The Hamilton Watch Company’s Pulsar watch of 1972, of which only 400 were reportedly made, and which cost in excess of $2,000, was an attempt to capture the imagination of those fascinated by man’s attempt to harness and maximize the use of time in what was hailed as the first LED (Light Emitting Diode) wrist timepiece. This Wired article from March 6 summarized the challenges awaiting Apple, that today introduces its new watch. No sooner had Hamilton introduced its Pulsar, than imitators like Commodore, Intel, Texas Instruments, Hewlett Packard, and Sinclar entered the market, and drove the price for LED watches from thousands to only a few dollars. It wasn’t long after the price had bottomed out that these same companies started moving toward the personal computer market.

The original promotional video for the Pulsar, which was even worn on the wrist of Roger Moore’s James Bond in Live and Let Die, was an artfully crafted monologue worthy of the opening newsreel of Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, “News on the March.” Note the futuristic, abstract orchestral music soundtrack. It was somberly asserted that the Pulsar would keep accurate time to within sixty seconds per year.

Apple has designed its computerized watch to resemble earlier watches in one fundamental respect: with its “digital crown.” Having been used traditionally to wind the watch, this new variation of a “winder” is intended to help the wearer navigate the watch’s features more easily and efficiently. It apparently also has had a typeface designed specifically for it which is also supposed to contribute to its ease of use.

In one respect, the cost of the Apple watch has a big advantage going for it: price. In present-day dollars, the Pulsar would have sold for over $11,000; the Apple Sport version is more modestly priced at $369 for the 38 millimeter model, and $399 for its 42 millimeter sized screen – though there will also be a premium model available for in excess of $10,000.


         Image: Courtesy Apple Inc. via CNN.

Of course, Apple has a good track record in remaking older, less successful technologies into winners. The personal digital assistant “Newton” of the 1980s eventually evolved into the wildly popular iPad and iPad Mini; but this is a new challenge for the Cupertino, California-based computer engineering juggernaut. Only “time” will tell.

– Chris Hartman

On January 22, 1984, the famous “1984” television commercial introducing the Macintosh personal computer ran during the third quarter of the Super Bowl.  Many people think that this is the only time it ever ran.  But, it was also run by the Chiat/Day, the ad agency that created it, on December 31, 1983 right before the 12:00 midnight sign-off on KMVT in Twin Falls, Idaho, so that it could qualify for the 1983 advertising awards. The ad was so successful, that it never really needed to be run again as the media coverage it got generated a lot of free airtime.  And, people are still talking about it 30 years later.

The ad is based on the book, “1984” by George Orwell which introduced the concept of “Big Brother”.  The ad refers to IBM as “Big Brother” and the Apple Macintosh computer as the individual challenging a society of people who don’t behave as individuals.  Interestingly, the estate of George Orwell and the television rights holder to the novel Nineteen Eighty-Four considered the commercial to be a copyright infringement and sent a cease-and-desist letter to Apple and Chiat/Day after the ad ran which generated even more publicity.



Here’s Director Ridley Scott discussing the making of the famous 1984 Macintosh commercial.  [This is excerpted from an Apple promotional video.]



The “1984” ad was shown at the 20th anniversary celebration of the Macintosh in 2004  There was also an updated version of it created for the iPod launch.  Was it one of the best ads ever?  That’s up for debate.  But, as a marketer, I’d give it an award for one of the top 10 product launches ever.

— Carole Gunst


NIST-Logo_5The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) is one of the nation’s oldest physical science laboratories in existence.  The United States Congress established the agency in 1901 as the National Bureau of Standards (NBS) because, at the time, the U.S. had a second-rate measurement infrastructure that lagged behind the capabilities of other countries.  For some reason, the word “national” was dropped from the name in 1903 and added back in 1934. In 1988, the agency name became the National Institute of Standards and Technology, or NIST.

