Tag Archives: technology

Smart Glasses – Are We Ready?

Spatial computing, once a preserve of science fiction, is slowly but surely creeping into real life and whilst there are a number of companies working on industrial applications of Augmented Reality (AR), with true use of a headset/ glasses there is not yet a convincing consumer solution to herald in the age of smart glasses.

Smart glasses, Lake Tahoe
AR adds a layer of digital information to the real world that we see, adding to the experience.

The promise of AR and of smart-glasses is to seamlessly overlay digital information onto the real world such that this information adds to the experience. There are myriad potential applications where such a capability might prove either useful or just entertaining. For example:

  • Video calls – speak with a person on Skype or FaceTime (other video chat applications available) as though they were literally standing/ sitting there in front of you, in realistic hologram form.

 

  • Educational experiences – visits to galleries, museums or even city tours would be so much more entertaining and interesting with the ability to see projections of artists, historical figures or scenes played out in front of our eyes as though they were happening live. A visit to a famous battle scene or, for example, StoneHenge would be a richer learning experience if the subjects of our learning were walking about around us. How much better would we relate to our history if we could see, with our own eyes, such histories played out on the current world? Would it lead to a greater sense of the important lessons of history and reduce the risks that we repeat the same errors, a concern that holds resonance at this specific time of political uncertainty in the world.

 

  • Navigation – whether it be in a car or walking about an unfamiliar city, staring at a screen has its obvious disadvantages. Contrast that with seeing clear directions mapped out onto the real world in front of our eyes, negating the need to take our focus off the real world. This will be further enhanced by the use of real-time translation, such that foreign road signs are automatically presented in their translated form.

 

  • Many others…..

 

What AR experiences are already available?

Most of us will have first heard of or experienced AR through social apps such as Snapchat, whose filters allow for some silly but otherwise fun effects to be added to live video, such as the addition of rabbit ears and a nose that respond and change in real-time with our faces. Others might have used an AR app to scan a physical marker in, say, a magazine and seen a digital object, such as a movie character, materialise on our screen but viewed as though they were there in the real world. Companies such as Blippar do the latter and have a thriving business in using AR for brand marketing.

 

Who is doing interesting things in AR?

There are a number of companies working on AR, whether it be via smart glasses or the screens with which we interact with daily, such as tablets and phones. As already mentioned, social media is likely to be one of the first experiences of true AR that many of us have and it isn’t just Snapchat playing a role. Facebook are also players in this market with their purchase, this year, of the AR start-up MSQRD, whose technology does much the same thing as Snapchat’s. The technology behind such whimsical entertainment is actually pretty exciting and you can learn more about it here.

Aside from marketing and social media/ entertainment, other major applications for AR are in both industry and education, with a few vet schools even dabbling with the technology.

 

Form Factor…. The Big Issue

As much as I am truly excited by the promise of AR to revolutionise how we interact with digital information, form factor is still, for me, THE biggest issue. Until we move beyond the bulky, cyborg-esque headsets, that feel akin to wearing a welders mask, to lightweight, stylish eyewear or, preferably, a completely off-body solution then wider adoption of this tech will be slow. At present, the most accessible and reliable method by which to engage with AR for the vast majority of us is via our phones and tablets. In other words, handheld screens with cameras attached.

Phones work in as much as they do some incredible things for us and work the same regardless of personal factors and are situationally flexible (i.e. they work much the same way regardless of whether you are at home, work or, perhaps, out and about in a sporting or outdoors setting). They also have the advantage of being discretely held on person if necessary, a feature that an expensive pair of smart-glasses clearly lacks. For example, in areas where openly advertising the fact you have a powerful – and valuable – computer on your person would be ill-advised, it is perfectly possible to keep a phone hidden and, perhaps, access necessary information via other, more discrete methods, such as a smart-watch. Obviously wearing a pair of smart glasses, especially in their current form, would create not only some degree of social stigma, as was seen with Google Glass, but also a personal risk from theft as one would effectively be advertising the fact that they were in possession of a very valuable piece of personal computing equipment.

