Category Archives: Innovations

Innovations, Inventions & Emerging Technology

Awesome Stuff: Great Desk Toy, Or Greatest Desk Toy?

Move over Newton’s Cradle, there’s a new physics-based desk toy in town: Ferroflow, the automatic ferrofluid sculpture.

The Good

A few years ago, ferrofluid became a brief online sensation when a video of Sachiko Kodama’s synchronized sculptures went viral. It was one of those “I could stare at this for hours” moments, with the shapes and movements of the ferrofluid in a shifting magnetic field proving utterly beautiful and captivating. Magnetism is unique as a feature of the physical world that we encounter daily in plenty of mundane situations and yet which still produces effects that are un-intuitive to our brains on a basic level — and the seemingly-unnatural shapes that ferrofluid takes bring that fact to the forefront.

In short: ferrofluid is cool, and the Ferroflow brings it to your house or office in all its glory. The device produces its own ever-shifting magnetic field to keep the fluid in constant, lava-lamp-like motion, and also lets you take control via a single adjustment knob. Beyond that, it’s nothing fancy, because it doesn’t need to be: good desk toys, from the iconic Newton’s Cradle to the various once-popular displays of oil and water, are less about elaborate mechanisms and more about teasing out curious and entertaining aspects of nature in the simplest way possible.

The Bad

Okay, so this isn’t going to change the world — in fact, it’s quite the indulgence, given the cost of the unit: $240 at full price, with just a handful of slightly discounted early-bird deals still available. If you (quite sensibly) think that’s far too much to spend on a toy like this, there is an alternative: the Mini Ferroflow, that strips the concept down to even barer bones. There’s no automatic mode and no control knob: it’s just a sealed vial of ferrofluid and a couple of loose magnets to manipulate it with. The resulting shapes and splashes are no less fascinating, though, and $35 is a far less balk-worthy price.

The Safe, Presumably

This is a bit of an aside, but if we’re talking about magnetic toys, let’s take a moment to remember the death of Buckyballs. For the unfamiliar, these were a super-popular toy consisting of nothing but a bunch of powerful spherical magnets and all the amazing shapes they could form. They were fun and satisfying to manipulate. They also, unfortunately, led to a lot of genuine horror stories about internal injuries caused to children who swallowed them, which set off an ongoing dispute between the manufacturer and the government. It got pretty ugly, and though it seems like Buckyballs should still be available for older kids and adults, they aren’t — the toy was recalled and removed from the market last year. The Ferroflow probably won’t be lining the shelves of toy stores and thus is unlikely to face any similar conflict — but I bring it up because the whole saga is an interesting study in safety regulation, personal responsibility, and choosing how to react when your toy starts injuring children.

Permalink | Comments | Email This Story

Awesome Stuff: Sleep Hacking

The potential for technology to improve health and wellness by simply facilitating better, smarter living is huge. Athletes are ahead of the game, already making use of tools like Fitbit and Nike Fit to monitor their activities, but this week we’re looking at the OURA ring, which could bring tech-assisted living to a much wider user base.

The Good

The core function of the OURA ring — which, by the way, looks very nice for a piece of wearable tech — is sleep tracking. It monitors your pulse, body temperature and movements, and uses those to derive detailed information about your sleep cycles and habits. Where it truly shines is in presenting that information: it doesn’t just dump a bunch of data on you, but compiles well-designed and easy-to-read graphs and charts into an ongoing sleep log. It also doesn’t expect you to figure out what to do with the data all by yourself: the OURA pulls key observations and crafts recommendations, letting you know when you’re well rested and ready for activity or when you should take it easy for a day, and informs you of patterns it notices, such as what level of physical activity during the day combined with what bedtime leads to you getting the soundest sleep. If it works well, it could unlock a host of life improvements for the average person, since very few of us consistently get a good night’s sleep or pay much attention to the factors that affect us. Collecting this data is one thing, but making it friendly and accessible is a game-changer.

