RonAmok!

The adventures of an analog engineer and digital storyteller who studies emerging networks and their impact on the great game of business.
Feb 7, 2013

Crashspace-LA Storefront

For the past year, I’ve wanted to visit a hackerspace–a physical location where inventors of all ages gather to share equipment, knowledge, and experience. I got my opportunity two Saturdays ago when I visited Crashspace in Los Angeles.  I attended the eLeCTRONiC WeAraBLes Meetup as a member of Epson America to help product manager, Eric Mizufuka, demonstrate Epson’s Moverio BT-100 transparent display glasses to those who might want to incorporate the platform into their own projects.

Crashspace-LA consists of a small storefront located on Venice Boulevard in Culver City, California. Its meeting room held about fifty people, who had self-organized themselves into three groups: those who sat on folding chairs, those who sat on an old couch, and those who stood along the walls. Latecomers peered into the room through two open doors that lead to the sidewalk.

The attendees included parents, teachers, students, entrepreneurs, recent college grads and old, crusty engineers like myself. And although our interests varied wildly, the reason for our attendance remained the same–something that Annika O’Brien, founder of the LA Robotics group, explained perfectly.

“I need other nerds to nerd-out with.”

Illuminode.net dress demonstration.

After quick introductions, attendees were encouraged to demonstrate projects. One-by-one,they showed their work. Rich demonstrated his “hug-o-meter,” a jacket lined with conductive sensors that sent signals to multi-colored LEDs. Others had stitched Arduino microcontrollers into swaths of fabric…and in one case, a hat. A representative from Illuminode raised the bar by demonstrating commercially-available, LED-laced garments, that were programmed to interact with each other, changing colors based upon variables such as proximity and the relationships.

Rich shows off his "Hug-o-meter."

At this point in the meeting, my expectations had been met. I was among inventors demonstrating whimsical applications. But my experience changed when Frank took the floor to demonstrate his latest wearable technology project.

Sleepless in Los Angeles

Frank explained that he hadn’t slept much since he heard about the tragic death of Chief Petty Officer Terrell Horne III, who died of injuries inflicted when he was rammed by a suspected drug-running boat.  Although Frank had never met the Chief Petty Officer, he felt the loss personally, leading to many long nights trying to find a way to avoid this type of death in the future.

Dressed in sweatpants and a white T-shirt, Frank stood in front of the crowd revealing material after material that he was testing to build a new type of helmet. Frank’s interest in safety didn’t just begin in December. He was issued US Patent in September 2011 for a Damage Resistant Aircraft.

Frank shows off some helmet materials.

I shouldn’t have been surprised at the intensity of Frank’s motivation. The night vision demo brought by Epson was also inspired by a tragic news story. Conceived while watching news footage of rescuers trying to find Hurricane Sandy victims, its inventor set out to develop a wearable device that switched between night vision and clear glass depending upon whether a rescuer was looking into dark or light spaces. The inventor achieved his goal by mounting an infrared camera with infrared transmitters onto the Moverio BT-100 platform.

As Eric demonstrated the night vision application, Annika O’Brien recognized a potential solution to a problem that she had been thinking about for a while. She told the group about a friend who suffered from Face Blindness, a condition that inhibits sufferers from being able to recognize other people’s faces. Annika asked if a combination camera+Moverio+facial recognition software might be able to help those with Face Blindness identify people as they approached.Trying on the night vision glasses that were built upon the Epson Moverio BT-100

The Makerati

I sat there admiring these fascinating people who represented a new breed of inventor: The Makerati. Rather than toiling individually in dank garages and basements, the Makerati work collaboratively through websites, chat rooms, coffee shops and hackerspaces.  Driven by interest, desire, and caring, they willingly invest their own time, money, and deprive themselves of sleep in order to make a difference in the world.

I’m looking forward to spending a little more time with them.

For the past year, I’ve been focusing my research on the power of networked resources. I’ve written blog posts that have demonstrated how both companies and individuals have used digital network technologies to innovate, solve problems, or even spread marketing messages. In each case, I’ve tried to quantify the monetary value created through such access.

Last week, I experienced an “Ah-hah!” moment after reading a MarketingProfs article that demonstrated the monetary value a story can add  to cheap knickknacks. The goal of the Significant Objects experiment wasn’t to mislead. According to its rules, misleading would have voided the test. Instead, the experiment involved writing knickknack-inspired stories that future owners could appreciate and therefore pay a premium.

