Fusing Compassion and Technology. Notes from Siggraph 2014

Siggraph crowd shot

In his opening address Siggraph 2014, Dave Shreiner said “this event is all about technology to enhance peoples lives. But more importantly it’s also about compassion.” Being at conference that was putting people above the technology was a revelation. For the chairman, compassion is the narrative that matters.

Siggraph Dave Schreiner

He introduced everyone to Paulo Henrique Machado from Sao Paulo, Brazil. The computer animator attended Siggraph for the first time despite being confined to a bed and hooked to an artificial respirator 24 hours-a-day. Shreiner’s own iPad adorned Machado’s telepresence robot that allowed him to experience the people, the sights and the sounds in real time.

Machado shared with the SIGGRAPH team that the robot, “gives me the freedom that I physically can’t have.” Shreiner offered to the audience. “SIGGRAPH is a community. Paulo is part of our community, and we take care of our own.”

You can learn more about Machado from this BBC feature story.

The compassion theme was further amplified in keynote speaker Elliot Kotek. As chief of content and cofounder of Not Impossible Labs he’s a storyteller of the highest order. But he’s also a driving force behind a team whose core belief is that technology has to exist for the sake of humanity.

Read also: Not Impossible Mobilizes the International Maker Community to Save Lives

Kotek highlighted a number of projects the Not Impossible Labs team is currently tackling, as well as their commitment to a philosophy of shared innovation. He highlighted stories where open source platforms, hackers and do-it-yourself makers are fusing a community together and improving the lives of others with a mindset of “permission-less innovation.”

The genesis for Not Impossible Labs was the Eye-Writer project. For Tempt, a world renowned L.A graffiti artist fully paralyzed because of Lou Gehrig’s Disease (ALS), this amazing “hack” now allows him to draw and communicate using only his eyes. It worth watching Kotek’s partner Mick Ebeling’s TED talk.

Time Magazine proclaimed that it’s “hard to imagine any other device here doing more to make the world a better place,” as Kotek’s team leveraged open source CAD files and 3D printing technology to meaningfully transform 14-year-old double-amputee Daniel’s life. Living in war ravaged Sudan, Daniel lost both of his arms during an air raid.

Siggraph Elliot Kotek (1)

Kotek spoke of Daniel despairing about his future and about being a burden to his family and village. By creating a 3D-printed prosthetic arm the impact of seeing Daniel simply feed himself for the first time in two years was massive. Project Daniel was born. Now in Sudan’s Nuba Mountains they have set-up what is likely the world’s first 3D-printing prosthetic lab and training facility.

The team’s goal was to teach and empower the local community to use this technology and help the too many victims of similar tragedies. Kotek credits Richard Van As for making the  prosthetic hand an open source file. At a cost of about $100 in materials, the needed hardware a little teaching time with people whose education is the equivalent to about the 4th to 6th grade learned in fours days the process to make these prosthetic arms. He pointed out that this is “proof of a process transcending the tech savvy. Most importantly the project lives on!”

Even with an exhibit hall overflowing with the technology that’s driving the visual brilliance we’ve come the enjoy from our games, movies, and animation, as Shreiner later shared with me, “for the Paulo’s, the Tempt’s and the Daniel’s of our world, this is what it’s all about, we make these marvellous things so we should be using them for good.”

There was no shortage of inspiration at Siggraph 2014. Seeing the very tangible results by fusing compassion with technology will hopefully be a catalyst to transcend inspiration into mobilization.My imagination goes into overdrive thinking about what this collection of exceptionally talented people will do in creating an even richer human experience.



Mobify’s Igor Faletski: “We Need to Prepare Ourselves for a Mobile-first and Mobile-only Future”

igor_faletski-1050x700Mobile is massive and it’s getting more so everyday. Yet for all of the phones, the tablets, and what I pay my wireless carrier, the mobile web still largely sucks. Everyday I either search for something or click a social web link, and wonder why I even bother. By now I’ve quit counting my sarcastic mutterings, “nice mobile optimization, you totally fail user experience 101.”