NIST and High Tech History

According to the NIST website, “Before air conditioning, airplanes, and plastics were invented, and before science was changed forever by Albert Einstein’s special theory of relativity, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) began laying the technical foundation for the world’s most prosperous nation.  At that time, the United States had few, if any, authoritative national standards for any quantities or products.  It was difficult for Americans to conduct fair transactions or get parts to fit together properly. Construction materials were of uneven quality, and household products were unreliable. Few Americans worked as scientists, because most scientific work was based overseas.”

NIST Centenial photosWhen World War II began, science and technology rose in importance and so did NIST who was drawn into the new field of electronics.  NIST weapons research led to a contractor’s development of printed circuits, which substituted printed wiring, resistors, and coils for the conventional discrete components in electronic devices. This technology contributed to a new field of electronic miniaturization for which the Institute provided useful engineering data and components.

An automated electronic computing project was established at NIST in 1946, about the time that the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Automatic Computer (ENIAC), the first all-purpose electronic computer, began operating at the University of Pennsylvania. In 1948, the Air Force financed NIST to design and construct the Standards Eastern Automatic Computer (SEAC.)  The computer went into operation in May 1950 using a combination of vacuum tubes and solid-state diode logic.

About the same time, the Standards Western Automatic Computer, was built at the Los Angeles office of NIST and was used for research there.  In 1954, a mobile version, DYSEC,  (it was actually housed in a truck and might just be the first portable computer) went into operation.  NIST staff members also developed a mathematical algorithm, used to solve very large systems of linear equations, that nearly 50 years later would be named one of the top 10 algorithms of the century by a computing trade journal.

NIST Today

Today, NIST is part of the U.S. Department of Commerce. Its official mission is “to promote U.S. innovation and industrial competitiveness by advancing measurement science, standards, and technology in ways that enhance economic security and improve our quality of life.”

NIST is involved with the following areas of technology:

Interested in learning more?  NIST provides many educational activities and is open for tours if you’re in Gaithersburg, MD or Boulder, CO.

— Carole Gunst

original yahoo

Did you know that Yahoo is an acronym for Yet Another Hierarchical Officious Oracle?  Most people just think of it as a search engine, an unsophisticated person, or both.

Yahoo!, the search engine, was founded in January 1994 by Stanford PhD candidates, David Filo and Jerry Yang.  It was originally called “Jerry and Dave’s Guide to the World Wide Web” and it  consisted of a directory of other websites.  The “yahoo.com” domain was created on January 18, 1995 and the company was incorporated on March 1, 1995.


In October 1995, one of my fellow product marketing managers at Lotus Development – John Briggs – left Lotus to join the founding team.  In John’s words, “then The Great Event happened. IBM bought Lotus and bought out my stock options. From then on, I was pretty much in job search mode while eagerly awaiting my bonus retention check”.  While at Yahoo!, he launched Yahoo News, Weather, Sports and Finance .  John also headed up their e-commerce unit (Yahoo Shopping, Auctions, Classifieds & Yellow Pages), and eventually became a VP & GM. He stayed until October 2002 and had quite a ride that included the IPO.

Yahoo! went public in April 1996 as YHOO.  The stock started $24.50 per share and hit a high of $43 before closing at $33.  It was the most closely watched IPO since Netscape Communications went public in December 1995.

With the influx of cash from the IPO, Yahoo began acquiring other companies.  Yahoo!’s first acquisition was the purchase of Net Controls, a web search engine company, in September 1997 for US$1.4 million. The acquisitions continued as Yahoo! competed against other companies and grew in company size and viewership.  As of May 2013, Yahoo! has acquired a total of 78 companies.

In February 2008, Yahoo! escaped becoming acquired, but not without some damage to the company.  Microsoft made an unsolicited bid to acquire Yahoo! for USD $44.6 billion. Yahoo! formally rejected the bid, claiming that it “substantially undervalues” the company and was not in the interest of its shareholders. Three years later, Yahoo! had a market capitalization of USD $22.24 billion.

Today, Yahoo! Inc. is a multinational Internet corporation headquartered in Sunnyvale, California.  Many of the original employees and executives have moved on to other adventures.  In July 2012, On July 16, 2012, Marissa Mayer, a former Google exec, was appointed President and CEO of Yahoo!.  The company has 11,500 employees in 25 countries, provinces, and territories.

