Archive for March, 2012

The ‘So What’ Of The Quantified Self

so what

Editor’s note: Tim Chang is a managing director at Mayfield Fund. This is the second in a three-part series about the Quantified Self movement. Follow Tim on Twitter @timechange.

Assuming that each of us has a picture of the “real world superhero” we want to become someday, then the optimal way to level up and reach that goal begins with the ability to measure and score our lives. Thankfully, new technologies in mainstream gadgets like iPhones and the Nike+ enable this kind of measurement, and are fueling the so-called Quantified Self movement, starting with the continuous tracking of various aspects of our physical bodies.

Using sensors in our smartphones and other wearable devices, we can chart how many calories we burn, our body fat percentage, how many steps we take in a day, how long we sleep — even how many hours a week we spend commuting or sitting at a desk. Soon we’ll be able to access the same kind of statistics on our digital selves: Social reach and influence; tastes and preferences; achievements; credibility and reputation; habits; expertise.

All that information at your fingertips at all times theoretically allows you to carefully chart a path for improvement—and share your winning strategy and stats with others. On a grand scale, that makes for an interconnected world of healthier, happier people making much more informed decisions.

Make it Seamless, Make it Mainstream

The Quantified Self movement is made possible by ubiquitous, low-cost, and always-on connected sensors. The real key for successful measurement and tracking solutions is to make them seamless, meaning that there’s minimal friction and initial behavior change for the user. Consumers don’t want to wear clunky, ugly, embarrassing, or uncomfortable devices, nor will they tolerate products that require them to change their daily routines to input lots of stats or data themselves. If behaviors and signals can be measured in the background or with minimal disruption to existing habits, then users can be on-boarded easily and are more likely to accept the idea of being tracked continuously for long periods of time.

Once users are being measured and quantified, the data must be interactive and easy to understand. The users need to be able to look at their data in ways that are interesting to them, but also know what to do to influence their measurements and scores.

Basis cleverly embeds a heartbeat sensor in a watch (a form factor that’s already familiar to people and non-disruptive to wear) and then offers analytic tools that motivate them to make changes based on the data.

When I tried out the Basis demo, it overlaid my heart rate with my Outlook calendar and even told me which meetings (and people) were stressing me out the most (!). There were other surprising insights: I learned that when I hit stop and go traffic on Highway 101, my heartrate often spikes into the 90s from silent, internalized road rage. Those are the sorts of self-discovery insights that make the Quantified Self experience so rewarding. Numbers, presented with useful context, provide an immediate path to better control over my own life.

Zimride, a service that pairs up car drivers and commuters looking for rides, also uses the Quantified Self to incentivize users. If I frequently commute down to San Jose and I’m known to be on time, I build a reputation score through my riders that makes me valuable and desirable to other potential riders, who pay me for the trip. My punctuality is quantified, I feel good about myself by seeing my score go up, and I’m motivated to keep increasing my status and show it off. I can also see a running tally of how much pollution I have spared the atmosphere by eliminating another vehicle from the road.

Insight, Not Data, is the Key

When it comes to productizing these solutions for consumers, it’s important for entrepreneurs to remember to package their offerings not as Analytics, Data or Tools, but instead to sell Insights from the numbers. That’s where I think Quantification can move away from just efficacy and become about taking control of your own life. The emotional value of that is what people pay for.

Astrologists, fortune tellers and even management consultants remain popular today for a simple reason: Most people would rather be told what the big takeaways are, what they really need to worry about and what exactly to do next. This kind of “so what?” is ultimately more valuable in the eyes of the consumer. (Anecdotally, I’ve seen enterprises pay 10 times more for business insight reports and consultations than for self-service analytics tools).

Furthermore, the richer the data set one can draw from, the more interesting the potential insights to be gained, which leads me to my new business mantra: “proprietary data equals power, but insights equals gold.”  So while it’s important to build up a data set comprised of useful and complementary signals, it’s the “so what?” that allows you really make money from the numbers.

Hungry Games?

