Oculus Shift: Experience and Accessibility

I still remember the first time I had a ‘wow‘ moment with VR: I was playing with a student’s project at NYU ITP a few years ago. I found myself in an abandoned hilly town. It had simple graphics, like an early 90s first-person game, but it was fun to explore the streets as one would in any new city. There was something wrong with the town though: it was flooding, and the water level was quickly rising. This wasn’t a game; there was no help or prompt or alarm blaring in my headset, just the occasional reflections off the choppy surface showing it was coming for me. The program didn’t tell me to do so, but as soon as I realized what was going on with the water, I kept navigated to higher ground.

When the water level finally caught up with me and I was just about to submerge, I gasped! I took a sharp breath in and my heart skipped a beat and I swear there was some balance adjustment from my ears signaling my feet there would be no more ground. It was very subtle, but it had fooled my mind – even if for just a second.

Even though I’d tried a few different headsets and played with immersive games before, that was the first time that I truly felt like something had shifted – with the platform, for the developers programming experiences, for me.

The next time an experience changed things for me was when I was exploring one of the VR spaces in New York City, including the Hubneo VR space in the Lower East Side.

They’ve built their own motion rigs upon which you can sit and use the headsets: a car rig with two dimensions and a plane rig with three dimensions. (All were connected to Oculus Rifts). The experience really elevated my expectations of the virtual: I tried flying an old WW2-era plane over England and a spaceship in 360-degree space. After a few minutes, it really felt like I was a part of each craft, with the freedom to look up, roll up and back in many directions – the dogfights came alive like never before.

To top it off, a flight sim that would’ve cost tens of thousands in the past was put together with some shocks and discount pieces of wood from Long Island City. (Note: I don’t know where he got the wood.)

This is the second such place I’ve been to in New York: the first was a small shop on the Bowery where kids rented time on an hourly basis to check out various VR rigs and games. Sure, maybe you won’t have these at home anytime soon (and definitely not in our small NYC apartments) but these spaces bring these toys and experiences to kids who wouldn’t otherwise be able to have it.

I highly recommend you try one of the in-person spaces, because their equipment and setup is already perfectly tweaked for you to get the best immersion in a small amount of time.

Both of those past transformative experiences though, require a few thousand dollars worth of headsets and computers and rigs. So it wasn’t until a few weeks ago when I tried the Oculus Go for the first time where I had the next evolution of that ‘wow‘ – this time because of the access it affords to many more people.

At $199, it is one of the cheapest pieces of equipment you can buy for your living room – right in line with an Apple TV. It syncs quite easily enough with your phone and is wireless – set yourself up anywhere you wish. Go feels like the beginning of the first mainstream virtual reality device that many people could have in their homes and offices. You can sense a small shift in computing.

To get it hooked up and running, I had to get back on Facebook. Ugh; I could feel my anxiety level rising. I haven’t been on Facebook all year (see: Reconnection), and I was a little bit bummed to have had to log back into the service to set up the device. But for all its missteps, you have to hand it to Facebook: they’ve gotten all their acquisitions right (photos, texting, virtual reality).

The setup and first-time flow is just very smooth. As soon as you put it on, you get immersed into the user interface and you get going. All the apps you might expect are already on the platform. There are a few games, including a few from worlds like Marvel’s Suicide Squad and Stranger Things, the latter of which is a very scary immersion. Oddly, Netflix is also included: you can sit on your real couch in front of your real TV but with Go on your face within which you’re sitting on a couch watching Netflix on a virtual TV hanging on the same wall in front of you. I…am not so sure about this. You’ve also got chat which leads me to think it would be cool to do some new sort of video conferencing through this. Imagine one where you can project multiple parallel screens of information to one another, which isn’t easily possible in normal video conferencing, because your primary viewport is taken up by the person projecting.

Maybe we won’t be all sitting at home with these things (think of our spouses) – but I can see it becoming a side experience. It won’t become a primary interface for anything anytime soon, but it feels like it is is strong enough to be a second screen for when you need it, like an iPad. Take it with you and use it for moments you don’t want to sit with your phone and where you want a different screen. I can already see people sporting these on the NYC-SF geek flights. (*shudder*) It’s like a coach version of those Emirates first class pods – shut off your neighbors and be by yourself and in your own world. Flying on the plane, you’re no longer on the ground; flying in virtual reality, you’re no longer on this plane.

Kit and Patreon (and The Whole Earth Catalog)

We launched Kit a little over two years ago with a simple idea: help people discover the products worth getting — and create a new kind of experience where your creativity and knowledge actually earn you money. We were excited to see the idea take off as YouTubers, Twitch streamers, bloggers, and creators of all types used Kit to share their favorite products with their fans and followers.

Today, we announced that Kit will be joining up with Patreon.

At Patreon, team Kit will continue the commitment to connecting creators and fans, by building tools to enable creators to share their life’s work and making it easier to reward creativity and expertise.

It got me thinking back to the early days of Kit.

Like many other communities before it, Kit was inspired by the Whole Earth Catalog and by the counterculture movement and thinking started by Stewart Brand in 1968.

