WATCH: Stand Up/Sketch Spotlight Featuring Comedian/Actor Rell Battle

Rell Battle WATCH: Stand Up/Sketch Spotlight Featuring Comedian/Actor Rell Battle

Rell Battle thinks protests start too early and black lives should also matter at brunch.

Watch his stand up below from The Conan Show;

‘Desus & Mero’ Stars Ending Their Viceland Show And Moving To Showtime

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The Humor Mill

You Connected Your CRM and Your Marketing Automation Platform…Now What?

Congratulations! You’ve successfully joined the ranks of marketers who have an integrated CRM and marketing automation platform. Things are going to be awesome—just as soon as you figure out what you’re supposed to do now…

If you’re in that boat, you’re not alone. In fact, the number one challenge for B2B marketing automation users is understanding the data integration between their systems—more than half consider this to be a major challenge, and creating a successful strategy for marketing automation isn’t that far behind.

As marketers, we’re up against the challenges of data entry, understanding integration points, and defining sales triggers. Often we don’t know what to ask for on the CRM side to execute the campaigns we want to build on the marketing automation side, which makes understanding how to architect our integrations hard and implementing strategy even harder.

A Successful Integration Starts with a Plan

To make the most of your integration, start by thinking about your overall marketing goals (engage cold leads, cross-sell to existing customers, get a notification when a nurtured lead is ready for a sales call), followed by individual campaigns you’ll need to support those goals (nurture campaign for leads gone cold in the last 90 days, people who bought this also liked X), followed finally by how you’re going to gather and organize the information you need to run those campaigns (your CRM).

Let’s start with goals and work backwards. There are some marketing automation tasks that CRMs are perfect for supporting, like:

  • Lead Nurture
  • Re-engagement of Cold Leads
  • Creating Custom Audiences for Remarketing Campaigns
  • Cross-sell and Upsell Campaigns
  • Customer Retention
  • Review Strategies

Once you know what goals you want to achieve (e.g., run a lead nurture campaign or create a review campaign for existing customers), you can set up a path for the data you need to gather, like so:

Let’s look at a few goals and sample campaigns you can build based on this model.

Preparing to Nurture Your CRM Leads

There are two types of lead nurturing you should be thinking about with your integration: what’s in your CRM, and what’s in your marketing automation platform. To nurture what’s already in your CRM (say, existing Leads that aren’t in the act of being converted), think about what you want to target and a build a Marketing List based on a specific Field or action. Avoid broad generalizations, like “All Open Leads,” and look for specifics you can build a personalized campaign around. You might want to target a field that captures what the Lead is interested in, completed phone calls, timestamps, or custom fields. Consider, too, if you want to run this campaign one time or have it running dynamically.

Once your Marketing List is built, create a campaign in your marketing automation platform with a strong call to action that’s directly related to the field you targeted in CRM. For example, if you targeted Leads gone cold 90 days prior, you could create an offer that entices those Leads to re-engage. If you’re dealing with timestamps, you could add new Leads into a Learn More nurture. Once your campaign is ready, use your integration to map that list to your marketing automation platform.

Preparing to Nurture Your Marketing Automation Platform Leads (Early Funnel)

These are your inbound leads, which may or may not be ready to enter in your CRM. Ideally, you should have control over what inbound leads get entered into as CRM Leads. For example, someone who is downloading content is not at the same place in the sales funnel as someone who has filled out the contact us form. Let’s focus on early funnel leads—people who have converted in your marketing automation platform but who have not filled out a form that asks you to contact them.

These early funnel leads are prime for nurturing. Use messaging on your landing pages that tells your would-be downloaders you won’t call them right away, as that will help you get more conversions. Next, build an automated email campaign with helpful information related to what they downloaded—say, a follow up download that adds context to what they have, a link to reviews, a case study in their industry, etc. When they contact you, tag their CRM source campaign back to your original download campaign—this helps you prove the value of inbound.

Don’t forget to use Lead Scoring on the marketing automation side to autopopulate a list of sales-ready nurture leads in your CRM!

Re-engage Cold Lists

As much as a quarter of your email list goes cold each year, either through job turnover or role change. But you won’t know who’s still interested and who has moved on if you don’t ask. To make this work, build a Marketing List around last activity date, modified on, opportunity close date (as lost), or created on date. Then create compelling content, like a how-to guide or an event invitation, and using your integration, send a series of emails to that list.

A few tips: put a query in place on your marketing automation side that takes out people who have engaged at each step along the way, and let them know what value you will provide to them if they subscribe to your emails in the future. Remember, this is what value you are providing to them—not what value they are providing to you!

