SIM Partners Makes It Easier to “Ride There with Uber”

August 25th, 2016 by ddeal

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Location is a catalyst for the $57.6 billion on-demand economy.

Case in point: today SIM Partners, a location marketing technology platform provider (and one of my clients) announced that the company has made it possible for brick-and-mortar businesses ranging from restaurants to retailers to add a “Ride There with Uber” button to their location pages.

SIM Partners clients that use the company’s Velocity platform to add the Uber button to their pages will provide an easy way for anyone to order an Uber to their location. The button will appear along with the usual content, such as store hours and addresses, which you find on a brand’s location page when you use your smart phone to conduct a search for things to do and places to go nearby. So, for example, a shopper interested in checking out a sale at a shoe store can order an Uber right off the store’s location page, as shown in this image:

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Velocity manages location pages for businesses with multiple brick-and-mortar locations. So for a brand with thousands of location pages, the addition of a “Ride There with Uber” button can convert searches to in-store business at scale. As SIM Partners noted in a press release, 76 percent of people who conduct a local search on their smartphone visit a business within 24 hours, and 28 percent of those searches result in a purchase. SIM Partners aims to help its clients capture their share of those searches by nudging searchers one step closer to the store.

The announcement comes at a time when the addition of buy buttons on sites such as Pinterest has amplified the role that digital plays in the growth of an on-demand economy in which consumers can get what they want faster than ever before. Indeed, according to an August 2016 Harvard Business Review article, online businesses account for the largest category of on-demand spending. Brick-and-mortar businesses are responding by developing on-demand services that rely on a mix of digital and offline delivery tools. Brands such as Domino’s Pizza, Nordstrom, and Walmart are creating partnerships with business such as Uber, and developing integrations with technologies such as Amazon Echo, which promise shoppers faster delivery of goods and services from brick-and-mortar stores. Others, such as Shoe Carnival have succeeded by providing mobile wallet offers that lure shoppers to stores in order to enjoy time- and place-sensitive deals.

Uber is the engine of the on-demand economy, both online and offline. According to Business Insider (and reported by SIM Partners in its press release), Uber completed 62 million in July, a 15 percent increase over the previous month. As I have noted previously, Uber ushered in the on-demand economy by tapping into unmet consumer needs and offering services that have disrupted industries ranging from retail to healthcare. SIM Partners clients span multiple industries in which brick-and-mortar locations are at the center of the customer experience. It makes perfect sense for SIM Partners to add Uber functionality for its clients’ customers.

Technology becomes pervasive when it permeates multiple industries and when everyday people use it, which is the key to the success of brands such as Apple. Uber enjoys that kind of success. Anyone with a smartphone can order an Uber. Integrations with companies such as Foursquare and SIM Partners make Uber more pervasive for businesses, too — and make it even easier for people to use Uber to get what they want on their own terms. It helps that Uber makes its API available to businesses. Uber simplifies life for both consumers and businesses. Simplicity is the key to the on-demand economy, which is attracting 22 million consumers annually — and investments from some of the world’s most valuable brands. As the services being developed by the bellwether companies such as Walmart take hold, look for brick-and-mortar businesses to grab an even bigger share of the on-demand economy, with location being the battleground.

 

 




How Uber Feeds an Appetite for Disruption

August 19th, 2016 by ddeal

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The news about Uber rolling out self-driving cars later in August underscores the reason why Uber has become a multi-billion dollar brand within seven years: Uber’s core competence is not ride-sharing — it’s disruption.

Uber has consistently developed and modified its business model to either drive or participate in disruption. Consider these examples:

  • In 2009, Uber initially upended the auto transportation industry by launching a ride-sharing service that liberated consumers from the tyranny of taxicabs that dictated terms and pick-up schedules to passengers. The launch of Uber was the big bang, which ushered in an era of on-demand, peer-to-peer services in multiple industries.
  • Uber set its sights on home delivery with the launch of UberRUSH in 2015 and UberEATS in 2016. UberRUSH delivers goods for retailers ranging from Nordstrom to boutique florists. UberEATS focuses on food delivery for restaurants. The service is moving its way across the United States by forming relationships with dining establishments in major cities such as Philadelphia, where more than 100 restaurants partnered with UberEATS on the first day of its launch.
  • The deployment of self-driving automobiles is part of a broader disruption of the automotive industry, which has involved an interesting partnership between automakers such as Ford and Silicon Valley titans such as Google, as car manufacturers seek to change their own industry with autonomous vehicles before someone else does. Self-driving vehicles, following their initial use in Pittsburgh, will permeate both transportation and delivery, potentially outmuscling the use of drones that other businesses are adopting.