The Bad

The OURA only reads a few core physical metrics: your pulse waveform, body temperature, and motion level, all of which are then fed through its proprietary algorithm to derive sleep stages. The creators claim that the results match those produced by a proper monitored sleep study, but I do have to wonder just how much room for error there is when making those complex determinations based on just a few indicators, since it seems like a number of individual factors could throw off the algorithm. In that sense, it puts me in mind of bathroom scales that claim to measure body fat based on electrical resistance — leading to wildly inconsistent and inaccurate readings. However, the OURA does appear considerably more sophisticated than that, and it will be interesting to see how it fares when adopted in bigger numbers by a wider variety of people.

The Private

Of course, there’s a bigger conversation to be had around devices like the OURA, and one that was a workshop subject at the Copia Institute’s Inaugural Summit this year: privacy and ethics. As more people begin gathering more and more data about their health — by using devices like this and by leveraging technology to take greater control of their medical history and records — it’s even more important than usual that we give consideration to how that data is handled. On the one hand, people have a right to control this sort of information about themselves; on the other hand, there is huge potential for data-based medical advancement if scientists are able to look at that information in aggregate. The OURA is collaborating with an online platform dedicated to personal data management and sharing to give users control over their sleep data and the ability to contribute some or all of it to anonymized data sets — but there also isn’t a tremendous amount of information about privacy on the OURA’s project page. I think many potential users would like to know more on that front before putting a monitor on their finger and pressing record.

Permalink | Comments | Email This Story

Awesome Stuff: A Voice-Operated Household Assistant

Ever since Star Trek: The Next Generation, who among us hasn’t thought it would be cool to have an omnipresent voice interface with a starship or, failing that, our own house? Sure, PADDs iPhones have Siri now, but it’s just not the same. Our focus for this week’s Awesome Stuff isn’t the first attempt to create a voice-operated computer assistant for the home, and it probably won’t be the last, but the Mycroft is certainly worthy of note.

The Good

One of my first Kickstarter purchases was the Ubi, an earlier attempt at this idea by a startup that now appears to have given up on device manufacturing and focused entirely on operating a cloud service. Nevertheless, it was a nice little piece of hardware and fun to play with — but it’s always fallen a little short of the smooth, perfect functioning that would be necessary to make it a seamless part of everyday life. Whether or not the Mycroft will hit a higher mark is impossible to know for sure without trying one out in person, but there are a couple aspects that make it notable.

First is the fact that it’s built with a commitment to open software and hardware. It’s built on a Raspberry Pi (with all the tweakability and extendibility that implies) and Linux, and is completely open source, with a special backer tier on Kickstarter that gets developers early access to the software which they can run on their own Pis before Mycroft is released. As for the AI processing that happens in the cloud, it’s all done using various open, public APIs for things like voice recognition and natural language processing, rather than relying on a single proprietary service like most such devices. Second is the price: thanks to all that open software and hardware, the Mycroft on Kickstarter clocks in at only $150 for the fully extendable model and $130 for the more basic version (including global shipping, and with some additional early bird discounts still kicking around too). This is considerably lower than several voice systems with fewer features.

The Bad

Devices like this are very hard to evaluate without trying them out, or at least reading some hands-on reviews — so these pre-production Kickstarter sales are for those who have faith, spare cash, or a really insatiable desire to achieve that Star Trek dream. It’s also important to keep in mind that the Mycroft isn’t especially useful as a standalone unit: its capabilities come from integration with other smart-home devices and the internet of things — or at least other Mycroft units. For people whose homes are already equipped with smart thermometers, wireless door locks, networked sound systems and the like, a centralized voice control system is a powerful tool, but for everyone else it’s just a fun toy/exceptionally fancy alarm clock. “Here I am, brain the size of a planet…”

The Okay-Free

This is an odd detail, but one that stands out if you’ve used multiple voice-activated devices before: you don’t need to say “Okay, Mycroft” to wake the unit up — just its name by itself will do. This is nice, since a lot of devices use the “okay” phrase (I’ve got “okay Google” for Google Now searches on smartphones, “okay OnePlus” to wake my OnePlus One, and “okay Ubi” for the aforementioned similar device), and while this does make that Radiohead album seem prophetic, these “okays” have a tendency to cross-pollinate and wake up the wrong device. Mycroft, I suppose, is a unique enough sound that the device can listen for it without the need for an additional trigger — though it remains to be seen whether it will be accidentally awoken by episodes of the BBC’s Sherlock.