Being curious about the future of the mobile web and other things, I recently had a conversation withMobify’s CEO and co-founder Igor Faletski. Rumours around the Vancouver startup community suggested he’d know a thing or two. Turns out the rumours are true. The young guy who moved to Canada with his family from Vladivostok, and co-founded the company with SFU classmates John Boxall (CTO) and Peter McLachlan (Chief Architect) in 2007, has a lot to share.

Flashback to the state of the art for cell phones in 2007: there’s not really a connection between the phone and software apps as we know them today. Faletski shares that “starting the business kind of just happened to us. While in Prague studying, drinking beer and reading Kafka, we saw phones with colour screens and being marketed as a platform.”

The real ah-ha moment was realizing “if I can play a game and make a game, why can’t I write an app that would be useful for my productivity, and my work… this is coming, this is going to be big, we need to do something about it,” thought Faletski. “We saw that mobile and software was going to change the world, but didn’t know how. We decided to take on the challenge of doing something for the phone, rather than the desktop.”

We might still call it a phone, but the time we spend surfing, gaming, sharing pictures, or socializing exceeds the minutes we spend talking. The way Faletski sees it is “how we use our devices isn’t about the phone, it’s about apps, and remember the browser is an app too. The way websites present themselves to users will drastically change. Websites will soon, more and more feel like native apps do…instant, personalized.” His mission is making this come true.


“We’re bridging the gap with new technology, allowing developers to build faster web sites, optimizing them for all screens, and making the web more user friendly, responsive, and an overall better user experience.”

The world moving to a ubiquitous computing experience, and the notion of a screen hierarchy is giving way to the experience of getting my information or entertainment anytime, anywhere, on any device. To Faletski, “people are now expecting companies to deliver the instant experience… answering questions or delivering information ‘now’  It’s about dealing with customer service through the website or answering questions via Twitter, and interacting with businesses anywhere and anytime via the mobile device and social web. This is a huge shift for how we live our lives versus just a technology change.”

He admits the iPad wave both caught them by surprise, and is now driving a whole new conversation.

The market has sped up so quickly. He also sees North America being fragmented in terms of accessing information by using the phone, tablet and laptop, whereas countries like China and Brazil are more phone-centric. Faletski says “these developing countries will be adopting more tablets as a work enabled device to compliment the phone, which will further impact the evolution of the web. There’s no question we need to prepare ourselves for a mobile-first and mobile-only future.”

When we talked content, Faletski had little doubt that aggregation of content is here to stay, courtesy of Facebook, Flipboard, PaperLi and the like. He thinks “aggregation won’t challenge the idea that the web is an open and ‘free to play’ experience with no gatekeepers.” He quoted Jeff Bezos, saying “even the kindest gatekeepers restrict innovation.” He said app stores are slowing down innovation: “the web is beautiful because it’s open and anyone can join it and make it better. To us the opportunity of helping people build the web is a bigger opportunity than aggregating content in one spot.”

The Mobify team currently stands at 70 people, and Faletski is looking toward starting 2014 in a new head office, and growing the team to north of 100. They have an office in London (UK), and a partner team in Tokyo, and he says business is “all about learning how to serve our global clients, and global team members.”

Having grown Mobify without external investment, Faletski shares one of his most important  challenges involves “maintaining the culture as we grow. Culture evolves over time, but values stay  more or less the same. I’m really cognizant of the fact that while we focus on our vision, revenues and growth it’s important not losing the culture we’ve built, and making sure that every year we’re a better company to work for.”

Knowing Faletski has entrepreneurship hard wired into his DNA, as is evident from his TEDxSFU talk in September, I closed our conversation asking him to give out advice for the three person startup toiling away in some coffee shop. Without hesitation he simply says “get to the first dollar quickly, regardless of the plans to bootstrap or raise funding… things you create need to be useful to people, and money is a great metric to validate the usefulness of your product.

