"Yoglers" at Google's campus take its weekly yoga class, conducted by Chief Evangelist for Brand Marketing.

Photo Credit: Nishat Kurwa

Iterating on Mindfulness: Finding Calm in Silicon Valley

on Tuesday, Oct. 21st

A version of this story aired on NPR’s All Things Considered.

A version of this story aired on NPR’s All Things Considered.

The annual Wisdom 2.0 conference in San Francisco might be the only business convention in the city focused on slowing down. It brings in thousands of people for talks like “Technology and Healing” and “Three Steps To Build Corporate Mindfulness the Google Way.”

The San Francisco Bay Area has a decades-long history of embracing Eastern spirituality, and it’s also the longtime home of the tech sector. Yoga and meditation classes are popular with the region’s tech workers. Greeting his audience earlier this year, Wisdom 2.0 founder Soren Gordhamer told them, “Often in tech conferences and other conferences, speakers come out and they’re met with laptops open, and the speakers can’t feel you, can’t sense you, can’t be with you. So I have a lot of gratitude for the presence that you all bring.”

At Wisdom 2.0, attendees pay up to $2,500 each to learn how to better listen, connect, and observe in the course of a fast-paced life. And the conference is growing — just last week, a business-focused Wisdom 2.0 was held in New York.

Gopi Kallayil is a top executive at Google, and a regular speaker at the conference. In a Wisdom 2.0 talk this year, he demonstrated yoga postures that can be done anywhere from a hotel room to the workplace. At Google Headquarters in Mountain View, he teaches yoga every Monday afternoon to his “Yoglers,” a cohort that’s grown to a few dozen people since Kallayil began teaching these classes eight years ago.

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Kallayil’s official role at the company is Chief Evangelist for Brand Marketing, and he’s just as enthusiastic about Google’s culture as he is about yoga, which he learned at an ashram as a teenager in India. He says globally, hundreds of Google workers take part in some sort of relaxation or wellness practice on the job. Facebook and Twitter offer perks like these, too.

Kallayil said mindfulness practices could become popular with millions of Americans because they’re embraced by so many workers at the most successful tech firms. “These are seen as forward thinking companies that are driving massive amounts of change in short amounts of time. In many cases the brands behind those companies, whether it’s Google or HP or Yahoo or Facebook, all are iconic brands, and that gives it a certain legitimacy.”

In fact, a well-known mindfulness program called “Search Inside Yourself” began at Google. It draws on neuroscience, and promises to build skills that will boost workers’ performance and leadership. Companies from Genentech, to SAP, to Ford have used elements of the Search Inside Yourself program, and the company has a teacher training program to help disseminate the curriculum in the workplace. It’s a major selling point that Search Inside Yourself emerged from within Google’s celebrated corporate culture.

Anthony Williams, the founder of Empowerment Yoga, says he’s been hired by tech companies that are interested in how yoga can help their workers increase creativity, productivity, and ultimately, their bottom line. He starts with simple breathing practices that can be done while a worker sits in a boardroom chair. Even among purportedly open-minded Silicon Valley types, Williams says, he sometimes notices a resistance to learning Eastern wisdom practices, but “I let them know, this is not a religion. They call it ‘the yoga sciences.’”

He reassures tech workers that, “If you don’t have a religion, I’m not trying to give you one,” and tells them to think of yoga as a glass of water — “it goes with everything.”

But Williams acknowledged that the notion of divorcing yoga from its spiritual foundation might be disturbing to some teachers, including his own, who adhere to strict protocols. “Being here in the Bay has taught me to let go of that dogma,” he said. “You need to meet people where they are, period.”

Angel investor Jason Calacanis is also interested in re-contextualizing mindfulness in hopes of bring more Americans on board — as paying customers. He told me he’s been interested in mindfulness practices since seeing Star Wars as a kid, “because I actually thought the force existed.” He splits his time between Santa Monica and San Francisco, and said it makes perfect sense that the Bay Area has become the launchpad for Eastern wisdom practices to reach more Americans — inside their workplaces, and perhaps, on their phones.

