26 Feb

5 Most Innovative Black-Led Tech Companies

In acknowledgement of Black Tech Week, which celebrates African American innovators during the last week of Black History Month, we’re focusing this week’s article on five innovative black-led technology companies.

I happen to work at a black-led technology company. I didn’t know it before, but being a black CEO in tech is surprisingly rare. I enjoyed putting this list together as the black men and women in the industry are  exceptional – I just wish there were more of them!

Metalayer – Co-Founder: Jonathan Gosier

Organizations are swamped in data. Much of this data remains unused and untapped. There is simply too much data for most organizations to cope with. Metalayer was set up with the purpose of making this data understandable to the non-specialist users within an organization. In many ways, Metalayer is designed to make data scientists out of everyday people.

It has developed a number of products, both in the area of data visualization to help make sense of data, and in the area of data science, to help scientists and analysts undertake predictive analysis, as well as utilising data in new ways.

One of Metalayer’s founders is Jonathan Gosier, who along with Matthew Griffiths, set the company up in 2011. Gosier is pleased to see how Metadata has helped customers in such fields as disaster relief and countering violent extremism in Somalia.  It has been used to monitor health trends and patterns, using social media channels, of combat veterans.

In 2013 Gosier was nominated as one of three Innovators of the Year by Black Enterprise Magazine for his work with MetaLayer. In 2015 he was named by Time Magazine as one of their 12 New Faces of Black Leadership.

Since he set up Metalayer, Gosier has continued to be a venture capitalist and serial entrepreneur, focusing mainly on tech companies, in both the United States and Africa.

PubMatic – PRESIDENT: KirK MCDONALD

PubMatic provides the technological nous behind the automation of advertising across various sales channels. Amongst their specialities is real-time bidding, enabling the winner’s ads to be displayed seamlessly on publishers’ websites. Of course, if an advertiser knows that you have expressed an interest in their product they will be far more willing to pay for an ad on your computer screen, than they will for someone who has never shown any interest in them before.

PubMatic focuses on ensuring that advertising performs at its best on a wide range of technology platforms. One of their goals is to provide consumers with a personalized advertising experience across display, mobile and video screens.

The leadership team at PubMatic is a veritable example of the United Nations, with the team having representatives from a variety of different nationalities. Kirk McDonald, the company’s president, is a force to be reckoned with. Before joining PubMatic, Kirk had leadership roles ranging including the President of Digital at Time Inc., the Chief Advertising Officer of the Fortune|Money Group, the Senior Vice President of network sales at CNET.

Pigeonly – CEO: Frederick Hudson

Pigeonly focuses on using technology to improve communication between prisoners and their loved ones. Their products range from methods for enabling cheap-local rate phone calls that bypass the expensive prison systems to simple methods of allowing the friends or family to quickly share photos from social media sites like Facebook to prisoners via prison-approved mailing methods.

Founder and CEO, Frederick Hudson, actually came up with the product concepts when he was in prison himself, having difficulties communicating with his family. He knew there must be a better, less costly, way for prisoners and their families to keep in contact. The products of Pigeonly are his solutions to the problem he saw first hand.

 Virtual Instruments – CEO: John Thompson

Virtual Instruments provides infrastructure performance management, to ensure that any mission-critical applications flow seamlessly across physical, virtual and cloud-computing situations. The Virtual Instruments technology is the glue that keeps a number of America’s largest corporations systems functioning.

They made it into position number 3 on Forbes list of Most Promising Companies in 2013.

As we have seen, the fact that they have a black CEO, John Thompson, is very much a rarity for large technology companies, particularly ones that works with enterprise-level clients. I certainly can’t argue with one of his quotes, “I’ve always believed that your work had to be exciting or your life would be pretty darn boring”.

Kairos – CEO: Brian Brackeen

Kairos provides tools that make it easy for developers to use facial recognition and emotion analysis in their applications. Facial biometrics is a rapidly growing industry as companies look to add features ranging from identity detection to audience engagement metrics in out-of-home advertising. Unfortunately, that technology is frequently too expensive or too complex for most companies to solve. Kairos aims to bring this tech to the masses.

Kairos is the brain-child of Brian Brackeen, founder and CEO. He worked at IBM and Apple before founding Kairos to develop his original idea: a facial recognition powered employee time clock. He quickly discovered that some of the technology used in the clock which related to facial recognition actually had more potential than the clock itself.


Full disclosure, I work at Kairos, but I truly believe they’re one of the most innovative black-led companies in America so I feel with total sincerity they should be on this list. Thankfully companies like the WSJ also happen to think they’re one of the most interesting new start-ups around too!

09 Feb

5 Recent Innovations You Might Have Missed

The world is changing rapidly. There are always new ideas, new techniques, new ways to look at old problems, new problems to be solved. There is no shortage of truly innovative technologies to be found and examined.

This week’s round-up contains everything from anti-aging technology to robotic warfare to innovations around personal identity.