What of the issues pertaining to eyesight? I, personally, need corrective lenses, whether they be in the form of contacts, which I personally can’t stand wearing for very long and that do little to really improve my eyesight anyway, or spectacles. What solutions do smart-glasses have in store for users such as me in the future? Will I be forced to have to wear contacts whenever I want to wear and thus use my smart glasses? Or will I need to make an additional investment to install corrective/ prescription lenses, instantly increasing the overall cost of adoption and complexity of the product, and making it more of a tricky proposition to resell the device when it comes to upgrading. I wouldn’t be able to easily share/ lend my device to others unless they too shared my prescription, unless they automatically contained technology that corrected for the current user’s eyesight – maybe that’s the key?!

Then there are situational factors governing ease of use. I can currently use, or otherwise carry, my phone in virtually all circumstances. The design and form of the technology gives it this feature. At work it can remain in my pocket and be accessed should I need to quickly use the camera, or search an ebook or perform an information search online, whilst during exercise, such as on my bike, I can easily carry it using a sports-pouch and enjoy music and other services, such as GPS tracking and metrics apps like Strava. Paired with a smart-watch I can also interact directly with the device, accessing key performance data, all in a comfortable manner that the device is designed to be able to cope easily with. Smart-glasses, on the other hand, do not seem to be as flexible. For example, I doubt that I would want to wear the same style of smart glasses at work, interacting with clients and colleagues, and with the constant risk of getting blood etc on them, as I would whilst training, when the need is for eyewear that is sporty, aerodynamic, lightweight, sweat-resistant and aesthetically totally different to other situations. Personally, I even keep different styles of sunglasses depending on the situation in which they are worn. My everyday, casual pair are totally different to my sports/ training/ racing pair. Would I need to have several different pairs of smart glasses to achieve the same result? I only have a single smartphone and can use that in all of the settings mentioned.

Then there is the issue of social stigma and resistance to smart ‘facial-wear.’ Nerds get why people would want to wear a computer on their face – I am one of them. But as Google Glass, when it was first released, demonstrated, the wider public are generally suspicious of and occasionally outright hostile to the idea. Is it simply that wearers of such devices look alien and so instantly stand out as different? Is it the fact that people know such devices include cameras and so fear the perceived invasion of personal privacy that comes with being surveiled, even though we all carry smartphones with incredibly powerful, high resolution cameras that capture content constantly and may well be recorded multiple times per day by other users without our even being aware? In fact, unless you live in a rural area then it is highly probable that you are already being constantly recorded such is the pervasive nature of CCTV. And yet we’re collectively fine with this whilst being instantly suspicious of a person openly wearing a recording device in the form of smart eyewear.

This will need to change before smart glasses become universally accepted as ‘normal.’ A really interesting historical point was made at this year’s AWE (Augmented World Expo) by one of the speakers who talked about how prior to the First World War, wristwatches were generally considered to be pieces of womens’ jewellery and men typically carried a pocket watch. Any gentleman thus wearing a wristwatch would have been stigmatised. That was until the war when, due to the practical constraints of the battlefield, having a timepiece easily accessible, lightweight and handsfree was a big advantage. As a result officers sported wristwatches and continued to do so upon returning from active duty. The comical comment was the suggestion that no-one in their right mind would have ridiculed a tough soldier for wearing a piece of jewellery and so before long tastes changed and the idea of wearing a wristwatch became the accepted norm that we know today. Will the adoption of smart eyewear follow the same path? Who will it be that leads the way in changing public opinion? Will it once again be soldiers, after perhaps first experiencing smart-glasses in the military, or sports-stars perhaps? Regardless of who it is that ultimately leads to a change in opinion there first needs to be a compelling reason for why smart glasses are a preferable option over sticking with the good old smartphone and it is this that I cannot quite yet see.

If No Smart Glasses, Then What?

If smart-glasses, in the typical spectacle form, are not the answer then what could the future of AR look like? To answer this it is worth considering our experience of AR in two different contexts.

