Sunday, September 30, 2012

The Hotel Receptionist

Traveling this summer, we stayed at a concept hotel called Aloft, an experiment of Starwood Hotels. It had a vaguely Euro/Scandanavian design with a trendy, hipster sort of ambience, but what intrigued me was their idea of dispensing with a breakfast area in favor of a self-serve lobby all within view of the receptionist. You simply pick up whatever you want and the receptionist rings it up.

So what does this have to do with business models?

A lot! In the age of smartphones which can act as your door key, wallet, concierge and passbook what will be the role of the receptionist? This experiment seems to be a way to re-allocate resources (receptionists, to begin with) as tech-savvy consumers demand more services that are seamlessly integrated with their gadgets and gizmos.

Microsoft Takes a Stab

A futuristic video developed by Microsoft sketches the story of a business traveller 5-10 years in the future, as she lands and checks into her hotel. Some notable ideas are hyper-location, translating AR glasses and an embedded digital room key. The one technology that will appear well before five years, and has the potential of creating the most disruption, is the smartphone as door key.

Phones as door keys

The idea of using a phone to unlock a door has shifted from an interesting research curiosity to working products that you can buy in a store. Although NFC seems the obvious answer, as seen in the video below, it misses the point that it only works with a small set of smartphones, thus limiting its usefulness.

WAN Connected Doors?

You know there is something going on when digital locks attract the attention of an established company such as Schlage. They are certainly taking a conservative approach and not trying to replace a real key. In fact their value proposition is to simply allow remote access for babysitters, workmen, etc. It thus becomes part of a broader home security and automation need, rather than a gimmicky "internet lock".

It is worth noting that the phone is simply a secure remote control that accesses the lock through a specific LAN gateway.

Not to be outdone, Zipcars can be unlocked by a smartphone. No NFC needed, an ID number and a cellular modem will do quite well, thank you! Of course they wisely kept a backup of a card-scanner behind the windshield that unlocks the car when presented with the right barcode.

Is Apple's Passbook the Answer?

It is certainly part of the answer. As Phil Schiller of Apple noted in a recent interview on The Verge, "Passbook does everything customers want". With little NFC infrastructure and a long slow upgrade of terminals, door locks, etc. over the coming years, NFC seems to be the proverbial hammer looking for a nail.

The other part of the answer is simply using location and visual information as a way to authenticate a person. Square seems to have gotten it right with Pay with Square, certainly Starbucks thinks so! No need to take your phone out of your pocket.

So is our receptionist out of a job? Lets say she has new tasks to take care of while the need to hand out card-keys slowly shrinks.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Are 3D Gestures the Future of UI?

A recent CNET report that a startup, LeapMotion has cracked high accuracy 3D gesture detection, got me thinking of this being another instance of technology out of sync with user behavior. The technology, of course is very cool as can be seen in their demo video:

However, I argue that major advances in UI will come from a close examination of inter-related factors such as physiology, technology and behavior.

The question of arm fatigue

One of the insights shared by Steve Jobs was the idea that touch screens on iMacs made no sense as arm fatigue would set in when constantly manipulating a vertical screen. Surprisingly LeapMotion attempts similar screen manipulation in a virtual vertical plan, with the added disadvantage of no tactile feedback when a gesture has registered. How do you know when a gesture begins and ends? This certainly does not look like an improvement in UI.

Others perhaps have been paying closer attention. Note that the new Microsoft Surface has a touchpad with its keyboard even though the Surface has a full touch screen.

The Kinect model

Coming back to 3D gestures, the Microsoft Kinect has a more natural model of gestures, one that may not be hyper-accurate, but gets the job done. One can tell it is a winner with the rabid excitement in the developer community of hacking the system and doing cool things with it. Not one to lose an opportunity, Microsoft has posted an SDK for it.  Once Kinect is embedded in laptops and mobile phones the possibilities of combining it with AR (augmented reality) get quite interesting.

Another company with a similar concept is SoftKinetic which is experimenting with a range of use cases from flipping a presentation to AR like interactions with large displays.

"No wine before its time"

As is often the case, technology is far ahead of the use cases and shifts in behavior. Just as it took us several years to adapt to simple swiping gestures, it will take at least that much before we settle on the next level of gesture interaction.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Time and Space

For some years I have been watching QR (Quick Response) codes trying to make the leap to mainstream use, but despite their considerable success I have never been convinced of their usability. With the emergence of novel ways to use low cost, embedded NFC (near field communication) chips, the days of QR seem to be numbered.