Permalink | Comments | Email This Story

How The Heavy Hand Of Government Stifles The On Demand Economy

This century has produced a new lexicon that didn’t exist a generation ago: Broadband. Apps. Connectivity. Streaming video. Social networks. The on-demand economy.

The new millennium has also produced a startling number of successful American companies with worldwide reach: Airbnb, Amazon, Facebook, Google, Lyft, Netflix, Pandora, Snapchat, Twitter, Uber, Yahoo, Yelp.

With so many American innovators leading and improving the global economy, it would seem natural for American policymakers to do everything possible to allow these companies to flourish. Instead, we see far too many examples of our politicians actively discouraging or burdening new services from the country’s leading American companies. With good intentions, but flawed logic, politicians are jumping in to regulate these new companies, slowing the pace of innovation.

In July, Democratic New York Mayor Bill de Blasio was forced to table a plan to limit the growth of ride hailing companies like Uber and Lyft in New York after riders launched a public campaign to stop the proposal. Ride hailing services give New Yorkers and visitors access to quick, clean and affordable transportation options and help expand the city’s economic growth by creating more job opportunities. So why are city regulators trying to slow their expansion and limit consumer choice?

Ride hailing companies continue to face pressure from courts and politicians who say drivers should be treated as employees rather than independent contractors. Labor unions are pushing this view, while ignoring that many ride hailing drivers are drawn to the flexibility of being independent contractors. (Meanwhile, taxicab drivers in many cities are also considered independent contractors, a fact that is rarely mentioned in these debates.)

On-demand economy services like Airbnb that link homeowners with those looking for places to stay are also under attack, as hotel unions join with the lodging industry to regulate, and in some cases ban, these services. The city of San Francisco is considering a measure that would cap Airbnb stays at 75 days, a move that Airbnb says will cost the city $58 million in tax revenue over the next 10 years. Why would city leaders seemingly ignore the potential good that immense amount of revenue could do?

Our nation was built on a foundation of freedom — freedom to contract with each other for goods and services, freedom to innovate and create new products, freedom to start a new business and maybe even fail at it. The government should only impose itself on industry if there’s a compelling public interest.

Rather than force new services to fit the framework of old rules, innovative startups offer regulators a chance to revise outdated rules to reflect a new reality. Ride hailing services naturally weed out bad drivers and poor service, especially when compared with the legacy cab drivers who aren’t rated on or accountable for the quality of their service. Government can and should require driver screening and insurance, but it’s the dynamic feedback nature of the wireless service that safeguards the public and benefits drivers.

Home-sharing services like Airbnb give users more options when they travel and provide extra income for homeowners. Government can and should collect hospitality taxes after some threshold of rentals, but cities benefit from the influx of tourism whether visitors stay in hotels or not. Recently, my family took a holiday in New York City, where Manhattan has few hotel options for families with children. Thanks to Airbnb, we rented an apartment for a third of the comparable hotel price.

Meanwhile, millions of Americans enjoy new services and experiences thanks to the ever evolving tech economy — whether it’s making a living from eBay or Etsy, figuring out where to eat or stay from Trip Advisor or Yelp, or enjoying new music from Pandora. Politicians need to get out of the way, let these businesses thrive and intervene only when there’s a demonstrated, compelling need — and even then, do so as narrowly as possible. The public is voting with their apps and their finger taps. Politicians would be wise to listen to the sounds of the page clicks. It’s what their constituents want.

