Brands Look Far and Wide for a Niche in Virtual Reality


From my story in The New York Times:

Even in virtual reality, it seems, there will be no escape from advertising.

The Oculus Rift, which is owned by Facebook, won’t be available until early next year, but many of the two billion consumers worldwide who own smartphones can already try out virtual reality on the cheap with Cardboard, a device from Google that folds into a viewer with a slot for a smartphone. As more devices come to market with the aim of making virtual reality more commonplace, advertisers and agencies hope virtual reality will be the next great medium for persuading consumers to buy stuff.

For now, marketers are producing mostly eye candy in their own apps and on YouTube’s #360Video channel. But with virtual reality movies, shows and stories coming soon, the question is what kind of ads, if any, will work on the platform.

Companies including Coca-Cola, Volvo and HBO are struggling to figure that out. So are publishers like Facebook, which introduced 360-degree ads on Thursday, including video ads from AT&T, Nestlé and other brands. …

Read the rest of the story.

Turkeys + Dinner Plates = Thanksgiving: Google Tries to Make Machine Learning a Little More Human

From my story in MIT Technology Review:

Google CEO Sundar Pichai told investors last month that advances in machine-learning technology would soon have an impact every product or service the company works on. “We are rethinking everything we are doing,” he said.

Part of that push to make its services smarter involves rethinking the way it’s employing machine learning, which enables computers to learn on their own from data. In short, Google is working to teach those systems to be a little more human.

Google discussed some of those efforts at a briefing Tuesday at its headquarters in Mountain View, California. “We’re at the Commander Data stage,” staff research engineer Pete Warden said in a reference to the emotionless android in the television show Star Trek: The Next Generation. “But we’re trying to get a bit more Counselor Troi into the system”—the starship Enterprise’s empathetic counselor. …

Read the full story.

Billions Of Online Ads Are About To Die A Well-Deserved Death

From my Forbes blog:

Businesses that run annoying ads on your smartphone and laptop are about to get a rude awakening.

Not only are online ad blockers quickly gaining in popularity, now two very big companies will soon offer us new ways to avoid in-your-face video and animated ads, pop-ups, and other intrusive ads that plague our online existence.

Today, Sept. 1, Google will start blocking ads that use Adobe’s Flash software, employed widely by video advertisers, in its Chrome browser. And as early as next week, Apple is expected to release its new mobile operating software for iPhones and iPads that will allow the installation of apps that keep ads from appearing in its Safari Web browser.

These developments suggest a new era in which you’ll finally be able to zap annoying ads like those in the video above. For a variety of reasons, it’s unlikely that ad blocking alone will cause advertisers and publishers a big problem. But the fact that the two biggest forces in mobile phones are both cracking down on annoying ads means the online ad business is about to change in a big way. …

Read the rest of the post.

Here Comes Wall-E For The Warehouse: A Conversation With Fetch Robotics CEO Melonee Wise

Fetch Robotics CEO Melonee Wise

Fetch Robotics CEO Melonee Wise

From my Forbes blog:

The little robot follows Melonee Wise around a makeshift warehouse as she picks up boxes of cereal and packages of soap and drops them into a crate atop the machine. Freight, as Wise’s startup Fetch Robotics calls it, may be a machine, but its careful tracking of her movements recalls nothing so much as a dutiful dog.

The robot, which Wise demonstrated in a mock warehouse in a corner of the company’s San Jose headquarters, is one of two wheeled models introduced by Fetch in April as a way to automate warehouses and manufacturing buildings. While Freight is intended as an aid to human workers, the namesake Fetch has a single arm that can pick items off a shelf and drop them onto Freight, potentially replacing people.

Wise’s company is one of several robotics companies betting that robots, which have slowly found homes in auto plants and retail warehouses, are finally ready to roll out in much larger numbers. The CEO says in an interview I conducted for a recent profile of the young roboticist and entrepreneur that smaller and faster computers, improvements in artificial intelligence, and cheaper sensors are all combining to make robots cheaper (in Fetch’s case, tens of thousands of dollars) and more capable.

Fetch is one of the most closely watched robotics startups thanks largely to Wise, a key contributor at the seminal robotics incubator Willow Garage, where she helped design and build several models, and a team of robotics veterans she has assembled. Fetch, which in June raised a $20 million round of funding from Softbank and previous investors Shasta Ventures and O’Reilly AlphaTech Ventures, has sold a few robots to pilot commercial customers. But Wise has bigger ambitions to create a platform on which software developers can create new applications. “They have a chance to create the backbone of autonomous robots,” says Shasta Ventures Managing Director Rob Coneybeer.

