Innovation

Ideas are a dime a dozen...

There is a point to this blog post, but I really don’t get to it until towards the end. I have to set up the story first : ) And yeah, it is a long post, so sue me.

When I was young and first introduced to science fiction, it set my imagination on fire and I developed a voracious appetite for reading. Even today, there are few things I enjoy as much as curling up somewhere quiet and reading a book. I’ll read just about anything I can get my hands on, but I particularly enjoy science fiction, especially classic stuff that no one reads any more. Of course the plot lines and the stories themselves were fun and engaging, but what really captivated me was the wondrous sense of what the future could hold. I used to spend hours imagining what it would be like exploring new worlds, traversing through space in a ship, transferring my intelligence into a computer, gaining cybernetics that offered superhuman abilities, teleporting from one place to another, and so much more.

Tron_poster.jpg

TV shows and movies contributed to this as well…Star Trek, Star Wars, Logan’s Run, Buck Rogers, Bladerunner, Dune, This Island Earth, Silent Running, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Battlestar Galactica, Brainstorm, The Forbidden Planet, Outland, and of course, TRON.

As I grew a bit older, my imaginary adventures matured and I started contemplating how the cool things in the future could be made, how they could be done. What was first wonder, excitement, and anticipation, became an impatient restlessness. I didn’t want to wait…if no one else was going to do it, maybe I needed to be the one to figure this stuff out and make it happen. Still though, I was fairly young and the practical realities of life needed to be dealt with…high school, some college, a job, etc. At some point after working a couple of years (with only one year of college) as a detective for the Army and Air Force Exchange Service (AAFES), I decided that I wanted to make more money and do something that I loved, so I opened up a comic book store with a very good friend of mine.

This was a pretty amazing time as I could not only indulge myself with a huge range of comics in many genres, both mainstream and the edgier independents, but we also did a fair bit with role-playing games, anime, and collectibles. I already had a good bit of a background with RPGs, but my new exposure to anime here was pretty mind opening. It made a lot of western cartoons look like crass junk, and the sophistication of some of the stories rivaled classic literature. Unfortunately though, the industry decided to kill off Superman right as we were nearing the first anniversary of the store, and our business tanked.

This is where things get interesting though. Towards the end here, I met a guy that was a specialist in virtual reality (VR) and he was trying to get a startup off the ground. We featured some of his tech in the store which was awesome, but as we were closing the business, he offered me a job. Holy cow! A job making games for a virtual reality company. I jumped on it. My adventure here, and what happened later is a tale for another day, but getting back to the point of this post, I was suddenly immersed in a real-cutting edge company that was literally trying to invent the future. I discovered Neuromancer and other works by William Gibson. Mind blown.

All of this together made me realize that I wanted to be a technologist, an entrepreneur, and dare I say it, a visionary. Everything suddenly seemed possible and doable. I could find like-minded people, I could write a business plan, I could find investors, and I could build somethingthat no one else had tried or thought of.  Ideas were easy, I had lots of them (and I still do today, tons of em), but something compelling, ambitious, and visionary was the hard part. I could do it though…I had a taste of it with this VR company. As young as I was (early 20s) and without a college education, I was still smart and savvy enough to keep up with people 10 and 15 years more experienced than I was, and still bring innovative and creative thoughts and concepts to the table.

In 1995 I relocated to Raleigh North Carolina (at the time, this was emerging as the “East Coast Silicon Valley) to strike out on my own. We were going to build the world’s first real-time 3D massively multi-user online role-playing game. I was excited, eager, and my passion for it was through the roof (even now, I’m still the same about technology and startups).

I really felt like I was becoming the visionary I so desperately wanted to be when I was a kid. Some people I met got really excited. I was called a pioneer of internet gaming, a technological wunderkind, a genius (I’m smart, but I wouldn’t go that far), and much more. On the other hand, I met tons of people that said things like “PCs can’t do real-time 3D”, “people will never play (or pay) for games on the internet”, “3D virtual worlds are useless and just a fad”, “people won’t be able to understand what an avatar is”, “you are too young to start a company” [Note: no joke. This was in the mid-90’s and I was in my mid 20s.]. The list goes on. The more “practical” types were concerned that I was too “visionary” and had my heads in the cloud about what was possible to do technically and what was conceivable in terms of industry trends and business/revenue models. For the first time in my life, I was exposed to the notion that visionary was a bad word. You can’t be a successful entrepreneur and be a visionary at the same time.

I built a team, brought in some investors, and was in the middle of negotiating an international publishing deal as well as a venture deal, when things blew up. I learned a very hard lesson about people, personalities, and the absolute critical nature of picking the right team. I was shattered and devastated when it all went to hell, but that didn’t stop me from trying again. And again. And again. It is in my blood. I’m pretty sure I’ll be launching another startup when I’m 97. Screw you if you think fundable entrepreneurs can’t be older than 25. You know, after this first horrible experience as a tech startup founder, when I was working on the next company to start, two of my friends actually staged an intervention. My girlfriend threatened to break up with me if I persisted in the ridiculous notion of starting another company, and both she and one of my best friends at the time strongly suggested I get counseling from a therapist. That was a fun conversation.

I had proven then, and a couple of times since, that it is indeed possible to be a visionary, and at the same time be capable of building a team, a product, a company, and getting something to market. Sure, sometimes I am a little early to the show in terms of emerging technologies (virtual reality, mmorpgs, augmented reality, and much more), but that is part of being a visionary and a pioneer, isn’t it?