Gary Shapiro is president and CEO of the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA), the U.S. trade association representing more than 2,000 consumer electronics companies, and author of the New York Times best-selling books, Ninja Innovation: The Ten Killer Strategies of the World’s Most Successful Businesses and The Comeback: How Innovation Will Restore the American Dream. His views are his own. Connect with him on Twitter: @GaryShapiro

Permalink | Comments | Email This Story

Awesome Stuff: When Two Colossal Robots Fight, Everybody Wins

By now, you’ve probably heard that there’s a giant robot fight coming in the near future: a US team has challenged a Japanese team to a brawl, and the challenge was accepted on the condition that it includes hand-to-hand fighting. Clearly America isn’t going to back down because of this requirement, but that means Megabots Inc. needs to upgrade its Mk.II bot — and they’re turning to the crowd for help.

The Good

Three words: giant robot fight. Picture BattleBots (it’s back!) but way, way bigger and with the drivers inside the robots. Do you need more than that? Well, the specifics are pretty cool: Mk.II is already a formidable robot, but designed mostly to look awesome and deliver long-range attacks. The team has an overall $1.5-million plan to do a significant overhaul and get the Mk.II ready to take on the Japanese bot — and they’re seeking the first $500,000 on Kickstarter. That’ll cover new armor, melee weapons, a higher top speed, and the necessary hydraulics and power systems to keep all that operational. If they can break through the target and hit some stretch goals, things start to get even more interesting: at $750k they’ll begin designing and testing modular weapons to find the best armament; at $1-million they’ll begin working with the winners of a DARPA challenge to give the currently-top-heavy Mk.II advanced balancing capabilities (like the videos of self-balancing DARPA robots that get creepier every day); at $1.25-milion they’ll bring in NASA safety experts to make sure the driver is completely protected (should this maybe be… higher priority?); and at $1.5-million they’ll apply the icing to the cake in the form of a Hollywood-grade paint job.

Even if you don’t care who wins this fight, you probably want to see it happen.

The Bad

…And if you do care who wins this fight (and are rooting for the US) then you should probably back this project, because at the moment there’s plenty of reason to believe that the Mk.II might have bitten off more than it can chew. Its opponent — the Kuratas by Suidobashi Heavy Industry — is an extremely impressive machine. The Mk.II might be a bit heavier-duty, but the Kuratas is far more maneuverable and features some pretty advanced targeting and piloting systems. It’s pretty clear why the Japanese team wanted a hand-to-hand combat component: the Kuratas hasn’t been seen sporting any particularly heavy firepower (while the US bot, unsurprisingly, has) but it’s not hard to picture it taking out the Mk.II up close by trumping it on manoeuvrability and balance — because, like so many robot competitions over the years, there’s a good chance this one will end somewhat-disappointingly with one of the bots unceremoniously falling over. $1.5-million worth of upgrades will go a long way towards ensuring this is a fair and intense fight.

The Empowering

Of course, as much fun as it will be to see these robots in action, the real dream for many will be to drive one — and that’s absolutely a possibility. Starting at $1000, all the tiers offer the chance to pilot the Mk.II — with higher prices bringing in the chance to try out its guns and fists. At the top tier of $10,000, you get to join the pit crew and get the inside view of the entire match including watching on-site assembly of the bot — and since all five spots were snatched up far more quickly than expected, the team has added another round of five, and three of those have already been claimed.

Permalink | Comments | Email This Story

Awesome Stuff: 3D Photography For All

One of the oft-touted features of 3D printers, especially in the early days, was the ability to scan an object and reproduce it. But as the printers themselves have become cheaper and more accessible, the focus seems to have shifted to downloadable and shareable designs, with little attention being paid to the scanning devices that help complete the “replicator” vision of our 3D printing future. This week we’re looking at Bevel, an low-cost device that brings 3D scanning to any smartphone.

