Mouse no more? Developers are forging ahead in hand-gesture technologies.

Hand-Gesture Technology for Laptops and DesktopsIt seems hard to believe, but the ubiquitous computer mouse has been with us for less than 30 years.  It’s difficult to recall how revolutionary a development mouse technology was compared to the restrictive keyboard-based functionality that was a carryover from the days of typewriters. 

Indeed, the mouse completely changed the way we interact with computers.

But the mouse’s days may now be numbered, as newer technologies are emerging that help people “do more with less” – such as drawing three-dimensional objects or even browsing images during medical procedures without actually touching anything.

The Wall Street Journal reports that several “boutique” developers are moving ahead quickly:

  • Leap Motion is introducing a ~$70 device that enables users to control a laptop or desktop computer by simply waving their fingers or hands in the air.  Reportedly, Leap’s technology is geared to particularly precise actions such as drawing a picture or writing words by virtue of the fact that it can track motions within a fraction of millimeters.
  • PrimeSense is developing motion-sensor technology that can be embedded into signs that change when different people stand in front of them.

And the big guys like Apple and Google are in on the action, too.  Microsoft is planning to release an upgraded version of its Kinect for Windows software, which has already been downloaded 350,000+ times since its introduction in early 2012.  Microsoft sees the enhanced software enabling the development of everything from advanced surgical procedures to inexpensive 3-D body scanners.

All of these developments are possible because of the growing success in harnessing the power of infrared light to create three-dimensional “zones” where minute movements can be detected.  It can be applied to nearly any software to which it is connected.

Based on how rapidly the technology is moving forward, it’s safe to say that inside of a decade, the computer mouse may be a nothing more than a quaint anachronism.

Hotel in a Hurry: 30 Stories Built in 15 Days

Chalk up another eyebrow-raising construction engineering marvel in Asia. Malaysia and Taiwan may have the world’s largest skyscrapers, but China is becoming the “quick construction” center of the universe.

The latest example is a 30-story hotel prototype structure built in Changsha, China in just 15 days at the end of last year.

Broad Group, the construction company responsible for the feat, claims that the 183,000 sq. ft. hotel can withstand a 9.0 magnitude earthquake, along with being substantially more energy efficient, sound and heat insulated than conventionally constructed facilities.

Broad Group completed this hotel just a few weeks after completing another “quick construct” project in China’s Hunan Province — the 15-story Ark Hotel — in just six days.

Here’s a time-elapsed video of the Ark Hotel construction, spanning a grand total of 360 hours. Reportedly, there were no on-the-job injuries despite the hyper-compressed timeframe.

How did Broad Group accomplish this feat? The company reports that it uses prefabricated modules rather than building the entire structure onsite. These modules shorten the time while making construction management coordination much easier. It’s interesting to see in the video how that coordination works to telescope the time needed for building.

Of course, the next question that comes to mind is whether something like this could ever be “exported” to the United States. Or would there be a raft of regulations, safety and environmental obstacles in the way to make it impossible?

Anyone care to weigh in with thoughts?

Computer Voices: (Virtually) All Female

Computer voices, voice-activated features, overwhelmingly femaleOwners of the new Apple iPhone 4S are no doubt becoming familiar with the new voice-activated feature, dubbed “Siri.”

Listening to the computer voice, it’s clear that Siri is a “she,” not a “he” … which has some journalists thinking about the fact that computer voices are overwhelmingly female.

There are some exceptions. The famous “You’ve got mail!” voice from AOL’s dial-up days is one. Plus the fact that nearly all voice-activated features in Germany utilize a male voice.

But otherwise, it’s nearly universal that these voices are female. The question is why?

Journalist Brandon Griggs, writing for CNN recently, reports that “one answer may lie in biology. Scientific studies have shown that people generally find women’s voices to be more pleasing than men’s.”

Clifford Nass, a professor of communications and computer science at Stanford University who has studied this topic closely, contends that it’s much easier to find a female voice that people like rather than a male voice.

“It’s a well-established phenomenon that the human brain is developed to like female voices,” Nass maintains. As proof, he cites a study in which fetuses were found to react to the sound of their mother’s voice … but not to their father’s.

I think another reason may be acclimatization. During World War II, my mother worked in air traffic control at the Parris Island Marine Corps Base. There were only women working these positions, and for a very practical reason: Their voices really stood out in the cockpit among the male pilots.

