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An Afternoon at the Media Lab: Where The Lines Between Physical and Digital Are Permeable

By - July 29, 2013

IcanHasHOloYesterday I took my son to the MIT Media Lab, hallowed ground for me, as reading Stewart Brand’s 1988 “The Media Lab” propelled me toward helping to create Wired magazine, where I edited the founding Director of the Lab, Nicholas Negroponte, for five years (he wrote the back column of the magazine).

For this visit, I met up with David Kong, one of the lab’s alumni wizards, who took us on a whirlwind tour of the place (David’s work on microfluidics is, I believe, some of the most important stuff being done today, but more on that in another post). I spent a day there last summer with Director Joi Ito, and it’s amazing to see how much progress can be made in a year.

Instead of describing everything, I think I’ll let video do the work – one of the Lab’s core values is to always be demo’ing, and my son and I saw half a dozen incredible projects, all demo’d by the people who created them.

First up was the Opera of the Future group, which evolved out of the HyperInstruments lab. Akito Van Troyer gave us a tour of the components used in the recently staged “Death and the Powers” piece, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer in music.  Here’s some video of that performance:

Akito also turned us onto a very cool beat machine he built as a side project, a hack based on actuators and tempo that turns anything into a percussion instrument. Here’s a video of that I found on YouTube:

After that we went to see Xiao Xiao, who works in the Lab’s Tangible Media group (this is the part of the Lab most directly connected to the themes of the upcoming book). She showed us the MirrorFugue, which is just amazing, in particular, to sit down at the keyboard as it’s playing. It’s magical, which is pretty much the goal of the entire Lab. Here’s a video of that:

MirrorFugue III from Xiao Xiao on Vimeo.

You can probably sense a theme by now – all this work is about blurring the lines between physical and digital, atoms and bits. An extraordinary world is soon to be settled by pioneers in this space, and we’re all of us fascinated by it – it’s why we love the idea (if not necessarily the look) of Google Glass, or 3D printing (I met the co-founder of FormLabs while at the Lab), or cool gadgets like the NFC ring.

The Media Lab is a place where folks are actively creating the future. Over and over, I heard this refrain: “I took some off the shelf parts, hacked them together, and wrote some code.” Simple, right?

One example: Makey Makey, which went viral earlier this year with the “banana piano.” The idea is bigger than turning fruit into keyboards, however. It’s about making nearly anything physical a portal into the digital world, and bringing the digital right back into the physical. I met with Eric Rosenbaum, one of the creators, in his lab, which is called “Lifelong Kindergarten” (yeah, I know.) Here’s a short video about Makey Makey:

As the border between physical and digital gets more permeable, a new kind of literacy emerges. And that literacy is built on a foundation of code – whether it’s the codes of letters and words, or the code of bits and algorithms. Rosenbaum showed me Scratch, a graphical programming language used by hundreds of thousands of kids across the world. I’m determined to learn how to code, at least enough to be dangerous (I took classes in Pascal about 30 years ago…). Maybe Scratch is where I’ll start.

Next up I met Dan Novy, from the Lab’s Object-Based Media Group. He showed us a number of great projects he’s working on, including holo-presence (with a sense of humor, see photo at top) and new forms of augmented experience. Check out this video about redefining the home entertainment experience:

Dan also took us into a small room with a voice aware projection device in the center. Using his voice, Dan told a children’s story, and the four walls of the room lit up with visual images related to the storybook. It’s early days, but we discussed what might happen when this device is miniaturized and connected to consumer “narrative catchers” like Facebook, Path, Google Glass, and the like. Also next to the projector was an object – what it is, it doesn’t matter, but for this example it was a bottle of perfume – and when you pick up that object, “memories” related to that object are projected onto the walls. So imagine what might happen when you pick up that ornament from Christmas three years ago and hang it on the tree, and images from that Christmas past flash onto your home’s walls….

