Minority Report and Recent Advances in Pervasive Personalized Advertising

Several recent articles I've read about new developments in tracking and advertising in different countries - most of which reference the science fiction movie, Minority Report - reminded me of a quote often attributed to science fiction author, William Gibson:

The future is already here - it is just unevenly distributed

The articles describe the ways that various technologies - from special-purpose global positioning system (GPS) devices and face recognition software to general-purpose radio frequency identification (RFID) chips and web browsers - can be used to record information about us, and make it available to prospective advertisers in order to provide more contextually relevant advertising in a broader array of contexts.

The success of these increasingly pervasive personalized advertising systems depends, in part, on how they address three fundamental questions:

  • How much control do viewers of such advertising have over the information that is recorded?
  • What benefits do the viewers receive?
  • What risks do they perceive?

The Minority Report analogies refer to scenes in which iris scanning technology is used to identify shoppers in order to present customized messages. In the scene above, John Anderton (played by Tom Cruise) is offered audio and visual invitations to try products and services from Lexus ("the road you're on, John Anderton, is the road less traveled"), Guinness ("John Anderton! You could use a Guiness right about now.") and American Express Travel ("Get away, John Anderton; forget your troubles") as he makes his way through a mall on his way to board a train. People in this advertising scenario have little control over being identified (short of, say, eyeball transplants), do not appear to derive any direct benefit, and the risks of ubiquitous identification and tracking go well beyond potentially irritating personalized advertising: an elite Pre-Crime unit of the police may want to apprehend you before you commit a crime you don't even know you're going to commit. These factors may explain why reviews and reactions to this scenario, including the references in these recent articles, are almost universally negative.

OysterCard On Sunday, the Daily Telegraph published an article by Richard Gray on Minority Report-style advertising billboards to target consumers, describing a system being developed by the IBM Smarter Planet program in which RFID chips - using near field communication (NFC) with a range of about 4 inches (10 cm) - are used to identify people. Few additional details are provided about the system, but the technology suggests that some kind of explicit "check-in" will be required in order for people to be identified. The article alludes to the Oyster Cards used in the London Underground and other transportation systems as being a compatible technology, and the recent announcement that all of Nokia's new Symbian phones will come equipped with NFC in 2011 suggests that the availability of NFC-enabled devices will continue to grow. I can imagine a context in which "check-ins" used for one purpose (gaining access to a train platform) could be used for another purpose (targeted advertising on nearby displays and/or speakers). If customers are given the control to explicitly opt in to such a system, and were rewarded - perhaps by subsidized fares associated with their cards (or phones) - then I believe the benefits would be perceived as outweighing the privacy risks for at least some of the potential users.

NEC_NextGenerationDigitalSignageSolution Sunday's article references another Daily Telegraph article by Andrew Hough earlier this year with a similar theme - and a similar title ('Minority Report' digital billboard 'watches consumers shop') - but with a different technology. NEC is developing a Next Generation Digital Signage Solution that combines large displays, video cameras and face recognition software designed to determine the gender and approximate ages of the person or people in front of the display. An AFP report two weeks ago, Tokyo trials digital billboards that scan passers-by, refers to a Digital Signage Promotion Project in which 27 high-tech advertising displays were deployed in commuter stations in Tokyo. I suspect this is a pilot of the NEC system, although NEC is not mentioned anywhere in the report.

While potentially less invasive than the RFID-based approach - inferring age and gender rather than requiring individual identification - the use of cameras may instead be perceived as more invasive, depending on how people believe captured images are being handled, e.g., deleted, saved for internal use only or potentially sold to third parties. There is certainly less control afforded to potential users, aside from cloaking their faces as they pass by. The proposed benefits described in the earlier Daily Telegraph article appear to be targeted primarily toward the advertisers, who potentially will be able to target advertising toward specific demographic groups in proximity to the displays. However, the more recent Telegraph article suggests that personalized advertising might offer indirect benefits to viewers, in that they "may help reduce costs that are passed onto the consumer by reducing the amount of poorly targeted advertising" ... perhaps reflecting progress toward addressing a problem observed by John Wanamaker, the father of modern advertising:

Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don't know which half.

