest in going to the cinema and see a hot movie, or any manner of things celebrity guests talk about and likely to attract a big audience.

In today’s sharing society, you also want to extend the reach of a topic and its wow factor by building buzz online.

A cool product that played a big part in the latest The Graham Norton Show last night – undoubtedly the preeminent TV chat show in the UK, broadcast every Friday night on BBC1 – was a little robot that wowed Graham Norton, his three guests – Gary Oldman, Toni Collette and Nick Frost – and the studio audience.

Check out the video of the four-and-a-half-minutes segment in the show that featured the robot: I bet you go ‘Wow!”

(If you’re in the US and not able to see the video, possibly for copyright reasons, check out the copy uploaded to YouTube by BBC America.)

Norton said the robot is called “Nao,” which made it an easy matter to Google it and come up with details about it:

NAO is a programmable, 58cm tall humanoid robot with the following key components:

  • Body with 25 degrees of freedom (DOF) whose key elements are electric motors and actuators
  • Sensor network, including 2 cameras, 4 microphones, sonar rangefinder, 2 IR emitters and receivers, 1 inertial board, 9 tactile sensors, and 8 pressure sensors
  • Various communication devices, including voice synthesizer, LED lights, and 2 high-fidelity speakers
  • Intel ATOM 1,6ghz CPU (located in the head) that runs a Linux kernel and supports Aldebaran’s proprietary middleware (NAOqi)
  • Second CPU (located in the torso)
  • 27,6-watt-hour battery that provides NAO with 1.5 or more hours of autonomy, depending on usage

    NAO

If that’s all a bit dry, there is a video:

The company behind NAO is Aldebaran Robotics, whose website says it’s the first French company focusing on humanoid robotics. Its founder and chairman is Bruno Maisonnier whose LinkedIn profile starts simply with, “I’m interested in everything linked with robotics.”

I noticed that the video showcasing NAO was made in 2008, indicating that this humanoid robot has been around for at least five years.

Maybe mainstream focus such as The Graham Norton Show will help propel NAO into mainstream interest. Incidentally, nice work by the PR firm who got the BBC’s interest in NAO leading to its being the star of The Graham Norton Show.

It certainly knows how to dance Gangnam Style.

And it (he) has a Twitter handle: @NaoRobot.

But as Aldebaran Robotics says themselves, “There remain major challenges to overcome before robots become true personal assistants.”

So, some work to do to evolve on from a robot dancing Gangnam Style to getting closer to the concept of Sonny from I, Robot, never mind David from A.I.

Still, wow!

The thrill and heartache of BlackBerry: employee perspectives

BlackBerrys

Whether Canadian mobile technology company BlackBerry has a viable future or not is still a big unknown.

The company fell from grace during this year as sales of its smartphones plummeted in the face of competition from Apple and Android devices, plus a collapse in confidence in the company,  in the brand and in its leadership, and a knock-on effect on its lucrative software and services business.

The cost was catastrophic. Calling BlackBerry “a company in crisis” would be an understatement.

While some reports now talk about success with its BBM messaging service, others paint a dire picture of a company whose market share in hardware devices had all but collapsed by the end of the third quarter 2013 in key markets – to near zero in the US, China, Spain and Japan, for example, as the Guardian reports, also highlighting one ray of sunshine in one market: the UK.

Meanwhile, interim CEO John Chen affirmed in an open letter last week that BlackBerry Ltd is “very much alive, thank you” as it rebuilds itself as a niche player concentrating on the enterprise market.

Whatever the future for Blackberry, its past is a rich library of compelling memories and stories told by employees, former employees and others with strong connections to the company from its founding as RIM in 1984 to the present day.

You’ve heard the massaged and nuanced PR stuff from company leaders past and present: now hear the unfiltered stories of employees.

Such stories have been captured by Bloomberg Businessweek magazine in a feature report that paints a picture of the people of BlackBerry and their perspectives of their lives and connection to BlackBerry:

Over the last two months, Bloomberg Businessweek spoke to dozens of current and former BlackBerry employees, vendors, and associates. Here is their account of the thrill of BlackBerry’s ascension – and the heartache of watching its demise.

