- Category: Editorial
- Published: 29 March 2016
When I moved to San Francisco in the heydays of the tech boom, she was a much younger city, a soulful city trying to define herself in the face of a massive influx of wealth and talent. As foreign influences mixed with intrinsic identities, the two conflicted causing unsustainable inflation and population booms that put public utilities on edge. But more importantly, this influx also brought an abundance of culture and talent that not only defines San Francisco, but her empire of the Pacific. Her identity was never lost; it only grew, evolved, and matured. And through this profound experience, San Francisco gave birth to her most important offspring. It wasn’t technology; it was the public medium.
San Francisco has always been known for its counter-culture identity, a voice that rung independently of the echoes across the country. This independence was forged by our own identity as much as our country’s. America was settled by individuals who chose to leave the Old World and establish a new life in a land thousands of miles from home. The West is no different. What they found in California was an environment free from the influences of Old Money, and an atmosphere that was accepting of ideas and peoples of different cultures. That’s how my father ended up here at the turn of the millennium.
In the past, technology has always been a compliment instead of a core in business. Associates who close deals are more pronounced than the analysts who ran the business. Because of the scarcity of resources, also known as economics, there can only be a few businesses who can earn a contract. A simple example would be construction. The investor can only pick one developer for a new skyscraper, because there is only one plot of land, and only enough capital for one attempt. You can’t start with one company and then switch to another mid project without very serious and dangerous consequences. Issues can range from labor agreements, to the suppliers and grade of steel, to the standard bolts used to uphold the concrete jungle.
Traditional industries require significant time and money to implement, and the effectiveness of a transaction cannot be realized until long after the investment has been spent. Thus, in these situations, the winners of contracts fall on appearances, because the results aren’t readily available. However, the technology industry is a bit different. If you wanted to implement an electronic payment solution, you can actually try all 5 major providers in under a work week. The culture of San Francisco isn’t the art of the deal, it’s empiricism of results.
The reason why technology fertilized in San Francisco results largely from its culture. Back in the early 90’s, there was this growing novelty dreamed up by scientists called the Internet. Most authorities dawned this wave of information technology as a passing phase that will soon subside to traditional lines of business. If you look at the Internet objectively, it’s insane. The Internet is a series of tubes that connect thoughts and opinions, and if you pitched this idea to Wall Street two decade ago, they would have called you crazy.
The fools who did believe in this future of digital technologies moved out to San Francisco where a culture and a metropolis blossomed from its influx of talent. Within a decade, two nerds from Stanford, an idealist from Palo Alto, and a Jewish kid from Harvard forged the backbone of the modern American economy. They chose the West as their home, not out of necessity like many modern tech professionals, but because of the culture of acceptance that defined San Francisco.
Today, no matter how inane your ideas are, you can always attempt to build a life here in our city. Where in other places, you are mocked for working on a cloud for your cloud; San Franciscan investors will converse with a 25-year-old with the same dignity and respect that they’d show to a seasoned executive. Because technology changes so rapidly, it’s quite possible that the youth does possess a better solution than an engineer ingrained in the same software stack for the past 15 years.
Most people moved here because they wanted to use their skills to build elegant solutions to profound problems. As we started our first jobs, we slowly realized that technology was never the avenue to change the world; it’s a tool that enables us to do so. One of the best innovations of the past decade was Uber, a ridesharing business that alleviated transportation issues in the city. However, the issue was never technology, it was communication. Uber allowed the consumers of transportation to effectively inform the suppliers. Technology was the tool used to provide an apt solution to logistics.
Furthermore, the traditional giants of Google, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter aren’t technology companies; they are media companies. Google turned the whole Internet into the medium of choice for information, Facebook and LinkedIn created the social medium between friends and acquaintances, and Twitter forged the modern standard for mass communication. Together, these companies created a world where people are free to voice their opinions without the restrictions that obliged the empires of the past. Information wasn’t controlled by newspapers, broadcasters, or think-tanks, it is freed to be judged and shared by the public.
And through this advent of media, San Francisco defined herself. She isn’t a technology metropolis, she’s a media metropolis. We created new ways for people to interact and communicate. We removed the barriers to the libraries of the world. We gave everyone a voice. Whether you are Bill Gates or a 9th grader from Petaluma, each tweet is processed exactly the same by the technologies that enable it.
