yesterday's technology tomorrow
Monday, April 06, 2009So its been forever since I updated this blog. As a brief form of catchup, in mid 07 we sold AgentArts to FAST Search and Transfer which was then sold to MSFT. As part of this deal I was required to stay until the start of 09.
In mid Jan I left MSFT and have spent the last little while resting, exercising, enjoying being at home and working on starting my new business.
For the last few years I have been very interested in data visualisation, complex systems, physical computing and of course data mining. Taking the work I had done at AgentArts, which was the backend data mining side of things, I had been interested in looking at the more user facing side of data exploration and discovery.
To cut a longer story short, I am starting a Data Visualisation studio based in Melbourne focused on creating interactive data visualisations inspired by nature.
To a degree this is, again, ahead of the curve, but the trends underlying the need for better ways for people to make sense of massive complex data while taking advantage of the technology improvements point strongly to data visualisation being a growth area.
I'm also going to try to post to this blog again, if only to try and refind my writing voice.
The new business is called Flink Labs. The website is at www.flinklabs.com
Tuesday, July 03, 2007Over 8 years ago a group of people met for a drink on Christmas eve at Grossi Florentino to talk about starting a new company focused around online music. Well much much much water has passed under the bridge since that day with new staff, new co founders, new business models, new clients, the dot com crash, no clients, survival, patents, mobile shifts, new offices etc. until we find ourselves here today, in July 2007, where I am exceptionally pleased to announce that My company AgentArts has been acquired by Fast Search and Transfer.
Today has been a strange day, filled mixed emotions, but the strongest feelings I have experienced have been of gratefulness and humility. So many people I have worked with over the last 8 years have sent soo many kind words of congratulations to us.
Over the years we have had a lot of people who have helped us out at AgentArts but I want to single out a few people who have made a huge impact on my life in the last few years during a period of amazing growth for the company and myself.
Firstly, Suzette, Oskar and Jasmine; being able to spend time with you working at home, watching you grow and committing to AgentArts with your full support has made this all possible. Oskar and Jazzie - Your desire to play and enjoy life has so much rubbed off.
Second, Scott Smith, who for the last two years has been a guiding force and light in my life. From afar his impact on me, my energy and my direction has been so significant that I can barely imagine having achieved this result in such a fulfilling way without his mentoring.
Third, Ivelin Iliev, my tumbling instructor at Circus Oz in 2006, who helped me achieve things I had long wanted to do but never thought I would be capable of, especially in my mid 30s, and through which I improved my self confidence (not to mention my flexibility). While I tumbled only twice a week the lessons I learnt about mastering the basics, having confidence in your ability and developing a feel for your body have been invaluable in many areas of my life.
Last but not least, Andrew Coates my fellow founder of AgentArts; we have stood side by side for 8 years through thick and thin, the ups and downs, the arguments and the celebrations. I couldn't have done it without you.
To the many others who have been involved in AgentArts and my life over the last 10 years, thank you. I am so grateful to each and every one of you.
The adventure continues and we are all super excited about joining FAST.
This is not the beginning of the end but rather the end of the beginning. Let the play, fun and adventure continue!!!
Friday, September 22, 2006Tweaking, details, IA and IxD
This week Seth Godin posted about tweaking. Particularly I liked this comment he made
"What I found fascinating about the email I got is that a large number of web people are still hung up on the technology side, on getting the code just right and, to use the analogy, the typesetting, not the words. The reason for this is simple: there's a lot of horrible web coding going on. There are huge gains to be found by overhauling a site and getting the invisible stuff right.
But that's not the opportunity I was talking about. Instead, I'm talking about turning an arrogant checkout into a useful one by turning off the button that automatically resets to opt in to the spam list every single time I return to the checkout. Or changing the size of the product photo from 144 pixels wide to 500, because making the product the star can triple clickthrough."
This is what I find interesting about the focus of Internet Conferences here in Australia. They focus on the small things that, yes, we all agree need to be fixed but the bigger picture as Seth says is where the value lies.
