With 3rd-party slowly-but-surely going the way of the dodo, the drive for marketers to develop data strategies that accelerate 1st-party data growth and utilization is fast becoming an existential imperative.
WHY IT’S HOT:Relationships and Relevance will matter more than ever, as marketers of all shapes and sizes strive to survive and thrive in a fundamentally changed world. (From “nice-to-have” to “mission-critical”)
‘Re-architecting the entire process’: How Vice is preparing for life after the third-party cookie
Vice Media Group pulls in 57.5 million global unique visitors a month, according to Comscore; Vice itself says it has a global audience of “more than 350 million individuals.” But only a minority of those users are logged in at any time. With third-party cookies soon to be obsolete and Apple clamping down on the free-for-all sharing of mobile IDs, Vice’s first-party data strategy aims to improve its registration process and double down on contextual ads.
In the latest example of bolstering its first-party data offering for advertisers, Vice Media Group is using a new tool from consumer reporting agency Experian and data platform Infosum.
That tool, Experian Match, those companies say, offers publishers more insights on their audiences without needing to use third-party cookies or requiring users to log in. In turn, they can offer advertisers more precision targeting options.
“What interests me the most is that there’s so much bias within data — for example, proxies to get into the definition [of an a target audience on an advertiser brief],” said Ryan Simone, Vice Media director of global audience solutions. “We are looking to eliminate bias in every instance. If a client says ‘this specific … group is what we are looking for,’ we can say on Vice — not through the proxies of third-party data or other interpretation’ that product A [should target] this content, this audience [and that’s] different from product B. It’s a much more sophisticated strategy and re-architecting the entire process.”
Publishers provide a first-party ID, IP address and timestamp data, which is matched with Experian’s own IP address and household-level socio-demographic data. This initial match is used to create the Experian Match mapping file, which is then stored in a decentralized data “bunker.” From here, all matching takes place using InfoSum’s decentralized marketing infrastructure, with publishers creating their own private and secure ”bunkers” and advertisers doing likewise, so individual personal customer data is never shared between publishers and advertisers.
Privacy and security were important considerations before committing to use the product, said Paul Davison, Vice Media Group vice president of agency development, for international in statement. But, he added, “Those concerns are solved instantly as no data has to be moved between companies.”
As for login data, Vice’s user registration process is fairly basic and doesn’t offer users much explanation about the benefits they will receive if they do so. Updating that is a work in progress, said Simone.
“There will be a lot more front-facing strategy” for encouraging sign-ups, he said. “We are looking to create greater value …. for our users.” (The company also collects first-party data through newsletters and experiential events, such as those held —pre-covid, at least — by Refinery29.)
Vice has worked with contextual intelligence platform Grapeshot long before it was acquired by Oracle in 2018. Beyond offering advertisers large audiences around marquee segments like “fashion” or “music,” Vice has begun working more recently to open up more prescriptive subsegments — like “jewelry” for example.
“People are scared to send out smaller audiences — but I’d rather provide something that’s exact. Opening that up provides greater insights,” especially when layered with first-party data sets gleaned through partnerships like Experian and Infosum, said Simone. Vice might not have a wealth of content around high fashion, for example, but consumers of a particular fashion house might still visit the site to read about politics or tech.
“Contextual has evolved and with the absence of the third-party cookie it’s all the more significant,” said Simone.
Publishers’ biggest differentiating features for advertisers are their audiences and the context within their ads will sit, said Alessandro De Zanche, founder of media consultancy ADZ Strategies.
“If they really want to progress and be more in control, publishers need to go back to the basics: rebuilding trust with the audience, being transparent, educating the audience on why they should give you consent — that’s the very first — then building on top of that,” De Zanche said.
“With all the technical changes and privacy regulations, if a publisher doesn’t rebuild the relationship and interaction with its audience, it will just be like trying to Sellotape their way forward.”
Amazon’s new fitness band adds body fat, movement, sleep and mood to the mountain of data Amazon is amassing. Whether streaming on Amazon Prime, shopping on Amazon.com, buying groceries at Whole Foods, Amazon is ready to…errrr…help?
Why it’s Hot – The increasing convergence of our digital and analog lives is brining the questions of privacy and data sovereignty to the forefront, while also creating new potential opportunities for marketers (just think about what a partnership between Microsoft and Walmart to buy TikTok could mean).
From The Verge:
mazonAmazon is getting into the health gadget market with a new fitness band and subscription service called Halo. Unlike the Apple Watch or even most basic Fitbits, the Amazon Halo band doesn’t have a screen. The app that goes along with it comes with the usual set of fitness tracking features along with two innovative — and potentially troubling — ideas: using your camera to create 3D scans for body fat and listening for the emotion in your voice.
The Halo band will cost $99.99 and the service (which is required for Halo’s more advanced features) costs $3.99 per month. Amazon is launching it as an invite-only early access program today with an introductory price of $64.99 that includes six months of the service for free. The Halo service is a separate product that isn’t part of Amazon Prime.
The lack of a screen on the Halo band is the first indicator that Amazon is trying to carve out a niche for itself that’s focused a little less on sports and exercise and a little more on lifestyle changes. Alongside cardio, sleep, body fat, and voice tone tracking, a Halo subscription will offer a suite of “labs” developed by partners. They’re short challenges designed to improve your health habits — like meditation, improving your sleep habits, or starting up basic exercise routines.
The Halo band “is not a medical device,” Amazon tells me. As such, it hasn’t submitted the device to the FDA for any sort of approval, including the lighter-touch “FDA clearance” that so many other fitness bands have used.
The Amazon Halo intro video | Source: Amazon
THE HALO BAND HARDWARE
TheThe Halo Band consists of a sensor module and a band that clicks into it on top. It’s a simple concept and one we’ve seen before. The lack of a display means that if you want to check your steps or the time, you’ll need to strap something else to your wrist or just check your phone.
The band lacks increasingly standard options like GPS, Wi-Fi, or a cellular radio, another sign that it’s meant to be a more laid-back kind of tracker. It has an accelerometer, a temperature sensor, a heart rate monitor, two microphones, an LED indicator light, and a button to turn the microphones on or off. The microphones are not for speaking to Alexa, by the way, they’re there for the voice tone feature. There is explicitly no Alexa integration.
It communicates with your phone via Bluetooth, and it should work equally well with both iPhones and Android phones. The three main band colors that will be sold are onyx (black), mineral (light blue), and rose gold (pink-ish).
There will of course be a series of optional bands so you can choose one to match your style — and all of them bear no small resemblance to popular Apple Watch bands. The fabric bands will cost $19.99 and the sport bands will be $15.99.
Amazon intends for users to leave the Halo Band on all the time: the battery should last a full week and the sensor is water resistant up to 5ATM. Amazon calls it “swimproof.”
But where the Halo service really differentiates itself is in two new features, called Body and Tone. The former uses your smartphone camera to capture a 3D scan of your body and then calculate your body fat, and the latter uses a microphone on the Halo Band to listen to the tone of your voice and report back on your emotional state throughout the day.
BodyBody scans work with just your smartphone’s camera. The app instructs you to wear tight-fitting clothing (ideally just your underwear) and then stand back six feet or so from your camera. Then it takes four photos (front, back, and both sides) and uploads them to Amazon’s servers where they’re combined into a 3D scan of your body that’s sent back to your phone. The data is then deleted from Amazon’s servers.
Once you have the 3D scan, Amazon uses machine learning to analyze it and calculate your body fat percentage. Amazon argues that body fat percentage is a more reliable indicator of health than either weight or body mass index. Amazon also claims that smart scales that try to measure body fat using bioelectrical impedance are not as accurate as its scan. Amazon says it did an internal study to back up those claims and may begin submitting papers to peer-reviewed medical journals in the future.
Finally, once you have your scan, the app will give you a little slider you can drag your finger on to have it show what you would look like with more or less body fat.
That feature is meant to be educational and motivational, but it could also be literally dangerous for people with body dysmorphic disorder, anorexia, or other self-image issues. I asked Amazon about this directly and the company says that it has put in what it hopes are a few safeguards: the app recommends you only scan yourself every two weeks, it won’t allow the slider to show dangerously low levels of body fat, and it has information about how low body fat can increase your risk for certain health problems. Finally, although anybody 13 years of age and up can use the Halo Band, the body scan feature will only be allowed for people 18 or older.
TRACKING THE TONE OF YOUR VOICE
TheThe microphone on the Amazon Halo band isn’t meant for voice commands; instead it listens to your voice and reports back on what it believes your emotional state was throughout the day. If you don’t opt in, the microphone on the Band doesn’t do anything at all.
Once you opt in, the Halo app will have you read some text back to it so that it can train a model on your voice, allowing the Halo band to only key in on your tone and not those around you. After that, the band will intermittently listen to your voice and judge it on metrics like positivity and energy.
It’s a passive and intermittent system, meaning that you can’t actively ask it to read your tone, and it’s not listening all of the time. You can also mute the mic at any time by pressing the button until a red blinking LED briefly appears to show you it’s muted.
Amazon is quick to note that your voice is never uploaded to any servers and never heard by any humans. Instead, the band sends its audio snippets to your phone via Bluetooth, and it’s analyzed there. Amazon says that the Halo app immediately deletes the voice samples after it analyzes it for your emotional state.
It picks up on the pitch, intensity, rhythm, and tempo of your voice and then categorizes them into “notable moments” that you can go back and review throughout the day. Some of the emotional states include words like hopeful, elated, hesitant, bored, apologetic, happy, worried, confused, and affectionate.
We asked Amazon whether this Tone feature was tested across differing accents, gender, and cultures. A spokesperson says that it “has been a top priority for our team” but that “if you have an accent you can use Tone but your results will likely be less accurate. Tone was modeled on American English but it’s only day one and Tone will continue to improve.”
BothBoth the Body and Tone features are innovative uses of applied AI, but they are likely to set off any number of privacy alarm bells. Amazon says that it is being incredibly careful with user data. The company will post a document detailing every type of data, where it’s stored, and how to delete it.
Every feature is opt-in, easy to turn off, and it’s easy to delete data. For example, there’s no requirement you create a body scan and even if you do, human reviewers will never see those images. Amazon says the most sensitive data like body scans and Tone data are only stored locally (though photos do need to temporarily be uploaded so Amazon’s servers can build the 3D model). Amazon isn’t even allowing Halo to integrate with other fitness apps like Apple Health at launch.
Some of the key points include:
Your Halo profile is distinct from your Amazon account — and will need to be individually activated with a second factor like a text message so that anybody else that might share your Amazon Prime can’t get to it.
You can download and delete any data that’s stored in the cloud at any time, or reset your account to zero.