Reversing Aging By Decades in Humans

A new bioengineering technique has been discovered by Stanford Medical Center scientists which can extend the length of human telomeres, which are protective caps we have on the end of our chromosomes designed to stop the tips of the chromosomes from falling to pieces.

As we age, it is normal for our chromosomes to gradually lose bits at each end with each cell division. Over time, however, our chromosomes reach a point of no return – some critical point where our DNA refuses to let itself shrink any further. As individual cells reach this point they stop dividing and start to die. This is effectively what happens to us as our body ages.

A team of Stanford Medical Center scientists, led by Helen Blau, have developed a bioengineered RNA, creating a telomere-extending protein. The result is that cells continue to multiply as they did when they were younger, splitting and multiplying up to a further forty times.

The treatment they use is only temporary, meaning that the cells have not been immortalised. So bad news you can’t be forever young just yet. As a consolation prize you can watch this 80’s gem: Forever Young by Alphaville.

Even in the very short-term, before the techniques can be put into practical medical use, this finding will help scientists understand how aging affects the molecular machinery of cells.

Why is this important?

Human beings have been seeking the fountain of youth in some form or another since the beginning of humankind. Beyond the obvious vanity-driven desire for a return to youthfulness, this innovation could bring about new ways of treating, or potentially even preventing, diseases related to aging. When I think about any innovation that extends life I worry about it’s impact on our booming population and over-taxed planet. On a positive note I’m hoping that extended life allows humans to look at the world with a longer-term view of their actions.

Virtual Reality – What’s next beyond Oculus VR?

The field of virtual reality gaming is continually advancing. There have been a few recent innovations that have been made public.

The Stem System is a full immersion wireless, motion tracking platform for video games, virtual reality (VR), and more. The various bits of the system work together to monitor your position, movement and orientation in 3D space.This will have a huge impact on gaming. It is designed to be usable with virtually any game, and there are already a number of games supported by the system. When you combine it with a virtual reality headset, like the Oculus Rift, you end up with a highly immersive gaming experience, as demonstrated in this lightsaber fight.

FOVE is an eye-tracking head-mount display, which also has huge gaming potential. The headset senses your head position and orientation, which is combined with eye-tracking technology. Some of the games that have been designed to let you use this technology enable you to control devices simply by altering your gaze, for instance in one game you can fire lasers from your eyes, visibly destroying the enemy on your screen.

Less of a game, but nonetheless a fun 3D experience, is Faceshift, which can create a 3D avatar of you, using your voice and expressions, but animating them on the avatar. In many ways this is the first domestic use of the sort of technology that has been used for a few years in the movies, creating characters like Gollum in the Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. It essentially uses facial-tracking software with a high degree of precision which is used to drive real-time character animations.

Why is this important?

Oculus VR might be the poster child of virtual reality, yet ultimately virtual reality is about immersion. Oculus, in it’s current form, only satisfies one of your senses. Technologies like the Stem System and FOVE are critically mimicking how humans interact with the world. The Stem System understands how you move through a three dimensional space and FOVE helps to understand what you’re actually looking at as opposed to just making sure you can see what’s around you like with the Oculus Rift.

Faceshift is important as they are thinking about how to represent the user in the virtual world as a virtualized avatar. Real-time mapping of facial expressions to an avatar are an important step of that, as passing a user’s voice is only part of the identity we create for ourselves online. I’ve had some experience with avatars at my previous startup and I am now working with real-time facial analysis at my new role, so I can vouch for how challenging this work is.
Think about what the internet or video games looked like 10 years ago. Now think 10 years into the future.  Virtual Reality is much closer than most people think.

Digital Drivers’ Licenses

Around 40 states are working on a projects to introduce a digital driver’s licence in the form of a fully-secured smartphone app. The states are working with a vendor, MorphoTrust USA, on the development of the app, with the hope that there will be a pilot program underway this year, with a full roll-out in 2016.

As things like Apple Pay and Google Wallet drive us toward digitizing our financial transactions the need for our wallet is in decline. Your ID would be one of the last remaining reasons to carry a wallet in the future. The digital driver’s licence will even reduce that need. Of course that won’t do you any good if you’re out of batteries!

The app would still be optional, with “hard copies” of licences being available in the foreseeable future. While there will always be innovators, happy to be the first to implement new technology, there will also always be laggards and technophobes, who will drag their feet at changes such as this.

When you (or a law enforcement officer) open up the app there will be all of the usual information shown on a licence, for example your name, address, birthdate, photo, signature and driving-related details like whether you currently have valid driver’s licence and what class it is.

For security purposes there will be facial, fingerprint or voice recognition, allied with a requirement for the entry of a PIN code.

The concept has rung a few alarm bells for libertarians, concerned that the app may provide access to other information stored on the phone. It has also raised a few practical questions like how an officer deals with a phone with a flat battery, and indeed how would they “confiscate” a licence without physically taking the phone.

The developers, and proponents of the app, have come up with proposals to reduce the concerns, for instance they have proposed locking a smartphone when the licence is on the screen, and giving officers their own mobile apps to use when checking licences, so that there is no need to take a phone out of the owner’s view.