And what about telephone operators? For decades, they were nearly100% female voices.

Beginning in the 1980s, when auto makers first began installing automated voice prompts in cars (remember “Lights are on” and “Your door is ajar”?), consumer research found that drivers overwhelmingly preferred female voices to male ones. So is it any wonder that nearly all GPS navigation systems today have female-sounding speech as the default voice?

Not surprisingly, there are some people who contend that using a female voice as a “virtual assistant” is sexist in nature. But I’m not sure we can attribute “overt” sexism to the choices companies have made in this regard. Like with the auto companies, these decisions are probably based on market research.

So at best, it’s possible that the choice reflects some gender stereotyping that already exists in the general public.

On balance, I think it’s a positive that so many computer voices are female. After all, these voices have been selected based on attributes like warmth, friendliness and competence.

If that makes it sexist, so be it … but it puts most of the gold stars on the female side of the ledger, that’s for sure!

A surprise? Corporate reputations on the rise.

Corporate reputations on the riseWhat’s happening with the reputations of the leading U.S. corporations? Are we talking “bad rep” or “bum rap”?

Actually, it turns out that corporate reputations are on the rise; that’s according to findings from the 2011 Reputation Quotient® Survey conducted by market research firm Harris Interactive.

Each year since 1999, Harris has measured the reputations of the 60 “most visible” corporations in the United States. The 2011 survey, fielded in January and February, included ~30,000 Americans who are part of Harris’ online panel database. Respondents rated the companies on 20 attributes that comprise what Harris deems the overall “reputation quotient” (RQ).

The 2011 survey contained 54 “most visible” companies that were also part of the 2010 survey. Of those, 18 of the firms showed significant RQ increases compared to only two with declines.

The 20 attributes in the Harris survey are then grouped into six larger categories that are known to influence reputation and consumer behavior:

 Products and services
 Financial performance
 Emotional appeal
 Vision and leadership
 Workplace environment
 Social responsibility

Each of the ten top-rated companies in the 2011 survey achieved between an 81 and 84 RQ score in corporate reputation. (Any RQ score over 80 is considered “excellent” in the Harris study). In cescending order of score, these top-ranked corporations were:

 Google
 Johnson & Johnson
 3M Company
 Berkshire Hathaway
 Apple
 Intel Corporation
 Kraft Foods
 Amazon.com
 Disney Company
 General Mills

At the other end of the scale, the ten companies with the lowest ratings among the 60 included on the survey were:

 Delta Airlines (61 RQ score)
 JPMorgan Chase (61)
 ExxonMobil (61)
 General Motors (60)
 Bank of America (59)
 Chrysler (58)
 Citigroup (57)
 Goldman Sachs (54)
 BP (50)
 AIG (48)

Clearly, BP and AIG haven’t escaped their bottom-of-the-barrel ratings – and probably won’t anytime soon.

What about certain industries in general? The Harris research reveals that the technology segment is perceived most positively, with ~75% of respondents giving that sector a positive rating.

The next most popular segment – retail – had ~57% of respondents giving it a positive rating.

For the auto industry, the big news is not that it’s held in high regard (it’s not) … but that its ratings jumped 15 percentage points between 2010 and 2011. That’s the largest one-year jump recorded for any industry in any year since the Harris RQ Survey began.

What industries are bouncing along the bottom? Predictably, it’s financial services firms and oil companies.

But the news from this survey is, on balance, quite positive. In fact, Harris found that there were actually more individual companies rated “excellent” than has ever been recorded in the history of the survey. Considering the sorry state of the economy and how badly many brands have been battered, that result is nothing short of amazing

3D Printing: Will it “change everything” in manufacturing?

Objects and components made using 3D printingThe Economist magazine published an article earlier this month about an increasingly popular technology that may irretrievably alter the world of manufacturing. Known as “three-dimensional printing” or “additive manufacturing technology,” it’s expected to dramatically impact manufacturing industries.

The technology makes it possible to “print” three-dimensional objects, components or assemblies from a digital file, utilizing several different materials with differing mechanical and physical properties in a single-build process.

The way this is done is by building up the object gradually by depositing material from a nozzle, or by solidifying thin layers of plastic or metal particles using glue droplets or focused beam technology.

[If you’re having some difficulty wrapping your head around the concept, this short tutorial/demonstration using a Z Corporation 3D printer will serve as a good introduction.]

