Why Google’s Mm…Hmm Moment Flatters To Deceive

Technology, Zeitgeist

ETAI2

Let’s admit it. Everybody seems to have had a reaction to the ‘Mm..hmm’ moment during the Google I/O 2018 event last month. The cheeky ‘mm…hmm’ semi-syllabic interjection (which was part of the Google Assistant’s purported phone call to fix an appointment with a salon) evoked titters from the crowd at the event; the kind you mostly hear at stand-up gigs.

This instant crowd reaction reminded some, of the January 2007 Macworld keynote where Steve Jobs had introduced the iPhone for the first time; and the awestruck crowd then had collectively GASPED when they saw the ‘pinch-zoom’ feature.

And therein lies the difference.

The pinch-zoom experience was a classic WYSIWYG promise which Apple completely delivered on.

The Google Duplex demonstration on the other hand, with due respect to Google’s outstanding research strength, has evoked a barrage of questions from people coming from a variety of perspectives.

Some people have questioned the authenticity of the call itself; some have raised moral issues around non-disclosure of the caller being a bot; some have pointed out how this would lead to clogging of phone lines at establishments, and therefore a non-starter in its practical application on ground; some have seen humour in bots on both sides (user and the business) conversing with each other; while some others are seeing doomsday with such interactions taking place between non-humans.

But all these arguments are taking a big leap of faith — that the technology that Google demonstrated, would deliver at multiple points of the value-chain right up to the last mile.

However, there are multiple reference points which suggest that WYG is going to be far from WYS.

COME ON, EVEN AUTO-CORRECT ISN’T THERE YET!

From the days of desktop word-processing, through T9 predictive text on numeric mobile keypads, to QWERTY touchscreen tapping, to Swype based keyboards, to speech-to-text dictation on contemporary OS keyboards – none of these popular input methods have delivered accuracy anywhere close to 100%. The users continue having to double-check for factual, and/or contextual accuracy, and worst of all, for grammar. (Yes, auto-corrects falling prey to the ‘your/you’re’ or ‘there/their’ homonym misuse is still a reality!)

And this is linear mono-directional word and sentence creation we’re talking about. Iterative interactions add to the complexity by providing additional context as well as noise with every exchange.  Now imagine a bot that negotiates & fixes appointments for you, committing your time and other resources, behind your back. Mm..hmm.

HOW DOES ALADDIN BRIEF HIS GENIE?

Yes, it is commendable that while the whole world has been busy working on chat-bot solutions to ease the communication overload on the businesses side — Google put the ‘digital assistant’ on the side of the user, and that too using a medium that’s still quite familiar to most people – the voice call.

But what remains unexplored is — how do users, in the first place, communicate the instructions to their digital assistants to fix that appointment. And these instructions would not be restricted to date and time input alone. You’ve got to provide ranges and boundaries on time slots, along with the order of preference, to equip your digital assistants for their mm…hmm embellished negotiations.

And that is not an easy task at all.

Calendars and scheduling applications have been in existence for decades, and yet there aren’t any killer apps in that category. There is a fundamental UX fail-zone that calendars, and schedulers never seem to get out of.

Yet, there are other services which have solved this in the context of their respective domains, significantly reducing friction on the users’ side. Interestingly, quite a few of them have gone on to become multi-billion-dollar businesses; aided in no small measure by how they handled the UX. Think cab-hailing, travels bookings, and restaurant table bookings etc.

Till the time Google (or any other service) doesn’t solve this first stage problem itself, it may unintentionally be nurturing the medium-term failure of this project. This is not to say that Google won’t be able solve it. In fact, if they do, that by itself would be a breakthrough worthy of its own mm…hmm equivalents.

BOTS ‘TALKING TO’ BOTS

A lot of people have had a field day conjuring hilarious satires and farcical scenarios where the users’ Google Assistants’ phone calls are received by the businesses’ equivalent voice bots. Some have pointed out that two computer systems talking to each other already have several ways of communicating: Through code, protocols, APIs, query languages etc. Getting them to make a ‘voice phone call’ to each other, doesn’t add any efficiencies to the interaction, except maybe get them to utter sweet nothings as well.

But the end result — getting computers to ‘talk’ to each other — isn’t the end objective. The end objective is helping users interact with establishments in the most efficient manner. Or is it?

Maybe, our A.I. scientists feel an even greater pressure to pay obeisance to their obsession for humanization of computers. But why the obsession?

That obsession is rooted in anthropomorphism: Giving human-like qualities to non-human entities such animals, machines, cars etc.

For nearly 100 years now, the animation industry has struck gold with anthropomorphism. Much before that, another industry had extensively used anthropomorphism to create persuasive stories & characters – religion!

With unprecedented computing resources at its disposal today, the A.I. industry sees itself at the same inflexion point that the animation industry was with Toy Story. And therefore the obsession.