It’s a series of powerful vignettes of people and their experiences. It brings BlackBerry into life – it’s about ordinary people, not inanimate objects like phones – as it presents a timeline of events in the mobile-device marketplace, from its early days and, especially, over the past decade, as seen from the perspective of people who made up the once-12,000-member workforce.

Two handfuls of those experiences:

Gary Mousseau, eighth employee at RIM and software developer and manager, 1991-2007: I first met [founder and ex-CEO] Mike Lazaridis when he interviewed me. Mike is a very good orator and communicator of technology. He was a convincing-enough soul that I ended up taking a 13 percent pay cut to join RIM. I started in 1991. My first job was to build my own desk. There was no more room for me. They put me in the fax reception area. I was the guy receiving packages. I sat beside the fax machine, which was not fun. It was a small place. It was crowded. We were above a pizza joint.

Jim Estill, member of the board, 1997-2010: In the early days at RIM, people had no idea what a smartphone was. People had no idea what two-way pagers were. But they had such a cool factor. You’d take one out, and everybody would want to touch it and play with it and see what it was.

Chris Key, global account manager and carrier sales and relationship manager, 2001-09: In 2004, I shipped off to India. I became very active in feeding devices to Bollywood celebrities. I recall going to Bombay fashion week, and I took a box-load of BlackBerrys. A friend of mine is an editor for Vogue. She put me in the VIP section, and I drank Champagne and ate strawberries and handed out BlackBerrys to all the celebrities.

Lidia Feraco, senior marketing manager for Latin America, 2005-11: In the Jamaica/Trinidad launch, we did an exclusive campaign where people would come into a discotheque. We would give them temporary henna bar code tattoos, and people could use their BlackBerrys to scan the tattoos to get people’s [personal identification] numbers. People would say, “Scan me, scan me.” And as the evening went on, people would get more risqué and put the tattoos on different parts of their body. So instead of asking, “Hey, can I get your number,” the conventional line in a nightclub, it was more, “Hey, can I get your PIN?”

Brendan Kenalty, customer base management, 2007-10: I was in the loyalty and retention group. People would be, like, “You’re in BlackBerry retention? Why would anyone need that?”

Jesse Boudreau, vice president, BlackBerry software excellence, 2004-08: In four years we went from [approximately] 2,000 to 12,000 people. Having been at Nortel, the politics that get played is exponential. I was starting to see it be like Nortel. There was bureaucracy. There was pointless process. You were getting decisions by committee.

Vincent Washington, senior business development manager, 2001-11: One thing we missed out on was that Justin Bieber wanted to rep BlackBerry. He said, “Give me $200,000 and 20 devices, and I’m your brand ambassador,” basically. And we pitched that to marketing: Here’s a Canadian kid, he grew up here, all the teeny-boppers will love that. They basically threw us out of the room. They said, “This kid is a fad. He’s not going to last.” I said at the meeting: “This kid might outlive RIM.” Everyone laughed.

Ray Gillenwater, managing director, 2007-12: If BlackBerry was going to be serious about consumers, they needed to make a fundamental shift in the way products were thought about, created, iterated, marketed, and sold. This was done but never to the extent necessary. It was always a partial effort. There was a period of time when this could have been corrected, but when it became apparent that HQ and senior leadership were not addressing systemic issues, people like myself left.

Jeff Gadway, current senior manager for product marketing: When you go into the focus groups, and you talk to customers about brands in the technology space, there are brands that don’t come up at all anymore. And then there’s BlackBerry. People have fond sentiments about BlackBerry. If people didn’t have that affinity toward the brand, I would be challenged to really believe in what we’re doing. People want to see BlackBerry succeed.

‘Thrill’ and ‘heartache’ are indeed the sum total of much of these experiences:

Much more at Bloomberg Businessweek: The Rise and Fall of BlackBerry: An Oral History.