Even so, at some point somewhere, I betrayed my own ideals and self-confidence, shunning and going out of my way to avoid being labeled a visionary. Sure, when it did happen, I was secretly pleased and happy, but I knew that the label could be a scarlet letter or a brand. In “conventional” wisdom, a so-called visionary or “idea guy” needed some dour grey beard MBA or accountant to be the “adult supervision” or, preferably, the CEO. I couldn’t have it both ways and be able to bring the idea to life in the way that it should be, and at the same time do the other things necessary to fund the company and grow it.

These days (now that my beard has some grey in it) I hear other things from people like “what if someone else does it first?”, “ideas are a dime a dozen”, “that technology is just a fad, people will never use it”, or “that concept is too big, why don’t you just build an app”, and my personal favorite “why don’t you just get a normal job?”.

I’ve been thinking recently about what on one hand feels like a total lack of innovation, creativity, and real vision in the tech industry, or the same in politics (the state of our space program is a national shame in my opinion), while at the same time a sense that there are some glimmers of hope…augmented reality, virtual reality, the internet of things, computer vision, drones, self-driving cars, 3D printing, and so forth. I want to embrace the label of visionary again and go do something amazing, but there are so few people these days willing to take the risk either with their time, or with their investment capital.

This past weekend I was considering all of this and thinking about the difference between a good idea (a dime a dozen, remember) and a real vision, or rather, what makes someone a visionary? I believe that being a visionary isn’t about having a good idea, or even a great idea. Anyone can come up with those. A visionary, in my mind, is someone that not only has a good idea, but also has the ability to see the bigger picture. How do all the puzzle pieces fit together, how to define the roadmap to get there, and the process of how to make it a reality. It has to be realistic and doable.

The idea isn’t enough. A visionary sees beyond that and grasps not only the implications of what can be done but also how it should be done. This is the difference between an idea and a vision. Ideas are easy, vision is hard. The hardest though, is turning vision into reality. That takes an extraordinary amount of sheer force of will, the right team, and funding.

Don’t settle for just an idea. Don’t let people tell you it can’t be done. If you are going to throw your life, your blood, and your soul into a risky endeavor like a startup, make it a good one. Do something worthwhile and big. Why settle for flying kites when you can aim for the moon?

Even as I write that though, I feel like I should balance it with this thought…keep your head in the clouds, but keep your feet on the ground. Having a glorious destination is nice, but if you don’t plan well (and logically) on how to get there, one step at a time, you fail at being a visionary, you are just a dreamer.

Now, go do something awesome.

PS Do me a favor and leave a comment or share this if this post means anything to you or hopefully inspires you to go do something. On the other hand, you could just leave a note if you think I'm a nutcase. Either way, the feedback is appreciated.

Is it too early for Augmented Reality?

Before I answer the question, let me refer you to this chart put out by Gartner this past summer. Notice that Augmented Reality is on the far left with a yellow triangle, which means “more than ten years” before mainstream adoption.

Ok, now I’m not going to argue what mainstream adoption is, as that would require a whole discussion of the Gartner research and a bunch of other stuff. What I will say though, is that I think that it will happen within ten years. The thing that has me thinking though, is the amount of mainstream EXPOSURE augmented reality is getting right now. This could drive (accelerate) mainstream adoption or it could be deleterious and actually handicap the technology so much, that it never reaches the mass market.

I’ve been tracking augmented reality on google, youtube, blogs, university research, and in the corporate world for more than a year now (and I’ve been aware of the concept and tech for much longer), and I can tell you that the exposure curve, or degree of exposure has been gaining a lot of critical mass in the last twelve months. Everyone is talking about AR right now, Microsoft XNA can do AR, the FLARToolkit is AR in Flash, and tons of commercials are starting to come out with AR or “AR like” elements.

Today is the superbowl and rumors are already flying about AR ads from General Electric, Coke, and maybe a few others. You can already find the following examples on the net:

Coke Avatar Ad

General Electric (you can do this at home)

Did I mention these will be showing at the Superbowl? I’m not sure there is any method of reaching out to the mass market at one time than a Superbowl commercial. Now, I’m not saying that this will drive adoption, but I’m saying that this amount of exposure, this early in the technology curve, could either be very good or very very bad.

Why bad? Well, first of all, the great majority of augmented reality is based on using markers or “fiducials” which are essentially printed patterns on paper that are viewed through a video stream, recognized by software, and then cause a 3D object to be displayed on a monitor. This works great for particular uses like the Lego kiosk or conference room presentations, or goofing around in your office. There is a long list of applications, but the real promise and potential of augmented reality isn’t based on these novelty applications…it is in something that is ubiquitious, wireless, mobile, global, pervasive, and connected to everything. As I have said before, Augmented Reality is NOT just about compositing 3D graphics on a video stream. Anyone that believes it is, misses the point entirely.

But anyway, I think back to the very early 90s when virtual reality started getting exposure. I fear that history may repeat itself. The technology was nowhere near ready…the graphics were terrible, the head mounted displays were giant and bulky, the whole thing was slow and caused eye strain, vertigo, and headaches, and the list goes on. However, Hollywood jumped on the idea and was putting out VR movies left and right, and then (the worst thing ever!) the greedy money guys jumped into the game with a lot of overeager, overpromising marketing types.

Virtual Reality obviously didn’t deliver what it promised and it was soon one of those things you didn’t to be associated with. “Virtual Reality” in a business plan meant certain death. Some of the same people weren’t quite satisfied with this and the movement to rebrand it all as “Virtual Worlds” (piggybacking on the early successes of MMORPGs) started developing. Looking back now though, is it any wonder that many of the virtual worlds companies (or the ones using VW tech for military/government/academic “solutions”) are the same seedy guys in suits and the technology has barely moved from where it was in 1995 or 1996? In contrast, the game industry kept moving forward like gangbusters…this is one of the differences between innovation and greed, but I digress.