Don’t Forget About Your Contacts

Marketing has a role to play in customer retention, and your integration can be a huge help here. In CRM, create triggered Marketing Lists targeted at Contacts based on a cross-sell, upsell, or post-sale campaign objective. You might want to create a List around Opportunity = Closed as Won, or a Contract Renewal Date, or a satisfaction score from customer service.

Using this Marketing List and your integration, you can automate campaigns around “You might also like…” suggestion emails, product use cases for recent buyers, ready to renew contract reminders, or review us campaigns for happy customers.

Regardless of where you are in the process of understanding and strategizing your marketing automation platform and CRM integration, the key to success is planning. Before you ever build a campaign, know what data you want to collect, why you want to collect it, how you plan to use it, and perhaps most importantly, where you’re going to get it. Having an effective strategy for using a marketing automation platform is often the biggest barrier to success, and knowing what you hope to achieve from the outset can help you be successful quicker.

Natalie Jackson is the marketing director for the emfluence Marketing Platform–learn more about her here.

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CRM Software Blog | Dynamics 365

Expert Interview (Part 1): Human Centered Design and Elise Roy on Transforming Disability into Innovation

Elise Roy says that losing her hearing when she was 10 years old has been one of the greatest gifts she’s ever received.

Early on, she viewed her loss as something she had to deal with and overcome. That perspective has shifted though.

“My disability has become an asset,” Elise says. “Rather than something I have to deal with, it’s a tool.”

Expert Interview Part 1 Human Centered Designer Elise Roy on Transforming Disability into Innovation banner Expert Interview (Part 1): Human Centered Design and Elise Roy on Transforming Disability into Innovation

A tool Elise has leveraged in just about every job she’s taken on – as one of the country’s few deaf lawyers, as an artist and designer, and as a human rights activist.

Most recently, she’s started working as a consultant, using her unique perspective to help organizations take a different approach to their design practices. Her goal is to show the groups she works with that incorporating a deeper understanding of how the disabled navigate the world will lead to extraordinary innovation and results.

“I believe that these unique experiences that people with disabilities have is what’s going to help us make and design a better world … both for people with and without disabilities,” she shared in her TED talk.

She consults through the lens of Human Centered Design, trying to develop the best product by defining problems and understanding constraints, observing people in real-world situations, asking questions and then using prototyping to test it quickly and cheaply all while keeping the end users– the customers in focus.

Elise learned first-hand how effective this method of problem-solving is back when she was taking a fabrication class in art school. The tools she was using for woodworking would sometimes kick back at her. Generally, before doing this they would emit a sound. But because of her hearing loss, Elise wasn’t able to hear it. In response, she developed a pair of safety goggles that give a visual warning when the pitch of the machine changed. The product can help protect both those who are hearing impaired and those with no hearing loss.

She points to other widely used inventions that were initially created for people with a disability, too. Email and text messaging, for instance, were designed for deaf users.

The OXO potato peeler was designed to help individuals with arthritis but was adopted by the general population because of how comfortable it is to use. There are tech companies currently developing apps and websites who are looking to people with dyslexia and intellectual disabilities for inspiration on simplifying design and offering an easier-to-use interface for everyone.

Check back for part 2 where Elise goes more in depth with what she is doing with Human Centered Design.

Also, we have a new eBook focused on Strategies for Improving Big Data Quality available for download.

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Zuora at a Crossroads

Zuora recently held its annual Subscribed user conference in San Francisco. In general, it was a good first outing since the company’s IPO, coming off some impressive first-quarter results. Year-over-year subscription revenues grew 39 percent and total revenue grew an amazing 60 percent, for example.

zuora Zuora at a Crossroads

As good as its present situation is, now that Zuora is a public company, it has to push down the gas pedal to feed the insatiable stock market. It has responded to that need with several interesting introductions that further build out its product line and represent a good attempt at institutionalizing its growth and customer-centricity.

Zuora acknowledged that after 10 years, some of its customers were looking for the next bit of adrenaline to fuel their growth.

“The easy stuff, the low-hanging fruit” had been taken, CEO Tien Tzuo said at one point, and it was time to reach higher.

What he meant was that many successful subscription companies had gotten an initial boost from the fact of their subscription status. However, as with any innovation, commoditization has set in because initial success invited considerable competition.

Hybrid Approach

Because Zuora is a company that collects a great deal of data, Tzuo was able to say with confidence that 70 percent of customer growth was attributable to expanding footprints (upsells, cross-sells, renewals) rather than to the addition of net new customers. Zuora anonymizes customer data to derive such insights, which it publishes as the Subscription Economy Index, or SEI.

Some other interesting information from the SEI is that the more customers change or tweak their subscriptions, the faster they grow — and fewer ultimately churn. Since these numbers are indicators of use and engagement, the results make sense.

If this sounds like customer relationship management, it is — and I think Zuora’s big challenge right now is in getting the CRM-finance/billing ratio right. CRM — or as I think of it, putting the customer in the center of what a business does — might be Zuora’s highest off-label priority at the moment.

