Why VR is Ready but Robotics and Other Tech Aren’t

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When I talk about Virtual Reality (VR), my heart rate increases, my volume climbs, and before you know it, someone’s asking me chill-the-frak-out. Oftentimes people who haven’t seen the light scoff at the notion that VR is ready for take-off. In fact, they usually start touting something else. Timing is paramount in tech with the biggest example being Webvan, which was a spectacular failure, the “biggest dot-com flop in history“. However, the idea of online grocery delivery is now a booming business (e.g. Instacart, Safeway and Costco deliveries)–it wasn’t ready back then. Here are some tech trends and why they’re not ready to take off.

Robotics

I’d consider any autonomous robot like the RoombaJibo or those creepy animal-bots part of this trend. Google’s self-driving car counts and quad/hexa/octo-copers kinda count as well. Unlike web apps, which just require software, robots need both hardware and software. You’ll need a robot base like the Roomba dev kit, some computer like Raspberry Pi, and then ideally some sensors and actuators (e.g. a camera and an arm so it can fetch the beer from the fridge for me). You can leverage commercial platforms like Sphero, but these have few sensors and thus aren’t very interesting (I’ve done some ruby programming with it). Until hardware costs go down, you’ll be hard-pressed to find people writing software for it. For example, a big reason why Google Glass didn’t take off was because it cost a whopping $1500 and wasn’t even 3D (the other reason was that people who had them tended to be Glassholes). Even when the hardware becomes dirt-cheap, writing software for interacting with people and the real world is fraking tough. We have a hard enough time getting websites and mobile apps to not suck today.

Internet of Things (IoT), EdTech, and BioTech

With platforms like SmartThings and Amazon Echo, you can do awesome things like turn off your lights by saying “Alexa, turn off the living room lights”. Echo costs $180 and smart light bulbs costs at least $30–10x the cost of a normal light bulb (how many light bulbs do you have in your house?). IoT also requires good WiFi usually and we all know how good that is. IoT devices are also much more useful if they’re portable but we have the issue of battery life, which we’re familiar with because nobody’s phone lasts more than a day. As for the software, Amazon Echo, Microsoft Cortana, Apple Siri, Google Now, are all in their infancy. Heck, most of the Google Now team just quit. Education and Healthcare technology are mired in regulation and bureaucracy. That’s a common cause of tech trends taking longer than expected. Quads and self-driving cars are starting to see the same hurdles appear too. Take a look at the FAA Drone Regulations or the self-driving car laws that were introduced across the US in 2015.

VR and the Order of Things

The Oculus Rift DK2 costs $350. The first consumer version of the Rift will be ~$300-$500 and $1500 if you include a gaming PC. Keep in mind that for most of the gaming community will already have the necessary PC hardware. Samsung’s GearVR is $200 if you own one of their high-end phones and all the way down the line, you can get a Google Cardboard for less than $10. The Oculus Rift will soon be sold as a consumer product at scale in the price range of other, more mature products like Xbox One ($350), Playstation 4 ($400), iPhone ($650 off-contract), and iPad Air 2 ($500). Given that Oculus has already sold 175,000+ dev kits, we’ll be seeing VR products under Christmas trees for years to come.

For software, VR leverages the game industry. Popular game engines, the foundation of VR software, are either freemium (Unity3D, $1500 pro version) or have no upfront cost (Unreal Engine, 5% royalty). Microsoft Visual Studio, the standard IDE, is also freemium. With these tools, you can already train to be a Jedi (I’ve tried this and it’s even more awesome than it looks). Granted you need expertise to create immersive 3D worlds but much of the core technology like physics simulation and dynamic lighting are already built-in. Furthermore, with new techniques like Blueprints (Visual Scripting) for Unreal Engine allowing developers to write less if any code, it will become easier and easier to build for VR.

Unlike other tech trends, VR doesn’t have high hardware costs and an immature developer ecosystem. There are also few if any legal or ethical hurdles holding it back. VR has a solid base within the games industry, as evidenced by the recent launch of Youtube Gaming where gamers playing VR demos feature prominently on the homepage. Once the commercial hardware starts selling next year, more developers will write software for it. With more software available, more people will buy the hardware.

