Nintendo Labo: Thinking outside the box (or with the box?)

When Nintendo released the Switch last year I was very surprised by what they had been able to achieve, take the gaming industry on a spin (again). Once again they proved that they can innovate in a crowded space with deep pocket rivals. They were able to achieve something fun, flexible and that meets our new lifestyle not by thinking of specs but thinking of use cases. They understand people still want to play but they don’t do it just in a living room, so they would meet them where they are by providing play flexibility (great article about that here). Now, with Labo they have done something I consider priceless: enable kids to imagine, play and dream by connecting both the physical world and the digital one.

I have to be honest, I did not buy the Switch right away and when I did I played it and then returned it. Sometimes there is a price for innovation. To me, the Switch has two big drawbacks. First it is the lack of games. I could care less for Zelda (yeah yeah hate me) and some of the other games are just “meh”. However, it was the release of Mario Odyssey that finally made me get it. I loved it, it was fun, I could play at home and take it with me. I bought my Switch just before my holiday trip and took it on the road with me. This meant playing with the Joy-Cons inserted to make a huge Gameboy. I’m a big guy and I am very jumpy and move around when playing. Towards the end of the trip my Switch started to break. My gameplay would stop every minute because they would get disconnected (guess I can’t be that excited while playing). Turned out that the price to pay for the hardware flexibility was ruggedness. So when it was time to return, I could exchange or return and decided for the former due to lack of games.

I thought that would be the end of my Switch journey but this week Nintendo announced Labo. Nintendo has always been great at thinking outside the box. Some of these product work (Wii, Amiibos) and some don’t (VirtualBoy, Wii U) and that is the price to pay to try new things. What amazes me is Nintendo’s relentless pursuit of not thinking about what is the next big technology push they can do, but how to enable new ways to bring playfulness into our lives.

Video games didn’t come into my life until about 10 years old (dating myself here). Before video games I had to rely on my imagination to play. I would make things or I would play with action figures and other physical toys. There was a show on TV I remember very well: Espacio de Cositas (translates bad so don’t try :P). This show was about building things with things any Mexican kid could get (cardboard, paper, colors, etc.). Cheesy as it is, it really helped kids get tactile and bring crafting and imagination into their life.

Turn the clock 30 years, and now we live in a world where technology has creeped into all our lives. This technology immerses us into a world of wonder that is crafted for us. Unfortunately it doesn’t make us wonder, it just makes us want more. There are some games out there like Minecraft that are great at helping us think, dream and build but they are all in the digital world. Digital where things are not real. Technology has been focused on how we can bring things from digital to physical (2D/3D printing, VR haptic) but these technologies are expensive and out of reach for most. Nintendo is turning the table and providing a way of bringing real things into our digital worlds. They started with the release of Amiibos but you can’t really play with them as you play with your action figures. Nintendo Labo changes all that, in a great way.

First, it makes you build your game. I believe they were heavily inspired from Google Cardbox but elevated it. The concept is straightforward: take a cardbox, build a structure and use your device to make a new way of interacting with it. What is great about Labo (more than Google Cardbox) is that this is a game you interact with. For a kid out there it brings curiosity and excitement. You get to go hands on (just like my kids show!) and dream about the possibilities of what you can do with it.

Second, it uses capabilities on an existing device in new ways. Innovation is not just about creating new things but about finding new uses for existing things. This requires to be extremely creative and just keep asking “how can we use this in other ways”. It might seem easy but this is incredibly difficult, specially to do it well. Labo’s piano game is awesome, you can build the piano and press actual keys which are recognized by the Joy-Con camera as you hit them. Who knew a Joy-Con could do that!

Last, it brings real life into digital in an accessible manner. When you get to touch and play, you connect both worlds. Kids can play and dream. Labo’s cost is not prohibitive ($69.99 and $79.99) and allows kids to have an immersive experience. For example their Robot Kit is awesome, you become a Robot (just like how you would in VR) but in a way that you see AND feel. Kids will get the best of the two worlds.

I hope this project is commercially successful and that it works as advertised. Nintendo continues to amaze me with their way of thinking and strategy. It is clear they are winning and bringing playfulness (not just gaming) to millions of people.

Last note, as a product manager I like taking a step back and think about how I can build a framework to apply on my day to day work. Here are the key aspects I take from Nintendo:

  • When being the underdog, don’t attack head on, find your competitor’s weakness and build your strength to attack that vulnerability. Sony and Microsoft are deep in “gamers” and have deep pockets, Nintendo goes for the players in all of us.
  • It’s ok to find inspiration in others. Labo takes from others and ups it. It’s ok to inspire great ideas by looking at what others do and apply it to your world.
  • Don’t just think about new but re-use, there is great value on building new things but also on reusing existing ones in new ways. Nintendo reuses tech and keeps finding new applications for it.
  • Know your users (what they need) and their behaviors (how they need it) – If you don’t know what your users want, you can’t give them what they need. Its important to understand that behaviors change specially when technology changes. So meet your customers where they are. Nintendo knows people habits changed (they are mobile) but they still want the same: to play.
  • Take time to play and dream – this one is so underrated, in particular when dealing with deadlines and dealing with the real world. However, taking time to play is important as it opens the mind and provides the ability to dream (or get new ideas) in a safe environment. This is what Labo brings to kids (and adults?) lives and it’s great!