It’s easy for the company to demonstrate the value of subscriptions as customer-centricity tools, and it needs to expend more effort doing that.

Consider this: Solving the subscription-billing problem was huge, and it continues to be challenging for businesses adopting the subscription model as an adjunct to their overall business.

However, solving billing is just a way to save money and to make it possible for a business to get on the field. Both are highly important, but they aren’t enough.

CRM and customer-centricity are essential to many subscription companies, so much so that they have a hard time teasing the two apart. To the extent that many companies have been adopting a hybrid approach to customers involving new lines of subscription business side by side with conventional models, Zuora continually needs to remind them that the models are different.

In this instance, neither model is necessarily superior, but each has to be given space and neither should be confused for the other. The idea of rapidly getting through the transition phase to an all-subscription world might be a bridge too far for big vendors delivering complex products and services, so advocating that approach ultimately is self-defeating.

Running two business models in parallel is tougher than dealing with pure subscriptions, and this contributes to the sense of plateauing some customers feel. Adding customer-centricity to a business’ overall approach (where needed) may be the greatest contribution the subscription model’s advocate can offer. Some new product introductions and updates can make all this easier.

New Products

Zuora introduced Zuora Orders and enhancements to Zuora Insights, and it showed, especially with Orders, that it was dealing with the problem of its customers being too successful — a happy problem.

Orders is a product that can be used to file an initial order for renewable and nonrenewable services, like a core offering and training. It also is suitable for maintaining and updating existing customer changes to subscriptions. It thus makes it easier for customers to tweak their instances to get exactly what they need, and the data shows it’s a good approach to customer retention.

There’s also Zuora CPQ, which has suffered somewhat from an imperfect category assignment. Conventional CPQ — configure, price, quote — is a necessity for traditional sales involving a one-time purchase of a product configuration. In that light, CPQ for subscriptions is at first glance a misnomer, since subscriptions can be updated infinitely with the Orders product.

Zuora CPQ could be called “SPQ” — subscription pricing and quotation — which makes a lot more sense, but then there’s the issue of inserting yet another name into the product universe. Definitely above my pay grade.

Finally, Zuora Insights is a continuation of the company’s years-long effort to bring analytics to the subscription base. Appropriately, Insights’ presence is felt in numerous places throughout the product line — from gathering use stats to informing the revenue-recognition process.

Speaking of which, RevRec might be Zuora’s biggest opportunity as companies slowly — and retroactively — adapt the ASC 606 and other regulations. The industry has been slow to do much, according to my sources, and some companies now are spending millions to catch up when they could have spent less before. At any rate, this gives Zuora lots of new opportunities.

My Two Bits

Zuora is off and running and has made great progress in the last decade. This year’s Subscribed event was a summation of its history and a chance to point toward the next horizon.

The market has changed significantly, though, and some of that change has been due to Zuora’s successes. The big challenge now in subscriptions is rationalizing the hybrid model and giving space to it, as well as to the conventional model, throughout the industry.

That’s not a hard thing to do, but it will require rethinking customer-centricity and CRM generally. Great companies rise to such challenges.
end enn Zuora at a Crossroads

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ECT News Network.

Denis%20Pombriant Zuora at a Crossroads
Denis Pombriant is a well-known CRM industry analyst, strategist, writer and speaker. His new book, You Can’t Buy Customer Loyalty, But You Can Earn It, is now available on Amazon. His 2015 book, Solve for the Customer, is also available there.
Email Denis.

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CRM Buyer

On Friday, with Fox & Friends on the WH lawn, Trump met people he loves, erect and at attention

 On Friday, with Fox & Friends on the WH lawn, Trump met people he loves, erect and at attention

The stench of cowardice and corruption of this generation of elected GOP officials will linger for decades. That no one will stand against the lies, lawlessness, cruelty, corruption, irrationality and just plain old fashioned idiocy of TRUMP and say ENOUGH! Is a profound disgrace

— Steve Schmidt (@SteveSchmidtSES) June 15, 2018

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Microsoft Dynamics 365 for Nonprofits: Leverage your Donor Database

Donor Data 300x225 Microsoft Dynamics 365 for Nonprofits: Leverage your Donor Database

Microsoft Dynamics 365 is one of the best-kept secrets in the nonprofit world for Donor Management Software. While often overlooked in Top 10 lists of Donor Software many of the most well-oiled nonprofit machines leverage it to keep their donors engaged and their mission thriving.

As a donor management tool, Microsoft Dynamics 365 can be a solid investment for the nonprofit that is ready to move out of the stone age of Excel and Rolodexes and start to transform donor data into more strategic, meaningful interactions.

Have you ever fantasized about any of the following questions for yourself or your organization?

