|Open source dog and cat images: openiconlibrary|
Camera image: Sensr.net
This is the second part of my talk with Sensr.net co-founder Tom Sheffler. In this part of our discussion, we learn that shared video can create important social networks that are personal and small, rather than large and wide-ranging. We discuss the role of emerging technologies, and which will be most important (hint: bandwidth is big.) Sheffler reflects on the expectation that internet services should be free, and how that impacts a company that both gives away and charges for its services. (read the first part of the interview here.)
DH: One of the areas, one of the artifacts of the emerging world of business and technology is that they collide in new ways. Small firms can look bigger, but conversely, with social technologies, if they do it right, a big firm can be more personal. I think that’s a much bigger challenge for the big firm to find a way to relate to their millions of customers more individually. It looks like a promise, and that leads me into what you’re seeing about the social use of video.
TS: This is really interesting. We had a researcher from Intel contact some of our users directly and she also took a look at our site, and what’s happening is that people--what she observed and we’ve observed--is that some people use the remote viewing of a space as a way to share an experience and to bond. We’ve noticed a couple of examples, very small ways, but fascinating.
One case she gave was a guy who had a camera in his garage, focused on the dog. And he shared his view by sharing his account with his mother, who was in another state, and his mother used to look at the dog, used to love to, as a way to bond with her son. One day the dog got out, or was eating something he shouldn’t. The mom texted the son, saying “I just saw your dog, you better get home and take care of him.” So they had this way of mom and son, over many, many miles, bonding over the shared remote viewing of the dog, so there’s this very small social circle forming around a shared resource, which is very different from a big social network like Facebook or something.
On an individual level, because I’m building this service, I see how people are using it. We have live views and I’ve seen people tuning in every day at their home from Cupertino and DC, and we’re not sure exactly what we’re doing, but somehow a traveler and someone at home, they would use the live feature to keep watch over something. We’re trying to facilitate shared use of the camera for very small, very personal social networks.
DH: So a child halfway across the country could keep an eye on an aged parent...
TS: Exactly. And to help that, we now have the ability to invite other users to view your camera and also share text on there if you want. The use of watching your parent, that’s a great example. You may not need to see what they’re doing every day, exactly what they’re doing, but it’s enough to see that, “OK, Dad got up and moved around today.” You can imagine an older parent with each of their children being granted access to that camera. And our job is to provide the security that no one’s looking at that that shouldn’t be. We do see people sharing a view of a space as a way to stay in touch with each other, and a way to facilitate a personal relationship. So it’s not just a tech tool.
DH: As if their house were next door when it can’t be physically.
TS: And sometimes I think a passive viewing of a space, is a little bit...it seems that people like it in a way that’s different from picking up a phone and having a very structured communication. It’s “ah, I want to see what’s going on over there. OK, everything’s good.”
DH: Do you think, as bandwidths improve, you’ll see a market for essentially, a picture window, where there will be high definition cameras at amazing viewpoints around the world, and you can choose what you’re seeing? Would Sensr.net be part of delivering that, do you think, or would that be someone else’s business?
TS: We could be part of delivering that. We’re a video delivery, but we’re also an archive and analyze platform, too. We’re definitely going to be providing that, and we have stop motion video now, we’ll have smoother video.
DH: As the technologies, the enabling technologies for your business evolve and get better, what impacts do you see on your ability to do what you do? In terms of bandwidth and cameras, what are you thinking about along those lines?
TS: Sensr.net’s been up an running for over two years, two and a half years, we’ve been working on this for three years, and we’ve seen a noticeable speed increase in uploads and downloads, and downloads to handheld devices in particular. Some of what we were trying to do a few years ago seemed very aggressive in terms of the end-user bandwidth to the home and the bandwidth to the viewer. We shot for an aggressive bandwidth growth; we shot for performance on uploads and downloads that seemed a little aggressive at the time and now is working very well for us.
DH: I came to know of Sensr.net by talking to Jenna at Mission Cats, I don’t know if she was one of your early customers, but she’s certainly a fan, and I see on your website that you have a picture of Mission Cats as one of your customers. It looks great.
TS: Yeah I personally love Mission Cats, they’re big fans of ours.