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Images via Nintendo and Nintendolife.com

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Are you rude to your virtual assistant?

2017 has been the year of the smart speaker. Amazon’s Echo Dot and Google’s Home Mini are currently selling for around $30, which makes them a popular Christmas gift. Using an Artificial Intelligence (AI) has never been cheaper and it’s finally reaching critical mass.

Companies are investing on AI more than ever: natural language recognition still has to improve a lot, but the current algorithms are already impressive. My favorite example: it’s now possible to ask “how long would it take me to get to Starbucks on 15th Ave?” and get an accurate response with the right assumptions. What a time to be alive!

All of this progress comes with side effects: having to learn how to talk to a machine. Often, people start talking without the wake-up keyword, and sometimes they forget to check if the device is actually listening, getting confused when there is no response to their inquiry. Talking to a machine is not easy and usually, very unsatisfactory.

Perhaps that dissatisfaction is what makes us be less aware about our manners when addressing an AI. What would you think if someone interrupted you mid-sentence with a sudden “STOP”? What if someone kept giving you orders relentlessly, never pausing to thank you? That’s how most of us talk to AI’s like Alexa or Siri, never saying “please” or “thank you”.

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Why is Net Neutrality important?

In a few days, on December 14th, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) will vote to change how the internet is regulated in the United States. The impact on how regular users like you and me access information online could be massive, and here’s why.

Currently, there is policy around open communications, mandating that the treatment of traffic should be non-discriminatory: broadband providers cannot get in the way, they cannot censor or make deals that benefit certain types of content over others. For example, Comcast is not allowed today to treat Netflix differently than any other new video streaming startup.

The FCC Chairman, Ajit Pai (who worked as Associate General Counsel at Verizon), is proposing to vote to remove these rules in favor of a less regulated internet. Fewer regulations means, according to their main argument, that the amount of investments made by telecommunication companies will stop decreasing. However, the same data that the FCC used shows that investments have been flat at worse (or actually increased at best) since 2013.

The FCC also argues that if any corporation starts misbehaving, consumers can take their business elsewhere. Nonetheless, more than 50% of the US population only has access to one single internet provider, so they cannot even vote with their wallets. The only way to defend consumers rights will be through litigation and class action lawsuits.

Is everything bad in the new proposed plan? No, there is one important point that will be critical to detect future abuses: broadband providers are obligated to be transparent about their traffic practices; in other words, if Comcast made a deal to promote Netflix over any other streaming service, or if they started blocking or throttling certain sites, it would have to be public knowledge (even if that just means one more line in the fine print at the end of a contract).

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What’s in my phone’s home screen?

2017 is almost over, so I wanted talk about the apps that have taken the most important space on my phone during this year, and whether or not I think they’ll still be there next year.

Let’s start with a screenshot of my home screen:

I place apps in my home screen based on the frequency in which I use them. I try to minimize the amount of times I have to go to other pages of the home screen, so these are truly the apps that keep me going. But are all of these apps equally important for my daily tech routine? Will they stay in such a prominent position next year? Let’s break them into categories.

Connecting with friends & family

Messages, WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger and Mail are absolutely critical to stay connected with family and friends, especially those in other countries. I’m convinced that I’ll keep these around since they are literally the first thing I check every morning.

Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat have been part of an interesting migration during 2017: most of my friends stopped posting on Facebook and became more active on apps where their posts have a 24 hour expiration date. So far, most of my friends are choosing Instagram, probably due to the fact that it has a classic profile of everlasting posts; Snapchat will have a hard time recovering after the aggressive takeover from Instagram, so I would not be surprised if Snapchat didn’t make it on my phone through the next year.

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Would you give up your privacy for unlimited movies? interview with René Sánchez from CineSinFronteras.com

MoviePass is a subscription-based service that allows users to watch almost any movie in theaters for a flat monthly rate. In August, the company announced a surprisingly low price of $9.95, leaving many scratching their heads. I interviewed René Sánchez, cinema expert and movie critic at CineSinFronteras.com, and we discussed the privacy implications and the potential impact to the online streaming industry.

moviepass.png

Even though I’ve been using it for a month already, it still feels too good to be true. Were you surprised by the MoviePass announcement?

Yes, I was surprised by their announcement to reduce the monthly subscription price to just $9.95. It is such an amazing deal, especially when you consider that a regular, 2D movie here in the Seattle metro area costs between $12-15. So even if you only watch one movie every month, you will be saving some dollars with MoviePass! What shocked me the most was to know that the major exhibitors and theater chains were onboard with this change. I expected a lot of pushback from them, considering their old-school ways to operate. So far, only AMC has tried (and failed) to restrict the use of MoviePass in their theaters.

What’s the problem that MoviePass is trying to solve?