BLIND-SIDED BY OBSESSION  

As some have pointed out, if you asked the A.I. inventors of today to make a kitchen appliance that would clean utensils, they would deep-dive into the global collective knowledge pool; summon all the computing resources they have; spend an eternity making a waterproof humanoid bot that would stand by the kitchen sink; and try to work exactly like humans to wash, lather, rinse and dry up the utensils — while all you needed was a dish-washer!

Or, if today’s inventors went back to Steve Jobs’ demo in 2007, they would rather fancy making a realistic robotic hand that could pinch-zoom!

The argument has been made several times over, that when the motor vehicle industry was at its first inflexion point, the inventors of the day, fortunately, were not attempting to mimic horses’ morphology — but making a paradigm jump with engines and pistons.

That’s where the inventors of today need to draw their inspiration from: First principles. Not human mimicry!

 

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When buying an assembled PC defined swag

Zeitgeist

Anyone who had bought PCs in the 1990s would recall having received multiple configurations & quotations from assemblers. One would start with friends or friendly-neighbourhood assemblers, and then to cut costs further, directly land up at Nehru Place (in Delhi) and cut one layer of margins. It was considered quite ‘bold’ to ask for a 17″ monitor when the prevalent CRT monitor size was 14″. When I’d bought a 1Kva UPS as well, that was like the most swag thing anyone in my peers had done till then!

What mobile games would India be playing in 2015

Games, IIM, Media & Entertainment, Zeitgeist

Through much of 2014, Indians continued to endorse international biggies like Candy Crush Saga, Subway Surfers, and Temple Run 2 on their smartphones. Of the two Indian games that witnessed meaningful traction, one was based on a Bollywood blockbuster (Dhoom:3 by 99Games) and the other was based on India’s most popular offline card game (3-Teen Patti by Octro).

And therein lies the blueprint for what we are likely to see in 2015 as well.

Fountainhead Bollywood

We have to acknowledge that movies sit at the apex of the entertainment value-chain; not only in India, but also in the aspirational market we look up to — the US. This manifests itself in various perspectives — monetization, distribution, talent, content derivatives, franchises, news, buzz etc.

In the last few years film-makers film-marketeers have been using gaming as a logical medium to engage with their relevant audience. However, most of the efforts have been geared towards (and measured by) buzz creation leading to the movies’ theatrical release and a few weeks after that.

In most such cases, the development of the games starts only when the movies are well into post-production; and in some cases a last-minute line item in their marketing mix.

This, therefore, defines the kind of time, resources and returns that get associated with such dalliances. Mostly, next to nothing. Especially when seen in comparison to the ‘hundreds of crores’ budgets & earnings associated with movies.

This however, is changing. 

The core driver for this change is the fantastic proliferation of connected mobile devices. The numbers being quoted by industry sources may vary, but when these are in the 100-200 million range, and growing rapidly, it is already a sizable number.

Games like Krrish and Dhoom-3 crossing the 10million user milestone is significant. I’ll come to the economics flowing from this in a while — but see it as 1 crore people having downloaded each of these games. Now assume, each of them were to pay the equivalent of a cinema ticket (say, Rs.100), the number we’re hitting is the *100 crore* sweet spot!

Of course, the stage at which various pieces of the gaming ecosystem currently are, even if we were able to do just 10% of these numbers we would be delivering serious value.

What the industry needs to do is:

  1. Innovate in production
  2. Innovate in distribution
  3. Innovate in monetization

How? I’ll touch upon this briefly a little later, and maybe in detail in a subsequent post.

Local Game Formats

When we had launched ibibo TeenPatti in 2009 at the height of the web social games cycle, it was a runaway hit. The best part being that we did not have to either invent the game-play algorithm, or spend effort in telling users how to play that. All we had to do was create a stable online instance of the teen patti game, and inform users about our existence. Everything else fell in to place.

When we’d made the Android version of the same game, it climbed to the top of the charts without any extra effort, competing once in a while with Zynga Poker for the top spot. For the next couple of years, while the rest of the ibibo business was getting re-aligned, ibibo TeenPatti app continued to be at the top.

Full credit to Octro for having seen the opportunity and moving in with the right kind of user acquisition spends. The Sequoia investment of $15million followed. And this spawned dozens of more teen patti games on the app stores. Collectively, the various teen patti game apps would have done ~20 million downloads. This is comparable to what the global big three (Candy Crush, Subway Surfers and Temple Run) would have individually done in India. One could say the ‘teen patti genre’ is India’s current answer to Candy Crush.

Teen patti of course was the lowest hanging fruit. There will be card games like rummy, bluff, sweep and apps based on physical board games like carrom that developers are, and should be making. Similarly, Bingo, (or its popular Indian party format — Tambola) hasn’t been seriously pursued yet.