I was never a BlackBerry user. I never bought into the “doing my email wherever I am” culture. Yet, today, reading those emotive snapshots, I say: Good luck, BlackBerry.

(Photo at top via the Guardian.)

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Amazon’s drone delivery service: not science fiction

Amazon Prime Air

A story that’s all over the news web today is about Amazon’s plans to start a delivery service that will get your package directly to your door straight from an Amazon fulfilment centre via a drone pilotless aircraft.

No middlemen – no postal service, no couriers – just Amazon. And delivery within 30 minutes.

amazonprimeairlogoKnown as Amazon Prime Air, the service looks to be in an advanced planning stage – drones have been made and at least one test flight carried out – with Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos saying that he hopes to start service in 2015.

[...] It looks like science fiction, but it’s real. From a technology point of view, we’ll be ready to enter commercial operations as soon as the necessary regulations are in place. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is actively working on rules for unmanned aerial vehicles.

[...] We hope the FAA’s rules will be in place as early as sometime in 2015. We will be ready at that time.

So, the service will launch in the US to begin with. I imagine Amazon’s long-term plans would be to bring it to its other markets including the UK.

Calling the service Amazon Prime Air is interesting: Amazon Prime is the Amazon delivery service that you pay an annual subscription to and then get free delivery for your orders (and other benefits, too). The name suggests that would include deliveries by drones.

If they’ve got to this stage in their planning, it’s clear Amazon have worked out how to meet the logistical challenges in enabling a service like this that says it will deliver your order within 30 minutes if you’re within ten miles of a fulfilment centre.

I guess it also suggests expansion plans by Amazon to extend its network of fulfilment centres so as to extend its direct reach to more customers. I also guess that the definition of "fulfilment centres" will evolve – not only those gigantic warehouses that we see pictures of every Christmas, but also smaller places from which drones can be used; and, looking at unusual places where opportunity arises to deliver consumer orders for them to collect  – the London tube, for example (obviously not for drones).

To see what Amazon Prime Air may look like, here’s a video Amazon published showing a recent test flight and delivery:

(If you don’t see the video embedded above, watch it at YouTube.)

Lucky it wasn’t raining. And the dog was indoors.

Good timing for the announcement when everyone is focused on online shopping: we had Black Friday last week, and today is Cyber Monday – two events where Amazon already plays a massive role in getting goods to customers.

Innovation and imagination – two ingredients that add context to the technologies that shape our lives and influence our behaviours. And vice versa.

(Via The Verge.)

[Later] And so, the jokes begin… :)

We attempted a drone delivery...

[Update Dec 3] This story certainly has attracted widespread reporting and commentary and, most of all, strong opinion.

Among the handful of people in my networks I spoke to yesterday, all of them expressed cynicism and disbelief in varying degrees. None of them believed Amazon’s reported drone idea will become reality. All of them saw the news as a PR stunt.

You can get an idea of that sentiment in some of the comments to this post.

Pro, con or indifferent, commentary and opinion about drone delivery has focused great attention on Amazon, opening up a public conversation about its business, its model and what might be next. That conversation has been largely positive so far, with nary a credible mention of the alleged dark side of Amazon, eg, its working practices and allegations of treating product-picking fulfilment centre employees like robots.

From a PR point of view, Amazon must be quite pleased with the coverage across the mainstream media and the social web over the past 48 hours.

Some reporting is looking more closely at the very feasibility of the idea, casting doubt on that feasibility. Looking, too, at the likelihood or otherwise of getting regulatory approval in the US. And alternative ideas are beginning to emerge from rivals, such as Waterstones Harry Potter-like concept.

Now there’s a PR stunt.

So, does Amazon Prime Air look like an eagle poised for lift off. Or just a turkey? Maybe Jeff Bezos’ 2015 target is just too optimistic. Maybe it will be 2020.