At present, the 3D process is possible using certain materials such as plastics, resins and metals, a precisions of ~0.1 millimeter. And while it’s been primarily the preserve of academicians and laboratories up until now, experts believe the technology is now poised for commercial success as 3D printing capabilities continue to improve and costs decline.

In fact, significant growth has already been observed over the past seven or eight years — and now a “race to the bottom” with pricing is beginning to pick up steam. To wit: A basic 3D printer-fabricator costs less today than a laser printer did in 1985.

With the manner in which this technology is developing, there’s really no end to the possible products that can be made. Small components, automotive parts and a host of other products will all be fair game in the coming years.

3D printing technology is even being studied by biotechnology companies for use in computer-aided tissue engineering applications wherein organs and body parts are created using 3D inkjet techniques. Living cells are deposited onto a gel and slowly built up to form 3D structures.

And what also makes all of this potentially revolutionary is that harnessing the technology does not have to happen only in a conventional “factory.”

Think about it. Small parts can be made by a machine that’s the size of a desktop printer. With such equipment available, no longer will manufacturers need to rely on OEM suppliers here or offshore to supply parts and accessories. And they can make as many or as few as they need, so the old notion of a large production line starts looking increasingly irrelevant.

There are additional benefits of this technology that industry watchers note. Product prototyping is expected to become easier, faster and cheaper than ever. Companies can “test and tweak” components with their best customers, making adjustments to the design until things are perfected – all in a finely controlled environment where there’s no such thing as wasted inventory or “wish and wait for” parts coming from outside or offshore.

Waste and scrap materials are slated to be far less, too, as 3D technology uses only just the amount of material needed to construct each part.

Thinking beyond the production-centric aspects, other implications for manufacturing businesses are big. Reducing barriers to entry for manufacturing, 3D printing may well promote more innovation than ever before. The ability to produce items without needing the full force of a factory behind them will be a huge benefit to inventors, entrepreneurs and start-up operations, because product development, beta testing and first-run production will cost less and present lower risks.

Will the flexibility to design and produce components that the 3D technology allows mean that there’ll be less need to look to offshore suppliers for cheaply manufactured products? We can’t know for sure, but the prospects that a shift in manufacturing activity from the Far East back home is certainly tantalizing.

As with any new innovation, there are potential downsides and possible “unintended consequences.” For one, intellectual property may become much harder to protect … after all, when an object can be described in a digital file, it becomes much easier to copy and distribute.

But one thing is definite: 3D printing is a topic that’ll be front-and-center in the coming years as we sort through the opportunities and the implications.

A Surprise? College Students are Ambivalent about e-Books

College textbooks
Surprisingly, college textbooks still reign supreme over their digital counterparts.
The digital revolution is having its first and greatest impact on the younger generations. Whether it’s mobile apps, hyper-texting, online gaming, or keeping up on the news without the benefit of the daily paper, they’re the ones most on the cutting edge.

So it might be somewhat surprising to read the results of a survey of college kids about how they prefer to access their textbook information. I’ve blogged before about the racket that is college textbook publishing – a rip-off if ever there was one. So one would think that college students (and their parents if they foot the bill) would be very keen on any advancements that begin to render expensive textbooks obsolete.

But according to a survey conducted in mid-2010 by OnCampus Research, a division of the National Association of College Stores, only 13% of college students had purchased an electronic book of any kind during the previous semester.

And of that percentage, ~56% revealed that the prime mover of their e-book purchase was because it was required course material for class, not because they chose an available e-version over a printed version of the textbook.

What’s more, nearly three-fourths of the students in this survey stated that they prefer printed textbooks over digital versions.

And when it comes to what devices people are using to view their e-books, most are accessing the contents on laptop computers rather than newer devices that have hit the streets in recent times:

 Prefer reading e-books on a laptop computer: ~77%
 Prefer reading on a desktop computer: ~30%
 Prefer reading on a smartphone: ~19%
 Prefer reading on a Kindle or similar e-reader device: ~19%
 Prefer reading on an iPad or similar device: ~4%

Laura Cozart, a manager at OnCampus Research, had this to say about the survey results: “The findings of the report are not surprising. Every new innovation takes time before the mainstream population embraces it.”

Reflecting the current situation, of the NACS member stores that offer digital content, e-books comprise only ~3% of course material sales. But NACS is expecting that percentage to rise to 10% or 15% by 2012.