— Carole Gunst

Have you ever owned a computer that made you want to pull your hair out? Wondering if your computer would be on the top 10 list of worst computers of all time? You might be in luck. Chassis Plans, a rugged computer manufacturer, has created this interesting infographic outlining some of the worst computers of all time. From the Commodore VIC 20 to the Netbook, this visual takes you through some of the most loathed computers and the features that drove their owners mad. Name a computer problem and one of these computers probably had it. From slow processor speeds to computers that would turn on in the middle of the night to computers that would melt discs, the problems go on and on. Surprisingly some of these computers, despite their problems set records like “the first commercial computer to be used in space” or “the first personal computer to sell more than one million units.”

The Worst Computers of All Time [Infographic]

3/14 is Pi Day

Pi Day is an annual celebration that takes place on March 14th (3/14) — since 3, 1 and 4 are the three most significant digits of π in the decimal form — around the world.  The first official celebration of Pi Day was organized by physicist, Larry Shaw, in 1988with staff and public marching around one of its circular spaces, then consuming fruit pies. In 2009, the United States House of Representatives supported the designation of Pi Day.

What is Pi?


Pi (Greek letter “π”) is the symbol used in mathematics to represent a constant — the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter — which is approximately 3.14159.  It has been represented by the Greek letter “π” since the mid-18th century, though it is also sometimes written as pi.  The calculation of π was revolutionized by the development of infinite series techniques in the 16th and 17th centuries.  Infinite series allowed mathematicians to compute π with much greater precision than Archimedes and others who used geometrical techniques.   Although infinite series were exploited for π most notably by European mathematicians such as James Gregory and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, the approach was first discovered in India sometime between 1400 and 1500 AD.  

How is Pi Day Celebrated?

My office celebrated Pi Day today by holding a pie contest.  Over 25 employees and contractors each brought in a pie and all staff was called down to the cafeteria to have a slice.

  • The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has often mailed its application decision letters to prospective students for delivery on Pi Day.  Starting in 2012, MIT has announced it will post those decisions (privately) online on Pi Day at exactly 6:28 pm, which they have called “Tau Time”, to honor the rival numbers Pi and Tau equally.
  • The town of Princeton, New Jersey (and home to Princeton University,) hosts numerous events in a combined celebration of Pi Day and Albert Einstein’s birthday, which is also March 14.  Einstein lived in Princeton for more than twenty years while working at the Institute for Advanced Study. In addition to pie eating and recitation contests, there is an annual Einstein look-alike contest.
  • Google had it’s own Pi Day doodle posted on the site in 2010.
  • National Public Radio created a Pi Day rap video in 2010.

In case you missed the celebration, mark you calendar now for Pi Approximation Day on July 22 (or 22/7 in day/month date format), since the fraction 227 is a common approximation of π.  Maybe you can share a fraction of a pie with a friend.

— Carole Gunst

Recently, I had the opportunity to interview Geeta Dayal, a music and high tech journalist whose prolific writings have appeared in The New York Times, The Village Voice and Bookforum, as well as Wired, where she is a staff writer. She is also the author of Another Green World, a biography of Brian Eno. As if that isn’t enough, she’s also been a Ford Foundation fellow at the University of California, Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and has also been at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology‘s Center for Future Civic Media.

Geeta grew up in Princeton, New Jersey, the daughter of scientists. She lived only five minutes from the campus of Princeton University and often spent weekends at the Institute for Advanced Study. By age fourteen, she was researching polymer (i.e. plastics) chemistry, and by the time she was seventeen, she was editing her father’s chemistry publications.

A passion for music and technology at a young age

Geeta’s father would play a significant role in the interests she developed: electronic music, science and technology, and how they interacted. In addition to his training as a chemist, he played the tabla – indian drums – and this left a lasting impression on his young daughter. She subsequently gained a passion for technology in music and would frequent the local record shop, Princeton Record Exchange where, over the years, she would purchase numerous cassettes and LPs. Geeta recalled to me that at thirteen, she acquired her first album by Kraftwerk, a Dusseldorf quartet who used various synthesizers to produce uniquely enticing musical compositions. They were pioneers at the intersection of film, fashion, performance art and high tech electronic musical arrangements.