I predict that Augmented Reality is going to get a massive boost in public mass market exposure in the next six months (starting today). You will see several high profile venture capital deals where an insane amount of money is either going to go to the established players (particularly Total Immersion and Metaio) or some unknown startup with a glitzy exec team, big corps are going to get on the bandwagon or increase their current efforts (IBM, HP, Sony, Nokia, Intel), Universities are going to increase their research programs (there are at least half a dozen great programs out there right now), and floundering virtual world solutions companies are going to attempt to twist/retool their marketing pitches to get a ride too, although they may try using different terms and marketing speak…augmented reality, enhanced reality, mixed reality, etc. I bet Forterra does this, and it wouldn’t surprise me to see the UCF Institute of Simulation and Training trying to leverage their facilities as well.

I think that most (not all) of the venture deals in this space are going to be a total waste of funding for the time being. You have to look beyond a pretty business plan, accomplishments in other industries, an experienced executive team, or a demo that your 14 year old son likes. Before you throw any money at a venture deal in the augmented reality space, you better know exactly what you are getting in to. Ask around, pay attention to what bloggers are saying and talking about, read the right sci-fi books (Gibson, Stephenson, Sterling, Vinge, Stross, Niven, etc.). You have got to look AHEAD when considering an investment, not the NOW.

Anyway, Augmented Reality is at risk of getting people excited about the future potential and vision now, while we are still crawling around with basic concepts and marker technology. The industry doesn’t even have a decent lexicon and is generally one giant unexplored area of technology that has not really been trailblazed and pioneered yet. Sure a lot has been done in the last 20 years, but this is still an embryonic market. You can’t get people excited about the Coke: Avatar commercial, or Roku’s Reward, and then deliver this:

I’m just sayin.

If what I predict does happen, Augmented Reality (or at least the thing we are dreaming about) will have to rebrand itself. I already don’t think that “augmented reality” is a great term anyway and we need to find something a little shorter and more direct, but that is just me.

When I get some time, I’ll write another post describing where I think the technology could go and what we should be striving towards creating over the next 5-10 years. The future is very bright and I am extremely optimistic on the potential here. Augmented Reality is a disruptive technology and it will change the way we see the world, interact with media, and communicate, but as with the virtual world and MMORPG industries, there are too many projects and ventures going about it the wrong way (almost backwards in some senses).

Let’s do this right and not get ahead of ourselves. I welcome mass market exposure, new companies, a lot of venture capital activity, and willy-nilly innovation, but I don’t want to see us get mired in poor delivery and over promising. We have to break away from the “novelty” of AR and build something real and world changing.

What do YOU think?

PS Follow me on twitter already. @robertrice

NIVARS

One of the projects I am working on is launching a new Center of Excellence for the Rocky Mountain Supercomputing Center (RMSC), which will be the National Institute of Virtual and Augmented Reality and Simulations (NIVARS). Yes, I know it is a long title, but there really isn’t a nice short term that encompasses all things virtual, augmented, and simulations. Maybe we should start saying using Dynamedia or something to refer to any or all of the following: virtual reality, virtual worlds, augmented reality, mmo, mmorpg, interactive, immersive, geolocative, contextual, meta, etc. etc. Much of the underlying technology is the same, so why not?

Anyway, NIVARS will officially launch its website later this month (January). In addition to acting as a center of excellence for RMSC, it will also engage in activities that promote innovation and advancing the state-of-the-art of dynamedia (see above!). This is purposefully somewhat broad in scope, as I want to have some elbow room to engage in and support research, publishing, conferences, think-tanks, collaboration, and mindsharing.

If you want to contribute ideas or volunteer some time, feel free to email me directly. We will probably have a formal launch of NIVARS in the Spring.

Vision and Plan

Vision without Plan is mere daydreaming and avails nothing. Plan without Vision is the definition of aimless mediocrity. Vision with Plan is the essence of greatness and can change the World.

I spend a lot of time thinking ahead, thinking big, and contemplating what is possible. I think that you have to think outside of the box and really push the envelop if you want to accomplish something worthy of effort. People that do so, and match this vision with plans, resources, and effort are usually called visionaries. Our history is littered with these giants that refused to settle for average, mediocre, or the status quo. On the other hand, people that just spin out ideas all day long without doing anything about it are generally derided as lazy daydreamers, or accused of having their heads so far in the clouds they live lives in fantasy and impractibility. Success changes that perception real quick.

As an entrepreneur I am regularly sharing ideas and thoughts with people. I always start with the macro…where is the horizon? How far can we go? What is possible? What is our potential? Then I move on to the micro…how do we get there? What do we need? What are the obstacles to overcome? What is the plan of attack?

This has always worked out well for me. Vision and ambition inspires people, and has magic to “stir men’s blood”. However, many people that I have encountered over the years are either small minded or so trapped in a rut of mundane living with blinders, that they are unwilling to consider new ideas (big or small). They can only see what has been done, time after time, in old and proven models. People like this are a dual edged sword…on one hand, they temper the visionaries and force the writing of plans, methods, and models. They are a necessary backbone to any venture. But on the other hand, they can suck the life out of an idea or vision and turn it into a hollow grey shade of its former vibrant self.

My advice to entrepreneurs is to find people with practical experience and wisdom that share in your passion and zeal for your idea and vision. Learn from them, leverage their experience, and listen to their advice…but the first time you encounter someone that tries to change, diminish, or flat out destroy your goal and excitement, divorce yourself from them quickly.