“San Francisco is barely part of the United States,” he joked recently at his office near the city’s Tenderloin district. “The way people live here is as fringe as fringe gets. You have this massively open population and some number of them want to be high performers, and another number of them want to be enlightened, actually. So it’s a perfect storm for anything like yoga or meditation.”

Calacanis first tried meditation after learning about how elite athletes were using it to improve focus and awareness, but he says most people don’t believe in the science behind it. He sees this as a business opportunity. “I think the medical industry will embrace this at some point,” he opined, “because, I think people have reached the end of road when it comes to prescription drugs.

Calacanis says there’s no “national brand” for meditation, and that’s why he just invested $375,000 into Calm.com, a mobile app that delivers daily visualization exercises and positive affirmations. Its founder, Alex Tew, said relative to a website that delivers mindfulness tutorials, going to a medication class or reading a book about it are “high-friction.” He wanted to create an online experience that would give people exposure to the underlying concepts of mindfulness in short, two-minute meditations: “just give them a little taste.”

Calm.com and other guided meditation apps like Simply Being and Headspace are trying to capitalize on a potentially lucrative market — the roughly 90 percent of the American public that has yet to try mindfulness. But to others, the idea of Silicon Valley iterating on mindfulness seems like the ultimate irony.

At this year’s Wisdom 2.0, the protesters who are known for blocking tech buses marched onstage and unfurled a banner that read, “Eviction Free San Francisco” — hoping to bring their own ideas about compassion to interested tech workers.

Protestor Amanda Ream, who’s also a member of the East Bay Meditation Center, says tech firms’ impact on San Francisco rents can’t be reconciled with Buddhist practices of non-harm. “I really believe that tech companies are at the forefront of trying to create a new corporate culture, and that this is an awkward and painful process for them,” she told me. “I hope mindfulness and the teachings of the Buddha will help bring them to the table with people like us who are living right at the edges of the havoc that’s being created in the city of San Francisco right now.”

Ream says the Wisdom 2.0 organizers later sent protesters an email later saying they could have applied to host a workshop at the conference, which Ream says costs hundreds of dollars that her group doesn’t have. “I hope that we’ll see in the coming Wisdom 2.0, workshops that actually talk about critical issues facing our city.”

After a brief tussle during the conference disruption, the protestors were removed from the stage. The speaker whose session had been interrupted asked the crowd to check in with their bodies. “What’s our relationship to conflict, and how do we show up for it?,” he asked.

It was silent for a while, then applause broke out. Already, next year’s conference is almost halfway sold out.

IndieCade: Gaming’s Magic 8-Ball

on Wednesday, Oct. 15th

IndieCade, the International Festival of Independent Games, which takes place in Culver City every October holds an important role in the game industry ecosystem.

IndieCade, the International Festival of Independent Games, which takes place in Culver City every October holds an important role in the game industry ecosystem. I’m tempted to say “niche,” but given the prominence of indie games in the launch of the current console generation cycle “niche” undersells the influence these games have.

While the first thought is to compare the festival to the Electronic Entertainment Expo what IndieCade resembles most is the early years of ComicCon. There a growing tribe freaks and geeks discovered they were not only into the four-color antics of spandex clad heroes but the very personal stories of people who had discovered a medium perfectly suited to express the way they see the world. This revelation provided a cultural depth to what would otherwise be an exercise in entertainment marketing.

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Corey McCall with the video game controller that measures the level of excitement in the player. Linda A. Cicero / Stanford News Service

Corey McCall with the video game controller that measures the level of excitement in the player. Linda A. Cicero / Stanford News Service

These Game Controllers Will (One Day) Read Your Mind

on Thursday, Oct. 9th

A version of this story airs on NPR/WBUR’s Here & Now.

A version of this story airs on NPR/WBUR’s Here & Now.

If you’re a gamer, or have one in your household, odds are that there is a wedge of black plastic studded with joysticks and buttons nestled in the cushions of your couch. Buttons get pressed, and things on the TV go boom. That would be the humble video game controller. Humble, perhaps, for not much longer.