This was originally published in BetaKit

These Apes are Creating and Innovating


Metrics like headcount and revenue can only go so far in terms of defining a startup. For some startups, its the culture that defines its success.

With a team of sixty and growing, and with hit mobile games such a Kingdoms of War, Party in My Dorm, and The Meego, labelling Vancouver’s A Thinking Ape as a “startup” is almost a stretch.

For co-founders Kenshi Arasaki, Eric Diep, and Wilkins Chung, it’s the hacker culture that defines the business. They’re never far removed from their Y Combinator roots.

We recently discussed the challenges of running a business that’s largely driven by creating a new hit with every release. From an outsider’s perspective, it seems like being in the constant state of startup mode with every new game would be the norm. Is there a sense of perpetual uncertainty?

It turned out my hypothesis was wrong.

Since launching their first game as a three man team, Chung’s view is one of “making things more efficient internally (such as making the data more efficient) and methodology.” They’re not focusing purely on game design or creating artful masterpieces. For Chung it’s about “accomplishing more with less.” Diep added that “the scale in terms of bodies has made a difference. Much of our learning has been organizational learning”

From Arasaki’s perspective, “we’re getting better at optimizing processes.”

“Improving our execution, is allowing us take on projects of a bigger scope, and to make bigger bets. We’re seeing the process internally flat out getting faster, and faster,” he said.

When talking about creativity Arasaki admitted that “ideation can’t be looked at through the pragmatic engineering lens. We’re always asking ourselves how to continue to create games people will love”

Diep said their “biggest focus in building a culture of craftsmanship leaders jobs is to instill and reinforce that culture.” Arasaki added “ideas that come from the top that while useful can also be fragile, and it doesn’t scale as well.” He also acknowledged how the team is working at pushing more of the ideation down to the trenches. “You can’t force creativity, but you can nurture it.”

The team has built a strong reputation locally by inviting the community to participate in great hackathons. In fact, they probably organized the biggest all-women hackathon Vancouver has ever seen. It’s been through this experience that they’ve brought the hackathon onboard as part of the internal creation and innovation process.

Diep sees “internal hackathons helping reinforce the culture of building stuff… a sign of a great maker is someone who always has ideas, and is always thinking about things to build. It’s not about forcing to people to build something company specific, it’s really a creative exercise and in a way a welcome break for everyone’s primary and secondary tasks.” (In fact, a small team has been spun off to work on a specific project as the result of a recent hackathon).

They admit not having a set process for filtering through ideas. There’s a spirit of self recruiting creativity, with the litmus test being whether anyone’s ideas pass the peer test. The culture of ownership is paramount with this team, and as Chung pointed out, “leaders help make sure teams with new ideas are focused on the right metrics.”

In terms of things to look forward to, there’s new games in the pipeline. More interestingly, Chung shared how they are “looking at tools and supports services beyond just games. We’re considering what can be created around the games, and potentially distributed into new markets.” In some ways it didn’t strike me as shocking when Diep said “it’s a little known fact that we didn’t specifically hire any game engineers, so it will be no surprise to them if they build something amazing that’s not a game.”

It was fun asking them to gaze in the crystal ball and talk about technology in general. They’re stoked about the growing potential impact tablets will continue having, and wearable devices with a specific shout out to Oculus Rift. We wrapped up our ‘future talk’, collectively admitting to being in awe of Elon Musk’s recent video sharing his take on the future of design.

These are really smart guys, as exemplified by Arasaki recently being chosen to attend the Gaming Insiders 30, which brings together the gaming industry’s leaders to exchange ideas.) More importantly they represent hard work and humility with the genuine commitment to helping the Vancouver technology ecosystem grow and prosper.

It’s interesting how all three talk about the positive impact they felt in terms of living in a community of shared ideas, mentoring and advice during their time in Y Combinator, and working in the Bay area. This is the attitude they are fostering. As Diep put it, “we want to help put Vancouver more on the map. We want to figure out how to turn Vancouver into a destination for talent and resources.”

This was originally published in BetaKit