22 April, 2012



Meet the $60 ‘Earth Day’ LED light bulb

Posted: 22 Apr 2012 08:34 AM PDT

Philips LED light bulb

Just in time for Earth Day, Dutch electronics company Philips is unveiling a new super energy-efficient light bulb today with a shelf life that should last about 25 years.

The catch? It costs about $60, but Philips is said to have forged deals with some stores to bring that cost down to about $20, according to the BBC. Still, that price might be too high for consumers, as VentureBeat has previously pointed out.

The new bulbs are made of light emitting diodes (LEDs) that are more energy-efficient than traditional incandescent bulbs, and have same color quality as standard bulbs. LEDs are typically found in TVs, computers, and car headlights.

Philip’s new bulb won the Bright Tomorrow competition last year from the U.S. Department of Energy, which asked companies to create an affordable energy-efficient alternative to the standard 60-watt incandescent light bulb. Philip was an easy winner, as the only entrant in the competition.

Even at the cheaper $20 price, the new LED lights face heavy competition from the much cheaper  compact fluorescent bulbs.

The new bulbs hit retail store shelves today.

Photo via Philips

Filed under: green, VentureBeat

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For Earth Day: a chat with IBM’s “Building Whisperer,” Dave Bartlett, on the tech behind sustainability

Posted: 22 Apr 2012 08:10 AM PDT

IBM recently won the contract to create a more sustainable and energy efficient Los Angeles Unified School District. But before ripping out old roofs or replacing leaky windows, David Bartlett’s, the computing gaint’s sustainability guru, took a look at the data.

“Most buildings don’t have a good way to look at all their systems holistically,” Bartlett told me. “It’s like buying a car without a dashboard to tell you when the oil is running low or the engine is running too hot.” Buildings account for 42 percent of the worlds energy use and emit more carbon dioxide than cars.

With the availability of cheap, wireless sensors, it’s now possible to measure nearly every facet of a building’s energy use. And what Barlett found in L.A. was striking. “You had one air unit that was blowing full on hot air, and another that was blowing full on cold air, working against each other, in the same building.”

Data, data everywhere, now let’s stop and think. That’s the big data model that Bartlett is hoping IBM can impart. “For a public company, an upfront investment in energy improvement can be a hard sell. It may have a long term benefits, but they answer to the market every quarter.”

Bartlett’s message is simple. “We’re not asking you to rebuild anything. Let’s look at what you’re working with and see how we can save money through efficiency. We are no longer held back by tech. Most buildings are drowning in data.” Energy typically accounts for 30 percent of a buildings annual costs, so savings through sustainability can have a big impact on a company’s bottom line.

The average consumer might relate to Bartlett’s work by thinking of a product like the Nest learning thermostat. IBM is working with big corporate clients, but the same principles apply. Visualizing data, layering on machine learning that tracks user behavior, and making an intuitive interface that non-technical experts can grasp when dealing with heating or cooling their homes or offices.

Bartlett specializes in what he calls miniature cities, like Tulan University, which is being completely rebuilt after the flooding of Hurricane Katrina, is working with Bartlett to create smart systems from the beginning that will lay a foundation for a more efficient, environmentally friendly campus.

But computers are only part of the story. “We always looking for ways to get people involved,” says Bartlett. At the LA School Dsitrict, IBM created a smartphone app that lets students and teachers photograph, geotag and report things like cracked windows or broken air conditioners. “Crowdsourcing is a powerful way to augment our data. I always say, when it comes to new gathering information, humans are the smartest sensors.”

Photo by Ben Popper

Filed under: enterprise, green, VentureBeat

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The top 10 moments from DEMO Spring 2012

Posted: 21 Apr 2012 04:54 PM PDT

We loved the technology we discovered at DEMO this week, but some of our favorite memories had more to do with half-naked, dancing entrepreneurs and role-playing games.

