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I Got Mom a Robot Companion for her Birthday

Through work I had been exposed to Mabu the personal healthcare companion, an intelligent, socially interactive robot whose conversations are tailored to each patient that she works with.

Mabu seemed cheesy and a bit creepy, but the idea had legs, if a bit odd.

At the same time Mom needed a birthday gift and I was tapped out of ideas. I had heard a lot about the Amazon Echo, how it was like artificial intelligence and how it became a virtual companion to people somewhat like Mabu does. One of the top reviews on Amazon was a couple, one of whom had Parkinson’s, and how the Echo had helped their lives. Mom has some trouble getting around, but nothing like that. However she likes gadgets and will spend the time to get them to work, so I thought I’d give it a shot.

amazon-echo_colorcorrectedWhen Mom unwrapped the Echo I was sure I’d be returning it to Amazon. Explaining the concept, likening it a bit to HAL in 2001, a Space Oddesey (considering my audience) got rather puzzled looks. We tested it out, asking when Shakespeare’s birthday was (that day), getting the weather forecast, setting a timer for 5 minutes. It all went smoothly. You can believe that the Alexa voice recognition works amazingly well. If Siri is version 1.0, Alexa is 2.0. The Echo just sits there patiently waiting for its trigger word, and then helps you out. It really is perfect for an older person – no small buttons, no hard to read screen.

I was sure I’d be taking it home at the end of the weekend to return it. I figured it was a novelty that would soon wear off. However, I left it in the apartment overnight to see what would happen.

When I returned the next morning, Mom reported she had gotten the Echo to do a few things on her own. She seemed to be warming up to it. Like I said, she will tinker with things, but she gets frustrated easily.

I was still sure I’d be talking it home, only now I was beginning to like it enough to think maybe I could use it. A classic case of giving someone a birthday gift you want.

What made her finally want to keep it was the music. She has Amazon Prime and that opens up all of Amazon Music. You can tell the Echo to play Frank Sinatra and it will happily comply. There are playlists for moods and genres galore. The Echo has a lot of heft to it, and is a very competent Bluetooth speaker. I also paired it with Moms iPad Mini and it could easily play that music, as well.

Robot-and-frank-arm-wrestleIn spite of the technical nature of it, which could be a non-starter, the Echo is very useful for an older person. You just give it verbal commands, and it does what you ask. You can use it for a shopping list, you can set a reminder to watch a TV show or take a pill. You can get the weather or news without looking for reading glasses.

The Echo is a comforting robot presence in their house now. It’s like a pet that doesn’t need walking or feeding. Or a daughter that doesn’t talk back.

As far as real healthcare goes, the Echo is an open platform where you can build skills that can be added on. So far, I’m aware of only one, KidsMD. Parents can ask the Echo questions about common illnesses like fever, cough, and rashes, and get instant information on what drugs to use, how to administer them, and how much. It would be tricky to build something more complex from a regulatory point of view, but there’s potential there.

Mom kept her new little robot companion and has had a steady stream of curious visitors checking it out. I considered one for myself and ordered a Tap, which is an Alexa that doesn’t have to be plugged in all the time – the compromise is that you have to tap a button to use it. I thought I could use it outdoors at the house.

I returned it within a day. It was just a shadow of the Echo experience. My main reason for returning it was the atrocious wifi performance. It constantly dropped connections (the wifi specs are very different). Also, part of the beauty of the Echo is that it sits there patiently listening for you to give it a job. Having to tap the button to ask a question is no better than Siri on your phone and Alexa on the Tap seemed like a dimwitted cousin.

The Echo is the knife edge of Amazon’s entry into the whole Internet of Things. It has a lot of promise. Amazon Prime, with it’s numerous benefits of music, video, photo storage etc. may eventually give Google (now Alphabet) a run for their money.

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Create a Personal Google From Your Tweets

Hashtags As Google Logo BorderThere’s a simple way of using Twitter for content you find interesting to create your own personal Google. All it takes is the careful use of hashtags. This use case has been around since the beginning ot Twitter, but somehow it’s a little-known technique.

One of the first things you learn when you start using Twitter is hashtags. Hashtags allow you to tune in to the Twitter ‘radio signal’ around topics or events. However, hashtags can also allow you to create your own personal filing system.

