Why I Re-joined Amazon

I just got outed on Techcrunch. So I’ll come clean. :)

I’ve recently (April 2014) rejoined Amazon as a manager and developer on the Prime Air team.

We’ve set up a new team in downtown SF to focus on some interesting aspects of the project. We’re growing rapidly. If you’re interested in the project and love the Bay Area, feel free to reach out or apply directly via the Amazon website (here or here)

So why did I re-join Amazon?

The simplest answer is that I really admire this team, this project, and this company. I’m not one to gush or blush — if anything I excel at finding fault. But this job is really fun. We have trained professionals who love to do the stuff I don’t.

The project doesn’t need any more hype from me. JeffB already talked about it on 60 minutes. You may have heard me talk about various superpowers in another context… This is a similar level of game-changer IMO.

Speaking personally, this project meets a number of important requirements for me:

First, it needs to be fairly green-field. I did early AR/VR in the 90s. We built an entire Earth in 2000. I worked on massive multiplayer worlds and avatars after that. I moved onto robotic parachutes in 2004, designed geo-social-mobile apps in 2008, then telepresence and more stuff I can’t talk about after that.

I like to learn fast, often by making mistakes, with a whole lot of guessing and path-finding until the way is clear. By the time 100,000 people are working on something, there are up to 100,000 people who are potentially way smarter than me, plus ample documentation on the right and wrong ways to do anything.

Second, I want to work on projects that use new technology in the most positive ways, sometimes as an antidote to the other negative ones out there. I’ve left companies on that principle alone…

I’ve both given and received some criticism over this – even been called a “hippie.” But I didn’t inhale that sort of sentiment. I just moved on. At the end of the day, I always try to do the right thing and help people wherever I can.

That’s based on what I like to think of as “principles.” Many of the reasons I like Amazon as a company are due to its principles.

At Amazon, I saw these principles come up almost every day on the job and I was suitably impressed. Naturally, they’re used as a kind of lens for job candidates, esp. as a way to efficiently discuss their leadership skills. But these concepts are used and reinforced almost daily for things like professional feedback and taking responsibility, above and beyond our job specs.

I’ve seen senior leaders uphold the “vocally self critical” principle in meetings, where at other companies such behavior might be called a “career-limiting” move. This principle alone meant that even in my earliest interviews, I could be blunt about learning from my past mistakes without worrying if I should say things like “my biggest fault is that I work too hard.” What a relief.

The first Amazon value on the list is, of course, “customer obsession.” There’s no other value that rises above this, not expedience or profit. And in my opinion it shows.

Companies that stick to their principles tend to be consistent and well-trusted. Having clear and understandable principles, reinforcing them and even working through when they seem to be in internal conflict leads to making better decisions overall and avoiding really bad ones.

That’s especially true when you don’t have the luxury of seeing the full repercussions of your choices in advance. These principles are there for when the choices are hard or unclear, not just when they’re easy.

I believe that companies that get this, and especially those that put their customers first, are the ones that will succeed.

 

BTW, there’s still some perception out there that “the FAA nixed Prime Air.” Here are a few articles that addressed that question directly.

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The LEGO Movie

I have to admit, even with 25+ years experience with computer graphics, on first viewing I thought The Lego Movie was mostly done with stop action photography.

I figured maybe 80% physical and 20% virtual. Turns out it was closer to 99% CGI with some real legos thrown in for good measure. Other than the live action scenes, I couldn’t tell you where the real legos sat.

There were some things, like the water, explosions and more, that looked way too procedural to be done by hand. But still the rendering, shading and animation were so close to perfect, so physically correct down to sub-surface scattering and extreme depth of field, that it was almost impossible to tell.

Amazing job. And especially impressive given how well they could tell the story without relying on the usual tricks of animation and CG, staying true to only what real legos can do.

The real tip-off about the CGI was in the lighting, which allowed for certain legos to emit light or light to come from no actual source. That would be pretty hard to do in reality without a really complex effects pipeline on top.

Here’s a longer video that explains how it was done:

via: fxguidetv #186: The LEGO Movie | fxguide.

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World Under Water

This is a brilliant idea and  striking demonstration of the effects of rising sea levels.

World Under Water.

It has only one small problem. It doesn’t take altitude into account. It shows the same nicely rendered water level no matter where you go.

I don’t think it would be hard to do a lookup of the altitude of any address and move the water level up or down. But given the very rough depth map from Street View and the apparent lack of an “up” vector, it might be hard to properly intersect the water with the scene.

