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Picnic08: Connected rabbits, running shoes and cable providers…

Kara Swisher of the Wall Street Journal’s All Things Digital converses with – grill, perhaps – Mike Fries of Liberty Global, the world’s second largest cable operator. The focus is on the future of television, and Fries feels very, very strongly that the future is professional, random-access content.

Swisher observes that the US is the “third world of broadband” and wonders if in countries like the Netherlands, where bandwidth is more pervasive and cheaper, we might see the rise of IP television. Fries doesn’t buy it. He believes that IP doesn’t have the quality or service or bandwidth… and he points out that IPTV is very easy to steal. That’s why only 0.5% of revenue in the content industry is generated online. Swisher wonders if that’s because content industries treat all users as thieves.

Fries isn’t worried about making us feel bad as content thieves. He’s more worried that we’ll destroy television in the same way that we’ve stopped the music. “If video goes the way of the music industry, we’re all going to be watching cats on skateboards.” He argues that we spend hundreds of hours a week in front of the TV (which seems like an exaggeration) and only 7 minutes watching online video. That’s because “consumers want 50 inch TVs with HD quality.” His family is “falling in love with the television again” – it’s “big, clear and you can put your butt on the couch.”

Liberty Global is one of the partners on the o3b initiative – a new constellation of satellites designed to bring broadband connectivity to rural areas in the developing world. He references the global cable map, pointing out that there’s a single cable connecting West Africa to the internet, and no cables connecting East Africa. I’ve always assumed that the constellation would be mostly oriented towards phones – Fries suggests that the real goal is random access broadband television delivered to African communities… and towards broadband internet connectivity as well by selling wholesale bandwidth to internet and cable companies.

Had I not shared a boat ride with Michael Tchao to the PICNIC venue today, I would have assumed that he’d run in this morning. From, say, Brussels. Or Munich. He’s the general manager of Nike Techlab, the group responsible for Nike+, the project which links Nike shoes and the iPod, allowing runners to track their running experiences online.

The motivation behind the project is an old one. In 1987, Tchao tells us, Nike launched a product about the size of a videocassette, which you strapped to your waist and chest, and it measured your distance and speed via sonar. It didn’t sell. By 1999, they had a slightly smaller device – it strapped to your shoe, and it was so big and heavy that the Nike CEO referred to it as “the tumor”. If your CEO calls your product a tumor, that’s not good.

But the product’s pretty cool now. It’s a small sensor which sits in a running shoe… and almost all Nike shoes now have a pocket for it. The sensor talks to a transmitter attached to your ipod… probably a nano, which is what devoted runners tend to carry. (I’d always wondered who bought nanos. Runners. That’s why I never guessed there was a market.)

Traditionally, systems that track running data combine “the emotional appeal of an EKG plus the excitement of Excel.” The Nike+ system is a lot simpler. At the top level, you get a calendar with an orange box on days you ran. That turns out to be pretty good motivation. So’s the fact that after a run, you’ll get a voice message from Lance Armstrong congratulating you on your longest run ever. Or the fact that the iPod will shuffle to play your “power song” at the point in your workout when your energy is flagging.

But the really fun stuff happens when you share this data. There’s a global leaderboard which lets runners and walkers around the world challenge each other. You can challenge friends, setting up contests via emails (last one to 100 miles run buys lunch) or leaving unlockable messages (run 14 miles and see the message I left for you).

Nike is marketing the project by embracing the idea that runners like communities. This has meant organizing huge events, like the “Human Race”, a simultaneous 10k race in 26 cities. People who weren’t in these cities could run on the same day and participate by running and posting their results to the site, allowing it to become a massive, global event… one group ran around a cruise ship, proving that you really can participate anywhere.

Tchao’s presentation made me want to take up running, which is a pretty impressive achievement. That’s not an easy feat of motivation to accomplish.

Rafi Haladjian is the sort of innovator who challenges your ideas of what constitutes a product. His obsession is connecting things to networks. An early Minitel developer, he founded the first Internet company in France. Lately, with his company Violet, he’s finding ways to connect rabbits to the internet.

Not real rabbits, the kind that are eating my blueberry bushes. Animatronic plastic rabbits. He calls them Nabaztag, which is the Armenian word for rabbit. He likes the word because it’s hard for anyone who’s not Armenian to pronounce or remember.

Why do you need an internet-connected rabbit? You don’t, he explains. They are very nice, though – they move their ears, play music, blink their eyes. They’re an example of a new form of interface, one he pioneered with the DAL lamp – a device that provides new types of expression of internet data, designed not for retriveing information but for enabling awareness. (The DAL lamp changed color to reflect traffic, the weather or the speed of the internet. It cost 800 euros. He sold 170. That’s more than I would have expected.)

Why a rabbit? He’s offered thirty explanations, but the most basic one is that he wanted to connect something to the internet and there happened to be a rabbit on his desk. But this has turned into one of the more intriguing internet business plans I’ve ever seen:

Step 1 – Connect rabbits to the internet
Step 2 – Connect everything else

Rabbits are the first step in creating “the inescapable internet of things”. One something is possible, he argues, it becomes pervasive. A clock used to be a building – now it’s a minor function of a device like a microwave oven. Electricity became common for lighting buildings – other products build on that infrastructure to iron clothes or power ovens.

Networks were made for telephones. Computers helped demonstrate that we could bring other objects onto networks – cobjects, or connected objects. Now the challenge is connecting nobjects, non-connected objects. He reminds us that there are 1 billion PCs, 3.3 billion mobiles… but probably 9 billion pairs of shoes and billions of other things. How do we get them online?


That’s Violet’s latest project – a consumer RFID reader. You can cause your existing RFID objects – like your subway pass – to trigger behaviors when they encounter your reader, like loading up information on delays on the local Metro. Or you can put RFID “stamps” onto nobjects and associate them with triggering behaviors. The goal is to connect everything:

– Put a tag on your box of pills and remember that you took your meds or be reminded to order new drugs
– Stamp children’s books and let your nabastag read the book to your child
– Tag your umbrella and when you wave it in front of the sensor, the computer will show the weather forecast, and begin reading the Guardian to you.

Why? I’m not sure. But Haladjian is and those rabbits are really cute.

2 thoughts on “Picnic08: Connected rabbits, running shoes and cable providers…”

  1. Pingback: Tiburon-TV » Blog Archive » violet.net - Rafi Haladjian

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