Creating your own personal Google using Twitter and hashtags is a simple matter. When you find an article or link that you want to share on Twitter, at the same time you share, you simply add on the appropriate hashtag for the topic so you can find it later – perhaps even adding multiple hashtags. Ideally, this is the hashtag commonly related to that topic so you can feed that conversation as well. Later, when you’re interested in reviewing or searching everything you’ve flagged on a topic, you simply use Twitter’s advanced search ( to search your own tweets for that specific hashtag. You’ll be presented a neat list in reverse chronological order.

Here’s an example: Since its launch I’ve collected interesting articles and links about the Apple Watch, using the hashtag #applewatch. So, if I want to find an article that I’ve noted, I simply search my own tweets for #applewatch and I frequently can find what I’m looking for. At that point I can use the browser find command to refine the search for certain words I might remember from the original link such as the publication or author. Since these tweets are public you can see this search here. So of course that means you can search another user’s public tweets, as well.

If you’re a frequent Tweeter and diligent about hashtagging your topics you can create a truly powerful archive around your interests. It becomes a vast file cabinet to draw from.

Of course, there are lots of ways to save web links. People save them as bookmarks in folders in their browsers. They save them as social bookmarks in Pinboard or Delicious. Or, folks save pages in Pocket or Instapaper using tags – which can also create a nice archive. But, Twitter has advantages because by now it’s integrated into almost every app and browser, is just a tap or click away, and is simple and convenient.

You can level-up this approach by saving all your tweets using several different methods. One of the easiest is to integrate all of your tweets with a bookmarking service like Pinboard or Diigo. In this scenario every tweet of yours gets added to your bookmarks, including all hashtags. Here’s the instructions for Pinboard After setting this up, there’s no need for Twitter’s search – you simply search within your own bookmarks in Pinboard. Most commonly the import uses an additional hashtag, like !fromtwitter. I set this up in Delicious years ago almost by mistake. I ended up not really using Delicious for anything else as a result, but it made collecting and searching tweets easy (Delicious killed this functionality about a year ago.). Twitter collection can be set up with Evernote in a similar manner using IFTTT

Twitter improved their search about 4 years ago, basically eliminating the need for other tools to search tweets. About the same time they made it possible to download all your own tweets. Here are the instructions to do this It can take a few hours or a day to get this archive, but once you have it, it comes as a browsable collection as well as in csv format. This archive serves as a personal Google, provided you have hashtagged your links.

That’s three ways you can create your own personal Google: using Twitter’s advanced search; importing all your tweets into a bookmarking service; or periodically downloading an archive of your tweets. If you’re tweeting regularly, pick up the precision of your hashtagging and you’ll create a helpful resource in short order.

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FBI vs. Apple and the Risk to Your Health Data

Key Under DoormatBy now anyone with a pulse has heard about Apple’s showdown with the FBI over resisting cracking open a terrorist’s phone from San Bernandino. From a public perception perspective the FBI picked the perfect case to force Apple to comply – a conflict over security that has been brewing for a while. However, it’s not going the FBI’s way. A host of tech partners is backing Apple’s stance.

The consensus is that backdoors for government access is a terrible idea that just weaken the system. And of course we learned from Edward Snowden that we’ve all been snooped on for years through similar mechanisms. Keys under doormats are a bad idea. (MIT: Keys Under Doormats – Mandating insecurity by requiring government access to all data and communications)

Of course, huge data hacks have been in the news for the past several years. How fast have we forgotten about Target, JPMorgan, Ashley Madison, and Sony Pictures where massive data breaches left millions of Americans’ personal information exposed? Many of these people are just now starting to find out the extent of the damage done.

But the Government must be secure, right? They have loads of experts and vast funding. Well, after the recent hack of over 700,000 tax records they don’t seem to be able to do such a great job. So, they don’t seem like they might be able to keep that backdoor key away from hackers or totalitarian regimes.

The FBI promise this tool is just for for a one-time use on this one phone also rings hollow. The press reports many other phones where Government access is requested. Recently there was a report where the Government obtained a Tor-hacking technique through subpoena from Carnegie Mellon. They immediately exploited it to shut down a bunch of nasty sites, which is hard to argue with. However, the parallel with the Apple case is that once they have a cracking tool, they will use it widely.