Next week I'm off to said conference, but not for the conference talks as the content can generally be found from existing talks around the world or is too focused on the details of Information Architecture, Microformats, AJAX, accessibility etc. Where are the visionary speakers that go to eTech or less so Web2.0, that push our boundaries of thinking and help us reach for the stars rather than show us how to build the first few steps or to change the material our current steps are made of.
While I don't doubt that the topics above are of importance to many and, indeed, are subjects we could all skill up on; I would love to hear Bruce Sterling talk Spimes, Matt Webb talk about interactions with ubicomp, AJ Kim talk about the future of games, Will Wright talking about the intersectin between Games, ubicomp and agency, hell, even Chris Messina about barcamps and pulling things together.
The two workshops I am attending are focused on interaction design and iterative app development.
What appeals to me is Dan Saffer's description of interaction design, in which he describes IxD as "Interaction design is the art of facilitating or instigating interactions between humans (or their agents), mediated by products." This is totally captivating to me. Interactions been HUMANS mediated by PRODUCTS. How people interact with products. How products we see now such as mobile devices and can interacted with. And amusingly, how humans interact with people on web services (products) through devices (products)....humans interacting with humans through products in products ;-)
Dan put together a very informative diagram (The consultant in me likes the graphs) which I think sums up the position of IxD and IA well, the more content rich the products, the more IA is needed and the more functionally rich the products the more IxD is needed. Maybe this explains the focus of the conference on IA areas as in Australia there is probably much much much more work available on large corp intranets, media content sites (newspapers etc) than in product focused services and applications. Well worth a ponder.
He also had a post on recommendation systems which would make interesting beer talk given my background and areas of interest. I do agree with his premise that recommendation systems can stifle the serendipity of discovery.
Finally, as a plug, Dan has a book on Designing for Interaction which looks at this future world of Spimes and Blogjects and how humans will interact with this ubiquitous devices (everytime I type this I think of Bruce Sterlilng's Texan drawl saying Uuuubbbbeeeee comp).
Monday, September 11, 20065 years ago I was living, temporarily, in San Francisco, specifically in my companies offices in the Dogpatch, just south of the baseball park.
I woke that fateful morning oblivious to what was happening on the other side of the world. As usual, I dressed in my running gear around 7am and headed off for a coffee and a quick run to the Bay Bridge and back.
I jogged the couple of blocks to Cup o' Blues, the fantastic coffee spot on 22nd. Walking in I remember seeing a small old TV sitting a vinyl chair in the middle of the seating area showing the WTC with one tower gone and one smoking.
I ordered my coffee and asked what was going on. "The world trade center has been hit by two planes. One tower has fallen and the other is going to".
I never did get my run done that day.
Coffee in hand I headed back to the office to tell Andrew and Kerri Lee what was happening. Knocking on doors trying to wake them. I remember feeling surprised by Andrew's response. He was so emotional about it. But not in a crying upset type of way, more like he was just really emotionally involved in it. I had only known Andrew a little while then but I've seen more of that over the years.
I was filled with aderenaline. Was SF a target? Am I safe being 3 km out of the city?
I rang Suzette. "Biggest terrorist attack ever. On Tv...". "Thanks. Do you know what time it is?" It was late at night in Australia. She went back to sleep. Rang Mum and Dad. Got the answering machine. Left a message. They woke and heard my message. They sat watching the TV for hours. Rang Adam. Left a message. He was already watching.
The day was sad. Nothing much happened. We moved the TV into the office and watched the news broadcast. Nothing much happened.
Nothing much happened at all for months afterwards. I didn't know it at the time, but the nuclear winter for technology had just started.
Afterwards I felt so sad for the children, whose parents had been lost that fateful day. Sadness to those who had wonderful loving messages left on their machines by partners, parents and children, and sadness most especially to those young children who would grow up with out fathers or mothers.
The world did change on that fateful day. From the mundane and annoying baggage checks to the unilateral engagement with imagined foes to the destruction of a comfort and way of life that was enjoyed in various parts of the world prior to Terrorism paying us a visit.
