The Story Behind Google’s Cardboard Project

The surprise hit of Google I/O was without a doubt Cardboard. Google’s paper product — or phone-based VR viewer — made its debut during yesterday’s keynote, and today, David Coz, the project’s founder, revealed its origins.

Depending on who you ask at I/O, Google went ahead with this project either because it wanted to show that Facebook overpaid for Oculus Rift or because it is jealous that it couldn’t acquire it. According to Coz, however, who works for Google’s Cultural Institute in Paris, Cardboard was simply a project he felt like working on.

“I’m a big VR fan,” he said, adding that there has been so much progress in this space in the last few years. With Cardboard, he wanted to see how he could build a VR viewer in the “simplest and cheapest way.”

The project started about six months ago. After Coz showed it to Google Research scientist Christian Plagemann in Mountain View, it became his 20 percent project, and the company decided to go ahead with it for a larger project.

So why use cardboard? Coz said he started working with it because it was an easy way to hack together a prototype, but he also liked it because he wanted the viewer to look really simple. All the processing, after all, is handled by the phone. In addition, he noted that Google wants anybody “to just take scissors and staplers and modify it.”

Given that Google has made a developer toolkit available for Cardboard and that the paperhardware is not just simple but also open source, chances are we will actually see quite a few Cardboard-based apps and viewers from other manufacturers in the near future. The team also talked a bit about how Google’s Project Tango could be used for more precise head tracking.

To be fair, others have tried a similar approach to phone-based VR viewers. None of them, however, can match Google’s reach and existing developer ecosystem.

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The Pirates of Silicon Valley: Google’s ATAP team is ‘trying to do epic shit’

At the Google I/O ATAP session this morning, ATAP Lead Regina Dugan told the assembled audience that is was going to “Glimpse at a small band of pirates trying to do epic shit.”

Silicon Valley is full of hyperbole. It’s the world of “disruptive” apps and “game changing” services. Most are neither and when someone takes the stage and informs the audience that they will see something that’s actually awesome, it should be expected that skepticism is the first reaction. But unlike the average startup hoping to get acquired by the giants of the valley, the ATAP team actual delivered.

All ATAP projects last for two years. It’s a quick-moving system designed to accomplish in months what usually takes years. Only two years old itself, ATAP has born 11 projects including VivaLnk, a digital tattoo that lasts for five days. The tattoo creates a wearable authenticator to unlock a phone. Of course, it can be expanded beyond your phone in the future to doors, computers and other items that require non-transferable security for a short term.

But today belonged to three projects; Tango, Project Ara and Spotlight Stories.

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Project Tango

Project Lead Johnny Lee announced that the first consumer Project Tango tablet will be coming next year in a partnership with LG. The consumer tablet will be able to do a real-time estimation of 3D space.

It does this with the motion sensing and multiple cameras without the aid of GPS, Bluetooth or Wi-FI. Two cameras (one traditional and the other fish-eyed) recreate a human’s peripheral vision while a Depth Sensor sees shapes instead of colors. The entire package currently has an error and drift rate while mapping of one percent.

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Onstage he demoed the tablet re-creating the stage in real time. A demo video showed the team recreating a stair case including an accurate representation of the developer ascending the descending the staircase.

It did this entirely without GPS, which is what Tango was made to do. Recreate a 3D facsimile of an indoor where GPs can’t penetrate. It’s one of the reasons it’s being deployed on the International Space Station. To help robots navigate an indoor area without the help of GPS. It was all very impressive, but still not good enough for the team.

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“We have a tremendous amount of new work to do,” said Lee. But like all ATAP projects, they are moving quickly. The developer unit he previewed onstage was the fourth version of the device and would act as a developer kit. Developers can sign up to be notified when the dev kit goes on sale later this year. For the rest of us, we’ll just have to wait until next year to digitally map our homes.

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Project ARA

The modular Project Ara phone has the potential to upend the current smartphone ecosystem. Instead of purchasing a new phone every year, you could upgrade o modules you want (camera, display, etc) without having to buy an entirely new device.