How does the company continue to ride waves of disruption, even challenging the very service it launched in 2009? Three factors play a role:

  • A knack for wedding technology with an understanding of human behavior. Uber initially succeeded not because it provided a cool app but because the company understood that people ordering taxicabs require responsiveness, ease of use, and transparency in pricing — needs that were unmet by the status quo. The Uber app filled the void by making it ridiculously easy to order a ride when you want it and where you want it. No longer was it necessary to navigate clunky phone trees to request a cab and then wait around wondering when your ride was going to show up.
  • Creation of partnerships with like-minded brands. Uber doesn’t go it alone. For ride-sharing services, Uber has created relationships with businesses such as Foursquare to make it even easier to order an Uber. The success of UberRUSH and UberEATS relies on Uber’s ability to partner with retailers and restaurants. It’s no accident that one of UberRUSH’s delivery partners is Nordstrom — a company known for its innovations in customer service. (I expect Uber will expand its relationship to go beyond delivery and offer customer service options akin to a Nordstrom town car, shuttling loyal customers around for a day of shopping and in-car entertainment as an exclusive service.) Similarly, Uber is partnering with Volvo with self-driving cars.Uber finds not just any partner, but the right fit for Uber.
  • A willingness to adapt. UberEATS initially rolled out in 2014 as a feature on the Uber ride-sharing app. But the experience was wonky. Uber realized that people are in two different frames of mind when we order rides and food: when we want a ride, we want to get from point A to point B. We don’t want to bother with ordering food delivery. So Uber decoupled the feature as a standalone app. Uber has also constantly changed its ride-sharing app, introducing greater levels of information transparency. Now Uber is revised its business model with a driverless service. Uber also recently introduced UberPOOL, which encourages passengers to share rides and split their transportation costs. UberPOOL could cut down on congestion and pollution by combining multiple rides in one car. UberPOOL has reportedly taken 7.9 million miles off the roads and 1,400 metric tons of carbon dioxide out of the air in Los Angeles within its first eight months of use.

What’s next for Uber? What industries might the company upend? Here are some candidates:

  • Entertainment. Uber can become an entertainment brand in a number of ways. Live Nation and Uber already have a basic ride service partnership for people to order rides to events, but I think Uber is capable of much more, especially by bundling entertainment with ticketing and transportation. Uber is big enough to offer the entertainment itself through partnerships with artists. Uber already hosts private concerts for customers. Uber may also capitalize on the car itself as a source of entertainment. The company already offers ad-free streaming via apps such as Pandora, which just hints at the kind of in-car entertainment options Uber could provide, ranging from music to streaming movies for longer rides. Cars provide much more than transportation. They’re already mobile content machines.
  • Healthcare, by bringing medical providers to patients (and vice versa) and by managing the delivery of pharmaceutical products. Companies such as Pager exist already to bring physicians to patients’ locations on demand. But Uber has the scale to pull off on-demand medical care nationwide. Already Uber has a relationship with Relatient to offer transportation services to patients. More to come here.

Uber could also expand payment, customer loyalty, and advertising services through partnerships with other companies, becoming an all-purpose customer acquisition and service platform based on the data the company collects on its customers.

Uber will also go beyond the app interface if it needs to do so. If the economics make sense, Uber could penetrate wearables to provide even more frictionless, on-demand services.

What do you think Uber will do next?




A Place of Magic

August 12th, 2016 by ddeal

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Photo credit: Brian Schultz

“I have come home at last! This is my real country! I belong here. This is the land I have been looking for all my life, though I never knew it till now . . . Come further up, come further in!” — C.S. Lewis, The Last Battle

Do you have a happy place, a special source of joy that uplifts your soul every time you are there? Let me tell you about mine.

The Bristol Renaissance Faire is a make-believe 16th-Century English village that recreates a day when Queen Elizabeth has come to visit. Bristol is located within sight of the world of concrete roads, orderly outlet malls, and generic motels that cluster around Interstate 94 just north of the border between Illinois and Wisconsin. From the road, Bristol looks like a patch of green wood enclosed by a fence. Bristol is in the world but not of the world.

The world of Bristol is a tangle of trees, dusty lanes, cozy wooden shops, elaborate stages, still ponds, glades, and meadows. Entering Bristol requires visitors to pass through a set of gates, like the Pevensie children entering Narnia through the doors of the wardrobe. My family and I have been visiting Bristol for years. My daughter, Marion, and I are now part of the cast of actors who become Bristol residents for Saturdays and Sunday during the summer.

I have often been asked why on earth I choose to dress in heavy 16th Century garb and drive two hours round trip on Saturdays and Sundays to bake in the summer heat. I have offered some answers through my blog during the past few years. But my posts are, at best, clues, as is the one I’m writing now. For Bristol is a mystery, like a rune that casts a spell on you. Bristol is a place of strong magic, like Middle Earth or the island in Lost.

Over the years, I have experienced the setbacks that beset you if you hang around long enough, ranging from job loss to death of family and friends. Bristol is a healing balm. Early on Saturday and Sunday, long before the gate opens, and before many of my cast mates arrive, I walk through the trees that stand like guardians beside a private lane where cast members enter the grounds. I feel the trees whispering to me that the time has come to put aside all the world’s cares and surrender to Bristol.