 

Here’s a more accurate example, without the nice immersive visuals: http://geology.com/sea-level-rise/

Still better than trying to depict a 1000ft water level near the top of the Oakland Hills. If that happens, we’d be long gone.

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Why I donated to MayOne.us

If Money equals Speech, as the Supreme Court believes, then Money trumps Votes, in terms of sheer influence and power.

Except… there are more of us that can vote with our wallets than all the vested moneyed interests can muster.

First, we have to be united to combat money in politics. That means us collectively spending enough to turn the ship.

It doesn’t matter what you believe in, left or right. If you ever want it to count, then make yourself count here.

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See-through Tank

For at least 20 years, I’ve been telling this to anyone who might conceivably take this idea and run with it as a business. Form a real-time sphere (or cubemap) of video around an airplane using an array of cameras. Give anyone who wants one a VR HMD and index their chosen POV into said sphere of video. Viola. Invisible airplane, at least to those wearing the HMDs. It would be a much better way to pass several hours in flight than watching movies IMO.

Anyway, alas, if I want to do this today, I’d need to drive a tank. Tak, Norway.

Norway’s VR test helps soldiers see through armored vehicles.

 

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Verizon is either very dumb or they think you are

[as always, my personal technical opinions here]

Verizon Wireless sells out customers with creepy new tactic – latimes.com.

The LA Times author laments helplessly for most of the linked article. First, he claims Verizon is more evil than Google or Yahoo (who also effectively sell your data) because Verizon charges more up front. Well, I do agree companies that make money off our personal data should give us a cut or a discount, assuming we opt-in at all. It’s our data, right?

But the issue isn’t how badly Verizon is ripping us off relative to other companies. That’s a whole other box of lame.

Here the author gets closer:

Customers may be hard-pressed to understand fully what’s going on with the “enhanced” program. The Verizon Wireless notice is decidedly short on details.

Again, none of the companies listed in this post do a good job of “informed consent” IMO. If what Verizon is doing is not so bad, then people should be able to come to that conclusion given the honest facts, explained in terms they can understand, and then agree.

Were you aware of this? Probably not. Did you agree? Probably not.

But it gets better:

Debra Lewis, a Verizon Wireless spokeswoman, explained to me that when a customer registers on the company’s “My Verizon” website to see a bill or watch TV online, a “cookie,” or tracking software, is downloaded onto the customer’s home computer.

Most cookies are benign, allowing websites to provide better service to frequent visitors.

Verizon Wireless’ cookie allows a data-collection company working on Verizon’s behalf — Lewis declined to name which one — to gather information on which sites you visit after you leave “My Verizon.”

Hint: it could be any of these trackers, found by visiting the offending site with Ghostery installed.

  • Acxiom
  • Adobe Test & Target
  • Bazaarvoice
  • BlueKai
  • DoubleClick Floodlight
  • ForeSee
  • Gomez
  • Monetate
  • Omniture (Adobe Analytics)

You may want to install Ghostery and start blocking almost everything like this. These trackers do you no good, and you can put the few exceptions you need in the settings. You will be surprised to see how many tracking turds are quietly slipped into your pocket. The worst part is, if I go to Verizon’s site to find out how to opt out of this bullshit, I apparently get tracked for it…

Here’s the actual opt-out information, btw. FWIW, I collected the above list of trackers after ensuring I was opted out on the site. I guess they promise, on behalf of these random third party trackers, the data won’t be shared…

Sure.

But it gets even crazier:

That information is “anonymized,” Lewis said, to mask the Verizon customer’s identity and is then shared with marketers, which can use the info to provide ads on the customer’s Verizon Wireless device that match his or her home-computer interests.

What makes this all potentially class-action-worthy IMO (IANAL) is that Verizon claims that by simply replacing your name with a unique ID, the service is anonymous and therefore safe.

“In addition to the customer information that’s currently part of the program, we will soon use an anonymous, unique identifier we create when you register on our websites.”

Does anyone else remember when AOL put their carefully anonymized search logs out on the internet…

It took almost no time for someone to figure out a lot of who was who despite the obfuscation, because the same “anonymous” IDs were used for each search by the same person, over and over, and could therefore be accumulated and cross-referenced. Simple deduction, Watson.

How hard will it be for a 3rd party marketer, given a list of your most frequent locations and your “double secret anonymous” ID, to look up the address of said frequent locations, and a few ownership records of your most frequent location (where you spend roughly half your life) and forever associate your real name and secret ID?

