December 4, 2013
There are “pet owners” and then there are “pet parents.” For the latter, there isn’t an effort to a great or a price too high to make their little ones feel like part of the family.
Over the years, the multi-billion dollar pet market has happily catered to these truest of animal lovers, making it possible for them to spoil their precious furballs with facials and manicures at dog spas, specially-concocted fragrances and custom-designed orthopedic pet beds. Being so attached, you can imagine the separation anxiety pet parents experience when they’re at work or vacationing for an extended amount of time.
To alleviate this stress, a Minnesota-based startup has invented a two-way petcam that enables both owner and pet to connect and interact remotely in a manner similar to Skype or Apple’s FaceTime. The $350 PetChatz device features a “chew-proof” intercom-sized unit with a built-in speakerphone, camera system and interactive LCD screen that can be plugged into any wall outlet.
Connected via Wi-Fi, owners would then use an app on their computer or mobile device to start a “chat” session, which can be recorded and shared with others. A special ring tone signals to the pet that someone’s calling and an additional motion and sound detection system can be set up to notify parents of any activity around the house. While technically dogs or cats don’t have the ability to chat, people can use the “Greet & Treat” system to reward their pets by dispensing tasty treats and even special scents that are kept in a refillable hidden compartment.
PetChatz was created by Mark Kroll, a medical technology developer with more than 350 patents to his name. He holds the title of Minnesota’s most prolific inventor. The idea came to him about a decade ago when, while he was Skyping with his daughter, the family’s labrador recognized her voice and came running into the room. Kroll later collaborated with veterinary technician Lisa Lavin to to develop PetChatz and other similar long-distance technologies under a new venture called Anser Innovation.
“As a pet parent myself, I understand how strongly people feel about their pets,” says Lavin, who estimates that she has spent a total of $11,200 on vet bills and $80 a month on dog food for both of her live-in poodles. “We miss them. We feel guilty when we’re away on vacation and this is a way to alleviate that separation anxiety.”
If there is one aspect of these extravagant pet parenting products that some might find troubling, other than the cost, it’s that promoting them involves a great deal of anthropomorphizing. Though dogs and cats are intelligent, they still aren’t human, and treating them as such hints at a kind of resolute denial to accept the fact that they may not even enjoy being the benefactor of pricey skin treatments. Some experts think its a stretch to believe that the critter on the other end even recognizes a person being displayed on a screen.
“This product introduces the potential for interaction between the dog and the technology,” Margaret Duxbury, an animal behavior professor at the University of Minnesota, told the Star-Tribune a year ago. “It will certainly be disappointing if the dogs don’t respond at all [to PetChatz]. Perhaps they will respond to the voice but not recognize that the picture is of their owner. Does that even matter if they respond to the voice?”
Lavin claims that the company has since tested the device, with pet and human subjects, and discovered that pets can be easily trained to at least recognize the ring in a manner similar to a Pavlovian response. (Some animals have even been trained to be government spies.) As for whether a pet knows who’s on-screen, she says that would depend on how much visual technology the pet has been exposed to.
“What we found was that the pet who spends a lot of time watching TV is more likely to be compelled to recognize your image on the screen and follow commands than one who doesn’t,” she says.
What’s important, she emphasizes, is that this device does more for the emotional welfare of the owner than for the pet. If there is any benefit for the pet (besides food), she adds, it’s that the pet, especially dogs, receives some stimulation during the day, which animal behaviorists agree can do wonders for their well-being.
PetChatz is slated to be available for purchase on the product’s website and at select independent pets stores nationwide during the first quarter of 2014. For now, the company is taking pre-orders for the device. Packets of special treats and essential oil drops will also be available in the near future.
On “60 Minutes” the other night, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos made drones fun again. They’re usually associated with clandestine warfare, but Bezos showed interviewer Charlie Rose–along with the millions of others watching–how the unmanned aircraft can be cool little gizmos that become a part of our daily lives–in this case by delivering stuff you ordered from Amazon right to your doorstep.
Bezos used the program to reveal the wonders of Amazon’s “octocopter,” a mini-drone with the capability of achieving the Holy Grail of e-commerce–deliveries within 30 minutes. This is still years away, as Bezos acknowledged, but it’s clear he thinks drones will one day be as ubiquitous as Domino’s drivers.
Bezos’ demo had the desired effect–his octocopter was all over the Internet on Cyber Monday, burnishing Amazon’s reputation as a company gliding along the cutting edge of customer service. Some derided the the whole thing as little more than a beautifully orchestrated publicity stunt, given the not insignificant hurdles commercial drones still need to clear. Other websites, such as The Telegraph in the U.K., piled on. It produced a list of nine things that could go “horribly wrong”–from drone hackers to long weather delays to packages falling from the sky.