The birth of the public medium promoted not only freedom, but also opportunity. Like all mediums, this public media has to be supported economically, just like the traditional medias of TV, newspaper, and radio. Behind the technological giants of the Silicon Valley, lies the true source of our wealth: advertisement. Google isn’t an Internet company, it’s an advertising company. Instead of TV or radio, its medium of choice is the Internet. Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook are no different; behind the tweets, connects, and likes lay a technological infrastructure supported by advertisement. Despite our progressive initiatives, the giants of San Francisco are still businesses.
And in under a decade, this newfound wealth drove the supporting information technology industry of the Bay Area. Outside of San Francisco, why would anyone need data processing in the petabytes? Why would a bank in Butte, MT need a data architect when it only has 3000 members? The massive scale of our public medium demanded an infrastructure that seems esoteric outside of Silicon Valley. But when our local businesses implemented these initiatives in 2006, it established the foundations of 2016’s economy. Which company doesn’t have a Twitter or Facebook? Which company still uses ledgers instead of databases? Who still sends memos when there’s email or Slack? Who still uses physical servers instead of a cloud? These are basic business infrastructures that seemed inane only ten years ago.
And through this growth of technology, came San Francisco’s most important contribution: the democratization of the economy. Power has shifted from private boardrooms to the public, and it all started with advertisement. The cost of entry to advertise on Google is only a few hundred bucks, and the price per ad is determined by economics. This is juxtaposed against traditional media where the cost of entry can be a few hundred thousand, and the price of your campaign is determined by rounds in a boardroom.
Soon, this democratization spread to the transportation industry, where the power shifted from a handful of medallions to anyone with a car and a smartphone. And with this new democratization, came the economics that determined the value of your labor. Taxi drivers and patrons constantly switch between Uber and Lyft to use the service that offers the better value. The equilibrium price adjusts to the ebb and flow of supply and demand rather than some arbitrary set price. If you don’t believe me, try ordering a Lyft on a rainy day. San Francisco does not obey the prices set by corporations, but by the natural laws of economics.
No one said that this democratization makes life easier; it just means that everyone has a chance to succeed. If you want to make video games, Unity will provide you the game engine, Amazon will provide you the host, and Google will help you monetize. With such readily available tools, it’s up to you, the individual, to try, and fail, and try again, and fail again, and keep on trying until you have something you are proud of. No one’s going to hold your hand and walk you step-by-step to success, but no one says you can’t try. It’s up you to forge your own destiny.
The soul of San Francisco is the voice of its citizens, and the growth of our city depends on our insurance that every voice is heard despite the popularity of their opinions. In a world where technology evolves daily, the next revolution can come from the sociologist from Seattle, as easily as the senior economist from Marin. The future of our city depends on our integrity to treat every single individual, irregardless of their backgrounds, with the same level of dignity and respect.
Because in San Francisco, our economy was built by courageous women and men who moved to the city with a few hundred bucks and an idea. Because in San Francisco, we don’t care about your background or experiences, we only care about what you can accomplish. Because in San Francisco, your voice isn’t just your words, it’s your talents, your contributions, your thoughts, your desires, your motivations, your ideas, and your rights as a citizen of our city. It’s not ivory tower executives who pick the winners and losers; it’s the public economy that decides between success and failure. Whether you’re an engineer, a developer, a biologist, an architect, a writer, or an economist, it’s your contributions that transformed our city into a tech metropolis.
The rains of March subside and give way to the seeds of a new year. For our glimmer in February wasn’t our might, it was a harbinger of our strength. And as the rest of the country saw the light that faded, they think forward to the blistering heats of their summer and the coldest winters of San Francisco. To them, our moment of brilliance has come and gone. And as the summer days grow bountiful and lush in the East, the West resigns to the biting winds of the Pacific. They obliquely confirm their truth. But our summers aren’t orthodox; we follow and live on a unique calendar, and we bide, toil, and strive beyond the faded glories of the past. And when the summer resigns to the chills of autumn, the might of San Francisco rises. As the leaves fall and the days of light fade into the colds of winter, San Francisco shines brighter, longer, and stronger than any could ever foresaw. Our golden age hasn’t come and gone, it’s being built by people like you.
It’s not technology that built our metropolis. It’s people that built the Empire of the West.
- Category: Sports
- Published: 27 March 2016
Last week, I had the opportunity to chat with Casey Chafkin the co-founder of Skillz. Skillz provides competitive infrastructure for video games.