At today’s event, Project Lead Paul Eremenko talked about how the design of the phone was meant to be inviting instead of the boxy feeling associated with modular devices. He also demoed the phone booting up for the first time in public. Well, almost booting up. It got to the Android startup screen and just as it was loading Android proper, it froze.

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It’s not so much a set back as a learning experience. When you’re moving quickly, you don’t have time to dwell on problems and instead need to work on solutions. The solution to the startup difficulty will most likely be solved when a version of Android with modular support is released in the fall.

The support will push the limits of Android. “Ara is a stress test to what Android can do beyond the regular OS,” says Eremenko. The team is also working to reduce the area needed in each module that is occupied by elements need to run the module from 65-70 percent 25 – 30 percent. to If there’s something the smartphone space needs right now it’s a push towards innovation beyond syncing with wearables.

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For developers, Eremenko announced Project Ara Developer Prize Challenge to create a module that has a feature that is currently not available on any smartphone. The module does need to actually work when submitted. The grand prize winner and two runner ups will receive all expense paid trips to Ara events. the grand prize winner will also receive $100,000. Entry forms are due September 1 and completed modules are due September 30.

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Spotlight Stories

The Windy Day animation that shipped on the Moto X was the first project from the Spotlight Stories Project. The animation was whimsical and took advantage of the phones motion sensors. As you moved the phone in real space, it presented a window into an animated world. The next projects looks more impressive.

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Teaming with Animator and Director Glen Keene–who helped create Disney’s Little Mermaid, the Beast from Beauty and the Beast and Tarzan from the movie of the same name–the next Spotlight Story, The Duet looks magical because it doesn’t look like CG. That’s because Keene hand drew the entire short.

The result is looks more organic that anything else in the CG animation world. But, unlike traditional animation that is shown at 24 frames per second, smartphones display at 60 frames per second. Keene says that he found the challenge as a opportunity because he had more frames to create with.

All those frames added up to 10,055 original drawings that had to be scanned in and the team used a “graphite stardust” image process that gave every tiny mark it’s own graphic image without making the finished work pixelated. The result looks like a pencil drawing with all the value, tone and white space found in pencil drawings.

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When Keene was first approached by Dugan to work with the ATAP team he was initially skeptical. But Dugan told him, “Make something beautiful and emotional,’ this is music to the ears of any artist.” he says. A year later, he screened The Duet to us at Google I/O. It looks amazing.

The Duet will available in all its interactive glory later this year.

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WeChat brings its nifty new message translation feature to its Android app

WeChat released a handy new translation feature for its iOS app last month, and Android users can finally get their hands on it. Similar to the way it works in the iOS app, WeChat users simply long-press on a message and tap the arrow icon on the right-hand side to activate the tool. Once you hit ‘Translate,’ the text will be converted into your native language.

WeChat Android Translate 730x623 WeChat brings its nifty new message translation feature to its Android app

The app currently offers the translation feature for more than 20 languages including Chinese, French, Spanish and Bahasa Indonesia.

The latest WeChat update also brings more privacy to group chats by introducing a ‘Groups with Password’ feature. Selected group chat participants have to enter a four-digit code before gaining access to any private group conversation, which will probably be useful if someone else is using your phone in particular.

➤ WeChat | Google Play

Thumbnail image credit: Bryanlyt

Kakao Talk adds a ‘lab’ to its Android chat app to let users beta test new features

Lesbian dating app Dattch is now available on Android, and in New York City

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Google Invests $50 Million In “Made With Code” Program To Get Girls Excited About CS

This week, Google launched a new initiative called Made With Code, aimed at getting young women excited about learning to code and close the gender gap in the tech industry. The idea behind it is to show young girls that the things they love, from apps on their smartphones to their favorite movies are made with code, and they can apply the skills they learn to their own individual passions.