And there are positives too. Many in fact. But I find them postives I would rather have not been developed, skilled up in or found.
My children grow up in world unlike the world I grew up in. But for all the focus on the negatives of the last 5 years today, I think back to the positives of change. How our lives have been improved for the better in the last 10 years and how technology has made such a dramatic and everchanging note upon my life.
Thursday, August 31, 2006Over the last year there has been a huge amount of discussion around web 2.0, what it means and where it is all going. No news to anyone there.
So, I've been thinking about what's next. Not only on ye olde interweb but also what is converging tech wise that is going to create the next wave or x dot zero meme.
For the last few years I've been heavily focused on mobile applications both from a development point of view and also from a more strat-direction style focusing on not just what apps we can build now but also what is coming along the path.
I remember back to 1994 or there abouts and my flatmate had a copy of the ACM journal which talked about General Magic and I was hooked. I got into the whole Intelligent Agents thing, attended conferences on Agents and recommendation systems, was in awe of Pattie Maes at a conference and found myself doing R&D into recommendation system for Accenture back in 1997. This developed into founding AgentArts back in 1999 and focusing fully on recommendations and personalisations, 2 patents, 7 years and many learning experiences later I have developed a good appreciation for the data generated as a by product of peoples activities.
Implicitly created data, that's where the future lies. Especially when combined with the underlying concepts behind the whole Maker , crafter and mashup movements.
Taking a slightly historical view, we have seen the movement in user generated content from Geocites through personal home pages, blogs, personalised media such as youtube and podcasting, all of which represent a transition from consumer to producer and what could be thought of as prosumer methods as people have become more sophisticated and, I would argue, technology has become more accessible.
So where does this lead me? Well, I view these transitions as a move towards being more aware both of yourself and your surroundings/community. In a way it harks back to centuries? ago when we participated in village life. We are rediscovering our desire to create, to make and thus, with our hands in the mud so to speak, we are rediscovering an awareness for the world around us, be that global issues (warming) or local such as urban discovery and how our interactions with the physical geography impact it as well as its impacts on us. Currently, manifestations such as Blogjects and Spime head in this direction.
Merging these topics together, I see that personal interactions with the physical environment leave digital traces, and making use of this data in a humanistic manner is where I see plenty of opportunity, both intellectually and entrepreneurially.
How can we take the implicit behavioural data, generated through our physical interactions, and recast or repurpose it in useful ways that enhace both our understanding of our physical surrounds and the interactions we have with each other.
Already, we are seeing start ups headihng in this direction; Jaiku with their rich presense, Justin Hall with Bud making a MMPOG out of his digital interactions, Imity and many many more.
So to sum up my point, I see meme x dot zero as being around services and products that take the implicit data, generated through our interactions with the physical world, data mine, repurpose and make available meaningful data, summaries and statistics that we, the makers, crafters and hands on types, can mix, match and reuse in forms that suit.
Taking the most current toy de jour, the Chumby. Imagine a service that takes a real time aggregate of cell phone tower connection volumes and provides this as a feed available to the public. All of a sudden my Chumby can access my Goggle maps mashup of my route to work with any abnormal cell phone density based on tower volumes mapped to location and push it out to my chumby as I'm about to head to work. Useful info indeed.
Monday, June 26, 2006A year or two ago I bought a combined DVD and VHS player. It is a Samsung DVD V540.
After all this time I only recently tried to see if it could be multi region compatible. And it can be!!!
The instructions for unlocking the Samsung DVD V540 to make it multi region. (assumes purchase in Australia.)
Empty DVD player
Turn power off at power point
Turn power on
Wait until no disc displays
Enter 7, 6, 8, 8, 4 on the remote
The current region (4) should display on the screen in the top left
Press 9 for multi region
Press open on the main unit
Press close on the main unit
Turn power off at the power point
DONE!!! Your DVD player should now be multi region capable.
