Taking Note of Music Tech’s VC and Accelerator Market Trends in 2017

As a part of today’s modern music industry there exists a complementary and thriving support system of venture capital firms and music tech startup accelerators who are providing a multitude of innovative services.  A fascinating examination of the current state of this ecosystem appeared in an article entitled Music Pushes to Innovate Beyond Streaming, But Investors Play It Safe: Analysis, by Cherie Hu, posted on Billboard.com on 7/24/17. I highly recommend reading it in its entirety for its insights, assessments and accompanying graphics.

I will summarize this feature here, add some links and annotations and, well, venture a few of my own questions. Also, I believe this is a logical follow to three previous Subway Fold posts about the music biz including:

Tempo

In mid-2017, the music tech market is generating signals as to its direction and viability. For example, Jawbone, the once thriving manufacturer of wearable audio devices is currently being liquidated; Soundcloud  the audio distribution platform let go of 40 percent of its staff recently only days before the firm’s tenth anniversary; and Pandora has experienced high turnover among its executives while seeking a sale.

Nonetheless, the leaders in music streaming are maintaining “the music industry’s growth”. Music tech showcases and music accelerators including SXSW Music Startup Spotlight, the Midemlab Accelerator, and Techstars Music are likewise driving market transformation.   During 2017 thus far, 54 music startups from more than 25 cities across the globe have taken part in these three entities. They have presented a range of submissions including “live music activations and automated messaging to analytics tools for labels and artists”.

While companies such as Live Nation, Balderton Capital and Evolution Media have previously invested in music startups, most investors at this mid-year point have never previously funded a company in this space. This is despite the fact that investments in this market sector have rarely returned the 30% that VCs generally seek. As well, a number of established music industry stars are participating as first-time or veteran investors this year.

Of the almost $900 million funding in music tech for the first half of this year, 75% was allocated for streaming services – – 82% of which went only to the leading four companies. However, there remains a “stark disconnect” involving the types of situations where music accelerators principally “lend their mentorship” in “hardware, virtual reality1, chatbots, label tools”, and the issues that VC concentrate the funding such as “streaming, social media, brands”.  Moreover, this situation has the potential of “stifling innovation” across the industry.

To date, music accelerators have “successfully given a platform and resources” to some sectors of the industry that VCs don’t often consider. For example, automated messaging and AI-generated music2 are both categories that music accelerators avoided until recently, now equal 15% of membership. This expansion into new categories reflects a much deeper “tech investment and hiring trends”. Leading music companies are now optimistic about virtual digital assistants (VDA) including chatbots and voice-activated systems such as Amazon Alexa3. As well, Spotify recently hired away a leading AI expert from Sony.

Rhythm

However, this “egalitarian focus” on significant problems has failed to “translate into the wider investing landscape” insofar as the streaming services have attracted 75% of music tech funding. The data further shows that licensing/rights/catalog management, social music media, and music, brands and advertising finished, in that order, in second at 11.1%, third at 7.1% and fourth at 3.9%.

These percentages closely match those for 2016. Currently, many VCs in this sector view streaming “as the safest model available”. It is also one upon which today’s music industry depends for its survival.

Turning to the number of rounds of music tech funding rather than the dollar amounts raised, by segments within the industry, a “slightly more egalitarian landscape” emerges:

  • Music hardware, AI-generated music, and VR and Immersive media each at 5.0%
  • Live music; music brands and advertising; streaming; and social music media each at 15.0%
  • Licensing, rights, and catalog management at 25% (for such companies as Kobalt Music, Stem and Dubset)

Categories that did relatively well in both their number of rounds of funding and accelerator membership were “catalog management, social music platforms, and live music”.

Those music tech startups that are more “futuristic” like hardware and VR are seen favorably by “accelerators and conference audiences”, but less so among VCs.  Likewise, while corporate giants including Live Nation, Universal Music Group, Citi and Microsoft have announced movement into music VR in the past six months, VC funding for this tech remained “relatively soft”.

Even more pronounced is the situation where musical artists and label services such as Instrumental (a influencer discovery platform) and chart monitors like Soundcharts have not raised any rounds of funding. This is so “despite unmatched attention from accelerators. This might be due to these services not being large enough to draw too “many traditional investors”.