You would be amazed at how many angel investors and venture capital funds I have shared various ideas and plans with that either entirely missed the point, or flat out dismissed us. One of my favorite examples here happened to me in the early/mid 90s. I was seeking funds for a MMORPG startup in 94/95…we were going to be the first “real-time 3D” massively multiuser online role playing game. A few people laughed at us…”that can’t be done”, “there is no market for that”, “you can’t do real-time 3D graphics on a PC”, “people want to buy games one time, they won’t pay a subscription for it”, “the PC game industry is dead”, “why isn’t microsoft or yahoo doing this?”. You get my point.

The sad thing, is that this is not uncommon. It has happened throughout history. Many of our greatest innovators, inventors, scientists, and great thinkers had to fight with this. Now, what really kills me, is when people with no vision (and only occasionally a plan) find massive amounts of support and funding to do some mediocre, generic, “me too”, or whatever project. The ultimately fail in a miserable fashion. Again, history is littered with examples (do your own google search). The end result of this, is an increased pulling away from big ideas and innovators. If small ideas don’t work, big ones won’t either.

Of course, sometimes small ideas are successful, and this is perceived as an indicator that safe and small is the way to go, when in reality, it is because there is nothing else that is bigger, grander, or more innovative to compete against. I talked about this in my book…if you have bought rotten eggs all your life in the market, you base your judgments and values on rotten eggs. An outsider would determine that rotton eggs are a great business. But imagine that first time someone starts selling fresh eggs! I firmly believe that many industries and sectors out there (especially high-tech, social media, virtual worlds, mmorpgs, etc.) have been suffering from rotten eggs for so long, that we can’t recognize what we are settling for. We have become nearsighted and hunchbacked. We can see (and smell) our feet, but we miss the trees around us and we have no conception of the larger forest of possibility and potential.

We are at the edge of yet another new year, which means there is a collective feeling of rebirth, newness, and a clean slate. What will we make of 2009? Will we expand out of our comfort zone and expand our horizons? Will we take risks and strive for innovation and growth? Will we let ourselves be suckered in by the doom and gloom of a economic downturn or will we leap out of our seats and aggressively look for opportunities to seize?

As you reflect on the last year, I encourage you to think about doing something unexpected, unconventional, and different in 2009. Shake things up. Take some risks. Think big. Make plans. Start something new. Move to the other coast. Pick up a new hobby. Change the business model. Challenge yourself and the people around you. Get rid of your preconveived notions. Refuse to perpetuate hate, bigotry, or stereotypes. Reach across the aisle. Think, Do, Grow, Challenge, Innovate, Achieve, Succeed.

Your life is what YOU make of it. Don’t settle for less. Don’t be satisfied with mediocrity.

Keep your feet on the ground and your head in the clouds. Do something worthwhile and change the world.

Make no little plans:
They have no magic
to stir men’s blood.
-Daniel H. Burnham

Just for the record, I’m taking my own advice. I can’t talk about it now, but I’m neck deep in some mind-blowing life-changing industry-rattling world-shaking evolutionary revolutionary “OMG” stuff. My startup is starting to get some incredible traction and a table full of opportunities has fallen in my lap. The synchronicity of everything is a little jarring…it is all related and all dovetails quite nicely into our short and long term goals.

The fun thing? Part of this is going to create some unparalleled opportunities for other entrepreneurs and startups out there willing to really think outside of the box and be unconventional. I can’t wait to tell you about it. We have a chance to do something huge together. Screw the economy. I’m going to create jobs. That’s what entrepreneurs do best, isn’t it?

Hey, do me a favor and post a comment if any of this rings your bell. I get a reasonable amount of traffic on here and people don’t say much. Tell me what you think. Share your passions and ideas here.

(The Twitter Version of my quote: “Vision without Plan is empty daydreaming. Plan without Vision is aimless mediocrity. Vision with Plan can change the world.”)

 

 

Tech Talk at Virginia Tech

I was invited by the ACM Club at Virginia Tech to be a guest speaker at one of their “Tech Talks” last night.

I was pleasantly surprised by the students and the questions they asked. Very smart bunch and friendly. The campus itself was gorgeous as well. If I ever went back to school, I think that Virginia Tech would find itself at the top of my list for where I’d want to go.

I’m planning on keeping in touch with some of the students, at least the ones that talked to me afterwards and gave me their email address. I hope they take my advice and get a profile up on LinkedIn and start networking as much as they can. It will pay off for them down the road as they advance their careers.

Thank you for having me guys, I had a good time and I would do it again in a heartbeat.

Fear is the mind killer...

So the markets are in turmoil with an incredible amount of volatility. Some people are screaming about another Great Depression or a long term recession. A few are claiming that the sky is falling and we are all doomed. Regardless of these points of view, we are in a period of uncertainty (the political rhetoric and impending election aren’t helping either).

I’ve talked before about how important perception is, and how prophecy can be self-fulfilling. If we keep telling ourselves that we are destined for failure, we will most definitely find ourselves arriving there sooner rather than later. No thank you.

Now is absolutely not the right time to duck and cover, run screaming into the night, or hide under the bed gnashing your teeth. America is not in its death throes, and capitalism is not broken beyond repair. The stock market will recover (although this may be delayed depending on who wins the white house) and we will emerge stronger. Yes, I do think that the fundamentals of our nation and economy are sound. We are just experiencing a bump in the road because of bad practices in some sectors. Sure, these bumps are pretty big and they are far reaching, but that doesn’t change the larger picture. If you break your foot, you are going to have to limp for a while and it’s going to hurt, but you aren’t going to DIE. Even better, when your foot heals, the bones will be stronger.