Saturday, March 04, 2006Telstra BigPond Movies on the Mobile
After a couple of months of focused effort, Telstra BigPond released BigPond Movies on the BigPond 3G mobile service here in Australia.
I'm really proud of what we have delivered with this service and I'll go out on a limb to say this is a great example of where I think mobile 2.0 is going. Its a shift from ringtones, sms and repurposed "content" to a world of services and applications that start to take advantage of the attributes of your mobile phone.
For those who don't know, BigPond Movies is a DVD rental service much like Netflix in the US. AgentArts provides the recommendation and personalisation technology behind the service along with some community list services.
The 3G mobile service we have built offers search, browse, view most popular etc and trailers. Most impressively it offers the user the ability to login to their account, add DVDs to their queue, manage their queue and mark DVDs as returned. Along with the self service functionality, the service offers fully personalised recommendations to registered users.
Having used it for the last couple of weeks during testing, I find myself thinking the mark a DVD as returned is very useful on the mobile, along with being able to spend 10 mins on the train checking the latest releases and recommendations and adding DVDs to your queue.
I understand this to be the first service of its kind which makes it all the more cool to have been involved with. :-)
It has been interesting to develop this app and having to support a reasonable range of phones (3G range offered here in Aust). While all the phones support XHTML, the idiosyncrasies of each handset do cause quite a bit of tweaking to be needed. For example, some phones support background images and others don't, some display form inputs full width no matter what length you set and some correctly display them, and all require different default font sizes.
While tools exist for higher level detection of capabilities, there is nothing available to easily tell some of the lower level settings (font sizes, specific CSS support etc.). Great opportunity here for someone to build a good solution and market to carriers.
Now I hope its gets some use (3G uptake and all that)....I know I'll be using it instead of the full web site and may well use it in my desktop browser for the speed and simplicity.
Wednesday, February 22, 2006Today marks the launch of Australia's first video download service, kicked off by Telstra Bigpond.
As a brief summary, it is an online service that allows you to "rent" videos for 7 days or so, download them to your windows PC and play them there. I say rent because they disappear after a the time period elapses. The service mimics the BigPond Movies DVD service from a look and feel and has similar functionality; browse, search, popular lists and recommendations (built by me). Nothing amazing here.
What is interesting is taking a more "producty" view and looking at how Telstra implemented this service, how long it has taken and their approach to what functionality to include.
Rumors of Telstra building a video download service first came out in late 2004, so its taken around 18 months to go to launch. While launching back in 2004 would have been too early, it is interesting to contrast the length of the development cycle with the current crop of web services which generally aim for v1.0 in 3 months and then build from there. Comparing the Starz Entertainments video download service which was design in early 2005 and launched in jan 2006 shows that Telstra was not too slow when looking at comparable companies (10 vs 18 months).
Reading in The Age earlier this week, there was a comment by the Managing director of ReelTime Media, John Karantzis that they think this service won't work because it won't match DVD quality. They're wrong! The service may not work and it may not survive, but it won't be because you don't get the DVD/widescreen/hifi quality. Ask anyone who has used a Div X'd downloaded movie that was rip'd from a DVD rather than handheld shot in a cinema and they will tell you the quality is just fine. And the BigPond Video files are about 3 times the size which will give you better quality.
So its not a DVD, but thats EXACTLY the point. Sure, you want DVD for the latest Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings etc; but do you want or need it for back catalogue content or are you willing to trade off the quality for timeliness. My bet is YES. Why go to a video store when you can download the video right now for a similar price.
The biggest downside is the continued use of Microsoft Media Player which completely wipes out the Mac market and continues to provide a "less than optimal" user experience. I personally believe this will be a huge hinderance when iTunes offers exactly the same content that Telstra offers and which can be downloaded to an iPod which can then be docked into the DVD with one simple cable. iTunes vs Windows Media ....no contest as to which is more useable.