TrySomethingNewWithOmo Another advertising campaign - costing $1M - seeks to move pervasive personal advertising from public and semi-public places into the home. In an article asking Is Your Detergent Stalking You?, Laurel Wentz at Advertising Age reports that Omo Detergent has inserted GPS devices in 50 boxes of new, improved detergent scattered in stores throughout Brazil. Owners of the special boxes will be tracked down in their homes - or, I suppose, wherever the detergent box comes to rest for a period of time - whereupon they will be presented with a free video camera and invited to participate in a special company-sponsored event. I don't know enough about Brazilian culture to predict how consumers in that country will respond, but given that they are not informed whether or not any particular box of detergent can be tracked - it's a surprise - I can imagine reactions that may range from the kind of ecstatic joy expressed by those contacted by the Prize Patrol unit in Publishers Clearing House Sweepstakes commercials to the abject terror felt by those who are tracked down by John Anderton's Pre-Crime unit in Minority Report.

FacebookAdsMuffinTop The Wall Street Journal just launched a series of articles on Internet spyware that may be tracking information through your web browser. In the first installment, The Web's New Gold Mine: Your Secrets, Julia Angwin reports that the top 50 web sites installed 3,180 cookies, flash cookies or beacons on computers that visit their web sites, which are then used to either personalize ads shown to the user directly or sold to third parties who aggregate the data. Many users may already be aware of the use of web browser tracking technology, but the extent of the tracking may be disturbing to some, and considerable convenience must be forfeited in order to control the tracking. Perhaps even more disturbing is the potential for the algorithmically personalized advertising to intrude into intimate dimensions of our lives, resulting in psychological harm. The article describes a case of a 17 year old girl whose browsing behavior led to her being [correctly] categorized as someone interested in weight loss programs. Although accurate, the advertising was not always welcome: "I try not to think about it…. Then [the ads] make me start thinking about it." Two years ago, Rachel Beckman wrote a related article for the Washington Post on Facebook ads target you where it hurts, subtitled "My Facebook page called me fat", describing the recurring emotional pain experienced by a user repeatedly exposed to targeted advertising like the Muffin Top ad shown on the right.

The audio and visual advertisements soliciting John Anderton's attention were for products and services that he probably did not mind being associated with - luxury cars, beer and travel to exotic locales. Thinking back to issues I raised about the prospects of personalized, publicly displayed promotions of personal care products in a drug store (represented by OlayForYou screens at WalMart), I wonder what kind of reaction Anderton - and the movie audience - might have to personalized, publicly displayed advertisements for more intimate or personal products and services in a mall - say, Viagra, Hair Club for Men, or WeightWatchers (and as I type these, I can already envision some of the spam comments I'll get on this post).

CoCollage-Trabant Despite my concerns about potential abuses and/or unintended consequences that may arise in an era of increasingly pervasive personalized advertising, I believe that well-designed active environments that can sense and respond to people in contextually appropriate ways can offer benefits that outweigh the risks. My own work on proactive displays has involved the linkage of different sensing technologies - infrared badges, RFID, Bluetooth mobile phones and magetically-striped loyalty cards - to social media sites in order to bring some of the richness of what we share in our online social networks into the physical spaces we share with others. Revealing the interestingness of the people nearby, e.g., through showing their photos on a large display, creates new opportunities for enhanced awareness, appreciation, interactions and relationships. Although some of the users of these prototypes have found them intrusive or otherwise undesireable, many users found them sufficiently advantageous to explicitly opt in, and even those who have not opted in have enjoyed seeing the social media (mostly photos) shared by others on the nearby displays.

One of the challenges we have faced in these systems - which I sometimes describe as bridging the gaps between people by bridging the gaps between online and offline - is how to bridge the gap between cool research prototypes to sustainable and pervasive product or service. The only way I can envision this happening is with advertising revenue streams, which is the path we were pursuing with CoCollage. A few of the other current generation digital signage solutions include user-generated social media along with advertiser-generated media in their mix (e.g., LocaModa and Aerva), but I think there is still considerable room for next generation digital signage solutions to provide increased control and benefits for their users, to help compensate for real or perceived risks ... and avoid the currently inevitable comparisons to Minority Report.

