Week in Geek – a roundup of science, technology and pop culture news with commentary each Friday
Simplicity is the key to brilliance
This expression is credited to influential martial artist Bruce Lee, who expounded on the idea is his book “Tao of Jeet Kune Do” where he presents his philosophy. He may have been discussing his perspective on martial arts, but when he writes that “there is freedom from mechanical conditioning, there is simplicity. The classical man is just a bundle of routine, ideas and tradition,” his outlook is evident through other arenas as well – in this case, after speaking with 2014’s Coolest Tech Startup winner Gordon Daily, founder of Boxcast.
Gordon, along with Toby Maloney, Boxcast’s PR and marketing vice president, invited me to see their operation and took time to sit down with me and explain a bit of where they came from and where they’re heading. The enthusiasm both Gordon and Toby display is clear to see, and not just because of Boxcast’s exponential growth since launching in May 2013 to become a leader in their industry. Gordon’s eyes bright up most when he talks about how, in our increasingly connected world, he is able to offer something that allows people to share experiences that matter on a personal level, as well as give brands struggling to show their relevance the opportunity to share their stories.
Boxcast provides these opportunities through, well, a box. Designed with a core principle of user simplicity in mind, the device takes all the complication out of livestreaming, giving individuals the power to share extremely high-definition video instantly on any digital platform – a desktop, laptop, tablet or smartphone – through an easy to manage plug-and-play interface. The only setup required to begin streaming your event is plugging a video recording device into the Boxcast unit and logging into Boxcast’s content management site, and that’s it.
The dashboard offers additional features for users, too, providing links to share through social media as well as embed codes, and Boxcast archives content for its users as well. They also offer easy to use pricing systems for those who wish to charge for content access, with Boxcast handling all credit charges and cutting a check to creators who utilize the option.
“Content is what we provide the frame for,” Gordon explained. “We want to allow a brand to emanate from within.”
To that end, the physical look of Boxcast’s device recently underwent some design changes, trading its utilitarian, durable black box about the size of a thick cellphone for a transparent shell. The choice echoes Gordon’s sentiments that it’s not the box that matters to those wishing to share their experiences – it’s what comes from within.
From their office at Cleveland’s Burke Lakefront Airport, Boxcast employees work in a large, open space, pouring their energy and passion into continuing the upward growth of this Cleveland-based company. Although the units themselves are manufactured elsewhere due to the need for specialized electronic equipment, the offices do have their own workshop, a sort of tinkering area replete with circuit board prototypes and the like that Gordon showed examples of to me. i threw in a quick comment about Moore’s Law for some computer science cred but i think it flew in under the radar.
The idea for developing this technology grew from Gordon’s days as a freelance web designer after earning his master’s degree in computer engineering from Case Western Reserve University and going on to Rockwell Automation where he worked on mission-critical technology. One of the clients he and fellow designers did work for was a funeral home, which asked if they could come up with a way to let people who couldn’t attend services view them remotely.
Fortunately, Rockwell gave Gordon a paid leave of absence to pursue the idea, which he saw as having much greater potential. And thanks to organizations like JumpStart, GLIDE and North Coast Opportunities Technology Fund who provide advice, mentorship and funding for innovation, Gordon got his startup off the ground. Since then, the company has followed an exciting growth pattern. A large map in the office shows Boxcasters spread out across the U.S., and content has been viewed through the device in over 170 countries. Another break came for the company this past May, when it signed a deal with ESPN Cleveland to livestream high school football events. Because of the Boxcaster’s ports, sportscasters are able to plug scoreboards directly into the device as well, which interprets the data directly onscreen.
For an example, Gordon showed me a clip from a local high school football game’s final moments, where a pass slipped from one receiver to another before a player firmly controlled the ball and made a last-second touchdown to win the game. It’s these moments, he explained, that make it worthwhile for him. Not just highlights from Superbowls and Big Ten games, but those at more local, intimate levels that family and friends can share when they couldn’t be there. And thanks to additional services Boxcast provides, content is archived for later retrieval.
