September 24 2010
by Todd Hixon

Robots Romp at MIT: Notes From EmTech10

MIT held its annual Emerging Technologies conference this week.  It’s an MIT conference rather than a venture conference:  many of the the speakers were from major tech corporations (Qualcomm, Microsoft) or academics.  Innovations from corporate labs, university labs, and start-ups had equal prominence.  It was not about raising money:  no explicit pitches, few VCs there.   The one session about venture capital reprised the familiar “big-funds-are-dead/seed-funds-are-cool” argument and seemed out of place.

So this was a good chance to reflect on what the mature tech institutions are doing.  My observations:

The center of gravity of the conference was mobile technologies.  There was also discussion of innovations in energy, neuro-science, transportation, displays, the Cloud, etc., but none of this had the energy and depth of the mobile discussions.  This is quite a contrast to a year or two ago, when energy was the hot topic. [However, MIT does a focused energy conference in the spring.]

A big message from the mobile speakers was:  the era of plentiful bandwidth and computing power in your pocket has arrived.  [Those of us who use the AT&T network might feel left out, however.]  CEO Dan Hesse said that Sprint’s 4G network is live in 53 U.S. metro areas.  He heralded the 4G revolution [paraphrase]: “Mobile is the fastest technology penetration in history.  There are now more mobile devices than cars, TVs, and PCs combined.  3G got off to a rough start, but the impact of mobile data has been under-forecast in a big way.  3G paved the road for 4G.  And there will be a 5G and a 6G.”  Oddly, Dan finished up with a quote from former VP Quayle: “We don’t want to go back to tomorrow, we want to go forward.”  I appreciate the touch of humor, but think Dan H. needs a new speechwriter.

Interestingly, 4G is deploying fastest in the U.S., where there is strong competition between operators and consumers are willing to spend.  Europe is more conservative and Asia is spotty.  So, in contrast to the 2G era, mobile innovation is now happening first in the U.S.:  smart phones, tablets, now 4G.

Everyone on the mobile panel(1) was asked to bring his or her favorite mobile toy.  Each panelist brought some kind of mini base station or femtocell, each one smaller than the last [as it happened].  Why the excitement about femtocells?  Putting the key functions of a base station in a box the size of a paperback book is non-trivial.  Beyond 4G, the big gains in network capacity are expected to come from “topology” (more cells) rather than better encoding.   Managing a network that is a mix of macro cells and user-sited femtocells is a big software challenge. And, femtocells promise to deliver he vision of coverage everywhere.

Applications for the 4G network are emerging.  Video chat is one example. Imagine video chat or video tweets as pervasive as talk or text is today:  “Hey, look what I’m doing”.  Not obviously an elevation of human civilization, but I bet it will happen.

QualComm SVP of R&D, Matt Grob, had a compelling augmented reality (“AR”) demo.  Two players had smart phones with their cameras focused on a table.  QualComm’s software put nicely-rendered 3D battling robots on the table, controlled by each player’s phone, and viewed on his/her smartphone from the viewer’s perspective.  The demo ran on a NexusOne, which is already a last generation phone.  The computation and communications requirement here is not trivial.  But it worked well and Matt said the product is pretty mature.  The business model for QualComm is driving demand for more features and power in the smart phone chip set.

Other interesting AR applications:  instructions for how to assemble or repair equipment, based on what you are seeing, or useful information (“metadata”) about the place where you find yourself.  Matt showed an app that took a cell phone camera image of a street sign in Japan and translated it to English.  There have been times when I could have used that.  Far from Tokyo, the signs are all Kanji pictograms that I can’t read and find hard to memorize.   I used to get the hotel clerk to write out the address of my destination on a piece of paper I could show a cab driver.  No plan B if that goes wrong.

My take is that we at NAV should continue and intensify our focus on finding business opportunities in the mobile ecosystem.  It’s far from mature.  More likely, we’re at the very beginning of a new surge of innovation, a mobile version of Web 2.0.

(1) Mobile panelists:  Vanu Bose, Emily Green (Yankee Group), Matt Grob (Qualcomm), Alice White (Bell Labs)

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