The spell of Bristol grows throughout moments of the day, like when I walk past the fairy village in the morning. The miniature buildings and trees of the village are set off from a meadow by a little fence, seemingly still but humming with energy. Or when I smell wood smoke and notice white wisps rising from cooking pots simmering in the open air at the Dirty Duck Inn across from the Cheshire Chase Action Stage.

The day brings more smells, sounds, and sights. Like the drone of a hurdy-gurdy in the distance as you stroll down the wide expanse of High Street and Shoplatch Lane. The harmonic voices of the Bristol Buskin Frolic dance company or the jingle of the bells on their feet as they walk by. The sight of fairies, their faces painted yellow, green, and blue, dancing amid the trees or hiding in bushes. The shadows that fill Shakespeare’s Meadow, creating tall, animal shapes that dissolve in the trees. In the evening, I sometimes detect a splash of incense wafting from the shops, like a natural perfume in the air, which energizes me during moments when my body grows tired from having roamed the streets all day, interacting with patrons as I portray a character named Nicolas Wright.

When you visit Bristol as a patron, you can easily spend hours bouncing from one attraction to the next: the knights jousting, the comedy shows, the musical troupes, the Danse Macabre, the shops selling silver rings, ancient maps, and wooden swords, among other things.

Video source: the YouTube Bristol Renaissance Faire channel

The street improv acts create an energy that can keep you buzzing all day. As a cast mate, I enjoy all those things as much as I did when I was a patron, but I also appreciate the quiet moments when I savor life as I did when I was a child and things were simpler. Like lying in the grass behind a tree and studying the clouds before the mid-day parade begins. Or letting a breeze wash over me during a mid-afternoon lull in the hidden garden of the noble’s glade. Or following the graceful, swooping motions of a falcon after the creature is unleashed by royal falconer. Little moments that deepen the spell.

Video source: the YouTube Boston Mama Knits channel

The spell works its way through the cast and also the patrons, like Daniel, a military veteran who I’ve occasionally encountered in the streets. He is quiet, barely saying a word as he moves slowly from shop to shop. Normally he wears sunglasses and a cap with the name of his military unit stitched on the front. We sometimes trade smiles and small talk in fleeting moments. One time in 2014 he told me that Bristol is his happy place, where he walks off his memories of fighting in the Middle East. He thanked me for being part of the magic that heals him.

I never forgot that conversation — what he said, where I was standing in the shadows of Guild Hall Row when he confided in me, and his sunglasses and cap. I didn’t see much of him in 2015 or this year, until a few weeks ago, when I was marching in the mid-day parade. The parade snaked its way through Bristol, all of us kicking up little eddies of dust. As always, I made brief eye contact with a sea of faces, waving and shouting. Near the lane, I noticed a familiar, quiet grin behind a pair of sunglasses. I did a double take. I knew that face — Daniel’s, without the cap.

“I know you!” I shouted.

His grin became a broad smile.

“You will always be my friend!” I continued, as he disappeared from view.

Seeing Daniel filled my soul. He looked happy and healed. I wondered if I would see him that afternoon. You can see someone for just a moment in Bristol and never again. Every second counts. But a few hours later, at St. John’s Crossing, a little lane of shops and food stands, there he was, wandering alone. I held out my arms, and we embraced like brothers. Not a word needed to be spoken.

Video source: YouTube FunBlast TV channel

Everyone on the cast can tell you stories like mine. I hear them every day — tales of people transcending the world that sent them into Bristol, through encounters with Queen Elizabeth, learning how to country dance, or meeting a knight. These are but snapshots of a place, flat images that capture a glimpse of something unknowable. Magic cannot be known. Like faith, magic requires belief. I believe in Bristol magic even though I do not understand it fully. I am grateful that I have a place in my life for the unexplainable.




Why Ed Sheeran Might Need to Pay up in Copyright Infringement Lawsuits

August 10th, 2016 by ddeal

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Ed Sheeran is having a tough summer. In June, the writers of Matt Cardle’s single “Amazing” slapped Sheeran with a $20 million copyright infringement lawsuit, claiming that Sheeran’s 2014 song “Photograph,” from his album X, copied “note-for-note” Cardle’s “Amazing,” written in 2009. On August 10, Sheeran was hit with another copyright infringement lawsuit, this time by the heirs of Ed Townsend, who composed and co-wrote the lyrics for Marvin Gaye’s classic song “Let’s Get It On” in 1973. The latest lawsuit claims that Sheeran’s song “Thinking Out Loud” (Sheeran’s first Number One single, also from from X) possesses melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic elements that are “substantially and/or strikingly similar” to “Let’s Get It On.” It’s anyone’s guess as to how these lawsuits are settled, but an unfavorable verdict against Sheeran could have ramifications on songwriters everywhere.

In both cases, Sheeran is being sued because, in essence, the musical structure of his songs is too similar to someone else’s. For instance, the “Photograph” lawsuit alleges “The chorus sections of Amazing and the infringing Photograph share 39 identical notes – meaning the notes are identical in pitch, rhythmic duration, and placement in the measure.”