The Good

The most immediately noticeable thing about Bevel is the price. Some personal 3D scanners exist in the range of thousands of dollars, and a growing number in the range of hundreds, but I’ve never seen one that clocks in at a mere $50 like the Bevel. And this isn’t something that produces faux-3D images with some forced depth — it’s a proper scanning laser that works in concert with a smartphone’s existing camera to build a true 3D model of an object. The resultant models are 3D-printing compatible (though likely not without some care and tweaking, as is generally the case) and quite impressively detailed for such a small, low-cost device. Interestingly, the Bevel is not a USB/Lightning peripheral, but rather uses the headphone/microphone jack — which is great for compatibility, though it does mean it needs to be separately charged since it can’t draw power from the phone.

The Bad

The Bevel does appear to be tied down to a proprietary app, though for such a smartphone-specific device requiring presumably quite complex software, that’s not a huge shock. I’d love to see more interoperability in smartphone peripherals, and the separation of device drivers from specific apps, but it’s hard to lay the blame for that solely at Bevel’s feet. More curious and concerning is their insistence on trademarking the term “Genuine 3D” to describe Bevel’s photos. While I understand the desire to differentiate Bevel from apps that create a fake 3D photo effect, trying to turn the concept of a proper 3D scan/photo combination into a trademarked brand name seems unnecessary and potentially problematic, given that it’s a function and a type of media that is going to become increasingly commonplace.

The Creepy

Bevel’s 3D photos are quite impressive. It can capture very complex objects, even people, with a high level of detail. But… the results when it comes to people, while technically appreciable, are creepy as hell. I totally understand the desire to show off the Bevel’s capabilities, but using terrifying renderings of their team members as flagship examples is an odd choice. I can see lots of uses for the Bevel, but their marketing material seems to suggest the most popular will be capturing moments with friends, which I frankly doubt unless your friends are already wrinkly zombie creatures.

Permalink | Comments | Email This Story

The Failure Of Google Plus Should Be A Reminder That Big Companies Very Rarely Successfully ‘Copy’ Startups

In our recent podcast on copying, we talked about the usual story that people tell about the need for patents: that they protect up and coming startups from being wiped out by “big companies with lots of money” that are simply copying their good ideas. During the podcast, we try to come up with a single example of that actually happening, and we even search the internet looking for examples — and find it very difficult to come up with a legitimate example. It almost never happens. As we’ve discussed, in the rare cases when “copying” succeeds, it’s because the second company doesn’t really copy, but actually comes up with a better product, which is something we should celebrate. When they just copy, they tend to only be able to copy the superficial aspects of what they see, rather than all the underlying tacit thinking that makes a product good. We’ve referred to it as cargo cult copying after the infamous cargo cults of World War II, who built fake airports, hoping that if they had those fake airports, all of the stuff that came with American soldiers would return.

As you may have heard, Google is finally admitting that its attempt at a Facebook killer, Google Plus, is now basically dead. Mashable has a fantastic post mortem, in which it quickly becomes clear that Google fell for the same old pitfall: cargo cult copying of Facebook:

Interviews with more than a dozen Google insiders and analysts in recent months, many speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution, paint the Google of 2010-2011 as increasingly fearful of Facebook snatching away users, employees and advertisers. Google tried to mobilize itself quickly, but approached the task with all the clumsiness of a giant trying to dance with a younger, nimble startup.

Google launched Plus without a clear plan to differentiate the service from Facebook. It bet on a charismatic leader with a flawed vision, ignored troubling indications about the social network’s traction (or lack thereof) with users and continued throwing features at the wall long after many had written Google+ off for dead.

The slow demise of Google+ sheds light on how a large technology company tries and often fails to innovate when it feels threatened.

Ars Technica, similarly, has a good post mortem detailing how Google basically did everything wrong when it came to trying to get into the “social” game:

Google+ was, in a word, “forced.” It was forced not only into products and on users but onto the rest of the company, too. In 2011, for instance, Larry Page famously tied all employee bonuses to the company’s success in social. It was easy to see why Page decided to do this at the time: Facebook was big and growing and scary. What if people stopped using search and just asked their friends for websites and product recommendations?