When combined with other websites that you may sign into, how hard would it be to discover your other usernames, some already tied to your real name, and tie them all together into a single linked identity and activity file you never get to see?

Not at all. It’s already common.

There is an actual body of research behind anonymizing people and GPS coordinates that Verizon seems to be [negligently, IMO] ignoring. There are viable techniques to present targeted ads (based only on what Verizon knows about you) without leaking that data to any third party.

Any claims of effective anonymity after sharing this kind of data with third parties are IMO false and misleading. They’re counting on everyone being dumb. Don’t be.

 

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Scoble Tempers Glass

Scoble’s love affair for Google Glass could apparently only last so long. This underscores some of the problems with developing a product out in public, or at least half-way out. Long-lead technical challenges (battery, size, cost) are still hidden below the core design and marketing issues (utility, fashion, desire).

Google at least did a good job of starting the conversation, even if they haven’t yet figured out how to finish it.

Robert Scoble – Last night before Skrillex at Coachella….

Down in the comments, he elaborates on why he doesn’t like them any more and what he thinks Google did wrong:

1. They launched it with WAY too much fanfare that the product simply can’t live up to. Jumping out of a blimp and doing live video on the way down (along with a ton of really well produced videos that promised it would be a great assistant as you walked around) set expectations VERY high and the product hasn’t gotten to that fit and finish yet, even two years later. The product, for instance, still doesn’t do live video (at least not by itself).

2. The team started out very public, with very nice collaborative team members. Then they turned secretive and can’t tell us what’s coming. It’s almost like someone told the team “turn Apple.” That secrecy made developers and influencers feel like they were no longer part of the process of developing this into a real product, which it still is not.

3. Because it was launched at a developer conference (Google IO) expectations were set that this would be mostly for developers, and that a great API would come soon. The API did come, but 18 months later. There still is no real store. The UI is way too simplistic to handle dozens or hundreds of apps. Google refused to answer questions about sensors at the next Google IO.

4. Two years ago the price was announced as $1,500. Today the price is still $1,500. How many tech products stay the same price for two years? Not many. The pricing is now at the point where it seems just wrong. The team even admits it’s artificially high to ensure “only people who really want one get one.” That creates weird distortions in belief about the product too.

5. When people got theirs a year ago we expected a ton of REAL updates to both UI and functionality. The updates we’ve gotten just haven’t met expectations. Compare my drone, which lets me take a photo, see it on my iPhone, AND post it to Facebook and Instagram WHILE IT IS FLYING to Glass. I still can’t post photos to Facebook or Instagram without plugging the Glass in and putting them elsewhere (er, Google+) first. 

6. We expected new designs by now and updated electronics. I’m holding out hope that we’ll see a much better design (battery life sucks, it cuts my ears, it is starting to look quite dated, video is poorly compressed, etc etc) by now.

When I say this was launched poorly Google set way too many expectations on this product and it has failed to meet them. It should have launched much quieter and set expectations that it was only for vertical markets. Then as those showed up, they could have expanded expectations. If Google had done that then the early adopters could have said “hey, these are designed for use in very specific places, like surgery rooms.” That would have kept people from freaking out.

The other thing that sucks is that many of the explorer program members I’ve talked with are tired of being asked to demonstrate them. Google is getting US to pay to test, provide PR, AND demonstrate them to the public. THAT is NOT empathetic at all and is actually quite arrogant on Google’s behalf (a company that makes billions of dollars every year).

It’s not shocking to me that most Google employees I know that have them aren’t wearing them around anymore and that many in the community are grumbling behind the scenes (most won’t write about their concerns because they need to have good relationships with Google).

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WebGL + Legos + maps = interesting!

Give it a try. Build with Chrome.

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The New Rift

This post by Peter Berkman gets closest to the meat of our collective concerns over the Oculus sale to Facebook. John Carmack even responded in the comments, while Palmer took to reddit. Raph Koster and Blair McIntyre do pretty good analyses in their own rights, putting the pieces together.

Disclaimer: I know many of the people mentioned here and consider them friends. I’m sticking to only what is publicly revealed information. And I am of course happy for these individuals who are getting to work on dream projects and making lots of money as a side benefit.

Here are some collected facts that are out in the open:

1. Industry Legends John Carmack and Michael Abrash have each talked publicly about wanting to build the Metaverse (of Snow Crash fame). I totally get what’s in this deal for them: build it with the right tech, the right people and at Facebook scale. Got to love the opportunity to realize that dream.