In 2015, we may see at least one break-through ‘Indian’ game. I would say tambola has a better chance, than carrom, which would face a challenge in recreating a high quality physics-based visual experience. Teen patti needs no physics. Pool and carrom do. (I’ve had the experience of launching an online Pool game that had been developed by an ace international team; and when we showed that to people who’d previously played low quality online pool games, we witnessed 100% conversion and very high retention. So, production quality would matter there.)

ALSO, there’s a caveat.

Not all local games would work. It is important that the *really hot target group* should have some real-life reference point for these native games. Teen patti works because you’re creating an online/mobile instance of an already popular game. Same was the case with online pool some 5-6 years ago; because offline pool was the aspirational hangout experience for youth across many cities in India.

I’m not so sure about carrom. I think carrom mattered to those who went to college in the 80s and 90s, and spent hours playing carrom in college canteens. But I’ll be pleasantly surprised if the young mobile game players of today still endorse it without the physical world reference.

International Game Formats

Like in other media, we need to keep an eye on globally emerging mobile game formats, and make a judgment call on what could work in India as well.

Movie-making started in India around the same time it did globally; but film makers (and film marketeers) in India have a long tradition of looking westward for inspiration.

Most of the television business we see around us is modelled on the American television business. This is true for both fiction & non-fiction based television. The entire concept of daily soap operas, game shows, reality shows, news programming, sports programming, stand-up comedy shows etc. is made on blueprints coming out of the US. Yes, they’ve been ‘Indian-ized’ to suit the respective audiences of our TV channels — but the core formats are global.

This is what gaming needs to do in the right earnest.

Many of the leading Indian internet businesses have already done it: Think Flipkart, MakeMyTrip, InMobiZomato, Quikr, Olacabs. They’ve all been pretty successful in their own right — but have they ‘invented’ the format of the business they’re running? No, they haven’t. And they don’t need to either. They needed to adapt & innovate, and that they’ve done pretty well.

Interestingly, we’ve got two different global ecosystems to look up to: US and east Asia.

I’d done something like this while launching ibibo Farms game in 2009. We’d licensed the game from a developer in China, added the requisite localization layers on top, and given it some innovative marketing and distribution pushes. The game became quite popular, and was earning money too. In my estimates, ibibo Farms would have been earning more money out of India than Zynga’s Farmville!  (Funny anecdote: Some poorly informed ‘tech’ blogger, who hadn’t played either — said, we’d copied Farmville ‘screen by screen’. What the poor guy didn’t know was that Farmville wasn’t even the first farm game in the world, and that there were dozens of farm games from developers in China that were doing fairly well globally, and most of them preceded Farmville!)

One of the global formats that has great potential in India is quizzing. Of course QuizUp has seen great traction globally, and that should act as a spur for game developers in India, rather than burdening them with the unwanted comparison: “There’s already QuizUp in this space, you should try something else.” Bollocks!

Challenges?

  • Talent will continue to be a challenge. But a key investment here would be to focus on acquiring story-tellers into the fold, rather than only focusing on developers and visual artists. The latter are available in plenty, given the BPO past of the gaming industry. It’s the former that need to be mentored, nurtured and weaned away from other disciplines like films, television, and advertising.
  • Monetization isn’t as big an issue as it is made out to be. Given the right kind of games, with the right kind of hooks to get people to pay, monetization will happen.
  • Distribution is a bigger challenge, as we seem to be stuck between the existing levers Google Play Store on the one hand, and device embeds on the other. Both of these are running sub-optimally. Sadly, given the very bad history of telcos in curating content ecosystems, one can’t even look towards them.
  • User acquisition through these existing channels is becoming more and more un-viable, when you are competing for visibility with ecommerce players, FMCGs, global gaming giants among others. Acquisition costs through Facebook have grown more than 500% in one year, with game ads on Facebook performing even worse than dating ads!
  • Very low self-belief in creating their own ‘characters’. The gaming industry doesn’t yet believe that they should be creating their own Chhota Bheems and Kid Krrishes. While we keep lamenting the bad monetization scenarios with app stores and ad-networks, investments in building franchise-able characters aren’t happening either, which could pay-off handsomely in the long run.

—-

There is one game I would like to highlight as perhaps the only example of an organically successful game in India. It’s a game that was launched as a mere line item in the events line up for IIM-Indore’s festival in 2006 — a browser game called KlueLess. Initially based on the international puzzle game Notpron, KlueLess is an example of an ‘adapted format’ that became very popular, and has kept on growing every year. From being yet another online event in a college fest — it has become THE event that everyone looks forward to playing. And it will be into it’s 9th season in 2015!

Let me close this post with this quote:

It’s not where you take things from – it’s where you take them to.

— Jean-Luc Godard

My predictions for the Nano

Humour, Zeitgeist

Some may come true, some may not. I hope most may not. But remember you first read them here.