If you have ever thought “I wish I invested back in 2xxxx when stocks were cheaper”, now is your chance. Whether we are in a correction or a massive drop due to investor lack of confidence or fear, there are a lot of opportunities out there that are undervalued now and won’t be for long. We may not have reached the bottom yet, but investing in stocks is something you do with an eye on the long term, not day to day gains or losses. 

You know, I was going to write a lot more for this post, but I think I will instead copy/paste an excerpt from an email I sent to someone earlier this week.

* * *

Obviously the country is in a pretty bad way, and I won’t get into the reasons why, they should be pretty self-evident if you have been watching the news and financial markets. I don’t think we are headed for another great depression, and I don’t think we are on the verge of spiraling down into a recession either. I do think that we are in for a tough ride in the short term, but ultimately I am very bullish on the economy, the markets, and our nation in general. These are exciting times for people willing to look ahead and roll up their sleeves…the opportunities are there.

I think if we pull back and look at things from some position of altitude, we can see that there are normal cycles that occur throughout history in politics, markets, climate, etc. I feel that we are coming to the end of one cycle and another one is beginning. The current crisis is, in my mind, the same as the pain associated with shedding a skin or emerging from a cocoon.

If you consider all of the things that are going wrong right now, I think that these are actually to the benefit of the country. I have been saying for more than a few years now that the country has gotten lazy, our ambitious hunger for innovation and our hopeful spirit has been stunted, both by the dot com crash (which has had far reaching deleterious effects on technology development, venture capital markets, etc.), various corporate scandals (like Enron and the more current fiascos), and so on. All of this together is causing pressure to build that becomes a driving necessity to do, to change, to create, to risk, and to strive for something better. The middle class will rekindle its sense of entrepreneurial spirit and we will begin looking inward more…towards our local communities, churches, neighborhoods, etc. In every time of crisis, the people of this country always stand firm with resolve to survive and then surpass. It may take a few years, but I think we will come out of this much much stronger. I can’t stress enough how important it is that the shift back to community and locality is occurring…part because of the economy and its problems, but also because of how technology is changing and how we perceive, interact with, and consume media and information.

Getting back to the economy though, whether we are going through a correction or a short term loss, we will absolutely rebound. I do think it will be a long time before national confidence in real estate and the financial sector is restored, so I think that the opportunities in the future are going to be on energy, technology, and defense (for different reasons compared to energy/tech).

The interesting thing about tech though, especially in a handicapped economy where people begin looking for other ways to create or supplement income, is that tech is unique compared to other sectors in that it has the ability to rapidly create vast numbers of jobs and literally catalyze and cause direct change. While most of the recent focus in tech (driven by shortsighted VCs for the most part) has been with weak widgets, failed business models, and generic applications (copies of something else), change is coming.

The trends are moving towards
where the user is and what they are doing…everything is becoming locative, geospatial, contextual, etc. Even ubiquitous computing is starting to become a reality…rumors are flying about a new apple laptop that is basically two touch-sensitive screens…no keyboard! Other rumors indicate that Steve Jobs is already looking ahead to cramming everything we have in the IPhone and IPod now into the form factor of a watch. Intel is investing heavily in new smaller and more powerful chips that are designed specifically for mobile devices with low power requirements (they are announcing the dual-core version of their ATOM chip very soon). The list goes on and on (I’ve been watching these trends for a few years now, and they are all converging and maturing…right now!).

For us,
[note: I’m talking again about my startup] this represents a massive opportunity. Not only are we ahead of the curve in what we are thinking, but the thing we are attempting to develop has the potential to be monumental…the very backbone that ties all of these new mobile devices together, with interactive and immersive media that is directly personal and relevant to the user. Entire models change…no longer will things be one way consumption of media (website to person) for example. What we are building even has the potential to create entirely new professions (and as a result thousands and thousands of jobs). We are at the cusp of something amazing, but it will take a vast amount of work and tireless ambition to pull off.

Even if we aren’t the ones to do it, it is coming. The country needs something new, it needs innovation, it needs hope and belief, and it needs to be cultivated, facilitated, and enabled. I firmly believe that tech, as a whole, can contribute to the future of this country, but it is greatly hampered by the shortsighted VCs, the greedy big company CEOs, the corrupt politicians, and the get rich quick schemers. It is much more difficult to start something these days because of the lack of capital (particularly tech oriented seed), but this simply drives innovation into basements and garages…it may take longer to emerge, but it will.

So, I’m pretty excited about our country’s future. I think the short term road is going to be long and fraught with risk and obstacles, but I believe in the human spirit and this great country.

Getting back to the topic at hand, if some things tilt one way instead of the other, we will find ourselves on the brink of another great period of innovation, advancement, and tremendous change. Expect to see things over the next ten years that will dwarf the measure of change that the PC revolution brought us. The world is indeed changing, and we have the opportunity to be involved.

That’s what I think. I plan on being part of it and doing what I can to spark change, growth, and innovation myself.

* * *

My email continued on talking about my current startup and some other things you would probably find boring. I think what I am trying to communicate is that you shouldn’t be worried about the current economic turbulence, and that there is a lot of opportunity out there to be seized by the bold and daring.

I also think there is a huge shift occuring in the tech and media sectors. I’ll probably blog about this in my next post and expound on some of my comments here. 

Fear is the mind-killer (it will kill your portfolio as well). The spice must flow. Venture capitalists and investors must embrace risk and return their focus on creating wealth, new companies, and jobs. This is a good way to fast-track the recovery of our economy. Remember, you can dramatically mitigate risk in a startup, but you can’t dramatically increase the potential in an existing company. We also need to move away from widgets and “me too” companies, funding ventures with no real discernable business model, etc. Use your heads people.

Final points:

1) Don’t be greedy.

2) Build value, not widgets.