Despite the growing buzz and proliferation of new gadgets and apps in QS, I have found that much of the initial innovation and entrepreneurial activity has been around tracking physical activity (“calories out”).  However, I’m personally on a quest to tame what I think is the most elusive beast of all: “calories in.”  Most common medical problems stem from our eating habits, but there really isn’t an easy way to seamlessly and accurately capture the data about the food we ingest each day, short of implanting a sensor into the body to track caloric intake (which violates the low-friction requirement for an effective QS solution).

Many food-tracking apps ask users to input or tag each item they eat (too much work for most people), and some even attempt to identify nutritional data from photos (not accurate enough via automation). If we can’t find a seamless, automatic method to accurately quantify what we’re putting into our bodies, then perhaps we can leverage the interactive, social and fun aspects of Gamification to get users to play along and enter the data needed?

As an example, each day I play a game of “Foodville” with myself: I set a target # of points (calories) each day, and I get to spend them however I like for as long as I don’t exceed my 24 hour limit. As I’m about to eat or drink something, I think about the number of calories I’m about to spend on that item (usually glancing at the product packaging, or doing a quick Google mobile search to look up approximate nutritional info), and then take a mental note of my remaining point budget. At the end of the day, I feel great about meeting my target and advance one day closer to weekly Cheat Day, or else push off Cheat Day until I qualify again. Each week that I stay on plan I count towards my “winning streak,” which culminates in an Amazon shopping splurge that I treat myself to

Although it was a pain at first to look up caloric values for everything I ate or drank, I found that after several weeks I developed a sixth sense for nutritional data, and could pretty much ballpark the point count for most everything I ate.  As I got deeper into Foodville, I layered on advanced missions to maximize lean protein and fiber, and minimize net carbs and sugar.

It turns out that this is the same approach that Weight Watchers has been using for decades – I simply think about it as a game and try to layer in “boss battle” and “epic win”-style levels and rewards for myself.  Unfortunately, I’m only playing Foodville in my mind, and don’t have a simple, gamified app that I can share or play with others.  Perhaps a slick app encompassing elegant use of social and game mechanics would enable multiplayer modes, P2P pressure/obligation/guilt loops, use of Seven Deadly Sin motivators, progressive and adaptive leveling, and other tools to make Foodville palatable and easier to begin playing for mass audiences? I’m hoping to see clever QS + gamification designers team up to come up with such apps, and someday seeing the Top 25 charts dominated by titles like:

  • Angry Burns: Spice
  • Where’sMyWater(cress)
  • Cut the Coke
  • FruitSlicer
  • Plants vs. Breads
  • Food With Friends
  • DrinkSomething(Sugar-Free)
  • DinnerDash

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March 31st


Helicopter Parents Can Put Their Silhouette On a Rattle and Never Be Apart From Their Kids [Kids]

If you can't bear the thought of not being part of your child's life for even a second, you can now get your face carved into a stylish baby rattle so they can never escape your presence. More »

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Andrew Liszewski

March 31st


Sinking Mugs Are a Functional April Fool’s Day Prank [Pranks]

You're probably not going to fool most adults into thinking these ceramic coffee mugs have actually sunk into a table. But kids are easy targets, and this sight gag is sure to blow their minds. Even if it's not April 1st. More »

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Andrew Liszewski

March 31st


Gillmor Gang: Daddy, What’s Microsoft?

Gillmor Gang test pattern

The Gillmor Gang — Robert Scoble, John Taschek, Rob La Gesse, Kevin Marks, and Steve Gillmor — rode out of Dodge and straight into an ambush. Well, no, but in service of the OverAggregator Lord here are our talking points: Microsoft trembles at the alter of irrelevance, Google doesn’t get TV but may sneak into the tablet market by giving them away, and HTML5 still can’t get a date.

I snuck in the usual mentions of Mad Men and push notification, the first a reference to the return of the mesmerizing prequel to Seinfeld, and the second the technology that ensures that you don’t have to watch the stream all day to stay up with what’s going on. Combining delayed gratification theatre with premature notification will produce the next big hit of the iPad Age.