But the impetus behind that anticipated increase is expected to come from faculty members as they get more familiar and comfortable with the interactive possibilities to enhance their classroom instruction — rather than from those oh-so 21st Century students.

It wouldn’t be the first time the “leading edge” meets the “back edge” going around the other side.

Search Goes Global

SEO in Different LanguagesMost companies hitched their wagon to search engine optimization long ago. That’s not surprising, because high search rankings are one of the most effective ways to get in front of customers and prospects when they’re in the mood to research and buy.

But up until recently, SEO has generally existed in the world of English. By contrast, SEO campaigns in Spanish and other languages haven’t worked so well. Despite the fact that Spanish is among the most widely spoken of languages, many Spanish-language countries have been behind the curve in Internet connectivity. And you could say the same of other languages.

But that’s not the case today. As more people overseas have become connected, the amount of content in Spanish and other foreign languages has risen dramatically.

Looking back at a bit of history, in the early-1990s essentially all of the search engines were in English only; if you wanted to conduct a web search, you had no other choice. That started to change by the mid-1990s when ~75% of all Internet searches were being conducted in English.

Fast-forward to today. According to Internet World Stats, an information resource that chronicles web usage in more than 230 countries and world regions, searches in English now account for only ~25% of all searches conducted.

Time was … search spoke English only. But the dramatic growth of Hispanic and other non-English digital markets means that companies that take the time to invest in foreign-language content and SEO initiatives will find themselves in the strongest position going forward.

It’s yet another item for the marketing department’s to-do list. Fortunately, help is available … with companies like MSEO.com and SEO Matador providing turnkey programs for implementing SEO campaigns in multiple different languages.

Bing, Blekko, and more new developments in search.

Facebook + BingWhen it comes to the evolution of online search, as one wag put it, “If you drop your pencil, you miss a week.”

It does seem that significant new developments in search crop up almost monthly – each one having the potential to up-end the tactics and techniques that harried companies attempt to put in place to keep up with the latest methods to target and influence customers. It’s simply not possible to bury your head in the sand, even if you wanted to.

Two of the newest developments in search include the introduction of a beta version of the new Blekko search engine with its built-in focus on SEO analytics — I’ll save that topic for a future blog post — along with a joint press conference held last week by Facebook and Microsoft where they announced new functionalities to the Bing search engine. More specifically, Bing will now be displaying search results based on the experiences and preferences of people’s Facebook friends.

What makes the Bing/Facebook development particularly intriguing is that it adds a dimension to search that is genuinely new and different. Up until now, every consumer had his or her “search engine of choice” based on any number of reasons or preferences. But generally speaking, that preference wouldn’t be based on the content of the search results. That’s because the ability for search engines to deliver truly unique search results has been very difficult because they’ve all been based on essentially the same search algorithms.

[To prove the point, run the same search term on Yahoo and Google, and you’ll likely see natural search results are pretty similar one to another. There might be a different mix of image and video results, but generally speaking, the results are based on the same “crawling” capabilities of search bots.]

The Bing/Facebook deal changes the paradigm in that new information heretofore residing behind Facebook’s wall will now be visible to selected searchers.

The implications of this are pretty interesting to contemplate. It’s one thing for people to read reviews or ratings written by total strangers about a restaurant or store on a site like Yelp. But now, if someone sees “likes,” ratings or comments from their Facebook friends, those will presumably carry more weight. With this new font of information, as time goes on the number of products, brands and services that people will be rating will surely rise.

The implications are potentially enormous. Brands like Zappos have grown in popularity, and in consumer loyalty, because of their “authenticity.” The new Bing/Facebook module will provide ways for smaller brands to engender similar fierce loyalty on a smaller scale … without having to make the same huge brand-building commitment.

Of course, there’s a flip side to this. A company’s product had better be good … or else all of those hoped-for positive ratings and reviews could turn out to be the exact opposite!

Social couponing: Big idea … but big profits?

Groupon logoThe rise of the Internet has changed the way the couponing business operates. Not only are people logging online to find coupons rather than searching for them in the local paper, so-called “social couponing” has also entered the scene. This is where online coupon offers become active only after a minimum number of registered users sign on to them.

Groupon is probably the best-known of these couponing platforms, although there are others active in the field including MyCityDeal, Half Off Depot, BuyWithMe and LivingSocial. [Interestingly the idea of social couponing originated in the People’s Republic of China.]