Or maybe it could take off as planned. From today’s FT reporting on divided opinion in the drone industry:

[...] Amazon had to announce a drone initiative long before its launch, [Dustin Boyer, a San Francisco entrepreneur,] adds, because if it did not, a rival such as Google – which is already testing self-driving cars, a harder technical challenge than airborne autopiloting – would beat them to it.

Rumours in Silicon Valley suggest Google is already working on its own UAV technology, though it is not clear for what purpose, while one Australian start-up is reportedly planning drone deliveries on college campuses early next year.

However, Jonathan Downey is more cautious about Amazon’s idea. As chief executive of Airware, which is developing autopilot "brains" for drones, he believes that using UAVs for delivery is something better suited to remote parts of Africa than dense, built-up environments such as US cities.

"We definitely think things are going to be delivered by drones," says Mr Downey. "Whether it’s books and whether it’s by Amazon I’m sceptical, certainly within the next three or four years."

[...] "We’re really excited because we get a big player to basically sponsor the validity of having a drone business," says Christian Sanz, chief executive of Skycatch, another UAV start-up. "It makes it easier for us to fight the war with FAA."

I’m keeping an open mind.

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For wearable technologies, bandwidth matters (and other things)

Ab Fab Glass

Today, UK mobile operator EE is launching what it describes as “the world’s fastest 4G network” in part of London.

The company says that the network – running LTE Advanced technology, capable of reaching 300Mbps speeds – will initially cover London’s Tech City, with companies in the area being selected to access it first.

One significant metric EE quotes in its press release is this:

EE predicts data usage will rise by 750% over next three years

That means more content creation, consuming and sharing on the go. It means more desire to do more things that will require persistent connectivity, ie, being connected all the time in real time rather than connecting and disconnecting as you travel, either deliberately or forcefully when the network connection suddenly drops.

And it will require a great deal of bandwidth – what most users see as fast and consistent speeds – especially when it comes to using wearable technologies like Google Glass (currently available only in the United States to early adopters).

Right now, wearable technology sits at the top of the peak of inflated expectations in Gartner’s 2013 Hype Cycle for Emerging Technologies, described by Gartner as ‘wearable user interfaces’ (they are geeks).

Gartner's 2013 Hype Cycle for Emerging Technologies

For it to get into the mainstream requires multiple events to converge: connectivity is one, but also availability, affordability, ease of use, fashionability, utility, and undoubtedly a host of other things that will influence people’s desires and interest.

Indeed, EE sees this quite clearly:

[...] For consumers, the future of mobile is about connecting more devices, accessing more real-time information, and sharing higher definition images and videos. The emergence of wearable technology, for example, will continue to increase consumer usage of data across multiple connected products. In consumer entertainment, ultra high definition 4K TV is the future, and LTE-A makes it possible to support that on a mobile network. BBC iPlayer streams at 5Mbps, whereas 4K TV will stream at 20Mbps, so a consistently high average speed, enabled by sufficient capacity on the network, is essential.

Think not only wearable technologies from a consumer perspective – there are huge benefits for specific businesses, EE says:

[...] The amount of capacity within the 4G network enables the extension of vital, high-data business applications, such as ERP and SAP, to become cloud-based, offering enterprises increased efficiency and flexibility. Financial institutions in particular – often reliant upon transferring large volumes of data – can benefit enormously from this flexibility. Increased bandwidth across the network also enables a new approach to outside broadcast for media companies, as a small number of 4G SIMs can replace an entire satellite truck and the rental of a satellite connection.

So many foundations are being laid that will add to the elements that need to converge – aligning the planets, as it were – to become a tipping point that enables people to do the things they want to do, whether for business or for pleasure.

In the case of wearable tech, that means how fast it can scoot out of Gartner’s peak of inflated expectations, past the trough of disillusionment and onto the slope of enlightenment; and, ultimately, out to the plateau of productivity.

That latter destination, Gartner says, is at least five years away and could be as many as ten.

The way things and behaviours in context move and converge ever quicker – just listen to Shel Israel and Robert Scoble – I’d say much nearer five years than ten.

