Wearable technology is still more hype than bona fide trend, but that hasn't slowed down companies around the world who desperately want to know what makes people want to slap gadgets on their bodies. Some advice from the folks who have actually had hits in this space might be in order.
The founders of GoPro and Pebble were happy to oblige on Wednesday at the TechCrunch Disrupt conference. Read on and learn.
If there's one thing GoPro creator Nicholas Woodman is proudest of, it's the Red Bull Stratos space jump by Felix Baumgartner last year. "He was standing on the edge of existence, jumping back down to Earth," Woodman said of Baumgartner's leap from more than 128,000 feet in the air. The skydiver had a GoPro body cam strapped on under his visor, recording his first person point of view as he broke the sound barrier. This year, the camera company joined the Red Bull Signature Series—an NBC extreme-sports show—as an official partner.
The pre-release Google Glass can only dream of such achievements at this point. (Though Glass has made its bones with at least one extreme stunt of its own.) Maybe that's why Woodman—who made Forbes' billionaires list earlier this year—isn't sweating over his would-be wearable tech competitor.
Woodman also notes that Glass can only record from one vantage point. "Devices like Glass will do a terrific job of capturing the first-person perspective," he said. But that's just one of numerous possibilities, he added. Since GoPro mounts practically anywhere, it can record from numerous vantage points—whether lashed onto a boat in the ocean, a race car driver's dashboard or a stratospheric skydiver.
Fred Armisen's brilliant Saturday Night Live sketch of a tech reporter covering Google Glass pokes fun at the device, spawning other comedy videos that underscore the limitations of using it to record objects, people and events.
"Google Glass doesn't lend itself well to the world of GoPro, which is all about versatility," Woodman argued.
Mesh Into People's Lives
Eric Migicovsky (featured, above) knows a thing or two about versatility. His Pebble e-paper smartwatch features an intentionally simple design intended to let its apps shine. The approach worked. Pebble was widely reported as Kickstarter's most successful campaign, and the device's popularity is largely credited for sparking the current race to make our wrists smart.
See also: Why My Pebble Smartwatch Beats Samsung's Galaxy Gear, Hands Down
Not that Migicovsky intends to position the Pebble as a smartphone killer. "The best computer you have is the one sitting in your pocket," he said. "Pebble and smartwatches should be things that take advantage of that. They should also take advantage of other devices [sitting around your house]."
Interesting sentiment—especially since the smartwatch category's newest entrant, the Galaxy Gear, comes from a company that makes everything from mobile devices and TVs to refrigerators. But there are a few obstacles standing in Samsung's way, and those are exactly what Migicovsky wanted to call out.
"[A smartwatch] needs to mesh into your life; it needs to have a long battery life; and it needs to not be annoying," he explained. "It needs to just work in your life." Although Pebble has faced its own share of criticisms over late shipping on certain models, those jeers aren't inherent product flaws. Meanwhile, the chief complaints about the Galaxy Gear so far revolve around dismal battery life and a chunky girth that could get in users' way.
"These [are] overspec'ed machines," he continued, "but no one has really thought about how they fit into your life." That's what he thinks separates the Pebble. "It just works. That's the experience we really want to encourage."
Americans have a very conflicted relationship with technology. According to a new Harris Interactive poll, 71% of Americans believe that technology has improved their overall quality of life, with 65% believing that technology helps them be more creative. That's good, right?
Well, it would be, except these numbers are down from last year. In fact, by every measure Harris Interactive polled, satisfaction with technology is fading.
Losing Our (Technology) Religion
Harris Interactive first launched this survey in June 2012, tracking Americans' love affair with tech. It was a buoyant time for technology, with 78% declaring that technology improved their overall quality of life. When pushed, a majority declared tech improved their social lives and many felt it also improved work and home.
In just one year, that 78% has dropped to 71%. While still a majority, it suggests a negative trend, particularly when more people also describe technology as "too distracting" (from 65% in 2012 to 69% in 2013), fewer suggest technology "enhances their social lives" (from 56% to 52%) and fewer still cite technology as an "escape from their busy lives" (from 53% to 47%).