One of the big risks is our health records. More and more of our data is on our phones, connected devices, and electronic health records. This past year saw over one million patient health files breached through nearly 258 large-scale healthcare data breaches. This is highly sensitive and personal information and I personally want the Government out of my business. Smartphones are increasingly the remote control for much of this data.

The Internet of Things increases security risks. How about a hacker changing the dosage on your insulin pump? Or getting into your car and shutting it down in the middle of the highway. Let’s hope this security battle is resolved in a public forum rather than the FBI relying on an obscure 1789 law, the All Writs Act.

P.S. Just for fun, you can read I dared two expert hackers to destroy my life. Here’s what happened.

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Goldman Sach’s Astounding Projections for Healthcare Virtual Reality

“Virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) have the potential to become the next big computing platform, and as we saw with the PC and smartphone, we expect new markets to be created and existing markets to be disrupted.” – reads the first full sentence in Goldman Sach’s research report on Virtual and Augmented Reality which was released on January 13th. Clearly they are bullish on VR.

Given that Virtual Reality is in a very early stage of development, Goldman outlines 3 scenarios over the next decade. Even in their base case, they estimate $580bn in revenue by 2025. Here’s the chart:


Of more interest to me personally, were the meaningful use cases they see which will drive VR markets. Looking beyond videogames, they predict real estate, retail, and healthcare will be among the first markets that VR/AR disrupts. In particular they signal out healthcare as being $5.1bn by 2025, a huge number, and an 11% slice of the pie.


Goldman forecast three primary uses for VR/AR technology in healthcare: 1) as a tool to aid doctors in medical procedures and day-to-day tasks, 2) for physical therapy and to treat phobias like fear of heights, and 3) to increase access to doctors through virtual visits.

One of the most successful uses of Google Glass was in Healthcare. Glass was used to overlay vital info for EMTs and surgeons and to provide hands-free assistance. You could easily see a hybrid of a VR headset and Google Glass being used in a similar manner, with the ability to provide more information and interactivity. I worked on a project for Sudler and Hennessey which used Google Glass in an augmented fashion to enhance a conference experience, adding a layer of imagery and information over what was in the booth. So, I could see Prediction #1 bring on target.

As far as Prediction #2 goes; virtual reality is a visceral experience and if you’re afraid of public speaking and could practice in a VR headset, I believe you could make some progress. This is entirely new territory but the options appear viable.

Increasing access to doctors through virtual visits, Prediction #3, seems a stretch. Doctors have been slow to adopt telemedicine due to reimbursement issues, and the physical need to interact makes the use challenging. Possible, but way out in the future.

VR has been in the news a lot this first month of the year. CES was full of VR gear and hype, and the headsets people having been waiting for, like the Oculus Rift, are only months away from launch. The Sundance Film Festival featured virtual reality for the second year. Under a program called New Frontier, the festival is promoting eleven independently produced VR films on a smartphone app. One of the notable shorts, Defrost, is a sci-fi drama that follows a woman who suffered a massive stroke and was cryogenically frozen. The woman’s waking up 30 years later as the film begins. The viewer experiences the story from the perspective of the woman, Mrs. Garrison, who’s wheeled around the hospital after awakening and is reunited with her very family – which has aged 30 years into the future. In a way it’s healthcare VR, so perhaps Goldman Sach’s will be right.

Sundance VR Film Defrost

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Will 2016 be a Big Year for Virtual Reality in Pharma?

Excedrin Oculus RiftOne of the more amazing technological innovations of 2015 was the consumerization of virtual reality. Google Cardboard, which started out almost as a joke, came into its own this November when the New York Times distributed over 1 million Cardboard units to their subscribers, featuring a  film, “The Displaced,” which follows the lives of three refugee children. Also in November, the consumer launch of the Samsung Gear VR created a sensation – bringing to market an inexpensive and already refined product that uses an ordinary smartphone to drive an immersive VR experience. The Gear sprang into being with a rich content library and a very polished user experience. If you own the right flagship Samsung phone the Gear was likely on your holiday shopping list.

Virtual reality offers many possibilities for pharma. In the short-term, the sheer novelty of the technology guarantees a certain share of attention. This is likely only a 12 month opportunity. Next year many virtual reality units are scheduled to be rolled out, so it is probable that there will be a flood of pharma efforts by mid-year.