Tech trends don’t happen in isolation and I believe there’s a rational order of things. VR will help us simulate and test robots, drones, and anything else with high hardware costs cheaply and quickly. VR will help us harden software for self-driving cars so that lessons are learned through virtual accidents rather than real tragedies. VR changes how we develop technologies forever: software allows us to work with bits, VR allows us to work with atoms.

coolstartup.io / or How To Choose a Web Service API

Most startups today leverage commercial SaaS services. When it comes to choosing an API, there are many choices but I tend to try the ones that end in “.io” first. For example, when looking at weather forecast APIs, I skipped over familiar names like Yahoo and Weather Channel and went straight for Forecast.io. Better service APIs tend to have domains ending in “.io” and they have straightforward APIs, solid documentation, libraries in your favorite language and simple freemium plans. All of this usually allows you you decide within minutes whether this service will work for you. Check out my super short tutorial on using forecast.io:

https://github.com/tuesy/forecast_io_tutorial

 

Startup Landscapes

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Diagrams like this one for the Crowdsourcing space can be very help for entrepreneurs. However, it’s frustrating when you can’t click on the company logos and you’re always wondering how out-of-date it is. That’s why I created a project called Startup Landscapes. You can click on each logo and the grouping is a little more organized so you can see it in a table view. I’ve played around with other visualizations like circle packing, but it’s more confusing then helpful at this point. I’ve only added a couple of the most popular diagrams out there. LUMA makes them for quite a few industries so check those out. Don’t miss the Robotics one.

Honoring the Servant and Forgetting the Gift

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“The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift”

The quickening march of technology has made work more efficient but most of the time we’re just getting better at doing because doing is easier and more satisfying than thinking. Engineers tend to jump straight into writing code. We love the earlier part of the creative process where we are programming and tinkering. We’re less found of testing and scaling. That’s why there are so many Hackathons and Facebook is portrayed as Hacker Heaven. Entrepreneurs tend to jump straight into building a company. We love putting together an all-star team and picking out the perfect Palo Alto office. We’re less fond of raising capital and finding a product-market fit. That’s why there are so many startups working on yet another photo-sharing app.

Everyone should spend more time thinking and researching. We need to resist the temptation to jump in too early. Engineers should think things through before starting to write code, perhaps with TDD/BDD. Entrepreneurs should think things through before printing those business cards, perhaps by vetting your idea through at least 7 people and a good night’s sleep. In a time where there are inexpensive tools for software startups (AWS, web frameworks, SDKs, SaaS services, etc.), it’s more tempting than ever to short-change the intuitive mind in favor of the rational one. Recently, even the tools for hardware startups are becoming affordable: MakerBot has made 3D scanning and printing cheap enough for prototyping and Kickstarter has lowered the high hurdle of the initial manufacturing run.

Given that many barriers are going away and new tools are cheaper and more accessible, what will companies compete on in the future? Design. Strategy. Ideas. All different words to describe the realm of the intuitive mind. It’s already happening: Why Snapchat is Screwed. Snapchat is a successful mobile social network that is rumored to have passed on a $3Billion acquisition offer from Facebook (and possibly a bigger one from Google). The technology is easy to replicate, their users will likely leave if they introduce ads, and there is no compelling reason like personal data keeping users from moving to a competing product. Time to innovate?

 

Evernote is my Brain Upgrade

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If you’re not using Evernote or something like it, you need to start. Lifehackers can tell you about how it can make you more productive than Iron Man but I want to stress the most profound benefit: not having to remember minutiae. Evernote is my brain upgrade. Like most people, I can’t hold onto more than about 7 things in short term memory. Sucks, but our hardware just isn’t optimized for that. We’re good at hand eye coordination and humor among other things but trying to remember phone numbers and shopping lists just makes us wonder if we really are doomed for idiocracy.

Not having to stress about the small stuff makes me more relaxed. I’m at peace instead of trying to remember that guy’s last name I met at the conference–luckily, I took a photo of his business card and Evernote allows me to search for his first name because it automatically parsed the text from the photo. Sexy. With my stylus and tablet, I hand-write notes in Penultimate, which is now part of Evernote. Oh, handwriting is also automatically parsed and indexed.

Evernote isn’t just an app, it’s an extension of my brain on my phone, my laptop, my tablet–eventually everywhere. It’s synced in the cloud and they’ve built or bought many different ways to get your brain connected to the digital world. It’s an impressive mission and a core tool in today’s ADHD world. So if you’re wondering how other people seem to get more done with less stress and in less time, it’s because we cheat. We upgraded our brains with free(mium) tools like this to let our brains chew on the important stuff or Candy Crush.

Last interview question you’ll ever need: Kobayashi Maru

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It’s becoming more and more difficult to assess candidates. People can easily google “interview questions” and get 833 Million results. Websites offer “smart answers to tough interview questions“. They can tell you exactly what questions were asked last week at Google. Sites go as far as coaching you on what emotions to show and what corny jokes to tell. It’s an interviewing arms race that has interviewers searching for more and more inane questions like “Why is a manhole round?” and interviewees feeling like they’re studying for a standardized test.