In 2013, satisfaction with technology's impact on specific aspects of daily life has also fallen across the board:
Work productivity (down from 42% in 2012 to 34% in 2013)
Work life (from 41% to 34%)
Safety and security (from 42% to 36%)—In fact, those citing technology having a negative impact on safety and security rose from 15% (2012) to 20% (2013) over the past year
Productivity at home (from 39% to 34%)
Relationships with my family (from 43% to 39%)
And lest we think this is a generational rift, with the oldies crabbing about those pesky kids and their newfangled gadgetry, Harris Interactive's poll shows younger respondents both more likely to own gadgets and more likely to be dissatisfied with tech.
And yet completely incapable of divorcing themselves from it.
You'll Have To Pry My Cell Phone From My Cold, Dead Hands
Actually, this inability to give up on technology that isn't making us happy crosses generational divides. According to the survey, which asked how long Americans could go without a range of technologies, respondents they could endure a week or less without the following technologies:
Internet access (68%; 28% couldn't give it up at all)
Computer/laptop (64%; 24% not at all)
Television (57%; 23% not at all) (Of course, if they have Internet, they might also have Hulu, Netflix, etc.)
Mobile phone (56%; 26% not at all)
Anyone who has tried to live without email will understand this contradiction. We recognize that we're becoming slaves to our inboxes, yet we can't break away. We begin to measure our importance by the size of our inbox and our productivity by the amount of time it takes to pretend to whittle it down. The very thing that feeds our egos also dismantles our happiness.
And yet we can't stop.
Is Technology Making Us Stupid?
Nick Carr once asked if Google were making us stupid by reprogramming our brains for short-form reading and expectations of instant gratification. His article generated a lot of commentary, but no conclusive answers.
In similar manner, Harris Interactive's survey raises questions as to our conflicted relationship with technology. But it's likely that our discontent with technology will continue, even as our unwillingness to part with it grows stronger. It's codependence between person and machine.
It's not going to get better anytime soon.
Facebook is testing a new way to push auto-playing video at its mobile users, a precursor to its all-but-inevitable introduction of video advertising.
Videos embedded in Facebook NewsFeeds will now play automatically, but silently, as smartphone or tablet users scroll by. Clicking on the video will enlarge it and play audio. The test is currently limited to what Facebook calls a "small group of U.S. mobile users."
Only videos posted by individual Facebook users, including those from Instagram and similar applications, will play automatically. Links shared from YouTube, Vimeo and other outside services won't play in line.
Teeing Up Advertising
The initial test also won't include advertisements. But Facebook notes in its blog post that "[o]ver time, we’ll continue to explore how to bring this to marketers in the future." In other words, auto-play mobile video does indeed look like a way to accustom users to auto-video so that when advertisements appear, people will be more inclined to watch them.
See also: Instagram Video Spells A Billion Dollars Worth Of Magic For Facebook
Earlier this week, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said that mobile users spend one-fifth of their total time on mobile devices using Facebook, adding that Facebook derives more than 40 percent of its revenue from mobile. Mobile video advertising would be an obvious way to mint some additional coin from that trend.
More Video, More Data
Users, however, might not be happy with the auto play feature. Auto-playing video will presumably drive up mobile data usage, which could be a problem for people on capped data plans. There's a big difference between taking the data hit to watch a friend's cat video and finding yourself subjected willy-nilly to a skateboard video shot an acquaintance's son—much less eventual toothpaste or car commercials.
Twitter took to its own network to announce it has filed a "confidential" S-1, an SEC document companies use to register for an initial public offering.
The company's tweet announcing its IPO went out to more than 23 million followers, and certainly many, many more in retweets:
We’ve confidentially submitted an S-1 to the SEC for a planned IPO. This Tweet does not constitute an offer of any securities for sale.
— Twitter (@twitter) September 12, 2013
The one thing we can say about Twitter based on this development comes from recently revised SEC rules that allow confidential filings. To qualify for confidential status, Twitter's "total annual gross revenues" in its most recently completed fiscal year must have been less than $1 billion.
