Sharp’s Quirky Culture is Innovation Key

The Wall Street Journal: “With a nearly $6 billion takeover up in the air, Sharp Corp. this week highlighted its latest lineup of quirky consumer products … Among the offerings: the Plasmacluster, an ionic air purifier that also captures mosquitoes … Consumers in Japan are now awaiting the RoboHon—a mobile phone and pet robot … With the market for smartphones nearing saturation, Sharp hopes the robotcum-phone will represent the next step in mobile communication.”

“One secret to Sharp’s innovation is its laid-back culture … product planning and design were always freewheeling, reflecting a taste of its home base in Osaka, Japan’s comedy mecca … Sharp’s quirkiness isn’t limited to product design. Its official Twitter account features irreverent, self-deprecating humor, even about its products’ sometimes-limited appeal.” Sample Tweet: “We also have earphones, which won’t cap earholes and are very rare. You won’t see them around because many retail stores won’t carry them.”

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The ReUse Store: Like a ‘Bizarro RadioShack’

The Wall Street Journal: “The city’s most peculiar electronics store may be the shop housed in a brightly painted cinder block warehouse in an industrial section of Brooklyn. There, customers waiting in a metal-cage entrance must ring a bell to summon the attendant.”

“Welcome to the ReUse store at the Gowanus E-Waste Warehouse, where every amp and smartphone for sale is some fellow New Yorker’s castoff. The program, run by the nonprofit Lower East Side Ecology Center, collected and recycled more than 1 million pounds of used electronics last year. It funds its operations—at least in part—by refurbishing and selling everything from laptops to speaker wire.”

“Customers range from parents buying laptops for their kids to artists seeking cheap electronics for their high-concept fantasies … One might imagine the ReUse store looking like a thrift-store version of a Best Buy. The reality is more of a bizarro RadioShack. There are countless peripherals and accessories, stacks of old speakers, bins filled with remotes and shelves of VHS tapes. There are also great bargains.”

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Go Cubes: Technology As a Lifestyle Brand

“This year SXSW … feels like a story of how the tech ethos has escaped the bounds of hardware and software,” writes Farhad Manjoo in The New York Times. “Tech is turning into a culture and a style, one that has spread into new foods and clothing, and all other kinds of nonelectronic goods. Tech has become a lifestyle brand. … physical products that aren’t so much dominated by new technology, but instead informed by the theories and practices that have ruled the tech business.”

For example: “Go Cubes, the caffeine-infused gummy snacks that have been compared to candied nuggets of cocaine,” from a company called Nootrobox, makers of “supplements that the founders say enhance human cognitive capabilities … The company grew out of an online movement of ‘biohackers’ — people who congregate on sites like Reddit to discuss how a variety of foods and other chemicals, from caffeine to street drugs to Alzheimer’s medicine from Russia, alter their focus, memory and other cognitive abilities. Nootrobox aims to find the most effective of these compounds — and only the ones deemed legal and safe for use in the United States — and turn them into consumer products.”

“Traditional coffee is an inconsistent product, they argue — each cup may have significantly more or less caffeine than the last — and it can have undesirable side effects, like jitteriness. Go Cubes … are meant to address these shortcomings. The cubes are more portable than coffee, they offer a precise measure of caffeine, and because they include some ingredients meant to modulate caffeine’s sharpest effects, they produce a more focused high. The cubes run about $1.70 for the price of two that are meant to equate to a cup of coffee.”

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Chevy Sets Limit on Teen Spirit

Engadget: “With the 2016 edition, the Chevy Malibu has added a new setting called Teen Driver. Once enabled, the feature lives in the infotainment system in the dash and warns underage drivers when they exceed a predetermined speed limit. At that point, it kills sound from the stereo until the front seat belts are buckled, enables all the safety features like traction control and generates a report card for the whole trip.”

“It’s basically a computer narc tucked behind a four-digit PIN … parents can use the report card to make decisions about future access to the car and use it as an opportunity to talk about their kids’ driving habits. And because it offers up hard evidence — such as when a safety system like stability control was activated and the top speed — a parent has the information necessary to make that conversation count.”

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Echo: Amazon’s Next Billion Dollar Baby?

“A bit more than a year after its release, Amazon’s Echo has morphed from a gimmicky experiment into a device that brims with profound possibility,” writes Farhad Manjoo in The New York Times. “Here is a small, stationary machine that you set somewhere in your house, which you address as Alexa, which performs a variety of tasks — playing music, reading the news and weather, keeping a shopping list — that you can already do on your phone.”

“But the Echo has a way of sneaking into your routines. When Alexa reorders popcorn for you, or calls an Uber car for you, when your children start asking Alexa to add Popsicles to the grocery list, you start to want pretty much everything else in life to be Alexa-enabled, too. In this way, Amazon has found a surreptitious way to bypass Apple and Google — the reigning monarchs in the smartphone world — with a gadget that has the potential to become a dominant force in the most intimate of environments: our homes.”