Bruce Sterling on Shaping Things through SPIMES: Technosocial Transformations for a Sustainable World

Shapingthings_1Bruce Sterling's keynote at UbiComp 2006 inspired me to go back and re-read his book Shaping Things, in which he introduces the notion of SPIMES -- physical objects with digital histories that can be recorded and tracked through SPace and tIME. I didn't think all the ideas from this book shined clearly through in his talk, so I thought it would be helpful [for me] to revisit some of them.

The subtitle of this post is intended to convey the motivation that Sterling articulates: using technology to help ensure a sustainable future (or futures).  He starts out by offering a brief history of technosocial epochs:

  • Artifacts: objects made by hand, powered by muscle, used by hunters and farmers, startring around the dawn of humanity.
  • Machines: complex, precisely proportioned artifacts with many moving parts that have tapped some non-human, non-animal power source, used by customers, starting around the eclipse of the Mongols in the 1500s.
  • Products: widely distributed, commercially available objects, anonymously and uniformly manufactured in massive quantities, used by consumers, starting around World War One.
  • Gizmos: highly unstable, user-alterable, baroquely multifeatured objects, commonly programmable, with a brief lifespan, used by end-users, starting around 1989.
  • Spimes: manufactured objects whose informational support is so overwhelmingly extensive that they are regarded as material instantiations of an immaterial system; they are sustainable, enhanceable, uniquely identifiable and made of substances that can and will be folded back into the production stream of future Spimes (this last feature is one that I don't entirely believe -- during his keynote, he referred to organic plastic semiconductors as the substance of choice).  Spimes are used by wranglers, starting around, well, now.

The technology that will power the spime revolution is a combination of radio frequency identification (RFID) chips -- he calls arphids -- to tag objects, the global positioning system (GPS) and various local positioning systems (such as we heard about at UbiComp 2006, especially day 2) to track those objects, backend processing and storage systems to maintain their informational microhistories, and various "wands" (reminiscent, perhaps, of Andy Wilson's Xwand developed at Microsoft Research) and "monitors" with which we can interface with the spimes.

Among the many issues that must be addressed to realize this vision is the granularity of tagging (Chris Oakley's brilliant short video, The Catalogue, comes to mind), and the provisioning of all the supporting equipment. Sterling seems to place a great deal of faith in designers to figure all this out. I suspect that as it becomes increasingly valuable to tag and track objects, more designers will find ways to hack or game the system, in the same way that Google has spawned an entire industry of designers devoted to search engine marketing, splogs and click fraud.
Describing the spime revolution, Sterling notes that Spimes form the core of what he calls a synchronic society, wherein every entity has informational microhistories:

The truly sustainable society has to be sustainable enough to prevail against the unforeseen ... [so] serendipity is necessary ... accessing knowledge you didn't know you possessed is both faster and more reliable than discovering it.  This is the new form of knowledge at which a Spime world excels. It is not doctrine, but the school of experience -- not reasoning out a solution a priori, but making a great many small mistakes, and then keeping a record of all of them.

And, I would add, making those records available to everyone. This notion is reminiscent of David Brin's book, Transparent Society, wherein he argues that in a future society filled with [fixed] cameras, it is better to make their output accessible to all than to restrict the output to the "authorities" (and my recent revisitation of George Orwell's 1984 makes me ever more supportive of Brin's opinion on the preference of the former policy). Spimes would presumably subsume cameras, and encompass nearly every physical object in existence, meaning our lives could be far more open and vulnerable than ever before, a state not likely to be welcomed by many.

Sterling argues for transparent production, where the legal, social, ethical and environmental factors involved in the production of any thing (spime) is encoded in its microhistory (a theme being explored through Marc Smith's AURA prototype at Microsoft Research). Transparent consumption would also add a layer of accountability for -- or on --those who invest in spimes, moving well beyond the values being exhibited ostentatiously by those who purchase modern products such as a Hummer or Prius.

I'm not sure that most people -- or businesses -- would welcome such transparency. Sterling wants a world that is "auto-Googling", but this would require significant wrestling, or wrangling, with privacy and intellectual property issues, which he appears to believe are insoluble.

This ownership question in Spime can never be settled. The fact that it's unsettleable is why there is money in it. There are no permanent solutions to Spime questions. Only customers and consumers imagine that there are permanent solutions to physical ownership and intellectual property issues: end-users know it's all a shell-game, while Spime wranglers don't even bother with the shell-they are the shell.