Body scans and tone data can be individually deleted separately from the rest of your health data.
Body scans are only briefly uploaded to Amazon’s servers then deleted “within 12 hours” and scan images are never shared to other apps like the photo gallery unless you explicitly export an image.
Voice recordings are analyzed locally on your phone and then deleted. “Speech samples are processed locally and never sent to the cloud,” Amazon says, adding that “Tone data won’t be used for training purposes.”
Data can be shared with third parties, including some partners like WW (formerly Weight Watchers). Data generated by the “labs” feature is only shared as anonymous aggregate info.
ACTIVITY AND SLEEP TRACKING
TheThe body scanning and tone features might be the most flashy (or, depending on your perspective, most creepy) parts of Halo, but the thing you’ll likely spend the most time watching is your activity score.
Amazon’s Halo app tracks your cardio fitness on a weekly basis instead of daily — allowing for rest days. It does count steps, but on a top level what you get is an abstracted score (and, of course, a ring to complete) that’s more holistic. Just as Google did in 2018, Amazon has worked with the American Heart Association to develop the abstracted Activity score.
The Halo band uses its heart monitor to distinguish between intense, moderate, and light activity. The app combines those to ensure you’re hitting a weekly target. Instead of the Apple Watch’s hourly “stand” prompts, the Halo app tracks how long you have been “sedentary.” If you go for more than 8 hours without doing much (not counting sleep), the app will begin to deduct from your weekly activity score.
The Halo band can automatically detect activities like walking and running, but literally every other type of exercise will need to be manually entered into the app. The whole system feels less designed for workout min-maxers and more for people who just want to start being more active in the first place.
Speaking of heart tracking, the Halo band doesn’t proactively alert you to heart conditions like a-fib, nor does it do fall detection.
The Halo band’s sleep tracking similarly tries to create an abstracted score, though you can dig in and view details on your REM sleep and other metrics. One small innovation that the Halo band shares with the new Fitbit is temperature monitoring. It uses a three-day baseline when you are sleeping and from there can show a chart of your average body temperature when you wake up.
HALO LABS, PARTNERSHIPS, AND THE SUBSCRIPTION
Finally,Finally, Amazon has partnered with several third parties to create services and studies to go along with the Halo service. For example, if your health care provider’s system is compatible with Cerner, you can choose to share your body fat percentage with your provider’s electronic medical records system. Amazon says it will also be a fully subsidized option for the John Hancock Vitality wellness program.
The flagship partnership is with WW, which syncs up data from Halo into WW’s own FitPoints system. WW will also be promoting the Halo Band itself to people who sign up for its service.
There are dozens of lower-profile partnerships, which will surface in the Halo app as “Labs.” Many of the labs will surface as four-week “challenges” designed to get you to change your health habits. Partners creating Labs range from Mayo Clinic, Exhale, Aaptiv, Lifesum, Headspace, and more. So there might be a lab encouraging you to give yoga a try, or a set of advice on sleeping better like kicking your pet out of your bedroom.
Amazon says each Lab needs to be developed with “scientific evidence” of its effectiveness and Amazon will audit them. Data crated from these challenges will be shared with those partners, but only in an aggregated, anonymous way.
Virtually all the features discussed here are part of the $3.99/month Halo subscription. If you choose to let it lapse, the Halo band will still do basic activity and sleep tracking.
In charging a monthly subscription, Amazon is out on a limb compared to most of its competitors. Companies like Fitbit and Withings offer some of the same features you can get out of the Halo system, including sleep tracking and suggestions for improving your fitness. They also have more full-featured bands with displays and other functionality. And of course there’s the Apple Watch, which will have deeper and better integrations with the iPhone than will ever be possible for the Halo band.
Overall, Halo is a curious mix. Its hardware is intentionally less intrusive and less feature-rich than competitors, and its pricing strategy puts Amazon on the hook for creating new, regular content to keep people subscribed (exercise videos seem like a natural next step). Meanwhile, the body scanning feature goes much further than other apps in directly digitizing your self-image — which is either appealing or disturbing depending on your relationship to your self image. And the emotion tracking with Tone is completely new and more than a little weird.
The mix is so eclectic that I can’t possibly guess who it might appeal to. People who are more serious about exercise and fitness will surely want more than what’s on offer in the hardware itself, and people who just sort of want to be a little more active may balk at the subscription price. And since the Halo band doesn’t offer the same health alerts like fall detection or abnormal heart rate detection, using it as a more passive health monitor isn’t really an option either.
That doesn’t mean the Halo system can’t succeed. Amazon’s vision of a more holistic health gadget is appealing, and some of its choices in how it aggregates and presents health data is genuinely better than simple step counting or ring completion.
We won’t really know how well the Halo system does for some time, either. Amazon’s opening it up as an early access program for now, which means you need to request to join rather than just signing up and buying it.
Stitch Fix Is Attracting Loyal Customers Without a Loyalty Program
As their customer base has grown in recent years, so too has the revenue they generate from each active customer. Even amidst the pain the apparel industry has been experiencing, over the last few months of the coronavirus pandemic, Stitch Fix has managed to weather the storm with only a slight revenue decline – mostly due to the decision to close warehouses for a period.
WHY IT’S HOT: In a world where “loyalty” tends to cost businesses and marketers money, in the form of deals and discounts, Stitch Fix is a testament to the the power of data to drive true personalization across the customer experience.
From The Motley Fool:
A personal stylist armed with a powerful data-driven selection algorithm creates a great customer experience.
In the highly competitive clothing industry, loyal customers are worth their weight in gold. Stores go to great lengths to attract repeat customers with programs that provide rewards, discounts, or exclusive offers for loyal members. But even with these programs, customers are hard to keep. A 2019 survey by Criteo found that 72% of apparel shoppers were open to considering other brands, which is why what Stitch Fix(NASDAQ:SFIX) has done to create loyal clients without a loyalty program is so special.
Let’s look at this personalized online clothing retailer’s loyal customers, how data science is helping build loyalty into the process, and what management is doing to further capitalize on the company’s momentum.
Loyal customers spend more
Clothing stores have seen a significant drop in spending in the past few months, but Stitch Fix’s most recent quarterly revenue only declined by 9% year over year. Impressively, this decline was not due to a drop in demand, but because the company chose to close its warehouses for part of the quarter as it put safety measures in place for its staff. This strong result against a backdrop of abysmal retail clothing spending was powered in part by the company’s auto-ship customers.
In the most recent earnings call, CEO Katrina Lake indicated that customers who sign up to receive “Fixes” (shipments of clothes) automatically and on a regular basis “achieved the strongest levels of ownership retention in the last three years.” She added that “this large contingent of loyal and highly engaged clients” are “very valuable.” Having a stable base of repeat clients helps the company better predict demand trends, shape inventory purchases, and forecast appropriate staffing levels.
Additional benefits from Stitch Fix’s loyal customers show up in the revenue-per-active-client metric. At the end of the day, consumers vote with their wallets. And impressively, this number has increased for the last eight quarters in a row. It’s clear Stitch Fix clients love the service as they are willing to spend more over time.
Possibly the biggest reason clients are spending more is that they are better matched with items they love.
Data science helps improve the customer experience
Making great clothing selections is key to the client experience for Stitch Fix. The job of keeping this recommendation engine humming and improving it over time is the company’s data scientist team. This group is over 100 strong and many of its members have Ph.D.s in data science or related fields. The team received a patent on its Smart Fix Algorithm and has other patents pending. You can see the amazing detail that goes into this process on the Algorithms Tour section of the Stitch Fix website.
This algorithm is also driving selections for the direct buy offering, which allows clients to purchase clothing without the commitment of the five-item fix. This new service is taking off and its low return rates show that clients love it. Lake shared that “people keeping things that they love is ultimately like the true Northstar of our business and that’s really where we’re orienting a lot of our efforts again.” One of these new efforts is focused on pushing the envelope of how stylists engage with clients.
Doubling down on personalized service
On the last earnings call, Stitch Fix President Elizabeth Spaulding discussed a pilot program that “provide[s] clients with increased stylist engagement and the opportunity to select items in their fixes.” This program, currently being tested in the U.S. and the U.K., connects the client on a video call with a stylist while their fix is being created. This allows the client direct input into their selections and enables the stylist to become better acquainted with the client’s clothing choices.
This innovative approach plays to the company’s strengths and could further build its loyal client following. Spaulding indicated that more would be shared in upcoming calls, but said that “We believe this enhanced styling experience will appeal to an even broader set of clients as consumers seek high-touch engagement while not going into stores.”
As traditional movie theaters struggle to attract movie-goers during the pandemic, the confined-space nature of their offering has opened up opportunity for other players. Perhaps one in particular that happens to have a huge amount of real estate for parking cars and for allowing customers to sit back and watch a film from the comfort (and relative safety) of their vehicle? Enter: Walmart.
Walmart has had success being more customer focused with their shop online and pick up stations. This new foray into theaters feels like an extension of that customer-centric premise.
Walmart is smart to move fast to assess how the brand can fulfill consumer desires in light of current events with resources they mostly already have on hand. This agility is what will help Walmart capitalize on movie-goers while theater heavy hitters are sitting ducks.
It’s also a lead-gen play. To discover info and movie times, you need to sign up for their newsletter.
From The Verge:
Walmart is converting some of its parking lots into drive-in theaters for the summer as the movie industry struggles amid the coronavirus pandemic.
The retail behemoth is converting 160 of its parking lots across the US into drive-ins. These theaters will open in early August and remain open through October. The Walmart Drive-In will feature movies programmed by Tribeca Enterprises, the company behind the Tribeca Film Festival, which recently launched a summer movie drive-in series bringing films, music, and sporting events to as many US drive-ins as possible.
Walmart has not disclosed whether attendees will have to pay a price of admission. Though, ahead of each drive-in screening, Walmart says it will sell concessions for moviegoers, which they can order online for curbside pick-up ahead of the film screening. Theaters tend to make a good chunk of their profits on concessions, so Walmart could follow in the industry’s lead.
Why it’s hot:
1. This is a great example of using surplus resources to fill a market gap. The heavy investment stuff is already in place. Walmart needs to invest in some screens, staff, etc, but that overhead is minimal.
2. Though it’s only temporary, the experience created should endear people to the brand, as well as boost revenues from concessions sales.
Innovative businesses whose fundamental models have been negatively affected by the coronavirus pandemic are acting fast to turn disaster into opportunity. See what a few of them are doinghere.
One that caught my eye is Cheeky Food Events. For a company focused on running large-scale team-building events focused on cooking, Social Distancing could easily be seen as a complete deal-breaker. Instead of throwing in the…err…apron, Cheeky Foods instead pivoted their business into “delivery-based” catering, in which ingredients are delivered to the homes of each team member, and cooking instructions are delivered via live webstreams.
