Robots That See The Way We Do

18 Oct
October 18, 2013

When you look down your street, you may notice that “your eye is drawn to something.” This expression is very apt. Humans do not process the detail of entire images the way a computer does today. Humans rapidly move their eyes around (“saccade”) to spot items that are of interest. Our focus is “drawn” to those areas. This is efficient and fast. Yet, most computer-based image processing systems do not work that way — they process the entire image at equal resolution, as if “every pixel counts”. But our experience tells us the opposite: we work better by deeply focusing our attention and vision in a restricted portion of the image, carrying out efficiently one task at a time.

To illustrate how the human brain and eye work, please try an experiment. As you are sitting as a passenger in a car driving down the street, keep your eyes straight ahead. Notice a stop sign in your peripheral vision, but do not move your eyes. Can you read the letters STOP? Probably not. That is because the brain is not expending energy processing the detail from that part of your eye. To read it, quickly glance at the sign and look ahead. You will notice that even with the glance, your eyes will see the letters and the brain will read them.

Neurala, with the NSF-sponsored CELEST Neuromorphics Lab at Boston University, is working on a brain-inspired neural model controlling an active visual system that saccades or moves a robot’s camera eyes to create a new type of efficient object detection and vision system. The goal is to make image processing more efficient and identification of critical objects faster. The work is being funded by NASA for planetary exploration, where processing and battery efficiency are critical. But, it has general application to all types of vision systems.

The following videos demonstrate how the system works:

The first video demonstrates how a human eye works. It shows a chameleon and other animals in a natural habitat. (The video is from a BBC wildlife series.) The highlight in the image illustrates where the human eye is drawn. As additional information is seen, the eye jumps around. It may look at one thing, jump to something else that could be important and then jump back to the original item. This jumping process allows a human to focus on more than one object at a time and quickly understand a visual scene.

For space exploration, or even on Earth, similar mechanisms can be used to emulate the extremely efficient ways humans make sense of the visual world. The next video shows how the process works on a simulated Mars environment.

The white dots show how the robot eye spots items of interest in the entire frame. Note how the eye saccades or jumps from interesting point to interesting point. When an object (in this case, a rock) is successfully learned or classified, it is “blasted” with a white blob. This mechanism is much more efficient than trying to process an entire image, using less processing power and battery life, while providing much more information than a static method (e.g., position of the object relative to others). The video then shows how the process would work in an actual Mars setting.

How would this work in an actual robot down on Earth? The third video shows the process working on a test robot. The round ball on the top of the robot is the camera that saccades. The image on the top right shows what the robot sees as it looks around the room. Notice how it spots important objects and then returns to looking at where it is going.

Neurala continues its work to make the process more efficient so that it can lower the cost of robots by using brain-like processes.

Your Robot Is Coming To Serve You

14 Jun
June 14, 2013

Visualize what your first personal or office service robot will look like. What do you imagine? Depending upon your age, you may think of Rosie Jetson, C-3PO or even Bender. (Greatest TV Robots of All Time.)

Your service robot is coming, but it won’t look like any of the robots in the image above. Instead, it will probably look like an iPad on a stick or an iPhone in a tiny tractor.  (See DoubleRobotics and Romotive.)  Products that look like this will be on the market by the end of the year. And, they will be cheap. The Romotive product is just $150. (Romo store)

A major revolution is happening in the robotics market and it is driven by the smartphone. When you grab your phone to make a call, you may not think about the amazing array of sensors, processing power and memory in that device. Due to high volume smartphone manufacturing, components that cost hundreds or thousands of dollars just a few years ago are now just a few dollars or less. Look at the list in the graphic below:

Phone sensorsThe amazing thing is that your smartphone contains enough technology to be the central nervous system for a robot.   Your smartphone can see, hear, feel and communicate. It has enough processing power to drive the wheels and, eventually, other appendages. Soon, they will fly.

Read more →

What Being A TechStars Mentor Meant To Me

23 May
May 23, 2013

TechStars Demo Day has come and gone.  It has been 13 weeks since I first met the start-up entrepreneurs in this program.  And, after these 13 weeks of mentoring some of the brightest and most talented entrepreneurs I have ever met, I find that I am sad that the intensity is over.

TechStars is a technology start-up company “incubator” or “accelerator” that brings in companies from around the world for an intense program to make them stronger businesses.  From thousands of applicants, only 14 are selected for each term.    Each is in a different tech-related business and each faced different challenges.  I am told that the acceptance rate is lower than that at Harvard or MIT, which are both nearby in Cambridge.  That makes it a very select group of young entrepreneurs.

TechStars Demo Day is the official coming out party for these companies. Hundreds of investors came to watch each company present for about 10 minutes to show what they can do.

I found that being a mentor was the most important work-related activity I have done in years.  It energized me.  It broadened my horizons.  And, it gave me a chance to give back to the Boston entrepreneurial community.  Perhaps the most amazing thing to me is that I expect that I will be connected with these founders for the rest of my life.  It is astounding given that the formal part of the program is for just 13 weeks.

Read more →

Windows 8 Wishes It Is The New Coke

07 May
May 7, 2013

Tami Reller, head of marketing and finance for the Windows business, said in an interview today with the Financial Times that it was changing “key aspects” of Windows 8.  The FT called it “one of the most prominent admissions of failure for a new mass-market consumer product since Coca-Cola’s New Coke fiasco nearly 30 years ago.”

But, will Microsoft take advantage of this New Coke Moment?  Do they understand that marketing is not just about new features and a great interface?  Marketing is often about the relationship human beings have with their brands.