3) Business model before funding.

4) Don’t limit vision to silicon valley and wall street.

5) Don’t be afraid of innovation or risk.

6) Aspire, Create, Build, Grow.

The Perplexing Predicament of Pioneering

Being a pioneer and attempting to sail uncharted waters is not an easy thing by any means. There are many risks and obstacles that must be overcome all while flirting continuously with failure, disaster, and unexpected complications. The overall struggle is evenly split between the internal and external. Internally, a pioneer (or entrepreneur), must regularly wrestle with self-doubt, second-guessing, and finding balance between many things…life and work, doing work yourself or delegating, choosing one path over another, and so forth. Externally, the pioneer must fight unbelievers, naysayers, lack of vision, competitors, sharks, pirates, and even resistance from friends and allies.

History is studded with many examples of pioneers, inventors, explorers, scientists, and forward thinkers that have grasped, fought, clawed, wrestled, and sacrificed with great exertion of will and spirit to accomplish their goals. Columbus, Tesla, Edison, the Wright brothers…the list goes on and on.

I have had my own problems over the years, but most recently with our efforts with augmented reality. I think we have solved some huge problems and we know how to make it happen, but we continually have difficulties with explaining the technology to people (a common problem with any new or disruptive technology), or convincing people that it will work, there is a business model, people will use it, etc. If we don’t do it, someone else will. There are many trends in technology, mobile computing, data visualization, contextual and locative content, human-computer interface, cognitive computing, and so forth that are all driving toward the same thing (this is one aspect of the Singularity that everyone seems to be talking about these days).

But pioneering here is not without predicaments. Raising funds to actually develop and bring this technology to market is one example of many. Everyone recognizes the value of being first to market with something, but no one wants to take a risk on “unproven” technology until someone else has done it first. Of course at that point, the conversation becomes “soandso already does that, we don’t believe you can compete). Other comments we have heard are along the lines of:

“If this is so great, why isn’t Google doing it?”

“It isn’t possible that you are the only ones that figured it out…Microsoft is probably doing this right now”

“We are interested, but come back after you already have revenue and then we can discuss funding”

“We will fund you, but you need a new management team, the business model needs to be changed, and we need to rethink the product you want to build”

“If you aren’t based in Silicon Valley, there is no way you can build a successful company”

Again, the list goes on. Imagine if Columbus quit trying to get his boats, or Edison stopped bothering with light bulbs after the tenth failure, or if there were only six computers in the world, all serving up recipes in the kitchen. What if the Wright brothers kept selling bicycles because that was a “real” job.

When I think about how difficult it is for any entrepreneur or startup that has the ambition of changing the world, or a vision to create something new and wonderful, it really irritates me. You almost can’t get any traction unless you are fresh out of college, working on some facebook widget, biotech, or some web app that is sure to get acquired by someone else. What stuns me is the sheer number of “what the hell are they thinking” venture deals that keep getting done. I could rant about this alone for a long time, but that isn’t what I want to talk about today.

I tell people that I think innovation was stifled tremendously after the dot com crash. Venture capitalists are acting more like investment bankers now and there are very few funding sources that are willing to take the risk of funding innovation. Our country was built on innovation, big ideas, big risks, and a soul deep belief that anything is possible…if we but strive for it.

As Alan Kay said, “…Really smart people with reasonable funding can do just about anything.” I firmly believe this is true. There are no bright ideas without electricity and you can’t win a race without gas in the car. 

The venture community must rethink their current method of doing things. Mitigate your risk, but don’t be afraid of visionaries and innovators. Pair them up with experienced business builders and fund them well (never overfund!). Encourage, cultivate, guide, and mentor. The returns on your capital will be far greater than throwing money at some hair-brained social network widget thing with no discernable business model.

Nikola Tesla is quoted as saying “The present is theirs; the future, for which I really worked, is mine.”

This really sums up how I (and other pioneers) feel. Sure your shiny facebook widget or rehashed 1996 technology virtual world might be getting all the funding and attention now, but I am building for the future.

I refuse to give up. You should believe in yourself, your dreams, and your ideas as well. Be smart about how and what you do, but never let anyone choke your passion or cloud your vision. Keep your head in the clouds and your feet on the ground. Don’t wait for opportunity to come knocking…she is very shy. You need to chase after her unceasingly.

Go for it. Without risk, innovation, passion, and funding, the world will never change. We will never set foot on another planet, never cure cancer, never feed the world, never find renewable energy solutions, never evolve. Lack of risk and change is equal to stagnation, which ultimately leads to decay and death. 

Some quotes to ponder:

“There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.” — Ken Olson, Founder of Digital Equipment Corp (DEC)

“A rocket will never be able to leave the Earth’s atmosphere.” — New York Times

“Flight by machines heavier than air is unpractical (sic) and insignificant, if not utterly impossible.” - Simon Newcomb

“The cinema is little more than a fad. It’s canned drama. What audiences really want to see is flesh and blood on the stage.” -– Charlie Chaplin

“The world potential market for copying machines is 5000 at most.” — IBM

“I must confess that my imagination refuses to see any sort of submarine doing anything but suffocating its crew and floundering at sea.” — HG Wells

“Television won’t last. It’s a flash in the pan.” — Mary Somerville

and of course… “The world is flat.”

AR is not the new VR...but it could be

In the early 90’s, Virtual Reality, or “VR”, began to get a lot of attention. Sure, the idea had been around for a while, and plenty of people were working on it to some degree or another, but like the Internet it really started emerging into the public eye in the early 90s. I myself got my first job in the “industry” working at a virtual reality arcade game company in Louisville Kentucky called Alternate Worlds Technology. I have lots of stories about THAT, but this post isn’t going to go there.