The last demo we saw was perhaps the most well known of Dan’s group’s work. In essence, they turned a basketball net into a data collection device, so as to measure the force of a slam dunk. The technology is amazing, watch Dan talk about it here:

The Media Lab is truly an extraordinary place, and seeing it with my son made it even more magical. I’ve toured it a few times now, but I’ll never tire of coming back. The work happening there is helping to define the world all our kids will be living in soon.

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LinkedIn On A Roll

By - July 19, 2013

LInote

It’s been pretty obvious from the stock price, but LinkedIn, which I’ve written about every so often, is really on a roll lately. The influencer content play (which I will admit I’ve been part of, in a small way) is a clear winner, the company is enjoying very positive press, and its premium services are getting really interesting as well.

Just today I got an email from the company titled “What’s new with people you know?” I found it compelling in a way that emails from nearly every other service I use – Twitter, Facebook, or Google – are not.  CEO Jeff Weiner tells me that this email has been sent out every six months for the past three years, but it’s clearly been redesigned as more of a media product. I care about my network on LinkedIn, and the email was full of pictures of people who really matter to me, all of whom have gotten new jobs.  It’s  one of the most engaging messages I’ve ever gotten from a “social network.” (In case you want some history, I called LinkedIn out as a media company more than a year ago here.)

I also found the focus on numbers very interesting. 10% of my network – which is pretty big – have gotten new jobs in the past six months. That’s quite an intriguing lens on how things are changing in our industry. LinkedIn has always been a data-centric company, and each time I speak with Weiner,  he’ll cite engaging statistics his team has culled from the network’s servers. This rolls up to Weiner’s big hairy audacious goal (BHAG) for the company – to map the global “economic graph.” As he puts it:

..we want to digitally map the global economy, identifying the connections between people, jobs, skills, companies, and professional knowledge — and spot in real-time the trends pointing to economic opportunities. It’s a big vision, but we believe we’re in a unique position to make it happen.

It seems Wall Street agrees. I’ll be watching LinkedIn more closely over the coming year, and I bet Google and Facebook will be too. Hoffman, Weiner and team have built something that both those companies, and many more, must find quite enviable.

Fred Wilson and I In 18 Minutes

By - July 13, 2013

I had a chance to be interviewed with Fred Wilson by Dave Morgan of Simulmedia (and Tacoda and and and…). The video is fun and ranges around from OpenCo to the future of the Web, so I thought I’d share it here:


Brand Pride

By - July 07, 2013
citipride

The Citi float at the Pride Parade in New York. About 200 Citi employees marched behind the float, many riding “Citibikes,” one of Citi’s most visible marketing programs in NYC.

Last week I was fortunate to be in New York City over the weekend, accompanied by most of my family. I had meetings with senior marketing executives at companies like Coke, Citi, and many others, and they stretched from the previous Weds. all the way into Monday of last week. I hate being away on weekends, and my wife is from New York, so she brought my daughters  to visit their grandmother, who lives right in the middle of Manhattan.

Now, a weekend in New York with your family is special anytime, but last weekend was particularly notable because of the annual Pride Parade. This celebration of LGBT rights is one of the largest in the world, and this year’s was historic – just the week before, the Supreme Court had voted down the Defense of Marriage Act, a major civil rights victory for the gay community and, by extension, for citizens across the country. Last Sunday, our family joined tens of thousands of others who cheered the parade down Broadway, marveling at the exuberance and yes, sometimes at the show of skin as well.

But what stuck out with us was the pure joy of the day. Both my daughters, one fifteen, the other nine, joined in the celebrations, waving flags, cheering, and slapping high fives with passersby. Everyone was so happy, and the party snaked down Broadway for hours. What really struck me was the diversity on parade – gay fireman and policemen (that can’t be an easy world to live in) marched in uniform, followed by politicians like Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Sen. Charles Schumer. There were community centers on floats blasting dance music, and a long assortment of “firsts” – the first gay married couple in New York, the oldest married couple in New York, etc.