An even more persistent problem here is that not many VCs “are run by people with experience in the music industry” and are familiar with its particular concerns. Once exception is Plus Eight Equity Partners, who are trying to address “this ideological and motivational gap”.

Then there are startups such as 8tracks and Chew who are “experimenting with crowdfunding” in this arena but who were not figured into this analysis.

In conclusion, the tension between a “gap in industry knowledge” and the VCs’ preference for “safety and convenience”, is blurring the line leading from accelerator to investment for many of these imaginative startups.

My Questions

  • Of those music startups who have successfully raised funding, what factors distinguished their winning pitches and presentations that others can learn from and apply?
  • Do VCs and accelerators really need the insights and advice of music industry professionals or are the numbers, projects and ROIs only what really matters in deciding whether or not to provide support?
  • Would the application of Moneyball principles be useful to VCs and accelerators in their decision-making processes?

 


1.  See the category Virtual and Augmented Reality for other Subway Fold posts on a range of applications of these technologies.

2.  For a report on a recent developments, see A New AI Can Write Music as Well as a Human Composer, by Bartu Kaleagasi, posted on Futurism.com on 3/9/17.

3.  Other examples of VDAs include Apple’s Siri, Google’s Assistant and Microsoft’s Cortana.

Mary Meeker’s 2016 Internet Trends Presentation

"Blue Marble - 2002", Image by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

“Blue Marble – 2002”, Image by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

On June 1, 2016, at the 2016 Code Conference held this week in California, Mary Meeker, a world-renowned Internet expert and partner in the venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins, presented her fifteenth annual in-depth and highly analytical presentation on current Internet trends. It is an absolutely remarkable accomplishment that is highly respected throughout the global technology industry and economy. The video of her speech is available here on Recode.com

Her 2016 Internet Trends presentation file is divided into a series of eight main sections covering, among many other things: Internet user and financial growth rates, online advertising, generational market segments and technological preferences, new products and vendors, mobile screens for nearly everything, e-commerce, big data, privacy issues, video growth on social media platforms, messaging systems , smartphone growth,  voice interfaces, consumer spending, online security, connectivity, Facebook’s v. Google’s growth rates, and massive consumer markets in China and India. That is just the tip of the tip of the iceberg in this 213-slide file.

Ms. Meeker’s assessments and predictions here form an extraordinarily comprehensive and insightful piece of work. There is much here for anyone and everyone to learn and consider in the current and trending states nearly anything and everything online. Moreover, there are likely many potential opportunities for new and established businesses, as well as other institutions, within this file.

I very highly recommend that you set aside some time to thoroughly read through Ms. Meeker’s full presentation. You will be richly rewarded with knowledge and insight that can potentially yield a world of informative and practical dividends.

Summary of An Interview on NPR with Michael Krieger, Co-founder of Instagram

Image from Pixabay

Image from Pixabay

One of Instagram‘s two co-founders, Michael Krieger, was interviewed on Saturday, March 26, 2016 on The New Yorker Radio Hour on WNYC, the NPR station in New York. In just 17 minutes, he and the interviewer, Nicholas Thompson, who is the editor of newyorker.com, covered a remarkable amount of valuable territory about the origin, operations and philosophy of Instagram.

Here is the link to the podcast entitled How Instagram Took Over the World. I highly recommend listening to it in its entirety. There is much to learned from the very insightful Mr. Krieger about the constantly changing world of startups. My admiration and gratitude to both him and Mr. Thompson for such a lively and engaging presentation.

Here is a brief summary of the subjects covered in the order they were discussed:

  • Instagram originally began as an app called “Burbn”.  It was not being used much at the time, but its photo-posting feature immediately drew the most interest of its initial users. The knowledge gained from the experience with Burbn became the foundation upon which Instagram was later built.¹
  • The co-founders’ key concerns all along have been ease-of-use in getting photos uploaded as quickly as possible and making them look good with the available filters and features.
  • When Instagram first launched, it very quickly gained an international audience. It generated early excitement because there were no language barriers in following other users. One of the initial and inspiring experiences of early users was following and supporting the rescue efforts after the 2011 tsunami in Japan.
  • At first, the co-founders were completely focused upon building the app’s infrastructure.
  • The media initially perceived the app as “something for hipsters”. In fact, a wide diversity of users was genuinely connecting with each other.
  • The co-founders needed to become well versed in copyright matters, as the users, not Instagram, own their photos. This included the provisions of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.
  • Facebook purchased Instagram for approximately $1 billion in 2012. ² While FB’s philosophy is generally to get new projects implemented quickly online, Instagram prefers to take more time with their new upgrades and features to make certain they are done right.
  • Instagram has always been a “cohesive experience for users”.
  • Instagram has “changed the world” insofar as people “have a desire to tell stories”, and the app and others like it are “immediate and visceral”. Essentially, it enables users to “bring others into the moment”.
  • The ease-of-use of the app in getting photos uploaded quickly also permits users to “get back into your life” rather than taking too much time with the technology. In effect, taking more time to directly view and experience what a user has photographed after the photos have been easily uploaded and the phone put aside.
  • Both of Instagram’s founders, Michael Krieger and Kevin Systrom, have always gotten along well during the 6-year history of their company. Their respective skills in business and technology have always complemented each other.
  •  The founders have always maintained two guiding principles in their work:
    • Do the simple things first.
    • In terms of craft and design, do fewer things better.
  • The biggest challenge for startups today is getting noticed as marketing and distribution have become more difficult.

 


1.  For the full details on this story, see an article published in The Atlantic entitled Instagram Was First Called ‘Burbn’, June 2014, by Megan Garber.

2The Wall Street Journal’s coverage, as just one representative news media source among, appeared in an article published on April 10, 2012, entitled Insta-Rich: $1 Billion for Instagram, by Shayndi Raice and Spencer E. Ante.

The Mediachain Project: Developing a Global Creative Rights Database Using Blockchain Technology

Image from Pixabay

Image from Pixabay

When people are dating it is often said that they are looking for “Mr. Right” or “Ms. Right”. That is, finding someone who is just the right romantic match for them.

In the case of today’s rapid development, experimentation and implementation of blockchain technology, if a startup’s new technology takes hold, it might soon find a highly productive (but maybe not so romantic) match in finding Mr. or Ms. [literal] Right by deploying the blockchain as a form of global registry of creative works ownership.

These 5 Subway Fold posts have followed just a few of the voluminous developments in bitcoin and blockchain technologies. Among them, the August 21, 2015 post entitled Two Startups’ Note-Worthy Efforts to Adapt Blockchain Technology for the Music Industry has drawn the most number of clicks. A new report on Coindesk.com on February 23, 2016 entitled Mediachain is Using Blockchain to Create a Global Rights Database by Pete Rizzo provides a most interesting and worthwhile follow on related to this topic. I recommend reading it in its entirety. I will summarize and annotate it to provide some additional context, and then pose several of my own questions.

Producing a New Protocol for Ownership, Protection and Monetization

Applications of blockchain technology for the potential management of economic and distribution benefits of “creative professions”, including writers, musicians and others, that have been significantly affected by prolific online file copying still remains relatively unexplored. As a result, they do not yet have the means to “prove and protect ownership” of their work. Moreover, they do have an adequate system to monetize their digital works. But the blockchain, by virtue of its structural and operational nature, can supply these creators with “provenance, identity and micropayments“. (See also the October 27, 2015 Subway Fold post entitled Summary of the Bitcoin Seminar Held at Kaye Scholer in New York on October 15, 2015 for some background on these three elements.)

Now on to the efforts of a startup called Mine ( @mine_labs ), co-founded by Jesse Walden and Denis Nazarov¹. They are preparing to launch a new metadata protocol called Mediachain that enables creators working in digital media to write data describing their work along with a timestamp directly onto the blockchain. (Yet another opportunity to go out on a sort of, well, date.)  This system is based upon the InterPlanetary File System (IPFS). Mine believes that IPSF is a “more readable format” than others presently available.

Walden thinks that Mediachain’s “decentralized nature”, rather than a more centralized model, is critical to its objectives. Previously, a very “high-profile” somewhat similar initiative to establish a similarly global “database of musical rights and works” called the Global Repertoire Database (GDR) had failed.

(Mine maintains this page of a dozen recent posts on Medium.com about their technology that provides some interesting perspectives and details about the Mediachain project.)