Google is investing $50 million into the program over the next three years, and Made With Code has a host of partners to help foster the community including Chelsea Clinton, Mindy Kaling, MIT Media Lab, Girl Scouts of the USA, Girls Inc., Girls Who Code, the National Center for Women and Information Technology, and TechCrunch as a media partner.

The Made With Code website will offer resources and projects for kids to learn how to code, communities to discuss different lessons and projects with each other and mentors, as well as information about regional events. This is all in an effort to get women in the driver seat when it comes to the technology of the future.

Looking at the numbers, women have actually lost ground when it comes to getting Computer Science degrees in the U.S.

Google X EVP Megan Smith explained that there are a number of factors that can turn this around, all of which are well within our grasp. The first is to encourage young girls to try coding, even if the person doing the encouraging isn’t technical. “You don’t have to know how to code to encourage someone else to code.”

Smith also identified that for some girls, there isn’t a clear avenue to try coding, and that there are no heroes for girls to look up to. Even in television shows, men are represented as the computer scientists far more than women.

Made With Code looks to solve these problems, as well as encourage others to take steps to encourage young girls to try coding, and give them people to aspire to be like.

We checked out the launch event and spoke with the people involved, which you can see in the video below.

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Bing Looks Abroad

Microsoft is working to expand Bing’s international footprint. A job posting, spotted by Neowin, speaks plainly: “Bing is embarking on the most ambitious geographic and product expansion in its history.”

Well then. Microsoft hasn’t taken down the listing, so it’s likely not too concerned about having its plans aired publicly. What this signifies is that Microsoft is not backing down from its services strategy. Bing, along with other online products, have long been money-losers for their parent company. Microsoft had plodded along all the same.

Search is an interesting area in tech. As technology companies compete across a rising number of product categories, search has a relatively low number of protagonists. There are essentially two general players — Google and Microsoft — and niche participants that focus on a differentiation point — privacy, natural language procession, and so forth. Apple has a stab in play with Siri, which competes with Microsoft’s Cortana, and Google’s Google Now. But when it comes down to broad, web search efforts, Google and Microsoft are somewhat alone.

Not that that is all Bing is to Microsoft. It’s the company’s search layer that it hopes to leverage across its platform. But it is useful to recall that Bing does challenge Google’s core offering.

What is Bing up to? Neowin’s take, based on the view that Bing abroad has been a “second-class experience,” summarizes the news thusly:

This is not a simple expansion either as Microsoft is going all-in on bringing local content to these new markets. The job posting says that the successful candidate will be required to ‘drive and execute strategic partnerships and tactical deals in key search distribution and content areas (which may include local, shopping, entertainment, music, books, video, social, news and apps), for the web, mobile/tablets, Xbox and other devices.’ While the project appears to be in its infancy, seeing how quickly Microsoft has been rolling out new products and features in other products, we are quietly hopeful that these markets will get content sooner, rather than later.

It’s certainly true a large chunk of the technology press looks at their industry with a US-focused lens. I can’t confess to having tested Bing much outside the country while traveling.

For now, Microsoft is staying the course, building a wide set of services that reach across technological silos. The company still isn’t much at social — Xbox Live aside — but it seems that on other key areas Redmond is refusing to give up.


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Google Glass frames and shades designed by Diane von Furstenberg are now available in the US

As promised, a new range of Google Glass frames and shades designed by Diane von Furstenberg (DVF) launched in the US today.

If you head over to online fashion retailer Net-A-Porter, you can choose between five different frame combinations for $1,800. They’re all the same shape, but come in five different colors – Shiny Elderberry, Shiny Lagoon, Matte Java, Matte Ice and Shiny Ink – for a splash of style and personality.

While the asking price might feel a little steep, it should be noted that each purchase comes with two frames. Net-a-Porter is bundling each model with a free set of shades; these attach to (what appears to be) the original Google Glass Explorer Edition frames, rather than those designed by DVF.