(Photoshopped pic of Patsy and Edina via Engadget)

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Increase your computer satisfaction with Soluto’s anti-frustration service

PC boot times

One of the banes of modern computer life is booting up, the process that happens to your computer when you switch it on.

On my office desktop computer running 64-bit Windows 7 Ultimate, it takes well over five minutes from the moment I turn the machine on to the moment when realistically I can start using it.

That’s well over the average time in the UK – and significantly more than the global average – according to Soluto, an Israeli software and web service company whose business is all about improving boot times (and some other things).

The lengthy start-up typically increases over time as you add and remove programs, fiddle with things, misconfigure other things, tweak this and that, and maybe add or remove some hardware.

It’s one reason why I tend to start over with everything about once a year, savouring the first week or so after a fresh install when things take just a couple of minutes to be ready for you.

Today, though, I’m enjoying getting to the PC in less than three minutes after turning it on instead of the more than five minutes I’ve resigned myself to each time until another fresh install thanks to Soluto.

What Soluto does when you first use it is analyse your computer’s start up, looking at every program and service that runs when the computer is booting up to determine the most efficient and optimum way all of those things work together, to get your machine in a ready-to-use state in the shortest practical time.

Then each time you boot your machine, Soluto’s monitoring gets to know your computer better, making further recommendations on programs or services you can remove from boot, delay running until the bootup procedures are complete, or leave in the process.

Soluto

It can all add up to significant time saving. In my case, Soluto’s getting-to-know-your-PC procedure has now got me to the state of a ready machine in less than two minutes, a further one minute improvement from its initial use yesterday, about six bootups ago as I speed up the learning process.

It’s done it, basically, by sorting out the kinds of things that are tricky for you to do unless you are very knowledgeable about your device’s inner workings and know exactly how to tune every program, app or service that runs on bootup.

I’ve not uninstalled anything – often a route you go down when you experience a slow computer – or stopped using a program. All that’s happened is the computer start-up procedure has now become much more efficient in three ways:

  1. I’ve removed many apps from the bootup process entirely (31 in fact) based largely on Soluto’s guidance and the generic metrics they show on what other users do, saving over 3 minutes;
  2. Essential apps and services – mostly related to the computer’s operating system and connected hardware devices – run as normal during boot up; and
  3. Other programs I need but not until the computer’s completed booting-up are delayed until after that point.

I first heard about Soluto in early 2011 when it launched in beta. I tried it then and was impressed even though it was indeed beta. Today, it’s evolved impressively into a tool that, in my experience, works well and is one you can have confidence in using.

Soluto’s database in the cloud grows over time as more users share their experiences. I can see how it could especially help inexperienced users in guiding them on choosing what to boot, what to tweak and what to skip.

The service does a lot more than tune-up your computer’s boot process, though. Here’s Soluto’s full list:

What can you do with Soluto?

  • Manage multiple PCs from anywhere.
  • Shorten PC boot time and get your PC started fast.
  • See which apps are crashing and hogging CPU.
  • Remotely install and configure useful apps like Skype and Dropbox.
  • Customize your default browser, homepage, and search engine.
  • Keep your PC up-to-date with silent software updates.
  • Catch hardware issues before they cause problems.
  • Defrag and clear disk space to keep things running smooth and fast.
  • Help others get more out of their PCs too.

Whether you use just one or perhaps a handful of computers – a desktop and a couple of laptops, for instance – or you administer a network embracing iPhones and iPads as well, Soluto has an option with different plans ranging from a free one (the one I’m currently using) for managing up to 3 devices to the enterprise-level of up to 200 devices.

If you want to save time every time you start up your device – desktop, laptop, tablet or smartphone – Soluto might have a solution for you.

Now I need to change my early-morning custom of making a pot of tea while the office desktop computer boots up. There’s no time any more!

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Foundations for evolving relationships between people and machines

Robot & Frank

IT Industry analysts Gartner announced its 2013 Hype Cycle for Emerging Technologies on August 19, with an assessment of the tech landscape that visualises its market analysis, concentrating on the evolving relationship between humans and machines.