So what's wrong with QR codes and why is NFC a disruptive technology?

It is About Images and Gestures

QR codes are really an instance of a gesture that uses an optical image and a series of button presses to connect the real world to a web page. However, with much fewer steps (both physical and mental) one can easily imagine embedded NFC causing the same connection to happen. Unique signatures can even be created without NFC, such as the Bump app which captures vibrations from bumping two phones and turns them into unique signatures. But what distinguishes NFC is the ease with which an embedded chip can change how we interact with the physical word.

The Virtual Supermarket

Tesco did a cool experiment in South Korea about a year ago by creating full-size images of the actual store on the walls of a subway station. You capture the QR codes of the things you want to buy and they are delivered when you get home.

What a great idea! But does it really work? Lets consider two variables:

Space: Although the video announcer claims that the items are life size and placed exactly where they are in the real store, this is not exactly true as one long wall is not the same as a two-dimensional shelf layout. I am not sure how you find something on the subway wall when you have the real store layout memorized.

Time: Since the amount of waiting time for a subway rider is random (while the shopping list is not), what do you do when the train approaches and you are not done?

I am sure the campaign achieved its goal of increasing registered members of the online store and even offline store traffic, but in practical terms one will buy a few things that are on the nearby wall.

However, it is an interesting discovery mechanism and I think wall scanning is much better suited for impulse purchases of digital music and apps.

Barnes & Noble and the definition of a hardback

As the CEO of B&N recently explained, a hardback book will no longer be a book to lovingly hold in your hand and browse the pages while in the store. Rather books will have embedded NFC tags and by simply waving your NFC enabled Nook at a  book sitting on the shelf, a vast array of information will be at your fingertips.

This type of gesture connecting the online and the offline is far more compelling. Looking at the same two variables:

Space: A typical  customer who enters the store is committing their time to shopping in a bricks-and-mortar store. Since shelves are a natural way to browse for books (especial the ones with their front covers in view), why not just re-imagine shelves as simply a spatial organization of books? The odds are that the book you are interested in will be purchased as an eBook anyway!

Time: Here too, having NFC enabled books greatly improves the normal pattern of looking at reviews and making a decision. A bit creepy, but B&N would also know your physical (as in 3D) browsing pattern as you waved your Nook around from shelf to shelf. Of course it goes without saying that a waving gesture is much more satisfying than trying to focus a QR code.

Nintendo and Toys

And finally the news comes from E3 that the WiiU Gamepad will have NFC built in. Undoubtedly NFC embedded toys and figurines will quickly follow the game cards. It is not at all surprising that Nintendo president Iwata-san specifically mentions MIT professor Sherry Turkle and her book Alone Together in the launch video. Nintendo is indeed giving considerable thought to social dynamics and how computers (and by implication game consoles) are not the social tools we thought they were.

Floodgates for Gestures

Although there is considerable user behavior that will need to adapt to bring any of the NFC scenarios to the mainstream, the floodgates may well open when (it is not the question of "if") Apple embeds NFC and creates finely honed and intuitive gestures.

Let the games begin.

UPDATE: Samsung announces Tectiles, NFC tags that can be programmed to trigger a series of settings in a phone. Although expensive and clunky at present, they show how QR Codes will eventually be replaced by NFC technologies that are even easier to use.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The Technology of Pedestrian Safety

An interesting statistic recently caught my eye in the El Reg story that Volvo is incorporating airbags to protect pedestrians.

Volvo said three-quarters of all accidents involving pedestrians take place at up to 25mph. In Europe, 14 per cent of car crash fatalities are pedestrians. In the US, with its less densely packed streets, the figure is 12 per cent. In China, it's a staggering 25 per cent.
On further investigation, the CDC has noted this problem going back to 2008.

Are we going to see a disruption in how we view traffic safety? When you pay for the safety of someone else (regardless of fault), what does this say about insurance premiums?

A Short History of External Airbags

One can trace the "airbag as external cushion" meme going back to the Mars Pathfinder and Rover, where they were used to reduce the external shock to the lander. More recently NASA has been experimenting with external airbags to cushion a helicopter crash. So taxpayers can thank NASA for some cool tech that is making its way to consumers.

Bringing the idea of external energy absorption to cars, Jaguar had the right idea back in 2006 to look at pedestrian safety by building a "hood popping" crumple zone. This clearly did not make the feature set as it is nowhere to be found in the official XK description. The Volvo airbag though, is a much more radical and electronically intensive approach to pedestrian safety than anything that has been attempted so far.