  • What if there was a way to see a donors’ complete giving history in one place?
  • What if there was a way to easily see all donors’ pledged or planned giving for forecasting?
  • What if there was a way to access real-time totals of my Annual Fund or Capital Campaign for this fiscal year?
  • What if there was a way to easily generate a Prospect Pipeline of my major donors and then track where they each are individually in the pipeline?
  • What if there was a way to clean up all our old, dirty donor data?
  • What if there was a better way than my whiteboard or Outlook calendar to organize my Grant Report tasks and deadlines?
  • What if there was a way to easily assess the success of our Mass Marketing Campaigns, both email and direct mail?
  • What if there was a way to have Event Management or Volunteer Management in the same system as my donor information?
  • What if there was a better way for our donation and/or pledge information to integrate with the Accounting department?

Microsoft Dynamics 365 has solutions to all of the above for organizations of any size. Additionally, PowerObjects can even work with your NPO to customize your database specifically to your organization’s mission, terminology, and business processes.

What does “CRM” even mean?

CRM stands for Customer Relationship Management software. Sound somewhat familiar? At the end of the day what does your fundraising really boil down to? Building and maintaining relationships with donors, rather than customers. Microsoft Dynamics 365, while often used in a Sales or Service capacity, can easily be re-framed within a nonprofit context. Instead of sales (where customers are being sold on a product), or service (where providing timely, tailored service helps retain customers), Microsoft Dynamics 365 for Nonprofits uses the best of both worlds. Donors are managed similarly to a sales contact. You have an increased ability to sell them on your mission and follow-up with them regularly to continue to receive their support.

How will I get the buy-in from my Director or the Board for new software?

PowerObjects understands that your business is different from our business clients. You’re often coming up against thinner budget lines with minimal resources and often find yourself facing either very high turnover or extremely low turnover that might make change in the organization hard. Regardless of the particulars, we also know that every year your goal is to serve your mission bigger and better with greater lasting impact.

While software, data migration, and/or customizations can be pricy, a robust and flexible database software like Dynamics 365 is a long-term investment for your organization. Not only having but also using clean, accurate data is key for the longevity of any modern organization, for-profit and non-profit alike. Whether you are dealing with a rapidly growing number of constituents or a shrinking number of donors and donations, Dynamics 365 can help you expand and manage your growth.

Microsoft Dynamics 365 even has the ability to interface with other programs like MailChimp, Mail Merge, Microsoft Outlook, Microsoft Excel, and many others. You can look forward to having your information in a centralized location and a reduction of redundant work. Dynamics 365 even has mobile and tablet capabilities so you can access donor information on the go at fundraising events or board meetings. With optimized donor insights and streamlined business processes, your staff’s time will be better spent.

We know that in a nonprofit environment your organization has to be even more strategic about your engagements and expenditures. By using Dynamics 365, you can lay the long-term foundation for lasting change by boosting your fundraising potential with data. Need a real-life example of nonprofit success with Microsoft Dynamics? Check out this case study featuring WomenVenture.

Reach out to PowerObjects today to find out how we can help you take the next step in running your nonprofit less like a charity and more like a thriving business!

Happy D’365ing!

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PowerObjects- Bringing Focus to Dynamics CRM

Generation Z and Mainframe Programming

When you think of mainframe programming, images of scruffy old men stuck in the 1960s might come to mind. Yet as Caroline McNutt, a young mainframe programmer at Ensono explained recently, this image does not reflect reality.

Ensono provides managed IT services for a variety of infrastructure, including mainframes. McNutt, who has worked with Ensono’s mainframe teams in the company’s Conway, Arkansas location since 2016, recently spoke to us about the state of the mainframe, the role of young women in computer science, and more.

Here’s what McNutt had to say.

Generation Z and Mainframe Programming banner Generation Z and Mainframe Programming

What’s your role at Ensono, and how long have you been in the position?

I am an associate mainframe systems programmer. I’ve been with Ensono for about two years.

I first worked with Ensono in summer 2016 for a two-month college internship. After I graduated, they hired me to work full-time.

What does your day-to-day mainframe programming work entail?

I’ve been going through some of the older, legacy processes and trying to automate them through SAS. I also work on mainframe monitoring.

I work with z/OS. Other people at the company work with mainframe VM systems, but I kind of like my green screen.

How much interest do you see in mainframes among other young people and women?

Among women, a lot! On my current team at Ensono, we’re about 50/50 males and females. And there are quite a few females across the company as a whole.

[For more on women in the technology industry, check out our recent blog post “Women in Tech: Recognizing Female Leadership in Technology.”]

As for young people, most people at the company are older than me. But I’m twenty-four, so that’s not necessarily saying much.

bigstock Businesswoman pointing to word 68287039 600x Generation Z and Mainframe Programming

What was your experience with becoming a woman programmer who focuses on mainframes like?