With an intro like that, you can’t not watch this clip:

Check out all the companies in detail and learn who won the semi-annual startup competition at the official home of all things DEMO Spring 2012.

Filed under: video

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Groupon gets boycotted for “torture porn” deal

Posted: 21 Apr 2012 04:46 PM PDT

SF Armory Groupon

Morality in Media is calling for a nation-wide boycott of daily deal site, Groupon.com, for what it claims are tours of a “torture porn” facility.

“Employees lead 90-minute tours for guests aged 18 & older through five floors of historic armory & elaborate adult-film sets,” reads the Groupon listing for the SF Armory tour. “A menagerie of ornate and functional fetish film sets detailed by the San Francisco Examiner includes a plush lounge and dungeon environments, complete with props forged in an on-site metal shop. Depending on their timing, groups may also glimpse a live filming in progress, though the staff requests that patrons refrain from ogling the working boom mikes.”

This is the second time the San Francisco-based deal has been promoted, with the first selling over 1,000 tickets in January. Dawn Hawkins from Morality in Media and Porn Harms explains why her organization is calling for a boycott in the video below:

“We only started the boycott after hearing back from Groupon that they found Kink to be a ‘responsible member of their community’ and dismissed our concerns,” Hawkins told VentureBeat. A copy of the email from Groupon was posted on the boycott page, and Hawkins also claims over 10,000 emails have been sent to Groupon executives (whose contact information was also posted on the War on Illegal Pornography site).

A spokesperson for Groupon told VentureBeat that this was the first they had heard of the boycott and therefore could not comment on it.

Filed under: deals, VentureBeat

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Is “Blinky” the horrible reality of a robotic future?

Posted: 21 Apr 2012 04:05 PM PDT

Blinky short film

Although Hollywood films warn of sentient artificial intelligence looking to overthrow and exterminate its human creators, they’re mostly a reason for their big-name stars to jump through the air in slow-motion while dual-wielding rocket-propelled grenade launchers while a hovership explodes behind them. Blinky, on the other hand, paints a much more likely reality of the dangers we may soon face as intelligent robotics become as commonplace as smartphones and voice-activated assistants like Siri.

Blinky is a short film written, directed, and edited by Ruairi Robinson. The budget was 45,000 euro (approximately $60K U.S.) for the actual shoot, while the extensive visual effects were done almost entirely by Robinson himself. “Visual effects were completed over a period of 9 months, of hell,” says Robinson. “There’s a reason why you don’t see too many wet CG characters in movies even with 100 million dollar budgets. It’s really, really hard.”

“I designed Blinky, modeled him in 3D and played both [his] voice and the body mocap performance,” the filmmaker wrote on the video’s Vimeo page. “Thankfully all footage of me in the skintight mocap suit has been permanently destroyed.”

Filed under: media, offBeat, VentureBeat, video

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Pixel Qi promises tablet displays that meet iPad 3 quality — and draw much less power

Posted: 21 Apr 2012 03:27 PM PDT

Pixel Qi screenPixel Qi, a Silicon Valley company that makes innovative LCD screens for mobile devices, says its latest generation displays meet or exceed the quality of the iPad 3′s Retina display resolution.

In a blog post today, the company’s chief executive, Mary Lou Jepsen, said her company is “finalizing” the development of its new screen family with its partners, and published a graph showing how Pixel Qi’s latest screens of equal display resolution to the iPad 3 (2048 x 1536) also use much less power than the iPad 3′s battery-guzzling screen (see below).

On the one hand, Jepsen isn’t just another upstart firing off a speculative blog post. Jepsen led the engineering for the One Laptop per Child (OLPC) project, where she architected the design of the so-called “$100 laptop.” So she’s got credibility.

Pixel Qi tablet screen

Pixel Qi tablet screen uses less power

On the other hand, her blog post doesn’t contain any specifics about when exactly this new screen will hit the market.

The firm, based in San Bruno, Calif., late last year raised an unspecified amount of money in a round of funding from 3M New Ventures. Otherwise, the company hasn’t made very many announcements over the past year.