@stevegillmor, @scobleizer, @jtaschek, @kr8tr, @kevinmarks

Produced and directed by Tina Chase Gillmor @tinagillmor

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Steve Gillmor

March 31st


Lightweight Carbon Fiber Axe Is More Of an Artistic Masterpiece Than a Tool [Tools]

Who says artists can only use paints and canvas, or musical instruments, to craft a masterpiece? The folks at Blue Ant Studio deserve a spot in the Louvre for its lightweight but strong Carbo Axe made from titanium and carbon fiber. More »

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Andrew Liszewski

March 31st


So Long, And Thanks For All The Quantum Research


I’d like to be an optimist, like Matt Burns. I really would. Like Research In Motion itself, I was born and raised in Waterloo, Ontario. Like its former co-CEO Mike Lazaridis, I studied electrical engineering at the University of Waterloo. I’ve seen RIM transform my home town over the years, giving it new parks, new buildings, huge bequests for the university, and the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics. I’d love to see it survive its current dire straits and somehow thrive. But I just can’t see it happening.

I guess it’s still just barely possible to maintain optimism. This was the first quarter since their rise that they’ve reported a loss; they can still spin that into a Rocky-esque down-but-not-out narrative, as long as they rearrange a few deck chairs. But as Paul Graham recently pointed out, “revenue is a lagging indicator in the technology business.” Revenue down 25% year-over-year, for a tech company of RIM’s size, in one of the hottest markets in the world? That’s not a setback, that’s a catastrophe.

Realistically, what are their possible futures now?

  1. They mount an Apple-like comeback;
  2. They limp on, maintaining a 5-10% market share;
  3. Somebody buys them, or at least, their crown jewels;
  4. They slowly diminish into distant irrelevance.

Any other options? Not that I can see.

We can write number 1 off immediately. Apple did it! people say. Yes, but that’s the exception that proves the rule. Even if BB10 is to RIM what OS X was to Apple, that won’t be near enough. OS X alone wouldn’t have turned Apple into a winner. Apple transformed itself from doormat to behemoth by creating not one, not two, but three megahit brand-new markets — iPod, iPhone, and iPad. It’s hard to imagine RIM coming up with even one new game-changer. I suppose it’s possible, just, but I sure wouldn’t bet on it.

Limp on with a 5% market share? How? They’re not even the third choice any more; Windows Phone is. Their only bright spots are emerging markets, where cheap Android devices will be eating their breakfast, lunch, and dinner before long, and those businesses so security-conscious that they still see RIM’s private secure network as an advantage rather than a liability.

But secure email, even if it’s the best secure email in the world, just isn’t enough to be competitive these days. You have to be able to do more, and to do it at least as well as the competition. RIM’s most fundamental problem is their technical ineptitude. Remember when they released the PlayBook? I do: my very first TechCrunch post was about its inevitable doom. How sadly right I was. Remember David Pogue’s NYT review?

You read that right. R.I.M. has just shipped a BlackBerry product that cannot do e-mail. It must be skating season in hell. (R.I.M. says that those missing apps will come this summer.)

Note that last line. That review was written in April 2011. When did those “missing apps” finally arrive? That’s right: last month. Let’s not even talk about the ongoing debacle of their third-party apps. How about the BlackBerry Colt, the new BBX – I’m sorry, BB10 – device that was supposed to have launched by now? Oh, that’s right; it was cancelled.

So when will those BB10 devices arrive? In the second half of this year. Maybe. You know, just in time to compete with the iPhone 5 and Galaxy S III. Meanwhile, bring-your-own-device policies grow ever more popular, and Android/iOS enterprise solutions get better and better. Every passing month feels like another nail in RIM’s coffin.

I keep hearing people talk about RIM as if a management change, or a strategy change, might be enough to save the company. But I believe the reason their products are vastly inferior to their competitors, and are regularly crippled by huge schedule delays, is that RIM’s technical braintrust is simply not up to the job of competing with Apple and Google. It’s not a question of direction, or focus; it’s a question of ability. And that’s a predicament no new CEO can solve. “BlackBerry cannot succeed if we try to be … all things to all people,” he says — but their real problem is that they’re well on their way to being nothing to anybody.

