the nyc marathon wearable

July 31, 2014 · 0 comments

i won't bother addressing my long absence from this blog (despite two posts, two years ago saying i will do more with it - perhaps in an upcoming post). rather, i'll just get right into what i do want to share here. that specifically is a new area of interest i've decided to pursue and an immediate application of it.


the preamble first. for reasons i can not honestly recall, i decided to get into electronics and circuitry, specifically the arduino platform (read more here). skipping ahead through a number of weeks of exploration and a course at OCAD on the subject (tl;dr it's been great - perhaps another post on the whole pursuit), i'm tackling my first real project, one that will actually be seen by lots of people. that's exciting.

a friend of mine, Mike Bodsworth, is running in the NYC Marathon this year. when he told me i immediately said "how about i make you a wearable for the race?" the response that followed was "sure, what does it do?" i offered the comprehensive response "stuff. for the race. you know, something to track you and give you some feedback. and some flair. that kind of thing." and so it was ordained.

here is the real response to that question and what i'll be building, testing, tweaking, issuing on race day and creating a memento of the day.

my approach
going in i wanted to keep some core principles (ie. restraints) in mind so this wouldn't get out of hand and be a functional system.
  1. the technology can't get in the way of running. this takes a lot of different forms from size, weight, movement restriction and just general comfort. primarily he's there to race and the technology is a complement to that so it need not be a constant annoyance. this would limit some of the devices to be employed, where they are placed (no wires running down limbs) and how (if in any way) they need to be interacted with.
  2. durability. it's a 4+ hour time period, jostling about, potentially poor weather and being attached to a sweaty dude (weatherproof).
  3. collect lots of data for later use. there is the device part and the data part as two separate parts of this project. the device for the race and good data to create a keepsake of the race itself (more on this later).
  4. provide some real time feedback. while much of the device will be passively collecting the data, some will be used in real time to provide simple feedback to the runner (more on this later). Simplicity is essential and what and how it's provided can't conflict with the other principles.
  5. add a bit of flair. mostly to support the charity he is running for; to visually represent the organization and be noticed. and again, can't conflict with other principles.

why create something?
the other question implied in this is "why not just use what already exists (namely a smartphone or some other existing wearable like a fitbit or fuelband)? the simple answer is: to make something. making things is a goal unto itself. but there's more to it than that.

first, to eliminate the existing devices, from the available options. primarily, these two gadgets use a basic accelerometer. that's great and they've taken that simple sensor really far. so what you are are really paying for is the software and nice industrial design. those wristbands are essentially a fancy algorithm to provide approximates for all the stats it gives you based on manipulating and interpreting the data points from the accelerometer. the apps they come with are handy and all but that's their secret sauce. for this project, i didn't need the fancy software stuff. i'd be writing simple code to collect essential data points that i would then do stuff with after-the-fact. while we're on data, that's the second big problem. getting the usable data out of these would be a pain in the ass to use how it want to. that's reason enough. especially when you consider my final point, cost. the cheapest fitbit or fuelband costs $99 which is pricey for an accelerometer that i can't get raw data out of. the accelerometer for this project to give me actually usable data costs $15. easy decision.

using a smartphone would be nice, but i'm not an app developer. i'm not an electronics maker either but simple devices are far easier to build than learning an entirely new programming language and user interface design. and again, the data. it would be tricky to get the data out and that's fundamental to this project.

what's all the data talk?
as much as this is an exercise in making a functional device, it's also about making use of data (as another interest of mine). because the NYC Marathon is kind of a big deal, i wanted to make a memento of the day for Mike. essentially a snapshot of the race and his 4+ hours of torment that he can be reminded of on his condo wall daily. using the data collected (the device description below will outline what i'm gathering), i aim to create a really interesting data visualization as art along with parts of the device and other pieces from the race weekend (namely pictures). more to come on this once we get into the next phase. in all honesty, this will be the most difficult part of the project for me. i'll do a few future posts on that phase of this.

race assist
capturing data for after-the-fact is pretty easy, but processing it real-time and providing some visual prompts to help with the race is another thing altogether. i talked to Mike about what he wanted out of the race and what was valuable for him to know. as he isn't a serious runner, the only thing that really mattered to him was a time goal and beating his personal best. that made it easy in not having to add in a lot of extraneous biometric sensors, displays for real-time updates or anything overly complicated.

what i arrived at (that you can see below) was a simple display mechanism that gave him only the essential information he would need to alter his run while in the race. it also delivered on the flair. using a basic lighting system, in an easily visible area, it would track his progress of distance run and remaining with a simple visual cue if he was on-pace or off-pace. a binary approach to the only things he cares about.

and now the device
let's start with a sketch that should explain the main components (click image to enlarge).


i aimed for minimalism and simplicity in the visible elements and hopefully delivered on my principles. the heart of it all is in the water bottle though. the one asterisk on there is the camera. the belt was the best place to mount it for steadiness and unobtrusiveness even though the images might look a bit weird. it also might not even make it in the final design. no point in having it if the images are going to be crap.