The appeal of VR was immense. Our imaginations ran wild with visions of cyberspace, immersive worlds where you were really there and the sheer potential of the technology was almost overwhelming. I remember reading a lot about different groups doing research or working on varying VR projects, but we felt like we were way ahead of the curve…we were doing multi-user VR. Sure, the graphics were terrible, the head-mounted displays were very heavy and bulky, and there were a host of other problems, but we were working on it. We were digital pioneers blazing new trails in entertainment and technology. The first game I ever designed was Cybertag…a multi-user virtual reality shooter. It was pretty awesome for the time.

Anyway, the big Achilles heel of virtual reality was that it was born too early. The internet was barely hatched, DOS and Windows 3.11 were the main operating systems, VGA (no hardware acceleration) was the limit of graphics, and you were doing good if you had a 486/66 computer. I don’t want to get into a history lesson here, or talk about the golden age of 1990 to 1997 (give or take), but technology (hardware and software) could not keep up with our imaginations. VR died “on the vine” quite quickly. You can still find some of the early VR celebrities hanging on to their glory days, having never moved on.

Virtual Worlds (VW) had a similar history, and a similar fate. If you look back, you can see the ground littered with virtual worlds of all types, most of them terrible quality, poor design, or build on old ideas and technology. Even worse are the lost millions and millions of dollars that were carelessly thrown at the “potential” while ignoring the practical. VR has never really recovered, and VW nearly died as well, except that its cousin, MMORPGs, caught on.

I’ll get to my point about augmented reality (AR) in a few minutes. A massive amount of money has been made on MMORPGs, and this will not stop anytime soon. Of course, vast amounts of money are still being foolishly invested in MMO companies controlled by people that have no idea what they are doing, but they have a lot of skill in acquiring money, so that will go on. Many people will lose their investments…which means that the good ideas by smart people will continue to be unfunded, and medoicre crap will keep being released to the market. Still, money will be made. The masses want MMORPGs and they will pay for the best they can get (regardless of how bad it is). 

As MMORPGs have made a lot of money, social networking has caught on (even though this is old news to most of the game and virtual world industry), and now a lot of attention (and money) is being thrown at virtual worlds and those “blends” of virtual world, social networking, and mmorpg. These are usually low tech browser based things targeted at kids and young teens. While the biggest MMORPG on the block has more than 10M users, the biggest social gaming virtual world (MapleStory I believe) has over 75M. So, everyone wants on that bandwagon and the flow of money is going in that direction. What people are missing (because they are focused on the NOW, and not the short term future) is that by the time these newly funded ventures are ready for release, that huge 75M number will be ready for more adult content. Massive opportunity for a smartly designed MMORPG in three to five years time I think. 

Anyway, I digress. This blog post is about Augmented Reality. In the last six months or so, augmented reality has emerged into the public view and you can almost plot the growth in the number of youtube videos, press releases, reviews, blogs, and so forth talking about Augmented Reality. Intel, Nokia, HP, Harvard, MIT, HITLabs, Total Immersion, University of Cambridge, UNC, Alcatel-Lucent, the list goes on and on. Everyone seems to be doing *something* with Augmented Reality right now.

The feeling of Deja vu is unmistakable. I have this tangible sense of history repeating itself. As VR was in the early days, so is AR now. Everything I have seen is interesting to be sure, and the potential is incredible…surpassing VR and possibly the world wide web in terms of scope and degree of change it could bring. But the thing that worries me, is that everything I am seeing reeks of novelty, not practicality. There is no vision, no real innovation, no real eye-opening technology or application. I’ve seen a few things that made me say “wow” but nothing that elicited a “OMG WOW”. 

I predict that what has happened before will happen again. There is still some time for things to percolate and gain some momentum. With Gartner calling augmented reality one of the top 10 most disruptive technologies coming soon , and Intel’s CEO spending his keynote speech at CES 08 almost entirely on augmented reality, it is just a matter of time before some Silicon Valley “suits” throw together a business plan, grab $50M and blow it all on some weak uninspiring AR application that launches with the fanfare of a dead roach on the kitchen floor. This will be followed up by someone else with a better idea or maybe a more all-star executive team, but with the same results. A few startups will find a measure of success and eventually get acquired, but ultimately, the industry will miss the boat again, and AR will go the way of VR for at least ten years.

I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again…the tech sector has lost its creative spirit and sense of American innovation and excitement. Nearly everything since the dot com crash has been a rehash of something old or some minor improvement. What does it say when the big “stories” are myspace, youtube, and facebook? Are those really billion dollar companies? Did they really develop something new and incredible? Did they advance technology in some fashion? No I don’t think so.

But I’m getting ahead of myself again. Back to AR. The potential of the technology is exactly what everyone says it is and will be. It can accomplish much of what our early dreams for VR could have done. One of the key differences is that the world is different. Computers are everywhere. They are fast, they can create incredible digital vistas and near photorealistic worlds in real-time. Our grandparents are blogging and sharing videos. IPhones are *everywhere*. High-tech has gone mainstream. The potential of AR can be realized now if someone simply brings together a vision, a team, a plan, and reasonable funding. There is so much that AR could be used for…it can be a total game changer. Nearly every industry can be changed radically with the right application of augmented reality. Am I the only one thinking about this? Vast riches await those that seize this with the right idea and approach and find funding enough to bring the first version to market.