Maybe less effective as team-building, and not a long-term business model – but an agile way to maintain a revenue stream, while also providing customers with a valuable and enjoyable experience while they’re locked in and looking for new ways of remaining connected and entertained. This is so cool it’s hot.
Why It’s Hot: (Did you not read that last paragraph…?)
Here are six examples of businesses and brands that are innovating and transforming their product offering during the coronavirus pandemic.
Cheeky Food Events
Events, oriented as they are around large gatherings of people in a space, were one of the earliest casualties of the coronavirus pandemic, with major conferences being cancelled and entertainment venues closing their doors even before full lockdowns were implemented in most countries.
For companies whose business is corporate events, the impact was particularly dire, because workplaces also quickly shifted to remote working to minimise the spread of coronavirus. Cheeky Food Events, an Australian company that offers corporate team-building activities oriented around cooking, found itself needing to rethink its business model for a newly-distributed world of work.
The company has since shifted to offering delivery-based catering to remote workforces: ingredients for a two-course gourmet meal and dessert, delivered safely to an employee’s home, that they can cook with the aid of a live webstream of a chef showing how to prepare and cook the meal. This enables organisations to still carry out team bonding and building activities in a distributed work environment, while Cheeky Food Events can still bring in revenue and put the skills of its expert chefs to good use.
Budweiser, Rémy Martin, Carlsberg & Pernod Ricard
When the coronavirus pandemic first began to seriously impact day-to-day life, beginning with China in January, alcohol brands knew that they had a problem: no-one was going out to bars and clubs to buy alcohol any more. Many of them saw sales take a nosedive as a result of the disappearance of late-night leisure activities.
Four alcohol brands decided to adapt by partnering with ecommerce giant JD.com to take clubbing online. Beer brands Budweiser and Carlsberg, cognac brand Rémy Martin, and drinks brand Pernod Ricard joined forces with JD.com and Chinese music label Taihe Music Group to create an online clubbing experience, streamed directly to people’s living rooms and complete with liquor that they could buy from the stream and have delivered to their door.
Each week, JD.com is hosting a three-hour performance by one of the DJs signed to Taihe Music Group, with alcoholic beverages promoted throughout that viewers can buy. JD.com has already reported that one partner brand saw a 70% increase in sales of imported liquor during one livestream, with sales of its whiskey products increasing eightfold compared to the same period the day before. During another show, sales of beer increased by 40% compared to the day before.
Although the lockdown has now begun to lift in China, JD.com has said that it will “continue to leverage live broadcasts of music performance in clubs, live houses and even music festivals for products [sic] marketing, making it a long-term program to enrich customers’ shopping experience.” It has also stated that it will open the experience up to other product categories besides liquor.
While livestreaming, and in particular shoppable livestreaming, was already a major trend in China prior to the lockdown, this nevertheless shows that innovations and trends that develop in response to the coronavirus pandemic may well become part of our everyday lives.
While a slightly more off-the-wall response to the remote working trend, this thoroughly deserves a mention. California-based animal sanctuary Sweet Farm used to bring in part of its funding from in-person visits, which dried up when the coronavirus pandemic and its accompanying shelter-in-place orders hit the United States. To recoup some of that funding, its founders started Goat2Meeting: a service where companies can pay to have a goat, llama or other farm animal make an appearance in their zoom call to liven the monotony.
Goat2Meeting typically charges between $65 and $250 for various virtual interactions with the animals, ranging from a 20-minute virtual tour of the farm for up to six call participants to a 10-minute animal cameo or a bigger virtual tour. Due to “incredible demand”, the farm has even added a bonus ‘VIP tour’ option for a $750 donation.
According to Business Insider, the service has already had more than 300 requests from businesses, and its animals have made appearances in calls for Fortune 500 companies and tech start-ups. In one virtual happy hour for a law firm, lawyers brought their children along to the video call to meet the animals, in a unique remote working take on “bring your child to work day”.
Remote working got your goat? Sorry, I couldn’t resist. (Image: solomonphotos / Shutterstock.com)
London fitness studio Frame was forced to close its doors as coronavirus lockdown restrictions tightened, but the business has found ways to get creative with online content instead. It quickly launched Frame Online, an online fitness hub with a £10.99 per month subscription fee that allowed people who were stuck at home to get moving and keep fit with virtual classes.
Frame has also been using social media in creative ways to promote fitness, making six-minute clips of its workout classes available on IGTV and posting funny and relatable workout-related or inspirational content to Instagram. Frame’s Instagram posts promote a slightly more realistic image of working out at home than some fitness influencers (featuring a woman, for example, holding a glass of wine while doing stretches) and push back against so-called “quarantine productivity shaming” by encouraging people to book classes that suit their mood rather than feeling pressured into high-intensity fitness sessions.
Kings Place, London is a cultural hub of live music, art and food that offers a variety of performances from live podcast recordings to classical music, illustrated lectures and jazz. As the COVID-19 pandemic escalated, however, the venue was forced to close its doors.
It has since found ways to bring its performances to audiences who are confined indoors and searching for entertainment, launching an online content hub called KPLAYER. The platform features excerpts from past performances and full-length shows streamed live every Wednesday; Kings Place is also using the opportunity to drum up interest for its late 2020 and 2021 programme by featuring past performances from these artists on KPLAYER.
Demand for online grocery retail is higher than it has ever been as people search for ways to get essentials without leaving the house and putting themselves at unnecessary risk. While many grocery retailers already sell online, they are being forced to get creative in order to keep up with demand.
Organic and health food supermarket chain Whole Foods is reported to have turned some of its physical store locations into ‘dark stores’, a location that only employees can enter to pick up goods and fulfil orders. It’s not alone in doing so: parent company Amazon has also transformed one of its Southern California locations into a dark store, and supermarket Kroger converted one of its Cincinatti-area stores into a collection-only location to meet customer demand for alternative shopping services like click-and-collect.
Because of the coronavirus pandemic, Oakland-based band Thao & The Get Down Stay Down had a problem. Their plan to shoot a music video for their single “Phenom” was abruptly canceled as shelter-in-place orders rolled in. The band, crew, and dancers could no longer meet up in person, and they were faced with a decision: put everything on hold or figure out a way to make the music video remotely. “At first we didn’t know if we would even release the song because it’s about people unifying,” Thao tells The Verge. “So it was never an option for me to shoot the video solo.” But then her manager had an idea. What if they shot the music video entirely within Zoom?
Featuring Thao alongside eight dancers, the “Phenom” video went from concept to completion within a week. There was one pre-production meeting, one five-hour rehearsal, and one shoot day, all of which took place on Zoom. “If we were going to do such a thing and commit to it,” says Thao, “we had to do it really quickly because it is so of the moment.”
Why it’s hot:
It’s cool to see creative people using the medium of the moment (video conferencing) to create art in a short amount of time. It goes to show that what’s most important is not having the highest production value, but connecting with your audience.
Using Zoom as a medium places the viewer in emotional proximity to the band, making them relatable, but the creative approach to choreography within the Zoom frames heightens the medium from mere communication to the level of art.
Google subsidiary DeepMind has unveiled an AI called Agent57 that can beat the average human at 57 classic Atari games.
The system achieved this feat using deep reinforcement learning, a machine learning technique that helps an AI improve its decisions by trying out different approaches and learning from its mistakes.
In their blog post announcing the release, DeepMind trumpets Agent57 as the most general Atari57 agent since the benchmark’s inception, the one that finally obtains above human-level performance not only on easy games, but also across the most demanding games.
Why it’s hot:
By machines learning how to play these complex games, they will attain the capability of thinking and acting strategically.DeepMind’s general-purpose learning algorithms allow the machine to learn through gamification to try and acquire human-like intelligence and behavior.
Sales of voice control devices are expected to experience a boom in growth, thanks to people being locked down and working from home. This is also expected to fuel growth in the broader ecosystem of smart home devices – as instructions to minimize contact with objects that haven’t been disinfected, make things like connected light switches, thermostats and door locks more appealing than ever.
Why It’s Hot: A critical mass of device penetration and usage will undoubtedly make this a more meaningful platform for brands and marketers to connect and engage with consumers.
With so many millions of people working from home, the value of voice control during the pandemic will ensure that this year, voice control device shipments will grow globally by close to 30% over 2019–despite the key China market being impacted during the first quarter of 2020, according to global tech market advisory firm, ABI Research.
Woman Preparing Meal At Home Asking Digital Assistant Question
Last year, 141 million voice control smart home devices shipped worldwide, the firm said. Heeding the advice to minimize COVID-19 transmission from shared surfaces, even within a home, will help cement the benefits of smart home voice control for millions of consumers, ABI Research said.
“A smarter home can be a safer home,” said Jonathan Collins, ABI research director, in a statement. “Key among the recommendations regarding COVID-19 protection in the home is to clean and disinfect high-touch surfaces daily in household common areas,” such as tables, hard-backed chairs, doorknobs, light switches, remotes, handles, desks, toilets, and sinks.
Voice has already made significant inroads into the smart home space, Collins said. Using voice control means people can avoid commonly touched surfaces around the home from smartphones, to TV remotes, light switches, thermostats, door handles, and more. Voice can also be leveraged for online shopping and information gathering, he said.
When used in conjunction with other smart home devices, voice brings greater benefits, Collins said.
“Voice can be leveraged to control and monitor smart locks to enable deliveries to be placed in the home or another secure location directly or monitored securely on the doorstep until the resident can bring them in,” he said.
Similarly, smart doorbells/video cameras can also ensure deliveries are received securely without the need for face-to-face interaction or exposure, he added. “Such delivery capabilities are especially valuable for those already in home quarantine or for those receiving home testing kits,” Collins said.
He believes that over the long term, “voice control will continue to be the Trojan horse of smart home adoption.” Right now, the pandemic is part of the additional motivation and incentive for voice control in the home to help drive awareness and adoption for a range of additional smart home devices and applications, Collins said.
“Greater emphasis and understanding, and above all, a change of habit and experience in moving away from physical actuation toward using voice in the home will support greater smart home expansion throughout individual homes,” he said. “A greater emphasis on online shopping and delivery will also drive smart home device adoption to ensure those deliveries are securely delivered.”
The legacy of COVID-19 will be that the precautions being taken now will continue for millions of people who are bringing new routines into their daily lives in and around their homes and will for a long time to come, Collins said.
“Smart home vendors and system providers can certainly emphasize the role of voice and other smart home implementations to improve the day-to-day routines within a home and the ability to minimize contact with shared surfaces, as well as securing and automating home deliveries.”