Geeta was encouraged by her father in all her intellectual endeavors. He trusted her ability to assist with his academic writings and at one point confided to her that she “was smarter than her brothers.” He felt strongly that a girl like Geeta could do anything a boy could do, which was a progressive attitude for the times. Following graduation from high school, she enrolled at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she took courses as varied as cognitive neuroscience, film and video and installation art. All the while, she remained intrigued about the German technological, musical and performance art scenes – having been captivated by Germany since her first visit at age seven.

Geeta’s travels to Germany left her with several lasting impressions: for one, she was completely enthralled by the autobahn (the well-known highway), as well as by German train travel. She loved the German approach to technology which was, at its essence, highly efficient and stylistically beautiful in every respect.

For Geeta, Berlin is the country’s cultural capital. In contrast to other German cities like Munich, a leader in pharma; Stuttgart, prominent in car manufacturing, and the financial centers of Cologne and Frankfurt, Berlin has always retained a cosmopolitan character. When there, Geeta has regularly observed a proliferation of construction cranes, which gives one the “seductive” feeling that the city is unfinished.

A city largely eschewing the reverence for the past much of the rest of the country holds, Berlin is more culturally diverse and, very much like Paris, has welcomed expatriates from the U.S. and Britain. Consequently, the English language can be heard widely on the streets, and it’s become a truly globalized European hub.

Conrad Schnitzler

Along with this migration came a growing prosperity to match its diversity. It was in this city that electronica musician and performance artist Conrad Schnitzler once worked; Geeta, who wrote extensively about him, considered Schnitzler “an outlier whose life says a lot about Germany.” Schnitzler was a student of Joseph Beuys, a prominent professor of sculpture in Dusseldorf, and was an idiosyncratic performer whose memories of growing up in Nazi Germany gave him an aversion to joining groups for any reason. He was an alternately irascible and loving person who had a great respect both for the beauty and mathematical precision of electronic music.

The group Kluster, which Schnitzler founded with Hans-Joachim Roedelius and Dieter Moebius in 1969 was an ultimately successful and influential experiment in avant-garde musical expression. The nucleus consisted of Moebius, Roedelius and Schnitzler, and eventually mutated into the group Cluster, sans Schnitzler.

The late 1960s saw a renaissance in technology, which resulted in new and innovative ways to create and produce music. German musicians excelled in this environment. In the manner of Conrad Schnitzler, Dusseldorf’s Kraftwerk, formed in 1970, evolved from primarily a rock band to riding the cusp of a formative electronic music movement. And in Great Britain, a company called EMS designed a synthesizer called the Synthi, designed to fit in a briefcase, which became popular with Kraftwerk and Brian Eno. Analog synthesizers like this and the ARP 2600 gave electronic music more appeal; not only an aesthetic sense, but also because these devices offered greater portability and affordability.

Another interesting observation by Geeta makes on the creation of not only music, but art generally, is how the artist derives inspiration from disparate sources. Schnitzler’s musical influence, for instance, derived considerably from his sculpture. His embrace of this tangible, visual medium led, seemingly inevitably, to his attempts to express himself musically. Schnitzler used the synthesizer to essentially “sculpt” new sounds. He supplemented this with his own unique brand of “performance” art that provided an anthropomorphic dimension to his music.

Geeta also asserts that the 1960s helped bring the advent of “system-based” art; that there was a tendency by many to “conceptualize in terms of systems to provide new solutions to problems.” In this light, she cites John Cage’s music of that period as an outstanding example of “giving yourself a set of constraints [that] makes you more creative.” Additionally and provocatively, she suggests this creativity can extend from other disciplines. For example, she notes painter Robert Rauschenberg was a great student of physics, and musician David Byrne was deeply interested in brain science. In other words, these peripheral interests symbiotically fed their artistic repertoire and caused them to probe ever more deeply for inspiration.