“Many in the industry have long looked to the smartphone as the remote control for your world. But the phone has limitations. A lot of times fiddling with a screen is just too much work. By perfecting an interface that is much better suited to home use — the determined yell! — Amazon seems on the verge of building something like Iron Man’s Jarvis, the artificial-intelligence brain at the center of all your household activities.”

“Scot Wingo, the chairman of ChannelAdvisor, an e-commerce consulting firm, said the early signs suggested that the Echo was on a path to become Amazon’s next $1 billion business.”

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Late & Great: @ Ray Tomlinson

Engadget: “It’s a sad day for the Internet: Ray Tomlinson, widely credited with inventing email as we know it, has died … In 1971, he established the first networked email system on ARPANET (the internet’s ancestor), using the familiar user@host format that’s still in use today. It wasn’t until 1977 that his approach became a standard, and years more before it emerged victorious, but it’s safe to say that communication hasn’t been the same ever since.”

“His choice of the @ symbol for email popularized a once-niche character, making it synonymous with all things internet. Arguably, he paved the way for modern social networks in the process … barring a sea change in communication, it’s likely that the effect of his work will be felt for decades to come.”

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Chik-fil-A Customers Fly The Cell Phone Coop

Business Insider: “Noticing that diners often seemed more interested in their phones than their dining companions, a Chick-fil-A franchisee in Suwanee, Georgia named Brad Williams decided to take action … Williams and his team developed the Cell Phone Coop: a small box that sits on each table at his restaurant that issues a simple challenge for customers. If diners can enjoy their meals without removing their cell phones from the coop to check for calls or texts, they can let the staff know and receive a small ice cream cone.”

Says Williams: “The challenge has completely taken off. We have families who aren’t successful the first time and come back to try again. We even have people asking to take the boxes home with them!” Chik-fil-A has now “announced that more than 150 restaurants had decided to offer customers the chance to take the Cell Phone Coop challenge.”

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Omnichannel Trips Target’s Supply Chain

The Wall Street Journal: “Target Corp.’s plan for a retailing future that marries its stores and online sales is being tripped up by a supply chain from the past. The Minneapolis-based discount chain is moving away from a largely one-size-fits-all model toward one that can be customized to give each of its 1,800 stores tailored layouts, product selections and ordering patterns.”

“But that approach is being stitched onto a distribution system designed before e-commerce demanded that its stores also become local distribution centers and showrooms for online customers … The problems Target is addressing are common to large brick-and-mortar retailers who have added new ways to serve online shoppers … these capabilities—like letting shoppers pickup online orders in stores and shipping from stores—are disruptive to retailers’ regular operations.”

“Customization isn’t just a means to get local delicacies on shelves, but also to tackle some basic problems—like how many feet of paper towels or boxes of cereal are needed to keep shelves stocked in very different locales. In the past, Target could adjust to those patterns more easily when the supply chain required moving goods from distribution centers to shelves. Newer problems are tougher.”

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A.I., Innovation & Watson

The New York Times: “Silicon Valley veterans argue that people routinely overestimate what can be done with new technology in three years, yet underestimate what can be done in 10 years … Predictions made in the ’90s about how the new World Wide Web would shake the foundations of the media, advertising and retailing industries did prove to be true, for example. But it happened a decade later, years after the dot-com bust. Today’s A.I., even optimists say, is early in that cycle.”

“IBM’s early struggles with Watson point to the sobering fact that commercializing new technology, however promising, typically comes in short steps rather than giant leaps … Watson’s early struggles in health care are viewed as a learning experience. The IBM teams, the executives say, underestimated the difficulty of grappling with messy data like faxes and handwritten notes and failed to understand how physicians make decisions.”

“IBM is trying to position Watson as the equivalent of an A.I. operating system, a software platform others use to build applications. Nearly 80,000 developers have downloaded and tried out the software. IBM now has more than 500 industry partners, from big companies to start-ups, in industries including health care, financial services, retailing, consumer products and legal services.”

Jeremy Howard, CEO of Enclitic: “You have to take technology that works and apply it to a known problem. Innovation alone is a mistake.”

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Mercedes Replaces Robots With People

Engadget: “Mercedes-Benz is replacing some of its high-tech workers with real live humans. As it turns out, robots can’t keep up with the degree of customization that the automaker offers on its S-Class sedans. The change comes at a time when a number of companies are replacing people with robotic devices … However, as Mercedes continues to expand the options available on its vehicles, the robots aren’t able to adapt to new tasks. They’re better suited for doing the same jobs repeatedly.”

“Robots aren’t getting the boot from Mercedes-Benz Sindelfingen factory entirely, though. The machines will work alongside humans instead of being confined behind glass. Mercedes, BMW and Audi are all working on sensor-packed robots that can operate safely alongside their living breathing colleagues.”

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