Wherever there is an insoluble intellectual-property question, there is a Spime career. That's where I wrangle. When and if it gets more or less figured out, I bump up the S-curve and I go wrangle somewhere more advanced.

I suppose that if one is a science fiction writer, then proposing insoluble issues is part of your business, but it leaves me with a less than satisfying impression. The book certainly succeeds in sparking ideas and raising important issues, the early hints of which are visible today. And, just as Sterling loves the neologisms he reads about in UbiComp, I enjoyed the neologisms he writes about in Shaping Things ... but naming things isn't the same as shaping things, although as Noam Chomsky has pointed out, naming things can go a long way toward shaping the conversation about things.  It will be interesting to see whether and how spimes penetrate the discussions about -- and actions toward -- technosocial futures.

Awarea: Taking RFID to the Streets

Around 1997, I shifted my research focus from artificial intelligence to ubiquitous computing, and started exploring -- and working with others to create examples of -- what I called active environments: physical spaces that can sense and respond in contextually appropriate ways to their inhabitants.  One of the things I learned from my AI research experience was the importance of constraining a problem to make it [more] tractable.  Ubiquitous Computing has a rather broad scope -- encompassing computer technology permeating [potentially] every facet of our physical environments -- so in order to make progress in this area, I decided to focus on potential future scenarios involving the novel integration of technology into single rooms (such as MusicFX), or subregions within a building (e.g., ActiveMap).  I sometimes affectionately referred to this focus on active environments as "UbiComp in a Box".


Myomni Yesterday, I had the pleasure of meeting with Harry H. Hart, III, the CEO of Awarea Corporation, who started exploring the idea of activating spaces around the same time that I did, but from an entrepreneurial perspective ... and with a willingness to break out of the box[es] and deploy RFID technology on the streets of Seattle (and soon, Vancouver, BC).  Awarea uses active radio frequency identification (RFID) tags -- called MyOmni's, with a convenient keychain attachment -- and a network of RFID readers and activators -- creating OmniZones -- to sense when users are nearby and respond with a targeted marketing message that takes the form of a text message sent to the user's mobile phone and/or some kind of audio and/or video message broadcast on a speaker or large display.  The left photo here shows Harry with his MyOmni device (a closeup of which is shown in the right photo) standing next to a public telephone booth outside of the Nordstrom flagship store near Westlake Center that has an OmniZone antenna mounted atop a loudspeaker system.

There are currently 16 OmniZones throughout Seattle (browsable via this interactive map), and Awarea has signed up 30 companies on whose behalf it is using the network to send targeted marketing messages to approximately 1000 users.  To sign up for the service, users are required to enter contact information (including a mobile phone email address) on a web site, and then during a followup phone call, are asked about demographic / psychographic data such as

  • Your favorite radio station
  • How often do you dine out
  • How often do you attend movies, sporting events, or other activities
  • What newspaper do you read
  • Your favorite TV shows
  • How often do you shop downtown

There are four classes of OmniZone:

  • Silver: mobile phone text message delivery only
  • Gold: silver level service plus a broadcast audio message (WAV file), as shown in the photo above
  • Platinum: gold level service plus a large display for short video files
  • TItanium: platinum level service plus additional features (TBD)

The MyOmni device -- which, along with most of the other RFID equipment, is manufactured by Axcess, Inc. -- has a single button that can be used to request a targeted message (it can also be programmed by Awarea for other functions).  Harry spends so much time in OmniZones (in fact, he rang in the New Year at the one shown above) that he has set his profile to decline all messages unless / until he specifically requests a message via that button.  He demonstrated a few examples of targeted audio messages at gold OmniZones around Westlake Center (one such message, promoting NetFlix, can be heard in this WAV file; I also heard one promoting The Body Shop ... as we were standing outside the store at 600 Pine Street).

Aside from the obvious tecnnological parallels between Awarea's [platinum] OmniZones and Interrelativity's proactive displays, both of which use RFID technology to sense and respond (in different ways) to people nearby, the systems also share some similar social impacts.  Given the reactions that I observed from people as they heard the "voice from the heavens " (or the phone booths) -- BTW, Harry is the voice talent in all the audio messages -- I imagine that MyOmni users may well spark interesting conversations in OmniZones ("What was that?", "Where did that come from?", "What did he say?", "Where is the Body Shop?", "How much of a discount?").  And Awarea plans to add new features with mobile social software (MoSoSo) capabilities, e.g., the ability for MyOmni users to specify a "buddy list" of other users, and receive notifications whenever their friends are in the same, or nearby, OmniZone.