In explaining that relationship focus, Gartner’s Jackie Fenn – originator of the hype cycle model – said in the press announcement that she wanted to “encourage enterprises to look beyond the narrow perspective that only sees a future in which machines and computers replace humans.”

In fact, [Fenn said,] by observing how emerging technologies are being used by early adopters, there are actually three main trends at work. These are augmenting humans with technology – for example, an employee with a wearable computing device; machines replacing humans – for example, a cognitive virtual assistant acting as an automated customer representative; and humans and machines working alongside each other – for example, a mobile robot working with a warehouse employee to move many boxes.

Gartner’s research vice president Hung LeHong added that “enterprises of the future will use a combination of these three trends to improve productivity, transform citizen and customer experience, and to seek competitive advantage.”

These three major trends are made possible by three areas that facilitate and support the relationship between human and machine. Machines are becoming better at understanding humans and the environment – for example, recognizing the emotion in a person’s voice – and humans are becoming better at understanding machines – for example, through the Internet of things. At the same time, machines and humans are getting smarter by working together.

The three trends + three areas that LeHong speaks of are these:

  1. Augmenting humans with technology
  2. Machines replacing humans
  3. Humans and machines working alongside each other
  4. Machines better understanding humans and the environment
  5. Humans better understanding machines
  6. Machines and humans becoming smarter

You can read Gartner’s thinking on each of these in the press announcement. (For the detailed findings, analyses and predictions, you’ll need to shell out $1,995.00 for the full report.)

Keeping in mind that thinking from Gartner, I was interested to see what this year’s emerging tech hype cycle looks like in terms of what technologies are highlighted and where in the cycle they appear, with an eye on seeing Gartner’s projections in terms of years to the Holy Grail of the Plateau of Productivity (see the Wikipedia entry for a description of that and each of the terms used to define each stage in the hype cycle).

2013 Hype Cycle for Emerging Technologies

There’s a great deal of interesting information in this hype cycle graph that communicators should pay attention to, whether you’re in tech or interested in the close subject matter or not. Consider Gartner’s premise – the evolving relationship between humans and machines. That is definitely an area of keen interest to us.

Here are just six things that jump out at me:

  1. There are many technologies on or approaching the Peak of Inflated Expectations that Gartner projects will take five to ten years (the solid blue circles) or more than ten years (the yellow triangles) to reach the Plateau of Productivity – assuming they make it through the Trough of Disillusionment. So much will happen in 5-10 years that intelligent analysis in 2013 could be as good as informed guessing.
  2. Sitting at the apogee of that Peak are Big Data, Consumer 3D Printing, Gamification, Wearable User Interfaces – all technologies constantly in the buzz machines of social networking sites and early adopter circles. How soon – and how fast – will they fall or plummet into the Trough of Disillusionment? Perhaps more importantly, how quickly – or at all – will they rise up onto the Slope of Enlightenment?
  3. I was surprised to see that the Internet of Things has moved little compared to where it was on the 2012 hype cycle – still rising in the Innovation Trigger towards the Peak of Inflated Expectations but not there just yet. Gartner still thinks it will be more than ten years before this emerging technology reaches the Plateau of Productivity.
  4. Last year, BYOD was right on the peak of Inflated Expectations. This year, it’s not mentioned at all.
  5. Augmented Reality is on the move down towards the Trough of Disillusionment. Will it languish there? Or will its stay be short? Gartner thinks it will be 5-10 years before this tech makes it to that Plateau of Productivity, perhaps suggesting it’s still an early adoptive and experimental tech for the most part, notwithstanding what some companies are doing with it today, eg, Audi helping drivers know more about their cars.
  6. Everything here has relevance to every organization, even in the barest form of simply being aware of that Big Picture at a society level. That means education and awareness-raising, helping people understand it – particularly in contexts as well as in relevance to them – which will lead to knowledge. And who knows where that will take people and what it will enable them to do.

Much to learn from Gartner’s analyses and predictions.

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