The Whole Earth Catalog was sort of a Google before Google and online review sites were around: people coming together to create a publication to help one another with tips and products to make life easier. “Things worth getting”, Kit’s tagline, was inspired by lines from the opening page of the 1969 Catalog:

Function

The WHOLE EARTH CATALOG functions as an evaluation and access device. With it, the user should know better what is worth getting and where and how to do the getting.

An item is listed in the CATALOG if it is deemed:

1. Useful as a tool,
2. Relevant to independent education,
3. High quality or low cost,
4. Not already common knowledge,
5. Easily available by mail.

CATALOG listings are continually revised according to the experience and suggestions of CATALOG users and staff.

Purpose
We are as gods and might as well get good at it. So far, remotely done power and glory—as via government, big business, formal education, church—has succeeded to the point where gross defects obscure actual gains. In response to this dilemma and to these gains a realm of intimate, personal power is developing—power of the individual to conduct his own education, find his own inspiration, shape his own environment, and share his adventure with whoever is interested. Tools that aid this process are sought and promoted by the WHOLE EARTH CATALOG.

We found ourselves aligning with these original ideas and purpose. One of the first things we did at Kit, almost before we wrote the first line of code and did the first user study, was to write down our purpose and our values and how we wanted to treat one another and to treat creators (and how we saw ourselves as creators too – photographers, writers, designers). We set out not only to build a successful product and team, but a long-lasting community as well.

We started thinking of Kit as a modern-day Catalog: what the catalog was in the late sixties in the medium that was possible then (a magazine put together by hand), we were doing in 2018 with tools and community and technology that we have access to now.

The strange magazine – part tools catalog and part how-to book – was re-imagined as an online community in Kit where creators and experts could share their learnings about photography, arts & crafts, DIY, health, music and so many more topics. People came to help people: creators and experts helped amateurs and those that wanted to know more. Build tools for the individual, share that knowledge with whomever is interested and allow people to find inspiration and conduct their own education.

The Whole Earth Catalog turned fifty this year.

In a bit of coincidence, later this week, there will be an event in San Francisco with Stewart where he will look back on the impact and long legacy of the Catalog. (I wish I could be there!) It is wonderful to pause and think of how many ideas his movement touched: the early internet, the maker movement, health and wellness, online communities and, of course, Kit.com itself.

Thank you to all who helped work on Kit over the years: Camille, Will, Grant, Armand, Tom, John, Miles, Aloke, Jen, Jico, Eli, Kevin, Mia, Tim, Leslie and Julia.

In the words of the Catalog: Stay hungry, stay foolish.

Summer 2018 Hit List

I’m trying something new, both to serve as my own mini seasonal to-do list, and something I can share with others easily. I’m going to start keeping my own seasonal ‘hit list’ of places in New York. (My master to-do list in foursquare is now…nine hundred and thirty-six places long.)

Some of the places in the hit list are new and some old; some of them we’ve already been to (and we love) and some we want to try. I think making one for a full season makes the most sense, as it is easier to group places on outings when, for instance in summer, you want to take an afternoon to explore the sun in a new neighborhood.

Ahead of this Memorial Day weekend, here’s the Summer 2018 Hit List (in progress): https://foursquare.com/naveen/list/summer-2018-hit-list

Use FYI

FYI: There’s a new tool I’ve been using for the past few weeks and that I have been absolutely loving. It happens to be called FYI.

As someone that has to navigate documents across a few different Google domains (personal ones, side projects, companies) and probably as many Slacks, it’s always been frustrating to find the right document at the right time. It never seems to be there where you are.

I’ve seen coworkers come up with unique solutions, from bookmarking frequently-used ones to saving links on their Desktop, as well as my all-time favorite hack: leaving all the docs open all the time in all the browser tabs.

For all of Google Search’s power searching the web, something big is missing in experience when it comes to searching Google docs and spreadsheets. Nothing is intuitive.

Navigating to docs.google shows you docs – but not sheets. Strangely, the search feature in docs attempts to autocomplete results for sheets too. Of course, it will only show you five randomly-sorted results with no other context within. Navigating to sheets.google shows you sheets, but not docs. And at least it is consistent: you can search and have it autocomplete results for docs in this view. Going to drive.google is cool, sort of, because you finally have the concept of folders, but still have no idea how to look for them or use them. Which ones are private to me alone and which ones are folders that we’re sharing with specific teammates? If a file is shared with me, why do I have to “Add it to My Drive” to find it later?

Add to this that we’re all increasingly sharing Google docs links and PDFs in Slack – yet one more application and interface to search for the thing you wanted.

Enter FYI, a tool designed as a Chrome extension that allows you to search for documents across Drive, Slack, Dropbox, tabs and others.

Looking for a document for one of your weekly 1:1s? Find it from within Chrome, either through the Previous 7 days list or by quickly searching for it. Looking for a document you’re all working on because it has had updates since the last time you saw it? There it is: top of the list view. Sent out a Google Form and people have filled it in since last night? Same: under Today, first in view so you can catch up on all the new data collected.

