Thursday, February 11, 2016

Did you know about e-sports?

I certainly didn't think much about it. I vaguely knew that there were competitions for some of the bigger computer games but it didn't really cross my mind to think about it much. Until the last few weeks, that is.

I mentor a couple of Masters students from the University of Westminster every year. It's where I studied as a mature student and this is my small contribution towards giving back to the university. This year, one of the students I'm mentoring is a massive e-sports fan so we've been talking about it a lot. Coincidentally, the BBC has just shown a fantastic documentary about e-sports, The Supergamers, which you can catch on the iPlayer for the next 4 weeks. They also have a brilliant primer, in case you were wondering about it.

Did you know that 10s of 1000s of people attend live games and millions watch from the comfort of their own screens? - yes, they're watching teams of people play a computer game.
Did you know there were salaried professional players?
Did you know that the prize funds can run into tens of millions of £?

This is big business.

There's something that feels instinctively wrong about (mostly) young people devoting their time and energy to what boils down to pressing buttons on a computer screen. Of course there are cognitive skills involved. Many of these games involve strategy decisions and being able to work in a team. Your reaction speed is critical (and this reduces as you age) and your career could be over by the time you're 22.

And how can this be considered a sport? I mean there's no physical activity, is there? Arguably, your brain power and reaction speed will be enhanced if you're also physically fit. But it appears that many of the professional players are just like other teenagers and live on junk food, sleep in late and don't do much in the way of getting outside in the fresh air to exercise, preferring instead to slump in front of the TV or a computer screen.

It got me thinking about why I value, say, playing rugby as being a 'better' activity than being the best at League of Legends? What makes it better (or not)? It's arguably healthier to be outside in the fresh air and the physical movement is a good thing about playing rugby. But there are risks of being physically damaged - broken noses and cauliflower ears are common features of rugby players. And in both activities, players need to spend hours and hours of their time devoted to playing, practicing and analysing their performance in order to improve for next time. Is it a better use of your time to hone your rugby, football or netball skills as against honing your computer gaming skills?

It also got me wondering what the role of mobile devices might be in all of this. In terms of fan engagement during tournaments, I'm sure there's a lot of scope. The vibe and scale of these tournaments feels like a cross between a gladiator fight in a Roman Amphitheatre and a Premiership football match. The emotion of the fans is very real.

If you dig a little deeper into e-sports, you'll see that it's growing at phenomenal speed and that it's now a multi-billion $ industry so it isn't going away anytime soon. I wonder how soon it will before some of the e-sports teams and tournaments will become household names as familiar as Manchester United or the Boston Red Sox?

(File under 'stuff young people do but I don't really understand yet'. See also How to Snapchat like a teen.)

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Ahhh, now I understand the Facebook logo!

Hat tip to George Nimeh for finding this one.


Are we living in the digital Truman Show?

As I was walking to the station yesterday, I couldn't help but take a moment to really notice the clouds over Figges Marsh. The were so beautiful yet didn't look real. Maybe it's that they looked hyper-real? My photo does them little justice, but it occurred to me that the sky looked like a painted backdrop from The Truman Show - as if we're in a dome and that it's been painted with clouds and sky and that if I walked to the edge, I would be able to break through to the other side by ripping through the canvas.

It got me thinking, 'What if we were already in a digital version of The Truman Show ourselves?' After all, our devices know more about us and our habits than we do ourselves. The algorithms dictate what adverts and content we get shown on Facebook, Google Now et al. Cars that can park themselves are already here and driverless ones are not far away from being available to general consumers. It seems to me that there are lots of organisations, large and small, governmental and corprorate, who can and do spy on us and are mining data about us continuously and making decisions about us and on our behalf without us having any insight or control over what those decisions are. Who are the directors and puppet-masters? What control (or not) do they have on our lives, the decisions we make, or that are made for us and how that impacts on our daily lives?

This was really useful thinking to prepare me for last night's 'What are we going to do about Artificial Intelligence?' Open Space that I ran with Lloyd Davis at WeWork Southbank. We had a great turnout of people from different disciplines and backgrounds coming together to talk about some of their concerns about Artificial Intelligence.

One of the conversations I participated in was around the responsibility of business leaders in this area. It was really interesting to discuss how complicated these systems are and how they're built in building block style using APIs from a variety of companies and sources. The data travels through different company servers before getting to its destination or deriving its analysis. How do you even notice if something isn't working? And if you do spot it, how can you fix it?

A case in point being online advertising. There is much research to show that online advertising reinforces gender stereotyping in recruitment. Women are less likely to see a senior level job ad than men. From this recent article in Fast Company, "the researchers found that male users were shown high-paying job ads about 1,800 times, compared to female users who saw those ads about 300 times". Whose responsibility is it to either play the algorithms to level the online playing field? And how do you even spot when and how it's happening?