  • The first prediction: Every blogger who takes him/herself a little too seriously will write about the Nano!

  • 90% of the first 1 million Tata Nano’s sold will be bought by those who already have 1, 2 or more cars. And this proportion shall not change for quite some, as the Tata production lines will struggle to cope with the deluge of pre-booked orders. This would obviously lead to a premium being charged, and the car will be available only in ‘black’ (No, I am not referring to the Henry Ford Model T colour!), and therefore only the ‘haves’ will become ‘have-even-mores’

  • Pollution will get reduced dramatically after an initial upsurge. Obviously with traffic queues starting right at the doorstep of car showrooms only a fraction of the entire cosmos of cars on roads would actually move. The others would simply switch off. You don’t want to run out of fuel at a 5-hour stop, right? And with most cars thus switched off, pollution would obviously be past its glory days!

  • This will trigger a micro-retail boom. Micro-retail is MBA jargon for the universe of vendors who shove anything from balloons, magazines, paperbacks, or smelly backs into your face on traffic signals. More people in cars for prolonged periods of time would mean the market size for micro-retail would go through the roof. Befittingly we would now rechristen it as Nano-retail. And the category of goods that would get sold would now also include clothing, toiletries, soil-bags, batteries, mobile recharges. The next phase would also include McDonalds and ICICI Bank ATMs in the Nano behind you! Sanjeev Bikchandani apparently is already preparing plans for Naukri Nanos, so that you could switch jobs even before you switch signals!

  • Nano after having established a record as the cheapest car in the world, would now go on and set the world record for the largest number plates — with most number sequences getting too big for the number plates currently in use! I am also predicting this would give a fillip to national literacy!

  • Apple computers will file a trademarks infringement case against the Tatas. This would happen around the same time as Google search results for “nano” returning more cars than iPods! And the NRI cousin on being told, “I just bought a Nano” would stop asking “1GB or 4 GB?” Then next ‘big’ thing would then be to make Nano (the car) so small, as to be able to send it as an email attachment!

  • Tata Nano will record more sales the world over than India alone. And this will be stoutly resisted by the locals. “First you took our IT jobs, then BPO jobs and now you are taking away our cars too!” It’s a no-brainer to then predict that every time a Nano hits an Audi on a Sydney road, while the driver may or may not be hauled-up for rash driving, he will certainly have racism charges slapped on him!

  • Other predictions include:
    • A movie called ‘Nanoman
    • A restaurant menu offering you plain or butter nan-o
    • Sameer (the ‘dil‘ ‘jigar‘ lyricist) going into a ‘nano mein sapna‘ over-drive
    • A Sunny Deol dialogue, “Na yes, Na no. Sirf Nano
    • A ZEE News programme ‘Nano ya na mano

The hanging of Saddam Hussain & the madness after

Media & Entertainment, Zeitgeist

I had once mentioned what kind of video clips make it to the viral-able grade. That was in the context of sports events/incidents. I also believe the days of ‘World’s Most Amazing Videos‘ genre of programming are over on TV. YouTube and other video-sharing sites completely own this genre now.

Similarly, while ‘breaking news’ is still most dramatic on TV, the reference / search and archival possibilties ensure a much longer life for these videos on the Internet.

There is a popular post which compiled a list of the top ‘Viral video moments of 2006‘. However even as that list was doing the rounds — the biggest such event happened — the hanging of Saddam Hussain.

It was against this backdrop, and being a faithfully-in-love-with-the Internet person, that I was checking out YouTube on the morning of January 1. And that’s when I made the observation about 18 17 of the top 20 ‘most viewed’ YouTube videos on that day being of Saddam Hussain’s hanging. Somehow I wasn’t comfortable linking the actual videos here.

And then two days later when I logged in to my WordPress dashboard I did a double-take with disbelief!

My daily visit count was just going through the roof. The previous best ever was 348, the day Amit Agarwal had tipped DesiPundit about the Maxim magazine post of mine.

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This was because the top result on Google for “hanging of Saddam Hussain” was my post! (That has since been moved out owing to Google’s strange batch-indexing policy. It should be back soon.)

Here are the Yahoo! screen shots (till I get the Google screen shot which Nigel took for posterity :-))

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People were getting referred from search-engines I never even knew existed…

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The search words that were taking people to this site went something like this…

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My post stats looked like this:

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And then based on this traffic, WordPress started featuring me in their ‘Blog of The Day’ lists… The highest I reached was No.2 (click to see full image)

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I wanted to write this post two days back, but was waiting for the deluge to ebb a little. Sadly, I still don’t have a point of view on this issue yet.

Incidentally there was no visible increase in the list of spam messages, thus proving that the sheer magnitude of organic activities far out-strips the dogged efforts by spammers!