One of Harry's initial motivations for this work was to aid blind people as they navigate urban areas; unfortunately, while he found receptivity to this idea, he was unable to find a revenue stream to support it (a plight I can identify with, and have heard and read about as being a common challenge for other entrepreneurs), which is why the current focus is on targeted marketing.

I first met Harry at the recent Dorkbot meeting on RFID.  Interestingly, in updating my RFID Resources material for my presentation at the event, I discovered a fabulous, futuristic short film, The Catalogue, by Chris Oakley, that depicts people in a multi-level shopping mall (that looks remarkably like Westlake Center), with overlays depicting the information that might be automatically extracted about those people, the objects they encounter, the places they visit, and the activities in which they engage, if / when RFID technology becomes more pervasive (and accurate) ... highlighting the challenges for companies like Awarea -- and Interrelativity -- to define compelling value propositions in which the benefits to users outweigh the [potential] privacy costs.

[Update, 2008-04-04: My colleague, Nick Chiarulli, at the new MyStrands Labs, NYC, sent me a link to some related work - a short-lived experiment on advertising via directed ultrasonic beams in NYC.]

The Practicalities, Perils and Promise of RFID

Dorkbot Seattle offered a multidimensional opportunity to learn about and experience different facets of radio frequency identification (RFID) technology last night, under the provocative title "RFID - Identity That Gets Under your Skin".  There were three presentations and two types of opportunities for participation by attendees ... each requiring a significantly different level of commitment.

I led things off with a presentation entitled "The Practicalities, Perils and Promise of RFID" [embedded below], providing a high-level overview of how RFID works, a whirlwind tour of a number of its applications, and finishing off with a focus on one particular application near and dear to my heart: proactive displays.  I didn't focus too much on the "perils" part, because Doug Klunder, Privacy Project Director of the ACLU of Washington, was next up, and he did a great job in presenting some concerns that he and his organization are raising before the public and the legislature, highlighting how this new technology can threaten privacy and present new risks to our liberties.


Amal Graafstra, CEO of txtGroups, Inc., and author of RFID Toys, went third, and was the headliner for the evening (Kristi Heim, of the Seattle Times, wrote an excellent article about Amal -- "Man grips future with microchip implants in hands" -- that was printed yesterday morning).  Before his presentation, Amal, who has RFID chips implanted in each hand, narrated a live RFID implantation procedure performed by Dr. Virginia Stevens, M.D., a cosmetic surgeon with Seattle Health and Beauty, on Phillip Beynon, a college student and robotics -- and RFID -- enthusiast from Vancouver, B.C.  There were local three television affiliates -- KPCQ (Fox), KING (NBC) and KOMO (ABC) -- and Jenny Asarnow of local public radio station KUOW, on hand to cover this event.  The reporters and camerapersons were also there earlier, and although the cameras and audio recorders were rolling during the earlier presentations, and I saw some other interviews taking place before the main event -- and even participated in a brief, impromptu interview with Darren Dedo of Q13 Fox News -- I suspect all the media coverage will have focused on the live implant procedure ... which, I have to say, was pretty interesting to watch.  [I'll post a link to any photos / videos I discover later. Here are some links to a video of the implant procedure on the Make blog (thanks, Scott!), audio and transcript of the KUOW report, and Phillip's notes on the event.]

Unfortunately, though, the media all left before Amal's presentation, and he had alot of interesting information to share about how and why he selected the RFID chips he has implanted in his hands (an EM4102 in his left hand and a Philips HITAG 2048 S in his right hand), why he would never use VeriChip tags (due to the ease with which they can be hacked), and how he uses his RFID implants to unlock his computer, his house and his car.  He also raised a number of serious concerns about the security of RFID technology (not just Verichip ... although they were the primary target of criticism), while also downplaying some privacy concerns -- at least with respect to their RFID-specificity -- noting that RFID technology is not so different from other technologies used to identify people ... all of which can be used to track people if data is collected from different sites and/or stored over a period of time.