Brian Eno

A corollary of sorts to artists looking to system-based art was their interest in and study of cybernetics – the science of systems of communication and how they interact with humans. This is a fascination of Geeta’s, as well as of the subject of her biography of Eno, Another Green World. Pioneered by Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Norbert Wiener, the discipline entered what Geeta calls “a second wave” through several British thinkers, including Stafford Beer. Eno became absorbed with Beer’s work, which inspired his work in the studio, which he referred to as a musical instrument in and of itself. Here he began to experiment with new – and largely electronic – sounds.

Eno interestingly, if also regrettably, never met Conrad Schnitzler, though each was familiar with and respectful of the other’s work. Eno had arrived in Germany in 1976 to record with the avant garde electronic group Cluster. Geeta writes that Eno, who rarely performs live, didn’t believe in so-called “cash-in tours”, which doubtless stems from his preference for the richly-expressive and innovative sounds he was creating in studio with ever-more sophisticated electronic instruments. In fact, Geeta says that to him, performing live was “almost beside the point”.

It’s obvious from my conversation with Geeta Dayal that she is consumed with the creative culture that has percolated in Berlin from its challenging post-war period. She spends considerable amounts of time there and from the city’s architecture, its constantly changing skyline to its resilient and boundlessly creative artistic inhabitants, Geeta’s affection for Berlin is readily apparent. In that environment, electronic music has thrived and has clearly become Geeta’s passion.

I lastly asked her if she was planning any new projects and said that she is now working on a book about the history of electronic music from the 1950s. Her unique perspective, as an expert both on the technology and the cultural environments in which those technologies were employed will certainly make that book a must-read for musicologists and electronica enthusiasts alike.

Geeta’s website is entitled The Original Soundtrack. Access it here.

You can also follow her on Twitter @GeetaDayal.

-Chris Hartman

Jim Marshall, innovator and developer of some of the most iconic (and powerful) amplification equipment in the history of modern music, died April 5 at the age of 88. Born in 1923, Mr. Marshall grew up in London of modest means (his parents sold fish and chips) and early in his life worked variously in a  scrap-metal yard, a jam factory and a shoe shop. But, having failed his draft physical during World War II, he took a job that would change his life – at an engineering firm – while he simultaneously devoured engineering texts on his own. An accomplished drummer himself, Marshall supplemented his engineering income by teaching drumming to students – which at one point numbered sixty-five.

The profits from his teaching permitted him to buy a music shop in Hanwell, London, where one of his first employees was Ken Bran, whom Marshall hired as an engineer. Bran suggested that they build their own amplifiers, and brought in another engineer, Dudley Craven, to help them. They issued their first amplifier in 1962, and its sound became known as the “Marshall Crunch.”

Marshall had always been complimentary of the Fender amplifier, which at the time he created his own brand in 1960 was the prevailing amplification device for country/western and jazz artists – and which produced a “clean” and warm but quiet sound. However, Marshall, for his part, sought to cater to a new generation of musicians who played rock-n-roll and who were looking for a bigger, louder, rougher and more “fuzzy” sound. His success in this sense has made Marshall the amplifier of choice for world-class rock-n-roll artists to this day.

The Who’s Pete Townshend, another Marshall evangelist, told Marshall he wanted a system “as big as an atom bomb” which would be as “powerful as a machine gun.” As he recalled in one interview, “Pretty soon, by accident, I discovered the Gibson SG (guitar) … and because I was using a mix of Sound City (later Hiwatt) and Marshall amplifier stacks, I landed the Live at Leeds sound that stayed with me almost all the way on from there—at least onstage.”  

Though Marshall had worked closely over the years with musicians such as Townshend, Roy Orbison, Elton John, Eric Clapton, and Guns and Roses guitarist Slash to name only a few, he reserved his most affectionate praise for Jimi Hendrix, whom he considered “our greatest ambassador, without a doubt,” as well as the greatest guitarist ever. There was a story Marshall often told about Hendrix coming into his shop in 1967 just prior to the release of his smash album Are You Experienced. At the time, Marshall just considered him “another American chap wanting things for free.” But Hendrix was adamant that he wanted to pay full retail price and proceeded to buy four stage setups – the so-called Marshall “stacks.”