These types of cases, which come down to musical, as opposed to lyrical, similarities, seem to be up for grabs. In 2015, attorney Richard Busch, who is representing the writers of Matt Cardle’s “Amazing,” successfully sued Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams in a copyright infringement case that claimed Thicke’s and Williams’s song “Blurred Lines” was too similar in musical structure to Marvin Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up.” A judge awarded Marvin Gaye’s family $5.3 million and a share of future royalties. On the other hand, in June, Led Zeppelin successfully defended itself in a copyright infringement lawsuit that claimed the opening chords to Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” plagiarized guitar chords in Spirit’s song “Taurus.”

Why did Led Zeppelin emerge victorious over musical infringement but Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams did not? The answer will determine whether Sheeran is liable for millions of dollars in damages. And, as I blogged recently, the matter is a murky one. These factors will likely decide the outcome:

  • How integral is the music to the entire song? This issue will likely determine whether Sheeran wins or loses. Thicke and Williams were successfully sued because the recurring backbeat and chorus that form the structure of “Blurred Lines” was too similar to that of “Got to Give It Up.” On the other hand, although the opening chord progression of “Stairway to Heaven” is similar to a guitar part in “Taurus,” the resemblance lasts but a few seconds. Thicke and Williams might have emerged victorious had a jury believed the same was true with “Blurred Lines” and “Got to Give It Up.” In Sheeran’s case, the lawsuits are basically arguing that Sheeran stole the foundation upon which he built his songs, as opposed to nicking just a few elements here and there. Based on the outcome of the “Blurred Lines” lawsuit, Sheeran is definitely in a tough position with both his lawsuits. He may very well need pay up.
  • How original is the music in question? Team Led Zeppelin argued that the songs “Taurus” and “Stairway to Heaven” were based on common chord progressions that date back to the 17th Century and can be heard in songs such as the Beatles’ “Michelle.” In other words, the musicians were adapting music that is in the public domain, and any similarity to other songs was entirely coincidental. On the other hand, in the 1970s, George Harrison was successfully sued for copyright infringement because his song “My Sweet Lord” was too similar to a very distinctive, original melody in the Chiffons song “He’s So Fine.” Team Sheeran may find themselves needing to prove that the songs in question are not entirely original — an argument that comes down to successful homework and producing musicologists who sound convincing enough. But this point can be difficult for a defendant to successfully argue. With “Taurus” and “Stairway to Heaven,” a jury determined that despite Team Led Zeppelin’s arguments, “Taurus” was original enough to justify Spirit owning its copyright.

In any event, songwriters have been put on notice: attorneys are watching your every move. What you determine to be creative inspiration could land you in court. And you might not possess Led Zeppelin’s deep pockets to defend yourself. The band paid $800,000 in legal fees in the “Stairway” case. Your creative reputation could come down a judge, a jury with zero musical knowledge, and a whole lot of money.




“Revolver”: Great Art Endures 50 Years Later

August 5th, 2016 by ddeal

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I cannot let Friday end without commenting on Revolver, which was released 50 years ago today.

I didn’t get into the album until after I’d freed myself from the Beatles’ mythology, broadened my own musical tastes, and learned to appreciate the album for its musical merits alone. In context of the Beatle’s maturation as musicians, Revolver endures as a masterpiece – the moment when their personal visions, increasingly sophisticated song writing, and spirit of adventure in the studio coalesced to create an artistic statement that surpassed every other album they would create, including Sgt. Pepper’s. The album also stands as a testament to the production genius of George Martin and sound engineer Geoff Emerick, whose book, Here, There, and Everywhere, is highly recommended for an inside look at how the band created its best moments in the studio.

Sgt. Peppers was the album that transformed rock from a musical genre to a cultural phenomenon. But it’s far from my favorite album. The production and very idea behind the Sgt. Peppers make it stand head and shoulders above most anything anyone had created at that time. But the songs are not all uniformly great like they are on Revolver, and Revolver has just as many moments of musical genius. There is the biting satire of George Harrison’s “Taxman” alongside Harrison’s spiritual meditation in “Love You To”; the dark loneliness of Paul McCartney’s “Eleanor Rigby” followed by John Lennon’s hazy, trippy “I’m Only Sleeping”; the romantic heartache in Macca’s “Here, There, and Everywhere,” and Lennon’s psychedelic tour de force, “Tomorrow Never Knows,” in which he famously instructed the other Beatles that he wanted his voice to sound like “the Dali Lama chanting from a mountaintop, miles away.”

Sgt. Peppers is like Moby-Dick – influential literature you’re supposed to read. Revolver is great music that stands the test of time. But I didn’t know that when I was growing up and discovering music in context of the Beatles’ legacy. When I was a senior in high school, John Lennon was gunned down by Mark David Chapman. Like many of my contemporaries, I learned about Lennon’s death while watching Monday Night Football, when Howard Cosell, the controversial broadcaster, announced the news in his unmistakably nasal and self-important sounding voice.