[Photo above is courtesy of Dan McComb]

Philip Beynon was not the only one to have an opportunity to gain a first-hand [pun partially intended] experience of RFID.  We also deployed a proactive display at the event, and had over thirty people create profiles and wear RFID tags -- inserted into their name badges rather than their hands.  Dorkbot is a loose-knit organization whose membership includes some of the most creative and curious people I've ever encountered; their tag line is "people doing strange things with electricity" and their monthly meetings include electronic artists of all stripes (sound/image/ movement/whatever), designers, engineers, students and other interested parties ... and the events are "free to all ages and species".  The images that people chose to share in their Interrelativity profiles were some of the most unusual and provocative of any I've seen in any previous deployment.  It was an honor and a pleasure to have an opportunity to share some knowledge and technology with these folks ... and to enjoy the content they shared, both on the proactive display and in the great questions and comments they made (during my presentation and afterward).

RFID Dorkbot Seattle 2006-03-01

Another Interrelativity Milestone: Helping People Relate at a Holiday Party

Washburn Communication invited Interrelativity to deploy a proactive display at their holiday party at the Civica Office Commons in Bellevue yesterday.  I live (and work) for these deployments -- it was great to have an opportunity to insert this social technology into a fabulous place like Civica and among so many interesting people!  About 25 of the 40 or so guests created a profile before the party, another 5 created profiles at the party, and from what I could see and from what I heard (and acknowledging my biased perspective), the technology helped facilitate a number of social interactions throughout the evening.

I heard [of] conversations about minks vs. weasels, salmon and scuba diving, all triggered by images appearing on the proactive display.  Two people, who had known each other for 30 years, had independently (i.e., unbeknownst to each other) uploaded photos to their respective profiles that showed each of them dressed up as Albert Einstein at different costume parties [update: I just found out that one of them had spied the other's profile image before creating his own profile].  Several people expressed positive impressions about the technology and its impact, and a few had interesting and helpful suggestions for how to improve it, and/or extend it into new types of contexts.

The main application ran without any problems all night.  Due to some local networking challenges, there was a problem in uploading images into profiles directly from the web, but we could save them locally to the laptop I was using as a profile registration kiosk and then upload them into profiles on the server from there.  There were also some issues that arose due to the fact that the kinds of plastic name badge sleeves into which we typically insert the RFID tags aren't a typical feature of a casual holiday party.  Fortunately, people were willing to stick the tags into their pockets, and women with no pockets were willing to insert the tags into their handbags (or simply carry then for a bit until the RFID reader first saw their tags).

It was pretty challenging to independently handle most of the logistics (pack up, transport, set up, assist with profile modifications during the event, tear down, pack up, transport ... sleep).  I was fortunate to have the assistance of a neighbor for loading and unloading here at the house, and of Mark Manca and his extremely helpful catering staff at Seastar Restaurant (who also provided excellent food, drink and service throughout the event) for moving equipment into and out of Civica.  I have an even greater appreciation for all the hard work that others who have worked with me at earlier events have contributed ... and it's time to start thinking about -- and doing something about -- involving others [again] (I met someone at the party who may be able to help).

Now that the technology is fairly stable, and I have enjoyed a successful deployment, I intend to turn my attention to business planning again (particularly with respect to the financial aspects -- the holiday party was a promotional opportunity, for which I am very grateful, but I want to get much clearer about the costs and pricing that will support the growth of Interrelativity).  I attended two very helpful -- and mutually reinforcing -- presentations on this topic (an NWEN Business Plan Writing workshop and an MIT Enterprise Forum seminar on An Entrepreneur's Perspective on Angel Investing) last Thursday, and am finally ready to break through my resistance to engage in this increasingly important aspect of the business.

The Re-emergence of Interrelativity

After months of seclusion, Interrelativity, Inc., is finally ready to re-emerge and open up to new business opportunities.  By way of brief background: Interrelativity designs, develops and deploys proactive display applications, software that runs on computers connected to large displays and sensors (e.g., RFID readers) that detect people nearby and show visual content that is related to those people (e.g., from their online profiles).  Our goal is to bring the benefits of social networking in virtual communities into physical communities, enhancing face-to-face networking opportunities at places and times -- such as conferences, meetings and other events -- where people gather to connect with one another.  I'll share a brief history of Interrelativity below, but first I want to be explicit about our current status: if anyone is organizing, hosting or sponsoring any events that could be enhanced by our proactive display applications, please contact me -- we're ready to roll!