Twitter declined to comment on when its most recent fiscal year ended.
It's no secret that Apple executives have an interest in fitness. CEO Tim Cook, an avid cyclist, is on the board of Nike. And the company has been hiring tons of engineers with experience in wearable computing and fitness applications.
There's no iWatch yet, but we've seen the first fruit of their labors in the iPhone 5S, which has an Apple-designed coprocessor, the M7, dedicated to tracking the motion of our smartphone, and with it, our bodies. Apple's software tools for the M7 even include step-counting algorithms, to save app builders the trouble of translating accelerometer data into human movements.
It spells good news for both fitness-app developers and people who want to use their smartphones to track their wellness.
A Healthy Beginning
When I met Renato Valdés Olmos in a crowded convention center in San Francisco this week, he was the picture of health—tall, somewhere between lanky and buff, and bursting with energy.
He wasn't always thus. Before he launched a new fitness app called Human, he weighed 320 pounds and was a self-described "pot-bellied burger gobbler."
He lost almost half his bodyweight—144 pounds—through an extremely disciplined approach to diet and exercise. Having gone through something similar three years ago, I was curious how he did it, and how he planned to help others with Human.
The idea behind Human is simple: It prompts you to move around for at least 30 minutes a day, a baseline level of activity that most medical experts say will contribute considerably to your health if you're not already doing so.
Human, which is currently available only for the iPhone, uses the smartphone's built-in motion and location detectors to track your movements, attempting to distinguish between active movement like walking or cycling and passive movement in a bus or a car. (Olmos told me the vibrations of a bus have a distinctive signature.)
The result is that Human can track a basic level of activity without users needing to do much of anything besides signing up. Contrast that to the older generation of fitness apps that require you to start and stop activities, categorize workouts, and add more metadata.
Human is not perfect: When it's charging on my treadmill desk, it can't determine that I'm actually moving at 3 miles per hour: As far as Human knows, I'm sitting.
And San Francisco's public transportation is so inefficient that Human thought I was biking through Chinatown, when I was actually riding a bus.
But the latter problem, at least, is exactly the kind of computing task that could be vastly improved through a dedicated processor.
"The 5S offers exactly what we've been waiting for," Olmos told me. "This will definitely open up ways to enhance our experience and optimize our tracking."
Battery life is one area where users will also see an impact from the new iPhone's M7 processor, if developers take advantage of it. While it's hard to pin down which of the many fitness and location apps I test are draining my battery the most, it's not uncommon for me to come back from a morning run and gym workout to find my battery down to 40 percent—and that's before 8:30 a.m.
Software, Not Just Hardware
The M7 is not a cure-all for battery-draining fitness apps. Olmos points out that many of the users he hopes to sign up for Human will opt for Apple's cheaper 5C, or the older 4S that Apple will continue to sell—or hold onto older iPhones. None of those will have the M7 processor. The M7 also doesn't help with location detection, and Olmos believes that's essential for the kind of activity tracking Human does.
Google may have an edge here, in that it's optimizing its Android mobile operating system to minimize the battery drain associated with motion and location detection, without the need for a separate motion processor. Given the variety of hardware Android smartphones uses, that's a smarter approach for Google.
Another approach is to offload the tracking to a secondary device—typically a fitness tracker wrapped around your wrist that then connects to your smartphone. Samsung's new Galaxy Gear smartwatch is designed for fitness apps, with Samsung aggressively courting developers.
One thing I wondered about when Apple revealed details of the M7 was whether such a dedicated motion processor might make its way into an Apple-designed wearable device. Or if, perhaps, Apple originally designed it for such a device and decided to fold it into its flagship smartphone instead.
Taken together, these three approaches—hardware, software, and companion sensors—should make it possible for developers to create what RunKeeper CEO Jason Jacobs recently called "invisible apps," that monitor us without requiring constant intervention or recharging. One simple example: Running apps shouldn't require us to hit a "start" button. They should simply start mapping our runs as soon as our sneakers hit the pavement.
