Monthly Archives: March 2014

Computational Jewelry

Wearables are the new business hype. My friends and former colleagues from Intel, Telefonica, Google, Microsoft and other places where I have worked have been telling me the great interest all these and many other companies have in this topic. This “sudden” interest makes me realize how fascinated I continue to be with the ability to create “fashion” that the Silicon Valley and Bay Area has. I think it is great and at the same time it is somehow like watching sheep herds run towards green pastures. I assume here that new pastures are great and that sheep are beautiful animals with many values. However, I also assume sheep just run behind the next sheep and the pasture is only foreseen by some visionary sheep (hopefully with a great 20/20 eyesight).

Such cohesive interest in wearables, despite the fact that most of the models so far are plagued with “low efficiency”, makes me wonder if I am overlooking something or overanalyzing something. Please beware that I have clearly stated “low efficiency”, and not “low efficacy” – this is an important distinction, as the latter refers to the short-term immediate value provided by the device or application, while the former refers to the long-term engagement and benefits.

So, I confess that I am confused to see that most of the current wearable designs are so much more like tiny computers crammed into smaller form factors, but with the same soul and spirit of their creators, i.e. a lot of data and functions, but not so much fashionable wearability. What I mean by this is that wearing something is not driven by a simple utilitarian desire forged by marketing and relevant functionality. Wearing something is a very deep and intimate expression of identity and emotions.

Human beings  in general do need and like to cover some body parts to be functional and social in modern society, but they want to do this in style. At the same time, I acknowledge that recently human beings have embraced carrying some devices that provide immediate information. However, “carrying” something “carries” beauty by itself, the beauty of being able to hide such device if needed.

I think designers of wearability are somehow forgetting (maybe on purpose) that the affordance of being able to be “hidden” is very powerful. People many times do not want to be wagging things around and many times they do. The ability to decide when to use and show something and when not to do so is very important and relevant. I ask , why did many people drop wrist watches just cause they carry smartphones? Is it because the latter are nicer and richer in media? or is it cause the former were uncomfortable? Maybe the explanation lies in the simple ability to choose when to make this “time provider” disappear.

In complement to this “discretionary exposure” affordance, let’s question ourselves, what if the thing that provides info is also beautiful, makes me look better, enhances and defines my identity? makes me want to wear it, to show it? What if it is more like “jewelry” and less like “geekery”? This sounds easier than what it is in practice (or maybe not). However using the jewelry metaphor to design wearable technology soon reveals many challenges. First – jewelry is very personal and unique, and technology is not there yet. Second – it is fashionably recurrent, i.e. people wear jewelry over and over again; technology usually dies and never comes back. Third – it is very beautiful, while technology, well, can be beautiful, but sooner, rather than later looks just average. Fourth – it is usually somewhat expensive, therefore generates a strong cognitive dissonance to want to like it; technology tends to be cheaper over time. Fifth – it matches the user’s mood, outfit and generally his/her “self of the day” identity; technology usually matches the user’s utilitarian requirements. Lastly, jewelry is small and quasi non-intrusive, while technology is not yet that small, and rarely non-intrusive.

These characteristics make jewelry an appreciated device but at the same time an exclusive one. It makes people want to wear it, despite not providing any utilitarian benefit; it makes people wanna show it, despite its inconspicuous nature; it makes it desirable by others; makes it last for life or even through generations. All these “little” things are hard to achieve with generic computational devices.  Yes they may be handy and informational and utilitarian, but if they cannot achieve the level of impact in identity that jewelry has, they will not last for long.

This short-lived nature of wearable devices is (sadly) what is being already observed. Some of the most famous wearables are known to be used for only 2 weeks before something happens and people stop using them. Many people complain of the difficulty to extract information, which in turn defeats its utilitarian purpose, so people leave them. Some just get tired of them. Some just break them or wash them.

In any case, I believe that any effort to make wearables more like jewelry, i.e. something that people would wear even if they did not charge the device, would be very valuable. Any efforts to either make it easy to embed in beautiful jewelry pieces, smart sensors or actuators should also go a long way. As a matter of fact, adornments for phones and computers continues to be a multi-million dollar industry.  So why the opposite is not true?, Why not creating computers for adornments? I think we can get there, but to do that, as in many human centered design tasks, it is important that interaction designers and engineers are humble enough to appreciate beauty through the eyes of designers and artists and other humanities folks, or at least to become good at observing common mortals. Yes, we can fools ourselves thinking that the quantified self “personas” are the archetype of the generation Y or Z grown ups, but the reality is that what we continue to observe is a lot of jewelry being sold and inherited over time. Jewelry is a concept and in some ways a “device” that has been around for about 10000 years.