And then there were the brands. Yes, the brands – sponsoring the parade, and marching as part of it. I was prepared to be disappointed, and even cringed when I saw the first banner announcing a brand – I think it was Vitamin Water, a Coke brand. But instead, I was inspired. I had just met with many of the brands that were represented, and it made me proud to know the folks who had the courage to stand out and stand up for what was right.

As I watched the parade I was struck at how deeply and how honestly these brands were part of the celebration. Sure, Vitamin Water gave out free drinks, but the real story were the legions of employees – from Citi, L’Oreal, Wells Fargo, Coke, Delta and many more who marched, proudly wearing their company’s logo, proud of their individuality, proud of their voice, and proud that their businesses have stood behind them on their journey to this historic day. It felt very real – these companies clearly had backed their people on the long road to full civil rights, and their employees were proud to celebrate their brand connection – they very much believed that in their lives, the brand on their t-shirt had made an important difference. It was a very honest moment, and that’s not always the case when it comes to sponsorships and marketing. It should  inspire all of us in the media business to follow the path of  true human connection in our work. It certainly inspired me.

Halfway Into 2013, How’re The Predictions Doing?

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1-nostradamusOver the past few years I’ve taken to reviewing my annual predictions once half the year’s gone by. This weekend I realized exactly that had occurred.

It’s been quite a six months, I must say. Personally I took back the reigns at a company I founded in 2005, found a co-author for my book, and hired a CEO for the company I started last year (he starts next week). But I haven’t been writing nearly as much as I’d like here, and that sort of saddens me. However, one of my “half year” resolutions is to change that, and it starts with this review of my Predictions 2013.

This year’s predictions were a bit different in that I wrote about things I *wished* would happen this year, as opposed to those I thought most likely to happen. They were still predictions, but more personal in nature. So let’s see how I did, shall we?

1. We figure out what the hell “Big Data” really is, and realize it’s bigger than we thought (despite its poor name).

Halfway into the year, I think there’s no doubt this conversation has picked up speed dramatically. The PRISM program, in particular, has thrown new light on how “big” big data really is, and what kind of a society we’re becoming as we all become data. I’d say that on this prediction, which was pretty easy to make, we’re well on our way to checking the box as “true.” The bigger point of my prediction had to do with how we, as a society, are coming to grips with the more far reaching implications of all this data. I’ll report back on that at year’s end.

2. Adtech does not capitulate, in fact, it has its best year ever, thanks to … data. 

I think so far, I’ve been proven right here. Terry Kawaja, he of the famous Lumascape, has revised his charts to show a more than doubling of the companies in the space this year. While there have been plenty of deals, it doesn’t look like adtech is capitulating at all.

3. Google trumps Apple in mobile 

I predicted that Google would come out with an iPhone killer this year, so far, this hasn’t happened (though many do view current Google phones as equal.) There are still six months to go, with the crucial holidays to come.

Also, there are many ways to measure “trumps Apple,” including market share (where Google has already surpassed Apple), profit (where Apple is still killing Google), and the softer “buzz,” which I have to say, Google is winning in my small world. For now, I think the jury is out.

4.  The Internet enables frictionless (but accountable) payments, enabling all manner of business models that previously have been unnaturally retarded. 

This is a “slow burn” issue, and I think we may look back at 2013 as the year payments got really, really easy. Square, Stripe, and Braintree are leaders here, and I really do sense a breakthrough happening. But I can’t quite prove it at midyear. Many, many startups are using these services as base ingredients for their business models, I can say that.

Related, I also predicted that major consumer-facing online platforms based on “free” – Google and Facebook chief among them, though Twitter is a potential player here as well – will begin to press their customers for real dollars in exchange for premium services. This is undeniably true. Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn have all been asking me for money for premium services this year – for advertising my account, or upgrading to “pro” services. This trend is well underway.