At Ensono, I have faced no challenges at all as a woman programmer.

In college, though, things were harder. Even female teachers looked down on [women majoring in computer science]. A professor told me I was only hired for mainframe programming because I was a quota filler. And as I progressed further into the computer science degree program, [women programmers] would drop off.

Learning about mainframes in college was hard, too, even as a computer science student. They don’t teach mainframes. I didn’t even know what a mainframe was at first. And I think that’s a problem.

Given the lack of coverage of mainframes at universities, what do you think the future looks like for mainframes?

I definitely don’t think the mainframe is going anywhere for the foreseeable future.

A lot of people talk about cloud coming in and replacing mainframes. But cloud performance just doesn’t match what we already have in place on the mainframe.

Plus, a lot of the time, mainframes have been around for so long that the effort it would take to convert a mainframe to another platform would be so costly and time-intensive that it’s not practical to do that.

I definitely feel like I have a stable career here working on mainframes.

Download our eBook, Data Encryption in the Mainframe World, for even more on mainframes!

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Syncsort Blog

6/18 Webinar: My Power BI report is slow: what should I do? by Marco Russo

This week have one of our crowd favorites and Rock star MVPs, Marco Russo who has volunteered to cover the topic: 

My Power BI report is slow: what should I do?

Abstract: You created a wonderful Power BI report, but when you open it you wait too much time. Changing a slicer selection is also slow. Where should you start analyzing the problem? What can you do to optimize performance?
This session will guide you in analyzing the possible reasons for a slow Power BI report. By using Task Manager and DAX Studio, you will be able to determine whether you should change the report layout, or if there is something in DAX formulas or in the data model that is responsible for the slow response.  At the end of this session, you will understand how to locate a performance bottleneck in a Power BI report, so you will focus your attention on the biggest issue.

When: 6/18/2018 9AM PST


About the Presenter: 
51kVzGgqZAL. UX250  6/18 Webinar: My Power BI report is slow: what should I do? by Marco Russo
Marco Russo
Consultant and Mentor, SQLBI
Marco Russo is a Business Intelligence consultant and mentor. He has worked with Analysis Services since 1999, and written several books about Power Pivot, Power BI, Analysis Services Tabular, and the DAX language. With Alberto Ferrari, he writes the content published on, mentoring companies’ users about the new Microsoft BI technologies. Marco is also a speaker at international conferences such as Microsoft Ignite, PASS Summit, PASS BA Conference, and SQLBits.

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Microsoft Power BI Blog | Microsoft Power BI

Voice assistants: Moving from party tricks to practical applications

googleduplex Voice assistants: Moving from party tricks to practical applications

Video: CRM playaz with Pega’s Jeff Nicholson at PegaWorld 2018

Google I/O 2018

One of the most interesting developments from last month’s Google I/O event was the Google Duplex demo, where Google Assistant actually made a call on behalf of a human to make a beauty appointment… meaning Google Assistant called a human and had a conversation that led to an appointment being booked. Now that’s a cool trick (some folks might not characterize it as such, but that’s another story). It’s not available right this minute, so it kind of has a feel of being a gimmick or party trick that grabs your attention for a while before we move on to the next thing. And that party trick theme came up last week when the subject of voice assistants came up at Pegaworld in Las Vegas — the party trick capitol of the world.

Read also: What is Google Duplex? (CNET)?

The CRM playaz — aka Paul Greenberg and yours truly — caught up with Pega VP of CRM Product Marketing Jeff Nicholson for an impromptu conversation at the conference. We covered a lot of ground in the time we had with Jeff, including some bragging about the Patriots winning five Super Bowls, which was countered by the Yankees’ 27 World Series championships, which left me and my Rams’ one Super Bowl win pretty speechless during this time. But when I asked Jeff about voice assistants and their role in business, things got pretty interesting, as he feels that we’re currently in the era of party tricks; and that we need to get into an era of practical applications within the next year or two — or it might only be a flash in the pan. Finally, Jeff feels the only thing really holding it back are people coming up with serious use cases.

To see the full conversation, you can check it out above.

Now, there’s a lot to agree with in Jeff’s observations about voice. And many vendor executives I’ve talked to over the past 12 to 18 months or so agree with him. It’s easy to see why, as the things like ordering a pizza or starting your car brings a lot of attention and hype to Alexa and Google Assistant. But a deeper look beneath the surface reveals the move from party tricks to practical applications is already taking place; and the charge is being led by folks who were drawn in by the party tricks but are now taking the inspiration born from those experiences into their workplace after the party is over.

Below are a just a few examples of how quickly that transition is happening in areas that are no laughing matter.