DH: The ability of individuals to choose and deploy technology has certainly changed a lot in the last ten years, even in the last five. The ability of a company of yours to come into existence, essentially just buying things out of thin air as services from other cloud providers, has changed a lot, too. Is this your first startup?
TS: It’s my first startup.
DH: Tell me what it’s like to begin a company with those kinds of technological abilities that you have now...
TS: The things I’ve worked on have always been about high performance. I was with NASA, I worked on supercomputers. (When I was with Rambus) I worked on the memory chips for PlayStation 3...the fastest memory chips on the planet when we made it. So when I saw this challenge, I saw a tremendous amount of compute power and bandwidth growing, and I thought, ‘What I know how to do is to manage complexity and bring it to people,” so this has been really exciting, because we’re building something that really hasn’t existed in this form--as a consumer, public cloud service. It’s really exciting to me, not just to build it, but to watch people like Jenna put it work. (They tell us) ‘We’re using this so that the parents of our guests (that’s what they call the kitties) can look in and see what’s going on, and that’s a capability that Jenna wouldn’t have been able to put up servers or video relays, or develop plug-ins. She didn’t have to. But make no mistake, they’re very sophisticated.
They’ve got cameras and software set up, and an alarm system. Have you met her?
DH: I interviewed her at Mission Cats when I was here in November. I do cat rescue, I have cats at home. 7x7 San Francisco did a feature on them, and I learned about 7x7 because (author of Tales of the City) Armistead Maupin posted about the 7x7 website on his Facebook page. So because of that post by Armistead Maupin I knew of them, and because of visiting them, I knew of you. And that in itself is a kind of social thing that is unlike what we have been used to in the past.
How would a company like Sensr.net have made itself known to the world before the existence of the online social world out there?
TS: We’ve done a good job I think in blogging and capturing word of mouth. I personally like Mission Cats because I like what they’re doing.
We’ve had one round of investment...a lot of the way we’ve built the traffic and the business is through very personal channels. I have my own blog. We’ve done search engine optimization. In the end, it’s just all work.
DH: The process of innovation, where someone looks at A and B, and sees the C--I’ve written a couple of articles on what I call technology triggers. For instance, the invention of the cassette led people to accept the idea of mobility for their music. With the Sony Walkman, people began to think of music as something that was mobile and that they could structure--mixtapes. And then the advent of the CD introduced the digital format, and along came broadband. The outcome was the near-destruction of the CD industry because it couldn’t adapt to the “C” that the “A” and “B” created, the possibility of shared music.
I’m always curious to think about what’s going on right now, what technologies are the “A” and “B” now that some creative minds are out there saying, ‘if I can do THAT, and I have THIS ability, then I can create this product. You guys seem like a classic example of the growing pervasiveness and lower cost of home-based cameras, the pervasiveness of internet connection and the presence of cloud-based storage and traffic management services, so the outcome of all of that is the ability to have a company like yours.
TS: The cameras have been around for a number of years. Individual home bandwidths have been really important for making this a usable system. Another thing is just the pervasiveness of WiFi in homes. I’d say that’s kind of an obvious one, but most of these cameras are wireless and it really hasn’t been until fairly recently that people are comfortable putting all sorts of WiFi devices in their homes. It’s been a couple of years now.
DH: We probably have ten or so in our own home.
TS: Think back ten years ago, which is an age ago in internet time. I don’t think I had anything wireless. And now I have music systems and computers and cameras. If I do a network scan, there’s 20 things that show up, some of which are things that are not computers that I interact with myself, they’re machines talking to machines.
Part of the genesis of Sensr.net, the reason the name is “sensor” and not “camera” is because we saw--and Adam, our CEO, had a lot to do with this vision--a future of all sorts of things emitting data. Machines that sense their environment and send out information about that environment.
DH: Would your product tap into that as it emerges?
TS: Yeah. What happened was, we built some environmental sensors, for example a power sensor monitoring a TV, we had light sensors. And the graphs of these data were interesting, but what was really captivating was video. There’s just no way around that. Video grabs peoples’ attention. That’s what people seemed to be interested in. I think going forward, it would be great to be able to cross-correlate data of environments with visual representations of those environments.