Mediachain’s Objectives

Walden and Nazarov have tried to innovate by means of changing how media businesses interact with the Internet, as opposed to trying to get them to work within its established standards. Thus, the Mediachain project has emerged with its focal point being the inclusion of descriptive data and attribution for image files by combining blockchain technology and machine learning². As well, it can accommodate reverse queries to identify the creators of images.

Nazarov views Mediachain “as a global rights database for images”. When used in conjunction with, among others, Instagram, he and Walden foresee a time when users of this technology can retrieve “historic information” about a file. By doing so, they intend to assist in “preserving identity”, given the present challenges of enforcing creator rights and “monetizing content”. In the future, they hope that Mediachain inspires the development of new platforms for music and movies that would permit ready access to “identifying information for creative works”. According to Walden, their objective is to “unbundle identity and distribution” and provide the means to build new and more modern platforms to distribute creative works.

Potential Applications for Public Institutions

Mine’s co-founders believe that there is further meaningful potential for Mediachain to be used by public organizations who provide “open data sets for images used in galleries, libraries and archives”. For example:

  • The Metropolitan Museum of Art (“The Met” as it is referred to on their website and by all of my fellow New York City residents), has a mandate to license the metadata about the contents of their collections. The museum might have a “metadata platform” of its own to host many such projects.
  • The New York Public Library has used their own historical images, that are available to the public to, among other things, create maps.³ Nazarov and Walden believe they could “bootstrap the effort” by promoting Mediachain’s expanded apps in “consumer-facing projects”.

Maintaining the Platform Security, Integrity and Extensibility

Prior to Mediachain’s pending launch, Walden and Nazarov are highly interested in protecting the platform’s legitimate users from “bad actors” who might wrongfully claim ownership of others’ rightfully owned works. As a result, to ensure the “trust of its users”, their strategy is to engage public institutions as a model upon which to base this. Specifically, Mine’s developers are adding key functionality to Mediachain that enables the annotation of images.

The new platform will also include a “reputation system” so that subsequent users will start to “trust the information on its platform”. In effect, their methodology empowers users “to vouch for a metadata’s correctness”. The co-founders also believe that the “Mediachain community” will increase or decrease trust in the long-term depending on how it operates as an “open access resource”. Nazarov pointed to the success of Wikipedia to characterize this.

Following the launch of Mediachain, the startup’s team believes this technology could be integrated into other existing social media sites such as the blogging platform Tumblr. Here they think it would enable users to search images including those that may have been subsequently altered for various purposes. As a result, Tumblr would then be able to improve its monetization efforts through the application of better web usage analytics.

The same level of potential, by virtue of using Mediachain, may likewise be found waiting on still other established social media platforms. Nazarov and Walden mentioned seeing Apple and Facebook as prospects for exploration. Nazarov said that, for instance, Coindesk.com could set its own terms for its usage and consumption on Facebook Instant Articles (a platform used by publishers to distribute their multimedia content on FB). Thereafter, Mediachain could possibly facilitate the emergence of entirely new innovative media services.

Nazarov and Walden temper their optimism because the underlying IPFS basis is so new and acceptance and adoption of it may take time. As well, they anticipate “subsequent issues” concerning the platform’s durability and the creation of “standards for metadata”. Overall though, they remain sanguine about Mediachain’s prospects and are presently seeking developers to embrace these challenges.

My Questions

  • How would new platforms and apps using Mediachain and IPSF be affected by the copyright and patent laws and procedures of the US and other nations?
  • How would applications built upon Mediachain affect or integrate with digital creative works distributed by means of a Creative Commons license?
  • What new entrepreneurial opportunities for startup services might arise if this technology eventually gains web-wide adoption and trust among creative communities?  For example, would lawyers and accountants, among many others, with clients in the arts need to develop and offer new forms of guidance and services to navigate a Mediachain-enabled marketplace?
  • How and by whom should standards for using Mediachain and other potential development path splits (also known as “forks“), be established and managed with a high level of transparency for all interested parties?
  • Does analogizing what Bitcoin is to the blockchain also hold equally true for what Mediachain is to the blockchain, or should alternative analogies and perspectives be developed to assist in the explanation, acceptance and usage of this new platform?

June 1, 2016 Update:  For an informative new report on Mediachain’s activities since this post was uploaded in March, I recommend clicking through and reading Mediachain Enivisions a Blockchain-based Tool for Identifying Artists’ Work Across the Internet, by Jonathan Shieber, posted today on TechCrunch.com.