And the possibilities continue to grow. Gordon and Toby both realize the vast potential for more and creative uses for the Boxcaster, driven not only by in-house development but also by feedback from users. One of their associates showed how easy it can be to create an impressive setup using only his laptop and a multi-channel hub, explaining that for example one could connect several video recording devices and run them all – essentially a mobile broadcasting station about the size of carry-on luggage.
“Basically, anyone can be their own TV station,” Gordon posited, noting that in the past, providing the kind of streaming service and options available by using the Boxcast device could cost many thousands, even tens of thousands of dollars and a hefty investment of manpower. But now, thanks to this innovation, livestreaming in impressive HD costs about $500 for the device, plus a reasonable monthly fee similar to a cellphone plan and based on viewership (comparatively, the Boxcast is cheaper per view than a per-call plan).
Speaking again to the simplicity, Toby stressed that the ease of use is one of the most applauded features of the device, relating a story about one of their customers – a pastor – who streams his church’s Sunday services. Not a tech guru by any means, he simply plugs in the box, logs in to his Boxcast account, and everything else takes care of itself. That’s one of the key factors to Boxcast’s success – penetrating markets where people don’t have strong tech backgrounds, but allowing them to participate in the forward tech movement nonetheless.
It can’t get much easier than that.
More than anything, though, my takeaway was that Boxcast was another terrific example of the kind of innovations taking place in my hometown, and both Gordon and Toby agreed. Although they grew up in other states, both attended Northeast Ohio colleges and were happy to discover that the city’s emerging identity doesn’t match the old perceptions many held about the former butt of many jokes. The city now attracts top-notch talent from across the country, as well as investors of substance who want to see Boxcast and other technology-driven businesses succeed.
“We want to be a Cleveland winner,” Gordon told me, and from what i’ve seen, they already are.
Pairing up for success
Last night was the first Thursday of the month, and you know what that means – the monthly meetup at LeanDog. Since there was no preplanned speaker for the December meetup, event organizer Joel Byler arranged a Project Night for Ruby developers to bring their projects and pair up with their peers, brainstorm new projects or simply seek advice.
The turnout for this meetup was similar to my first trip to the floating LeanDog offices, around a dozen people who for the most part spent the 6-7 p.m. social hour helming their laptops and diving into their work.
One of the attendees, Brendan Malloy, is a freelance programmer who brought his project, Reports For Trello, and took time to speak with me at length about his work as well as explaining some programming basics to me. Thankfully, he was incredibly patient with my questions and general lack of knowledge about the vast world behind the technology we use every day, likening the path through coding to a stroll through a forest.
“You may feel like you’re just wandering, seeing things and maybe getting lost, but you’re always moving forward and getting somewhere,” he told me, explaining the code doesn’t have to be as intimidating as it might seem. “If you know English, you’re already halfway there. It’s just logical construction.”
Brendan, who previously worked with animation with an eye towards becoming a forensic animator, these days works as an independent artist and web developer. He created Reports for Trello – a time-tracking tool using the Trello API – because he loves using Trello but didn’t want to have to change interfaces or workflow to manage his time.
Trello itself is a free, web-based project management application with a very user-friendly interface that allows for slick, visual organization of any sort of project through the use of boards, lists and cards that can be shifted around as needed. Brendan’s contribution allows for tracking the movement through these projects by securely analyzing Trello’s archived history and generating easy-to-understand reports.
If i’m honest, i’d never heard of Trello before speaking with Brendan, but it looks like a very useful tool for just about anyone who needs a little organization. Since its free software, i’m certainly going to check it out and see what it can do for The Long Shot. And since Brendan’s Reports for Trello adds a nifty time tracking element to the work done there as well as adding members to cards to see how when and for how long someone was attached to a particular task, it looks like a homerun for maximizing the organizational power of Trello. Plus, its available on mobile devices as well, a great benefit for working on the go.
Before pairing up with some of the attendees to get some real work done, Brendan asked if i’d built my own website, which i admitted with chagrin that i had not. However, if i come to enough of these LeanDog meetups, i might just learn how to do that. The world of coding and programming certainly fascinates me, and i’d definitely enjoy the opportunity to talk shop with these folks on a more capable level. To that end, a quick online search turned up Codecademy, a free online resource that teaches how to code interactively. There’s likely no shortage of similar resources out there, and for all i know it’s far from the best, but hey – it’s a start! At the very least, thanks to these meetups, i have a better understanding of things like Ruby so i’m not a complete noob (still pretty close though).