One of the problems with video is there’s just too much of it. If you want to make sense of a remote environment, we believe that compute power in the cloud can help. And right now we offer a somewhat simple version of video summarization. We capture the frames where something’s happened, and we’ve thrown away a lot of it, and we help bubble up to the top the most important information through summaries.
DH: ...but the machine interpretation of what’s going on is completely in its infancy.
TS: It’s very primitive right now. I would say that right now, Sensr.net is laying the pipes for funneling the information around, and we’re doing some elementary analysis. But I can imagine a world where, you walk in and one camera picks you up and a sensor notices a light change, and you travel to a different camera, and up in the cloud we’re seeing “here’s Donald. He entered this room, he entered another room.” We can stitch these together and summarize the scene and mail it to Tom, who’s responsible for managing this space.
DH: Or send me a text if my ex shows up at my front door. Or any number of possibilities. What about third party analysis and search enablement of your publicly-displayed video?
TS: Right, right, like a Twitter feed...
DH: Or if Google starts monitoring Sensr.net public feeds and say you want an image of the new Audi model, and it could analyze the cameras and tell you if one is nearby. In the new Avengers movie, there’s a scene where they’re looking for Loki, the bad guy, and they’re using technology to analyze every publicly-available video feed in the world, and they stop him when he shows up in Germany.
TS: People see things like that in movies and they come to expect it, and then it comes to be. It’ll happen.
DH: When I saw that, I started to think about your company.
TS: I know in security agencies they have the ability to scan crowds using high-def cameras. What we’re trying to do is to bring some of those very advanced supercomputer techniques to a level where consumers have access to it.
DH: It may not be that far away.
TS. It’s probably NOT going to be that far away. We already do have the ability to recognize faces in a feed, so with fairly elementary motion detection we can annotate images where we see something moving. In the lab, we can detect the presence of a face, which is an interesting thing. We don’t know whose face it is. It could be an intruder, it could be the UPS guy, but just the presence of a face could be interesting enough to generate a text. A person has shown up at your house.
DH: People like you, who are involved in unifying those information feeds, are a part of a bigger picture that’s emerging that none of us quite understand yet. We see pieces of it.
TS: We see pieces of it. We know that some of those feeds have to be there. I think that’s part of my feeling about what we’re doing. There’s a lot of uses for this data, and someone has to build a conduit first. “
We have seen the first wave of spontaneous capture of images and sound as more and more people carry smartphones, which allow them to capture both on the spur of the moment. With the Google Glass project, that could become a hands-free real time ability: “take a video of this conversation.” I asked Sheffler about just that possibility.
TS: I don’t think it’s too far away. I don’t think it’s too long until people are used to the fact that they’re carrying around something that records everything they’re doing, and the sooner it gets off the device that’s attached to you and into someplace where it can be analyzed and shared, the better.
DH: the other piece of that I’m seeing on the way is, I see you approaching 50 yards away, and think “I know that guy. Where do I know him from?” It recognizes your face, interacts with my history, and tells me “That’s Tom Sheffler, you interviewed him last night.”
TS: Actually, that’d be helpful for me too.
DH: Let me wrap up by talking about your monetization model. You’re a freemium model, you have a free offering and then tiers of priced services.
TS: Right. So our free service is useful and limited, and what we hope is that it offers utility to people but that they also get a glimpse of what they could do if they had more data stored, and alerts, and higher resolution images.
DH: There’s no advertising on Sensr.net, you’re not using that model at all.
TS: And we’re hoping not to. I think that’s going to be a challenge. We want people to find value in what we offer and want to pay. We do have people doing just that, we have people praising us. We have a couple of people that have solved crimes using the service. There was a woman who went to court over a building issue at her store. Because she had her Sensr.net camera on in the middle of the night, she caught the building owner doing something, and they settled in court. These things happen where the ten or thirty dollars a month we’re asking an individual or a business to pay isn’t really very much. The challenge is that many people think that things on the internet are free; but the things that are free are ad-supported.
DH: If you grow more into the enterprise space or the business space, do you think there will be more inherent acceptance of the idea of paying?
TS: I do. A business expects to pay for monitoring, and with a payment comes a promise of quality and we’re offering that promise of quality and security and backup even on our free plan. We may be giving too much away right now.