1.   This link from Mine’s website is to an article entitled Introducing Mediachain by Denis Nazarov, originally published on Medium.com on January 2, 2016. He mentions in his text an earlier startup called Diaspora that ultimately failed in its attempt at creating something akin to the Mediachain project. This December 4, 2014 Subway Fold post entitled Book Review of “More Awesome Than Money” concerned a book that expertly explored the fascinating and ultimately tragic inside story of Diaspora.

2.   Many of the more than two dozen Subway Fold posts in the category of Smart Systems cover some of the recent news, trends and applications in machine learning.

3.  For details, see the January 5, 2016 posting on the NY Public Library’s website entitled Free for All: NYPL Enhances Public Domain Collections for Sharing and Reuse, by Shana Kimball and Steven A. Schwarzman.

Artificial Swarm Intelligence: There Will be An Answer, Let it Bee

Honey Bee on Willow Catkin", Image by Bob Peterson

“Honey Bee on Willow Catkin”, Image by Bob Peterson

In almost any field involving new trends and developments, anything attracting rapidly increasing media attention is often referred to in terms of “generating a lot of buzz”. Well, here’s a quite different sort of story that adds a whole new meaning to this notion.

A truly fascinating post appeared on TechRepublic.com this week on January 22, 2016 entitled How ‘Artificial Swarm Intelligence’ Uses People to Make Smarter Predictions Than Experts by Hope Reese. It is about a development where technology and humanity intersect in a highly specialized manner to produce a new means to improve predictions by groups of people. I highly recommend reading it in its entirety. I will summarize and annotate it, and then pose a few of my own bug-free questions.

A New Prediction Platform

In a recent switching of roles, while artificial intelligence (AI) concerns itself with machines executing human tasks¹, a newly developed and highly accurate algorithm “harnesses the power” of crowds to generate predictions of “real world events”. This approach is called “artificial swarm intelligence“.

A new software platform called UNU has being developed by a startup called Unanimous AI. The firm’s CEO is Dr. Louis Rosenberg. UNU facilitates the gathering of people online in order to “make collective decisions”. This is being done, according to Dr. Rosenberg “to amplify human intelligence”. Thus far, the platform has been “remarkably accurate” in its predictions of the Academy Awards, the Super Bowl² and elections.

UNU is predicated upon the concept of the wisdom of the crowds which states that larger groups of people make better decisions collectively than even the single smartest person within that group.³  Dr. Roman Yampolskiy, the Director of the Cybersecurity Lab at the University of Louisville, has also created a comparable algorithm known as “Wisdom of Artificial Crowds“. (The first time this phenomenon was covered on The Subway Fold, in the context of entertainment, was in the December 10, 2014 post entitled Is Big Data Calling and Calculating the Tune in Today’s Global Music Market?)

The Birds and the Bees

Swarm intelligence learns from events and systems occurring in nature such as the formation of swarms by bees and flocks by birds. These groups collectively make better choices than their single members. Dr. Rosenberg believes that, in his view there is “a vast amount of intelligence in groups” that, in turn generates “intelligence that amplifies their natural abilities”. He has transposed the rules of these natural systems onto the predictive abilities of humans in groups.

He cites honeybees as being “remarkable” decision-makers in their environment. On a yearly basis, the divide their colonies and “send out scout bees” by the hundreds for many miles around to check out locations for a new home. When these scouts return to the main hive they perform a “waggle dance” to “convey information to the group” and next decide about the intended location. For the entire colony, this is a “complex decision” composed of “conflicting variables”. On average, bee colonies choose the optimal location by more than 80%.

Facilitating Human Bee-hive-ior

However, humans display a much lesser accuracy rate when making their own predictions. Most commonly, polling and voting is used. Dr. Rosenberg finds such methods “primitive” and often incorrect as they tend to be “polarizing”. In effect, they make it difficult to assess the “best answer for the group”.

UNU is his firm’s attempt to facilitate humans with making the best decisions for an entire group. Users log onto it and respond to questions with a series of possible choices displayed. It was modeled upon such behavior occurring in nature among “bees, fish and birds”. This is distinguished from individuals just casting a single vote. Here are two videos of the system in action involving choosing the most competitive Republican presidential candidate and selecting the most beloved sidekick from Star Wars4. As groups of users make their selections on UNU and are influenced by the visible onscreen behavior of others, this movement is the online manifestation of the group’s swarming activity.

