Tuesday, October 27, 2015

What is Innovation?

...and are you an innovator?

“Innovation” is a word I hear often. Maybe you do, too. Many of us who work in science and technology fields like to think that in our own work we contribute in innovative ways – at least sometimes. What do we really mean when we use that word? I wanted to step back to think about its meaning and use.

Is “innovation” the same as “invention?” Is innovation the act of discovering the truly unknown?

One view on innovation that I like comes from Professors Christian Terwiesch and Karl Ulrich, both of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. In their book Innovation Tournaments[1], they say that innovation is a  “new match between a need and a solution so that value is created.” This is an appealing definition, in part because it is easy to understand and in part because embracing it implies that innovation can take place in a broad variety of fields. When we create value through a new match of need and solution, we innovate. This can obviously be the case in science and engineering as well as in medical research and health care practice, but it can also be true in business, social services, sports and recreation, and a broad range of other professions and human activities. This definition also suggests that innovation is not (always) about inventing something brand new. It can involve taking ideas we already have and understand in one context, and then applying them in another – matching solutions to needs and creating value. When it’s a good match, innovation is likely taking place.

Guy Kawasaki, famous for his role in the original Apple Macintosh and who today describes himself as a “Silicon-Valley based author, speaker, entrepreneur, and evangelist,” [2] makes many points in talking about innovation. His first point in his TED Talk innovation video [3] agrees with Terwiesch and Ulrich. Kawasaki advises us to “make meaning” first and notes that in doing so we will “likely make money.” He also advises us to try many paths and to not be afraid to bring forward early versions of new ideas, even though we may know these early versions have flaws (humorously saying, “Don’t worry, be crappy”).

The new Chief Innovation Officer at Internet2, Florence Hudson (who previously served as an IBM VP of Strategy and Chief Technology Officer), has "innovation" right in her title. In her new innovation role with Internet2, she is working within a community of high-tech engineers and software developers who together help to enable the work of some of the nation's most prominent researchers. She talks about working closely with that community to "stimulate the creation of new technologies and services."

I'll end my musings on "innovation" by recalling some of my own experience with the idea. A few years ago I suggested to my then-employer, an IT services organization at a university, that we could likely promote more innovation and boost staff morale by encouraging our staff to surface ideas that mattered to them and then allow them to spend some small amount of their work time in their pursuit. Google famously allowed their engineers up to 20% for innovation time (they’ve since cut back and restructured this program, but it still exists), reportedly with great results. I hoped we could borrow that idea but allocate just a few days a year. We could encourage but not mandate participation and we could encourage sharing experiences and reporting out. If the outcome was some practical ideas worth pursuing, great! If "all" we got was a more energized and engaged staff, that might be a winner in and of itself.

Starting in about 2010, we set aside a few days every year to pursue this idea. To explore and innovate. Members of the organization worked individually and in small teams and learned, explored, and sometimes created value. I believe that they often were re-energized for having spent the time and effort.

As my own project a few years ago, I challenged myself to create a short movie on "innovation." My goal was to "crowd source" the content, asking colleagues to tell me about innovation. I would collect their input and also learn some basic tools to assemble the media, and I would do the entire thing in 24 hours. I ended up using Garage Band for the music, PowerPoint for the still images, and iMovie for the video editing. I managed to pull something together in 36 hours, and got some real satisfaction in the doing and in the product. That movie, available on YouTube, appears below:

So do you innovate? Do your colleagues innovate? 

Think about what you do day-to-day. Think about problems you’ve solved in the last month. What does the word "innovation" mean to you? Are you an innovator? Leave a comment and let us know how.

Reference Links:
  1. http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1422152227?ie=UTF8&tag=ideacon-20&linkCode=as2&camp=1789&creative=9325&creativeASIN=1422152227
  2. http://guykawasaki.com/
  3. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mtjatz9r-Vc
  4. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-WxAaZeJvVA 

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Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Thoughts on the New Apple TV

Are “apps” the future of TV?

Early this month Apple announced new products, software, and operating systems. Among the announcements were new iPhones (the 6s and 6s Plus, as expected), improvements to the Apple Watch line, a new and larger member of the iPad family, and an update to the Apple TV. It’s this last announcement, the Apple TV (http://www.apple.com/apple-events/september-2015/  - timepoint 51:50), that I want to write about today.
Photo Credit: Apple.com

Apple talked about the television experience as not having changed in decades, and Apple is betting that we’ll want the experience to evolve in ways that are consistent with the ways in which we use smartphone and tablet technology today. “The future of television is apps,” said Apple CEO Tim Cook, noting that we already access television shows through Netflix, Hulu, HBO and other apps on smartphones and tablets as well as on the current Apple TV. Apple has decided to double down on this idea, introducing significantly upgraded Apple TV hardware and emphasizing apps by creating an App Store for the Apple TV. Apple will be opening up app development for the Apple TV to 3rd party developers, a move long anticipated.

Beyond new hardware and the promise of a new app economy, Apple introduced an advanced remote with a touch interface and the ability to interact through voice using Siri. Saying “Skip ahead seven minutes” to the remote while watching content does the obvious. Saying “Who stars in this?” gives the answer in the lower third, and saying “what did she say?” causes the show being watched to be skipped back by 15 seconds and then re-played with closed-captioning turned on. I can certainly see myself using that feature!