Pixel Qi has manufacturing operations in Taiwan and California.

In her post, Jepsen says about 90 percent of the iPad 3′s battery appears to be used for driving the display, and adds that while she loves the iPad 3 screen quality, she was “shocked” by the overheating reports and the massive 8 Watt power draw. She says her company’s screens will work inside and in direct sunlight, and that her company’s screens boast full image quality matching or exceeding that of the iPad 3 on most measures — including matching or exceeding contrast, color saturation, and viewing angle — all while saving batter power. The Pixel Qi’s low power mode runs at a full “100x power reduction from the peak power consumed by the iPad 3 screen,” she writes.

Existing Pixel Qi screens have been shipped in about a dozen consumer products, and the company says at least 3 million screens have shipped in total. One of the products is the OLPC XO 3.0.

Filed under: media

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Gangs of Facebook: How a few angry users can kill your app

Posted: 21 Apr 2012 12:49 PM PDT

Little protection for Facebook appsFacebook may be hugely popular among brand marketers and app makers, but the company does a remarkably poor job of keeping those users protected.

If enough people report that a particular application is offensive, Facebook's automated spam-reporting technology will likely take it down in minutes without any type of warning. And that can happen even if the reports are completely fabricated.

This attempt at user-friendliness by Facebook is easy for users to abuse, and the outcome is actually user-unfriendly, not to mention, quite frustrating for those trying to do business on the platform.

My company, Dutch Monaco, experienced this kind of false flagging firshand. As soon as we'd published a new client app as part of a contest activity, comments started to pour in. A number of strange comments with fraudulent links began to appear that were clearly spam — most likely generated by software. Those comments were soon removed, but shortly after similar comments began to appear again. Those too were removed, and the users were blocked for good measure. But that wasn't the end of it.

Within two hours, our client's Facebook app was taken down and the Dutch Monaco Facebook user name was blocked without so much as consulting the host company. Our client was unhappy and wanted answers fast. In the end, after two days of countless conversations with an accounts team at Facebook, we were able to recover the user name and reinstate the client's application.

What's interesting to note is that, once the application went live again, we were sent a generic letter outlining application development best practices, including the most notable tip: Change the copy to be more Facebook user oriented.

It wasn't until a week later that Facebook informed us that a large number of users in a short period of time had reported that the app contained "abusive content," even though the application was aimed at recognizing and rewarding user interaction with a familiar brand.

There's no question that Facebook is a great platform for developing brand recognition, but it still needs to make huge improvements in its content-vetting process.

Hernan Gonzales is creative director of Dutch Monaco, a Los Angeles-based interactive ad firm servicing clients such as PlayStation, Mattel, PinkBerry, and others.

[Top image credit:  igor1308/Shutterstock]

Filed under: dev

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The Google leaders’ crazy asteroid venture: A Platinum rush?

Posted: 21 Apr 2012 12:35 PM PDT

Diamandis platinum

Peter Diamandis

Speculation continues around the plans of company called Planetary Resources, backed by the Google executives Larry Page and Eric Schmidt, as well as Ross Perot, James Cameron and other bigwigs.

The company, in a vague but audacious statement released last week, said it will unveil a plan Tuesday in Seattle that includes “space exploration and natural resources.”

The company says its project will "add trillions of dollars to the global GDP," and will "create a new industry and a new definition of 'natural resources'."

News reports are now emerging pointing to the background and recent comments of the company’s co-founder Peter H. Diamandis. They provide more clues about what the company might be up to.

Diamandis has spoken passionately about value of the minerals and other resources in space. Take this video we just found of Diamandis’ talk at MIT five months ago. Diamandis said in the talk that a relatively small asteroid is worth about “20 trillion dollars in the platinum group metal marketplace.” He added — and it isn’t clear whether he’s entirely joking — that he plans to finance his space activities by buying “puts” in the platinum group metal markets, and then announcing his ambitious plans.