Is the market ready to pay for downloads to display on your PC? Its going to be slow growth to be sure, but Telstra is in the best position to make it happen and to last until the market comes to it. Can they iterate fast enough to keep the service fresh and growing; history would say they will struggle. This is the key opportunity for new entrants....let Telstra create and grow the market then steal away their clients with better features, cheaper prices etc. Added to this space is the inevitable iTunes offering which already has short form downloads to the most popular portable entertainment device ever.
BigPond has been creating more of these "content" services as it tries to add value to its broadband subscribers. There is the DVD rental service, games, sports, a little trial TV project and the Music downloads project (which is a looooooong way behind iTunes in sooo many ways.)
So, its going to be an interesting ride for BigPond as they try to create the market which is obviously very very young. Its competing with the BitTorrent crowd along with video stores and to a degree, its own DVD rental service.
Congratulations to everyone who has been involved..
Tuesday, February 07, 2006Back in 1996 or was it 1997, I went to work at Andersen Consulting's (now Accenture) research labs in Chicago. Actually they were a good drive out of downtown but anyway.
I was working on Intelligent Agents focusing on financial services. The gist of the development being that if you watched what people were doing on a banking site you could make preemptive recommendations about products to them that were customised to their tastes and needs based on their behaviour. This has kept with me and led to me starting AgentArts in 1999, two patents around dataming and recommendations and onto today where we are one of the world's leading recommendations companies. Anyway...I digress
While I was at Cstar (the R&D labs) I was working with a gentleman called Chad Burkey who was working on agent technology you could take with you. The platform he was working onn lived on the Apple Netwon. All very cutting edge at the time.
Fast forward to 2006 and I have a 17" powerbook, an iPod shuffle and a filofax that I take everywhere (not to mention three smartphones but those are used more for 3g development than anything). I ordered one of the first Palm Pilots from the US and would have been in the first handful of people in Australia to have them....but no more. Today I am a pen and paper type of guy. Maybe its a GTD thing but its been easier and simpler for me.
However, I have a very strong craving to get me a Newton or three and to have a bit of a play about with them. After some googling, I have discovered the following incredibly interesting and surprising facts about the Newton. (fyi - It was discontinued by Apple when "The Steve" had his second coming back in 98)
- There was a World Wide Newton Conference this year
- Newton OS has been ported to run on OS X, Nokia phones and a Linux handheld.
- The newton can use WiFi cards
- You can sync you Newton with OS X using some freeware software
- The newton still has great hand writing recognition despite what you might see on the Simpsons.
So, I'm on ebay and I'm going to get myself a MessagePad 2000 or 2001 along with the various bits I'll need, which probably means some batteries and a homemade cable along with some other little bits. I might also get myself an eMate.
I'll update my blog once I get em :-)
Saturday, February 04, 2006Its been a long time since I'd had the focus to do some blogging but its about time I REALLY tried to restart.
The last few months have been very busy with work. We've been doing a lot more stuff for our major clients here in Australia and have also been going very hard at getting deals in the mobile space both in the US and Europe.
Much to our joy, we got some great news just prior to Xmas and we're now doing some great work with carriers in Europe and the US as well as major mobile providers in the US and Europe.
All this success has meant we have had our heads down delivering. We've hired a fantastic new team member as well which has made the world of difference.
Along with these developments, I've been working on what I consider one of the most interesting pieces of work I have done in a LONG LONG time. Its around mobiles, 3G, rich content, personalisation and self service. This project will launch in March and is going to be Very high profile here in Australia so its all great stuff.
One of the things I've noticed doing this work is the mindset of the mobile folks I have been dealing with; their terminology is very much around "content". Companies such as AgentArts are called "content partners" even if we're not delivering content so much as a service. Its all very old media companies trying to repurpose content for mobile devices. Personally, I find it quite a patronising term and hope that there is a change as more and more "content" on the 3G/2.5G services is not so much "content" related but rather "service" related.
Whille its nice to watch TV on your mobile and listen to music downloads on your mobile; there is a world of functionality such as banking, ebaying, emailing, alerting etc. etc. which aren't pure content and the providers who are building and running these services will less and less be referred to as "content" people.
Random Pile of Ben
ben at neuronwave dot com