With a fear-powered, top-down mandate and every employee having a vested interest in Google+, the social network got shoehorned into every Google product. Google+ showed up in Search, Android, Google Maps, YouTube, Google Play, and many others.

Google+ certainly isn’t the first social Google product, but it is the latest in a long line of social failures that the company still doesn’t seem to have learned from. It’s not that Google can’t build great social products—it can—it just continually misjudges which of its social products are good (or even which of its products are social) and therefore deserve the company’s focus. Google’s social past seems to follow a pattern: throw resources behind social products few people want and try to compel adoption, while neglecting the social products people do want.

And yet… despite all of these failures, you still hear people talking about the importance of things like patents, or the “fear” that Google or other large companies will suddenly enter the market and easily beat startups that are in the space, “because they’re so big.” Or “because they can just throw money at it.” And, yet, that almost never works. In fact, as we’ve seen with Google and social, they can be exceptionally clumsy at it.

Does that mean that there are no examples of it happening? Of course not. It does happen (and one could even argue that Android is a good example of Google copying iOS). But the idea that the big company always wins or that it’s somehow “easy” for big companies to wipe out little companies just isn’t supported by that much evidence. If a startup is doing something really amazing and innovative that people actually want, you can almost always guarantee that (1) the big companies will totally miss the boat for way too long and (2) once they finally wake up, be clumsy and ridiculous in their attempts to copy. On that one, there are lots of examples. Microsoft has spent the past few decades making that same mistake. Google has done it with social. Some are suggesting Apple’s latest attempt to get into streaming music is the same thing (though it’s a bit early to say on that).

People think it’s easy to copy because copying seems like it should be easy. But it’s not. You can only copy the parts you can see, which leaves out an awful lot of understanding and tacit knowledge hidden beneath the surface. It also leaves out all the knowledge of what doesn’t work that the originator has. And, finally, it ignores the competing interests within a larger business that make it much harder for those companies to innovate.

Permalink | Comments | Email This Story

Awesome Stuff: Making Mesh Networks

Remember the early days of wireless routers, when every city street-corner was home to a dozen unsecured WiFi connections? That was hardly an ideal (or safe) state of affairs, but it did feel rather nice and neighbourly at times, and there was a certain sadness in watching all the open networks get locked down over the years. Today we’re looking at Meta Mesh, a project that aims to help communities recapture the good parts of those glory days in a fair, secure and superior manner by building their own distributed bandwidth-sharing networks with ease.

The Good

Mesh networking is a powerful idea, and one that embodies the spirit of distributed design and open interconnection that underpins the internet. The basic idea is that by uniting a community on a shared network with no central access point, you can share the huge amounts of unused and inefficiently allocated bandwidth that gets paid for and wasted every day. ISPs, after all, are not doing a good job (or any kind of job) at this allocation: power users pay exorbitant fees and are viewed by ISPs as a problem, low-income users have few if any options for affordable service, and the average person pays for far more bandwidth than they ever use. Few cities can or will offer municipal wi-fi, and those that try often do a pretty poor job of it.

A mesh network lets a community fix all that on its own. The average home or business now has a bunch of powerful wireless networking equipment sitting in a corner to serve a handful of computers and devices — but what if those homes and businesses used that equipment to connect to each other, to turn all their little networks into one big one and extend it throughout the city? The possibilities are huge.

If there’s one key reason this isn’t already happening in most major cities, it’s that it isn’t necessarily easy to do. That’s what Meta Mesh aims to change by offering a complete guide to setting up mesh networks without a lot of technical expertise, and a web store where people can purchase preconfigured equipment. The necessary gear isn’t expensive, and hasn’t been for a long time — removing the technical barriers to finding and setting up that gear changes mesh networks from complex projects into simple solutions.