He said he believes that a competitive search for wealth, as well as fear about environment degradation on earth, will soon drive a big race to the cosmos. Developing countries like China are desperate for more resources such as steel, while strip mining and other human activities are in danger of destroying the earth’s environment, he explains. Minerals, metals, and energy exist in infinite quantities in space, he says. The only thing that is needed is to build the roads to get it all, he said. Another drive to space will be a desire by humans to “back up the biosphere,” in other words, recording all works of art, poetry and other “genomes” on earth, and backing up in a place in space.

He said all this will be almost an “Internet-like” event occurring in space, especially now that it is getting easier to get there.

He also apparently told Forbes earlier this year: “Since my childhood I’ve wanted to do one thing, be an asteroid miner…So stay tuned on that one.” He continued: “I’m trying to start a gold rush.” Mining asteroids could be very difficult, but may not be as crazy as it seems. Forbes explains: Many of these rocks get awfully close: Last November, for example, a 400-meter wide rock dubbed 2005 YU55 passed within 201,000 miles of earth. That’s closer than the moon, which has an average distance of 240,000 miles.

Diamandis is chairman and CEO of the non-profit X PRIZE Foundation, which kicked off commercial space tourism industry by awarding a $10 million price to Paul Allen and Burt Rutan’s SpaceShipOne mission. The Planetary Resources startup will also be led by former NASA Mars mission manager Chris Lewicki, and Eric Anderson, co-founder of the International Space University.

NASA’s current costs to launch each shuttle run $1 billion, Diamandis said, but it should cost “100 bucks per person in the future on a space elevator, or through some breakthroughs in physics,” he said.

Diamandis also said he believes life will be found on Mars within the next decade. He added that one of his goals is to be the first private citizen to set foot on the moon. Diamandis has been talking about this sort of thing for years, including at this TED talk in 2005.

Filed under: VentureBeat

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Genome entrepreneurs say their data will help you live longer

Posted: 21 Apr 2012 12:15 PM PDT

startups innovate on gene sequencing The cost of sequencing the human genome continues to fall, reaching a low of $1,000 this year due to a new microchip and machine designed by genetics company Life Technologies Corp. And unleashed by those lower costs, a small cadre of entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley is exploring ways to harness this data to enable us to live longer and healthier lives.

Dr. Dietrich Stephan, a human geneticist, has spent the better part of a decade trying to achieve that goal. Until recently, it has been costly and time-consuming to map the 3 billion units of DNA, known as base-pairs, which make up the human genetic code. But now, he said, with the low cost of gene sequencing technologies, we are on the brink of banishing a one-size-fits-all approach to medicine.

"Every disease has a genetic component, and yet largely none of the available genetic information is being used today to treat patients," he said.
Until recently, genome sequencing had been limited to a select few. According to biographer Walter Isaacson, the late Steve Jobs had his DNA sequenced for $100,000 after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

To biotech entrepreneurs, bringing gene sequencing to a mass market is the most exciting development since the completion of The Human Genome Project. According to Joe Betts-Lecroix, a biophysicist and entrepreneur, that major international undertaking was expected to yield a map of the mutations that cause disease. Instead, genetics researchers found that the genes only seem to account for a tiny percentage of inherited traits and differences between a healthy and sick person.

"The Human Genome Project was a monumental achievement, but also a huge disappointment," said Betts-Lacroix, who recently delivered a rousing TEDx SF talk on using genetics to cure aging.

"It’s not about the human genome, but more the human gene pool. To really understand what’s going on, we’ve found that we have to sequence the DNA of millions of people. This work is only beginning, and will require much lower-cost sequencing. Fortunately, that seems to be upon us," said Betts-Lacroix.