A Fit Beginning
Since the 5S will represent a small portion of the overall smartphone market, it's unlikely most fitness apps will optimize themselves for the M7. But the software underpinnings that Apple and Google are building into their mobile operating systems are arguably more important. Whether battery-conserving sensors run on the smartphone or on other wearable devices, we'll be able to use them to build up important data sets.
I'm skeptical about how helpful simplified fitness apps like Human can be. They get you off the couch and out of your car, but if you have 80 or more pounds to lose, like Olmos and I did, 30 minutes of movement a day will barely make a dent in your excess fat stores.
Yet the trick Human pulls off—monitoring a basic level of activity—taxes the current generation of sensor and battery technology. It's barely possible today, through the cleverness of Olmos and his team.
"The M7 processor shows what direction mobile devices are heading at," says Olmos.
If more elegant and intelligent use of technology can help smartphones shed some baggage, perhaps it can help us do so, too.
Before the five startups taking part in this year’s San Francisco Media Camp took the stage at Demo Day, the gathered investors, journalists, and tech/media industry folk were addressed by Turner Broadcasting CEO Phil Kent, who predicted big things for the startup accelerator.
Apparently this was the first time Kent has attended a demo day — which isn’t as bad as it sounds, since this is only the second one in San Francisco, and only the third Media Camp demo day overall. Kent said he’s “very proud” of the accelerator — the monetary investment from Turner is relatively small, but he pointed to the “time and talent of our executives” who are made available.”
Kent added that he’d like to see Media Camp become “a much bigger institutionalized activity within our company.” That might mean investing more money, or it might mean continuing to expand geographically. (Media Camp has gone from being a Turner-only effort in San Francisco to a join initiative between Turner and Warner Bros. — both companies are owned by Time Warner — in both SF and Los Angeles.)
On the other hand, Kent also acknowledged that it’s “easy for me to say,” since he recently announced plans to step down next year. In his words: “I fired myself a couple weeks ago.”
The idea that the mentorship, not the money, was what Turner really brought to the table was illustrated in the presentations themselves, where each startup was introduced by one of their mentors within Turner.
We actually wrote up all of the companies back in June, but here’s a refresher, with some updates from demo day:
ChannelMeter – A video analytics platform aimed at growing audiences and improving engagement. ChannelMeter says it’s already working with 2,000 brands and publishers.
Cinemacraft – Allows publishers to promote their content with “videograms”, which are interactive images highlighting different moments from a video. This is supposed to a big step up from the single thumbnail image that’s usually used to promote videos, and it also offers more opportunities for monetization.
Meograph – A tool for businesses to engage with customers and fans in content creation, in the form of a branded, embeddable unit on the company’s website. Customers include BBC and NPR.
Plumzi – A platform for animation studios to add interactive, game-like elements to their TV shows, turning them into “Active Episodes”. Plumzi has raised a seed round led by Insikt Ventures, with participation from the Walt Disney Company and Media Camp.
Tomorrowish – A social media DVR. If you’re watching an episode of TV after everyone else, or if you’re just a West Coaster who’s naturally three hours behind everyone on the East Coast, you can enjoy the social media experience as if you were watching live, thanks to Tomorrowish synchronization.
Import.io participated in the Startup Alley at TechCrunch Disrupt to show off its service, which makes data from a website more accessible by turning pages into spreadsheets for pulling relevant information.
Chief Data Officer Andrew Fogg explained that web pages are designed for humans to read. But machines need other ways to understand information. Using Import.io, the data can be queried either manually or through an API.
The effort follows a long history of using services to scrape data from websites. Yahoo! Pipes was designed as a system to connect different websites and the associated data. Dapper was a service that scraped data from web pages and then provided ways to build context. Today, services such as IFTTT and Zapier use data connectors to connect apps. With IFTTT, for example, a feed from a website can be connected to SMS so updates can be delivered as a text message.
Import.io represents a new kind of service for connecting data to get information quickly that would normally require considerable manual work. Data integration is a hot topic as more people find relevance from multiple sources of data. Import.io and other services provide a form of data integration so the web can be treated as a database for machines to understand more than pages designed for people to read.
Check out the video at the top of the post for some use cases about the Import.io service.