Why is this important?

As the world becomes increasingly digitized former abstractions of our identity are becoming obsolete. How can we tell for certain that somebody is who they say they are? Does a small piece of plastic with a picture that looks vaguely like the person sitting in the driver’s seat with a similar looking squiggle for a signature, actually prove that person’s identity?

We must remember that much of what we use to establish our identity is really simple abstract tools designed to help machines understand who we are.

The security measures that will go with this app are a good example of how things are developing. Yes, there will still be the relatively old-fashioned need for a PIN code, but the other security measures more reflect how computers can determine that you are uniquely you. For instance if you use facial recognition it will recognize the picture as you because it will have remembered the width of your smile, the color of your eyes, the length of your nose and the shape of your face.

The days where one unlicensed brother, who can remember his sibling’s birthday and has a family resemblance, can pretend to be his fully-licenced brother when stopped by a law enforcement officer, will soon be over.

A New Dawn For Sports: Robotic Fighting

After a hiatus of more than a decade an old television favorite returns to national t.v. No, I’m not talking about the new dawns of Doctor Who or Star Trek, or even the soon-to-be-aired new version of Thunderbirds, I’m talking about the great Battlebots challenge.

Battlebots fought their way through five series in the early 2000s. It was a formative experience for many technology-lovers of the era, as home-made robots battled (actually it was more realistic than some of the wrestling that was a favorite on t.v. with the kids at the time).

robots

And they are about to commence battle again! Hopefully by now, they will have fixed the problem of robots getting stuck if you flip them onto their back, which made some of the old battles a little too formulaic.

Why is this important?

Here are multiple reasons why this innovation is important – not necessarily ranked in order of importance.

It’s important because it’s awesome. Seriously? Robots fighting?

It’s important because I made a bet in 2009 with several friends who said that this would never happen. To ensure that they never forgot said bet I documented this prediction on TakeMeToYourLeader in this post.

Beyond the sheer joy I get from these kind of advancements I think the best part about this kind of innovation is that it has a network effect. Public interest in robotics drives further investment, which drives further innovation, which will drive further public interest, and then the loop continues. These mainstream displays in Robotics are good for the entire field as robots continue to become an everyday part of our reality.

Portable Energy Windmill

One of the real problems that emergency services face whenever there is a natural disaster is that the essential services have often been knocked out, and it can be quite some time before repair crews can get out there to repair them, even to a level that is usable solely by the emergency team.

Windstream Technologies were asked to come up with a solution to this problem; to find a way that would get emergency services up and running much more quickly in their quest to find and help survivors.

They developedphoto_featured the MobileMill. This is a portable trailer, that can be towed behind any vehicle, that collects solar and wind power, and which can enter the disaster sites before the electricity has been reconnected.

The MobileMill combines solar photovoltaic panels and vertical axis wind turbines. It can be made operational within one minute of its arrival in the disaster zone and it instantly starts producing renewable energy. It includes an 18 kWh battery array which can power emergency services for up to three days.

It can easily be turned into a full mobile control centre, powering the necessary computers and radios.

Why is this important?

The importance is fairly obvious. The first few hours of a disaster are vitally important, particularly for people who are trapped and in need of rescue. Unfortunately there have been too many times in the past where the disaster relief team have been hamstrung by a lack of power and communications. Anything that can speed up their first response has to be very positive.

This is a great innovation that everyone can feel good about. I hope they develop it fast and are able to use it in the field in the near future.

25 Jan

5 Best Innovations of January 2015

It’s fun to get back into the swing of things with Take Me To Your Leader. Our post covering the Best of CES 2015  covered everything from intelligent miniaturized robots that teach kids to program, to home security systems that recognize family members via facial recognition.

But that was nearly a month ago. By definition, the world of innovation keeps on moving, as yesterday’s innovation turns into today’s reality and then becomes tomorrow’s history. So what has been new, exciting and innovative in technology during January 2015?

Microsoft Augmented Reality: HoloLens

Microsoft’s boffins have been feverishly working in secret to produce what they hope to be a new game-changer – their hologram headset the HoloLens. Actually it technically isn’t a hologram, it’s an augmented reality system, or as they prefer to put it a “mixed reality experience”. This is the brainchild of Alex Kipman, whose first inspiration for Microsoft resulted in the Xbox Kinect. This is at a whole different level again, though.

So far only a few select journalists have been privy to Project Baraboo, or B for short. It’s not quite ready for the world to see – but it’s not too far away.

So what is the HoloLens? At the moment the unit is in two parts, the mechanics hang around your neck, and the visual part itself is a decidedly fragile headpiece. The production model will have everything in one (hopefully sturdy) headpiece.

microsoft-hololensYou put the headpiece on and you instantly see a semi-transparent rectangle floating mid-air in front of you. Being a Microsoft product, there is inevitably a Windows logo on it. At this point there are many choices as to what you do – the demonstrators choose the story at the moment, but presumably you’ll have a choice of path to follow when you’re using it in the real world.