The Bad

Bandwidth sharing is a critical function of mesh networks, and might be their “killer app” as it were — but the possibilities actually extend far beyond that, which is something I wish Meta Mesh was discussing more. Think of all the other things a community could do with its own ad-hoc network: local versions of geographically-linked services from Craigslist to Uber to Tinder; neighbourhood cryptocurrencies and other tools built on a local blockchain ledger; peer-to-peer sharing that never touches the wider internet. Imagine the possibilities when these networks are extendable and bridgeable. Mesh networks won’t just revolutionize how we connect to the internet — they are poised to become a powerful and vibrant part of the the global information network in their own right.

Meta Mesh is a great first step, but I worry that the pitch’s focus on bandwidth-sharing makes this sound exclusively like a charitable endeavour, when in fact it’s so much more.

The Obstacles

Of course, there’s little doubt that ISPs will react badly to this. The aforementioned shift from mostly open to mostly locked-down home WiFi networks — though ultimately a good thing for security’s sake — didn’t happen so rapidly because people started learning about security: it happened because ISPs gave up on their short-lived crusade to stop customers using wireless routers entirely, and started supplying pre-secured ones themselves. You can expect them to be just as crafty in attempting to prevent this kind of bandwidth-sharing too: first by enforcing their anti-sharing terms of service, then if that fails by attempting to take control of the mesh networking world and milk it for every penny (destroying its purpose in the process). It will be a frustrating battle, but one that ISPs are no longer in a position to easily win as more and more people are waking up to the fact that broadband service in this part of the world sucks.

Permalink | Comments | Email This Story

NHL To Piggyback On MLB Advanced Media For An Actual Legitimate Streaming Option

For quite a while now, some of us in the business of discussing digital business models and entertainment have suggested that the ongoing trend of cable-cord-cutting, which will eventually turn the cable TV business into something completely different than what it’s been for decades, would be best spurred on by better streaming sports options. What once seemed like a trickle of streaming adoption by sports leagues and broadcast partners has begun to turn into a river, with baseball and football looking to expand streaming options and some very serious web companies getting into the game as “broadcast” partners with major pro sports leagues.

It isn’t stopping. In fact, it’s only ramping up further. The NHL, the group with the lowest television revenue of the major sports leagues, and therefore the most to gain from streaming its product to expand the fan-base, just announced a deal with Major League Baseball to piggyback on the excellent MLB Advanced Media platform to stream NHL games.

The partnership will transform the fan experience by creating a fully integrated global hub of digital content that encompasses video, live game streaming, social media, fantasy, apps, along with statistical and analytical content. With an emphasis on deeper access into the game and telling the stories of NHL players, MLBAM and the NHL will collaborate on developing new digital products and platforms while enhancing current offerings.

The deal awards MLBAM rights to distribute live out-of-market games, including through the NHL GameCenter LIVE and NHL Center Ice subscription services in the United States and certain international markets. MLBAM will operate, including the League’s seven native language sites, and Club websites. MLBAM will operate NHL apps and be available to develop apps for the Clubs. The NHL and MLBAM will partner on the design and development of new digital products and platforms. The NHL and its Clubs retain editorial control across all platforms. The Emmy-Award winning MLB Network will provide studio space and production resources for the NHL Network for distribution in the United States and certain international markets.

This works on so many different levels, it’s hard to know where to begin. First, any baseball fan, or really any sports fan, should be aware by now that MLBAM is the absolute gold standard in sports streaming. The price, the offering, the quality, the organization, the replays and the presence on new media is done amazingly well. If you’re a baseball fan and you don’t have MLB.TV, you clearly enjoy self-masochism in a way that I will never understand and may God have mercy on your soul. The NHL, in partnering with MLBAM, doesn’t need to create their own platform. They simply partner with the best in the business and go on doing what they do best: producing hockey games. Give up a little control, get back a ton of exposure and a platform that makes the game widely available throughout the country/world.

