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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.
We recently invested in littleBits. It’s another of our investments that traces its roots to the MIT Media Lab. It’s also another investment we are making with our friends from True Ventures. It’s another one that mixes hardware and software in a delightful way that is part of our human computer interaction theme. And yet another investment in New York.
Ayah Bdeir, the CEO of littleBits, has blown my mind with her vision of where she is going to take this company. Phase 1 of littleBits was, in the company’s words, creating a “library of electronic modules that snap together with tiny magnets for prototyping, learning, and fun.” Today there are over 50 different bits that you can buy right now, individually or bundled in different kits.
This, by itself, is awesome. But the next phase of where Ayah is taking the company is just awesome. And, as a result, I predict you will have some littleBits somewhere in your world before you realize it. And, since Thanksgiving is just around the corner, we’ve got a kit to make a programmable lazy susan for your table if you need one.
Remember, the machines have already taken over. Get on board if you want to be able to play with them.
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.
One of the places new approaches to human-computer interaction plays out is with video games. One company – Harmonix – has been working on this for 18 years.
Harmonix, which is best known for Rock Band, is also the developer of three massive video game franchises. The first, Guitar Hero, was the result of almost a decade of experimentation that resulted in the first enormous hit in the music genre in the US. Virtually everyone I know remembers the first time they picked up a plastic guitar and played their first licks on Guitar Hero. Two years later, Rock Band followed, taking the music genre up to a new level, and being a magnificent example of a game that suddenly absorbed everyone in the room into it. Their more recent hit, Dance Central, demonstrated how powerfully absorbing a human-based interface could be, especially when combined with music, and is the top-selling dance game franchise for the Microsoft Kinect.
Last fall, Alex Rigopulos and his partner Eran Egozy showed me the three new games they were working on. Each addressed a different HCI paradigm. Each was stunningly envisioned. And each was magic, even in its rough form. Earlier this year I saw each game again, in a more advanced form. And I was completely and totally blown away – literally bouncing in my seat as I saw them demoed.
So – when Alex and Eran asked me if I’d join their board and help them with this part of their journey, I happily said yes. It’s an honor to be working with two entrepreneurs who are so incredibly passionate and dedicated to their craft. They’ve built, over a long period of time, a team that has created magical games not just once, but again and again. And they continue to push the boundaries of human-computer interaction in a way that impacts millions of people.
I look forward to helping them in whatever way I can.
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.