Additionally, he said there is value in integrating smart home monitoring and remote health monitoring with a range of features, such as collecting personal health data points like temperature, activity, and heart rate, alongside environmental data such as air quality and occupancy. This can “help in the wider response and engagement for smart city health management,” Collins said.
The San Fransisco tech-forward restaurant Creator has made their new airlock system (for providing take-out orders during the coronavirus crisis) open source for any other businesses that need to protect their workers from the many possibly infected people coming to their locations.
The chamber is pressurized by a Sanyo Denki 24-volt 65CFM blower regulated by simple LM317 voltage regulator circuit. The conveyor belt feeds itself through a 5 gallon bucket of quaternary sanitizing solution. Customers can order through an intercom, and their takeaway bags are heat-sealed and labeled with a tamperproof sticker just to be extra super sanitary.
“Retail workers are on the front lines, exposed to hundreds of strangers every day in enclosed spaces,” says Creator founder Alex Vardakostas. “If retail workers fall ill, they are in turn at risk of infecting delivery workers and customers. We can’t restart the economy until retail and restaurant workers are protected. They’re some of the most important people to keep virus-free.”
This falls directly in Creator’s wheelhouse, as they are known for being the first to automate the making of a fully prepared burger with the beautiful machine above. Fast-moving innovations like the airlock promote the restaurant brand as a function of doing good for their workers, which is of such concern with service workers right now, and gives customers more piece of mind as they look for safe places to procure food and have a sense of normalcy in these difficult times.
The restaurant’s team has unusual engineering skills—when Creator opened in 2018, it became the first in the world to make fully prepared burgers with a robot that handles everything from slicing the bun and cooking the patty to chopping up onions and tomatoes. For customers in the current pandemic, there’s some added comfort in the fact that the process minimizes human contact; the machine even packages each burger itself. But the storefront still needs staff to get the food to customers waiting to pick it up, and last week, engineers and fabricators set to work on the new airlock-like window.
Why it’s hot:
1. The world needs fast-moving innovation right now, and there’s nothing like giving your innovation away for free to garner media recognition and positive public sentiment. The earned media from their design and their gesture will pique the interest of many, who will discover even cooler offerings coming out of the brand’s innovative approach — like a $6 gourmet burger in San Fransisco.
2. Making this design open-source may help other restaurants move quickly to implement solutions that work for them — but it mostly promotes the brand as being next-level, and getting it hyped in publications like Fast Company.
What IP do brands have that could function in a similar way, helping the public in a way that shows off their unique offerings or abilities (instead of donating money), while garnering positive sentiment and media attention?
How Piramal Sarvajal is using IoT to tackle safe drinking water issue for rural India
“Water is wealth; water is life. Without water, life would not endure, and access to freshwater and sanitation is a basic fundamental right of humans.”
Having said that, the availability of freshwater is still a significant challenge in India, especially in rural areas. According to reports, 25 million people in India lack access to safe drinking water, and rural Indian women waste 700 hours annually collecting water. It is also estimated that by the year 2025, almost more than half of the urban population of India will live in water-stressed areas as this precious commodity is becoming scarce rapidly.
In this context, Piramal Sarvajal is committed to leveraging innovative technology to create easy access to safe drinking water in rural areas. Seeded by the Piramal Foundation in 2008, Sarvajal has been working in the water space to provide clean drinking water in the far-flung rural regions of India.
Even today, three-quarters of India still drink unfiltered water, which, in turn, leads to diarrheal deaths and permanent fluorosis. To change this, Sarvajal founder Anand Shah created a program to achieve low-cost scalable solutions serving “safe water for all.”
Why it’s Hot: (In case you’re not sure if you want to read the loooong case study.) This is a really innovative convergence of technology, data and business model – aligned to solve a pervasive public health challenge, which negatively impacts the lives of millions of people every day. Interesting perspective, as we collectively consider ways in which clients might respond to the current global public health challenge.
A Mission To Provide ‘Water For All’
Water scarcity has been a global issue; however, Piramal Sarvajal believed that the problem is multidimensional, and therefore the solutions had to be locally suited. Additionally, the voluminous nature of water, coupled with its vulnerability to contamination demanded a localised and efficient purification-cum-distribution system. While many well-intentioned NGOs have tried to implement charity-based water delivery solutions, these ventures have not proven financially sustainable over time. And therefore, the need of the hour was to apply business thinking to solve public service delivery problems.
In recent years, decentralised solutions for community-level drinking water installations have achieved significant success in creating safe water access, even in remote rural areas. Serving large enough numbers at affordable prices leads to financial sustainability while creating a local entrepreneurial ecosystem. A market-based, pay-per-use model aims to democratise drinking water access and achieve operational break-even by selling drinking water to the community at affordable prices. Piramal Sarvajal has been at the forefront of developing technologies and business practices in the safe drinking water sector that are designed to ensure sustainable solutions in both rural and urban deployment conditions. Sarvajal created a business model that operates at community levels to provide decentralised drinking water solutions to underserved communities.
During its inception, Piramal Sarvajal had their first version of its purification unit, which had no governance-based technology involved, and all the operations were done manually. Since the initiative was bound to be a multi-location affair, distributed operations posed a severe challenge to efficiently and cost-effectively managing the project. Besides, generating sufficient demand meant breaking existing taboos around buying water by educating consumers about water-health linkages was also a challenge. Sarvajal’s team, therefore, innovated a solution that could be customised for the water contamination profile of any location with pioneering remote monitoring technology. It also invested in community awareness activities while tapping into local entrepreneurial drive and resources by adopting a franchise model.
The company used to charge to the franchisee, based on the volume of water purified by our unit. Although there was a mechanical flow meter installed in the unit that used to measure the volume of water purified by our unit, every month, a person had to go to the field to note down the reading from each unit. This process, therefore, used to take about two weeks to complete the round and collect the data. This manual reading process created a delay in the billing cycle. Additionally, they noticed some tampering with water meters at various locations, which indeed is a separate challenge altogether. To resolve these, Piramal Sarvajal explored applying cloud-based technology in order to create a smooth process by using sensors for the measurement of vital parameters like quantity, quality, pressure etc.
Water ATMs: Automated Water Dispensing Units
The company started its technological journey using the Programmable Logic Controller (PLC) with sensors and Human Machine Interface (HMI), which were attached with the PLC. “PLC-based automation has helped us in automating the unit’s operation and in remotely managing and monitoring the purification unit from our centralised location,” said Anuj Sharma, the CEO of Piramal Sarvaja. “Due to the fast-paced changes in PLC technology, we needed to update our software frequently. This triggered the design of our own, micro-controller based, control unit.”
Being the first organisation in India to develop the Water ATM, Piramal Sarvajal, operated the project in collaboration with a local entrepreneur or the local panchayat and community-based organisations to create sustainable livelihood opportunities within the chosen community. These cloud-connected and solar-powered WaterATM dispenses purified water 24×7. Villagers were issued RFID cards for collecting water, and these cards have a pre-paid balance, which can be recharged periodically as per consumption pattern. The RFID card gave the consumer the convenience of taking water anytime, anywhere across connected ATMs in a given location of flexible litres.
The IoT enabled technology installed at the purification level, ensuring the quality of every drop dispensed and supported oversight management on a real-time basis, while remotely managing locations for better governance. “The dispensing solution via Water ATM not only helps us manage and monitor user-level data but also supports targeted subsidies and variable pricing to support equitable and sustainable solutions at the last mile,” said Sharma.
The adoption of IoT technology for remote monitoring of the units helped the company in bringing transparency in operations across every transaction and ensured governance of widespread locations for both the service provider and the donor. This technology also assisted in managing the pay per use model, which, in turn, helped the consumers to pay an affordable price for clean drinking water — paying only for the service.
The technology that the company deployed was the Internet of Things (IoT), which required GSM/GPRS network as it acts as a backbone for communication between device and server. And, Sarvajal’s devices communicate with their centralised server over GSM/GPRS (2G) network. And ensuring that every installed unit has the availability of proper signal strength at the desired location. “Sometimes, we have noticed that even though there is a proper signal strength available at the place, still there is a delay in data exchange, which was due to the network latency,” said Sharma. And, hence, the company considered other network options like NB-IoT, which works on LTE (4G); considering its availability in most of India. The company also considered other alternate non-standard options, where telecom network is still not available, but it is under feasibility study.
Piramal Sarvajal also has enabled a technology device called Soochak, which is a remote monitoring device designed to be mounted on a commercial-scale water purification plant, to capture minute-by-minute machine status. This process works on Piramal’s technology backend, which allows the company to bring affordable, safe drinking water to underserved communities sustainably. At the same time, the touch screen of the machine easily guides the local operators on the daily functioning of the plant in the local language.
The company aimed to deploy technology at every stage — for specific parameter measurement Piramal Sarvajal have used state of the art sensors. As part of their regular preventive maintenance, these sensors are calibrated periodically so that they provide accurate data. With the help of IoT, the company gets its data from all units installed in the field, and these data are stored in their server’s database system. Also, considering the received data is large in volume; it practically wasn’t possible to do analysis manually, hence, decided to apply data analytics that provided them with meaningful information from the available data. “This helped us to know how many units are working in normal condition and how many units require attention from our maintenance team,” said Sharma. “Our devices are intelligent enough to provide real-time alerts to our operations team for any attention needed by them. Our operations team immediately acts on alerts and attends the situation.”
Application & Benefits
Sarvajal’s proprietary technology played a vital role in providing a comprehensive solution for delivering low-cost drinking water at the last mile. The various components of the technology include — water purification plants, monitoring device, the water ATM, and Sarvajal’s enterprise management system.
Sarvajal’s purification model was agnostic of the method of filtration and was utilising purification technology as per the source water. The water was getting purified through a site-designed five-step filtration process including media filtration, micron filtration, reverse osmosis (RO) filtration and UV purification. The employed proprietary technology of Sarvajal helped them in monitoring and controlling the machine operations, the source water quality, product water quality, litres produced (both rate and total), the overall health of the machine, and the amount of effluent created in the process. This real-time online monitoring enabled the company to assure a greater uptime in machine usage.
Sarvajal’s Enterprise Management System is the information processing hub of the entire company’s network of distributed installations. The SEMs receives all data sent over the cellular network for the Soochaks and Water ATMs and serves as the conduit for all operational activities within the business, such as inventory management, maintenance tracking, accounting, and asset tracking.
Additionally, the water ATM devices were solar-powered, cloud-connected, and operated automatically, which was designed to dispense water at the swipe of an RFID card. The ATMs tracked every transaction that took place, which enabled a sophisticated market forecasting and proactive multi-unit management. It also enhanced the scale of impact and optimised net investment per installation. Consequently, the ATMs established water-price transparent markets and assured 24×7 access to safe drinking water. Sarvaj’s initiative also presented an option to provide direct-targeted subsidies through government-run programs. Currently, the company is serving more than 7.30 lakhs of people daily, directly from our 1765+ touchpoints in 20 states.