5.  Twitter comes of age and recommits itself as an open platform. 

I just don’t know about this. Honestly, I don’t know. On the one hand, the company has deprecated RSS to the point of it not being usable. On the other hand, the company stands for free and open speech like no other. What do you all think?

6. Facebook embraces the “rest of the web.” 

Well, as I said in the beginning, this was a set of predications based on what I wished would happen. I predicted that Facebook would “make it really easy to export your identity and data.” I’m not really seeing anything that merits a “win” here, but maybe I missed a memo.

7. By the end of the year, Amazon will have an advertising business on a run rate comparable to Microsoft.

I think this has already happened if you take out Microsoft’s search business, but we don’t know it for sure because Amazon won’t break out its ads business. More here and here. Anyone have any more insights?

8. The world will learn what “synthetic biology” is, because of a major breakthrough in the field.

Well, given I’m not steeped in current research, I better ask my friend David Kong if this is true yet. David? Hopefully it will be by year’s end!

All in all, I think the predictions are faring well halfway through the year. What did I miss?

 

Excellent Content Marketing: Dear NSA…

By - June 12, 2013

This short Slideshare deck, an extremely clever satire of the now infamous NSA slide deck, should be Slideshare’s marketing calling card. It’s a promotional gift to the service, timely, clever, and leveraging the product perfectly. If this ever happens to you, use it in your marketing!

Echoes of the Tide and Oreo executions that are getting such plaudits recently. Love it.

Mary’s Annual Internet Trends

By - June 02, 2013

Waaay back in the late 1990s, I started a conference called the Internet Summit. My co-producers were Bill Gurley, who remains one of the giants in venture over at Benchmark, and Mary Meeker, who was at that point the best analyst in the Internet space, at Morgan Stanley. The Internet Summit had its last event in July of 2001, and the space was taken over by Kara Swisher and Walt Mossberg, who went on to launch All Things Digital, which has thrived to this day. I went on to launch the Web 2 Summit in 2004, and it was at that event that Mary started presenting her annual Internet Trends deck. I put her in one of my typical “High Order Bit” slots, ten minutes max, and each year Mary would lobby for more time, and cram more and more data and insights into her alloted time (by the last time Mary did it with me, it was 15 minutes and about 90 slides).

I stopped doing Web 2 in 2011 (OpenCo is the new black, natch), and Mary migrated her job to Kleiner Perkins and her presentation to All Things Digital, both great moves. Last week she unveiled her latest work, and I notice it’s gotten up to 117 slides. I missed All Things D due to a client event at P&G, but I bet she got more than 15 minutes to present it!

This deck is always worth the time to review. You can download it on KPCB’s site, and I’ve embedded it below.

The Full First Day of CM Summit, In One Place

By - May 25, 2013

Thanks to our sponsor Google, we got the full first day of last week’s CM Summit, featuring Fred Wilson fresh from the Tumblr deal, Pinterest CEO Ben Silbermann, and about 20 speakers in between for your viewing pleasure. Enjoy!


Yahoo! And Tumblr: It’s About Display, Streams & Native at Scale

By - May 19, 2013

The world is atwitter about Tumblr’s big exit to Yahoo!, and from what I can tell it seems this one is going to really happen (ATD is covering it well).   There are plenty of smart and appropriate takes on why this move makes sense (see GigaOm) but I think a lot of it boils down to the trends driving Yahoo’s massive display business.

If there’s one thing we all know, it’s that a new form of native advertising is spreading throughout the Internet. It started with Google and AdWords, it spread to Twitter and its Promoted Tweets, and Facebook quickly followed with Sponsored Stories. At FMP, we have sponsored posts and our Native Conversationalist suite, which we are scaling now across the “rest of the web” – the smaller but super influential independent sites that we believe are major suppliers of  “the oxygen of the Internet” – the content that drives true engagement. Other companies are adopting similar strategies – Buzzfeed is building a content marketing network, and Sharethrough has moved past its “wrap a YouTube ad in a player and call it native” phase and into more truly native units as well.