I particularly love that it is designed as an extension and that it just takes up your ‘New Tab‘ view. When you’re about to open up a new document, you start by opening a new tab anyway, so this is a perfect way for a product to intersect behavior.

It’s the best use of ‘New Tab‘ action since…well, ever. I’ve tried various Chrome extensions over the years, but always seem to uninstall them after a week: they don’t provide enough value, and they take up too much memory and slow things down. FYI was the first one I immediately understood and wanted to keep.

By bundling the first version of the product as a Chrome extension, it plays nicely with where I spend most of my time and where I go first to look for documents. Each new Chrome profile I spin up (I have one for each domain) has the extension loaded locally within the profile. By having authentication at the Chrome-level instead of on a website somewhere, FYI keeps things cleaner and more efficient.

When it comes to document search now, I no longer have to keep switching between different apps to figure out where a thing was. It got me thinking that perhaps this is the start of an interesting trend in unbundling. Take a common feature from apps that hasn’t been doing the job (in this case, the search box and, in this case, for years) and pull it out to make it more useful.

I only occasionally write about new tools that I love, and this is one of those times. I’m not at all surprised it was created by friend Hiten and his colleague Marie at Product Habits. The care taken to understand the user, the problem and the experience that one would want shows immediately. It hooks you in from the first-time experience by clearly laying out what it is solving, and by showing the solution and document search results on first try. It’s a product where your first go-around is likely to be the same as your one-hundredth go-around, so once you see it that first time, you’re hooked forever.

Saturdays Sunday

A Sunday stop at Saturdays on Crosby Street.

A day at Rockaway Beach

It was only Miles’ second time at the beach, and boy, was he ever excited. It was nice to get out there and find the beach mostly empty (there may have been more surfers in the water than people hanging on the sand).

The Fox and the Found(er)

I’ve been reading all the analyses and backstories and the opinion pieces of the Disney-Fox-Comcast situation. (Who doesn’t like a big deal?)

The Comcast offer is the larger of the two deals, by a lot: if someone gives you that offer, you should probably take it (you’ll also have to take a chance on increased risk of the deal being vetoed). Walking away from the Disney deal now will mean a $1.53b break fee for 21st Century Fox, but you can make up for that by taking the higher Comcast deal and paying Disney back. (And Murdoch could still use the extra leftover money from the Comcast deal to buy even more shares of Disney and have both toys!)

However, if you founded a firm, ran the firm, and still control a big piece of the firm, the Disney deal makes way more sense. My favorite take on why Murdoch presently favors the Disney path is the one from Felix Salmon, shareholders be damned:

The official answer is that Disney-Fox is a “horizontal” merger, while Comcast-Fox would be a “vertical” merger, and well-paid readers of antitrust tea leaves consider the former to be easier to do than the latter. The increased chances of the government vetoing a Comcast deal mean that it makes sense for Murdoch to just go with Disney instead.

[…]

Once the Disney deal closes, Murdoch will be Disney’s largest individual shareholder and will have a direct line to Iger; he might even have a son, James, in a senior position at Disney. The combined Disney-Fox will include a huge amount of Murdoch DNA, especially when it comes to television production, and Murdoch will be justified in taking the occasional victory lap if and when Disney goes on to ever greater strengths.

It reminds me of the founder mentality at work here: of course, it is about the money, but it is also about your work, your legacy and how best to make sure your company and vision will outlast you. This is true of big companies and small.

Note: Nota bene is one of a few favorite newsletters in my inbox these days. Put it on your list.

A civilization of the mind

One sign of how much you accomplished in life is how many people from all different walks of life remember you when you’re gone. Of many aspects, that’s my most favorite about John Perry Barlow’s life: he’s touched so many people in so many spaces from music, to politics, to technology.

Another is one’s ability to blend two different concepts from two different fields together – that’s how we create new ideas after all. And last is the ability to know things well enough to be able to explain it plainly to others and to use your words to lead. For instance, even though he may not have had a background in engineering, he understood enough to be able to explain it well and in simple terms to others. What a beautiful gift.

I believe Barlow did all three really well. This weekend, in remembrance, I went back to find a few good essays by Barlow (and one podcast h/t @msg).

My favorite is the passage where I believe he was the first to connect the Gibson term cyberspace with what we now know as our present-day global telecommunications network. From Crime and Puzzlement:

Whether by one telephonic tendril or millions, they are all connected to one another. Collectively, they form what their inhabitants call the Net. It extends across that immense region of electron states, microwaves, magnetic fields, light pulses and thought which sci-fi writer William Gibson named Cyberspace.

Cyberspace, in its present condition, has a lot in common with the 19th Century West. It is vast, unmapped, culturally and legally ambiguous, verbally terse (unless you happen to be a court stenographer), hard to get around in, and up for grabs. Large institutions already claim to own the place, but most of the actual natives are solitary and independent, sometimes to the point of sociopathy. It is, of course, a perfect breeding ground for both outlaws and new ideas about liberty.

The words ring just as true now as when they were written in 1990. Large institutions still claim to own the place, just as in the 90s and as with the old Wild West. But there are still natives out there on the edges, working to get out their ideas of freedom.