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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On Leadership

What is a leader? What traits do I want to make sure I have as a leader? What has my experience taught me so far? I’ve been trying to answer these questions and have been thinking about what leadership means to me. 

Even though the dictionary defines a leader as “the person who leads or commands a group”, I do not believe that this simple definition is the same thing as being a true leader. A person that merely uses their “power” to intimidate others into getting things done is not a leader. Likewise, a person who uses fear to motivate people into getting things done, or walks over people in a selfish attempt to achieve a goal, is also not a leader.

So, what qualifies someone as a great leader? Let’s start with a fact, and one that many leaders refuse to acknowledge; there are no perfect leaders. We are human and we have weaknesses. We are human and we have strengths. The key is to spot the differences between the two, understand the pros and cons of both, and be a leader that is balanced.

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On Risk Taking

“I wish they would lay me off so I can take time off”, “I would love to live abroad but it’s just too much of a change”,  “I thought of that idea first, I wish I had done it myself” and “That seems too hard” are some of the things I’ve heard friends and myself say so many times. Changing is hard, I know it, but why do we live “hoping” and “going with the flow” rather than doing? What are we afraid of? I don’t claim to know the answer but this blog post has some of my thoughts on how I try to approach taking risks.

The first thing is that each of us live in a comfort zone. It’s easier to deal with the known than with the unknown. It is easier to just go with the flow and let chance and others take decisions for us. This begs the question, why do we let this happen though?

We are afraid of failure. Failing is hard, and when you fail, you KNOW you fail. In Silicon Valley, failure is part of life and it’s encouraged. Only by failing we get better. People always talk about trying things and failing. However, there is still a big stigma in failing. In particular this is very strong in cultures like mine (I’m Mexican) where failure is synonym for loser.

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On Learning

Before I start, I apologize for not writing in the past almost two years. I’ve been on a pretty busy adventure and I promise to make up for it. This post will be one of the first of a series of posts not on technology itself but more on my thoughts about how to live in the world of technology.

The technology world only has one constant: change. In the past ten years though, change has accelerated at an incredible pace thanks to the Internet, crowd sourcing collaboration (aka open source) and an economic system that has allowed engineers to take risks. Even though this rapid change is amazing, it’s really hard to keep up with the rate of change but change we must.

Ever since I was a child I’ve been curious about things. I like to explore new things and learn about them. Either learning how to make computers do things, how to make a mercury thermometer or how wine is made. Reflecting about this topic I even found it interesting how I am more interested on the making-of movie add-ons than the movie. My curiosity is broad and has led me to continuously challenge myself to understand the world as a whole rather than its parts. We usually live in a bubble and learning things outside our bubble helps us be better every day.

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Have Facebook and Twitter lost their innovative soul?

The MIT Technology Review named the top 50 smartest companies and Fast Company named the top 50 most innovative companies of the year. Not surprisingly Microsoft was not named on them as innovations stalled in part due to its soul searching. Surprisingly though, Facebook and Twitter were not on those lists either. Last year they were the poster child of innovation, where are they now?

Fast Company had an explanation as to why they were not on the list: they talked about how they didn’t do innovations, which is true, but the real question is why. One word: IPO.

Doing an IPO changes everything. Whether you like it or not, your number one priority is not your users anymore but your investors, at least for the time being. Investors want only one thing: growth. Once you show growth then you have earned your investors’ trust. Facebook’s biggest achievement last year was not coming from innovation but from revenue. Not a small task by any means, they accomplished mobile monetization. Twitter is struggling to get there too, but they are already focused on that issue.

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The next battle is not just about wearables but smart sensors

This year’s CES was filled with tons of interesting technologies such as bendable super-high-resolution TVs, new computers that have multiple OSs, wearables, and other cool stuff. What really caught my attention was the hype around smart sensors: every year there is a lot of hype about certain technologies that do not stick (remember 3D?), but I think this one is going to, although not how we think it will.

There is a lot of chatter around wearables, but I think it is a limiting term if we think about the core technology: the smart sensor. A wearable is just a series of sensors that can process data in the environment and communicate with the user and a network fitted to be on a human. The Fitbit is a great example of this, it hangs in your wrist and senses step movements and altitude changes, which it then processes and gives the user clear actionable data through the LED screen and through their apps (web and mobile). Another example of a wearable is the Mimo baby monitor which is embedded in a pajama and keeps track of your baby’s vitals and lets you know if anything goes wrong through your mobile device.

Another buzz word going on around right now is the Internet of Things. Whenever there is a new buzz word, everybody tries to define it. For me, it’s comprised of two categories: the first is the miniaturization of a PC/Mobile Device (think of an ATM or Auto dashboard) and the second is the application of smart sensors. This second one has a huge potential and wearables are part of this category even though the industry thinks they are not.

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Would you sell your driving privacy for a potential discount?

I attended a presentation by Kevin Mitnick several years ago where he claimed that he could get a person’s account password by offering them a pen, by the end of the presentation he was able to get several. In reality people do give up their information for a benefit, Google gives you free search results, Facebook keeps you connected with friends for free, Nielsen pays you to know your TV habits and even the government with their NSA programs provides security (although this has been controversial to say the least).

I first heard about Progressive from my marketing professor, who raved about them. He really loved this company due to their offerings and their great marketing. He also talked about their Snapshot program where Progressive sends a customer a device that tracks their driving habits and provides a discount to do so. At the time, I was very happy with my car insurance but started noticing the advertisement around this program. I found it very intriguing and was curious about it. Last August when I bought a new car my insurance company dropped the ball and I decided to give Progressive a try.

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