The reason native works is because the advertising is treated as a unit of content on the platform where it lives. That may seem obvious, but it’s an important observation. When a brands’s content competes on equal footing alongside a publisher’s content, everyone wins. Those search ads – they win if they are contextually relevant and add value to the consumer’s search results. Those promoted tweets only get promoted if people respond to them – a signal of relevance and value.  The same is true for all truly “native” ad products. If the native ad content is good, it will get engagement. The industry is evolving toward rewarding advertising that doesn’t interrupt and is relevant and value additive. That’s a good thing.

Left out of this evolution, until now, has been Yahoo!. When you break it down, Yahoo! is a Very Large Display Advertising business, with a hefty side of search and a bit of this and that on top. And that display advertising business is going through a wrenching shift, as buyers move to more efficient programmatic channels (for a visualization, see my last post). CPMs (cost per thousand, the unit of value for display advertising) are rapidly declining for “standard display” units – the boxes and rectangles that built Yahoo! and much of the rest of the web.

It will take a couple of years for those ads to A/evolve into new forms that are standardized and B/be driven by data and real-time programmatic rules in ways that brands can really trust (it’s already working for direct response, but that’s not the end game). Display will always be around, but as I said, it’s in a significant evolutionary phase, and the short to mid term reality is this: CPMs are dropping, and Yahoo! has a massive display business.

At the same time, we’re all shifting our attention to mobile devices, and we’ve adopted the “stream” as our preferred method of content discovery and consumption. That stream doesn’t work so well with standard display. But it’s great for native units.

Yahoo! is already shifting its home page and other content sections to a stream like interface. Tumblr offers only native ad units (founder David Karp lifted his strategy pretty much wholesale from Twitter’s “the ad is the tweet” philosophy). And Tumblr was built from the ground up as an activity stream.

I’ll write another time about how I believe that display and native will eventually merge – via the programmatic exchange. For now, Yahoo’s move gives it an asset that its branded display sales force can sell as sexy: native, content-driven advertising at scale. A good move.

Behind the Banner, A Visualization of the Adtech Ecosystem

By - May 13, 2013

I’m very proud to announce “Behind the Banner“, a visualization I’ve been producing with Jer Thorp and his team from The Office for Creative Research, underwritten by Adobe as part of the upcoming CM Summit next week. You can read more about it in this release, but the real story of this project starts with my own quest to understand the world of programmatic trading of advertising inventory – a world that at times feels rather like a hot mess, and at other times, like the future of not only all media, but all data-driven experiences we’ll have as a society, period.

I’m a fan of Terry Kawaja and his Lumascapes – Terry was an advisory to us as we iterated this project. But I’ve always been a bit mystified by those diagrams – you have to be pretty well steeped in the world of adtech to grok how all those companies work together. My goal with Behind the Banner was to demystify the 200 or so milliseconds driving each ad impression – to break down the steps, identify the players, make it a living thing. I think this first crack goes a long way toward doing that – like every producer, I’m not entirely satisfied with it, but damn, it’s the best thing I’ve seen out there so far.

I am deeply grateful to all the folks who helped us make this happen, in particular Jared Cook at Adobe, and a legion of leaders in the industry who reviewed early versions, including Walter Knapp, Bill Demas, Ned Brody, Brian O’Kelley, Ann Lewnes, and dozens more who helped me research and imagine what this might end up looking like.

So take a look and tell me what you think. It’s far too complex to embed here, so we have it running over on the CM Summit site. If nothing else, it should get folks talking, and I hope you’ll help us make it better by leaving a comment here, or sending me mail with your thoughts.

Oh, and while you are at the site, check out the conference lineup. We are almost sold out of tickets, and it’s going to be one heckuva conversation, so please join us!