“So what we’re doing here is we’ve modified an Xbox 360 controller to help try and sense a player’s emotions as they’re playing video games,” said Corey McCall, a doctoral candidate in electrical engineering at Stanford University.

He’s created a way for game controllers to read your mind. Kind of.

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Give It Away Now: Gear VR Early Adopters To Get Free Game

on Tuesday, Oct. 7th

Consumer-ready virtual reality is stumbling forward, and this month is likely to see the release of Samsung’s Gear VR peripheral for their Galaxy Note 4 phone.

Consumer-ready virtual reality is stumbling forward, and this month is likely to see the release of Samsung’s Gear VR peripheral for their Galaxy Note 4 phone. Some Best Buy stores already has demo units under their counters.

One big question is what games are going to be available at launch and how much will they cost? The answer to the latter question is “free.” The reason: the Gear VR is being launched before Oculus VR sets up the payment system for the content marketplace. (Which seems crazy, but apparently there really are not rules in VR.)

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ello: Can Social Media Exist Without Ads?

on Wednesday, Oct. 1st

A version of this story aired on NPR’s Morning Edition.

A version of this story aired on NPR’s Morning Edition.

Vermont’s known for its green pastures, farmsteads, and roads free of billboards. The founders of the new social network ello live in the state, and they want to bring Vermont-like serenity to the internet.

“We set out to prove that a social network will survive and thrive that doesn’t have an business model of selling ads to its users,” said CEO and co-founder Paul Budnitz. He owns a bicycle company in Vermont, and he’s also the founder of Kidrobot, which makes high-end art toys. Budnitz said ello’s creators initially launched the site for their circle of friends. They wanted a clean online space to exchange large images and longform text. The site has been growing steadily for about a year, he said. But that changed last week, when news stories about a group of disenchanted Facebook users mentioned ello as an alternative, and set off a stampede of interest.

“We’re getting 40,000 combined signups and requests per hour…so it’s a lot,” Budnitz said with a chuckle.

You need an invite from a friend to use ello, and that amps up the allure. Many ello users I talked to, like 24-year-old Charity Walden, say they joined simply out of curiosity. “I use Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, Pinterest, and Snapchat,” she said — and now ello rounds out that group. “I think it’s really cool to be there at the beginning, and see how it’s developed.”

The spike of interest in a new social network also points to intensifying concerns over issues like data mining, online bullying, and the protection of privacy. Users can’t make their ello accounts private, but the founders say that’s coming soon. And ello’s stated mission is to be profitable without selling user data — a claim that attracts scrutiny. Once it was learned that ello received venture capital money in January, the critics went to town.

Aral Balkan is one of them. He’s a privacy advocate who’s building an independent operating system. Balkan says he doesn’t want to support a VC-backed social network that will face pressure to balloon in size and value.

“If you take venture capital, that means at the very beginning, you had to present your exit plan, because that’s when the investors make their money back. Even before you built the thing, you’re selling the people that you hope to get to use it,” he said.

I mentioned to Balkan that for many ello users I spoke to, the fact that it’s ad-free wasn’t necessarily the reason they joined. Attitudes like this are a problem, he said. “We’re just rushing headlong, we’re just making things…not necessarily being critical about the impacts they will have, and just jumping from one bandwagon to the next.”

After just a few days, ello user Jimmy Chan is also losing interest in the site, but for a different reason — he says he’s not getting much out of it. “Some of my friends are jumping in to say ‘You’re all still here?’ as if it’s Monday morning, and people are still in their living room from a Sunday night party,” he joked. Chan says ello probably won’t be fun for him until it picks up traction with more friends, and offers different features.

The site’s being tweaked and re-worked in full view of a rapt online audience. The founders are responding to complaints and requests as the site takes shape. Co-founder Paul Budnitz has a relatively chill attitude about the critiques: “I’m in Vermont, not in Silicon Valley.”

He’s confident that ello can make money through a “freemium” model. Users would pay for extra features like the ability to access multiple accounts with a single login.

Budnitz maintains that the founders don’t feel undue pressure to compromise their ideals. He says they’re content to stay small and modestly profitable in a Vermont kind of way.