In Star Trek lore, there’s a test at starfleet academy called the Kobayashi Maru. It’s a no-win situation where either you let a Federation ship get destroyed or get yourself destroyed by attacking the Klingon fleet. The simulation is designed to see how cadets react to an impossible situation. I use this same strategy in my interviews. I present them with a scenario that is relevant to the particular job but let them explore and struggle through the simulation. I even play the evil computer program and change the assumptions as I go. No two interviews are the same. For example, for web developers the scenario is that having just programmed your app, you check it out in a browser and see a blank page. What do you do?

The nature of work is changing. The interview methods of the past don’t meet the needs of today’s jobs, which require more creative problem-solving and less memorization and assembly line widget-building. What you really want is to see how candidates think and handle new situations. It’s quite easy to tailor this test for your needs. Hiring a systems engineer? Put them in an outage situation and ask them what to do. You’ll find out within 5 minutes or less whether you want that person handling your servers. If you’re looking to get hired, impress me with your knowledge of the system. Bonus points for cheating.

The Case for Cautious Optimism

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Some people are blood-draining pessimists, choosing to scowl and snivel at the world. Others are nauseating optimists foaming with perk and cheer. Pessimists tend to miss opportunities because they gave up too early or didn’t even try. Optimists tend to downplay problems and hold on to lost causes. The fact that it’s bad to be at either extreme is common sense. However, where should you try to be by default? If you’re cautiously optimistic, it’s past the neutral point as far towards pure optimism as you can while still feeling comfortable with the risk that the edge brings. Most likely you’ll try new things and fail occasionally but you won’t be have crushing defeats and you’re definitely continuing to make attempts. Oh, by the way, it’s also good for your health.

Keep Throwing Punches

Advanced believers of cautious optimism know that the secret is to always be accelerating towards optimism. Like a boxing match, you get right up in the face of your opponent. Every punch is you trying a new idea. You may land a few punches and be more aggressive by moving closer. You throw more, faster combos building up to a potential knockout punch. But then he breaks through and lands a solid one on your cheek. You take a step or two back, collect yourself, and then start your attack again. It’s not about going into a bezerker rage, arms flailing out of control. It’s not about closing your eyes and letting yourself fall. It’s about getting back into it as quickly as possible after taking a hard punch. It’s about sticking to what you learned from training and experience. It’s about staying in the fight and knowing you will eventually win. It’s the relentless drive towards certain victory.

A Strategy for Life

Cautious optimism like other strategies can apply to many different aspects of life. If you’re playing pickup basketball with your friends and your first two shots don’t go in, keep shooting. You shouldn’t take every shot, but don’t give up open shots just because you missed the first two. If you ask two girls out and they both say no, keep asking. You shouldn’t try to ask every girl out but don’t stop asking because the first two refused you. If you bomb the SAT the first time, take it again and again until you get a full score (like my friend Nina). If you fail to row across the Atlantic solo the first time (and survive), you may do it the second time. Day-to-day, some things work out and some don’t. Try cautious optimism–you’ll be healthier and happier for it.

Liars Fear Data

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There was a fierce battle of words this week between the New York Times and Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla. As the story goes, the NYT published a review of the Tesla S that trashed the battery performance and charging system. Elon thought this was suspicious since most other reviewers found it awesome, and Motor Trend says it’s the 2013 Car of the Year. He did a thorough analysis of the log data (whoops, reviewer probably didn’t think of that) and fired back some accusations in a blog post on the Tesla web site. The NYT reviewer fired back with some excuses and by that time the issue exploded. The back story is that Elon had been burned before by the media. A few years ago, Top Gear did a show on the Tesla Roadster and scripted up a dramatic episode where the Roadster’s battery died after 55 miles (it didn’t). Elon sued and lost, since it’s an entertainment show. This time, the usually measured CEO and Tony Stark character model went above and beyond the call of duty for his pride and joy.

Reactions among people vary. Some say Elon should have let the data speak for itself. Some say he should have put it behind him quietly. I think he did the right thing for himself and by his company. If it were a less well-known media source, I’d recommend playing it cool. If it were a less obvious twisting of facts, I’d tell him to let others fight the battle. However, this was the New York Times and this was after many other reputable news sources had given very positive reviews and this was a “fool me once shame on me…” situation. As a leader, Elon knew when to play it cool and when to pull out the big guns. If he had let this go, there would be Doubt in the market. NYT’s word vs Tesla–obvious NYT has more sway today. If he had let this go, he would have invited many other challengers and haters to take shots at him. Maybe this type of sleazy review happened before but this is the first he’s rebutted? If he had this go, he would have let not only his investors down but himself, and more importantly, his employees. If you’ve seen “Revenge of the Electric Car“, you’ll understand that it’s been a long and tough road for his company. Elon’s been fighting all the way to get here and just when the company is about to be mainstream, this liar at the NYT decides to get some page views at Tesla’s expense. I bet Elon must have said:

I

don’t

think

so

*******.

Balance of Power in #startups

Startups are like small countries–if the balance of power is not maintained, bad things like death and destruction happen. The following is a set of scenarios you want to avoid.