The adjective “shocking” gets overused when describing dramatic word events, but Lennon’s death truly was shocking. The idea that some crazed person could just gun down a living legend shattered our illusions that godlike rock stars lived a cloistered existence – vulnerable to their own excesses, to be sure, but not to the same kind of maladies that befall everyday mortals. Lennon’s death would lionize him, to Paul McCartney’s chagrin. The loss of John Lennon also made it impossible for me to view him as an artist properly. Instead, he was a saint. You dont think of saints as songwriters.

It took the passage of time for me to explore enough music on my own and to gain the perspective I needed to critically analyze his vast contributions to the Beatles, which is to say, popular music. And Revolver is his personal triumph. “Tomorrow Never Knows,” “I’m Only Sleeping,” “Doctor Robert,” “And Your Bird Can Sing,” and “She Said She Said” are the acidic complement to Paul’s sweetness, the powerful voice that gave Revolver an unmistakable edge. He would never again command an album with the Beatles as he did on Revolver. The Beatles became Paul’s band afterward.

Each time I listen to Revolver, I take comfort that I can continue to discover art with the wonder that I felt when I was a child. Listening to the album is like revisiting Nighthawks at the Art Institute of Chicago. I appreciate something different each time – a little nuance, like the striking jangle in the multi-tracked guitars on “And Your Bird Can Sing” or the unfettered joy on Macca’s voice when he utters the word “Good” in “Good Day Sunshine.”

Revolver takes me on a journey with each listening. The twists, turns, and destination never feel the same.




Memorable Album Covers: “Exile on Main St.”

July 29th, 2016 by ddeal

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Whenever I see the cover of Exile on Main St., I think of my courtship with Janice Deal in the late 1980s. We learned about each other through our vinyl collections during that time. Jan’s Kate Bush and Peter Gabriel albums gave me a glimpse into her poetic artistry that would manifest itself in the short stories and book she would publish years later, The Decline of Pigeons. My albums, ranging from Al Green to Led Zeppelin, often revealed my fascination with the interplay between music and the visual power of album cover art, which I would eventually document on my blog and on visual storytelling platforms such as Instagram. Exile on Main St. captures that time in our lives perfectly.

Considered by many to be the Rolling Stones’ masterpiece, Exile on Main St. captures the sound and look of a band wallowing in its own decadence. The front cover of the album is a jumbled mess of off-kilter, black-and-white images of circus entertainers and assorted characters of unusual talent, including a dude with an amazing capacity for holding three oranges in his mouth. The back consists of a druggy pastiche of more black-and-white images, this time of the Rolling Stones, leering, yawning, and frowning. The band looks like they’ve been documented amid a chaotic, gypsy existence, which, in fact, they were living, having fled England to avoid paying an onerous tax burden. The images of one of rock’s most memorable covers reflect the nearly out-of-control sprawl of the album inside the cover.

The album itself confused critics and fans alike with its muddy sound. When you listen to songs like “Rocks Off,” you feel like you’re in the uncomfortably hot, squalid French villa where parts of the album were recorded. Mick Jagger slurs, drawls, and shouts the lyrics over scabrous guitar parts and a loose rhythm that feels two notes away from a chaotic breakdown. All the elements add up to an authentically dirty vibe that few bands have managed to capture.

I got to know Exile a little too late in life, long after I had been told countless times that Exile was The Masterpiece. It was impossible to really enjoy the album on its own merits, so thick was the legend (and myth) surrounding the songs and its recording in that French villa while Keith Richards was dropping heroin. Hearing the songs was like listening to Bob Dylan or classical music. You couldn’t relax and let the music pour over you; rather, you were conscious of the expectation that you were supposed to enjoy it, even songs with the juvenile names like “Turd on the Run.”

Only after leaving the album alone for a while and revisiting the songs when Jan and I were dating in the late 1980s could I start to enjoy Exile and the chaotic sounds that unified all four sides. At this point in their career, the Rolling Stones were mired in a fallow period, churning out formulaic-sounding albums like Dirty Work. The band sounded too polished and mechanical. Jan and I were spending a lot of time exploring Chicago neighborhoods, eating barbeque from a place called Leon’s (where a slice of white bread was served with your ribs), and just bombing around in the streets.

Sometimes we would order ribs from the Leon’s carry-out on north Clark Street and simply sit on the sidewalk and chow down on ribs, not caring how messy we looked. As we took long walks through areas such as Lincoln Park, I sang loosely remembered songs to Jan, throwing in a line from “Ventilator Blues” one moment before jumping into “Happy” when I couldn’t get the lines right. I was deep into the Stones’ early catalog then, perhaps as a reaction to how boring the band sounded in 1987. I scooped up copies of worn vinyl Stones albums at used record stores, including the earliest albums with those stark close-ups of their menacing faces. Jan, with her collection of Madonna, the Beatles, and Laurie Anderson, offered the counterbalance to the darkness that fascinated me, and I loved her for providing that lightness.