Another instance of UNU’s effectiveness and accuracy involved 50 users trying to predict the winners of the Academy Awards. On an individual basis, they each averaged six out of 15 correct. This test swarm was able to get a significantly better nine out of the 15.  Beyond movies, the implications may be further significant if applied in areas such as strategic business decision-making.

My Questions

  • Does UNU lend itself to being turned into a scalable mobile app for much larger groups of users on a multitude of predictions? If so, should users be able to develop their own questions and choices for the swarm to decide? Should all predictions posed be open to all users?
  • Might UNU find some sort of application in guiding the decision process of juries while they are resolving a series of factual issues?
  • Could UNU be used to supplement reviews for books, movies, music and other forms of entertainment? Perhaps some form of “UNU Score” or “UNU Rating”?

 


1.  One of the leading proponents and developers of AI for many decades was MIT Professor Marvin Minsky who passed away on Sunday, January 24, 2016. Here is his obituary from the January 25, 2015 edition of The New York Times entitled Marvin Minsky, Pioneer in Artificial Intelligence, Dies at 88, by Glenn Rifkin.

2.  For an alternative report on whether the wisdom of the crowds appears to have little or no effect on the Super Bowl, one not involving UNU in any way, see an article in the January 28, 2016 edition of The New York Times entitled Super Bowl Challenges Wisdom of Crowds and Oddsmakers, by Victor Mather.

3.  An outstanding and comprehensive treatment of this phenomenon I highly recommend reading The Wisdom of the Crowds, by James Surowiecki (Doubleday, 2004).

4.  I would really enjoy seeing a mash-up of these two demos to see how the group would swarm among the Star Wars sidekicks to select which one of these science fiction characters might have the best chance to win the 2016 election.

Charge of the Light Brigade: Faster and More Efficient New Chips Using Photons Instead of Electrons

"PACE - PEACE" Image by Etienne Valois

“PACE – PEACE” Image by Etienne Valois

Alfred, Lord Tennyson wrote his immortal classic poem, The Charge of the Light Brigade, in 1854. It was to honor the dead heroes of a doomed infantry charge at the Battle of Balaclava during the Crimean War. Moreover, it strikingly portrayed the horrors of war. In just six short verses, he created a monumental work that has endured ever since for 162 years.

The poem came to mind last week after reading two recent articles on seemingly disparate topics. The first was posted on The New Yorker’s website on December 30, 2015 entitled In Silicon Valley Now, It’s Almost Always Winner Takes All by Om Malik. This is highly insightful analysis of how and why tech giants such as Google in search, Facebook in social networking, and Uber in transportation, have come to dominate their markets. In essence, competition is a fierce and relentless battle in the global digital economy. The second was an article on CNET.com posted on December 23, 2015 entitled Chip Promises Faster Computing with Light, Not Electrical Wires by Stephan Shankland. I highly recommend reading both of them in their entirety.

Taken together, the homonym of “light” both in historical poetry and in tech, seems to tie these two posted pieces together insofar as contemporary competition in tech markets is often described in military terms and metaphors. Focusing on that second story here for purposes of this blog post, about a tantalizing advance in chip design and fabrication, will this survive as it moves forward into the brutal and relentlessly “winner takes all” marketplace? I will summarize and annotate this story, and pose some of my own, hopefully en-light-ening questions.

Forward, the Light Brigade

A team of researchers, all of whom are university professors, including Vladimir Stojanovic from the University of California at Berkeley who led the development, Krste Asanovic also from Berkeley, Rajeev Ram from MIT, and Milos Popovic from the University of Colorado at Boulder, have created a new type of processing chip “that transmits data with light”. As well, its architecture significantly increases processing speed while reducing power consumption.  A report on the team’s work was published in an article in the December 24, 2015 issue of Nature (subscription required) entitled Single-chip Microprocessor That Communicates Directly Using Light by Chen Sun, Mark T. Wade, Yunsup Lee, et al.

This approach, according to Wikipedia, of “using silicon as an optical medium”, is called silicon photonics. IBM (see this link) and Intel (see this link)  have likewise been involved in R&D in this field, but have yet to introduce anything ready for the market.