I founded Interrelativity, Inc., in February as a business venture to support the mission of using technology to help people relate to one another.  As I noted in an earlier blog post in the midst of my most recent career transition, I have pursued this mission through various paths over the past 9 years (and in less direct ways before that).  I didn't know much about entrepreneuria at that time, but I decided to exercise some gumption and follow the path with heart.  I am still on the steep end of the entrepreneurial learning curve, but I have been fortunate to connect with some fabulous organizations (e.g., the Northwest Entrepreneur Network) and people (most notably, Doug Miller and Melissa DeLong) who have been helping me in a variety of ways since I took this leap of faith.

As I started developing the business, my friend and erstwhile intern, David Nguyen, started developing the technology.  At the time, David was traveling the country, visiting friends and family, applying to graduate schools, and working on the technical design and development of software for Interrelativity as time permitted.  In May, he was accepted into the graduate program at UC Irvine, where they recently initiated a focus area on ubiquitous computing and applications.  Shortly thereafter, he made the sound career decision to accept an offer for another summer internship at Intel Research to work with another friend, Trevor Pering, where he could focus more on research  ... and actually earn a salary.

Fortuitously, another [mutual] friend, Khai Truong, was finishing his Ph.D. at Georgia Tech, and he agreed to join Interrelativity to take over the technical development on the same day that David started his internship.  Around that same time, I was contacted by Darryl Drayer of the Advanced Concepts Group at Sandia National Labs, who is part of a team exploring the idea of using technology to build community to help secure "soft targets" -- public and semi-public places (such as malls and transportation centers) where it is impractical to deploy guns, gates and guards for protection.  I was honored and excited to have an opportunity to work with Darryl and his fellow team members Curtis Johnson, Judy Moore and John Cummings, to help organize an event, Foil Fest, that brought together a host of brilliant people inside and outside the Sandia community to brainstorm about the topic.

The Foil Fest, held in Albuquerque in July, also represented the first opportunity for Interrelativity to deploy proactive displays, as well as incorporate some innovative new features -- such as a group weblog and a mechanism for posting and viewing biographical sketches of the participants -- into our solution.  While the event itself was very successful, the deployment was a mitigated success.  A new application that Khai developed, which generates semi-random collages of profile photos, ran flawlessly, but we had some problems with the RFID reader interface for the Ticket2Talk application (so it, too, ran in semi-random mode).  There was some confusion among the participants about the different profiles, usernames and passwords required for the Interrelativity web site and the group weblog, hosted by TypePad (and for which we configured password-controlled access ... so I'm not [yet] at liberty to reference it in this blog).  In a post-event survey, the vast majority of respondents reported that the applications added "moderate" or "significant" value to their experience at the event, and the identification of areas for improvement provided invaluable feedback, and overall, I was very grateful for the experience.

However, shortly after the Sandia deployment, family health issues lead to my refocusing priorities from business matters to family matters.  Khai, who had already accepted a faculty position at University of Toronto that starts in January 2006 before joining Interrelativity (and so, even in the best case, I knew he was only intending to be actively engaged in Interrelativity for a limited period of time), decided that the intensity of effort required for ongoing technical development of Interrelativity software was taking away too much time from his research ... in fact, it was taking all of his time.  So, after walking me through the code -- which I tried to understand as best I could, having never programmed in Java, PHP or MySQL before -- he turned his attention to research, and preparing for his new job and upcoming move from Atlanta to Toronto.  I was (and remain) grateful for all his help in getting us to a stage where we could do a deployment, and understand why this was the right decision for him to make. 

Given that I still had/have no financial means to offer a respectable salary (although I was, and am, willing to offer respectable equity), and was running out of friends who were both technically proficient and available for unpaid work, I decided I had to either seek financial investment -- which [I believe] would require learning a lot more about business planning, finances, marketing and sales, in order to develop a comprehensive and compelling business plan -- or assume the technical development responsibilities myself -- which would require learning a lot more about Java, PHP and MySQL.  To be honest, the challenges of the former path scared me more than the latter path, as the fomer path deviated more significantly from my past experience, whereas I did have strong technical skills at a earlier stage in my career.  Under other circumstances, I might have been more inclined to feel the fear and do it anyway, but I was already near the edge of my stress threshold in dealing with Amy's cancer and its treatment, so I selected the latter path (first).

