Theme: Human Computer Interaction (HCI)

by Ryan McIntyre

As we mentioned in the previous post, at Foundry Group we structure much of our investment analysis and thinking around themes. For us, a “thematic investment approach” is something broader than investing in market sectors, rather we look at the world in a horizontal fashion. A theme is applicable across consumer and enterprise customers, and is usually based on an underlying technology, protocol or broad market trend that we believe will drive investment opportunities for a five to ten year period as the familiar adoption/disruption dynamics play themselves out over time.

We tend to have half a dozen or so active themes at any given time that we will talk about on this blog. Some past (and current) examples of themes we’ve been active in include email, IT management, RSS and Implicit Web. One relatively new one that has been coalescing for us over the past couple years is the accelerating evolution of human computer interaction, or HCI.

Brad and I have written about HCI on our individual blogs numerous times in the past, and Brad already has a successful personal investment in the HCI theme under his belt via Harmonix Music Systems, the creators of the wildly popular Guitar Hero and Rock Band games. Additionally, in our Mobius VC portfolio, we have an investment in the world’s first single-chip digital silicon microphone company, called Akustica, which also fits into the HCI theme in the sense that their microphones help endow the computing environment with the sense of sound.

The basic premise underlying our enthusiasm for the HCI theme is that the world of computing is ripe for a series of major shifts in user-interface paradigms. We’ve all been living in a keyboard-mouse-windows-GUI world for the last twenty years, and this paradigm has been responsible for the massive success and near-ubiquity of the personal computer.

But with the proliferation of new devices with substantial compute power (the computational might of an iPhone would once have categorized it as a super computer) and new “senses” supplied by accelerometers, touch-screens, digital microphones, cameras, we now encounter computing devices in our cars, on our nightstands, in our pockets, in our stereo cabinet, in our conference rooms and factories, at kiosks and screens in the mall and many other places. In fact, a 2003 study suggests that the average American encounters at least 70 microprocessors in the course of a day.

While we consider billions of PCs and mobile phones to represent ubiquity, true ubiquity occurs when something is so commonplace, it fades into invisibility in the background. Some have dubbed this idea pervasive computing.

In an era of pervasive computing, it is very often undesirable or impossible to interact with a nearby computing device via a standard windows-based interface. (Especially if the device we are interacting with lacks a keyboard, mouse or display!). Thus we must be able to command our computers by touching their screens, simply gesturing to them, looking at them, speaking with them, or to get really sci-fi, by thinking at them. Freed from the confines of pointing and clicking on a two-dimensional screen to control our machines, we will see entirely new applications and capabilities emerge.

We can see current-day examples of these next-generation interface ideas embodied in the iPhone, Microsoft Surface Computing, the Nintendo Wii, GuitarHero/RockBand and many others. Notice that these innovations are applicable across numerous domains: mobile phones, enterprise computing and gaming. Any time we see an area with broad horizontal applications like this that runs across consumer and enterprise, we get excited because we smell “theme”. Furthermore, these innovations might live in software (applications or infrastructure), devices, services or combinations of any of these.

We’ve already made one investment in the HCI theme in a company called Oblong, which is commercializing the interface ideas seen in the movie Minority Report. The capabilities and application potential of Oblong’s platform are mind-blowing, and we will talk more about Oblong as they begin in the coming weeks and months to explain more fully to the outside world what they are up to.

In the meantime, consider this our announcement to the world that we’ve got the HCI religion and would love to hear from anyone else who does too…