While there are many players in the water space, Sharma believes, “What sets us apart is our effort of conducting community engagement activities to improve impact to increase the off-take.” Also, “Soochak throws data about machine health, so all maintenance activities are planned. Service tickets are even generated to track and also study the data generated. Our database shares information on all machines functionality at any given point in time.”
Sharma further added, “Being a technology expert in the water sector, we also aim to help the government by demonstrating the use of technology, so that the government can monitor the water supply schemes very effectively.” Sarvajal has extended the application of this model for a water pipe model too. The company partnered with the central government-run Jal Shakti mission to create a pilot model of monitoring the IoT-based water tracking mechanism at villages of Gujarat, Assam and Bihar.
A lot of communal events are taking place on Zoom, a videoconferencing app now being used by many classrooms and businesses (thus transforming it into one of the few companies doing well on the stock market). But it’s not just Zoom.
There are, for example, a small but highly vocal number of people gathering in the digital plazas, pet stores and pizza shops of Club Penguin Online. There are happy hours being held on Google Hangout, and poker games taking place over FaceTime. There are flute meditation sessions on Instagram and thousands of people participating in dance raves that are broadcast on Twitch.
It’s a lot for the internet. On Monday, Discord, the chat app popular with gamers, announced that it would increase its capacity by 20 percent to keep up with demand; it crashed shortly thereafter.
A V.I.P. Game Night in Hollywood
Jeff Baena, a film director, loves organizing social activities; it was at one of his game nights, in fact, that he met his girlfriend, the actress Aubrey Plaza. The couple have been in self-quarantine since March 11, and were feeling extremely antsy.
“Our house is one of those hubs where people are always over and hanging out,” Mr. Baena, 42, said by phone this week. “It’s strange to not be able to do that. I was kind of jonesing.”
So he got people together virtually. At 9 p.m. on March 14, a dozen friends — including the actress Alia Shawkat, who said she left the set of a television series she was working on early, before it had been officially shut down because of the new coronavirus — joined a group chat for a few hours of Quiplash and other games by Jackbox, an internet game company.
In order for remote players to see the game screen, Mr. Baena joined FaceTime from two devices, with one camera aimed at his TV.
Of course, the pandemic loomed large over the course of the night. At one point, someone coughed and a chorus of concerned voices wondered who it was.
“It was me!” said Almitra Corey, 40, who is currently working as the production designer for the final season of the Netflix show “GLOW.” (Filming was paused, as for all other Netflix shows, last Friday.)
“I just smoked weed,” she said. “Relax.”
A Remote Rave for 5,000 Guests
In New York this past Sunday, the city’s hottest nightclub was a virtual day rave. Nine hours of electronic music were streamed from an empty warehouse in Brooklyn to nearly 5,000 guests from around the world, including some in Berlin and Seattle, all of whom were watching on Twitch.
The event, which showcased nine electronic musicians, was put together by Christine McCharen-Tran, a founder of Discwoman, a talent agency in Brooklyn and collective of femme and nonbinary D.J.’s and music producers.
“I texted all the D.J.’s that I know that need support right now,” Ms. McCharen-Tran, 31, said. After gatherings of more than 500 were banned in New York on March 13, she said, “I was seeing so many artists being affected directly.”
So last Friday, she reached out to a lighting designer friend named Michael Potvin, who provided a physical space and a domain name (harrisonplace.nyc). Ms. McCharen-Tran got to work building out the site and booking artists.
By the afternoon, harrisonplace.nyc was live and vibing.
“For all of the talk about tech distancing us, it felt very intimate and joyful,” said Jess Ramsey, 35, in a phone interview. Ms. Ramsey, who works on hardware and gaming partnerships at Spotify, projected the rave onto her living room ceiling.
“We’re the most stressed we’ve probably ever been, and there’s no place to go, but you can dance in your living room,” she said. “It was the first time we had danced in a week, and it felt really special.”
Strict safety and hygiene protocols were in place even in the empty warehouse. All D.J.’s wore latex gloves and had access to disinfectant wipes and soap. The suggested size of gatherings has shrunk daily and rapidly, from 500 people to 50, and most recently to 10. At the time, Ms. McCharen-Tran’s 10-person maximum was out of an abundance of caution; now it would be pushing the limit.
Many other bands are performing in empty concert halls for the digital masses. The metal band Code Orange performed a record-release concert with an elaborate multimedia production to an empty room, for example, streaming to more than 12,000 fans.
In order to help fans support the artists in real time, Ms. McCharen-Tran and other producers of these events display the Venmo user names of artists at the bottom of the screen during their sets.
A Google Hangout Happy Hour
Lauren Ashley Smith, a TV writer from St. Louis who lives in Los Angeles, turned to Google Hangout this past Saturday to host a digital happy hour with a few close friends. That turned into 57 close friends, and then, over 60 once her sisters invited friends of their own.
“I know it seems like I invited a lot of people,” Ms. Smith, 34, said, “but I did carefully curate the people that were invited.”
To fit the criteria, a guest had to be someone Ms. Smith felt “wouldn’t take it too seriously” and who was “more extroverted — or would be willing to talk to a bunch of strangers they didn’t know.”
She knew everybody was just home alone, bored or scared. So, she said, “I made a run of show.”
The activities include a game Ms. Smith invented (“in 30 seconds,” she said) called “Who’s That Girl?” She would hold up photos of celebrities (saved on her phone) to the laptop’s camera, and players earned points by being the first person to correctly type the subject’s first and last name in the chat section of the Hangout window.
The celebrities were “obscure, to some,” Ms. Smith said. (They included Lala Kent from “Vanderpump Rules,” the singer Keke Wyatt, Christine Brown from “Sister Wives” and Esther the Wonder Pig, whom Ms. Smith described as “a pig influencer on Instagram.”)
The winner received a prize of $50 on the cash-sharing app Venmo. It was ultimately donated to the Downtown Women’s Center in Los Angeles, which provides services to currently and formerly homeless women.
After the hangout, Ms. Smith said she received “a lot of heartfelt messages” from participants thanking her for including them. She “absolutely” intends to do it again.
“It’s really easy,” she said. “Social distancing is for the greater good of everyone. And you can still make it really fun.”
Before the event, it struck her that she and her wife had yet to host a party at their new home. “But now I feel like we have.”
Conspiracy Theories on Club Penguin
There once was an online Disney media platform called Club Penguin, which was a kid-friendly social media hub where users could interact as animated penguins in a virtual world. It was formally discontinued in 2017.
But the internet being the internet, there are still multiple simulacra of Club Penguin around: unlicensed duplications hosted on independent servers, filled with the same population of late-born millennials and first wave Gen Z-ers that flocked to the Disney version by the hundreds of millions.
Last Friday, masses of users assembled in a popular fake iteration of the original pretend world — this one called Club Penguin Online — to share their anxieties, wishes and predictions for the uncertain future, and to ask everyone where they were from. Also, to keep frantically serving one another digital pizza.
There existed eerie similarities between the cartoon penguin world and humanity’s own, under quarantine. The sports stadium was devoid of chatting penguins. The skate park was nearly empty; ditto the dance club.
In other corners of the penguin universe, users delighted in that activity increasingly outlawed by public health officials: congregating in large groups.
Although conversations can be hard to follow on Club Penguin Online — a user’s typed message appears briefly above his or her representative penguin’s head wherever on the screen that penguin happens to be standing (or dancing), before disappearing forever — the pizza shop became, around midday, a kind of political salon.
One penguin asked another penguin that purported to be from Italy if, in real life, the grocery stores were out of pasta. Other flightless birds lamented the quality of their officials’ responses to the crisis.
A penguin in a chef’s hat approached and said, “They aren’t telling anyone anything,” before walking away to take another penguin’s pizza order.
Outside, in the plaza, a navy blue penguin was spreading disinformation and conspiracy theories. This penguin had presented itself as an expert on the novel coronavirus, imploring fellow penguins to pose to it any medical questions.
One penguin wondered how likely it was to become infected; the blue penguin replied confidently: “if ur under 60years old odds are 0,2.”
“Do you think someone created coronavirus?” a coral pink penguin said.
This was the opening the blue penguin had been waiting for. “YES,” it said. “Have u heard of 5g”? It went on to describe (in halting increments, because messages typed in Club Penguin Online have a limit of 64 characters) an online conspiracy theory that attributes virus symptoms to radiation caused by wireless internet.
The penguins in the plaza did not seem convinced.
Online social gatherings are also taking meditative forms. Justine Stephens, 27, guided a live flute meditation on her Instagram account last weekend to help about 40 friends and viewers deal with stress and anxiety during the pandemic.
“Needed this and didn’t know it. Super anxious about the start of the week,” read one comment during the livestream. “Thank you for curing my Sunday scaries,” someone else added.
This past Sunday, Mikael Acatl, an energy worker and shaman who uses the pronoun “they,” held a healing session from their Brooklyn apartment, surrounded by plants, burning copal and bathed in golden-hour light.
And Josh Peck, 39, and Eliza Philpott, 31, who operate a retreat space in the Hudson Valley in New York, livestreamed a sound bath for about a hundred digital participants. They used two high-end microphones to funnel dual sources of audio to listeners simultaneously, which created the sensation of being in a three-dimensional space.
Other soothing practices included a reading by the writer Ashley C. Ford, of poems by Pablo Neruda. More than 100 people tuned in to the half-hour broadcast on YouTube.
There was also free “mom” advice dispensed by Mary Laura Philpott, an author in Nashville, who tweeted that she had “Big Mom Energy to spare. (Seriously, my teenagers are over it.)”
“I was like, Who needs the mom to tell you to drink your water, to wash your hands, that it’s going to be OK, to get off the internet?” Ms. Philpott said by phone. (She was surprised that the answer was: lots and lots of people.)
Gamers are getting into it, too. On Twitch, Nick Polom, a streamer with some 400,000 subscribers, took a break from streaming rounds of Apex Legends starting on March 11, to share more timely “Just Chatting” broadcasts.
Each is hours long, with names like “Doomsday cooking stream” (in which he livestreamed his stir fry, grocery rundown, and jokes about frozen chicken tenders) and “Girlfriend and Boyfriend stuck in quarantine!” (in which he livestreamed himself playing virtual reality games with his partner, for a remote audience of thousands).
As the novelist Sarah Schulman put it after a reading of hers was canceled in New York (and she offered her own individual readings by phone): “If all the institutional theaters are closed and all the competitive curated spaces are closed, we’re back to just entertaining each other.”