The truth is, we won’t really know all that can go wrong–or right–with commercial drones until closer to 2020, at least in the U.S. It could happen sooner, but the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has been moving slowly and cautiously, not surprising, considering that we’re talking about tens of thousands of pilotless vehicles buzzing around in public airspace. Extensive drone testing at six still-to-be-named locations won’t begin until next year, almost a year and a half behind the schedule set by Congress.
Me, my drone and I
But let’s step back for a minute and forget about messy things like political and legal realities. If Bezos is right, more personal drones are inevitable. Many, no doubt, will be used to make deliveries. (That already appears to be happening in China.) But what else will they be able to do?
Plenty, if you believe some of the ideas that have been floated. And those little flying machines could become a lot more personal than most of us would have imagined.
Consider the possibilities:
1) I’m ready for my selfie: Not long ago, a group of designers from a product strategy firm named frog staged a workshop with the purpose of imagining ways that drones could become a much bigger part of our lives. One idea was an aircraft called the Paparazzi, and, true to its name, it would be all about following you around and recording your life in photos and videos. It would then feed everything directly to your Facebook page. Yes, it sounds ridiculously self-indulgent, but then again, who could have imagined our obsession with self portraits on phones?
2) Cut to the chase: Here’s another idea from the frog workshop, a drone they named the Guardian Angel. Described as the “ultimate accessory for serious runners,” it would act as a trainer or exercise companion by flying ahead and setting the pace. It could conceivably tap into data from a heart monitor a runner is wearing and push him or her harder to get pulse rate up. Or it could use data from a previous run and let a person race against himself. In short, these drones would be like wearable tech that you don’t actually wear.
3) Take that, Siri: Researchers at M.I.T., meanwhile, have developed a personal drone app they’ve named Skycall, which serves as a personal tour guide. Sure, you can listen to your smartphone give you directions, but this app/drone combo would actually show you the way. It works like this: You tell the app on your phone where you want to go and it would then identify and contact the nearest unmanned aircraft. It would show up, like a flying cab, and lead you to your destination.
4) Allow me to revel in my greatness: A British drone maker has designed one that’s a variation of the Paparazzi mentioned above, although his is geared more to outdoor types, such as mountain bikers,snowboarders and surfers. It tracks a person through a smartphone and, from overhead, takes a steady stream of photos and videos to capture his or her awesomeness for posterity.
5) An idea whose time has already come: Finally, Dan Farber, writing for CNET the other day, raised the prospect of what he called a “Kindle Drone.” He sees it as a device about the size of a baseball, loaded with sensors and a camera, that would serve as a guard and personal assistant. On one hand, it could roam your house gathering data and generally making sure everything’s in order. On the other, you could direct it to go find your phone.
Now that has potential.
Video bonus: Here’s a drone in action in China, delivering a cake from the air.
Video bonus bonus: It’s safe to say this is the only engagement ring delivered by drone.
Video bonus plus: Need to map the Matterhorn. No problem, drones at your service.
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November 1, 2013
All of us have had a teacher who had eyes in the back of his or her head. Even while facing the blackboard, they saw everything—every note being passed, every answer being copied, every face being made.
Or at least it seemed that way. All they really had to do was guess right a few times about what was going on behind their backs and, well, that is how classroom legends are made.
But what if you took all the guessing out of the picture? What if cameras focused on every kid in the class? That’s what a New York company named SensorStar Labs has in mind, although the point would not be to catch miscreants, but rather to help teachers determine when they’ve lost the class.
Here’s how it would work. Using facial recognition software called EngageSense, computers would apply algorithms to what the cameras have recorded during a lecture or discussion to interpret how engaged the students have been. Were the kids’ eyes focused on the teacher? Or were they looking everywhere but the front of the class? Were they smiling or frowning? Or did they just seem confused? Or bored?
Teachers would be provided a report that, based on facial analysis, would tell them when student interest was highest or lowest. Says SensorStar co-founder Sean Montgomery, himself a former teacher: “By looking at maybe just a couple of high points and a couple of low points, you get enough takeaway. The next day you can try to do more of the good stuff and less of the less-good stuff.”
No doubt some parents are going to have a lot of questions about what happens to all that video of their kids’ faces. But Montgomery is confident that most will agree to let their children be videotaped when they see how much it helps teachers polish their skills.
He’s convinced that in five years, teachers all over the country will be using it. First, though, he has to prove that the SensorStar algorithms can truly interpret the workings of young minds based simply on eye movement and facial expression.