Chris Hartman

Eric M. Howlett, demonstrating the LEEPvr System in Las Vegas, 1980. Courtesy, leepvr.com

This past December 11th saw the passing, at age 84, of an innovator of so-called “Virtual Reality,” Eric Mayorga Howlett. Mr. Howlett was a life-long inventor and entrepreneur in the area of optical and electronic engineering. His creation of the Large Expanse Extra Perspective or “LEEP” system was a dramatic development in optics, becoming popularly known as Virtual Reality – though in engineering circles, it was more commonly referred to as “Virtual Environment” – as it was essentially a computer-simulated environment. The term is attributed to polymath Jaron Lanier, co-founder of VPL Research – the first company to sell Virtual Reality goggles and gloves and a pioneer in 3-D computer graphics.

Jaron Lanier, co-founder of VPL Research - a competitor, and ultimately a client of Howlett's LEEP, Ltd. Courtesy, The Guardian (U.K.)

Howlett, who grew up in Miami, was a prodigy in mathematics and science. In 1944, during his senior year in high school, he was selected in the Westinghouse (Now Intel) Science Talent Search – one of only forty students in the country to be so chosen. As a recipient of this award, he had the opportunity to visit the White House, where he met the then First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt. Grumman Aircraft offered him a full scholarship to the university of his choice, whereupon he selected M.I.T. After a short time in the Navy, he achieved his physics degree. During the 1950s, he worked at M.I.T.’s Lincoln Laboratory and General Electric, where he specialized in early warning radar and other electrical systems for military application.

Development of the LEEP System

In the intervening years and contemporary with the launching of the LEEP device, Howlett had been working in high-quality photography equipment. He developed a wide-angle stereoscopic photography system consisting of a viewer and a matching camera to make pictures to view. A patent for it was issued in 1983. They had seventy early orders for it, but only completed twenty as manufacturing the cameras was too complex for Howlett’s bare-bones staff. Howlett knew that he couldn’t raise the $100 million corporations such as Kodak and Polaroid would spend, and he tried to interest each of them in his technology. Both rather unceremoniously declined.

After the ill-fated Polaroid presentation, Howlett began to compare himself to Chester Carlson, who at the time was likewise trying to get companies (and investors) excited about his new invention, xerography:

“After Polaroid I was comparing myself to Chester Carlson as he trekked around the country trying to interest people in some cockamamie thing called “xerography” that his company, “Haloid” or “Haloid Xerox” was developing.”

The NASA VIVED (Virtual Visual Environment Display), which used the LEEP system viewers. Courtesy, http://www.leepvr.com

However, NASA expressed an interest in the viewers that accompanied the cameras. One of their engineers came by Howlett’s  offices in Waltham, Mass. (at the old Waltham Watch factory) and was impressed with the quality of the images and immediately placed an order, after which NASA became one of Howlett’s best customers. These units were to become the NASA VIVED (Virtual Visual Environment Display). Howlett was also able to sell similar units to Disney – though they were never widely produced. The prices for the the devices based on their features ranged between $840 and $3,500. The engineer also told Howlett that they should supply their competitor, Lanier’s VPL Research (who NASA also had a contract with), with the viewers, because VPL had a contract to build devices for NASA’s VIEWS (Virtual Interface Environment Work Station) project. When Howlett found out that NASA was having these units built at their competitor, he called NASA and was told that they would pay $10,000 at least per unit of a head-mounted virtual reality system. This precipitated the development of Howlett’s “Cyberface” system.

Cyberface (1989)

The original Cyberface system. Courtesy, leepvr.com

The Cyberface system went through a series of updates, which variously improved the quality of the pictures, and the ease of its use and portability. With the advent of LEEP Cyberface, Eric Howlett became the first to offer a commercial head-mounted display. As it was developed through the Cyberface2 and Cyberface3 models, resolution of images continued to improve, and the entire system was made for the wearer to move more efficiently, and, ultimately, to make the experience more and more realistic.