what now?
as of the date of this post, i have about 3 months to build the final device, write all the necessary code and actually make it work on race day like it should. what's in between is a lot of trial and testing of each component and some sewing (weird). who knows what will change from this initial design over 3 months.

first up for testing - the accelerometer.

sorry, that's a brand

June 4, 2012 · 0 comments

yes, this comes more than a month after the article was released, but such is the nature of catching up on my blog reading. this article from Ad Age, on the topic of james dyson, reveals that the brilliant designer doesn't believe in brand. at all. to the point that the word is taboo within the walls of his company (so he says).

as a guy who believes quite a bit in brands and is in the business of propelling brands forward, i'm alright with this assertion.

the reality is, who cares if dyson believes in brand or not. that's not his role. he is a designer. if he was to worry about brand, then that would detract from his product designing, and that would be bad for the brand. the product is the brand. everything he talks about is, by nature, a version of a brand. so without his dedication to product, the brand has no story behind it, no credibility and no reference point to consumers. yes, that's brand, but he doesn't need to believe in it, or do anything more to create it, it's a natural output.

the Ad Age article points to the company having run commercials as their proof to discredit dyson and that, in itself, is fallacy. having a tv spot does not a brand make. many of the commenters miss the mark too by parroting the same or calling dyson a hypocrite.

brand's have a measure of artifice and dyson is more genuine than that. the intentional creating of a brand adds layers of meaning or communication pieces to messages that connect with consumers on different levels. dyson as a "non-brand" strips those things away. for instance, there's no tagline on the tv spot. the article (subtley) and comments (overtly) deride dyson for his a-good-product-sells-itself mentality but it's obviously working.

so he puts product first when others put brand first. that's refreshing and different these days. he's not putting lipstick on a pig and he's not adding fluff to substance. isn't that commendable?

dyson doesn't need to believe in brand not just because it would take him off task, but because brand's are created in the minds of consumers. at least in part. sure companies help that along with advertising and other activities, but it's not the only piece. products themselves play just as heavy a role. he simply decided to strip the company and branding bits out and let consumers formulate it for themselves (with some reminders of the product - ie. tv spots).

see humans crave structure, associations and relationships. whether a company creates those or not with branding, people will form them and thus creates the brand on it's own, organically. all this method does is completely hand-over the brand to consumers to formulate their version of a brand rather than the usual shared way (or forced in many cases). that is a perfectly legitimate approach. not one our industry can really choke down because it goes against much of what is espoused and charged for. whatever the case, a brand lives in the minds of its consumers, just different ways of getting it there in the first place.

what happens when the consumer opinion changes, though, how will dyson recover? the point is that should he do what he does best in creating great products, there is no pivot point for consumers. say it still happens because some other product comes onto the market that is better. again, it goes back to the product. it either won't happen because of continuous improvement or it is immediately reworked in response. in both cases, the product reigns supreme and consumers remake the brand better in their minds as a result because they still got something beneficial.

in the end, just because one marketer doesn't believe in brand doesn't mean brand's don't exist (even his own) or that brand's don't have power. all it says are there are different ways to create and nurture brands because there are different types of brands. dyson should be lauded for the design genius he is because that story has transcended what we see is a normative way of creating a brand.

more than just content

May 11, 2012 · 0 comments


last thursday i had the privilege of attending the Vice upfront party in new york city (thanks Mediacom). for those who don't know Vice, they are an authentic, gritty, counter-culture, cross-media publishing group with a very defined aesthetic, POV and editorial style. they are also pioneering a new age of content creation, distribution, monetization and brand integration. hard to believe they started in canada.

much of the evening was professing many of the mantras about content marketing i'm trying to bring to the forefront in my new role (ie. nothing new - just a Vice spin), but it wasn't until nearly the end that i heard something that was newly resonant. it was one of those things that you know implicitly, but haven't talked about it or even fully realized it yourself.

i can't recall the person who said it but it went like this: "we want to create culture with [brands] that means something."

i'm not going to begin to try and pin down a definition of culture or what constitutes culture. i think we'd all naturally agree that brands are part of culture and ever more so in a hyper-connected and digital world. we can also all probably agree that advertising is also part of culture. but i would posit that it was always a subset of culture though, a strain of culture perhaps. whenever it was discussed, it had the stink of advertising on it; fleetingly alive within that narrow scope of being (only a few ever transcending that - such as Apple's 1984).

what i think the gentleman was alluding to is not contributing to a genus of culture but to culture itself. to something that is elevated, powerful, legitimate, contributing to the zeitgeist. not an ad, but something tantamount to the regard of a movie, an album, a tv show, a book, an article or a piece of technology. these all hold a place in the esoteria of culture. a piece of brand content can too. that is a whole other thing to strive for.