2. Cory Ondrejka (kick-ass VP of Mobile at Facebook) was formerly CTO of LindenLab/Second Life. He’s built a slightly less scalable version of the Metaverse already. Notice a “Mark, Chris and Cory” named in Palmer’s blog post. I have no doubt they’re completely sincere about wanting to see VR succeed in its own right.

3. Peter is also right in assuming that Oculus will add real gaze tracking. Palmer hints (skip to just before 19:00) about it here. Oculus is not alone, I expect. While there are many patents (of various quality) on this, there are still many viable ways to determine a user’s gaze, and many reasons to do so. Facebook has even more on its wishlist, I bet, beyond the basics of providing better visuals or more Natural UI.

4. Companies like Tobii make their living today by (effectively) enabling mind-reading via a user’s gaze. Your supermarket shelves were probably arranged with this kind of tech strapped to willing users. Your favorite website’s layout was probably tested using this tech in a lab. Just imagine the power of knowing what everyone is looking at and why, of being able to read subtle emotion in the face, including those micro-expressions that always reveal the truth.

5. Blair is also right that Zuckerberg’s AR long-term vision isn’t a typo. For all the arguments about VR vs. AR vs. camera-based vs. see-through being better for this or that, the bottom line is that VR sucks for mobile. That’s based purely on the old “wall meets face” principle, if not the geek factor of walking around talking to people with a brick over your eyes.

Facebook needs to win on mobile. Yes, it’ll take a few years just to get consumer-friendly seated VR right. But when Oculus eventually gets their glasses down to sunglass size and adds forward-facing cameras that mix real and virtual, then watch out[side]. Here’s the key part of Zuckerberg’s quote again:

But this is just the start. After games, we’re going to make Oculus a platform for many other experiences. Imagine enjoying a courtside seat at a game, studying in a classroom of students and teachers all over the world or consulting with a doctor face-to-face — just by putting on goggles in your home.

This is really a new communication platform. By feeling truly present, you can share unbounded spaces and experiences with the people in your life. Imagine sharing not just moments with your friends online, but entire experiences and adventures.These are just some of the potential uses. By working with developers and partners across the industry, together we can build many more.

One day, we believe this kind of immersive, augmented reality will become a part of daily life for billions of people. [emphasis mine]

6. I’ve heard Oculus folks also talk about telepresence as one of the killer apps for VR too, esp. when one can solve the “eye gaze” problem. You’ve probably experienced that in crappy modern video chat, which is generally how I’d imagine women feel when you stare at their chests. Interestingly, Cory’s old boss from Linden, Philip Rosedale, has announced he’s working on the eye gaze problem in his new startup too, and using some cool software called FaceShift to get a jump on the harder problems there.

[For full disclosure, I did some work on avatar-based telepresence as well, but I wasn't entirely satisfied with the result. FWIW, I found a better approach, which works with no hardware sitting on your face.]

7. Finally, Facebook makes its money by selling its users. Let’s not be coy. It’s a lot of money and a lot of users. To be fair, is it really any worse than how NBC offers up its users to advertisers (since before I was born)? Well, no and yes. It’s the same “ad, ad” world as before. We learn by age four to distrust the loud man on the TV. But the key difference is that NBC can’t see you, can’t really know your thoughts, except via gross statistics (think Neilsen ratings). Facebook really wants to know you, individually, and forever.

Now, companies like Facebook and Google provide immensely desirable services for free too, more so than NBC IMO. The problem lies in the concept of “informed consent.” Both tech companies still suck at the human stuff IMO, esp. in terms of giving users clear information up front to make that decision wisely, and then giving full control of their data after. It’s still mostly one-sided today, and it has to change.

Ideally, they’d start to emulate companies who’ve adopted an obsessive customer focus. It’s not about what people will tolerate, but what they really need. Earning our trust can’t be an afterthought or a win by attrition.

[for a positive comparison, TV's "Neilsen families" give truly informed consent and the company promises not to market to them as well.]

So we come back to Peter’s insightful post. The problem with the Oculus sale is not that we all supported Palmer’s fortuitous kickstarter and got no share of the spoils. I got the product I ordered, still sitting in its box, alas. It’s not that he and Brendan Iribe “sold out” the indie gaming dream for big bucks. There are plenty of reasons to seek this level of protection and financial support in the light of Sony (and others) gearing up for a big fight. Gamers should be happy to have more viable options to choose from at the lowest prices.