My complaint is that I’m not seeing much (if any) vision out there and funding is extremely difficult to grab hold of unless you are really well networked and live on the West Coast (say what you want, but the East Coast VC community has a completely different mentality). In my own efforts, I either find that people simply do not grasp it (they don’t “get” virtual worlds, MMORPGs, or VR either), or they fear the risk so much that they are happy to remain “in the loop” but have no desire to be involved until someone else is either. I’m beginning to find some traction and people that do “get it”, but this is never an easy or fast process. This atmosphere is not conducive for the visionaries and the risk-takers that could change our lives for the better. Vision needs inspiration, funding, and believers. Lack of funding and lack of believers is a millstone around the neck of an entrepreneur, innovator, creator, visionary.

Even with all of my gloom and doom, there is some glimmer of hope. There are still people out there that hunger for innovation and have deeply ingrained ambitions to do, to create, to accomplish, and to inspire. To change the world.  I’m one of these people. Watch what I am going to do. It is going to be pretty damned cool.  The others like me have been hiding for a while, having suffered our own defeats or failures from the dot com crash (being an entrepreneur takes a LOT out of you, especially after a failed venture). The younger crowd has reigned supreme lately (web 2.0 cough cough), but there is an awakening happening right now. I’m seeing it on blogs and on twitter and in small techpreneur meetups. I think things are going to percolate for another year or two, and then WHAM, another cycle will start. We will move away from the weak business models, vapor tech, and community advertising masquerading as “social networking”. The innovators will come back…augmented reality, semantic search, meta-data, clean power, and advancements in medicine, farming, artificial intelligence, and so many other areas.

We must find our spirit again and leap into the unknown. There are risks to be sure, but we should not shy away from them as we have over the last decade. Find a visionary and fund them. Help them build their plans and cultivate their teams. Too many great ideas are being passed over for the mediocre and the safe bet.

Is it any wonder we still do not have flying cars? Or that we have not returned to the moon? 

Don’t let go of your ideas and your dreams. Hang on tight to them and never give up. Network. Then network some more. Refine, rewrite, revise, and recreate. Make your idea better, put it through the crucible. Then network again. Keep at it. The greatest visionaries, inventors, innovators, and leaders of history all faced failure at one time or another, and they all suffered through the soul-deep trials and sleepless nights it takes to give birth to something wonderful and life-changing.

Ok, thats the end of my late night rant. It didn’t quite work out like I was planning, but it is a decent braindump I guess : )

Thinking outside of the box is not enough...

…you need to reinvent the box. Bigger, better, faster, stronger.

I talk a lot about massively multiplayer online games, virtual worlds, augmented reality, simulations, social networking, social media, and a variety of related topics, but a lot of what I have to say (or at least what I am thinking about) goes beyond that. This post, for example, is readily targeted at companies in those areas, but also at those working in technology and communications in general. Two years ago, I wrote about the lack of flying cars (we were promised!) and the seeming death of the American creative and innovative spirit.

As Alan Kay said: “The best way to predict the future is to invent it. Really smart people with reasonable funding can do just about anything that doesn’t violate too many of Newton’s Laws!”

The problem, as I see it, is that we have forgotten about inventing the future. If you take a look at the last year or two of venture funding announcements (particularly in the sectors I mentioned) there is a lot of “me too” ventures getting funding. It is almost as if we keep seeing the dealflow centered around what is hot or popular, which in turn floods the market with a lot of very similar products. How many social networks can you name? What about MMORPGs? Casual game companies? Which of them are really innovating or trying to push the envelop? How many of them are nearly identical in features and functionality? How many of them lack any discernable business model other than “get traffic, get acquired”?

Are the “really smart” people finding funding, or is it a matter of doing what someone else is already doing and just knowing the right people? I’m beginning to wonder. A lot of interesting ideas keep coming across my radar, but they all seem to have difficulty finding any funding at all. At the same time, the number of “what are they thinking” venture deals keep getting announced.

There are a lot of opportunities out there to change the world and make billions at the same time, but I feel like the visionaries and luminaries are hiding or have simply given up. Did the great dot com bubble burst hurt American innovation more than we realize?

I have had my fair share of ideas, most of which seemed to be too “ahead of their time”. It is incredibly frustrating to me to see an idea I couldn’t get funded 5 or 10 years ago (and in some cases, as recently as 3) suddenly find west coast funding and market excitement. Even worse when it seems that the new venture is doing things in a way that feels backwards to me. That’s the best way to describe it I guess…backwards. Why are they doing x THIS way, when it would be so much better and powerful THAT way? 

I’m not about to give up though. As Nikola Tesla said: “The present is theirs; the future, for which I have really worked, is mine.” That sounds pretty arrogant I guess, but it resonates with me. Other people in various industries are reigning supreme now, but they are failing to look ahead to the future, and invention is more like “the same thing the other guys are doing, but slightly different”. Throughout my whole career I have tried looking ahead, anticipating the flow of trends and technology, and generating ideas, concepts, and innovations to catalyze, evolve, and revolutionize. They can have the present, but the future is mine.

It can be yours too…but you have to think outside of the box (reinvent it!) and be creative. Don’t hyperfocus on your own area of expertise…talk to others in related fields. Look at the big picture and shuffle the puzzle pieces around. Sometimes we talk about ideas in fiction that have been unreachable for a long time and we act like they still are, but there is a lot of technology out there NOW that simply needs to be put together in a different way to make those dreams a reality.

The future is coming…but only if you invent it, and do it now. Otherwise, we will waste another decade or two toying around with old ideas and old technology. Is it really any wonder that we haven’t returned to the moon or landed on mars yet? That we are still reliant on fossil fuels? It doesn’t have to be this way. Everything can, and will, change…but we need innovators, inventors, dreamers, visionaries, and of course venture capitalists that yearn to change the world instead of playing “keep up with the Jonses”.

Don’t accept mediocrity.