At a select few hospitals across the country, the work has already begun. In 2010, the Children's Hospital in Boston recruited Dr. Dietrich Stephan – a biotech entrepreneur fresh from the success of Sequoia-funded genetics startup Navigenics – to join the Gene Partnership Initiative, one of the first efforts to gather genetic information about disease. Relying on his experience as a biotech entrepreneur, Stephan developed the hospital's first sustainable program to sequence the genomes of 100,000 young patients.

The program is still ongoing, and researchers are finding links between genes, the environment, and complex genetic disease. Already, the flood of genetic information is being used to produce drugs that are better targeted to patients. Not everyone processes medicine in the same way; by understanding patients' genomic make-up, doctors can provide a therapy they'll respond to best. That's an important capability considering that this year alone, close to 800,000 people were injured or died due to adverse reactions to drugs.

"With the knowledge we have now about your genes, we are finding ways to diagnose sick people earlier and develop medicines to zap the core defect," said Stephan of the Gene Partnership Initiative.

Biotech entrepreneurs predict that the low-cost of gene sequencing technologies will yield new approaches to the treatment of cancer and other diseases by 2015. With this in mind, Stephan has delved into clinical diagnostics with a new startup, Silicon Valley Biosystems. With his latest venture, he said the goal is to "get fancy IT into the hands of physicians so patients can benefit from it."

"It's no longer business as usual in medicine," he said. Patients will be "touched and informed by genetics" in the next 2-5 years, meaning that hospitals will increasingly adopt gene-sequencing technologies to better treat and diagnose disease.

Sabah Oney, business development lead at SVBio, said we'll see common diseases being re-branded as we better understand their root cause. "Instead of diagnosing breast or lung cancer, physicians will refer to the disease by its genetic abnormality."

The major challenge facing genetics entrepreneurs is to take the concept from the lab and turn it into a commercial product. “The rate of failure discourages many investors," said Mohsen Moazami, founder and general partner of Seif Capital, an early stage venture capital firm focused on health and bio-sciences. "But there's no question in my mind that for a subset of companies that crack the code on this effort, the opportunity is immense," he added.

The startup that firmly put the spotlight on genetics is 23andme, which provides insights on your future and ancestral past based on a DNA sample. This month, the company hit a new milestone: 150,000 users. 23andme does not sequence the entire genome. Instead, it determines through genotyping whether users are at risk of developing particular diseases.
Genomic sequencing is the future, but 23andme boasts a vast database of genetic information. "This data is driving a whole new wave of discovery in terms of genes and environment. The real meaning will become clear in the next few years," said Dr. Uta Francke, senior medical researcher for 23andme.

This year, 23andme has participated in research to understand how the body will react to certain medications. Francke recalls a recent study of how a female user in Australia discovered through the test that she was highly averse to anesthesia. "She may not have woken up. Some of these people say 23andme has saved their life," said Francke.

"We think there is evidence that when people know their genes they take their health more seriously," Francke added, although she did not point to supporting research. She suggests that users should print out their information and take it to their personal physician for advice about taking actionable steps to improve their health.

Critics of 23andme say that when this information is placed directly into the hands of consumers, very few choose to adjust their lifestyle accordingly. It took several years for 23andme to attract 100,000 users.

WellnessFX, a San Francisco-based health and wellness startup, is among the first to leverage human health data to prevent the onset of disease. The company's target market are people who want to remain in peak physical health for longer. The company provides customers with a visual spectrum of both genetic and biological data. The idea is that data is only meaningful when it's used to make recommendations to improve general health. Users are re-tested at regular intervals to chart improvement.

"We show users that if they change their lifestyle and nutrition, they will see measurable results in a finite period," said Jim Kean, chief executive officer of WellnessFX. Individuals can log in to explore a colorful display of their data at any time; Kean calls it a "personalized health dashboard."

Innovation on the genetics data front has moved at a glacial pace and has yet to hit a mainstream market. But startups like SVBio, Knome, Illumina, and Navigenics have succeeded in raising awareness about how data can improve public health.