Redefining Safety

Anyone who has driven in NYC (or any congested large city, for that matter) knows it is always fraught with peril, but lately I have noticed a lot more pedestrians in their bubbles leaping onto the road like deer, with no inkling of their environment. So my nagging feeling is vindicated by these statistics, and in fact gives me pause to ever drive in the city.

This post is not so much about distracted users, but more about the ability of Volvo to take these nagging feelings, define them and then turn them into a product. Perhaps Apple is not the only one that can intuit a revolutionary product!

It is clear from this video that safety goes to the core of Volvo, and is an excellent example of how brand loyalty is built and reinforced. It goes to the heart of Simon Sinek's argument to address the "why" before anything else.

Not only has Volvo changed the concept of safety (whose safety?) but certainly has given the insurance industry something to ponder over.

The US, Europe or China?

It is curious that Volvo is introducing this feature in Europe first, while the land of litigation is relegated to second place. Perhaps it is the greater population density, or possibly the requirement of some nominal pedestrian safety required by law in Europe that caused this decision. It is also intriguing that in North America safety is defined as that of the passengers only.

Although I have not done an actuarial model of reduced fatalities from said airbags, is seems clear that the saving on litigation alone will be a huge boon to insurance companies. So will any of this pass on to Volvo drivers? One sure hopes so, I am sure Volvo is counting on extra sales because of that!

A final thought: could the high fatality rate in China have driven this decision? One may forget that Volvo Cars is a Chinese company.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The Problem with Coupons

Having become a convert of Groupon (who doesn't like to save money these days?), it struck me that smartphones and coupons was a marriage made in heaven. The phone becomes a real-time, geo-coded search tool and simultaneously an electronic wallet for storing these coupons to be handily produced at the right moment. In fact, according to a CouponCabin survey 40% of smartphone users aged 18+ have redeemed a coupon on their phone.

We can put aside Groupon and company as they are really vouchers in which value is exchanged with the merchant in advance (and hence is very sticky). What about the rest? Are coupons on smartphones a good idea?

Paper Coupons?

Knowing the insane cost of parking in NYC, I usually print a couple of coupons, as the savings are quite significant over just pulling into a garage. I was thus quite surprised to see the text on one of the coupons:

"Coupon not valid on phone or mobile device" sure does not bode well for the the idea of virtual coupons. Certainly reading the barcode is not a problem. Neither is the need for paper documentation, as the payment is only made by credit card. So what is really going on here?

Commodities and Stickiness to Physical Locations

Quite simply, the parking garage company is afraid of being one click away from a better deal. There is little to differentiate one garage from another a block away. Their one weapon in creating switching cost is to force the user to invest their time in printing, thus making a choice or two in advance (there is a limit to how many coupons anyone will print!).

This may well be true for undifferentiated businesses, however parking garages are not unique. Even with other differentiating factors, on-the-fly coupons will certainly shift power into the hands of consumers.

Perversely, Amazon is concerned with the same issue of switching costs, though in their case it is to create a disincentive to shop brick-and-mortar retail by offering a discount just to use their app when shopping in the store (and presumably leave without making a purchase). Thankfully, this was just a trial.

Still, as we enter a retail environment with a networked computer in our pocket, I am sure retailers will come up with yet more inventive ways to create friction and switching costs.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Wireless Emergency Alerts - A Good Idea?

A USA Today news item caught my eye some days ago with the interesting title of Extreme-weather text alerts set to begin.

It struck me as a non-event, as surely we have exhaustively sliced and diced alerts over SMS, email, voice and mobile apps for every type of group and community, from large ones to a single user. Further investigation reveals a CTIA Consumer Info Page which (to paraphrase government speak) states that the FCC and FEMA, together with participating carriers are offering Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA). This was announced by the CTIA as it was mandated to be ready by April 2012 by the WARN (Warning, Alert & Response Network) Act. This may seem like acronym hell, but is apparently quite normal!

But wait, there is more: not only is this service good for alerting people of natural disasters and AMBER messages, but Congress also designated a special kind of message called a Presidential Alert, which is required to run over mobile networks as well as the normal broadcast media.

This is interesting.....

First: What the technology really is

The technology, known as CMAS (Commercial Mobile Alert System) is a cell broadcast mechanism that efficiently sends a 90 character message to all devices that are served by that base station (cell), regardless of their status (home network or roaming). Thus it is a simple matter for a mobile operator to carve out any block of cell towers and broadcast a message. Of course there needs to be an application in the phone that can correctly receive and display this message. Phones that have this embedded will have a CTIA stamp of approval.