All Hail Engineers

The technical half of a two co-founder startup dominates all decisions. He starts out as the CTO but muscles his way into the CEO spot, leaving the business co-founder with a VP of Sales position. The company plans to hire 50 new engineers and a minimal sales staff because the CEO believes the product will “sell itself”. Support is dying for more resources, marketing is dying for more resources, but engineers are paid way over market. This is reminiscent of Facebook in its early days and you’ll find many stories of talented people leaving the company because they were unhappy with the fact that the culture was too engineering-centric. Remember the movie “Social Network” by Aaron Sorkin? Avoid that.

Rowing the Boat

The business half of a two co-founder startup dominates all decisions. He is CEO and there is no CTO, just a bunch of engineers. The company is very sales-focused and eschews things like R&D. Engineering is viewed not as a source of innovation but a team of slaves “rowing the boat”. This makes me think of today’s Yahoo. The talented research team was fired, many of the engineers have jumped ship, and one of its multiple personalities thinks of itself as a content company. Yahoo isn’t a startup anymore, but there’s a strong tendency to forget–especially as startups grow up–that in the tech world you innovate or someone will innovate you out of existence. Without a strong engineering voice, you might as well be walking the plank.

Microcosms

The first two scenarios are the most glaringly obvious ones that are easy to spot–others take a trained eye. When a startup hires a stable of VPs and each one is off to the races on Day 1, it’s hard to have them all run at the same pace. Some departments may not even have a horse in the race! It’s subtle, but you will be able the see the effects of unbalanced power. Instead of quick and decisive course corrections, you’ll get reactionary jerks. For example, when Netflix announced that they were raising prices and killing off their DVD service in a cold email, I suspect something was awry in the top leadership because up ’til then, Netflix was known for its customer relations. They refunded customers when service outages happened, CEO Reed Hastings routinely wrote candid emails to customers explaining decisions, employees broadcasted their uber-flexible vacation policy, etc. Certainly, a balanced leadership would not have supported such an uncharacteristic move?

Maintaining Balance

This is damn hard for a startup. You start with 1+1–that’s easy. That’s a simple handshake. You add a VP or two after you get your Series A–not too bad. That’s a basketball team huddle. You add a few more to grow your other departments after you get your Series B–hm… That’s a football team huddle. You add SVPs and let’s not forget the ever-growing Board of Directors after your Series C–shiznit. That’s a village. It’s a challenge, but the company has to listen and weigh equally, every single voice all along the way, even if some are quieter than others and especially to those voices that are missing.

Project Management for Startups

In large companies, project management is a must; in startups, it’s a radioactive “hot” potato. Large companies have dedicated project managers and sometimes even a Project Management Office (PMO). Small companies like ours don’t have one and we’re pushing 60 employees now after 18 months. Eventually, it’ll make sense to have a full-time project manager, but until then we want to stay agile so we get by using software, process, and face time.

Use the Right Software

When our Product-Engineering team consisted of CEO, CTO, and two engineers, email was our issue tracker and a whiteboard contained our roadmap. That worked well. Soon we hired a few more engineers and email proliferated. Pivotal Tracker (PT) became our issue tracker (still free then!). PT is simple, light, and an engineering team’s dream–a place where only engineers could hang out. We upgraded to Google Spreadsheets for our roadmap so we can do more sharing and simple Gantt charts. Once we hired some product managers, added a QA team, and started developing many projects at once, it was time to swim in the Olympic-size pool: Jira. Besides being created by a hilarious bunch, Jira does everything. That’s part of the reason we resisted using it early on, since we didn’t want to fill out so many corporate-y fields like “hours worked” (::shudder::). As for our roadmap, it broke Google Spreadsheets and I grew tired of the “aw, snap!” pages. I’m experimenting with a few tools and so far I like Asana and Smartsheet. Find what works for you now.

Evolve Your Process But It’s all About Face Time

We tried to add only as much process as we needed over time. You start out with a fast track from feature conception to release. When you have two people who work on a project, you can sit down and have a heart to heart, nod heads, and then start coding. When a product manager has to convey thoughts to a few developers and a few QA–this is a small team still–details get lost in translation. Not only that, conversations may happen between members of the team that aren’t shared with the rest of the team. Let the frustration and angst begin. For a while, we went with the Product Requirements Document (PRD) approach, which is very monolithic. We’ve since moved away from that. Recurring meetings get moved around and their titles and agendas change. We went from 1-week to 2-week releases. Processes should change when the team changes or when the needs of the team change. It all comes down to getting a bunch of people to share ideas and work together efficiently. All this software and process is meant to cheat time–time to talk to one another face-to-face that is very hard to come by.