In the past 5 years, electronic sports has grown into a fundamental of gaming. Competition brings vitality and sociability to games where solitary experiences cannot. This social aspect drives both engagement and significant retention. Because each person is unique in their skill and playstyle, each opponent generates unique content. Furthermore, it’s more fun to “pwn” another player than to optimize against an algorithm.
Another reason for Esports' growth is their massive prize pools. In 2015, Dota 2’s championships chipped over $18MM, and many expect this year’s pool to exceed $20MM. This monetization of gaming interests many economists, because the funding has to come from somewhere. Traditional sports depend on sponsors and tickets, and some Esport teams have followed this model. For example, Evil Geniuses, owned by Amazon, partners with Monster Energy, Steel Series, and BenQ. However, the majority of electronic sports, especially player income, is crowdfunded.
In Dota, when players buy in-game graphical accessories, a share of Valve’s revenue feeds into the yearly prize pool. Event tickets are usually sold at cost, and sponsors are independent per team. Though technically, this model could be considered play funded, as everyone who plays Dota can compete through the Open Qualifiers; but honestly, most players know their chances are slim. For many, it’s about supporting a game they love and athletes they admire.
One of the best known player-funded sporting event is the New York Marathon. Though most can barely cross the finish line, over 40,000 people pay $250 to participate in a well-organized and enjoyable tournament. Any New Yorker can run the exact same route for free on a mundane Saturday; yet, they still pay for the experience. What was originally a race has became a global attraction. It’s not a competition, it’s an exhibition.
As the millennials age, so will their sport of choice. Professional gaming has established sound infrastructures, but it’s hard to find such for common games. Skillz fills that niche. Most of its user base, 90% to be approximate, use Skillz as a free platform to set up tournaments. This startup prompts itself for providing the infrastructure to bring any game to the competitive stage. Skillz will never be the Blizzard of competitive sports, but Android never aimed to be an Apple.
Out of the 30 million people that play basketball, only 450 play in the NBA. For most of its population, playing basketball isn’t about winning a ring; it’s about finding a pickup game on the courts, or a 3v3 tournament over the weekend. A sport isn’t about winning money; it’s about competing to see who’s better. Skillz isn’t the epitome of electronic sports; it’s the democratization of competitive gaming for the public.
- Category: Business
- Published: 26 March 2016
Clash Royale came out earlier this month, and to no one’s surprise, it rightfully took the highest grossing spot on both Android and iOS. It did knock off the previous #1 seed, Clash Royale’s predecessor, Clash of Clans. As the mobile space continues to grow, it’s becoming harder and harder for new developers to earn a share of a pie that’s past optimized. The market for mobile games is massive, but once it reaches capacity, the growth of one game often marks the decline of another.
Source: Apptopia's top charts report
Taking a share out of the lion’s mouth is difficult, as their grip on freemium games is iron. Free2Play depends on user acquisition, and "for the next few years, user acquisition depends on who can spend the most money and not die," says Mary Min, VP of Seworks, a mobile security consultancy. The reason for this is best analogized by Joshua Lu of Zynga, "organic non paid user acquisition is like saying why one celebrity is more popular than another."
The most recent app to buck the hegemony was a free basketball shooter from Miniclip. Though it only made $60k from in game ads in the past month, versus $14.3MM from Clash Royale, it did something that many Freemium games couldn’t do. It penetrated a mature market dominated by established giants.
The data above was provided by Apptopia, a crisp and straightforward mobile analytics platform.
- Category: Business
- Published: 25 March 2016
Early this week, I chatted with Deborah Acosta, Chief Innovation Officer of San Leandro, about a city transitioning from an industrial past to a technological future. San Leandro is a city in the East Bay, about halfway between Berkeley and Silicon Valley. It was primarily a manufacturing town for the past century, but as manufacturing moved oversees in the 1980’s, so did its economy. Around the same time, an operational intelligence consultancy, OSISoft, took roots in San Leandro and unknowingly defined its future.
Sometime over the last two decades, the CEO of OSISoft demanded better internet utilities due to the magnitude of data they use daily. Since its beneficiary was limited to esoteric firms that needed expansive bandwidth, the founder took it upon himself to fix his data problem. After a decade or so, with the help from the municipal and federal government, San Leandro took the initiative to completely modernize its telecommunications infrastructure. “Today, we have about 18 miles of fiber optic loop,” 18 more miles than San Francisco.