From Ordering Pizza to City Government Call Center

When Pega’s Nicholson said voice-first needed to go from parlor trick to practical purpose for things to take off in the industry, he perfectly described the path Alexa took in reaching the city of Albuquerque’s call center. As told via a piece by my buddy Don Fluckinger, it was the city’s digital engagement specialist Matt Maez’s ability to easily reorder his favorite Domino’s pizza that led to the creation of an Alexa skill that addresses residents’ 150 FAQs.

Read also: Google Duplex beat the Turing test: Are we doomed?

The skill was rolled out last month as a soft launch and a a bigger push is expected to take place later this year, with a goal of reducing call volume by 15 percent in two years. But there are concerns about scaling issues as Alexa interactions increase over time. However, in the long run, based on AWS’ track record, it’s expected to be less of a concern. And I suspect that using voice assistants will become a viable way to scale self-service capabilities that will become generally attractive as time goes on.

Senior Communities

This one hits close to home having a mother currently residing in a senior independent living community, and I use an Amazon Echo Show to talk daily to her. But these devices are gaining traction in senior communities for more than just that. Touchtown, a company specializing in resident engagement solutions used by more than 1,200 retirement homes and senior living communities, offers services aimed at improving resident wellness and experience via computers, tablets, or smartphones. Now, Touchtown is offering residents the ability to easily find important information using Alexa and Echo devices. For example:

  • Activities: “What is going on tomorrow?”
  • Dining Menus: “What is for lunch today?”
  • Announcements: “Are there any announcements today?”

One of Touchtown’s customers, North Florida Retirement Village, recently beta-tested the Alexa integration with a few residents and found it made immediate impact with scheduled reminders for taking medication. Using voice commands also makes it easy for seniors with declining motor skills. In fact, because of the initial positive response from the beta, North Florida is in the process of constructing smart apartments for future residents that will allow seniors to control lights, fans, televisions, and other devices with their voices.

Erica, How Much Money Do I Have?

Alexa and Google Assistant aren’t the only game in town (and no I’m not talking about Siri). While they can do many things on your behalf, they can’t get into your Bank of America accounts for the time being… but Erica can. Erica is a financial AI assistant designed for BofA customers use their smartphone to manage their personal bank accounts. After activating Erica by tapping on the app, a user can ask her, for example, to lock their debit card after losing it or having it stolen, transfer funds between accounts, and look up past transactions. You can also schedule meetings with specialists at a branch, schedule payments, and even send money to people via Zelle. You can also ask for your past five purchases from Amazon.

Read also: Google Duplex: What should businesses expect? (TechRepublic)

According to Bank of America CEO Brian Moynihan last month, 450,000 people were using Erica, and the BofA app had logged more than one million interactions. While the things she can do are relatively easy to start with, over time Erica will learn what’s important to customers and will perform more complex tasks to improve the customer experience.

Suki — Alexa for Doctors

Focused on simplifying the laborious process of medical notetaking, Suki is an AI-powered, voice-enabled digital assistant for doctors, allowing them to spend more time treating patients than filling out forms. Having recently announced raising $ 20 million in funding (with Salesforce’s Marc Benioff being among the lead investors), the company is comprised of engineers, technologists, and clinicians from a who’s who of companies, including Apple, 23andMe, Google, Salesforce, and Oracle.

According to a company press release, Suki is personalized at the individual doctor level to remove friction from day-to-day activities, but it’s also built to scale. And even though doctors spend a lot hiring workers to manage the accuracy of patient records, that still doesn’t insure those records are in good shape. But company founder Punit Soni says Suki will be able to:

“Distill a doctor’s conversation with a patient into an actionable plan, based on the doctor’s known preferences and clinical practice guidelines. The doctor can tell Suki, ‘I’m concerned this patient has the flu,’ and Suki will take the initiative to document the conversation in the proper format, with a proposed plan of care based on the way that doctor typically treats a patient with suspected flu. And if the doctor prescribes medication, Suki will stage and route the order through the health record system.”

These examples represent a rapidly growing number of projects that illustrate the “party tricks to practical applications” transition that is taking place. And Jeff Nicholson’s suggestion that the transition needs to be led by practitioners out there in the trenches is exactly what’s happening — in important areas like health, banking, senior living, and government services. All this adds up to an era of voice eventually crossing the chasm into the mainstream of even the most important areas of life. We’re still early days as most of what’s going on currently are beta projects. And important areas of concern like privacy and security, both from a consumer and enterprise perspectives, need to be entirely flushed out and thoroughly tested. But we’re moving in that direction, and I can’t wait to have my voice assistant call my barber to set up my next cut.

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Ctrl-labs’ armband lets you control computer cursors with your mind

Controlling a mouse pointer with your mind may sound like science fiction, but Ctrl-labs, a startup based in New York City, is working hard to make it a reality.