Fixed Position Interface

As we have already discussed, AR is already experienced by many of us via traditional screens, with the augmented content over-layed onto the real world as long as we view it through the screen itself. As such, any context in which a transparent surface is involved lends itself to AR. Obvious case examples include driving, with our view of the world outside of the car/ transport medium being through such a transparent ‘screen.’ Companies such as BMW have already explored this idea, for example with the Head-Up Display that shows important journey and vehicle information ‘on the windscreen’ such that the driver need not take their eyes off the road in front of them to still benefit from such data. Navigation information is another very obvious application for this concept, with drivers ‘seeing’ the route mapped out on the road and surrounding world without having to divert their gaze away from the road and towards a separate screen. Imagine how much less likely it would be to miss that rapidly approaching highway slip-road if you could ‘see it’ in advance by a change in colour of the road in front of your very eyes. Once we truly herald the arrival of fully-autonomous driving then the very same vehicle ‘screens’ that previously kept us informed of important driving information will give themselves over to becoming entertainment or productivity screens.

Other settings in which screens (as in what we currently think of as windows or transparent barriers) are currently employed and which promise to provide AR interfaces in the future include places such as zoos, museums, shop windows, or even our very own home windows. Basically anywhere that a transparent ‘screen’ could be found.

Mobile Interface

Until we somehow come up with a reliable, safe method by which to wirelessly beam AR directly into our brains, currently the most obvious alternative to smart-glasses is the smart contact lens. There are groups working on such stuff of science fiction as this very thing, with Samsung having patented a design for the same, although the power and processing would come from a tethered smart-phone, making it more of a smart screen than anything. I have already voiced my own personal objections to contact lenses and cannot see how adding hardware, however small, to them is going to overcome their obvious shortcomings. Assuming for a moment that the visual effect is staggeringly compelling, with beautifully rendered digital content seamlessly added to the world as if it was always there, designers are going to need to solve the following problems before we all don contact lenses:

  • comfort – many people either find them out and out uncomfortable or can only really stand wearing them for short periods of time.

 

  • ocular health – in some professions, especially medical, ophthalmologists recommend daily disposable lenses as, on balance, they are a more hygienic option when compared to longer term-use products. Will smart contact-lenses be cheap enough, and will it be socially and environmentally acceptable or sustainable even, to dispose of our high-tech lenses each day? What of the potential health issues associated with having a heat-generating, signal transmitting/ receiving device actually in contact with our eyes? Do we know what, if any, health risks that might present?

 

  • cost – whilst not especially cheap, I do not get too upset when I have to sacrifice a pair or two of contact lenses in any single day, either because some debris makes it way onto the lenses and renders them uncomfortable or my eyes just need a break. I would be less quick or willing to whip them out, however, if they had cost me a significant sum to purchase, and if I were forced to then I’d be resentful of having to have done so.

 

  • tethering – whilst not a major issue, having to keep a smart-phone in close proximity for such lenses to work as desired does somewhat dilute some of the real magic and potential of a truly untethered AR experience.

 

Smart glasses

Whilst the future is one in which Augmented Reality is definitely going to be HUGE, with companies such as Meta, Magic Leap and Microsoft (with the Hololens) creating some truly incredible technology and experiences that defy conventional belief and result in childish grins from anyone who tries them, there are still some significant and fundamental obstacles to overcome. Form factor is, I believe, one of the key issues that pioneers of this technology are yet to crack but when a compelling solution is found then, well, get strapped in and prepare for a technological shift the likes of which come around but once in a generation!

For more information on Smart Glasses, take a look at the AR Glasses Buyers Guide (www.ARglassesbuyersguide.com)

Upload Collective

What is the Upload Collective?

The Upload Collective is a co-working space for those working in the rapidly growing, exciting, immersive field of Virtual Reality (VR) and located in San Francisco. It offers access to like-minded people, mentorship from some of the industry’s leading thinkers and successful entrepreneurs and financiers, in addition to the ability to use shared resources, such as VR headsets, to help minimise the costs associated with launching a start-up in the space. It is also just good fun! A cool place to hang out, with interesting, exciting people all with a common passion and interest.