Saying “Show me action movies” allows a user to search simultaneously across multiple content apps (currently iTunes, Netflix, Hulu, HBO, Showtime, and more expected to be added), and then saying “just James Bond movies” refines the search. What Apple seems to have done is to bring advanced search to the multiple-app television experience.  Using the new AppleTV and its Siri-enabled remote, we can now do advanced, cross-app searching, which is a big improvement over cumbersome searches done separately in each of the content apps.

In addition to higher-end hardware and a Siri-savvy remote, the Apple TV will have a clean new on-screen user interface. It’s support for apps will include games, allowing the Apple TV to also serve as a family gaming device in the living room, though the selection of games is not expected to compete with the major consoles. 

What we didn’t hear about Apple TV 

Two widely expected developments did not seem to come along with this version of the product. First, many had expected the new Apple TV to have an additional role as a central hub for home automation tools and products, allowing users to control elements of their home such as next-gen network-enabled lighting, thermostats and security cameras from the Apple TV. This capability did not seem to materialize in this release of the product. Second, many had speculated that Apple had been working hard to establish content deals with television and movie studios to make a broader range of content available in an a la carte, subscription-based way. This would have positioned the Apple TV as an attractive option for "cord cutters" (see my blog post TV a la Carte from October 2014), but the deals still seem to elude Apple, with many speculating that the television and movie content creators are reluctant to give up too much to Apple.

Getting a closer look

The 9to5mac unboxing video appears on YouTube and is provided here. [Credit http://9to5mac.com/].

9to5Mac's time with the device reveals some welcome details, such as support for Bluetooth headphones and Bluetooth speakers. Bluetooth could be a handy way for one family member to enjoy Apple TV vieweing or gaming without disturbing others in the house who are otherwise occupied and prefer not to hear the audio.

Final thoughts

One thing I continue to wonder about is the bet Apple is placing on apps. I don't deny the value of apps, and in fact I'm a big user of the content apps they named in the announcement. But in a day and age in which we may often watch shows on iPhone and iPad apps by ourselves, the time we choose to spend in front of the big living room TV is often still a very different watching experience. It's communal. And in that setting I'm not sure how playing around with apps will work out. Family members seem to already get annoyed when one person dominates the standard television remote, and that’s only to change channels. Are people really going to be patient while one person in the collected watching group is fooling around with apps while the rest sit by and wait? Time will tell.

Nevertheless, I'll certainly be getting a new Apple TV. The current generation works well for me and the new generation seems to bring many good new features. I'm placing my order as soon as I can. What about you? Will you be buying an Apple TV? Leave a comment and let us know why or why not.


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Thursday, August 6, 2015

Lexus Shows Us a Hoverboard. For real.

Hey McFly! What’s with the defying of gravity?

Ever since the movie Back to the Future II, in which several characters float over pavement (but not water?) on “hoverboards,” people have wondered whether that technology would ever reach reality – whether we’d some day be riding hoverboards around our neighborhoods. Lexus may not have gotten us all the way there, but a very real proof of concept has been created and it seems to me that it could have practical implications beyond recreation. Could this technology eventually lead to practical inventions that could be used for moving equipment or people over defined paths, such as in transportation, warehouses or airports?

Here’s one of the the movies Lexus has been showing:

The hoverboard in the video above works through something called "flux pinning" in which ceramic tiles are super-cooled with liquid nitrogen. The tiles and a magnetic track can then interact to create a field in which the board can hover, at least while the ceramic is in the proper temperature range. So there are some real limiting factors here including the ability to cool the ceramic and maintain temperature, and the fact that this only works above the magnetic track, so unlike a skateboard, it cannot just go wherever the rider wants. But it does appear to really achieve hover, and people have now ridden this board. Hard to deny the cool factor in that!

Admittedly, this may not be a generalized and practical hoverboard that achieves what Biff and Marty were riding in the movies, but it does seem like a nice demonstration of one approach to the challenge, and again, it could conceivably have applications outside of the skatepark.

What do you think? Would you ride this board? Does it seem like a step towards something useful or interesting? Leave a comment and let us know.


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Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Are You Ready for Prime Day?

Amazon creates its own shopping holiday

For 24 hours on July 15th, the 20th anniversary of its launch, Amazon.com is taking it's Prime service to the next level by actually attempting to create its own shopping holiday. Some deals will last all day, others will be added as often as every 10 minutes throughout the day and be available for limited times.

According to Amazon:
Prime Day is a one-day shopping event on July 15, 2015, with more deals than Black Friday. Prime members can shop exclusive deals from electronics, toys, video games, movies, clothing, patio, lawn and garden, sports and outdoor items and more.

Meanwhile, Walmart has announced a competing sale to take place starting on Wednesday. Their sale will include exclusive online price "rollbacks" meant to compete directly with Amazon and to show that Walmart is a major online player. The discounted items, including electronics and home items, will last up to 90 days. Walmart will also be promoting a competing free shipping service at a lower cost.

Is all of this really different in any way than past sales by major retailers? The sales figures will tell that story later this week. Can Amazon actually create a shopping holiday that for them is bigger than Black Friday? Will you be shopping on Prime Day? I can't say whether I'll be buying, but I'll certainly be browsing. Please leave a comment and let us know whether Prime Day turns out to be a big shopping day for you.


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