While long-distance Twelve Step recovery has existed since at least World War II, and moved to email and online chat and video with the rise of the internet, much of Twelve Step recovery still relies on in-person meeting.
With the health guidance for people to not congregate in large groups, those who rely on Alcoholics Anonymous and other recovery groups have organized quickly. Many meeting chairs across the country are creating regular meetings on Zoom.
“Many of us have been saying in these online meetings that if we were still drinking and using drugs this would be the perfect environment to self-destruct — fear of the unknown, lack of support, isolation, financial insecurity,” said Nanea, who asked to be identified by only her first name in accordance with recovery guidelines.
“We need to have a way to share our experience, strength and hope to new people struggling with addiction and alcoholism,” Nanea said. “I know a lot of people, not just people in recovery, are afraid and feeling isolated right now. I feel very fortunate to have an active community that knows how to support each other.”
And Virtual Religious Occasions
On Sunday morning, the Redemption Church in Costa Mesa, Calif., set up its first livestream, in part to broadcast two infants’ dedication ceremonies.
Kristin Castillo, 30, a brand and marketing consultant, and her husband, Nate, 30, had originally planned to gather their family, friends and loving congregation (about 200 members strong) to witness and participate in the religiousservice, which would officially welcome their newborn son into the church. Afterward, there was to be a celebratory lunch.
Instead, Kristin and Nate’s in-person guest list was trimmed to one of each of their parents. When the ceremony reached the point where their infant’s “spiritual aunts and uncles” were meant to affirm their support, the family and friends that were asked to accept this duty participated remotely.
“They were texting us in real time: ‘Yes! Yes!’” Ms. Castillo said.
While she found the experience of being on camera “nerve-racking,” she described their baby, nearly 8 months old, as “surprisingly cooperative.”
“Watching a crazy little guy having a good time, hopefully that lifted someone’s spirits,” she said. “And, ironically, by stripping all of the social trappings away, it helped us focus more on the intent of the actual ceremony.
Why it’s hot: The internet has meant a lot of things to many people, it first brought many together far and wide, and then got a bum rap for making us feel like we’re closer to others when we’re actually just voyeurs into other people’s lives. But now, in the time of COVID-19, the internet and social media are enabling a more positive mandatory social distancing experience. From conference calls for work to concerts and raves, games nights and virtual happy hours, to religious celebrations, people are leveraging creative ways to use the internet in a time that could lead to excessive isolation and depression – way to go internet age!
Air Co., a startup vodka brand, is one of the distilleries shifting their production fromalcohol and to hand sanitizer – but what stands out is that Air Co.’s product is carbon-negative. Their mission is to make goods that do good, so they’ve created a carbon-negative vodka using captured CO2 instead of yeast to make alcohol is now using that captured CO2 to make a carbon-negative hand sanitizer.
“As of last week, we temporarily shifted our entire vodka production efforts to make a carbon-negative hand sanitizer,” the company wrote in a statement today. “Sanitizer is 70% ethanol, our technology’s main output, and we will produce as many bottles as we can during this crisis.” The company is donating the bottles it produces to the people that need it most.
Other distilleries across the country are doing the same – the Old Fourth Distillery in Atlanta started producing hand sanitizer when local stores ran out, and it offered free bottles to the community, as did the Shine Distillery and Grill in Portland.
But what makes Air Co. stand out, is that it’s environmentally friendly. The company uses CO2 from nearby factories and runs it through a process that combines it with water to make alcohol, distilling the final product in equipment running on solar power.
Why It’s Hot:
A great example of how a brand totally quickly shifting its priorities to address pandemic especially a brand that isn’t in the cleaning or sanitizing market initially and in a way that is true to their brand values.
From Fast Company: “A branding agency in Austin, Texas, has launched a GoFundMe page to tip the local service workers impacted by the cancellation of this month’s South by Southwest festival. “Thousands of Austin service workers and musicians will be hit significantly from canceled events, lost wages and tips. We’ll take the funds to Austin music venues, restaurants, bars and hotels and distribute them to individuals from March 13-22,” write the fund’s creators, from the agency T3.
Nearly half a million festival-goers were expected to arrive in Austin beginning this week. The giant culture festival that mingles artists, musicians, and startups was canceled on Friday by the city of Austin over COVID-19 concerns, following the pullout of companies such as Facebook and Twitter, as well as an online petition with over 55,000 signees calling for a cancellation. Festival organizers said they are “devastated,” and local hotels and venues that depend on attendees’ spending say they may be put out of business.”
Amid talks of a $15 minimum wage and Medicare For All in the US, the coronavirus is making it even more painfully clear how many people are living just on the edge of ruin.
Why it’s hot:
Covid-19 is wreaking havoc on the economy, and since no one wants to gather in the places where these people work, service workers are going to be hit particularly hard. A hyper-aware public seems receptive to brands that “protect their people”, so it’ll be interesting to see how brands attempt to spin that in their favor.
“We’re not doing this for publicity, but to help our city.” They say they aren’t doing it for publicity, but they sure are getting a lot of publicity for it. This is a do-gooder publicity stunt that everyone can get behind, coming not from a consumer brand, but from an agency. Unfortunately, they’re unable to innovate on actually helping service workers, and this stunt continues to perpetuate the system that keeps service workers in such a vulnerable position.
It’s a nice story that brands can do good in the world, but everyone should remember that sometimes brands just can’t solve certain social problems.
One of the biggest challenges when it comes to recycling and reducing waste is in educating people on what it is, why it matters, and how to do it, all while not boring people to death about it, or coming off as preachy. Hefty takes on that messaging hurdle with a little humor and smartly keeps the details vague.
Another issue with marketing a brand’s waste reduction is in equating it to something people can understand. How do you wrap your head around the fact that globally we produced 275 million metric tons of plastic waste in 2010! You can’t. People need a frame of reference to understand these abstract numbers, and this campaign does that with the help of a somewhat goofy strongman pulling a passenger jet, which represents the weight of the plastics that Hefty has managed to reclaim.
Once interest is piqued, people are taken to a micro-site that explains in more detail Hefty’s sustainability efforts: Hefty Sustainability.com
And what they’re doing is actually pretty cool and innovative. They have created a special bag in which to put hard-to-recycle plastics (those that are not accepted by most residential recycling programs) such as plastic food packaging, straws, candy wrappers, etc., which would otherwise most certainly end up in a landfill, in a tree, or choking the windpipe of a seabird.
Why it’s hot:
1. It doesn’t require you to identify as “green” in order to get it: A lot of “sustainable” brands lean into the lifestyle of the eco-conscious in their messaging, but that can turn off a lot of people who don’t identify that way. For a nationwide brand like Hefty, it makes more sense to stay away from identity and focus on their product and accomplishments.
2. It’s not much of an accomplishment actually, but it’s a start, and it’s backed up by action:Given the fact that more than 8 million tons of plastic are dumped into our oceans every year, a well-informed consumer might scoff at Hefty’s accomplishment of converting one measly airliner’s worth of hard-to-recycle plastic into new materials. But they have a model that helps collect plastics that you can’t normally recycle, and uses their product in a way people are already using it to do so.
3. Mining trash is actually a way to generate revenue: This is a mostly untapped market for raw materials, which is essentially TerraCycle’s business model, of gathering material others can’t (or won’t) and reselling it, which had it earning $20+ million in revenue in 2018.
A skincare startup is tackling the complexity consumers face when navigating the category to select the best products for their skincare needs. Rather than adding to the clutter of products, ingredients and “proprietary formulas”, or attempting to educate consumers through exposure to research + science, Proven Skincare simply prescribes personalized solutions for each individual.
After collecting customer input based around 40 key factors, Proven Skincare’s AI combs through a comprehensive database of research, testimonials and dermatology expertise, to identify the best mix of ingredients for each person’s situation.
“The paradox of choice, the confusion that causes this frustrating cycle of trial and error, is too much for most people to bear,” says Zhao on the latest edition of Ad Age’s Marketer’s Brief podcast. “There’s a lot of cycles of buying expensive product, only for it to then sit on somebody’s vanity shelf for months to come.”
As the human body’s largest organ, skin should be properly cared for—using products and ingredients that have been proven to work for specific individuals. That’s the core mission behind Proven Skincare, a new beauty company that has tapped technology to research the best skincare regimen for consumers.
Why It’s Hot: In a world where the benefits of things like AI and big data are not often apparent to the “average” person, this is an example of technology that solves a real human problem, while remaining invisible (i.e. it’s not about the tech).
Delta Airline is adopting new screen technology to add another layer of personalization to customer journeys.
Delta has struck up a partnership with technology company Misapplied Sciences to launch the Parallel Reality beta experience for flyers at Detroit Metropolitan Airport. Parallel Reality displays are an opt-in technology which, according to Misapplied Sciences, allow ‘a hundred or more’ consumers to view personalized content tailored to their unique journey needs via a single screen.
For Delta, adopting this technology means providing new way-finding opportunities: from displaying only relevant flight information to the viewer and translating that information into a language of the consumer’s choice.
For the beta launch in Detroit, almost 100 customers will be able to view content personalized to their needs. The partnership was announced at CES 2020, which makes Delta the first airline to keynote and exhibit at the event.
Why it’s hot: Delta is taking an existing technology and transforming it into a tool to improve customer experience. It’s taking the idea of one-to-one communication and personalization to the next level. Not to mention the company’s commitment to digital transformation unveiling several other consumer innovations alongside Parallel Reality at CES 2020. The announcements included an expanded partnership with ride-hailing company Lyft to help streamline journeys, a new AI-driven machine learning platform that analyses millions of data points, and even a wearable robotic exoskeleton for its employees.
To mark the arrival of the series Dracula, BBC erected two billboards in both London and Birmingham that don’t directly depict the count himself, but through a clever play of shadows and stakes, see him emerge as a haunting ghost.
During the day passers-by will notice that the billboards are stabbed with stakes – alluding to the action of vampire killers. Yet, at night a light at the side turns on, and viewers realize the stakes have been placed with the utmost intention so that their shadows recreate the face of the TV series’ blood-thirsty villain.
To heighten the spooky billboard, beneath stands a ‘break in case of vampires’ box that contains a pointed wooden stake, ready to stab with.
Why it’s Hot: Innovation doesn’t always need to be a new digital platform or tool – sometimes the most interesting innovations come from rethinking how we use traditional channels.
Lighting for nighttime sports is scarce in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam, making it hard for people to enjoy outdoor activities, like football and skateboarding, at night. The desire to play sports at night is especially strong in Vietnam because of the intense daytime heat and humidity. Red Bull, being all about energy and action, used this as an opportunity to create a social benefit while aligning the brand with a different kind of energy than caffeine: solar.