If you’ve had a chance to try it out, virtual reality offers a riveting experience and intense moments of simulation. What better technology could there be to teach HCPs to relate emotionally to the suffering of patients of various disease states?

Excedrin MigraineLast Summer Excedrin created a stunt with Oculus Rift, the most sophisticated but expensive and unwieldy VR apparatus out there, and simulated the effects of a migraine. Excedrin clearly reached  way out of their box in terms of their indication, but they got their point across and plenty of attention.

Recently, in Australia, there was an effort to convey the experience of Multiple Sclerosis using a bicycle – built to malfunction. “Its gears are unpredictable, its frame off-balanced, and its brakes numb to press,” the ad’s narrator continues. “This bike has multiple sclerosis.” You can imagine doing something similar with VR. Many disease states where symptoms are visual, auditory, or balance related can be simulated with VR – migraine being a leading example.

The high-tech geewhiz effect of VR offers a tremendous method to visualize the structure and chemistry of some of the high-science drug compounds now launching. It delivers a Fantastic-Voyage-type experience of zooming through chemical structures and pathways in order to understand the science behind the therapies. VR serves up great gaming possibilities for learning – which could be an interactive competition at a conference or online. And the fact that the Samsung Gear VR is only $100 makes it well within  possibility to equip sales forces with the unit to deliver unique and interesting experiences to doctors.

The two options above offer standalone experiences built specifically for VR. It’s always takes a big push to get someone to download an individual app or sign up for one of your experiences. Maybe that’s too much to ask. Another option is to piggyback on other developed VR content – whether it’s a movie, story, or game – and interject a brand message of some sort, almost like an advertisement, to put it crudely. Ideally this would be content complementing the subject matter so branded content wouldn’t seem out of place and would offer value to the viewer.

Next year, Oculus will launch its full-scale Rift headset in the first quarter of 2016, while HTC is expected to begin selling its much-anticipated Vive not much later. Sony is also said to be readying to launch its PlayStation VR headset in the first half of next year. 2016 will be a big year for virtual reality in general and VR could be an area where pharma can actually be in the forefront of innovation rather than its typical laggard position. Let’s hope so.

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Fixing the Apple Watch App Layout: Internet to the Rescue

As much as I dig using my Apple Watch I am not a fan of the app layout you’re presented with on the Watch’s face. The default layout is a honeycomb of app icons. You can shrink or zoom an app somewhat to a max of about a quarter of an inch – zooming more that that opens that app. The problem is that, even zoomed up, they’re tiny, leading to accidental taps (annoying and time-consuming to exit).

Apple Watch Face with X LayoutIn the six months or so since the Watch has been on the market, there’s been a minor explosion of Watch applications that I personally use. This has lead to a cluttered and unorganized layout on my Watch. Well, it’s holiday time, leading to tinkering with a second screen (a Watch in my case) while watching movies or sports. So, I have cleaned up my Watch to make it a better experience.

The first thing to do is get rid of all the apps you don’t use or that don’t serve a purpose. In the Watch iPhone app it’s pretty easy to review all the apps with Watch extensions and turn them on or off. Some icons are cryptic: even if you’re familiar with the iPhone app, recognizing the Watch app may be a guessing game. In this way you clean up your screen and realize what’s what.

Apple Watch App Layout X iPhoneNext, you try to group the apps into related groups – most used, travel, weather, etc. This is like walking on ice while drunk. The best way to edit the layout is on the app on your iPhone, but the little buggers are slippery and naturally snap towards the center of the honeycomb. In my view,  different grid types should be offered as an option here, or you should be able to add spacers and cluster your apps – maybe apart from the central nucleus. It’s very challenging to arrange the apps anywhere near to a layout you want. I eventually managed to work my layout into an X with logical groupings of apps, but it’s a work in progress. The Watch app itself is an anchor in the center and I realized late in the game you can’t actually move it.

The Internet has come to the rescue for help with this task, specifically the Apple Watch subreddit. In the subreddit users have crafted complex layouts that must require a ton of dexterity and even more patience. The key post that started it all has a very functional format (no idea how he did it), and there are some remarkable designs posted. I’m sure we’ll see some Christmas tree layouts in the next four weeks.

Apple Watch Layouts

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