One familiar face at the meetup that i didn’t speak with last time was Matt Case, a DevOps contractor currently working as a site reliability engineer at a Lakewood startup called Decision Desk. Through their platform, schools can accept and review college applications. To date, Decision Desk has had 147,805 applications with over 700,000 files submitted and over a quarter million reviews performed – pretty big numbers if you ask me. Matt heads up the Cleveland Area DevOps Interest Group, another great networking opportunity for those looking to keep up to date in this field. He’s got years of experience in web and mobile app development, systems administration and automation, and related security so, a good contact to make in the field.
Before wrapping up the evening, attendee David Huff took me even deeper into the rabbit hole Brendan introduced me to by letting my peek behind the curtain at several projects he’s working on. Prefacing our conversation with my almost complete ignorance of the topic, i asked him about the very basics of website construction: where to enter code and how to deploy it.
David explained that really, any text-based software can be used to do the actual entering of code, even something as simple as WordPad. There are, of course, more specific applications tailored to coding language that offer features like color-coding and tools designed to better organize your work.
As far as deploying what you’ve created, David introduced me to Heroku, a cloud-based platform service that supports several programming languages. With decades of experience, David is proficient in multiple programming languages but, as he put it, “there’s always something new to learn,” adding that meetups like this are great because even the most brilliant people in the room are approachable and all you have to do is ask.
One of the examples he showed me was an app he’s working on for a boy scout troop that helps manage their finances. The request for such a tool came from a friend of his, and much like the development of the Boxcast device, it really is a great example of how technology often emerges and develops through a specific need that blossoms into wider application possibilties.
In a similar way to my first excursion to LeanDog, i was most impressed again with the way these folks take the extra time and effort to connect with each other and share ideas. Recently, i read an article about a movement to change the perception of STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) to STEAM, adding art/design to the conversation. This STEM to STEAM notion in a nutshell seeks to expel the idea that STEM work is devoid of creativity, something i also feel is an important distinction to make. We’re always hearing about how the U.S. needs to up its game in these areas, but often it seems presented in a way that shuts out the creative aspect of it. On a local level, i’m seeing the truth of this at every event i attend and each person i speak with, who show a startling amount of creativity in what they do.
In addition to basic aesthetics of the work – the desire to create a visually-pleasing outcome whether it’s an application to monitor finances or a device to livestream high-definition video – people working in STEM disciplines display extraordinary creativity in simply coming up with new ideas, problem-solving and seeing beyond the borders of their projects’ specific focus.
Quite a bit of exciting science, technology and pop culture news crosses my path throughout the week, and since i don’t always have the time to devote to these topics that i’d like, i thought sharing a list of links might be worthwhile.
Here’s my list of what i found most intriguing this week:
- Can we build a conscious computer? – another look at the emergence of AI
- Driverless cars set to be tested – i hope this catches on and spreads like a virus!
- Scientific journal Nature offers free access to research studies
- Hashtag inventor disappointed in Google+ – who isn’t?
- Smart fitting rooms turn mirrors into interactive displays – now you can be judged on your appearance before you even get out of the store 😉
- TV for the color blind – it’s realer than real!
- Another perspective on AI doom – more practical scenarios of concern
- Marvel Cinematic Universe finds its Dr. Strange – i still think Jeff Goldblum would have been perfect. Or Paul F. Tompkins
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Thanks for reading the sixth Week in Geek in addition to visiting The Long Shot. Of course, there were many more exciting things that happened in the world of science, technology and pop culture this week…but these were the ones that most caught my attention. If you have any news you’d like to share, drop me a line and let me know – i try to keep up with stuff but i can’t read everything!
Follow @longshotist on Twitter for frequent shares of related articles and (hopefully) humorous nonsequiters.
Week in Geek will be back next Friday, Dec. 12 and i’d love to see you here! i am making headway in connecting with Chris Stuckmann whose terrific videos keep me entertained and informed – i would love to speak with him about his work and life and share it here.
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