To do this, they painted a grid of used Red Bull cans black, in order to soak up the sun’s energy during the day, then stored that energy in batteries, which were used to power flood lights, making nighttime games and sports possible.
Why it’s hot:
Instead of just throwing up some standard billboards in outdoor recreation areas, Red Bull decided to be user-centered, looking to solve a real problem first, and found a clever way for the brand to participate in a more meaningful way within the culture it wants to attract.
1. Alignment: Red Bull sells an image of passion — a desire to go “all out” for one’s dreams, and this project fits perfectly with that image.
2. Social benefit: This hits on all cylinders for Red Bull. It positions the brand as essential to the sports it’s supporting, while repurposing resources, reducing energy use, and showing off its innovation chops. Helping people in this small way with things they are passionate about extends good will toward the brand far beyond the initial investment.
The creator of the famous voice assistant dreams of a world where Alexa is everywhere, anticipating your every need.
Speaking with MIT Technology Review, Rohit Prasad, Alexa’s head scientist, revealed further details about where Alexa is headed next. The crux of the plan is for the voice assistant to move from passive to proactive interactions. Rather than wait for and respond to requests, Alexa will anticipate what the user might want. The idea is to turn Alexa into an omnipresent companion that actively shapes and orchestrates your life. This will require Alexa to get to know you better than ever before.
In June at the re:Mars conference, he demoed [view from 53:54] a feature called Alexa Conversations, showing how it might be used to help you plan a night out. Instead of manually initiating a new request for every part of the evening, you would need only to begin the conversation—for example, by asking to book movie tickets. Alexa would then follow up to ask whether you also wanted to make a restaurant reservation or call an Uber.
A more intelligent Alexa
Here’s how Alexa’s software updates will come together to execute the night-out planning scenario. In order to follow up on a movie ticket request with prompts for dinner and an Uber, a neural network learns—through billions of user interactions a week—to recognize which skills are commonly used with one another. This is how intelligent prediction comes into play. When enough users book a dinner after a movie, Alexa will package the skills together and recommend them in conjunction.
But reasoning is required to know what time to book the Uber. Taking into account your and the theater’s location, the start time of your movie, and the expected traffic, Alexa figures out when the car should pick you up to get you there on time.
Prasad imagines many other scenarios that might require more complex reasoning. You could imagine a skill, for example, that would allow you to ask your Echo Buds where the tomatoes are while you’re standing in Whole Foods. The Buds will need to register that you’re in the Whole Foods, access a map of its floor plan, and then tell you the tomatoes are in aisle seven.
In another scenario, you might ask Alexa through your communal home Echo to send you a notification if your flight is delayed. When it’s time to do so, perhaps you are already driving. Alexa needs to realize (by identifying your voice in your initial request) that you, not a roommate or family member, need the notification—and, based on the last Echo-enabled device you interacted with, that you are now in your car. Therefore, the notification should go to your car rather than your home.
This level of prediction and reasoning will also need to account for video data as more and more Alexa-compatible products include cameras. Let’s say you’re not home, Prasad muses, and a Girl Scout knocks on your door selling cookies. The Alexa on your Amazon Ring, a camera-equipped doorbell, should register (through video and audio input) who is at your door and why, know that you are not home, send you a note on a nearby Alexa device asking how many cookies you want, and order them on your behalf.
To make this possible, Prasad’s team is now testing a new software architecture for processing user commands. It involves filtering audio and visual information through many more layers. First Alexa needs to register which skill the user is trying to access among the roughly 100,000 available. Next it will have to understand the command in the context of who the user is, what device that person is using, and where. Finally it will need to refine the response on the basis of the user’s previously expressed preferences.
Why It’s Hot:“This is what I believe the next few years will be about: reasoning and making it more personal, with more context,” says Prasad. “It’s like bringing everything together to make these massive decisions.”
Home-related publications like Real Simple, Hunker and Domino are using model houses to create experiential retail experiences that can drive affiliate revenue.
Domino magazine has created staged homes for years. But this year’s house, located in Sag Harbor, NY was the first to include shoppable technology into the space. In partnership with Stage&Shop, a real estate agency and an app developer, Domino created an app that integrate codes into all of the house’s furniture and design elements that people touring the home could scan to purchase them.
Domino’s winter issue will have a feature on the home, which will also include QR codes for those products that readers use their smartphone to scan.
Brands were included in the home through product placement, and affiliate links were used in the shoppable content as well as in the house itself. But the primary revenue driver for the project still comes from the content created surrounding the home, including its print spread and digital elements. And while it’s an ongoing franchise for the brand, Cho said that Domino isn’t leaning on that revenue, but is looking for constant iterations of how to make the project better and a bigger piece of the puzzle.
Why It’s Hot: An interesting convergence of digital and physical, potentially symbiotically solving parallel/complementary problems of retail and ecommerce experiences:
Online purchase is convenient, but I don’t get to see, touch, try physical goods before buying.
Retail purchase is experiential, but I don’t want all of the friction of purchase and transport home.
Google said on Wednesday that it had achieved a long-sought breakthrough called “quantum supremacy,” which could allow new kinds of computers to do calculations at speeds that are inconceivable with today’s technology.
The Silicon Valley giant’s research lab in Santa Barbara, Calif., reached a milestone that scientists had been working toward since the 1980s: Its quantum computer performed a task that isn’t possible with traditional computers, according to a paper published in the science journal Nature.
A quantum machine could one day drive big advances in areas like artificial intelligence and make even the most powerful supercomputers look like toys. The Google device did in 3 minutes 20 seconds a mathematical calculation that supercomputers could not complete in under 10,000 years, the company said in its paper.
Scientists likened Google’s announcement to the Wright brothers’ first plane flight in 1903 — proof that something is really possible even though it may be years before it can fulfill its potential.
Still, some researchers cautioned against getting too excited about Google’s achievement since so much more work needs to be done before quantum computers can migrate out of the research lab. Right now, a single quantum machine costs millions of dollars to build.
Many of the tech industry’s biggest names, including Microsoft, Intel and IBM as well as Google, are jockeying for a position in quantum computing. And venture capitalists have invested more than $450 million into start-ups exploring the technology, according to a recent study.
China is spending $400 million on a national quantum lab and has filed almost twice as many quantum patents as the United States in recent years. The Trump administration followed suit this year with its own National Quantum Initiative, promising to spend $1.2 billion on quantum research, including computers.
A quantum machine, the result of more than a century’s worth of research into a type of physics called quantum mechanics, operates in a completely different manner from regular computers. It relies on the mind-bending ways some objects act at the subatomic level or when exposed to extreme cold, like the metal chilled to nearly 460 degrees below zero inside Google’s machine.
“We have built a new kind of computer based on some of the unusual capabilities of quantum mechanics,” said John Martinis, who oversaw the team that managed the hardware for Google’s quantum supremacy experiment. Noting the computational power, he added, “We are now at the stage of trying to make use of that power.”
On Monday, IBM fired a pre-emptive shot with a blog post disputing Google’s claim that its quantum calculation could not be performed by a traditional computer. The calculation, IBM argued, could theoretically be run on a current computer in less than two and a half days — not 10,000 years.
“This is not about final and absolute dominance over classical computers,” said Dario Gil, who heads the IBM research lab in Yorktown Heights, N.Y., where the company is building its own quantum computers.
Other researchers dismissed the milestone because the calculation was notably esoteric. It generated random numbers using a quantum experiment that can’t necessarily be applied to other things.
As its paper was published, Google responded to IBM’s claims that its quantum calculation could be performed on a classical computer. “We’ve already peeled away from classical computers, onto a totally different trajectory,” a Google spokesman said in a statement. “We welcome proposals to advance simulation techniques, though it’s crucial to test them on an actual supercomputer, as we have.”
Tencent Shows The Future Of Ads; Will Add Ads In Existing Movies, TV Shows
One of China’s largest online video platforms is setting out to use technology to integrate branded content into movies and TV shows from any place or era.
(Yes, a Starbucks on Tatooine…or Nike branded footwear for the first moonwalk.)
Why It’s Hot:
Potentially exponential expansion of available ad inventory
Increased targetability by interest, plus top-spin of borrowed interest
Additional revenue streams for content makers
New questions of the sanctity of creative vision, narrative intent and historical truth
Advertising is an integral part of any business and with increasing competition, it’s more important than ever to be visible. Mirriad, a computer-vision and AI-powered platform company, recently announced its partnership with Tencent which is about the change the advertising game. If you didn’t know, Tencent is one of the largest online video platforms in China. So how does it change the advertising game, you ask?
Mirriad’s technology enables advertisers to reach their target audience by integrating branded content (or ads) directly into movies and TV series. So, for instance, if an actor is holding just a regular cup of joe in a movie, this new API will enable Tencent to change that cup of coffee into a branded cup of coffee. Matthew Brennan, a speaker and a writer who specialises in analysing Tencent & WeChat shared a glimpse of how this tech works.
While we’re not sure if these ads will be clickable, it’ll still have a significant subconscious impact, if not direct. Marketers have long talked of mood marketing that builds a personal connection between the brand and the targeted user. So, with the ability to insert ads in crucial scenes and moments, advertisers will now be able to engage with their target users in a way that wasn’t possible before.
Mirriad currently has a 2-year contract with Tencent where they’ll trial exclusively on the latter’s video platform. But if trials are successful in that they don’t offer a jarring viewing experience, we can soon expect this tech to go mainstream.
A new bar opened its doors in St. Louis, and it’s charging customers by the hour. According to Open Concept’s website, when you open a tab, you’re paying for access to the space — not the booze. The rates: $10/hr for a regular open bar, and $20 for top-shelf liquor.
The entire experience is powered by a backend technology that the bar developed and owns. Customers are encouraged to buy their time in advance on the bar’s website, though walk-ins are also accepted. (Guests are able to tip the bartenders either in advance at the door or with cash after each order.) Those who booked online will receive a confirmation code to show at the door; all customers also receive text messages at the bar alerting them as to how much time they have left on their booking.
Open Concept also uses its technology to track all of a customer’s consumption and keep the bar in compliance with legal limits.
Founder and proprietor, Michael Butler, who also moonlights as the city’s current recorder of deeds, got the idea from fundraising parties while running for office after open-bar fundraising events were successful during his campaign.
Why it’s hot:
At a time when younger generations are notoriously cutting back on their alcohol consumption, that flat guaranteed rate might be more valuable than hoping customers keep buying more the longer they stay.
If you had to slip a couple AAs into your smartphone every morning to check your email, browse Instagram and text your friends, chances are the mobile revolution would not have been quite so revolutionary. Fortunately the rechargeable lithium-ion battery was invented — a decades-long task for which three men have just been awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.