According to the website, the experiment “…sold $128.74 worth of thrift-store junk for $3,612.51,” simply by attaching a story to each item. Doing the math, storytelling increased the average monetary value of each object by 2,806%.

The X 28 Factor

Twenty Thirty years ago, my uncle gave me a three-inch stack of early 1900s post cards. Here’s an example, circa 1915, called “The Great White Way,” Broadway, New York City:

I’ve always known that these cards carried some monetary value. A quick glance at eBay reveals that their average price tag is about $5 per card, bringing the stack’s estimated value to about $500. However, after reading the results of the Significant Objects experiment, I considered the upside of adding a story to the collection. Would it be possible to increase the stack’s value twenty-eight fold too? Could adding a story to these old postcards increase their total value to $14,000?

Meet Elizabeth

What if I told you that the majority of these postcards were addressed to a woman named Elizabeth who lived in the greater Boston area over one hundred years ago? What if I told you that the cards contained clues to her life? For example, we know that she was married but we don’t know much about her husband. We know that she had a son named Eddie, she worked at a Boston-based Cigar Factory, and she vacationed on Peaks Island in Maine? Do any these tidbits make the postcards sound a little more interesting?

For twenty thirty years, I’d always viewed this stack of postcards as antiques to be sold-off piece-wise. However, after transcribing ninety-nine postcard messages and entering them into a spreadsheet last weekend, I saw them as something very different: a century-old mystery.

I wondered. Who was Elizabeth? What was her life like? Did she have to work in a Cigar Factory, or was it her choice? Who were Nellie, Sadie, Annie, Frank, Ella, Tom, Joe, Ruthie, Margaret, Debby, Mamie, and Kathryn? Why did so many of the messages end with “give my love to the girls?” Who were they? Her daughters? Her sisters? Something more…hmm…interesting?

Could a mystery centered around a woman who lived a century ago multiply the monetary value of these cards? Could the story become a book? A movie? Or, what if the story was less about Elizabeth and more about a quest to eventually return these cards to Elizabeth’s family? Would you watch a documentary of such a quest unfolding?

An Open Source Mystery

If we published all of these postcards online, could we harness the power of the network to help solve this mystery? Would participants from around the globe be willing to use the resources available to them to collectively piece together Elizabeth’s story, with the ultimate goal of delivering it with her postcards to her great-great (great?) grandchildren?

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Aug 7, 2012

Last Tuesday, I had the pleasure of presenting some of my new research to a delegation from Yonsei University. During a break in my lecture, “The Internet of Things and Mass Collaboration,” I overheard an American professors ask, “What do you think of Ron’s talk?” A Korean professor, referring to my assertion that new technologies are chipping away at the fundamental pillars of post industrial age businesses models said, “He’s scaring the hell out of me.”

Although that’s not the reaction that I was going for, I understood his fear.

The problem arises from the fact that businesses are built upon the relative scarcity of a product or service. If you can solve my problem for the right terms (price, quality, quantity, etc…), then I will exchange money with you for that scarce solution.

But, what happens to your business model when those same solutions are offered abundantly in the marketplace–either for free, or at such low margins that it negates your ability to compete?

This concept isn’t new. Unskilled labor has been threatened by automation for almost two centuries. Businesses built upon physical media (ink, paper,vinyl, magnetic tape, radio waves, laser disc, film, etc…) have seen their business models marginalized by digitization. And today, the critical mass formed through access to ubiquitous networks is forcing abundance upon the most traditional of brick & mortar businesses–perhaps even yours.

If economic abundance has arrived at your doorstep, it’s important not to panic. Historically, threatened companies tend to create artificial scarcity through featherbedding. However, history has shown that customers rebel against artificial scarcity. Just take a look at the firestorms that have emerged from things such as Digital Rights Management (DRM) and Network Neutrality.

Rather than looking inwardly to protect the status quo, the best way to address abundance is to look outwardly. Consider addressing problems that your company has always wanted to tackle, but couldn’t because of the scarcity of the day (cost, quality, quantity, etc…). Perhaps, while abundance has eroded the value of your old products and services, it has also made new ones viable. Question old assumptions. Find new problems to solve. The process will lead to new value that your customers will gladly exchange their dollars for…well, at least until abundance comes calling again.