However, this team of university researchers believes their new approach might be introduced commercially within a year. While their efforts do not make chips run faster per se, the photonic elements “keep chips supplied with data” which avoids them having to lose time by idling. Thus, they can process data faster.

Currently (no pun intended), electrical signals traverse metal wiring across the world on computing and communications devices and networks. For data traveling greater national and international distances, the electronic signals are transposed into light and sent along on high-speed fiber-optic cables. Nonetheless, this approach “isn’t cheap”.

Half a League Onward

What the university researchers’ team has done is create chips with “photonic components” built into them. If they succeed in scaling-up and commercializing their creation, consumers will be likely the beneficiaries. These advantages will probably manifest themselves first when used in data centers that, in turn, could speed up:

  • Google searches
  • Facebook image recognition
  • Other “performance-intensive features not economical today”
  • Remove processing bottlenecks and conserve battery life in smartphones and other personal computing platforms

Professor Stojanovic believes that one of their largest challenges if is to make this technology affordable before it can be later implemented in consumer level computing and communications devices. He is sanguine that such economies of scale can be reached. He anticipates further applications of this technology to enable chips’ onboard processing and memory components to communicate directly with each other.

Additional integrations of silicon photonics might be seen in the lidar remote sensing systems for self-driving cars¹, as well as brain imaging² and environmental sensors. It also holds the potential to alter the traditional methods that computers are assembled. For example, the length of cables is limited to the extent that data can pass through them quickly and efficiently before needed amplification along the way. Optical links may permit data to be transferred significant further along network cabling. The research team’s “prototype used 10-meter optical links”, but Professor Stojanovic believes this could eventually be lengthened to a kilometer. This could potentially result in meaningful savings in energy, hardware and processing efficiency.

Two startups that are also presently working in the silicon photonics space include:

My Questions:

  • Might another one of silicon photonics’ virtues be that it is partially fabricated from more sustainable materials, primarily silicon derived from sand rather than various metals?
  • Could silicon photonics chips and architectures be a solution to the very significant computing needs of the virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) systems that will be coming onto the market in 2016? This issue was raised in a most interesting article posted on Bloomberg.com on December 30, 2015 entitled Few Computers Are Powerful Enough to Support Virtual Reality by Ian King. (See also these 13 Subway Fold posts on a range of VR and AR developments.)
  • What other new markets, technologies and opportunities for entrepreneurs and researchers might emerge if the university research team’s chips achieve their intended goals and succeed in making it to market?

May 17, 2017 UpdateFor an update on one of the latest developments in photonics with potential applications in advanced computing and materials science, see Photonic Hypercrystals Are Now a Reality and Light Will Never Be the Same, by Dexter Johnson, posted on May 10, 2017, on IEEESpectrum.com. 


1.  See these six Subway Fold posts for references to autonomous cars.

2.  See these four Subway Fold posts concerning certain developments in brain imaging technology.

Virtual Reality Universe-ity: The Immersive “Augmentarium” Lab at the U. of Maryland

"A Touch of Science", Image by Mars P.

“A Touch of Science”, Image by Mars P.

Got to classes. Sit through a series of 50 minute lectures. Drink coffee. Pay attention and take notes. Drink more coffee. Go to the library to study, do research and complete assignments. Rinse and repeat for the rest of the semester. Then take your final exams and hope that you passed everything. More or less, things have traditionally been this way in college since Hector was a pup.

Might students instead be interested in participating at the new and experimental learning laboratory called the Augmentarium at the University of Maryland where immersing themselves in their studies takes on an entirely new meaning? This is a place where virtual reality (VR)  is being tested and integrated into the learning process. (There 14 Subway Fold posts cover a range of VR and augmented reality [AR] developments and applications.)

Where do I sign up for this?¹

The story was covered in a fascinating report that appeared on December 8, 2015 on the website of the Chronicle of Higher Education entitled Virtual-Reality Lab Explores New Kinds of Immersive Learning, by Ellen Wexler. I highly recommend reading this in its entirety as well as clicking on the Augmentarium link to learn about some these remarkable projects. I also suggest checking out the hashtag #Augmentarium on Twitter the very latest news and developments. I will summarize and annotate this story, and pose some of my own questions right after I take off my own imaginary VR headset.

