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I believe that science fiction is reality catching up to the future. Others say that science fact is the science fiction of the past. Regardless, the gap between science fact and science fiction is fascinating to me, especially as it applies to computers.
My partners and I spend time at CES each year along with a bunch of the founders from different companies we’ve invested in due to our human computer interaction theme. In addition to a great way to start the year together, it gives us a chance to observe how the broad technology industry, especially on the consumer electronics side, is trying to catch up to the future.
We are investors in Oblong, a company who’s co-founder (John Underkoffler) envisions much of the future we are currently experiencing when he created the science and tech behind the movie Minority Report. Oblong’s CEO, Kwin Kramer, wandered the floor of CES with this lens on and had some great observations which he shares with you below.
Looking back at last year’s CES through the greasy lens of this year’s visit to Vegas, three trends have accelerated: tablets, television apps platforms, and new kinds of input.
I gloss these as “Apple’s influence continuing to broaden”, “a shift from devices to ecosystems,” and “the death of the remote control.”
Really, the first two trends have merged together. The iPod, iPhone, and iPad, along with iTunes, AirPlay, and FaceTime, have profoundly influenced our collective expectations.
All of the television manufacturers are now showing “smart” TV prototypes. “Smart” means some combination of apps, content purchases, video streaming, video conferencing, web browsing, new remote controls, control from phones and tablets, moving content around between devices, screen sharing between devices, home “cloud”, face recognition, voice control, and gestural input.
Samsung showed the most complete bundle of “smart” features at the show this year and is planning to ship a new flagship television line that boasts both voice and gesture recognition.
This is good stuff. The overall interaction experience may or may not be ready for the mythical “average user”, but the features work. (An analogy: talking and waving at these TVs feels like using a first-generation PalmPilot, not a first-generation iPhone. But the PalmPilot was a hugely successful and category changing product.)
The Samsung TVs use a two-dimensional camera, not a depth sensor. As a result, gestural navigation is built entirely around hand motion in X and Y and open-hand/grab transitions. The tracking volume is roughly the 30 degree field of view of the camera between eight feet and fifteen feet from the display.
Stepping back and filtering out the general CES clamor, what we’re seeing is the continuing, but still slow, coming to pass of the technology premises on which we founded Oblong: pixels available in more and more form factors, always-on network connections to a profusion of computing devices, and sensors that make it possible to build radically better input modalities.
Interestingly, there are actually fewer gestural input demos on display at CES this year than there were last year. Toshiba, Panasonic and Sony, for example, weren’t showing gesture control of TVs. But it’s safe to assume that all of these companies continue to do R&D into gestural input in particular, and new user experiences in general.
PrimeSense has made good progress, too. They’ve taken an open-hand/grab approach that’s broadly similar to Samsung’s, but with good use of the Z dimension in addition. The selection transitions, along with push, pull and inertial side-scroll, feel solid.
Besides the television, the other interesting locus of new UI design at CES is the car dashboard. Mercedes showed off a new in-car interface driven partly by free-space gestures. And Ford, Kia, Cadillac, Mercedes and Audi all have really nice products and prototypes and employ passionate HMI people.
For those of us who pay a lot of attention to sensors, the automotive market is always interesting. Historically, adoption in cars has been one important way that new hardware gets to mass-market economies of scale.
The general consumer imaging market continues to amaze me, though. Year-over-year progress in resolution, frame rate, dynamic range and cost continues unabated.
JVC is showing a 4k video camera that will retail for $5,000. And the new cameras (and lenses) from Nikon and Canon are stunning. There’s no such thing anymore as “professional” equipment in music production, photography or film. You can charge all the gear you need for recording an album, or making a feature-length film, on a credit card.
Similarly, the energy around the MakerBot booth was incredibly fun to see. Fab and prototyping capabilities are clearly on the same downward-sloping, creativity-enabling, curve as cameras and studio gear. I want a replicator!
And, of course, I should say that Oblong is hiring. We think the evolution of the multi-device, multi-screen, multi-user future is amazingly interesting. We’re helping to invent that future and we’re always looking for hackers, program managers, and experienced engineering leads.
Every year my partners at Foundry Group and I go to CES. We aren’t boondoggle guys – our expeditions together are limited to a quarterly offsite, often at Jason’s house (10 minutes from our office), and one trip a year with spouses and significant others somewhere. So CES has been a nice tradition for us where we get to travel together for a few days, hang out in nerd and gadget heaven, and spend time with a bunch of entrepreneurs we work with who are here.
There were two memes going around that I heard about CES earlier this week. The first came out of a set of entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley who said something like “CES is irrelevant – no one important is there and nothing interesting gets launched.” The second come out of a set of VCs in Silicon Valley who said something like “we go to CES to look for new companies to invest in that are outside the mainstream.”
I found both of these comments bizarre since we don’t view CES through either of those lenses. First, I think CES is incredibly relevant as it is a forward view of what the broad consumer electronics industry will be releasing and shipping over the next 12 months. Many of the CE companies and products operate on an annual product cycle and this helps me understand what is going to this year, at which point I don’t have to think hard about it for another year (yeah – I pay attention – but I have a really useful context). In addition, every technology buyer and supplier in the world is here wandering around so if you interact with any of them, it’s an extremely efficient way to spend time with them.
Next, we don’t actually search for new investments at CES although we tend to have some interesting meetings with folks who happen to be here. There are definitely cases where we got face time with entrepreneurs who we hadn’t yet spent a lot of time with previously – Pogoplug and MakerBot come to mind from years past. But we were already talking to them – CES was just an efficient way for all four of us to spent time with them.
If you want the multimedia version of what I just said, watch Jason’s interview on Bloomberg from yesterday.
We had three companies with large presences here this year – MakerBot, Orbotix, and Fitbit. They are each having an awesome show and I’m super psyched about their new products. It’s extremely fun – as an investor – to just hang out in a booth and watch the traffic and listen to the interactions.
We always have two dinners – one with just entrepreneurs we work with and one that is a broader audience. Each dinner was a highlight for me and if I do nothing else at CES, I’ll always come for these dinners.
I ended up with a series of meetings on Tuesday – three of them were with entrepreneurs who I’ve been talking to about various things. All three were really relevant and interesting and not surprising each was in our human computer interaction theme which I discussed on an NPR interview yesterday with Steve Henn titled Humans and Machines: Beyond Touch.
Finally, I had plenty that is the weirdness of Las Vegas. I had a total meltdown Wednesday morning and ended up spending the day in my room. I had a death defying run on the Las Vegas strip. And I’m just came back through a smoke filled casino from a breakfast with some of the leaders of the Las Vegas startup community (see more on the Startup Communities site soon.) This afternoon I board a plane to Boston and bid CES 2012 farewell. But I’ll be back again next year.
You really shouldn’t have wandered away from your tour guide. The gleam of glass in a deserted room caught your eye for just a moment… but with that mob of chattering tourists out of sight, the MakerBot facility doesn’t seem quite as friendly as it did a moment ago.
Servos hiss behind you — but that’s not the guidebot’s cheery mask looming out of the shadows. It’s a security bot! You’re in trouble now. You duck into the laboratory. Or is it a showroom? Test chamber? You pull the door shut; hopefully you can hide out until the robot has passed.
No maze of twisty little passages here. Just a big scary security robot. I just played it for a while – it’s awesomely fun. I expect Seth Levine and Paul Kedrosky will get sucked in this afternoon and it’ll cause Paul to need to buy a MakerBot to print out the pieces in game.
I’ll see you at CES if you are going to be there. And keep your eyes on the MakerBot site for some cool new things.