Which is exactly what some of us (ahem, me) said the NHL should have done immediately after the last lockout. The promise of streaming is a customer-base unimpeded by borders or geography, one where your best fans can access your product wherever you go. The NHL, more than any other league, needs this sorely. Now they have it in a package that almost inevitably will be better than the Center Ice streaming product, which, blech. The only question is going to be just how long is it going to take, how many smart TVs need to be sold, and just how wide does the high-speed broadband net have to be cast before the leagues realize the obvious conclusion they should be drawing from all of this: they don’t really need the broadcast partners anymore.

Notice the language that the NHL used in announcing this deal. MLBAM is the distribution channel for out-of-market games for the NHL. Today that means streaming the television broadcasts out of market. But also note that MLB has its own cable network and is its own broadcast partner for some games. Exactly how far is MLB away from partnering with MLB franchises to broadcast on its own station, where it can sell its own advertising, hire its own on-air talent, and all the rest? And if they can do that, they could simply stream the games as a priority and leave the television station on as an afterthought. They already know how to do this, through the MLB.TV service. Exactly what purpose are the TV stations filling that MLB can’t do on its own?

And if MLBAM wants to strike up deals with other sports leagues to be their broadcast partners on the web? Well, if you work at ESPN, you ought to be shaking in your shoes right about now.

Permalink | Comments | Email This Story

Awesome Stuff: Making GovTrack Even More Awesome

If you pay any sort of ongoing attention to Congress, you’re probably familiar with GovTrack, the extremely useful online resource created by Joshua Tauberer in 2004, containing robust info on the status of all the bills that hit the floors of the House and the Senate. It’s a fantastic tool, and today we’re looking at a crowdfunding push to make it even better by hiring a full-time researcher to add additional context and analysis to the bills and votes being tracked.

The Good

Until very recently, GovTrack was fully automated and had no staff — which is why one man’s pet project has been going strong for over a decade without much if anything in the way of revenue. But Joshua knows there’s lots more the site could be doing, and recently hired an intern to start testing out a big new addition to GovTrack: researchers who can closely follow the most important bills and dig into them deeper than the algorithms can, providing commentary and analysis plus readable summaries of legislation, and reporting on the underlying political context. To that end, they’ve also launched GovTrack Insider as a Medium page, which already features a bunch of posts on various important bills and votes from the last few months.

The Kickstarter goal is to upgrade from an intern to a full-time researcher on a six-month contract — or two as a stretch goal. This could really take the already-useful GovTrack to a whole new level.

The Bad

While I don’t by any means think this is a bad idea, there are still a few potential pitfalls. The first is that it’s not clear how this one-time fundraising goal can/will translate into something ongoing. A researcher can do a whole lot in six months, but the ongoing flow of bills through Congress requires ongoing attention with no end in sight. Will we be looking at another Kickstarter for the next congressional session? Or is there some plan to secure new revenue streams with the expanded GovTrack? Either way, if this project is as useful to people as it’s likely to be, some will surely be happy to keep paying.

The other, perhaps more critical, pitfall is politicization. Once you move from automatically tracking raw data to actually writing up summaries and analyses, it’s almost inevitable that you’ll have to start taking political/ideological sides from time-to-time, no matter how committed you might be to neutrality or objectivity. It might prove very difficult to expand GovTrack in this way without beginning to be seen as an at-least-slightly partisan publication rather than a wholly neutral tool for anyone to use — though, that doesn’t mean it’s impossible.

The Rewarding

There are some very interesting rewards available for backers of this project (and the choice to link the dollar amounts for the various tiers to important Congress-related numbers is a neat one). At lower levels, backers can get in on webinars and group chats that explore Congressional issues and provide advice on political advocacy, while the higher tiers offer the ability to get custom summaries and analyses written of bills that you choose.

But perhaps the most attractive (or at least the most fun) options are those that take advantage of the research intern’s other skill: art. At various tiers, he’ll draw you a custom caricature of any Representative or Senator that you choose. No word on if you get to dictate how flattering or unflattering said caricature is, though.

Permalink | Comments | Email This Story