Cyberface4 and Virtual Orbiter

Created in 1996, the fourth incarnation of the Cyberface system, the Virtual Orbiter, convincingly delivered the effect of floating through space as an untethered spacewalker.  Cyberface4 forms the nucleus of this device, which offered still higher resolution than its predecessor, the Cyberface3.

The Virtual Orbiter was conceived as a standalone, Virtual Reality experience. Its display was supported on one’s arm, permitting the user to look freely in every direction in their virtual environment. The Virtual Orbiter initially revealed the Earth as it appeared from 20,000 miles above, moving to within 200 miles, then back, allowing the “space walker” to acquire a virtually unique perspective – a vantage point previously available only to space travelers.

As a bittersweet coda to this tale, Eric Howlett, though seeing the significant benefits of his innovations, never fully realized the rewards of his work. He had lost his home in an effort to finance his dreams; but remained undaunted to the last that what he was doing was both important and ahead of its time. With his passing, his son Alex (likewise a talented electronics engineer)  is trying to now market LEEP to the gaming community – fertile ground for such advanced, realistic technology. Though it remains to be seen if he will ultimately be successful, there is no question that his father’s research advanced both the argument for, and the technology of Virtual Reality, to the betterment and enjoyment of society.

As J.M. Lawrence succinctly noted in Howlett’s January 15, 2012 obituary in the Boston Globe,

“Toiling in the basement of his Newton home in the 1980s, virtual reality pioneer Eric M. Howlett solved a key problem in the quest to experience far-flung and potentially dangerous places without ever leaving a comfortable chair.”

-Chris Hartman

Boston's Vilna Shul Synagogue. Courtesy, scratchmm.com

Author’s Note: Though not dealing in particular with the history of high tech or venture capital, the annual Venture Capital Panel held at Boston’s historic synagogue, Beacon Hill’s Vilna Shul, is nevertheless an important event on the calendar of Boston’s high tech community. The panel was preceded by a 45-minute networking session, and was followed by a short question-and-answer period.

I have covered this discussion for a few years now, and it always is enlightening as both a retrospective on the previous year and as a forecast of the coming twelve months. To that end, I have included selective responses from the panelists. This particular group, moderated by the Boston Globe’s Scott Kirsner (author of its “Innovation Economy” column), included the following participants:

Rob Go, NextView Ventures
Jonathan Seelig, Globespan Capital Partners
Jo Tango, Founder & Partner, Kepha Partners
Fred Destin, Partner, Atlas Ventures

Panel moderator Scott Kirsner of the Boston Globe. Courtesy, ScottKirsner.com

Scott Kirsner started off the discussion with a soul-searching, two-part request of the panelists: Your greatest satisfaction in investing, as well as your biggest regret in passing on an investment.

Jonathan Seelig responded that his biggest regret was not investing in Hub Spot, a Boston-based Internet marketing firm. He mentioned also that he originally hails from Vancouver, Canada, and during one trip there saw a queue outside a retailer called LuluLemon Athletica, a manufacturer and retailer of yoga-inspired athletic wear. He wanted originally to invest in it but hedged. It went on to be wildly successful and is based all over the United States and Canada.

He then added he was very proud to have been an original investor in ZipCar, a successful car-sharing company based in the Boston/Cambridge, Massachusetts area. He sits on its board and is pleased about its profitability and other accomplishments.

Rob Go of NextVentures. Courtesy, Cyberposium.com

Rob Go mentioned his biggest regret was passing on investing in Groupon, the Internet coupon site which has basically become an Internet phenomenon. However, he took great satisfaction from investing in SkillShare, a New York City-based company where professionals share their expertise on just about any topic through a remote-learning model.

Scott Kirsner then inquired as to what the biggest story in venture capital for 2011 was. Rob Go responded that he thought the IPO for LinkedIn, the professional networking site which, on the day of its opening (May 26) was worth a reported $9 billion, was the most significant story of 2011.