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During that period, I studied the album cover for Exile with fresh eyes and dwelled on each little square photograph, looking for clues that might shed light on the songs inside. I reappraised the dense and opaque collage of images as a reflection of the music. The unpolished and faded images of Jagger and Richards huddled around the microphone, and of the entire band smirking and gazing off screen with stoned expressions, coupled with the dude with the oranges and the freaks on the front cover, created a band portrait dipped in the kind of grime and grit I felt on my skin after walking through Chicago on a hot summer Saturday. I was finally able to enjoy the album on my terms. And Jan did, too. The Stones were walking the streets with us.

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If you own the album, you know why you have to listen to the songs all the way through to understand the cover. These are the Stones: unvarnished, real, and powerful.




Your Audience Is Always Watching

July 28th, 2016 by ddeal

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Photo credit: Ivan Phillips

Your audience is always watching even if you can’t see them.

Years ago, I was hanging out at one of those sweaty summer suburban festivals where the food consists of elephant ears and the carnival rides look like they’re held together with rust. Amid the squirt gun games and cotton candy haze, I noticed a wiry woman on a small stage singing remarkable renditions of Joan Jett songs. I walked over to the stage and realized that lo and behold, here was Joan Jett in the flesh, writhing, strutting, and blasting through her energetic song catalog. She had an audience of maybe a dozen people standing in a dark corner of the festival, but she performed as if she were commanding an arena packed with thousands.

She looked like she was having fun. I marveled at her obvious joy and wondered how she conjured up such passion when she was performing for a small cluster of people she probably could not even see very well in a poorly lit corner of the festival.

A few weeks ago, I found out for myself.

As I have discussed on my blog, during summer weekends, I perform at the Bristol Renaissance Faire, an outdoor living theater in Wisconsin that re-creates the sights and sounds of 1574 Bristol, England, on a day when Queen Elizabeth is visiting. The character I portray, a pompous guild master named Nicolas Wright, hosts an improv show with a charming and lovable guild master named Thomas Halfcake, portrayed by Benjamin Cormalleth. During our show, known as the Court of Common Pleas, we invite audience members onstage to be charged and tried for comical crimes such as kicking a fetid turnip or smiling without a license. We conduct a mock trail that always ends with our condemning the audience volunteer to perform a silly action onstage, such as howling at the sky as punishment for their “crimes.” The show relies entirely on our ability to create a bond quickly with an audience and strengthen that bond over the course of 30 minutes.

Ben and I have worked together as cast mates for three years now, and we both love the experience of cavorting in the dusty streets of Bristol, making people happy from 10 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays throughout the summer. Do you remember what it felt like when you were a kid and summer days meant playing outdoors from morning until nightfall? For us, being part of the cast evokes that sense of fun. Whether we are on the streets or onstage, we are energized by the spontaneity of improv.

Normally we do our show at noon on an intimate stage known as the Lord Mayor’s Forum. We can easily project our voices and attract attention at this centrally located spot. But on one recent Sunday, our show was switched to a different stage located at a busy crossroads. When noon rolled around, we took to the stage and sized up the audience — which consisted of exactly one cast member who had appeared to catch our act. Otherwise, we had zero patrons filling the benches. Maybe the layout of the stage was not inviting. Maybe the location was not ideal. But it was showtime, and we were on our own.

I glanced over at Ben. He looked as happy as he always does. Without saying a word, he flashed me a smile that said, “Let’s have fun.”

So we had fun. We dug into our characters to swap jokes about being a nefarious barrister and a charming baker who form a most curious pair. We performed improv bits. We dialed up our make-believe Elizabethan-era accents and projected our voices even louder than usual. We laughed like kids on vacation without a care in the world. It really didn’t matter how many people were in the audience or whether they were paying attention. We were enjoying the moment.

At first, no one seemed to notice, or at least it looked that way to me. The Faire patrons kept moving along the lane. But they were watching, even if we didn’t know it. Soon, a family sat down in the front row, curious to find out why these two guys onstage dressed in robes, stockings, and hats were cutting up so loudly. Then the audience began to grow as a few more families and couples decided to check us out. Then more people wanted to find out what the other people were watching.

We quickly had an enthusiastic crowd. Audience members shot their hands into the air when we asked for volunteers. A woman who looked to be in her 70s cracked jokes with us and shouted “God save the queen” with Ben. Two children joined us onstage to be tried for the crime of being happy brothers and sisters. They had so much fun that their parents had to coax them to leave the stage when it was time to call a new volunteer. By the time the show was over, the audience was in a groove with us. We had drawn them into our orbit.

As our 30 minutes came to an end, Ben and I floated off the stage. We both knew something magical had happened — one of those special moments that we would carry with us throughout the summer.

What if Ben and I had phoned in our performance just because we didn’t think we had an audience? We would have let down the patrons who were paying attention even as they walked by the stage without seeming to give us a second thought. We would most certainly have never filled a seat.

And we would have let ourselves down. But instead, we gave ourselves over to the natural joy of savoring a summer moment at Bristol, an experience we love.