So forget about them coming back like Apple. Forget about them maintaining third-choice market share; Microsoft — which knows a thing or two about selling to businesses — is busy elbowing their way into that role while RIM dithers, swoons and languishes. So we’re left with survival option 3, someone buying them. But who? Their patent trove, sure. But their operations? Who wants to splash out billions of dollars to catch this falling knife, especially after HP’s WebOS debacle? Samsung apparently kicked the tires and walked away. Who else? I can’t think of a single name.

Which leaves us only option 4: softly and silently withering away, until they’re small enough for carrion eaters to pick over the bones of the carcass. It’s a damn shame, but it now seems to me inevitable. You had a great run, RIM. Thanks for all your good work back home. Sorry it couldn’t last.

Image credit: Dodo bird, by mwanasimba, on Flickr.

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Jon Evans

March 31st


Watch Arthur C. Clarke Predict the Internet and Personal Computers… In 1974 [Video]

Besides being one of the greatest science fiction writers of all time, Arthur C. Clarke had a knack for foreseeing the future—at least in terms of technology. And in this clip from 1974, he predicts both personal computers and the internet. More »

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Andrew Liszewski

March 31st


Flurry’s analytics: Apple’s App Store revenue still leading, but Amazon Appstore close behind

Not like we haven't seen this dog-and-pony show before, but Flurry's latest round of analytics -- which measured revenue of 11 million daily active users from mid-January through the end of February 2012 -- shows Amazon's Appstore pulling in a shocking amount of revenue given the short life that it has lived. Apple's strength in sales has been well documented, but the latest report shows that for every $1 generated in the iTunes App Store, $0.89 is being spent in the Amazon Appstore. Looking more broadly, the numbers show that just $0.23 are generated in the Google Play halls for every $1 spent in the App Store, but that's hardly a new phenomenon; the ease of sideloading (amongst other factors) has raised complaints from Android developers for years now. Flurry's conclusion is that Google's core strength simply isn't in running a store -- something it's about to do once more with Android slates -- while both Apple and Amazon excel in doing just that. Curiously, Windows Phone and BlackBerry were left off of this report, but we're hoping to see those cats thrown in the next 'go round. After all, RIM sure seems certain that its developers are making out just fine.

Flurry's analytics: Apple's App Store revenue still leading, but Amazon Appstore close behind originally appeared on Engadget on Sat, 31 Mar 2012 11:26:00 EDT. Please see our terms for use of feeds.

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Darren Murph

March 31st


Elastic Joystick Uses Your Phone’s Camera To Make Mobile Gaming Less Crappy [Video]

Touchscreens work fantastic for certain types of games, but when there's a lot of fast action, a physical joystick is the only way to go. And researchers at Keiko University have developed a controller that doesn't need batteries or a connection to your device. More »

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Andrew Liszewski

March 31st


(Founder Stories)’s Paul English: On Hiring Athletes, Design Simplicity & Angel Investing [TCTV]

Kayak Video 2

In part II of his Founder Stories interview with host Chris Dixon,’s co-founder Paul English discusses why job applicants will be hard pressed to find job postings on, relays the lessons he learned from Kayak’s mobile app and tells Dixon the traits founding teams need to possess in order to impress him as an angel investor.

Having helped grow the company to roughly 150 employees, English says Kayak is somewhat unorthodox when it comes to hiring talent. “We don’t hire for open positions but we are looking for athletes, we are looking for star performers and then when we find someone great, we make a spot for them.” He adds, “I am always recruiting.”

In addition to beefing up staff, Kayak has expanded into mobile, which accounts for “almost 20-percent of our traffic” says English. Initially weary that its mobile platform would be a watered-down version of its website, English’s fears have been swept aside. “The team that we hired to build our iPhone product actually found a way to build the version of Kayak that has all the same power of Kayak but is expressed in way that was actually more simple than our website.” He adds, “I think the design experience we have learned on the iPhone, which is to force simplicity, because you have less real estate, has caused us to rethink how we do design on the web.”

English wraps the interview by telling Dixon key lessons he’s learned as an entrepreneur and offers what he looks for when investing in startups.

Make sure to watch the entire video to hear all his insights, and watch episode I of this interview here.

Past episodes of Founder Stories featuring founders ZocDoc, Charity: Water,, Bump, Birchbox and many other companies are here.

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Josh Zelman

March 31st