That, of course, assumes teachers will jump right on board. Which is hardly a sure thing, given the response last year to a report that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is helping to fund the development of sensor bracelets that could, in theory at least, track a student’s engagement level.
The wrist devices are designed to send a small current across the skin and then measure subtle changes in electrical charges as the nervous system responds to stimuli. These bracelets have been used in tests to gauge how consumers respond to advertising, and the thinking goes that if they can tell you how excited someone gets while watching a car ad, they can give you a sense of how jazzed a kid can get about fractions. (Or not.)
Not so fast, snapped skeptics. They were quick to point out that just because a second grader is excited doesn’t mean he or she is learning something. And while the bracelets’ boosters argue that their purpose is to help teachers, critics say that no one should be surprised if the sensors eventually are used to evaluate them. Some teachers suggested that they might have to work random screams into their lesson plans to keep the excitement level high.
Ultimately, it comes down to whether, like Bill Gates, you believe that accumulating and analyzing data from classroom behavior is the key to applying science to the learning process. Or, if you think that teaching is more art than science, and that the connection between teachers and students is too complex and nuanced to be measured through a collection of data points.
Who’s your data?
- And you will not eat a salad your first six months in college: More and more colleges are using predictive analysis to give students a good idea of how they’ll fare in a class before they even sign up for it. By using data from a student’s own academic performance and from others who have already taken the class, advisers can predict with increasing accuracy how likely it is that a particular student will succeed or fail.
- Please like this investment: Last week Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg made his first investment in a startup company—he joined a team of investors putting $4 million in seed money behind a Massachusetts company named Panorama Education. It crunches data from surveys it does for schools from K to 12, ranging from subjects such as why some promising students end up failing to why bullying is particularly prominent among ninth grade boys.
- Acing the tests: A smartphone app called Quick Key has an optical scanner that can quickly grade SAT-style bubble answer sheets. Then it uploads the results to teachers’ electronic grade books and analyzes the data.
- Apple-picking time: Earlier this week, Apple CEO Tim Cook announced that iPads make up 94 percent of the tablets now used in schools. The company’s sales have slowed in the consumer market, so it’s been making a big push into education by offering discounts for bulk purchases.
- And they probably drew outside the lines: A new study from Michigan State University found that people who were involved in artistic activities while they were in school tended to be more innovative when they grew up—specifically that they were more likely to generate patents and launch businesses as adults.
Video bonus: Bill Gates offers his take on how he thinks teachers should be given feedback.
Video bonus bonus: Here’s a different twist on facial recognition in the classroom.
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October 18, 2013
Tired of budgeting how much time you spend using your smartphone? Wouldn’t it be great if smartphones could just simply recharge themselves?
Well, perhaps as soon as next year, they will. That’s the tentative time frame that French startup SunPartner Technologies hopes to finally bring to the consumer market its Wysips Crystal technology, which overlays “invisible” solar cells onto the smartphone display. The company claims that Wysips, which stands for “What You See Is Photovoltaic Surface,” can capture energy from any light source, natural and artificial, indoor and outdoor, and convert it at a rate of 15 to 20 percent efficiency. This translates to an additional 1o minutes of talk time for every hour the cells are exposed to light. And the kicker is that the company assures everyone that human eyes won’t even notice the thin layer of solar cells that’s embedded into the touchscreen.
“We’ve had users test out prototypes with the latest version of Wysips and they were pleased with how it worked,” says Matthieu de Broca, SunPartner’s Marketing and Sales Director for Wysips.
The material, comprised of photovoltaic crystals, is made invisible through a process that bonds the tiny cells with optical micro-lenses. De Broca says researchers are continually working to refine the technology, noting that in some cases, it may be possible to reach 92 and even 95 percent transparency (Wysips has reached 90 percent). However, the drawback with improving clarity is that doing so requires decreasing the amount of solar cells used. The challenge then is to find the right balance to ensure that the feature works as a useful addition while also not taking away from the user experience.
Engadget blogger Sean Cooper tried out demo products modified with the the 90 percent transparent film back in January and felt at that time the “invisible” claim was still a bit of a misnomer. “Honestly, the demo sets available were pretty worn out looking,” he wrote. “Though the overlay spoke for itself in that it was still visible at extreme angles but barely when viewing straight on.”
Still, de Broca is optimistic that Wysips Crystal will be ready for prime time at some point next year. SunPartner is already in talks with Chinese electronics giant TCL Communications to develop smartphone consumer models that include Alcatel One Touch phones. TCL Communications is the seventh largest mobile phone company and de Broca estimates that mass-produced integration of the technology would only cost manufacturers an additional dollar or two, which he thinks is reasonable since he doesn’t expect the technology to replace the need for charging devices.