It is worth taking the time to remember New Coke.  For 80 days in 1985 (April 23rd to July 11th — days that will live in marketing history), the Coca-Cola company replaced the 100-year-old formula for Coca-Cola with a new formula.  It wasn’t an arbitrary decision.  Coca-Cola had been losing market share for 20 years, from 1964 to 1984.  In addition, the overall sugar cola market was in decline.  It did not take much to figure out that a declining market share in a declining market was a recipe for disaster.  The company tried new ads, new packaging, new everything except the 100-year-old formula.

Were people just getting tired of the taste of sugary cola?  That thought really worried Coca-Cola executives in 1984.

Read more →

Netflix and the Buggy Whip Industry

24 Apr
April 24, 2013

Less than two years ago, Netflix was the butt of jokes by late night comedians.  Remember Qwikster? Netflix was going to spin-off the DVD service and re-brand its ubiquitous little red envelopes. Members would be able to join the two services — at a higher price, of course. Netflixquickly lost 800,000 subscribers and the good will of many more.  The stock fell about 30% within 24 hours.  The company apologized (see the apology parody and the apology itself).  Many thought that the harm could be permanent.

Yesterday, Netflix’s stock shot up 24% after it announced that the number of subscribers jumped nearly 10% in one quarter. What made the difference? How do you turn around a company on the brink of a disaster?  (At least a PR disaster)

Read more →

The Marathon And The Meaning Of Freedom

20 Apr
April 20, 2013

I am not a runner.  Never have been.

I was not born in Boston.  So, locals will never consider me to be a native, no matter how long I live here.

Yet, there is something about the Boston Marathon that gets into the soul here.  Actually, the Marathon is just part of a bigger thing that celebrates the rise of the individual and the support of the community.  It is part of the unique, bigger experience of Patriot’s Day weekend.  Perhaps, it is the ultimate expression of individual freedom and the support of neighbors.

Read more →

You Promised Me Mars Colonies. Instead, I Got Facebook.

16 Apr
April 16, 2013

Last week, I was mentoring one of the TechStars start-up companies — a company that I have met with many times before.  I advised them that the problem they were tackling was much too big for such a small team.  I said that they should find a smaller problem that they could solve well and then solve it better than anyone else.  I still think that was sound advice for them.

But, as I was driving home, I started to think about this advice and I compared it to what excited me earlier in my career.  As head of marketing for Dragon Systems, I felt that I was on a mission to change lives through speech recognition.  And, we did change lives.  I remember a project where we enabled workers with repetitive stress injuries to stay on the job instead of going on disability because they did not have to use their hands to work. It kept people fulfilled and active.  I also remember a favorite project of mine where we provided speech recognition on mobile devices to officers at the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.  By dictating at a crime scene, officers took better and more complete notes. I was told that conviction rates went up and department efficiency improved as a direct result of the speech recognition software.

I am proud of the part that I played.  It was a defining period in my life.

But, will the founders of the start-ups at TechStars, the MassChallenge and the Cambridge Innovation Center have the same sense of purpose that I did if they take my advice?  Will they feel like they changed the world?

Read more →

Marketing Makes The First Sales Call

11 Apr
April 11, 2013

“Marketing Makes The First Sales Call” is already one of my all-time favorite quotes — and heard about a month ago.  John Neeson, co-founder and managing director of Sirius Decisions, said it at the MassTLC Marketing Summit on Doing More with Less.   I have never heard it so elegantly.

Technology marketing has changed.  Marketing used to be all about getting leads and handing them off to the sales force.  We had to produce exciting events and pretty literature.  PR was suspect because it could not be quantified by a lead count.  Get the name! Sales would do the rest.

I knew that this was no longer true.  But, I had never seen the data before.  The chart above shows that half of decision makers want to meet a sales rep only to keep up on industry trends or after the decision has been made.   John says,

Marketing makes the first sales call. Buyers are doing more and more online, socially with their peers and subordinates so by the time a sales person first interacts with a buyer, a good portion of the sales cycle is complete. This means marketing is making the first impression and sales call – this will dramatically change the emphasis of marketing in the next five years.

Read more →

Doctor Who Meets Google Glass

08 Apr
April 8, 2013

What will you do when the intergalactic evil takes over Google Glass.

In this week’s season opener of Dr. Who on BBC America, we learn that (SPOILER ALERT) evil protagonists can monitor the Doctor’s activities by capturing all of the images on all the cameras in the world using wifi technology.  Using image recognition and their huge databases, the protagonists can track the Doctor around London and sense when their hideout is in danger.  (“I do love London.  So many cameras,” says the the deliciously whacked Miss Kizlet.)

At first, I thought about the outrageous science.  Bah!  How could a central service capture all of the images from cameras around the world using wireless technology.  Who would allow that!

Welcome, Google Glass.  We have the technology today and it is in our midst.  Instead of a camera, you have eyeglasses with a screen that allows you to search the web.  Data is closer than your fingertips.  Email is a whisper away.  Yelp! while walking.  And, you can document your life with photos and video just by saying “Glass, take a picture.”

Read more →

You’ve Got Facebook Home — Or, Not.

06 Apr
April 6, 2013

Back in the early days of the PC Web, we had the portal wars.  AOL, Excite, Yahoo, Snap!, Lycos, Netscape, and MSN battled to capture the first screen when you launched your browser.  Vendors talked about “capturing eyeballs” on the way to what the user wanted to do.

These “portals” were aggregated home pages that were customized with your email, your contacts and your interests.  iGoogle, which came a little late to the party, was described as ”your personalized Google page. Add news, photos, weather, and stuff from across the web to your page.”

The PC Portal Wars are over.  iGoogle is being discontinued in August.  We all know what happened to the AOL, which was once the leader of the pack of portals.  The most common PC home page is a simple search box.

But, it looks like Facebook has decided to skip the lessons learned by AOL and the others with this week’s announcement of Facebook Home.

Read more →