The concept, as Groupon does it, is pretty simple. It offers one “Groupon” per day in distinct market segments. If a predetermined specified number of people sign up for the coupon offer, the deal then becomes available to all; otherwise, the offer doesn’t take effect.

Groupon makes its money by getting a percentage of the deal from the participating retailers.

In theory, social couponing reduces the risk for retailers, who can treat the coupons as brand promotion tools in addition to offering discounts or freebies. But research carried out recently by the Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University throws a bit of cold water on this hot idea.

The Rice research, which included ~150 businesses, found that the Groupon campaigns were unprofitable ventures for one-third of them. Furthermore, ~40% of the companies studied stated that, based on their experience, they don’t plan to run another social coupon promotion.

The Rice study measured program success based on two criteria: what portion of customers spent more than the coupon amount … and to what degree did customers subsequently make follow-up purchases without the coupon offer. Those companies that reported their campaigns had not been profitable also reported that only ~25% of the coupon redeemers spent more than the face value of the coupon.

Beyond that, fewer than 15% made a subsequent purchase at full price.

In contrast, firms that reported having profitable promotions stated that about half of the coupon redeemers spent more than value of the coupon, and ~30% of them made follow-up purchases at regular prices.

But even some of these firms were wary about conducting another campaign, believing that the Groupon offer did not attract the “right” kind of customers.

What types of offers did well? The Rice study found that foodservice offers performed best in terms of the quantity of offers redeemed. Other categories that scored relatively well were tourism offers, educational services, salons and spas – but each of these drew less than half the response level that restaurants achieved.

Utpal Dholakia, an associate professor of marketing at Rice and leader of the research study, concluded, “There is disillusionment with the extreme price-sensitive nature and transactional orientation of these consumers.” Dr. Dholakia went on to point out that “they are not the relational customers that they had hoped for, or the ones … necessary for their businesses’ long-term success.”

What’s the caveat for businesses thinking about jumping into social couponing? Such a program may well contribute to a surge in business. But many of these new customers will be price-conscious in the extreme, holding a bargain-hunting agenda above everything else.

Hmmm. Just like the real world.

Google: The Company Everyone Loves to Hate?

Google, the company people love to hate?What is it about Google that gets people so riled up? After all, it’s a company that has revolutionized the ease in which we find and process information, not to mention the way we consume video content.

If that seems like an overstatement, just think back 15 years or so to how you once researched questions or searched for information … like trudging to the public library or placing “wish-and-wait-for” phone calls to other offices or government agencies.

Maybe we get frustrated with Google because even though the company’s informal slogan is “Don’t be Evil” … every time we turn around, it seems the company is saying or doing something to (deliberately?) engender consumer dissatisfaction.

Consider the comments of Eric Schmidt, Google’s CEO, who speaks often about the role of Google and how it relates to the personal privacy of consumers. There he goes, wandering from media outlet to media outlet, dropping bon mots — others might call them “verbal bombshells” — like these:

 “[Google is] building an augmented version of humanity, building computers to help human do the things they don’t do well, better.”

 “We know where you are. We know where you’ve been. We can, more or less, know what you’re thinking about.”

 “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.”

What’s more, Mr. Schmidt seems to be digging in his heels on Google Maps. I’ve blogged before about this controversial initiative, as it began to become evident that Google was collecting more than just photos of people’s homes.

Just this past week, Google finally admitted that its Street View vehicles had been scooping up a lot more than just “meaningless fragments” of information from unsecured WiFi networks as it sweeps through neighborhoods. The digital harvest has included full e-mail addresses and passwords.

Alan Eustace, Google’s senior vice president of engineering and research, seemed apologetic. “We are mortified by what happened,” he said.

But Eric Schmidt may have revealed the true feelings of the company when he suggested on CNN’s Parker-Spitzer program that the people who don’t like Google’s Street View vehicles taking pictures of their homes “can just move.”

Of course, complaining about Google is a great armchair activity that may be little more than petting grousing. I know of few (if any) people who would be willing to forego the benefits that Google’s vaunted information and content engine delivers.

Going forward, it does appear that Google may be a bit more receptive to the concerns people have expressed. This past Friday, the company announced that it has appointed a new “director of privacy” across its engineering and product management. Reportedly, Alma Whitten, the person appointed to this position, will be focusing on building privacy controls into products and internal practices.

We’ll see how that goes.