And how about if you keep getting served content and advertising that's geared towards your social status? Does that mean poor people keep seeing ads about payday loans, improving their credit score and playing bingo? And what if that then reinforces the poverty of ambition that individual may already have? Is it anyone's responsibility to do anything about it?

We also talked about a CEO not necessarily having the time or skill set to understand the minutiae of the digital products and services they're offering to customers or using to serve customers. Many AI driven systems, such as analytics and decision making platforms, are slipping in through third parties as SAAS (Software As A Service). The sales people make great claims about their capability. But how do you really know how they work or even how well they work? And if it's your own system that you're building, the chances are you're using third party APIs which you have little or no control over anyway. And what if those companies whose building blocks you've used got bought? And what if their terms of business changed and you weren't aware of it? How many online 'Terms of Service' have you ticked just to get to the next page.

One of the conclusions we came to is that c-level executives do have a moral and ethical responsibility in this area. They (we) need to be talking about it more and sharing experience and ideas with their peers and colleagues and improving their knowledge on the topic. After all, they're the ones who could be sued if something went horribly wrong. They're the ones who are making the big decisions This area is moving very fast indeed and is affecting our daily lives already and is only going to get bigger and probably create as many problems as it solves. One of the conversations I missed was around politics. Now that gets interesting when you're looking at machine based decision making rather than our less-than-tech-savvy politicians.

As part of that, Lloyd and I are keen to run more of these conversations and sessions in London and other towns and cities in the UK and abroad if there's the interest. If you're interested in hosting and sponsoring us to do just that, please get in touch.

In the meantime, do join the session next week where we'll be having conversations about 'What do we do about the Internet of Things?' And if you're coming to Barcelona later this month for mobile shenanigans, let's have a chat at Swedish Beers.

I just liked a new telecoms related page on Facebook. It served up this choice of other suggested pages.

I'm not sure why the algorithms have suggested David Cameron as an option? Could this be a campaign to influence my political choices or is this based on that most other people who liked the page also liked David Cameron? Or is it just a random glitch?

Friday, February 05, 2016

Whoosh Fitting Rooms (or How not to save the High Street)

Eva Pascoe's weekly Retail Bytes dropped into my inbox earlier this week. It's always a really interesting read about the intersection of retail and technology. This week, one of the things she wrote about and particularly caught my interest was Hointer's latest wheeze, The Whoosh Fitting Rooms. You can watch the video below of how it works. I'd love to know what you think.

I'm horrified that the team at Hointer think it's ok to have clothes shoved to the customer down a chute - not unlike a rubbish chute, in fact. That may be ok for a pair of men's jeans but it most certainly is not ok for a cosy merino wool sweater or a glamorous silk top. And just as bad, if you don't want to buy the item, you throw it back down the chute as if you're throwing it away. Aaaarrrgggghhh. As a former fashion retailer, this is an abomination! As a customer, this is not a way I want to deal with clothes in store.

I know we're in an era of fast fashion, but there is, thankfully, a move towards slower fashion and a move towards buying less and to enjoy what you have much more thanks to the likes of Marie Kondo.

Also, as one friend pointed out on the discussion about this on my Facebook page, never mind that you would need to invest heavily in new fittings and fixtures in store, have the customer download the right app and deal with their mobile screen and the screen in the fitting room, which also means having great connectivity, as well as retrain your store staff in the new system (after all, they would be the ones in the back setting it all up and ensuring stock was in the right place at the right time) and install new point of sale software and checkouts.

In the same thread on Facebook, I lamented that retail staff no longer know how to fold clothes at the cash desk. I find myself refolding clothes at point of sale more times than I care to mention so that they don't get damaged before I've even had chance to wear them. I don't care what price you pay for an item in store or whether that store is a charity shop, Primark, Marks & Spencers or Harrods, I expect my belongings to be handled with care. At the point I pay, those items belong to me, not to the store and as such, they need to be handled accordingly. It doesn't take long to teach someone how to fold garments properly. And once you know, you know for life. It also speeds up the checkout procedure.

So, dear retailers, please ramp up your staff training so that bagging up goods ends up being joyful for both employee and purchaser. And Hointer, please put your collective big brains towards a problem that is actually worth solving.

M-Payments are Dead

This week's Telemedia newsletter popped into my inbox this morning and the headline article about m-payments really struck a chord with me. Much as I've been a fan of mobile technology for the last 16 years, I have rarely used mobile payments - as in charging something to my network operator. I use PayPal on my mobile, I've paid using credit cards and I've charged things to my Amazon and my Google Play accounts. Aside from very rare instances of premium SMS (for voting or a charity donation), I can't think of an instance where I've ever thought 'oh it would be so much easier to pay via my network operator'.

Paul Skeldon goes into it in more depth here.