In the long run, I decided it would be better to redesign and redevelop the proactive display code from scratch (informed and influenced by the code that Khai had developed), so that I would truly understand how everything worked, and be in a better position to make subsequent modifications to accommodate future deployments ... and/or future alliances or partnerships.  I had forgotten how much joy -- and accompanying occasional frustrations -- I used to experience in programming.  I was delighted to discover a suite of valuable resources to assist me in this path, including my new favorite technical book, Head First Java, the incredibly helpful JavaRanch forums that were initially created to augment that book, and my new favorite blog, Creating Passionate Users, written by Kathy Sierra, one of the book's co-authors (and which, er,  recently recommended that bloggers reduce talking about themselves by 80% ... oh well).  When I put all the software components together this weekend, and saw a complete working system, I felt a wave of joy -- and empowerment -- that I haven't felt in a long time.

So, now that the technology is in a stable state -- and, just as importantly (if not moreso), Amy's health is in a more stable state -- it's time to turn my attention to the development of the business of Interrelativity ... and I hope I will experience a similar measure of joy and empowerment as I stretch to meet the challenges that lay before me down this path.

The Invisible Hand of RFID

"Privacy Invasion as ROI", by Ross Stapleton-Gray of Stapleton-Gray Associates, is an interesting article that might be characterized as the Internet of Things meets the Invisible Hand, Metcalfe's Law and the Law of Unintended Consequences, arguing that the deployment of RFID readers and tags is likely to evolve in a bottom-up way that will ultimately lead to erosion of privacy. 

We won’t see the “top down” creation of a national spy infrastructure, but, perhaps, the “bottom up” construction of an infrastructure that many parties—in both government and the private sector—might readily adapt for surveillance, and invasion of privacy.


If the deployment of RFID follows an arc similar to what has occurred with the Net, we should expect to see a proliferation of local systems, all useful in their primary applications, eventually knitted together into even more valuable systems of systems.  Those internetworked systems will find it easier to exchange information, and small pools of data will be merged and refined to produce larger and more valuable collections.  And as with the Internet, open architectures and widely recognized standards, such as the 30-year-old standard for product identifiers established for the print bar code, will form a strong base upon which to build interesting new applications.

Ross goes on to warn of the potential risks that may arise through these interesting new applications.  This is hardly surprising, given the relative dearth of consumer-focused (as compared with merchant- or vendor-focused) applications of RFID technology.  Imagine the challenges in marketing mobile telephony without a clear consumer value proposition ("carry around these mobile electronic devices that will allow your wireless carrier track your whereabouts").  Given policy announcements by the U.S. Department of Defense, Wal-Mart, and others, that will require the use of RFID tags and readers, the capabilities for "interesting new applications" of RFID will be proliferating ... I look forward to those that are also useful and beneficial to consumers.

VeriChip-Implanted People (VIPs): Walking Internet Cookies

I've often heard the claim that the "price" of privacy, i.e., how much people want in return for revealing private information, is a 10% discount. However, it's hard to put a price on convenience. New Scientist reports that some people are willing to have RFID chips implanted subcutaneously as part of becoming a VIP member of the Baja Beach Club in Barcelona. The implanted VeriChips are about the size of a grain of rice and are detectable from a range of up to 10 cm. VIP club members can elect to have either a regular card or the implantable chip; either can be used in-house -- indeed, for VeriChip-implanted VIP members, in-body -- debit cards. The only benefit offered by the implanted chips is the convenience of not having to carry a regular VIP club card, which may thereby eliminate the need to carry a wallet. Remarkably, 9 people have reportedly signed up for the implanted chip option during the first two months. I particularly like the quote attributed to Ian Brown, director of the UK-based Foundation for Information Policy Research, describing such people as "walking Internet cookies." CASPIAN (Consumers Against Supermarket Privacy Invasion And Numbering), an organization that opposes the use of RFID tags in supermarkets and other retail establishments, is noticeably silent on this development.

(via SmartMobs)