Say Ello to the latest David to Facebook’s Goliath

on Thursday, Sep. 25th

Before we go any further, I’d like to say that this isn’t–likely–Ello’s fault.

Before we go any further, I’d like to say that this isn’t–likely–Ello‘s fault.

People have been hungry for a Facebook-killer for a long while now. There was a momentary flash where it looked like Google+ might be it. The whole “circles” idea was different enough to pique interest, and FB had been around just long enough to be boring.

Google blew it, however, by insisting that everyone use their real name. They had forgotten that this is The Internet, and real names are for boring people.

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Virtual Reality’s Future Hinges on Presence and Patience

on Tuesday, Sep. 23rd

There are two reoccurring themes in the reports out of this past weekend’s Oculus Connect developers conference in Hollywood.

There are two reoccurring themes in the reports out of this past weekend’s Oculus Connect developers conference in Hollywood.

The first is disappointment that virtual reality pioneer Oculus VR didn’t announce a release date for the first commercial version of their Rift hardware. The second is that the latest prototype has achieved a level of that elusive experience known as “presence” that pretty much blows everything up until now out of the water.

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Apple & The Magic of NFC

on Monday, Sep. 8th

The speculation engines have been set to maximum across the tech Internet as all eyes turn towards the Flint Center for the Performing Arts in Cupertino, where Apple will make what everyone assumes will be an historic product announcement.

The speculation engines have been set to maximum across the tech Internet as all eyes turn towards the Flint Center for the Performing Arts in Cupertino, where Apple will make what everyone assumes will be an historic product announcement.

Historic because this is the same theatre where the original Mac itself was unveiled back in 1984, and the company has built a large temporary structure next door to the venue for the event.

The assumption on everyone’s lips is that Apple will unveil both a new iPhone and the long rumored “iWatch,” both of which are said to use Near Field Communication technology, or NFC. The killer app for NFC? Mobile payments, specifically frictionless point of sale transactions.

While payments have gotten all of the ink, that’s just one of the magical uses of NFC. We could be in store for a lot more surprises, starting with toys.

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Seven Things To Know About The Future of Immersive Entertainment

on Friday, Sep. 5th

im·mer·sive

adjective

1.

im·mer·sive

adjective

1. (of a computer display or system) generating a three-dimensional image that appears to surround the user. Source: Google.

Immersive. The word pops up in conversations about entertainment with as much frequency as “engagement.” While the definition is tied to its roots as techno-jargon in the cyberdelic 90s, its popularity comes from the fact that the meaning has grown beyond those roots.

Facebook’s acquisition of virtual reality start-up Oculus VR earlier this year put the word back in the mouths of the mainstream press, and this week Samsung announced the Gear VR head mounted display adapter for their next generation phone. Another use of the term is tied to immersive theater productions like the long-running Sleep No More in New York City.

Whether in virtual or flesh and blood reality, the singular goal of an immersive experience is to suspend disbelief so totally that the audience gets wrapped up in the world around them to the exclusion of any other.

What follows is a primer, of sorts, on what the future of immersive media will look like.

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Samsung Hits The Accelerator on the VR Age With Gear VR

on Wednesday, Sep. 3rd

A couple of weeks back I watched the vice president of content for Jaunt VR—makers of a revolutionary live action video camera for virtual reality—hint at the imminent arrival of a consumer VR device.

A couple of weeks back I watched the vice president of content for Jaunt VR—makers of a revolutionary live action video camera for virtual reality—hint at the imminent arrival of a consumer VR device. Jaunt and New Deal Studios would be releasing a short WWII themed film made with the camera this fall, and that meant people would need to able to watch it on something, after all.

There was no way that Sony was fast-tracking Morpheus, and all signs pointed Oculus VR’s first consumer product needing until 2015 to be ready. Google has the DODOcase Cardboard kit already available, but that thing is more like a Viewmaster on steroids than a fully realized VR device.

Which left one suspect in the room: Samsung, and their rumored “Gear VR.” Today the South Korean manufacturer came clean: they will be unleashing the Gear VR, a headset adapter for the forthcoming Galaxy Note 4 phone. The kicker: the software running the Gear VR is from Oculus.

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