So to summarise, you’ll get the Google Glass module, a stylish frame designed by DVF, a set of custom shades for the original Explorer frame, a mono earbud and case. In short, this adds one frame design in five different colors, and two shade variants in four colors each to the existing Glass portfolio.

The new range is also available to purchase from the Google Glass store. The DVF-designed frames are being sold for $225 without the Glass module – making it easier for existing Glass Explorers to upgrade. Likewise, the two shade options are being sold for $120 each. All of the color variants are available at the time of writing and orders will ship within 5–7 days.

It’s also worth noting that three frames from the Titanium collection – Thin, Bold and Split – are available for $1,650 on Mr Porter right now.

Should you buy a set? Perhaps. These limited-edition frames might not be around for long, so it’s a good chance to pick up a possibly rare piece of Google hardware. With the company’s I/O conference taking place later this week though, there’s a high chance we’ll see and hear more about Glass  – so just bear in the mind that in a few days, you might feel some buyer’s remorse.

Read Next: Livelens releases a Google Glass app for live-streaming video / Forget vacuum cleaners, Dyson prototyped a Google Glass-like AR headset

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Gillmor Gang: Pulp Friction

The Gillmor Gang — Robert Scoble, Keith Teare, Kevin Marks, and Steve Gillmor — talk FirePhone and its impact on digital transactions in the material world. For starters, it’s not really a phone as much as an object recognition system that taps directly into the mainline of showteling. Just as mobile has “freed” us from our assigned desks, so too has the notification economy thrown off the shackles of the showroom.

Instead we are granted a digital pass to act on impulse buying at any moment. How this will impact on our jobs as consumers will come later, but for now the race is on for pole position. The Triple Crown of phone, tablet, and TV is being handicapped, with Apple, Google, Microsoft, and Amazon snorting with excitement as they enter the starting gate stalls. And they’re off.

@stevegillmor, @kteare, @scobleizer, @kevinmarks

Produced and directed by Tina Chase Gillmor @tinagillmor

Live chat stream

The Gillmor Gang on Facebook

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Google May Buy Video Search Startup Baarzo

Google has been in talks to acquire video search startup Baarzo, according to sources with knowledge of the company. However, those sources were less clear about whether the companies had reached a final agreement. (One suggested that the deal had closed, the other was noncommittal.)

The companies both declined to comment, Google offering its standard note: “We don’t comment on rumors or speculation.”

Baarzo describes its product as “true video search,” allowing users find specific moments in a video, like a slam dunk in a basketball clip.

If it delivers on that promise (I can’t say one way or another, since the company is not accepting signups), that would be pretty appealing to Google, both for search in YouTube and for the company’s efforts to offer “universal” search across media types. Apparently Google Executive Chairman (and former CEO) Eric Schmidt was impressed by a demonstration of the technology at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business, where co-founder and CTO Siva Yellamraju just got his MBA.

Here’s a little more of Baarzo’s description of its technology:

Unlike Google or YouTube searches, which only evaluate the text around the video, the Baarzo search technology actually analyzes the video content, recognizing hundreds of thousands of objects and millions of faces, and locates the precise moment in the video when the search objects interact in the way you had specified.

Someone tipped me off about the possible deal when people started posting on Facebook that Google had acquired Baarzo. Some of those posts were private, but at least one (screenshot below) was public.

The startup has not announced any funding, but its AngelList profile says that it was part of StartX, the incubator for Stanford alums, and that investors include Ullas Naik of Streamlined Ventures and Matt Sonsini of Sobrato Capital.

baarzo facebook screenshot

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Amazon’s Master Of Commerce Move Into The Phone Game

Editor’s note: Alistair Goodman is the CEO of Placecast, where he leads a team of mobile, technology and marketing experts who have created the most scalable, proven, location-based marketing system currently available. 

Mobile is so 2010. So why would Amazon throw its hat into the game of phones?

That’s the thing — it didn’t. The company is headed into battle in two other markets full of potential: real-world commerce and digital advertising.