I recently swung by the company’s new digs in Manhattan — a high rise suite overlooking Herald Square, a few blocks south of the Theater District, overlooking Herald Square. It had been two weeks since Ctrl-labs’ employees moved into the Midtown office, lead scientist Adam Berenzweig told me, and the smell of fresh paint still hung in the air.

“We haven’t finished unpacking the furniture,” he said.

Ctrl-labs can afford the upgrade. In June, it raised $ 28 million in an investment round led by Lux Capital and GV (formerly Google Ventures), the venture capital arm of Alphabet (Google’s parent company). The two join a long, growing list of high-profile backers that includes the Amazon Alexa Fund, Paul Allen’s Vulcan Capital, Peter Thiel’s Founders Fund, Tim O’Reilly, Slack founder and CEO Stewart Butterfield, Warby Parker CEO Dave Gilboa, and others.

What convinced those tech luminaries to fund the three-year-old neuroscience and computing startup, I’d soon find out, feels a little bit like magic.

Finding the neural link

Thomas Reardon, the founder and CEO of Ctrl-labs (formerly Cognescent), was something of a child prodigy. He took graduate-level math and science courses at MIT while in high school and spearheaded a project at Microsoft that became Internet Explorer. A few years later, he enrolled in Columbia University’s classics program, where he studied neuroscience and behavior and went on to earn his Ph.D.

It was in 2015 at Columbia that Reardon, along with fellow neuroscientists Patrick Kaifosh and Tim Machado, conceived of Ctrl-labs and its lofty mission statement: “to answer the biggest questions in computing, neuroscience, and design.” After three years of research and development, the team produced its first product: an armband that reads signals passing from the brain to the hand.

The armband — a bound-together collection of small circuit boards, each soldered to gold contacts meant to adhere tightly to forearm skin — is very much in the prototype stages. A ribbon cable connects the contacts to a Raspberry Pi in an open plastic enclosure, which in turn connects wirelessly to a PC running Ctrl-labs’ software framework.

It’s deceptively unsophisticated.

 Ctrl labs’ armband lets you control computer cursors with your mind

Above: A view from Ctrl-labs’ new offices in New York City.

Image Credit: Kyle Wiggers / VentureBeat

Berenzweig thinks of the armband as an interface much like a keyboard or mouse. But unlike most peripherals, it uses differential electromyography (EMG) — an effect first observed in 1666 by Italian physician Francesco Redi — to translate mental intent into action.

How does it do that? By measuring changes of electrical potential, which are caused by impulses that travel from the brain to hand muscles through lower motor neurons. This information-rich pathway in the nervous system comprises two parts: upper motor neurons connected directly to the brain’s motor center, and lower axons that map to muscle and muscle fibers. Neurotransmitters run the length of that long neural pathway and turn individual muscle fibers on and off — the biological equivalent of binary ones and zeros.

The armband is quite sensitive to these. Before Berenzweig kicked off a demo of the wristband, he made sure to put distance between it and a metal pushcart nearby.

“It acts like an antenna,” he said, “so it’s susceptible to interference.”

While the armband’s 16 electrodes monitor the electric fields generated by nerves in the wearer’s arm, Ctrl-labs’ software ingests the data, and with the help of a machine learning algorithm trained using Google’s TensorFlow, distinguishes between the individual pulses of each nerve.

Berenzweig, who had put on an armband before I arrived, showed me on a PC an EKG-like graph of colored lines representing each contact. As he lifted a digit, one of the lines tremored slightly. Then he let his hand rest at his side, motionless. It tremored again.

 Ctrl labs’ armband lets you control computer cursors with your mind

Above: Ctrl-labs’ prototype armband.

Image Credit: Kyle Wiggers / VentureBeat

The wondrous thing about EMG, Berenzweig explained, is that it works independently of muscle movement; generating a brain activity pattern that Ctrl-labs’ tech can detect requires no more than the firing of a neuron down an axon, or what neuroscientists call action potential.

That puts it a class above wearables using electroencephalography (EEG), a technique that measures electrical activity in the brain through contacts pressed against the scalp. EMG devices draw from the cleaner, clearer signals from motor neurons, and as a result are limited only by the accuracy of the software’s machine learning model and the snugness of the contacts against the skin.

That’s not to suggest they’re perfect. Waterloo, Ontario-based startup Thalmic Labs began shipping an EMG armband in 2013 — the Myo — that can detect muscle movements, recognize gestures and joint motion, and map neural signals to keys on a keyboard and video game hotkeys. But many of the less-than-stellar reviews mention the inconsistency of its gesture recognition.

Ctrl-labs prototyped its machine learning algorithms with Myo before developing its own hardware, and Berenzweig owns one personally. But the current iteration of Ctrl-labs’ armband is far more precise than the Myo, and can work anywhere on the forearm or upper arm. Future versions will work on the wrist.