The prize this year honors M. Stanley Whittingham, John Goodenough and Akira Yoshino, all of whom contributed to the development of what is today the most common form of portable power. Without them (and of course those they worked with, and those who came before) we would be tied to even more wasteful and/or stationary sources of energy.
Lead-acid batteries had been in use for nearly a century by the time people really got to thinking about taking things to the next level with lithium, a lightweight metal with desirable electrical properties. But lithium is also highly reactive with air and water, making finding suitable substances to pair it with difficult.
Experiments in the ’50s and ’60s laid the groundwork for more targeted investigations, in particular Whittingham’s. He and partner Fred Gamble showed in 1976 that lithium ions, after donating electrons to produce a charge, fit perfectly into a lattice of titanium disulfide — where they sit patiently (in their “van der Waals gaps”) until an electron is provided during recharging. Unfortunately this design also used a lithium anode that could be highly reactive (think fire) if bent or crushed.
John Goodenough and his team soon developed a better cathode material (where the lithium ions rested) with a much higher potential — more power could be drawn, opening new possibilities for applications. This, combined with the fact that the metallic lithium anodes could be highly reactive (think fire) if bent or crushed, led to increased research on making batteries safe as well as useful.
The three scholars whose work most powerfully advanced this technology from theory to commercial reality were awarded equal shares of this year’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry, each taking home a third of the nearly million dollars and, more importantly, the distinction of being recognized in historic fashion.
The Alabama football coach, has long been peeved that the student section at Bryant-Denny Stadium empties early. So this season, the university is rewarding students who attend games — and stay until the fourth quarter — with an alluring prize: improved access to tickets to the SEC championship game and to the College Football Playoff semifinals and championship game, which Alabama is trying to reach for the fifth consecutive season.
But to do this, Alabama is taking an extraordinary, Orwellian step: using location-tracking technology from students’ phones to see who skips out and who stays. “It’s kind of like Big Brother,” said Allison Isidore, a graduate student in religious studies from Montclair, N.J.
It also seems inevitable in an age when tech behemoths like Facebook, Google and Amazon harvest data from phones, knowing where users walk, what they watch and how they shop. Alabama isn’t the only college tapping into student data; the University of North Carolina uses location-tracking technology to see whether its football players and other athletes are in class.
Greg Byrne, Alabama’s athletic director, said privacy concerns rarely came up when the program was being discussed with other departments and student groups. Students who download the Tide Loyalty Points app will be tracked only inside the stadium, he said, and they can close the app — or delete it — once they leave the stadium. “If anybody has a phone, unless you’re in airplane mode or have it off, the cellular companies know where you are,” he said.
But Adam Schwartz, a lawyer for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a privacy watchdog, said it was “very alarming” that a public university — an arm of the government — was tracking its students’ whereabouts.
“Why should packing the stadium in the fourth quarter be the last time the government wants to know where students are?” Schwartz said, adding that it was “inappropriate” to offer an incentive for students to give up their privacy. “A public university is a teacher, telling students what is proper in a democratic society.”
The creator of the app, FanMaker, runs apps for 40 colleges, including Clemson, Louisiana State and Southern California, which typically reward fans with gifts like T-shirts. The app it created for Alabama is the only one that tracks the locations of its students. That Alabama would want it is an example of how even a powerhouse program like the Crimson Tide is not sheltered from college football’s decline in attendance, which sank to a 22-year low last season.
The Tide Loyalty Points program works like this: Students, who typically pay about $10 for home tickets, download the app and earn 100 points for attending a home game and an additional 250 for staying until the fourth quarter. Those points augment ones they garner mostly from progress they have made toward their degrees — 100 points per credit hour. (A regular load would be 15 credits per semester, or 1,500 points.)
The students themselves had no shortage of proposed solutions.
“Sell beer; that would keep us here,” said Harrison Powell, a sophomore engineering major from Naples, Fla.
“Don’t schedule cupcakes,” said Garrett Foster, a senior management major from Birmingham, referring to Alabama’s ritually soft non-conference home schedule, which this year includes Western Carolina, Southern Mississippi and New Mexico State. (Byrne has set about beefing it up, scheduling home-and-home series with Texas, Wisconsin, Oklahoma and Notre Dame, but those don’t start until 2022.)
In the meantime, there is also time for students to solve their own problems, which is, after all, the point of going to college. An Alabama official figured it would not be long before pledges are conscripted to hold caches of phones until the fourth quarter so their fraternity brothers could leave early.
“Without a doubt,” said Wolf, the student from Philadelphia. “I haven’t seen it yet, but it’s the first game. There will be workarounds for sure.”
As for whether the app, with its privacy concerns, early bugs and potential loopholes, will do its job well enough to please Saban was not a subject he was willing to entertain as the sun began to set on Saturday. He was looking ahead to the next opponent: South Carolina.
Why It’s Hot:
Another example of a brand/institution using gamification to influence behavior, this takes it a step further – pushing towards the edge of the privacy conversation, and perhaps leading us all to consider what might be an acceptable “exchange rate” for personal information.
Via, a leading provider and developer of on-demand public mobility, was selected by the New York City Department of Education to provide a school bus management system for the nation’s largest school district.
As the largest school district in the nation, the NYC Department of Education (DOE) transports approximately 150,000 students on 9,000 bus routes each and every day to get students safely to and from school across the City.
“Via for Schools” will be the first integrated, automated school bus routing, tracking, and communication platform in the world.
Via for Schools will utilize a flexible algorithm, which allows for both stop-to-school and home-to-school pickups, accommodating students regardless of their learning style, mobility constraints, or where they live.
Parents and students will have the ability to track, in real-time, their bus’ whereabouts and receive frequent and reliable communications in the event of service changes, improving safety and bringing important peace of mind to all users of the system. By utilizing Via’s best-in-class algorithms to optimize school bus routing, the Department of Education will be able to achieve operational efficiencies and reduce transportation costs.
Why it’s hot:
NYC has been a testing ground for partnering with brands to improve life in one of the most densely-populated cities in the world. This partnership is a slight variation on the same model, but rather than leasing out Via cars to the city, they’re giving away the technology behind Via.
Rising suicide rates in the US are disproportionately affecting 10-24 year-olds, with suicide as the second leading cause of death after unintentional injuries. It’s a complex and multifaceted topic, and one that leaves those whose lives are impacted wondering what they could have done differently, to recognize the signs and intervene.
Researchers are fast at work figuring out whether a machine learning algorithm might be able to use data from an individual’s mobile device to assess risk and predict an imminent suicide attempt – before there may even be any outward signs. This work is part of the Mobile Assessment for the Prediction of Suicide (MAPS) study, involving 50 teenagers in New York and Pennsylvania. If successful, the effort could lead to a viable solution to an increasingly troubling societal problem.
Why It’s Hot
We’re just scratching the surface of the treasure trove of insights that might be buried in the mountains of data we’re all generating every day. Our ability to understand people more deeply, without relying on “new” sources of data, will have implications for the experiences brands and marketers deliver.
Keeping an eye on subtle changes in common health risks is not an easy task for the average person. Yet, by the time real symptoms are obvious, it’s often too late to take the kind of action that would prevent a problem from snow-balling.
Researchers at the University of Toronto have developed an app that appears capable of turning a 30-second selfie into a diagnostic tool for quantifying a range of health risks.
“Anura promises an impressively thorough physical examination for just half a minute of your time. Simply based on a person’s facial features, captured through the latest deep learning technology, it can assess heart rate, breathing, stress, skin age, vascular age, body mass index (yes, from your face!), Cardiovascular disease, heart attack and stroke risk, cardiac workload, vascular capacity, blood pressure, and more.”
It’s easy to be skeptical about the accuracy of results possible from simply looking at a face for 30 seconds, but the researchers have demonstrated accuracy of measuring blood pressure up to 96% – and when the objective is to give people a way of realizing when it might be time to take action, that level of accuracy may actually be more than enough.
Why It’s Hot
For marketers looking to better identify the times, places and people for whom their products and services are likely to be most relevant, the convergence of biometrics with advanced algorithms and AI – all in a device most people carry around with them every day – could be a game-changer.
(This also brings up perennial issues of privacy & personal information, and trade-offs we need to make for the benefits emerging tech provides.)
Voice command devices, like Alexa and Siri, enable humans to engage, operate, and interact with technology thanks to the power of voice, but these technologies fail to account for the voiceless among us. Many people— including those suffering from neurodegenerative diseases, paralysis, or traumatic brain injuries— are unable to take advantage of such voice-user interface (VUI) devices. That’s where Facebook Reality Labs (FBR) comes in.
FBR has partnered with neuroscience professionals at UCSF to give a voice back to the voiceless by attempting to create the first non-invasive, wearable brain-computer interface (BCI) device for speech. This device would marry “the hands-free convenience and speed of voice with the discreteness of typing.” Although BCI technology is not new, the creation of BCI technology capable of converting imagined speech into text, without requiring implanted electrodes, would be.
In a recently successful—albeit limited—study, UCSF researchers demonstrated that brain activity (recorded while people speak) could be used to decode what people were saying into text on a computer screen in real-time. However, at this time, the algorithm can only decode a small set of words.
Although promising, such results are preliminary, and researchers have a long way to go until the power of this silent speech interface technology can be harnessed non-invasively and in wearable form. What is more, researchers believe this BCI technology “could one day be a powerful input for all-day wearable [augmented reality (AR)] glasses.”
Why it’s hot
Such a radical innovation would not only help those who can’t speak, it could alter how all people interact with today’s digital devices.
Software becomes obsolete, companies that host websites go out of business, people stop paying for domain names – history is being erased, but some brave crusaders are ensuring it remains documented. Olia Lialina and Dragan Espenschied are on a quest to preserve the early internet. And although it seems like an easy way to mock the early web, their efforts are focused on maintaining an archive as a way to learn how to make the internet better.
What started as an archive of what not to do online is slowly becoming a springboard for exploring new ways of experiencing the internet. With design, best practices and cookie-cutter web templates (wix, et al.) the internet has become somewhat of a sterile environment. Like a refined art gallery. And although user experience has improved vastly, much has been lost in the sterilization of the internet.
Today, platforms limit what you can post, and unless you are a developer you are forced into uniformity. But beyond that, the concept that the world wide web was made by individuals and accessible to all is fading. The modern internet is lacking in personality.
But we’re slowly seeing the early web aesthetic having comeback, slowly but surely. Websites are creeping up that embrace pixelated gifs and rainbow comic sans…
Why It’s Hot: As a digital agency, we should focus on ensuring best in class experiences for users, but should also be open to pushing the boundaries of what is conventional and look into the past for inspiration.