Amazon has focused its business almost solely on e-commerce since its launch in 1994. Twenty years later, the vast majority of commerce still takes place in the physical world; a 2014 Q1 US Census report shows that digital sales account for just 6 percent of total sales.

So, if 94 percent of sales still happens in the real world, how does Amazon conquer this territory? It introduces a phone.

The Fire Phone can recognize a physical object, scan a bar code, and quickly provide you with Amazon’s prices, taking showrooming to a whole new level. And then, the company is able to unlock that other 94 percent of commerce spend that it previously couldn’t touch.

Should retailers be shaking in their proverbial boots? Probably.

With an active user base of 244 million, Amazon has become a trusted provider of goods. Now, those who trust the company already can buy an Amazon phone that makes it even easier to find what they want and order it with a couple of clicks. Even if just 10 percent of active users buy a Fire, that’s still 24 million people who will have access to Amazon’s low prices, vast inventory, and shipping.

But real-world commerce isn’t the only new frontier for Amazon; the Fire Phone unlocks mobile advertising opportunities for the company, making it the third viable player in the thriving space, along with Google and Facebook.

In 2014, mobile advertising in the U.S. will total $17.73 billion and reach over $35 billion by 2017, eclipsing online advertising spend, according to analysis from eMarketer. Google and Facebook combined took home over two-thirds of mobile ad spending last year. Now, Amazon could give these two companies stiff competition due to its customer relationships and new features on its phone that aren’t available on Apple or Android devices. Amazon becomes the third major player with a mobile device tied to an immense database of browsing and past purchase data.

With this phone, Amazon is able to do exactly the same thing as Google and Facebook: utilize customer identities and interest to bring targeted mobile ads to them on their phones. But Amazon has a distinct advantage: Its users have already bought something from them! As a result, the company is even better-equipped than other companies to use past purchase data to send highly tailored mobile ads to consumers. Amazon will be able to guarantee brands a pre-qualified, “in-market” audience. Who else can do that?

In his demo of the Fire, Bezos made the real-world connections for the phone absolutely apparent, talking about how easy it is to walk down the street and use Firefly to recognize signs, goods, etc. This feature opens up so many doors: the ability to recognize places in the real world, to search for things you want based on what Amazon knows you are interested in, and the ability for Amazon to harness that data for more relevant recommendations.

In effect, the Fire could provide an understanding of the physical world and merchant locations and, when combined with everything else Amazon knows about a user, actually deliver on the promise of “Marketing that consumers find really valuable, not intrusive.” Now imagine that they start pushing you the occasional recommendation when you’re near a physical store. Imagine you can get a reminder for something you have scanned when you’re near a place to buy it, with Amazon taking its cut for driving that real-world transaction. That massively changes the game of mobile marketing.

Rebecca Lieb, an analyst with the Altimeter Group, discussed the real impact of the Fire Phone with the New York Times: “Scan a product or listen to music, and you’re delivered straight to the page on Amazon on which you can purchase it. Impulse shopping just went to a new level.”

Amazon is not in the mobile business, the phone business or the Internet of things business. And while analysts appear divided on the short- and long-term impact of the Fire for Amazon’s overall business model, they should agree on one point: Bezos and Co. are the masters of the commerce business, and the Fire Phone is just one tool that can be used to help it gain its slice of the immense cash flow happening not online, but on Main Street.

I would even go so far as to say that the Fire Phone will be key to the Amazon growth strategy for the next 50 years. Congratulations, Mr. Bezos. Well played. The only thing I am wondering is, Why isn’t the phone free?

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Will Google Enter The Insurance Industry?

Editor’s note: Christoffer O. Hernæs is partner at Core Group, a Norwegian management consulting company. Christoffer is currently engaged by Sparebank1, one of Norway’s largest financial institutions; this analysis is based on public datasources and is not connected to the any client engagements.