He explained this to me as he typed a few commands into a Linux terminal and fired up the first demo. A likeness of a human hand appeared onscreen and Berenzweig manipulated it with his fingers, their movement mirroring that of his digital doppelganger.

Then he strapped the bracelet on my arm. I had worse luck — the thumb on the computerized hand reflected the motions of my thumb, but the index and pinkie finger didn’t — they remained stiff. Berenzweig had me recalibrate the system by angling my wrist slightly, but to no avail.

He chalked it up to the demo’s generalized machine learning model. Experimental versions of the software, he said, are performing much better.

In a second demo, I watched as Berenzweig moved a computer cursor toward a target. Unlike in the first, movements in the demo actively train a neural net, tuning the system to each user’s neural idiosyncracies.

When it came time again for my turn, I wasn’t exactly sure how to control it. But after a trepidatious start in which the cursor made maddening laps around the target, coming close to it but not quite touching it, the algorithm — and by extension, precision — improved drastically. Within just a few seconds, moving the cursor with thought became almost second nature, and I was able to steer it up, down, and to the left and write by thinking about moving — but not actually moving — my hand.

Berenzweig believes this kind of algorithmic learning, which is crucial to the system’s accuracy, could be gamified in other ways. “We’re trying to find the right way to approach it,” he said.

An eye on VR — and smartphones

Ctrl-labs’ armband won’t be relegated to the lab for much longer. By the end of this year, the company plans to ship a developer kit in small quantities and make available software that will expose the band’s raw signals. The final design is in flux, and at least a few will be manufactured in-house.

Pricing hasn’t been decided, though Berenzweig said it will be higher than the eventual commercial model’s price point.

Around the corner from the demo and adjacent to a room with a MakerBot (which the team uses to quickly prototype shells), Berenzweig showed me a poster board of concepts and potential form factors. Some looked not unlike Android Wear smartwatches — while the developer kit will have to be tethered to a PC for some processing, he said, the processing overhead is such that all of the hardware will eventually be self-contained.

As for what Ctrl-labs expects its early adopters to build with it and for it, video games top the list — particularly virtual reality games, which Berenzweig thinks are a natural fit for the sort of immersive experiences EMG can deliver. (Imagine swiping through an inventory screen with a hand gesture, or piloting a fighter jet just by thinking about the direction you want to fly.)

But Ctrl-labs is also thinking smaller. Not too long ago, it demonstrated to Wired a virtual keyboard that maps finger movements to PC inputs, allowing a wearer to type messages by tapping on a tabletop, and at the 2018 O’Rielly AI conference in New York City, Reardon spoke about text messaging apps for smartphones and smartwatches that let you peck out replies one-handed. Berenzweig, for his part, has experimented with control schemes for tabletop robotic arms.

“You know how early versions of Windows used to ship with Minesweeper and Windows sort of became known for it?” We need to find our Minesweeper,” he said.

 Ctrl labs’ armband lets you control computer cursors with your mind

Above: A few Ctrl-labs armband engineering samples.

Image Credit: Ctrl-labs

One field of research Ctrl-labs won’t be investigating is healthcare — at least not at first. While Berenzweig agrees that the tech could be used to help stroke victims and people with degenerative neural diseases like amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), he says those aren’t applications the company is actively exploring. Ctrl-labs is loath to submit its hardware for approval by the Federal Food and Drug Administration, a potentially years-long process. (Reardon’s stated goal is to get a million people using the armband within the next three to four years.)

“We’re focusing on consumers right now,” Berenzweig said. “We think it has medical use cases, but we want it to be a consumer product.”

By the time Ctrl-labs hits retail store shelves, it’ll likely have competition. Thalmic Labs is developing a second-generation EMG armband, and a new a venture funded by SpaceX and Tesla head Elon Musk, NeuraLink Corp, aims to develop mass-market implants that treat mood disorders and help physically disabled people regain mobility.

Not to be outdone, Facebook is researching a kind of telepathic transcription that taps the brain’s speech center. In September 2017 at the MIT Media Lab conference, project lead Mark Chevillet told the audience that it plans to detect brain signals using noninvasive sensors and diffuse optical tomography. Effectively, it would allow a user to type words simply by thinking them.

Berenzweig is convinced that Ctrl-labs’ early momentum, plus the robustness of its developer tools, will help it gain an early lead in the brain-machine interface race.

“Speech evolved specifically to carry information from one brain to another. This motor neuron signal evolved specifically to carry information from the brain to the hand to be able to affect change in the world, but unlike speech, we have not really had access to that signal until this,” he told Wired in September 2017. “It’s as if there were no microphones and we didn’t have any ability to record and look at sound.”

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