This March, the Obama administration showed its support with a $200 million grant for industries that can benefit from "Big Data." With the increased availability of human data, it's no surprise that the National Institute of Health (NIH) received the lion's share. As part of this initiative, the world's largest set of data on human genetic variation was uploaded on Amazon Web Services cloud (AWS) and is available to all researchers.

Betts-Lacroix, a serial entrepreneur working with startups like Halcyon Molecular to develop advanced DNA-sequencing technologies, said this open data will precipitate a gold rush for genetics research. As he puts it: "There are discoveries just waiting for people to find them, no lab work required."

Christina Farr is a Bay Area-based writer with a graduate degree from the Stanford School of Journalism. She covers entrepreneurship, technology, and investment trends. Christina works for, but does not speak for, Eastwick, an agency in Silicon Valley.

[Top image credit:  Sofiaworld/Shutterstock]

Filed under: Entrepreneur, Top stories

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Going all in: How to run a company on 21 apps in the cloud

Posted: 21 Apr 2012 11:33 AM PDT

A lot of companies are debating whether — and what — to move to the cloud. The company I work for, Australia-based Proactive Accountants Network (PAN), made a pretty unusual decision to go all-in on cloud technology and made the leap in a span of 10 weeks, dramatically changing our IT infrastructure. So, for those of you still debating, here's a look at life on the other side.

We were once dependent entirely on legacy software. We now run our business on 21 cloud applications, including Google, Salesforce.com, BetterCloud, Cloud Sherpas, Okta, Silverpop, Xero, Citrix, iHance, and Cvent. With a detailed plan and a clear conscience, we went from being a company that was challenged to support workers in multiple countries to an organization that is nimble, flexible, and capable of making incremental versus bet-the-farm bets on new technologies.

For us the decision to go all-in with cloud wasn't a means to an end. Sure, we wanted to get away from our on-premise email and CRM systems, VPN connection, and 3G data speeds. But the real impetus was much more philosophical: Why force a square peg into a round hole? Our firm employs 40-plus consultants who are based — and spend the bulk of their time — outside our primary country of operation. Legacy software simply wasn't built to support geographically versatile, highly mobile workforces. Fortunately for us, the cloud was.

I came to PAN with a strong cloud background, having worked extensively with applications like Salesforce.com. I knew the cloud would allow us to operate more efficiently and easily scale our business.

We knew from day one what the application environment was going to look like, but for management and performance purposes we opted for a phased rollout. Okta, Google Apps and Cvent came first. Then, 45 days later, we added Salesforce.com, and 30 days after that we deployed the other applications.

For the larger application cut-overs like Salesforce.com and Google Apps, we had dedicated launch days.  We brought in beanbags, frisbees, and digital cameras as well as a dedicated support crew consisting of our internal product team and our application partners. We went from a 100% legacy environment to the cloud in a fraction of the time it takes legacy software vendors to update a single system, an extraordinary accomplishment shared by our vendors, partners, and internal staff.

Here's what our life is like now that we've made the transition:

Recruiting and retention: I recently hired an extremely sought after person to join my product team. In the interview she turns to me with a concerned look and says, "Do you use Outlook?" Naturally my response was "Gosh, no, we use Google Apps." Suddenly she looked relieved. The new generation of workers expect "proper" business tools. If you want the best people on your team, you need to provide the best tools — or risk losing them to a competitor who is meeting the expectations of a new wave of workers.

Location, location, location: Our office in Brisbane is nearly half empty on a daily basis. Most execs would be scratching their heads wondering what on earth is going on. The answer is simple: any team member can grab their laptop, log on, and see everything as if he/she were at their desk. Why should you have to be tethered to a desk to do your job? If a worker wants to do his or her job while sitting on the beach or on a mountain overlooking a vast canopy of trees, why shouldn’t they? We can still track performance to ensure tasks are completed on-time and with quality.