It doesn’t matter how many people attend your show, watch your speech, listen to your podcast, or read your blog. Someone out there is paying attention. You don’t always see them. But you owe them your best effort. And you owe it to yourself to love what you do.

Here are other posts I have written about my experiences acting at the Bristol Renaissance Faire:

Own the Stage,” September 3, 2015.

Get Comfortable Being Uncomfortable,” August 26, 2015.

Fake It Until You Make It,” July 17, 2015.

How Acting in a Renaissance Faire Has Made Me a Better Executive,” August 18, 2014.

 

 

 

 

 

 




Memorable Album Covers: Elton John’s “Greatest Hits”

July 15th, 2016 by ddeal

Elton+John+Greatest+Hits+1-3+-+Sealed+437730

Have you ever come across someone who captures a style that you can admire but never hope to emulate? Elton John made me awestruck when I found a copy of Greatest Hits in my sister Karen’s room when I was a kid. The album came out at a time when greatest hits packages actually meant something, long before digital made it possible for listeners to create their own playlists. The best collections served as an introduction to an artist’s body of work and made it easy for you to enjoy in one listening singles that you otherwise had to catch on the radio if you were lucky enough to be listening at the right time. And Elton John’s first Greatest Hits collection was one of the best, not only for the music but the memorable album cover.

All the songs that defined his rise to superstardom were laid out for you like diamonds — hits like “Rocket Man,” “Your Song,” and “Bennie and the Jets” (I always wondered who came up with the brilliant idea of pronouncing “Jets” like “jetssssss,” which gave the song its signature moment). My favorite was (and remains) “Daniel.” When he sang “Daniel, my brother, you are older than me/Do you still feel the pain” my mind drifted to my brother Daniel, who was two years older than me and who was indeed experiencing a lot of pain in his life. I’d heard all those songs — how could you not growing up in the 1970s? — usually riding in the car with my mom and dad, driving to places like Peoria, Illinois, or Mishawaka, Indiana, to visit relatives on both sides of the family. Even on a crappy car radio, his songs were unmistakable.

But when I found that album, I didn’t even bother listening to the music at first. I really didn’t need to. I just studied the album. Every detail. The creamy white suit, oversized glasses, and natty hat offset by the dark blue shirt and multi-colored bow tie. The over-sized pin of the dude looking like Marlon Brando in The Wild One affixed to his jacket. And to top it all off, that elegant walking stick. On the back cover, there he was, playing his piano, wearing glitter shoes. I loved everything about his look, but I realized he had captured a style that was all his own. I was just a kid entering adolescence, with no sense of how to look. I was making that awkward transition from matching clothes to jeans and shirts, but I had no idea what I was doing, and I was too shy and awkward to try to attempt to look anything like presentable. On that album cover, Elton John gave me a glimpse of another world, of other possibilities beyond my imagination.

All I could do was press my nose against the glass and watch.




How Pokémon Go Took Over the World with Augmented Reality

July 12th, 2016 by ddeal

3045687-3026698-pokémon+go+logo+copyThey’re in my house. They’re in my car. They’re following me to the store. Of course, I’m speaking of the Pokémon who inhabit the world of Pokémon Go, the augmented reality game that has invaded the lives of smartphone owners all over the world since its general release July 6. Seemingly overnight — actually, faster than overnight — Pokémon Go has schooled the world on the power of augmented reality, a technology that is expected to support a $120 billion market by 2020. Thanks to Pokémon Go, it might be time to raise that dollar figure and speed up the adoption timeline.

With Pokémon Go, you use your smart phone to play a game of discovery and battle with Pokémon from the video and card game that Nintendo made popular in the late 1990s. Thanks to augmented reality, Pokémon can seemingly pop up anywhere as you view the real world through your phone screen, including your own bathroom or your backyard. Your job is to catch them, train them, and prepare them for battle with other teams (in designated spots called gyms, which correspond with public places in the real world that you can find by getting out of the house and exploring with your phone as your guide). At locations called Pokestops, you can collect supplies and goodies to assist in your quest to find and train the Pokémon on your own team. As you capture harder-to-find Pokémon and win battles, you level up.

Since the game’s release, I have spent some time playing the game with my daughter, Marion, and friends. I’ve wandered around the town I live, Downers Grove, Illinois, jumping up and down in excitement on public streets while I’ve experienced the thrill of capturing Pokémon. Here’s why I think Pokémon Go resonates:

The Game Rocks for Pokémon Fans and Nonfans

First off, Pokémon Go is flat-out fun for both fans of the legacy Pokémon game and people who know little about Pokémon. The experience has all the elements of an enjoyable game, such as questing, play, skill testing, winning points, challenging others, leveling up, and joining teams. Both single players and multiplayers can enjoy it, and you can keep a session going for as long as you have the app open, which is crucial to creating player engagement.

Marion and I are not really conversant in the ways of Pokémon, but we play games on occasion, and it was easy for us to get the appeal of Pokémon Go straight off. Learning the rules is pretty easy — which is essential for me, as I have zero patience for games with complicated instructions — and yet achieving points is challenging enough to keep your head in the game.