Journalists at Polygon and Wired were able to experience the technology first hand. Some of the situations they were allowed to experience included walking on Mars learning about rock samples, electrical wiring in a room (helped by being able to “see” an instructor and diagrams he drew on the wall by a lightswitch), creating a 3D product, and inevitably playing an immersive game.

It seems clear that the HoloLens is about to become very real. This is not just marketing. The HoloLens isn’t virtual reality, and its augmented reality style approach seems to lend itself to more functional uses.

Being delivered by Microsoft gives the opportunity for this to be produced on a huge scale and there is likely to be integration into a number of productivity products that are used by significant numbers of businesses, students, and general consumers. Its connections to the Windows gaming world and the Xbox One give it a huge reach in the gaming market which has proven to be an important factor in device adoption in the last ten years.

HoloLens has the potential to be transformational technology in the way that we interact with computers. We moved past the click generation to the touch generation of computing, and now we’re exploring territories that remove the barrier between humans and computers – ultimately creating more personal and intimate experiences.

A Device That Can Alter Your Mood: Thync

Thync is an electricity-pulsing headband to improve your mood and alertness.

It uses neurosignalling (waveforms that signal to neural pathways) to change peoples’ moods. Now how many sci-fi movies have you seen based around mood-changing devices?

Assuming that it can’t be misused, as it invariably is in the movies, it can be an aid to help your levels of energy, calmness and focus.

thyncThync comes with pads that attach to your temple, back of neck or your ear, which wirelessly deliver small electrical pulses, which are controlled by a smartphone app. The mood-improving effects can last in your system for up to three days.

It does make you wonder, though. If a device can alter your mood in the same way that alcohol, medication, or meditation can (pick your flavor) how would it be used? Would it be used in a similar fashion or could it even be used in conjunction with other technologies like Oculus Rift or Microsoft’s Hololens to create even more immersive experiences that you not only see and hear, but actually feel at a deeper level.

Robot Controlled With a Worm’s Brain

The boundary between science fiction and science fact seems to be blurring all the time. Remember the times when the communicators in Star Trek were whizz-bang futuristic devices, dreamed up by imaginative screenwriters? Now they are less advanced than today’s cell phones that even young children possess.

One area of science fiction that has clearly just been fictional though, is the idea of uploading a brain into a computer, allowing the brain to live as a form of digital consciousness.

Yet, in a very simplified form, scientists have done just that – using a simulation of the brain of a parasitic lungworm and a robot made out of Lego.

The tapeworm C. elegans, is a pretty simple animal with only 302 neurons. Scientists in the Openworm project have mapped these neurons and uploaded a simulation to a Lego robot (with similar parts to the tapeworm). The artificial brain, managed to operate the Lego, just like the actual tapeworm controlled its own body.

This video shows the Lego model in operation, with only the simulated tapeworm brain controlling it.

The scientists’ next step will be mapping the human brain and replicating the test on a larger scale!

Why is this important? Scientists are continuing to make huge steps forward with mind controlled limbs in recent years that have huge implications for the disabled. But what if we could take it beyond that? The goal of this experiment is to show we can replicate a mind digitally – they’ve succeeded on a limited level.

We’re a long way from this being possible with humans, but this is an important step in making this possible. Is this the future definition of immortality? The implications are profound and would force us to re-evaluate, amongst other things, what the definition of life is and what happens when time becomes irrelevant.

Robotics Advancement: One Well Balanced Metal Foot Forward

Last year the Boston Dynamics’ ATLAS robot was created for the DARPA Robotics Challenge Finals. It was considered quite an advanced creation at that point. The creative team have not rested on their laurels, however. They’ve kept perfecting their creation. There is now a faster, stronger, quieter, battery-powered version.

The main purpose of this robot is to go where it is unsafe for humans to go. Hence it is designed to have similar proportions to humans. As such it has been made smaller, so it can fit anywhere a human can.

This is what the latest incarnation of the robot looks like:

This has the most fluidity, balance, and strength a robot has ever displayed. Look back at how quickly Atlas has been developing and recognize how rapidly it’s evolved.

As at October 2014:

As at May 2014:

Now look 5 to 10 years into the future. We’re on the cusp of true humanoid robotics combined with increasingly miniaturized high powered computers like the Intel Curie.

Facebook Filters Out Hoaxes (But Sadly Not Stupidity) From Your Feed

How many times have you been fed a fake piece of “news” on your Facebook thread? Probably the worst examples of these are where there are threads devoted to the death of someone famous, who is still happily enjoying being very much alive. I am sure that I would have had free McDonalds food for a year by now if I believed every free offer that they were supposedly giving away!

Facebook have begun to realize that these fake messages are not what their users actually want. Sure there is fun and frivolity on Facebook, and there is room for satirical pages. But Facebook wants to hide messages that are, well, downright malicious lies.

Facebook has created a new option where you can mark a post as being a hoax. Their algorithms will look at posts marked as hoaxes, as well as other tell-tale signs like posts being deleted after being shared.