Security and control: Another comment I hear often from peers is, "That sounds great, but we wouldn’t want sensitive content all over the web." I get that, which is why we teamed up with BetterCloud.  BetterCloud provides amazing enterprise-grade security tools — all for the price of a couple of cabs around Sydney, by the way. BetterCloud's DomainWatch tool helped us build a "digital barbed wire fence" for everything created in our Google Apps environment. No matter who's using or sharing data, we can see it and control it. This puts our senior management team at ease. BetterCloud has anticipated what businesses require to deploy a cloud suite in a secure way.

Cost savings: When we went to deploy Google Apps, it was really just to address email and calendar. We thought we’d leave Docs on as a test strategy, just let the team play with it and find a home for it in their day-to-day lives. Three months in and we have hundreds of documents created and used on a daily basis.  While we haven’t formally documented the savings, a heck of a lot more work is getting done, and we haven't added any new team members. On the same conversation, we also recently deployed Salesforce.com to the entire business. When we were doing our ROI analysis, the return was well over $100K per year. I can only imagine that the cost savings from implementing Google Apps is significant.

Tips and tricks: We use SherpaTools to dynamically insert marketing promotions into team members' signatures. We use Google Hangout more and more for team-level conversations about the applications we are making — with a global product team this is a real lifesaver. We partnered with Okta to deliver a complete single sign-on experience to all of our end users. That means one password and one URL for all our applications; no need to memorize URLs, usernames, passwords, etc. for over 21 applications.

Global expansion: The Google Apps suite has positioned us for rapid expansion around the world. In the last week, a senior manager relocated from Brisbane to Darwin and another colleague moved to Auckland to head up operations in New Zealand. Each move was made seamlessly due to our cloud-based infrastructure and applications. We no longer worry about version compatibility, licenses for different software editions, deploying VPNs, ensuring sufficient bandwidth, sketchy performance, etc. That responsibility falls to our cloud partners, who have done an amazing job. The fact that our users can be on a train, plane, boat, or spaceship and still work/collaborate effectively is testament to the technical sophistication of the cloud and our cloud partners.

Better tracking of sales and marketing activities: iHance was the answer to how we could capture emails from members, prospects, suppliers, etc., automatically within Salesforce.com. In the past, our team would have to add an email to our CRM manually. If they forgot or didn't do it, the communication never made it to our system. Now, with iHance, every email gets logged without our team having to lift a finger.

Easier events: We run a ridiculous number of events with complex pricing structures and billing needs. Cvent is truly a best-of-breed solution that has about 1,400 features. The events team internally can’t stop raving about it. About 18 months ago we had no digital system for managing events (where we had thousands of attendees) — it was all paper driven!  Then we tried to build our own application. That worked for a little while, but as the business grew and evolved it became superfluous. We came across Cvent, and to date it still has more features than we use (great for growth), and they continue to maintain a strong history of new feature releases.

Simplified, tracked digital marketing:  A major pain point for us was integration, without which we would lack a vast amount of business intelligence. So, we really pushed for tools that integrate with Salesforce.com. Silverpop provided an enterprise-grade solution for mass digital marketing, including email marketing, landing pages, dedicated whitelisted IP addresses, and more.

Accounting solution that grows with us: Xero provided a fantastic SaaS accounting platform that integrated with all of the necessary systems. Further to that, we tend to look for application partners who not only have a strong solution but are backed financially, plus also have a strong history of feature releases that make sense to the marketplace. Not every solution will be perfect from day one, but as long as they are committed to improving their solution frequently, we will consider working with that vendor. At the moment, Xero delivers new releases every six weeks!

In addition to the apps mentioned, the others in our 21-app ecosystem are: HootSuite (Facebook/Twitter/LinkedIn/Youtube), Google Analytics, Pivotal Tracker, SendGrid, Teamwork Project Manager, Asana, Community (a professional collaboration environment we built for our clients), AWS Cloud, and Azure Cloud.