Killing Crocodiles

It is more costly to kill crocodiles nowadays. No, not because it is against the law or because it is hard to go down to Africa for a horrible killing safari.  I am talking about those companies that start so small and then over time become giant “crocodiles” that eat every other company in the ecosystem.

My mentor when I worked as a Lead Product Manager at Telefonica taught me that the best way to “kill” potential companies that could eat you is to kill them.  But how? Kill them when these “crocodiles” are still in their eggs. Crush them!

It seems as if a few million dollars was enough just a few years ago. Still many big companies pay just a few million dollars for star-ups nowadays. In any case, after FB acquired Instagram we saw for the first time a “B” instead of an “M”. Yes a Billion sounded like a lot for a small company; but 19 Billion sounds like the budget of a whole country.

As a matter of fact, you can see such a comparison here. Apparently, Paraguay, a country with 7.7 million people produces as much as a company with roughly 50 people. This is indeed interesting, to say the least. After all SMS and messaging has been around for so long, but FB had to pay such a high price to kill a crocodile egg named “Whatsapp”.

I am not sure if we need to think about jobs’ creation, as mentioned here by Reich, or focus on the potential of a new technology platform. For me it sounds mostly as just simple business accounting. Whatsapp will eventually charge every one of their (soon to be) 1 Billion users just $1 dollar… in less than 20 years, FB will get what they paid for it, without considering they could double such average revenue per user (ARPU) with new products and/or advertisements (which I can almost bet will happen).

I think we could still be in front of a case of inflated egos or just plain irrationality – an exacerbated system 2 (using Khaneman’s terms) – by assuming there is no hope to come with a simple messaging platform for others to take over the world. WE need crocodiles to grow, we need them to keep competition. Accumulation of power and competition only leads companies to inflated egos and bad management… we have seen this story over and over. So, maybe we need to help the FCC gain a new license to regulate crocodile egg killings so they can help some of those crocodiles grow.

At the very least, I hope FB’s value (with Whatsapp in their purse) is as strong as it should, and that these people with the “Bs” and not the “Ms” can actually become leaders and value creators rather than simple crocodile egg hunters. Personally I think I would continue learning from other leaders, those who are passionate about what they do and who have earned money at par to the value they bring to the world, so appreciating the value of other people and their efforts.

A non-traditional research career shaped by passion and a “can do” attitude

Photo on 2012-03-06 at 13.52

Welcome!

Thanks for your interest in my research, and career. You can start here reading about my Research and Projects and Life experiences. Do not forget to also check out my Music passion and read some of my Blog post where you will find my thoughts on what is important for science development, as well of some pointers around technology and entrepreneurship in Latin America. If you want to know more about my business experience, please visit my LinkedIn page.

MOTIVATION FOR MY PhD DEGREE:

Since my teen years I had to endure a difficult but illuminating, and in many ways highly humanizing and spiritual, challenge in life. I had to help, but mostly learn from, a fantastic human being, a family member who has a debilitating mental disorder.

I self taught and researched a lot about his problem, and later in life, after finishing my Fulbright scholarship at Georgia Tech, was able to bring him to the US to receive an intensive Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) treatment. After witnessing his personal strength and the power of CBT – he improved in a month more than he had over the past 10 years under solely medications – I decided to do more, and while working full time. I invested out of pocket money to fund some students from the best technical university in Quito, Ecuador, to do some mobile research on anxiety monitoring.

Realizing then the extent of the role that technology can play in democratizing and spreading effective and simple mental health treatments or interventions, and with the full support and encouragement of my beloved wife Claudia, I decided  to dedicate my life to research mental health technology. We took a big risk and traded a very successful business career, for a gamble to try to study this problem deeply, quitting Intel, and joining UC Berkeley, where I have been doing a lot of great research on technology for mental health and behavior change for the past 4 years under Prof. John Canny’s mentorship.

During this incredible journey, I have had the opportunity to collaborate with some excellent and inspiring researchers in my field, such as Sunny Consolvo, at Google and Mary Czerwinski, at Microsoft Research. With Mary and her group we continue to envision new technologies to improve adoption and efficacy of mental health, affective computing interventions and sensing.