San Leandro has become an innovation center for technology startups, with a specific focus on high-tech clean energy. When the fiber optic project started, it was an infrastructural “leap of faith,” that eventually paid large dividends. Over the past decade, San Leandro attracted a plethora of “clean tech, advanced manufacturing, and additive manufacturing that it has become one of the largest incubators in the Bay.” Another, less publicized, reason for San Leandro’s success is its cost of living. You can buy a proper house for about $600,000.
Today, San Leandro has attracted a lot of attention from advanced manufacturing with names like Coca-Cola, Ghirardelli, and 21st Amendment, to hardware manufacturers such as Type A Machines, Freewire Technologies, and Applied fusion. Though San Leandro might not become the next software hub, its industrial history and its modern infrastructure has defined itself as a hardware hotspot. The San Francisco Bay Area is America’s technological capital, and San Leandro is the Factory of the Bay.
- Category: Business
- Published: 24 March 2016
At GDC I got the chance to try both the Oculus and the Vive. To be honest, it’s a pretty close matchup. The Oculus will dominant the VR headset market share, but the Vive will produce higher quality virtual reality experiences. The Oculus Rift, its flagship product, ships at $600, while the Gear VR, phone emulation set, starts at $100. The Vive ships at $800, but it requires a $1000 computer rig to run as intended. It may sequester the general market, but will stand as the item of choice for enthusiasts.
The Oculus has a lot more games available, due to both its price point and market history. One of the Oculus games I tried was Bank Limit, a battle racing game. Once you put the Oculus headset on, it felt like you were in a different world. The Oculus provides you with a great virtual reality experience. In Juxtapose, the Vive headset requires a 2 inch cord that connected to your desktop, and a motion detector setup; however, the experience was surreal. I tried a racing game using the VirZoom bike add-on. I remembered that the motion tracking and graphics were spot-on.
Oculus is to Vive as Eat24 is to Postmates. Postmates delivers, no pun intended, for that $50 special night in, but much more often than not, I order a $20 meal for two on Eat24.
- Category: Editorial
- Published: 23 March 2016
At GDC, I got the chance to interview Two Tribes Co-founder Collin van Ginkel, a true veteran of the game industry. His career started in 2001 and ends this year with the release of their final game Rive: the best platformer I’ve played in recent memory, possibly ever. It takes the best elements of Gunstar Super Heroes, Bastion, and Super Meat Boy, and combines them into one game. We chatted a bit about Rive, but the conversation soon wandered to his career story, what he learned in his 15 years, and the future of the game industry.
Collin: “Our first game was released in 2001; it was Toki Tori for the Gameboy Color… And for some reason we managed to sell the game to Capcom and they distributed it in the US and the UK. I was still in school studying interaction design... And I was like, I just wanted to make games. If I can sell my hobby project to Capcom and get it in stores in America and the UK , why am I still I school?
…So that was the start of Two Tribes.”
“If we can do it once, we should be able to do it again, and then it wasn’t so easy. That’s always the case... We worked on the Game Boy Advance, since it came out in 2001, and we almost convinced Nintendo to be the publisher (for our next game). It was called 'Three Tribes'… a co-op RPG like Zelda where players can help each other out”
“Then we went on to mobile phones games before smartphones, and it was truly horrible... It was very annoying to make (games) for a million different phones without decent controls... After a while, we made a Worms game for the Nokia N-Gage… it was Nokia trying to make a cool game device… Then we went back to the Nintendo (DS) with a game called Garfield, and Worms Warfare 2, in 2006 or 2007... Fast forward a few years… we got ourselves involved in digital distribution, and started making games for the IPhone, the original Wii as well, some NDS, and then transitioned to PC and consoles.”
“At some point two years ago, we had 15 people working for us... The last game we made was…. Toki Tori 2 and it didn’t bring in enough money to keep going…and we had to let go 12 people of the 15... It was back to our roots because in the beginning it was just 2 or 3 people... Now it’s still those 2, 3 people and we are working on Rive... and we just announced we are going to retire and stop making new games after this.”
“Basically we are old. I’m only 37, I’m not old old, but… when you are young you see more possibility and you embrace everything that’s new…For me, video games is something you play on your couch and turn on the TV… Nothing with internet, or Twitch streaming or season passes. A good game should be simple, straight forward and super fun…and in this environment, it’s difficult to make people enthusiastic about that because it’s too old school for these days.”
“It’s been good. This is our last GDC, we came here and we gave a goodbye party yesterday… and we invited the friends we’ve made over the last ten, fifteen years. And we are looking forward to finishing Rive and making it the best possible game we can.”