Hell, I joined the so-called “evil empire” in 2008 to try to use their massive scale to do some good in the world, so who am I to judge? (jury is still out on my contributions, fwiw)

No. The heart of the problem is that VR is the most powerful means ever invented to pipe external ideas into your internal world. It’s pushing remote-controlled information almost directly into your brain via every sense possible. Consider that people believe a lot of crap they can’t even see. You’ll believe this crap on so many levels. That’s why it’s called virtual reality, ok? It’s as close to real as it gets, while still being entirely artificial.

The Facebook purchase highlights the reverse of that flow as well, reminding us that VR may become one of the best ways to pipe your internal world out — via data mining, classification and onto untold dissemination. That’s actually one of the reasons I got into the field, 20 years ago: to more easily tell stories that were rattling around my brain that would have taken millions of dollars and hundreds of people to produce as movies or games. But it has a dark side too, like when the information is sucked out of us without our informed consent or control.

Just think what the headlines would have said last week if Facebook had instead bought a brain-sensing startup like Emotiv, or invested in fMRI brain scanning tech to extract your thoughts. See what I’m talking about? VR doesn’t work quite the same way as those, but it gets to the same place in the end. The protective walls between you and the world come down in favor of more bandwidth in and out.

So closing that loop, even crafting individually designated virtual worlds using all of your private information, Facebook will own the most potent means available, short of mind-control drugs, to read and write to your private inner world, your thoughts, your actions, your dreams. It can free you, or it can enslave you.

What they do with it is entirely up to them (plus certain market and “other” forces). And if that doesn’t scare you, at least a little, then you may already be sold.

 

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Head Gears

Most head mounted VR gear brings me back to my teenage years, where my orthodontist tried to make me wear a night brace to straighten my teeth.

It works while you sleep, he said.

You try sleeping with your head in a vice, I said.

He didn’t care. He got paid $40/month regardless of how long it took. Needless to say, I soon got a new orthodontist. And I’ve kept trying on various VR gear too.

I originally favored the CAVE projection kind of display and built a few variations of my own, including a six-sided one at Disney. The main benefit is zero latency (ignoring stereo parallax changes) — in other words, the image is already there when you turn your head. No blurriness. The main downside, of course, is who has room or money for an 8′ cube in their living room. Not practical until we get digital wallpaper or big flexible roll-up screens.

But even still, I happily bought into the Oculus Rift’s kickstarter, eager to try again. I love seeing people so enthusiastic about this stuff, especially new blood.

Though I’ve personally used the Rift for many minutes at a time, my own purchased dev kit is still sitting in its box, alas, waiting for me to find time to build something useful. The head-tracking latency was actually very good, but the original display felt much like the world was made of LiteBrite. If you’ve never tried it, here’s a good oculus rift simulator to try.

I just pre-ordered the 2nd gen dev kit too, which fixes much of the resolution issue, and I’m sure comes in an even nicer box.

I’m hopeful that Carmack can solve some of the rendering latency issues that fast OLED displays alone can’t. I did some research in this area too, fwiw. There’s a lot that can still be done to wring the delays out of various pipelines.

Some friends and I also got to try out the new Sony Morpheus HMD at GDC this week. We had to get in line the moment the expo doors opened, just to get a ticket to stand in line to wait to try. But it was worth it, I keep telling myself.

The resolution was impressive. The persistence of their LCD displays was not as good as the Rift’s. Now, I can’t be sure what they’re using inside, but I would have thought they’d throw some 4k SXRD panels in there, just like they use in their nicest projectors.

I thought those were akin to DLP in terms of super-fast switching time, but I’m not so sure anymore. Maybe there isn’t room for front-reflection in the optical path. I can say that the LCD-like images we saw seemed to be over-driven and washed out a bit, mostly suffering from slow switching times. Brightness was great, but black blacks were in short supply.

In any event, no one got nauseated, which is a small victory for those of us who can’t watch the Blair Witch Project without dramamine. The Rift also does well on that front. But in both cases, using a simple laptop trackpad or arrow keys to navigate puts me back on the vomit comet.

A nice omni-directional treadmill might do the trick. Someone had one of those on display too, but I didn’t get to try it — seems to need special slippery shoes. But if we’re going through the trouble of a 4′ treadmill, why not just go back to using CAVEs? If it’s just a matter of integrating your furniture, my friends in MSR solved that nicely.

For what it’s worth, I still have my money on real see-through AR displays as the ultimate winner. Let me walk in the real world, augmented with new content. Yes, indeed.

 

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