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On Saturday, I read the final draft of a magnificent book by David Rose. The book is titled Enchanted Objects: Design, Human Desire and the Internet of Things.
I’ve known David for many years. I was a huge fan and an early customer, but not an investor, in one of his companies (Ambient Devices) and we share a lot of friends and colleagues from MIT and the Media Lab. I was happy to be asked to blurb his book and then absolutely delighted with the book. It captured so many things that I’ve been thinking about and working on in a brilliantly done 300 page manuscript.
The basic premise of the book is that ultimately we want “enchanted objects”, not “glass slabs” to interact with. Our current state of the art (iMacs, iPhones, Android stuff, Windows tablets, increasing large TV screens) are all glass slabs. The concept of the “Internet of Things” introduces the idea of any device being internet connected, which is powerful, but enchanted objects take it one step further.
Now, the irony of it is that I read David’s book on a glass slab (my Kindle Fire, which is currently my favorite reading device.) But page after page jumped out at me with assertions that I agreed with, examples that were right, or puzzle pieces that I hadn’t quite put together yet.
And then on Saturday night it all hit home for me with a real life example. I was lying on the couch reading another book on my Kindle Fire at about 10pm. I heard a chirp. I tried to suppress it at first, but after I heard the second one I knew it was the dreaded chirp of my smoke detector. I continued to try to deny reality, but a few chirps later Amy walked into the room (she had already gone to bed) and said “do you hear what I hear?” Brooks the Wonder Dog was already having a spaz attack.
I got up on a chair and pulled the smoke alarm off the ceiling. I took out the 9V battery and was subject to a very loud beep. We scavenged around for 9V batteries in our condo. We found about 200 AAs and 100 AAAs but no 9Vs. Chirp chirp. We bundled up (it was 2 degrees out) and walked down the street to the Circle K to buy a 9V battery. They only had AAs. We walked back home, got in the car (with Brooks, who was now a complete mess from all the beeping) and drove to King Soopers. This time we got about 20 9Vs. We got home and I got back on the chair and wrestled with the battery holder. After the new battery was in the beeping continued. Out of frustration, I hit the “Test” button, heard a very loud extended beep, and then silence. At least from that smoke alarm.
Chirp. It turns out that I changed the battery in the wrong one. The one that was chirping was in another room. This one was too high for a chair, which resulted in us having to go into our storage cage in the condo basement and get a ladder. There was a padlock on our cage – fortunately the four digit code was one of the ones that everyone in the world who knows us knows. Eventually, with the ladder, the new batteries, and some effort I got the chirping to stop.
We have those fancy white smoke alarms that are wired directly into the power of the house. I have no idea why they even need a battery. The first thing they do when they want your attention is to make an unbelievably obnoxious noise. Then, they are about as hard as humanly possible to silence. They generate one emotion – anger.
Not an enchanted object.
In comparison, Nest is trying to make an enchanted object our of their new smoke detector product. After reading the Amazon reviews, I realize this is an all or nothing proposition and after spending $30 on 9V batteries and then changing all of the ones in the existing smoke detectors I don’t feel like spending $550 to replace the four smoke detectors in my condo. Plus, the one I want – the wired one – isn’t in stock. So I’ll wait one product cycle, or at least until the beeping crushes my soul again.
We’ve got a bunch of investments in our human computer interaction them that aspire to be enchanted objects including Fitbit, Modular Robotics, LittleBits, Orbotix, and Sifteo. I’m going to start using David’s great phrase “enchanted objects” to describe what I’m looking for in this area. And while I’ll continue to invest in many things that improve our glass slab world, I believe that the future is enchanted objects.
Amy and I just underwrote the renovation of Wellesley College’s new Human-Computer Interaction Lab. The picture above is a screen capture of the Wellesley College home page today (called their “Daily Shot” – they change the home page photo every day) with a photo from yesterday when Amy did the ribbon cutting on the HCI Lab.
Amy went to Wellesley (graduated in 1988) and she regularly describes it as a life changing experience. She’s on the Wellesley College Board of Trustees and is in Boston this week for a board meeting (which means I’m on dog walking duty every day.) I’m incredibly proud of her involvement with Wellesley and it’s easy to support the college, as I think it’s an amazing place.
The Wellesley HCI Lab also intersects with my deep commitment to getting more women engaged in computing. As many of you know, I’m chair of National Center for Women & Information Technology. When Amy asked if I was open to underwriting the renovation, the answer was an emphatic yes!
I’m at a Dev Ops conference today being put on by JumpCloud (I’m an investor) and SoftLayer. It’s unambiguous in my mind that the machines are rapidly taking over. As humans, we need to make it easy for anyone who is interested to get involved in human-computer interaction, as our future will be an integrated “human-computer” one. This is just another step in us supporting this, and I’m psyched to help out in the context of Wellesley.
Amy – and Wellesley – y’all are awesome.
I’ve been thinking a lot about human – computer love recently given my obsession with Battlestar Galactica. It evolved from “can Cylons have feelings?” to “can Cylons and humans love each other?” to “what changes when Cylons become mortal?”
So – when I saw the trailer for Her, I thought – yup – this is our future, and we’d better start getting our minds around it.
I look forward to Siri starting to sound like Samantha.
My partner Jason Mendelson sent me a five minute video from Wired that shows how a Telsa Model S is built. I watched from my condo in downtown Boulder as the sun was coming up and thought some of the images were as beautiful a dance as I’ve ever seen. The factory has 160 robots and 3000 humans and it’s just remarkable to watch the machines do their thing.
As I watched a few of the robots near the end, I thought about the level of software that is required for them to do what they do. And it blew my mind. And then I thought about the interplay between the humans and machines. The humans built and programmed the machines which work side by side with the humans building machines that transport humans.
Things are accelerating fast. The way we think about machines, humans, and the way the interact with each other is going to be radically different in 20 years.
Orbotix just released a new version of the Sphero firmware. This is a fundamental part of our thesis around “software wrapped in plastic” – we love investing in physical products that have a huge, and ever improving, software layer. The first version of the Sphero hardware just got a brain transplant and the guys at Orbotix do a brilliant job of showing what the difference is.
Even if you aren’t into Sphero, this is a video worthwhile watching to understand what we mean as investors when we talk about software wrapped in plastic (like our investments in Fitbit, Sifteo, and Modular Robotics.)
When I look at my little friend Sphero, I feel a connection to him that is special. It’s like my Fitbit – it feels like an extension of me. I have a physical connection with the Fitbit (it’s an organ that tracks and displays data I produce). I have an emotional connection with Sphero (it’s a friend I love to have around and play with.) The cross-over between human and machine is tangible with each of these products, and we are only at the very beginning of the arc with them.
I love this stuff. If you are working on a product that is software wrapped in plastic, tell me how to get my hands on it.