People don’t go to the movie theaters anymore. Studios and exhibitors keep blaming Netflix and other rival streaming platforms for their audience loss, instead of recognizing the real root cause: the movie-going experience has become very expensive and obsolete. Ticket prices rise every year (the same goes for concessions), studios keep releasing sequels and remakes no one asked for, and most multiplexes scream for renovations (uncomfortable seats, run-down interiors, and poor image and sound quality). To top it off, patrons can sometimes be rude and annoying.

Again, it’s really not Netflix’s fault that people want to stay at home, rather than going out to watch a movie. Who wants to pay more than $60 (including tickets, food and parking/Uber) to enjoy a mediocre movie in a rickety auditorium, while everyone else is either talking or staring at their phones?

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Visiting the Oculus office in Seattle: is augmented reality (AR) or virtual reality (VR) the future of user interfaces?

Earlier this week I had the pleasure of visiting the Oculus Seattle office for a private tour, some cool demos and a very interesting conversation. During the whole visit, a question kept popping up in my mind: will augmented reality (AR) or virtual reality (VR) ever become the standard way of interacting with our desktop or mobile devices?

User interfaces have evolved over the years in very significant ways: we moved from punched cards to command-line interfaces, and from there to graphical interfaces, which ended up evolving into what we know today, mouse, keyboard and touch. With recent advances in artificial intelligence, we are beginning to transition into conversational interfaces, where we can use natural language to get things done, sometimes even without touching a button or reading a line of text.

Is the future of user interfaces an (almost) invisible one? In many cases, yes, just watch the 2014 movie Her to see a glimpse of where we will be in a few years (minus the “falling in love” part):

However, for many other tasks we will still need to read, type, touch and draw. This doesn’t mean that we will be tied forever to a screen, and here’s where VR and AR come in.

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How Mexico is using technology to help people after the 7.1 earthquake: interview with Paulina Bustos

Is that an earthquake?” the candidate asked with their eyes wide open, as everything around us started shaking. On September 19th, a 7.1 earthquake hit Central Mexico shortly after 1pm, and I was there interviewing university candidates for Microsoft. We were able to exit the building without issues, and even though my phone was unable to make any calls, it had data connectivity, allowing me to contact my family and friends over WhatsApp.

Many others weren’t so lucky: 369 people were killed, and over 6,000 were injured. The earthquake occurred on the 32nd anniversary of the 1985 Mexico City earthquake, which killed around 10,000 people. After spending the following days inspired by the amazing reaction of the Mexican society, united and determined to help each other, I wondered how different the situation would have been without technology’s help. How long would it take for people to find out if their families and friends were OK? How would they be able to find help or where help was needed?

My good friend Paulina Bustos was the perfect person to talk about these issues, so I decided to interview her. Paulina studied Computer Science at the Tecnológico de Monterrey University, worked at Microsoft in Redmond, WA for over 3 years and is now living in São Paulo doing a Technology Fellowship with Artigo 19; she is the co-funder of Cívica Digital in Mexico, where she worked with several non-profit organizations and governments to strengthen citizenship using technology, and she also teaches Software Design & Analysis at ITAM University.

Where were you during the September 19th earthquake in Central Mexico and what was your immediate reaction when you realized the magnitude of the event?

I was in Sao Paulo in a meeting, when my cellphone started ringing with all the messages from family and friends. My oldest sister lives in Mexico City and she usually texts back within the first 5 minutes after an earthquake. This time she took almost an hour. I knew immediately that something was off.

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About the iPhone X notch controversy

The iPhone X was already controversial even before it was officially introduced last Tuesday, mostly due to the rumored removal of Touch ID in favor of Face ID.

However, Apple’s presentation caused a new controversy: the infamous notch. Even though the array of cameras and sensors got leaked long before the event, nobody knew how Apple was planning to do in order to integrate it with iOS 11. We have the answer now: Apple is so proud of that black bar that they decided to render the user interface around it.

Since Apple controls the operating system, they made sure it looks good with most 1st party apps. But what happens with 3rd party content like a website? The notch gets in the way. Continue reading

3 reasons why I’m excited about the new iPhone

Apple will present the new iPhone this Tuesday and, as usual, most of the details have already been leaked.

What seems guaranteed is that we’ll see 3 models being introduced: the iPhone 7s, 7s Plus and a special edition to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the original iPhone. That special edition has been known until now as iPhone 8, iPhone Edition, or iPhone Pro, but the official name iPhone X has been confirmed (among other details) thanks to the final version of iOS 11 leaking.

These are the top 3 reasons why I’m excited about the iPhone X.

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One month with the Nintendo Switch

Scarcity is “the fundamental economic problem of having seemingly unlimited human wants in a world of limited resources“.

Many thought that Nintendo was the master of artificial scarcity because of how difficult it was to find in stock the Switch (and other Nintendo consoles). It increased the hype for all those fans who were anxious to get their new toy, and for those who got it, it created a feeling of exclusiveness.

However, reality is slightly different: even today, over 5 months after its worldwide release, many retail stores still have limited availability or are sold out. Nintendo is actually having supply issues, which I bet they are trying hard to resolve before the holiday season.

Now, does the console live up to its hype? After a few weeks playing with it, I have to say ‘absolutely‘. The Nintendo Switch surprised me with its versatility as a powerful docked console and as a portable gaming device that doesn’t compromise.

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