Which Phones?

Not many. Perusing AT&T Wireless website shows these CMAS phones:

  • Samsung Galaxy SII (SGH-i777)
  • Samsung Captivate Glide (SGH-i927)
  • Motorola Atrix 2 (mb865)
I am not sure anyone can predict when we will reach a point of penetration where this is a useful service.

Right Idea, Wrong Execution

Which brings up the question of why an important new network service has been implemented in a vacuum.

Surely the idea of a client consuming a service is not new. Instead of terminating CMAS in an app that makes a funny siren sound, any number of cool applications could be developed that integrate the service with other interesting (or not so interesting) ones.

API's for all manners of services have come into existence with smartphones, it would have made the FCC  become way cool if they worked on some APIs together with the carriers and unleashed the hordes of Android and iOS developers. Some new business models might even appear.

As to the Presidential Alert, I still wonder about the apocalyptic logic of it. I am not sure I would know what to do! I hope the FCC brings more clarity to this.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Indoors Geo-location, the Next Frontier?

Google recently announced Indoor Walking Directions, a logical progression of outdoors maps, not to mention multiple transport modes (walking, biking, public, car). This was originally announced last November, but looks like it is finally released into the wild.

Similarly Nokia Research has been collaborating on indoor location research with MIT and has several patents on the subject. In response to Google's initiative, Nokia let out some teasers on hyper-accurate positioning using Bluetooth beacons.

My last example is research going on at Microsoft, which has significantly revamped its mobile business and has perhaps the most refreshing mobile UI in Windows Phone 7.

Why is this so important?

For starters, we spend a lot of time indoors, this is especially true in extreme climates (cold or hot!), where one may never leave a climate controlled environment. One can drive to the office, park in the garage, go to lunch or shopping at malls via interconnected tunnels and generally not know if it is -10C or +40C outside. While in the elevator you get to see bits of news and weather (and ads) and may see a couple more ads while you glance at your phone.

In this immersive mobile environment it is not surprising that hyper-local search is becoming the real battleground. Surely Facebook's recent comments in their amended S-1 filing about the risk of mobile monetization were made after some serious soul searching. In fact Facebook has always shown ambivalence to the iPad and whether it is mobile or not. Still, with developers like Joe Hewitt on staff Facebook has the depth to create truly reference designs. The Facebook Mobile app is still a joy to use.

Even gaming, which keeps showing more and more interesting social angles, benefits from hyper-accurate location. What is the point of having a 3-axis gyro in your pocket if one cannot interact accurately with strangers? Though Bump is cool and uses a clever server side bump detection, this too will be accomplished with a more direct mechanism.

Thus the need to connect every conceivable sensor to the task of creating hyper-accurate location and then monetizing it.

Where is the Money?

I think we are past "check-in" and "getting coupons pushed while walking". Sounds good, but location has to be about solving simple, practical problems. Such as finding a good plumber in a hurry, finding a shop in a huge mall without having to first find the shop listing, or even to pay for something that Mom or Dad have authorized. Throw in the social aspect (what do my friends think?) and brand tie-in (I get 10% off at Cheesecake Factory for shopping at Nordstrom) and it becomes a recipe for creating yet another walled garden!

Even enterprises with mobile workers would want hyper-accurate location to simplify many tasks that are done in near real-time. GAP floor staff with walkie-talkie headphones is just not fashion forward. Of course Fedex, UPS and countless other companies with dispersed staff would be happy to simply have a picture of who is where.

So the money is really in the transactional value as well as improved efficiency. Will advertising be significant in this? Most likely, but more in the Minority Report sense than in looking at tiny ads at the bottom of a mobile screen. Pulling into a parking lot or gas station and seeing personalized messages is really not a complex task. It does require near perfect triangulation, however.

When will this happen?

The basic sensor ingredients are coming together in a way that would truly create magical ways to interact with your surroundings. Perhaps a combination of NFC, Bluetooth beacons and audio and optical sensing will create the hyper-accurate location that will indeed make these scenarios possible.

Nothing would be complete without some thoughts on how such maps and content will come into existence. We certainly cannot use satellites nor Google cars or trykes, so in this instance it will be user-generated content that will make such a system valuable. Whether it is the mall entering their building maps into the map system du jour or Trusted Photographers uploading shop pictures, it will be a community effort.

Perhaps time to think of open mapping systems this time around.