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Google Creates a Virtual Reality Future

July 5th, 2016 by ddeal

Expeditions

Google wants virtual reality to be everyone’s reality.

During the week of June 27, Google demonstrated its commitment to making VR a mainstream experience. To wit:

  • On June 28, Google shared an online demo showing how creatives, using Google’s forthcoming Daydream VR platform, can create animation in VR without possessing any specialty skills. Daydream, announced at Google’s I/O event in May, will encompass VR-enabled smartphones, a new VR viewer and controller (making Cardboard unnecessary if you can afford the viewer, whose price is unknown), and apps that will unlock VR content ranging from news to games. Daydream will be available on the Android operating system.

In addition, on July 29, roadtovr.com reported that Google is developing a feature for its Chrome browser that will allow you to browse the entire Web in VR when Google rolls out Daydream. Since Google is also rebuilding YouTube, Street View, Play, and Photos with VR modes, a VR-mode for Chrome, when ready, will have a world of VR-content to browse, such as a more immersive Street View experience or VR concert viewing on YouTube. When Daydream is rolled out, we should be able to use the Daydream headset or Cardboard viewer to visit any website in VR, according to Upload VR.

These developments demonstrate just some of the moving parts that will comprise Daydream, and they make Daydream seem like less of an abstraction and more of a tangible reality. Whereas Facebook communicates its vision for VR with good theater and well delivered messages, Google opens the hood to give you a glimpse at the engine.

Designing Animation in VR

The animation demo might seem like inside baseball to anyone who does not design for a living, but making VR accessible to creatives is important. Breakthroughs in any endeavor occur when the tools of production are accessible and democratic. Rock and roll took off because anyone who could get their hands on even a cheap guitar could teach themselves how to play. Basketball exploded in popularity across the United States in the 20th Century because all you needed was a basketball and a court to learn the game. And Google intends to make VR a breakthrough, too.

As Rob Jagnow, software engineer, Google VR, wrote in a June 28 blog post, Google Daydream Labs is reducing the complexity for making VR animation by making it possible for creatives to design scenes by moving objects around in VR, instead of needing complex and costly software to design scenes in 2D. Jagnow indicated that Daydream Labs experimented with VR by allowing users to bring characters to life by moving toys around a screen.

“Instead of animating with graph editors or icons representing location, people could simply reach out, grab a virtual toy, and carry it through the scene,” he wrote. “These simple animations had a handmade charm that conveyed a surprising degree of emotion . . . People were already familiar with how to interact with real toys, so they jumped right in and got started telling their stories. They didn’t need a lengthy tutorial, and they were able to modify their animations and even add new characters without any additional help.”

In a nod to making VR democratic, he added “VR allows us to rethink software and make certain use cases more natural and intuitive. While this kind of animation system won’t replace professional tools, it can allow anyone to tell their own stories.”

Expeditions

The Expeditions experience is more of a crowd pleaser. Google rolled out Expeditions in the fall of 2015 to participating classrooms. As reported in TechCrunch, more than a million students in 11 countries have gone on virtual field trips, and the collection of destinations has grown to more than 200.

The following video testimonial demonstrates how Expeditions can work:

Launching Expeditions in the classroom is a smart long-term strategy. Google is betting that tools such as Expeditions will help make younger generations become more familiar and comfortable with VR. And as they do so, they’ll associate Google with VR. of Google as their preferred platform throughout their lives, which is similar to Apple’s approach of embedding its products in the classroom decades ago.

But Google is thinking short-term by making Expeditions more widely available. Anyone with the tools can now join in the fun. And when the tools improve with Daydream, Google hopes to introduce a whole new meaning of fun. Making Expeditions available for iOS would be a way for Google to entice IOS users to switch to Android — as if to say, “Do you like what you’re experiencing with Expeditions? There’s a lot more fun to be had if you switch to Android.”

As I discussed in a June 11 blog post, Google’s vision is to make VR accessible to all, with Google products being at the center of our everyday VR experience. The way Google sees it, VR will underpin how we search and discover, how we experience content, especially if we use Google’s own Chrome browser on mobile devices. Chrome is now the most popular Web browser, according to Gizmodo. Android has the largest global marketshare of any operating system on a smartphone, according to stastista.com. Google intends to strengthen those leads in an era of VR that Google sees coming.

As the saying goes, the best way to predict the future is to invent it. Google sees a VR future on the horizon and intends for its own products to lead the way. But it’s not like we’re are all going to stop what we’re doing and start using Daydream when the platform becomes available. Even loyal Android users will take some time to adopt VR experiences. iOS users will watch that uptake (and, Google hopes, become envious) while pundits speculate about Apple’s possible move into VR. What’s clear, though, is that Google is priming the pump for a gradual adoption of VR through Daydream. Expanding Expeditions and sharing a demo for creating VR animation are all about getting us comfortable for a long-term change that is coming. And coming soon.