When people don’t like what they find in their newsfeed they tend to blame Facebook – so Facebook feels that they need to do something to improve the user experience (and to reduce the complaints they have to handle).  Hoax emails simply are a waste of people’s time, and sometimes their emotions.

Social media is a wonderful tool for staying connected with friends but it’s also proven to be a powerful conduit for rapidly spreading hoaxes that gullible people fail to fact check. It’s easy to laugh these off but the reality is that these stories get spread and they truly have a negative impact on public perception on frequently important issues.

Now if we could just figure out how to stop those stupid email chains your grandmother always forwards to you…

Honorable Nod: Elon Musk

Elon Musk had a dream to build a re-usable rocket that could be used to navigate into space and then land back on a football field sized off-shore platform on Earth in such a state that it could be sent up into space again.

Elon was almost able to land his re-usable rocket and he announced his incredible ambitious vision for low orbit satellites to bring next level internet access to the world.

When he moves to successfully landing his rocket and launches his first satellite for that plan it will make this list, but at TMTYL we only cover the emerging technology that is now reality.

22 Jan

5 Best Innovations from CES 2015

CES has been and gone for another year. For the few people who have never heard of it, like those hiding in the hills near Hobbiton in New Zealand,  CES stands for the Consumer Electronics Show, held each year in Las Vegas to showcase electronics and technology to trade professionals. It has become the traditional launching ground for many new innovative products.

The 2015 Show was huge, with 3,600 exhibitors and 170,000 attendees. With so many exhibitors it has been hard to sift through the insanity to determine what I think are the five best innovations; the five things on display that I think will have the most meaningful impact on the human experience.

Toyota Freeing Up its Patents

At a show where you normally goggle at new devices and are inspired by totally outside-the-box gadgets it may seem strange to turn my focus to what is really a firm letting others use some of its big secrets. But the reality is that this is a huge change. Toyota has broken the cardinal rule of big corporations – provide information to help others, possibly even competitors!

They made available over 5000 patents they hold relating to fuel cells and similar technologies. Other firms will be able to use the technologies that these patents cover for their own creations, without the need to pay any royalties to Toyota.

Toyota obviously believes that fuel cell technology is very important and that they can help develop the industry if they provide some of the secrets behind their technology to other developers. If more manufacturers develop fuel cell tech the market will develop, costs will come down and more people will move in that direction.

The deal only lasts until 2020, but that should be enough time to see other developers and manufacturers produce their own versions of hydrogen fuel cells. By doing this, Toyota has probably made a huge inroad into the development of the hydrogen-powered car.

Toyota has used CES as a platform for an announcement that will have an enormous impact on what is rapidly becoming one of the most important technologies of this century.  If man is going to decrease its strain on the planet then we need to take these technologies seriously, and any company that helps them is okay by me.

Intel Curie

There was a time when computers filled entire rooms, and by today’s standards, had tiny capabilities. Indeed the reason we have the term “bug” in our computing language today is because a bug literally flew into one of these room-sized computers and caused it to malfunction.

The Intel Curie, on display at CES this year, is a real sign of how computers have changed over the last fifty years. It is a computer the size of a small button. Indeed when it was demonstrated as part of a CES keynote speech it was pulled off a button on Intel CEO Brian Krzanich’s jacket.

Curie has real potential in the wearable sector. It gives the ability for smart watches to really live up to their name. It really symbolises the mantra of the computing world: smaller, faster, better, cheaper. This is the winning combination of features for computer chips and the Intel Curie definitely follows that trend. Smartphones became our PCs in our pocket, and we are now increasingly moving to computers being on our wrists or in other innocuous places. I can see the Intel Curie driving a huge number of products over the next couple of years.

OZOBOT Bit

There was another innovation on display that demonstrated the smaller, faster, better, cheaper mantra. Robots have been part of our lives for years, and you have even been able to get them to vacuum your floor for the last decade.

It is probably no surprise therefore, that there were quite a few robots on display at CES, demonstrating different levels of their artificial intelligence. One however, stood out as being a little bit different or, some might say, differently little?

The Ozobot Bit is one tiny fellow, coming in at just one cubic inch. However he wowed the CES audiences with the possibilities he offered children learning to program. He can remember 500 different commands, doing everything from dancing to finding the way out of a maze.

The Ozobot Bit comes with an app, which lets children program the Ozobot’s moves in a language called Blockly and then wirelessly transmit the program to the Ozobot itself. Blockly is a very visual programming language, so children can easily play with and rearrange blocks of code, just as if they were building bricks.

So why do I consider this robot one of CES’s great innovations? The Ozobot Bit not only continues a trend towards teaching children to code at an increasingly young age, but it also introduces them to robotics which is likely to be very large in the field of business in 15 to 20 years, just as those same children will be entering universities and subsequently the workforce.

Netatmo Welcome

Netatmo displayed the newest product in their range at CES and it became an instant hit. The Netatmo Welcome is a camera that can detect people’s faces. It can then notify the owner about who it has “seen”.