The blunt-speaking Wise, whose voice suggests a mellower version of the comedian Paula Poundstone, talked about how she got into robotics, what she hopes to accomplish at Fetch, how she aims to compete against Google and other companies snapping up robotics companies and talent, and the challenges of fulfilling her dream of a robot in every home. Following is an edited version of our conversation:

Q: How did you decide to focus on that particular area, given that you’ve been trying all along to build for pretty broad application, even in the home?

A: At Willow, we spent two years trying to figure out what the next thing in robotics would be. The first year we tried to understand if there was any play in the home. The answer was a resounding no.

Q: Why?

A: The expectations are too high and the price tolerance is way too low. So people would love to have a robot that would do their dishes or tidy their house, but they want all of that for $500 or less. Even when you challenge that notion by saying, well, you know the Roomba you bought last month was $850, they’re like, oh no, I bought that on sale.

There was this big hype about at-home telepresence. Everyone wants to put telepresence inside someone else’s home, like their mother’s, but no one actually wants it in their home. They don’t like the privacy challenges.

Q: What’s attractive about logistics and manufacturing?

A: We strongly felt that logistics and materials handling and manufacturing was very scalable. There’s a strong need for it. One of the things that sold me on it is there’s a 600,000-person job gap right now for logistics and manufacturing. They just don’t have enough people right now. Turnover is really bad. They also want to increase performance, and people have a rate limit. They get injured. There’s shrinkage. When you pile all these things up, there’s a great case for robots. …

Read the complete interview.

Innovator Melonee Wise Builds Robots For The Warehouse And Beyond

Fetch Robotics CEO Melonee Wise

Fetch Robotics CEO Melonee Wise with namesake robot

From my MIT Technology Review story:

Melonee Wise imagines that all homes will have autonomous robots—something like The Jetsons’ Rosie the robot maid, minus the apron and Brooklyn accent. Just one problem: Wise, chief executive of the year-old startup Fetch Robotics, thinks it won’t happen in her lifetime, because the challenges in hardware and software are too big. “I’m probably one of the most pessimistic roboticists you’ll ever meet,” she admits.

Nonetheless, Wise still thinks smaller and more powerful computers, affordable sensors, more adept machine vision, and better artificial intelligence are coming together to make robots capable of a wide range of tasks—if not yet all in a single machine. That’s why Fetch Robotics is going after one promising area: warehouses and e-commerce fulfillment centers, which are plagued with high turnover, injuries, employee theft, and a chronic shortage of workers, who, of course, also have a biological need to sleep.

Although dedicated robots are common in giant distribution centers, Wise thinks there’s a bigger market for more flexible “mobile manipulation” robots that can help smaller companies ease into automation. …

Read the complete profile.

A Deeper Look At The New Google

From MIT Technology Review:

Before Apple’s Steve Jobs died in 2011, he told Google cofounder and CEO Larry Page that his company was trying to do too much. As Page later told the Financial Times, he replied, “If we just do the same things we did before and don’t do something new, it seems like a crime to me.” Yet Page also acknowledged that Jobs was right in one sense: he could manage only so many things before too many would get lost in the shuffle.

Those twin desires—to do new things regardless of how weird and unrelated they seem to Google’s core search and advertising business, and yet still find a way to manage them to fruition—explain Page’s surprise announcement Monday that he was creating a holding company called Alphabet. It will separate Google’s lucrative ad-related businesses, including Android mobile software and the video site YouTube, from the company’s wide-ranging efforts on self-driving cars, human longevity, Internet access balloons, the Nest connected-home devices, and more, each of which will probably become discrete subsidiaries.

But the move, while cheered by investors, is just the first step to fulfilling the company’s long-standing goal to “make Google a long term success and the world a better place.” In the view of several management experts, Alphabet will be successful only if the individual projects and companies can be successful enough on their own to be spun off into freestanding companies eventually. The new corporate structure enables that to happen, but it surely doesn’t guarantee it.

First, it’s important to dispel the assumption that Page and cofounder Sergey Brin have created something like the Berkshire Hathaway of the Internet, an updated version of Warren Buffett’s conglomerate. “The comparison is silly,” says Michael A. Cusumano, a professor at MIT’s Sloan School of Management. Buffett, he says, invests in existing, undervalued companies, a bit like a mutual fund—precisely the opposite of Alphabet’s VC-style focus on risky new ventures like Calico, which wants to somehow fight aging. ….

Read the complete analysis.