When it comes to collecting and organizing information, Google is well on its way to establishing its hegemony through the registration of 6 billion daily unique searches and indexing of over 50 billion web pages (2013). What remains to be seen is how this information is being made universally accessible and at what price. One of the industries that has particular advantage of access to the world’s information is insurance.

So far, Google has managed to capitalize on this information through keyword advertising through AdWords. A glance at the keyword advertising data shows that insurance and other financial services are the top spenders, with a combined annual spend of $4 billion according to Google AdWords and Wordstream statistics. The absolute greatest vertical in Google’s AdWords revenue is auto insurance, where State Farm, Progressive and GEICO alone accounted for $110 million in keyword advertising revenue.

In a recently published report in cooperation with BCG India, Google concludes that insurance is among the top five product categories in which the web is the dominant purchasing channel in addition to travel, digital media, ticket purchases and books magazines. Common for the first four product categories is that the traditional sales channels have long been redundant as a result of digital disruption. The same report predicts that 75 percent of all insurance purchases will be online by 2020. If these predictions are accurate, it will give Google a dominant position as the primary sales channel for the insurance industry.

Is the insurance industry the next industry where technology with Google as a key player disrupts the existing value chain?

A review of Google’s acquisition activity and technology development provides an indication of what position Google is able to reach based on the insurance industry’s key revenue sources such as car, home, and life and health insurance.

Google made its first move towards the insurance industry back in 2012 with the acquisition of BeatThatQuote, the price comparison service for car insurance, for £37 million. Looking at the numbers, Google charges up to $54 per click for insurance quote searches. In addition to this Google already has real-time monitoring of traffic through obtaining metadata from all Android devices moving along major roads, and is able to give accurate traffic reports through Google Now.

The same real-time traffic information is potentially valuable analysis data for an insurance company. This hypothesis is strengthened by the fact that Google has taken initiative for the formation of the Open Automotive Alliance, which aims to promote Android as the standard platform for future entertainment systems, apps and other technology in cars.

In January 2014, Google made its second-largest acquisition ever by acquiring thermostat and smoke detector manufacturer Nest Labs for $3.2 billion. According to Forbes, this will strengthen Google’s position in smart homes and provides an opportunity for the Android operating system to become the primary platform for the Internet of Things.

The interesting question to ask is how the information obtained through smart metering and other household sensors can be used? A continuous and automatic monitoring of all electronics in a house is valuable information on an insurance object for both the pricing and settlement of claims. Connect this with the information already collected through Google Maps and Google Earth, and this would, for example, be the basis for a precise calculation of accumulated high risk in densely populated areas.

Google Glass is another area where Google has the possibility to create a position within the insurance value chain.

In January 2014, Google and the VSP, the nation’s largest insurance player in optical insurance, signed an agreement, subsidizing Google Glass with prescription lenses for VSP’s policyholders. This may at first glance be dismissed as a move to boost short-term sales of Google Glass, but rather it will provide ample opportunities for collecting insurance data such as real-time health information from each user of the device.

Accenture states that the industry has long abandoned its product-centric logic and is becoming increasingly consumer-centric. This leads to ever-increasing expectations and demands, as well as declining customer loyalty. Combined with a possible threat from new entrants such as Google, the analysis company SMA argues that the insurance value chain is facing fundamental changes.

The truth is probably somewhat less dramatic than what is claimed, as the industry already has a high degree of technology adaptation and has systematically developed digital channels, with GEICO and Progressive as good examples.

But despite systematic work on continuous improvement and incremental innovation, history shows that it requires a new mindset when an industry is exposed to disruptive innovation.

For the insurance industry this poses a number of challenges at a time when much of the focus and resources are tied up in compliance with the regulatory requirements of Solvency II and ORSA, the search for alternative allocations of capital due to low interest rates and high complexity and technical debt in core systems.

My hypothesis is that it is not a question of whether Google is going to take a position in the future value chain for the insurance industry, but which position Google wants to take, and how this will affect incumbents.

IMAGE BY Shutterstock USER Ciprian Stremtan

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