It takes HD images of the faces of anyone who comes into its range which it compares with the photos it has in its database. It’s most common use is for security purposes.

Suppose you’ve left the kids at home. They’re old enough to be left alone, but you do worry about them. If you have a Netatmo Welcome you can have the camera set up to send you messages about anyone who comes into the range of the camera. It will tell you when it sees your kids … and it will tell you if it sees anyone else there, including strangers.

Netatmo also has a complementary device called Welcome Tags. You can attach these to doors, windows or gates and they will automatically message you when they are disturbed, for instance by a door opening. You know you have visitors, welcome or otherwise. Combined with the Netatmo unit itself, you can find out who the visitor is (or see if it is a stranger) the moment they come within camera range.

So what’s so special about this technology? It is, in many ways, a simple innovation, expanding on the range of home security products that have become so pervasive over the last couple of years. It has moved the thinking away from security as such, and, thanks to its facial recognition technology, towards understanding WHO is actually entering your home. Is it actually anyone you know?

The Netatmo Welcome Tags by themselves are not overly innovative – there have been many motion detectors telling you that you have visitors on the market for some time. Being able to tell who it is that has come through your door is definitely an advance, though. I expect some type of technology will actually be opening our doors in the future as well (just without the whooshing noises that seems to come with them in the sci-fi movies).

Autonomous Driving Concept Car from Mercedes

The Mercedes F 015 Luxury in Motion research vehicle made its debut at CES. It has a sleek, space-age shape. It has four seats that can turn to face each other. Oh, and by the way, it drives itself.

This is definitely a car of the future that has been produced as a concept car today. Virtually everything you do in it can be done with gestures without having to touch anything. There are display screens around the car where every passenger (remember there is no driver, so even if you are alone, you are a passenger) can see any piece of information relevant to them, and make any modifications by gesturing.

Because the occupants don’t need to drive, the interior is more reminiscent of a lounge than a typical car.

As the Mercedes has to drive autonomously in compete safety, yet share the roads with traditional human drivers, there are many sensors built in to help with the driving. The car has large LED light modules on its front and rear.  These allow the car to communicate with and safely operate in the outside world. The LEDs glow blue when the car is driving autonomously and white when it is being operated by a driver. If these cars come on the market and become commonplace, these lights will provide a good guide to other drivers and pedestrians about the status of these cars.

Of course there are still many legislative hurdles to overcome before autonomous cars become a feature of our roads.

It is a concept car. It is simply Mercedes’ vision of how the autonomous car should look (and because it is from Mercedes, luxury is a key part of the equation). So why is it so important?

This concept car helps to show what happens when you rethink all conventions of human interaction with an automobile. Just as companies like Tesla completely rethought the design when the mechanics of motor vehicles changed, we can now start to rethink the design of user experience. The whole way we use a car changes if we are not actively driving. What will I do with the time when I am travelling, but normally driving the vehicle? How would I shift between activities? How does this affect my passengers? What will be my interactions with the passengers? It is a very exciting new territory to explore.

So CES 2015 has been and gone. I’ve picked what I believe will be the innovative winners from this show? It will be most interesting to see where these products go over the next 12 months, and what will be the winners from the 2016 show.

03 Jan

What is Take Me To Your Leader?

Back to the Future with Take Me to Your Leader

It’s time for a refresh of Take Me to Your Leader. That means a new commitment, a new site design, and a new focus on a bi-monthly newsletter. We’ll also be adding some new contributors and guest writers in 2015 as we move away from being simply Freddie Laker’s personal blog to a blog focused on new innovations and technology that will shake the world … and why we think they will be earth-shattering.

Some people have asked my why it’s called Take Me To Your Leader? I’m an old sci-fi geek. I’ve been a nut about it since I was young, and books like Dune and (embarrassingly) Battlefield Earth made me fall in love with the genre. Science Fiction isn’t about ray-guns, robots, and time travel (although it can be). To me it’s an opportunity for an author to write social commentary and predictions as to how the human experience will change in an environment without boundaries, but frequently grounded in some form of history or science.

Graham

“Take Me To Your Leader” is a famous quote from many a Sci-Fi B-movie, tv show, or comic book in the 50s and 60s that eventually became a trope. It actually started with a 1953 cartoon by Alex Graham in The New Yorker magazine. This showed two aliens telling a horse “Kindly take us to your President!” With a one-word modification, the quote has been used ever since.

Virtually every cartoon or show involving aliens has used the phrase at some time or other. The 4th Doctor (from Doctor Who) said it often whenever he was captured and in danger of being imprisoned – just before offering his captors a jelly baby! In Gene Roddenberry’s Andromeda is was even stated by a sentient machine.

Inevitably, in the 21st Century with the expansion of the internet it has become a meme. For clearly important research purposes I have included this cat with a box on it’s head.

take-me-to-your-leaderIn 2008 I bought TakeMeToYourLeader.com as a gift for myself after iChameleon Group (my 2nd company) joined Sapient. It was designed to reference not only my love of science fiction but also my passion for trying to predict the future and determination to be a market leader.