Scott Gassmann is an Innovation Engineer at Proactive Accountants Network, one of the fastest-growing industry associations in Australasia. He has presented at the 2010, 2011, and 2012 national Australian CloudForce Tour as well as the 2010 global computing conference for Salesforce.com.

[Top image credit: 18percentgrey/Shutterstock]

Filed under: cloud, enterprise

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With Kinect, Skyrim’s Dragon Shouts are easier to bellow (hands-on)

Posted: 21 Apr 2012 08:44 AM PDT

Microsoft’s Kinect motion-sensing system is making its way into hardcore games, but not in the way everyone thought. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, one of the hottest-selling games from the fall, will exploit the voice-recognition feature in Kinect so that you can more easily navigate through the game’s complex interface. And you can cast spells more easily by shouting them.

The Kinect retrofit is an interesting way to keep fans occupied with the game, and it is an interesting experiment with how games could be built in the future, with voice recognition designed into them from the very start. Pete Hines, vice president of marketing and communications at game publisher Bethesda Softworks, showed off the interface in an interview with GamesBeat last week.

The Kinect add-on will be part of a free update to the Xbox 360 version of the game. The update is already live. It should be a new source of entertainment for the 10-million-plus people who bought the game. On average, gamers are playing Skyrim for 80 to 85 hours. Anything that makes it easier to play, given those long hours, would be welcome for hardcore fans.

“The point is to make it easier to navigate through the game,” Hines said.

It’s notable that Bethesda chose not to use gesture recognition, which is the main feature of Kinect. But judging from most other titles, developers have found that Kinect’s gestures aren’t accurate enough to use reliably in hardcore games. But voice recognition, which is aided by the three microphones included in the Kinect 3D camera, works well enough.

BioWare, a division of Electronic Arts, implemented Kinect voice commands in Mass Effect 3. That helped with the game play, as it allowed you to issue orders to two companions using voice commands, rather than stopping the action, scrolling through a command wheel, and issuing commands with a controller. When things were hot and heavy, you could shout a command that could save your bacon.

The work on Kinect started a few months ago, after Skyrim was already on sale. Game studio head Todd Howard directed the team to create anything they wanted for a week, as long as they implemented it inside the world of Skyrim. A Bethesda developer, Ricky Gonzalez, decided to make voice recognition work in the game. He got the bare bones done and then Bethesda decided it was interesting enough to put a small team to work on it. Over the last couple of months, they created the full set of features. Now you can issue around 200 different voice commands in the game.

The simple commands involve navigating through the complex user interface. You can say “quick map” and Kinect will bring up the map of Skyrim. If you say, “White Run,” it will take you to that town. All of the town names are now integrated into the system so that Kinect will recognize them. You can go into your journal and then ask where your quest destination is. You can navigate through the skill menu quickly just by saying the name of a skill. You can call up various spells after you say, “quick magic.”

You can say, “assign sword” to equip a weapon. Within a minute, you can pretty much change your weaponry. You can say commands that allow you to dual wield or switch weapons during the middle of combat. The highlight of the system is using Kinect to implement the voice-powered spells, known as Dragon Shouts, in the game. Normally, you would have to stop the action and issue a command with the controller. But with Kinect, you simply shout the command, such as “unrelenting force,” and it executes it. Many of those shouts require you to select options from a menu, so they can take three button-pushes to execute normally. With Kinect, you can issue the shout in far less time using your voice.

Another cool feature is that it can automate some processes. For instance, when you loot a corpse, you can set the loot limit to 50 points. That means you will only pick up items from the corpse that have a higher value.

It doesn’t always work. Hines had to repeat himself a number of times during the demo. If you position high-end speakers near the Kinect module, your voice may be drowned out by the sound of the game. For instance, if it is raining in the game, it’s pretty hard for Kinect to filter out the noise and recognize your commands.

But adding Kinect can make it faster to play the game and get to the fun, so you don’t have to wrestle with the user interface.

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