Google’s Colt McAnlis Talks Wearables, Networked Pop-Tarts

If you are planning to attend this year's ARM TechCon (November 10-12, 2015 at Santa Clara Convention Center), you are in for a real treat with keynote speaker Colt McAnlis. Having acquired quite a following on YouTube, McAnlis promises to challenge our perceptions and offer his unique view of the world we live in. I had the opportunity to interview him in advance of his keynote, where we loosely covered the growth of the wearable and IoT markets as well as some of the key technical hurdles that remain.

By way of background, McAnlis is a developer advocate at Google focusing on performance and compression. Before that, he was a graphics programmer in the games industry working at Blizzard, Microsoft (Ensemble), and Petroglyph. He's been an adjunct professor at SMU Guildhall, a UDACITY instructor, and a co-author of the book HTML5 Game Development Insights.

EDN: So, your title at Google is  “developer advocate,” what does that mean? 

McAnlis:  I'm the person that the engineering team yells at when developers aren't building applications the 'right way,' and the person that developers yell at when the platform/tools don't work the way they want/expect. Basically, I spend half my time educating developers on the best ways to use the platform, and the other half of my time educating our internal teams on the best ways to improve the platform for our developers. It's like being caught between a rock and a hard place where each one is covered in broken glass and has a taste for human flesh. The majority of my time I am focusing on application performance and data compression. These are two topics that are very close to my heart in terms of importance, and also topics that the majority of developers don't fully understand.

EDN: Why did you get into engineering/programming?

 Video games, actually. Video games were a massive part of my early life, and by the time I reached my teenage years, there wasn't anything else I wanted to do more than make games for a living (I think I made the official decision at the age of 12). This was a fantastic ambition for my education; it gave me a long-term goal, and a pragmatic attitude towards my early engineering education. It also made all of my computer science teachers hate me. There wasn't a single lecture or lesson that went by, where I didn't question the validity of the techniques, based on how useful they are to developing video games. To all my educators: For all the stress I caused you, I'm truly sorry (but seriously, update your speaker notes).

EDN: Do consumers really care about IoT? Aren't they just more interested in why that smartwatch is so ugly, big, expensive, etc.? How can designers stay ahead of consumer expectations?

McAnlis:  Like most technological adoption, the average consumer won't start caring about the technology in-particular; rather they will care about how it starts influencing their daily lives.  Until then, it's pretty easy to see that the early adoption trend for IoT will be huge in the manufacturing / retail space, which is where most consumers will first be exposed to the concepts. This is the classic IoT scenario, where a consumer can walk up to a movie poster, and when they glance at their phone, all the show-times are listed already. It's that type of interface between the location-aware content and human device, which should get consumers interested in these types of things. Once their primary device starts humming along with useful communications to the device-world around them, it'll start making more sense. There might even be some point in the future that purchasing decisions will be made based upon if something is IoT enabled or not (like your Pop-Tart® box, because it always seems like you have infinite Pop-Tarts, or just an empty box in your cupboard…. we need to fix this….).

And designers really don't have to change much. The goal of every technological adoption is straightforward: Be as useful as possible to the most people possible.

EDN: What new materials/technologies are the ones to watch for enabling IoT devices and networks?

McAnlis:  It's really exciting to see the recent boom of battery technologies that have been announced in the past month or so. It doesn't make sense to have an IoT where 20,000 devices need to be plugged in. Sure long-form wireless charging could get us closer to that goal, but then we have the whole “will this fry my dog's brain” debate (I know Nikola Tesla did early research to show it wouldn't..but there's some questions about how that scales to 7 billion devices). So for at least the short-term, IoT will be reliant (“shackled” might be a better word?) on portable battery solutions. Deep extensions to that technology will allow more powerful devices (think media rich) with longer life spans. This will be key for manufacturers to get IoT functionality into their products (smart pop-tart boxes) since in those form-factors, battery replacement probability will be low, yet life-span might be high.

EDN: In the heady excitement of IoT, what are we forgetting? Missing? At risk of royally messing up?

McAnlis:  Oh.. you're tricky… I see what you're doing there.. Trying to get me to divulge all the content of my soon-to-be famous ARM keynote (or is it already famous? depends on when you're reading this..). Well, I will not be tricked so easily! Just like everyone else, you're going to have to attend the talk to hear war stories about the difficulties that IoT is going to have with respect to battery life, data sizes, and networking constraints. It's easy to see how the first few generations of IoT adoption is going to be really constrained by battery woes, which will cause these devices to be much less consumer friendly. Really, until the threshold of media-rich usefulness happens, IoT may not be more than a novelty fad. Although for that to occur, we need to consider how much overhead that data transference is going to take, which will hopefully generate a new boom in data compression needs at the hardware level. But perhaps I've said too much already…

To read the rest of this article, visit EBN sister site EDN.


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