what it prompted for me was a new perspective when entering into formulating content; to start from the viewpoint of creating culture. to have that as a guidepost in concepting and developing. to strive for something that can penetrate beyond a brand message and into the very fabric of culture. definitely to not be an ad, and to go beyond just being a similarly transient piece of content. to be a lasting, revered artifact of a brand that doesn't wain in public consciousness for some time.

branded culture > branded entertainment

poised and ready

March 15, 2012 · 0 comments

a big part of my new job is to take ownership of the somewhat established, but still very foreign, concept of media as Paid, Owned, Earned (POE from here on out) and to instill it with everything our agency does. that's a weighty task - one that i'm super charged about.

where i'm going with this post is to flat-out proclaim that this holistic view on the media landscape needs to be owned by a media agency. full stop. there is no other entity with the ability to herald this vision. the real purpose is to put on the table that a shift toward greater reliance, trust, and increased responsibility that the media agency has within the advertiser's communication and even business domains.

at the simplest of levels, our deep understanding of the Paid sphere is a primary differentiator. many agencies share a on Owned and Earned, including media ones, but only those media agencies truly understand the Paid space. to clarify, by "many agencies have a view on Owned and Earned" only means that there is a general shared understanding of the principles and what works for those and not the nuance and expertise in executing. media agencies don't have the latter in all cases. the Paid space doesn't not have that same understanding beyond media agencies. so just in that, media agencies are better poised.

stemming from that, and ironically what has pigeon-holed us for so long, is our ability to leverage our investments and partnerships to better exploit the entire POE landscape. lines are blurring constantly and money still talks. that influence, unique to media agencies, opens possibilities. you don't have to like that fact, but it's true.

media agencies have also shown a greater aptitude for consumer understanding. everything we do is rooted in consumer understanding across all sorts of markers and we've owned that for a long time. as communications need to be ever more consumer centric, media agencies are positioned to best service those demands.

then there is channel planning. as a derivative of communication planning, it is the de facto right approach to formulating a go-to-market plan. in the age of an attention economy and massive fragmentation, channel-led communications are what win, not creative led ones. when technology is driving down the cost to iterate messages, the channels are what become chiefly important and the creative flows from that. channels are the unique domain of media agencies. no two ways about it.

the last point i want to make is that this isn't a call for world domination by media agencies. on the contrary. i'm only saying that our approach and position to lead that approach is the way, but other agencies with specialized services are absolutely required to realize the elements constructed in the communications planning process.

that's right, i'm calling creative agencies, technology companies, public relations firms, digital specialty shops and a host of others as specialty areas that support the communications planning process. they execute on the needs of plans derived from it. don't forget, media companies also fit into that as we execute the buys and other media elements - the stuff we've always done.

the other part to keep in mind is that the intention is not to exclude any of these agencies from the process. absolutely, they must contribute to it and be involved. i'm merely stating that my belief is that media companies lead it through their holistic view and procedures to deliver communications planning. these other partners aren't order takers to the media companies either. they are order takers to the plan, just like media companies are order takers to that same plan.

i wholly believe that this is the future shape of things. i'm excited to help make it a reality. i don't know how long it will take, i just know that it is inevitable. i'm sure there's a lot of disagreement and i'd love to open the discussion about it.

marketing pinsanity

February 23, 2012 · 0 comments

in case it wasn't glaringly apparent, Pinterest is the social network du jour. many have held that mantle, this is just the latest. it's a great story for an interesting niche product. rampant growth, fanatical usage, massive time sucking and heavy dashes of inspiration.

as invariably as every other social network, the questions of whether brands should use the service or not have sprung up. the social media navel gazers have been ebullient about it, naturally. content producers (namely media companies) have taken a liking to it. some natural fit industries (ie. fashion, design, food) are downright zealous about it. but the broader brandsphere still has a question mark around it.

i've already heard it tossed out in a few meetings with little regard. "that'd be great to do on Pinterest." i shudder on the inside. remember, it is just a channel that is still very embryonic when it comes to sophistication for brands to be involved. and frankly, there is a certain aesthetic required, an expectation of illiciting emotional responses, and a required caliber of effort just to fit in there.

here's my solutions to how brands should approach Pinterest:
create things that are worthy of pinning
or
inspire people to include or re-imagine your brand (in a good way)

that's it. that's all any of the current users are doing, brands are no different. leave the conversation about "marketing on Pinterest" at the door. don't force it. if either of those is an action they want to take, great, leave it to them.

you might need some kind of awareness behind whatever it is so people know it's there to pin. it can be discovered through your other communities or PR or elsewhere. nothing splashy. don't make a big deal about the fact your on Pinterest or try to game it somehow. don't beg for pins like you did for Likes.

after you've done that and the space matures a bit, then decide whether you need a profile or you need to invest resources here. see if warranted because it just creates yet another space to maintain that has heavy demands. are the people you want to talk to even there? don't forget to ask that question.

can we can start the conversation about the value of a pin?

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