In 20 years I hope I’m still writing and I’ve wondered if anyone will get the joke then (or if anyone gets the joke now). Either way it still makes me smile. Hopefully the articles you read at TakeMeToYourLeader.com will make you smile just a bit, but if nothing else they will make you think about what our world will look like tomorrow, in 10 years, and maybe even in a hundred years.

02 Mar

The Entrepreneurial Son With Everything To Prove

This profile piece on Pando touched on some very personal subjects I hadn’t thought about in a long time. If you want some insights on my background I encourage you to read it. It was originally published on Pando.com on February 28th 2014 here.

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Freddie Laker carries his father with him everywhere he goes.

He bears him on his back, cloaked in a thick brown bomber jacket from the 1970′s, a relic of Freddie Laker Senior’s wardrobe. He hauls him in the form of a giant album with yellowing pages covered inlogs of every flight he’s taken since infancy. He wears him in the shape of a tattoo, the Laker airlines logo branded on his right shoulder. “For such a jackass, I’m quite sentimental,” Laker admits.

Laker Jr. was raised in his father’s entrepreneurial shadow, growing up with riches as a result of his family’s dynasty. Laker Sr. founded British-based Laker Airways, the first low-cost transatlantic airline. It was an idea before its time, one that predated and provided the foundation for those that came after, like Southwest and Ryanair. It eventually went bankrupt, following the early 1980s recession. Nonetheless, it made Laker Sr. enormously wealthy and famous, and earned him a knighthood in the 1970s.

Laker Jr. might be best described as a son-trepreneur, a businessman who inherited his father’s taste for risk taking, particularly the sadomasochistic love of company creating. He’s not alone, we can look to Chris Ovitz and Ben Lerer for other examples. But Freddie Laker’s is a particularly poignant story.

Sitting in the Pando offices, Laker Jr. flips through a big, mahogany album. In it, page upon page are covered in tiny, precise handwriting, logging the date, flight number, commander, aircraft type, and destination for every journey Laker Jr. has ever taken by plane. He points to the very first entry. “My first flight was at age three months,” Laker says shaking his head. He’s taken 1,300 flights, and made 180 transatlantic crossings.

lakers_6 From his birth, Laker Jr.’s father was preparing him to run an aviation company. At ten years old Sr. started teaching Jr. how to read financials, do operational planning, and understand every job at an airline.

As Laker Jr. grew older, the two started butting heads. Laker Jr. wanted to work with computers, having tooled around as a child with the Apple IIc Laker Sr. had in his office. “He didn’t know how to use it,” Laker Jr. remembers. “But Apple had him pose in the ad, ‘Big decision makers use Apple IIC.’”

Given that few universities were offering computer programming or hardware classes in the mid nineties, Laker Jr. saw no point in going to college. He dropped out of school after a few months, and was living the good life off his father’s dime, in Laker Sr.’s Miami home.

The tension between them inevitably came to a head, and Laker Sr. cut Laker Jr. off from his steep monthly allowance.  “I was being a spoiled asshat, and he wanted to reality check me,” Laker says. The moment is permanently seared in Laker Jr.’s mind:

I was sitting in his office at Laker Airways. My dad came from nothing, a one bedroom house, his mother delivered coal and sold apples off her back kind of thing. He said, ‘I think you’re going down the wrong path. I tried to give you all the stuff I had but I didn’t do it right.’ He said, ‘I want you to experience life the right way.’ I’ll never forget, he said, ‘You’re going to hate me for it but you’ll thank me one day.’ I remember I did thank him a few years later. It was the best thing anyone has ever done for me.

Laker Jr.’s life changed dramatically after that moment. He moved into his girlfriend’s apartment in Pembroke Pines, then a rough part of Florida, and started trying to learn how to balance his own meager budget. More often than not he’d spend his entire month’s money in a few days time and wind up borrowing cash from friends. It was an uphill battle, but slowly and surely Laker Jr. learned to live life like the 99 percent.

If you think about what an entrepreneur is, one side is being dynamic and not being afraid of failure, a willingness to go for it. But the other side is — there’s this great quote, ‘There’s no such thing as a lack of resources, there’s just a lack of resourcefulness.” I had never been forced to be resourceful: All of a sudden I became scrappy.

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Finally, Laker Sr. offered Laker Jr. a job, working for pennies, hand transcribing documents as a records clerk for the airline (“to teach me humility”). Laker Jr. worked his way up into a self-created, higher position as the Laker Airways network administrator and on hand IT guy, but still making next to no money.

Meanwhile, he started moonlighting at night as a DJ for The Womb, a popular pirate radio station in Miami.

What came next was a bit of a convoluted turn of events, the sort that would change the course of Laker Jr.’s life even if at the time its significance couldn’t be seen. The Federal Communications Commission tried to shut The Womb down for operating illegally.

Laker Jr. came up with the idea to push the station’s signal partly online, with software (built by Laker Jr.) that bounced the signal between two transmitters in different parts of town. The ploy confused the FCC for five months. “We were using the Internet to fuck these guys around,” Laker remembers.