Jason: “What are you going to do after?”
Collin: “I have no clue, but for some reason it feel like it should pop up in my mind without thinking about it.”
Jason: “Do you think you’ll stay in the game industry?”
Collin: “I don’t know.”
Jason: “VR is what mobile was in 2007.”
Collin: “Everyone thinks its going to explode.”
Jason: “But it won’t until 2018… let’s take a normal market cycle… no one is going to buy this until Christmas of this year, so 2017 is when the cool people will have it... So instead of asking for an Xbox, they ask for an Oculus... 2017 is when all the influencers will be playing it, and 2018 is when it hits mainstream.”
Collin: “For me, when it’s immersive it has to be perfect. It would be a long, long time before I accept it as a mass market thing.”
Jason: “VR is definitely going to explode, but the big thing is going to be AR, augmented reality... VR is mostly for entertainment purposes, but AR will have more serious applications... especially in war.”
Collin: “But also for consumers when it’s in your car…and renders the arrows of Google Maps on the street where you should go.”
Jason: “That’s pretty cool.”
Collin: “But I think it will be a while before we can get that to work properly. You need to understand the world in technology and layer something on top of that.”
Jason: “What I heard, they aren’t going to process the world in real time; they would map out an area already… so there’s already a map on the server.”
Collin: “And they superimpose stuff onto that map.”
Jason: “It’s really big, and I really think that’s where the industry is going to head... For games, it’s going to peak at VR, and go to AR for a little bit, but for technology in general, AR is where it’s going to go to.”
Collin: “It’s more useful for regular use… but if AR encompasses your entire view, it’s just VR... So AR is like VR but more advanced.”
Jason: “What game would you like to see VR?”
Collin: “If you were to say would you want to play Shadow of the Colossus in VR, I would say Yes… the thing that overwhelmed me was the scale of everything… And if you are standing there and you see this guy towering above you, that would be really impressive. It’s the perspective that you can get… it could be the Grand Canyon we are sitting now… and anything we do in that environment would feel impressive because of the scale."
Jason: “For me, I’m waiting for World of Warcraft to come out…That would be so much fun to be hanging out with all your friends and killing bosses. That’s something everyone wants to do.”
Collin: “I guess in 5 years we will know. My guess is that VR will be more mature and AR is what VR is now.”
Jason: “The problem with AR is that when you look at something, it has to process that image?”
Collin: “Yea, it basically has to 3D scan your environment… and the precision is not there... If you look at something, it has to process it, and you turn your head like this.”
(Collin turns his head to the side)
“It’s not even a quarter of a second… And when I look there, it takes the image, processes it, and overlays the additional information. It will always be behind… It’s a really big challenge to get it fast enough... It needs to record reality and change it... My guess is that the HoloLens is the same thing, it’s just something that they want us to believe in, because it will be at some point, but just not now.”
Jason: “That’s cool I’ve never thought about it like that.”
Collin: “I think about it because it’s my job, well it’s not my job now. It was my hobby, but I made it my job. I think about it because it’s interesting for me.”
Jason: “I did the same thing.”
I was thoroughly impressed when I played through the demo. The first thing I noticed was the precision of the controls; I had no doubt over my movements or actions. Next came the atmosphere, art style and narration, it engrossed me in a world just like Bastion. Finally, the combat was just plain old fun. The encounters were diverse and a bit harder than I was used to, but it never felt unfair; the precise controls carried my character exactly as I commanded.
Rive is simple, straight forward, and super fun. It’s the definition of a great game.
- Category: Business
- Published: 22 March 2016
Last week, I met with 6SensorLabs, a hardware startup that tests food allergies on the fly. Its first product, Nima, can determine gluten content in about a minute for any piece of food. It comes in a pyramid like sensor with a disposable capsule to put your food in. “You would take a sample of the food…and the action of closing the lid grinds the food and triggers the chemistry.” And in about a minute, the sensor will indicate the food’s gluten content. “It’s like a miniature lab you carry around with you.”
This idea started when founder, Shireen Yates, realized her food allergies during college. At MIT, she met her co-founder Scott Sundvor, a mechanical engineer, and along with Jingqing Zhang, their lead scientist, they started 6SensorLabs. For anyone with an allergy, Nima helps you understand the food on the go. “There are an estimated of 20 million people in the United States with a physical reaction to gluten,” and Nima alleviates their concerns.