Developing VR Apps in the Augmentarium

In 2014, Brendan Iribe, the co-founder of the VR headset company Oculus², as well as a University of Maryland alumni, donated $31 million to the University for its development of VR technology³. During the same year, with addition funding obtained from the National Science Foundation, the Augmentarium was built. Currently, researchers at the facility are working on applications of VR to “health care, public safety, and education”.

Professor Ramani Duraiswami, a PhD and co-founder of a startup called VisiSonics (developers of 3D audio and VR gaming systems), is involved with the Augmentarium. His work is in the area of audio, which he believes has a great effect upon how people perceive the world around them. He further thinks that an audio or video lecture presented via distance learning can be greatly enhanced by using VR to, in his words make “the experience feel more immersive”. He feels this would make you feel as though you are in the very presence of the instructor4.

During a recent showcase there, Professor Duraiswami demo-ed 3D sound5 and a short VR science fiction production called Fixing Incus. (This link is meant to be played on a smartphone that is then embedded within a VR viewer/headset.) This implementation showed the audience what it was like to be immersed into a virtual environment where, when they moved their heads and line of sight, what they were viewing corresponding and seamlessly changed.

Enhancing Virtual Immersions for Medicine and Education

Amitabh Varshney, the Director of the University’s Institute for Advanced Computer Studies, is now researching “how the brain processes information in immersive environments” and how is differs from how this is done on a computer screen.6 He believes that VR applications in the classroom will enable students to immerse themselves in their subjects, such as being able to “walk through buildings they design” and “explore” them beyond “just the equations” involved in creating these structures.

At the lab’s recent showcase, he provided the visitors with (non-VR) 3D glasses and presented “an immersive video of a surgical procedure”. He drew the audience’s attention to the doctors at the operating table who were “crowing around” it. He believes that the use of 3D headsets would provide medical students a better means to “move around” and get an improved sense of what this experience is actually like in the operating room. (The September 22, 2015 Subway Fold post entitled VR in the OR: New Virtual Reality System for Planning, Practicing and Assisting in Surgery is also on point and provides extended coverage on this topic.)

While today’s early iterations of VR headsets (either available now or early in 2016), are “cumbersome”, researchers hope that they will evolve (in a manner similar to mobile phones which, in turn and as mentioned above, are presently a key element in VR viewers), and be applied in “hospitals, grocery stores and classrooms”.  Director Varshney can see them possibly developing along an even faster timeline.

My Questions

  • Is the establishment and operation of the Augmentarium a model that other universities should consider as a means to train students in this field, attract donations, and incubate potential VR and AR startups?
  • What entrepreneurial opportunities might exist for consulting, engineering and tech firms to set up comparable development labs at other schools and in private industry?
  • What other types of academic courses would benefit from VR and AR support? Could students now use these technologies to create or support their academic projects? What sort of grading standards might be applied to them?
  • Do the rapidly expanding markets for VR and AR require that some group in academia and/or the government establish technical and perhaps even ethical standards for such labs and their projects?
  • How are relevant potential intellectual property and technology transfer issues going to be negotiated, arbitrated and litigated if needed?

 


1.  Btw, has anyone ever figured out how the very elusive and mysterious “To Be Announced (TBA)”, the professor who appears in nearly all course catalogs, ends up teaching so many subjects at so many schools at the same time? He or she must have an incredibly busy schedule.

2.  These nine Subway Fold posts cover, among other VR and AR related stories, the technology of Oculus.

3.  This donation was reported in an article on September 11, 2014 in The Washington Post in an article entitled Brendan Iribe, Co-founder of Oculus VR, Makes Record $31 Million Donation to U-Md by Nick Anderson.

4.  See also the February 18, 2015 Subway Fold post entitled A Real Class Act: Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are Changing the Learning Process.

5.  See also Designing Sound for Virtual Reality by Todd Baker posted on Medium.com on December 21, 2015, for a thorough overview of this aspect of VR, and the August 5, 2015 Subway Fold post entitled  Latest Census on Virtual Senses: A Seminar on Augmented Reality in New York covering, among other AR technologies, the development work and 3D sound wireless headphones of Hooke Audio.

6.  On a somewhat related topic, see the December 18, 2015 Subway Fold post entitled Mind Over Subject Matter: Researchers Develop A Better Understanding of How Human Brains Manage So Much Information.