Bear in mind, this was the mid nineties. Internet radio wasn’t a big thing yet and Pandora and Spotify were mere twinkles in their founders’ eyes.

When the FCC finally caught The Womb and shut it down, the story was big news, making the front of the Miami Herald among other outlets. Soon after Laker Jr. got a call from Rolling Stone magazine.

“They said, “You guys were one of the first 24-hour-a-day Internet radio stations and we want to interview you,” Laker remembers. He mimed covering a phone with his hand, “I literally turned to Duncan [his co-worker at The Womb] and said, ‘Hey did you know we were one of the first 24-hour-a-day radio stations?’”

Following the Rolling Stone interview, it didn’t take long for the phone to start ringing off the hook. People got wind that Laker “was the guy who could do Internet stuff” after the magazine’s feature. He was 19.

Laker did next what any ambitious person would. He used his new found business leads as a bargaining chip. He asked his dad for a raise.

“I said, ‘Can you please pay me $26,000? If I leave you’re going to have to hire a network guy and it will cost even more,’” Laker says.

His father refused (“He was still trying to tough love me”) and Laker quit to start his own Internet Service Provider company selling dial-up modems — aptly named Laker.net. As a cheeky maneuver, he rented an office space in the same building as the Laker Airways office in Miami.

It was the move that would permanently take Laker Jr. off the path of his manifest airline destiny and set him on his own entrepreneurial course.

He built out Laker.net, eventually even bringing on Laker Airways as one of 15,000 clients. After seven years he merged the company with a different one, a business deal that went over horribly wrong and destroyed Laker.net. “I was starting to become the person my dad had described himself as, where I’m the guy who’s fucked up things others haven’t even thought of yet,” Laker says ruefully. “I’m accumulating these experiences, and it’s OK.”

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In true entrepreneurial form, he immediately started another venture, a digital advertising company called iChameleon, taking some of his former clients with him. This one went a little more smoothly, and the agency slowly started gathering acclaim for its viral marketing stunts. Eventually, Laker believes, Laker Sr. came to accept and feel proud of the alternative, non-aviation route his son had taken.

“When iChameleon got a 10,000 square foot office,” Laker says. “It was big — like his offices. He saw it packed full of people, and then he was like, ‘Alright. Rock on.’”

Laker Jr. eventually sold iChameleon to Sapient, at the time the largest independent digital agency in the world. He stayed on for another four years and rose through the ranks to become a VP.

He loved it, but eventually got restless. He came up with an idea for a video production startup, and his advertising agency invested in him. “To the best of my knowledge they’ve never done [that] for anyone else in the 23 years of Sapient’s history,” Laker says.

The company, called Guide, became Laker’s full-time work. His team built technology that could turn a print article into a video almost automatically, by semantically analyzing the key terms of the story and pulling images from stock photo agencies.

It’s the most startup-y venture Laker Jr. has undertaken so far, and he says he has big dreams for it.

Between the logbook and the constant stories of battling to gain his father’s approval, it’s clear what drives much of Laker’s determination to succeed.

“My whole life, I’d always be introduced to people as, ‘Oh you’re Freddie Laker’s son,’” Laker Jr. says, smiling. “My ambition was that at some point he would start introducing himself as Freddie Laker’s father. I don’t think he ever saw that day though.” (Laker Sr. passed away in 2006, at the age of 83.)

The sentiment mirrors what Ben Lerer told Sarah Lacy at PandoMonthly in August 2012. He started Thrillist to prove he was more than his last name. “The reason I think I’ve been successful has actually been…through insecurity,” says Lerer. “I don’t want to be some guy that people look at and say ‘eh, he works with his dad.’”

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Likewise, Laker homes that Guide Laker could finally be the company which takes him out of his father’s shadow andintroduces the name Freddie Laker to an entirely new generation, as a byword for massive success as opposed to bold, but ultimately foiled, business ideas.

That burning ambition, that legacy and — yes — the fact that when you meet Freddie Laker Jr. you really, really root for him to succeed, made the email I received last week, as I was still working on my profile of Guide, all the more heartbreaking. Laker Jr. wrote:

Guide failed to find its funding. I’ve decided to pack it in. I made up my mind on Monday that I just can’t finance the company any more while I waited for investors to come through for me. It’s quite depressing to put it mildly. I think I’m in a state of shock that we couldn’t pull it off in time.

Absent a last ditch savior, Guide, Freddie Laker’s third startup, will likely close its doors in the next few days. It seems unlikely, however, that Laker Jr. himself will be brought down to earth for long.

I always think back to my the advice my father gave me when he said “I’ve fucked up things you haven’t even thought of yet…” I’m 36 now and still 35 years younger than [his age] when he said that to me. I’m sure I’ll have some more successes and I’m sure I’ll have some more failures whether that’s as an entrepreneur or in the corporate world. Either way I’ll continue to strive to have the courage to not sit on the sidelines when I see a challenge I want to take on.