Globespan Capital Partners' Jonathan Seelig. Courtesy, Crunchbase.com

Jonathan Seelig said he thought the most important factor was that there was over $8 billion raised for new businesses last year – and that the trend lately has been that the amount of money available for venture investing has doubled each of the past four years. That would indicate we are in a healthy investment period.

Jo Tango mentioned that the diversification of duties of venture capitalists was a significant development. He stated that the recent recession had forced VCs to be more creative and inventive in their business dealings.

Scott Kirsner next asked a broad question about notable trends in Boston-based venture capital. Is the region on the upswing? Rob Go asserted that there was a shift of focus on the part of Boston-area investors toward New York City. He said that this started in 2007-8, coinciding with the most recent economic downturn. He suggested that New York City was a more insular investment community and this, together with the fact that they have a lot of money, allows them to be more selective about making the best deals.

Fred Destin of Atlas Ventures. Courtesy, The Telegraph (U.K.)

Fred Destin said he thought that Boston needs to be more aggressive and active in venture investment. Talent from Boston-area firms is too often lured away. Boston needs to be more aspirational in its approach to venture capital. He next suggested that so-called “angel investing” (definition), which he and Atlas specialize in, should contain multiple platforms – allowing for small start-up companies to not be overlooked in the investment process. He added that some might require only between, say, $2 million and $3 million to “get them across the finish line.”

Jonathan Seelig clarified the term “angel investor” by asserting one needed to have started or run a company that gives a good money cushion for investment. He mentioned that Silicon Valley has an advantage over theBoston area in this sense because there are exponentially more individuals who are in that position. He closed by saying angel investment was the “social currency of the region”; that is, angel investors are often guided by a sense of social or cultural responsibility.

Scott Kirsner followed up with a question about what particular sectors the panelists invested in. Fred Destin said that he was not “thematic” in any sense with regard to his own investments, and that as an angel investor, he was open to different vehicles.

Kepha Partners' Jo Tango. Courtesy, Bizjournals.com

Jo Tango said that his preferred genre of investment was “data mobility” – (Companies he’s invested in include StreamBase Systems, Vertica Systems, and Virtual Iron; he was also involved in Ask Jeeves (now Ask.com), Digital Market, and NextCard).

Rob Go is focused largely on education and education delivery systems. As mentioned previously, he invested in SkillShare; but has always been interested in the media, technology, and entertainment sectors – as well as the intersection of K-12 consumer-directed education and eCommerce. He suggested this area lends itself to intuition; that is “you’re rowing and you can’t see land; but you can tell where the currents are moving.”

Jonathan Seelig noted that it was a difficult question for him. He finds influence of social networking sites “interesting”; but really believes that purchasing decisions as influenced by “friends” is more complex that it appears on its face. Social media does provide a “framework for influence” that’s quite subtle and where connections are not obvious.

Scott Kirsner asks “What’s the mood with consumer internet startups”? Rob Go suggested that these consumer internet startup companies, of all funding levels, have a long way to go before their potential is realized; but that the “wind is at our back.” (For instance, companies like Zynga, Groupon, Facebook, Twitter, and Foursquare are examples of sophisticated and well-funded consumer internet startups). He added that in typical education investments, an investor should know the intricacies involved in navigating school districts. The profile of such an investor is quite different than your usual software engineer. It is difficult to make money efficiently in this investment area – school districts are not analogous or compatible as to their own needs. They have little interest in other school districts.

In closing, I’d note that happily, Vilna Shul was filled to capacity that evening. There were 170 reservations placed through social media, and the networking session beforehand, from my own perspective, was very beneficial (and fun!) Every year I’ve gone to these panels, they have been thoughtfully sponsored by Goodwin Procter law firm in downtown Boston. They have been a great friend of these events, and very much deserve a mention. And of course, Doug Levin, who capably organizes all of the panels (in addition to running his own start up) is the steady hand who makes it all possible.

Chris Hartman