“Wysips is more like a supplementary feature, so it won’t compete with existing technology,” he adds. “All we’re doing is just making smartphones smarter.”
October 15, 2013
There are those who believe that negotiation is an art, an intricate weaving of flattery, bombast, bluffing and accomodation that only a relative few truly master. And then, there are proponents of the science of negotiation, specifically what researchers have learned about why it seems impossible for some people to agree, how perception of power can make a big difference and what little things can make a deal go your way.
Here are 10 studies on negotiation and influence that scientists have published in the past year:
1) I never get tired of being right all the time: Researchers at Duke University found that people on the far edges of the political spectrum—both left and right—tend to be guilty of “belief superiority,” That means that not only do they believe that their position is right, but also that all other views are inferior. Based on surveys of 527 adults on nine hot-button issues, the researchers determined that hardcore conservatives felt most superior about their views on voter identification laws, taxes and affirmative action, while diehard liberals felt most superior about their views on government aid for the needy, torture and not basing laws on religion. The scientists did note that the tendency for people with extreme views to be overly confident is not limited to politics.
2) I am tweeter, hear me roar: An analysis of tweets during American sporting events, such as the Super Bowl, concluded that people who were more opinionated in their tweets not only ended up with more followers, but were also believed to be more trustworthy. Using a word filter that allowed them to review more than a billion tweets, researchers from Washington State University found that being confident was more important than being accurate when it came to a tweeter’s popularity.
3) The lame game: According to a study at Stanford University, making weak arguments for a cause may actually be more effective in encouraging someone to become an advocate than presenting them with a strong argument. The researchers suggested that people who already believe in a cause are more likely to lend support when they hear weak arguments for that cause, because they feel that, by comparison, they have more to offer than the advocates they are hearing.
4) Sorry seems to be the smartest word: One way to get people to trust you more is to apologize for things for which you have absolutely no blame. That’s the finding of researchers from the Harvard Business School, who believe that saying you’re sorry for bad weather or hideous traffic or the loss by a local sports team can cause people to find you more credible. Instead of making you look weak, the study found that so-called “superfluous apologies” can help you seem empathetic and leads people to trust you more.
5) The “I’s” don’t have it: New research at the University of Texas contends that people who use “I” a lot tend to be less powerful and sure of themselves than those who limit their use of the pronoun. According to researcher James Pennebaker, frequent “I” users subconsciously believe they are subordinate to the person to whom they’re talking. He says “the high-status person is looking out at the world and the low-status person is looking at himself.”
6) The eyes don’t have it: While negotiating, it may not be such a good idea to look the other party straight in the eye, after all. A study published earlier this month in Psychological Science says that making eye contact may actually make people who disagree with you less likely to change their minds. Researchers found that the more time viewers spent looking at speakers’ eyes, the less likely they were to shift to the speakers’ point of view. Eye contact seemed to be effective only when a viewer already agreed with a speaker.
7) Keeping it unreal: And if you’re in negotiations with someone who has more power than you do, you may not even want to talk face-to-face, according to a study presented by British researchers earlier this year. In two different studies in which the same negotiation was conducted face-to-face, and then in a sophisticated 3-D virtual simulation, those with less power performed better in the virtual negotiations.
8) Avoid rounding errors: Two professors at Columbia Business School found that if you make a very specific offer, as opposed to one rounded up to a number with zeroes, you’re more likely to end up with a better result. The researchers said that if someone makes an offer of say, $5,015, instead of a nice round $5,000, they are thought be more knowledgeable about the value of an object.
9) Make him an offer he can’t forget: Research at Johns Hopkins University provides a bit more advice—make the first offer. Studies by researcher Brian Gunia show that that makes your counterparts focus on your offer, even when they know they’d be better off if they ignored it. When managers took part in a hypothetical negotiation, those who made the initial offer nearly doubled their take-home value compared to those who let the other person start the bidding.
10) Charm-schooled: Using “feminine charm” can help women show confidence, and that benefits them in negotiations, according to a study at the University of California, Berkeley. Researcher Laura Kray found that women who said they used more social charm were rated more effective by their negotiation partners. However, men who said they used more social charm were not regarded as more effective. According to Kray, friendly flirtation in these settings is not sexual, but instead seen as authentic, engaging behavior that reflects warmth.
Video bonus: Yes, it’s a Heineken commercial, but it’s about a ploy where men, gunning for some sports tickets, try to convince women to buy furniture.
Video bonus bonus: While we’re passing out advice, wouldn’t it be great to win every argument even if you’re never right? Pick a strategy.
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