Why Did I Visit?

Upload Collective, San Francisco, entrance
Where the magic happens….

I am deeply fascinated by VR, and indeed spatial computing in all of it’s forms, seeing it as the next, logical step in our move towards ever more immersive digital interactions and intuitive computing that promises to change every facet of how we create and interact with content. From healthcare to learning to entertainment, spatial computing is, and will continue to do so at an ever greater rate, change how we work, learn and play. I was aware of Upload VR from my time at AWE (Augmented World Expo) in 2015, where I volunteered in a bid to connect with and learn more about both augmented and virtual reality. Hooked in an instant, I have continued to follow UploadVR as a source of industry news and decided that during my next trip to the Bay Area I wanted to visit and see first-hand what they were doing in the city. A LinkedIn email to Taylor Freeman, co-founder of UploadVR, later and a date was set for me to head on over and talk all things VR. In addition to being able to meet the people involved and see for myself what was going on at the collective I also really, really wanted to physically experience high-resolution VR myself. I had been able to try out a few VR experiences at AWE last year but since then both the Oculus Rift and the HTC Vive had been commercially released, along with a plethora of incredible experiences to accompany them. I was still trying to decide on which system to consider investing in and the only way to really know for sure is to try and garner the opinion on industry leaders, right?!

What Did I See & Who Did I Meet?

Upload Collective, San Francisco
Airy, light & very ‘tech’

After having to rearrange the meeting on account of the Memorial Day holiday in the US, I headed round the corner from where I was staying in San Francisco to the Upload Collective’s space on Mission for my early meeting with Taylor. Walking in to their first floor space the first thing that struck me was how light and airy the place felt, with all of the casual cool that one naturally associates with a technology start-up. Comprising a large central co-working space, with a well-equipped kitchen at one end and comfortable sofas and the obligatory bean bag, this area was fringed with a number of separate rooms, containing various computers, whiteboards and all the other stuff one might need to create the future of immersive technology. One room, much bigger than the rest, contained a whole load of studio equipment and green screens, used for creating VR showcases in which people not wearing a headset can still feel immersed in what it is the user is experiencing. This is still one of the biggest hurdles for VR to overcome: how can you get people truly excited about the technology and experience without, well, actually physically donning a headset. It is the biggest marketing issue that VR has and whilst efforts by Google, and third parties such as the New York Times who gave away millions of Google Cardboard headsets to readers, to introduce people to the wonder of VR, it remains so that in order to really “get VR” it is vital to “try VR,” especially the high-end devices and experiences. Work being conducted at Upload Collective is aiming to tackle this very challenge.

HTC Vive, VR headset
Tools of the trade

Other rooms, and the ones I instantly had my attention drawn towards, were the VR rooms themselves. Devoid of furniture, blacked out and foam-lined, with a powerful gaming PC and various pieces of VR equipment sitting on hooks at one end, these are where the magic happens, or rather where it is experienced.

Given the fact that it was a) early and b) the day after the holiday weekend, there were not very many people in when I visited and so I daresay that I didn’t quite get the full impression of the energy that would normally coarse through the space in a usual day.

Upload Collective, co-founder
Co-Founder of UploadVR, Taylor, and I. Oh, and the ‘office dog’

I met Taylor, who promptly offered me my first caffeine hit of the day courtesy of the shared espresso machine, and we sat down to talk about how UploadVR came about, Taylor’s own background and path into the space and plans for Upload Collective, including their collaboration with Make School, situated just next door, on a course for budding VR developers. You can read a little more about UploadVR here.

The second person I met was Avi Horowitz, Intern at Large at Upload, who was kind enough to get me set up on one of the Collective’s HTC Vive headsets and launched me into the first of several incredible VR experiences, Google’s amazing 3D art program, Tiltbrush.

What Did I Do?

Upload Collective, VR room with people in VRNeedless to say the time I spent in VR whilst visiting the Upload Collective was the most fun I have had in a very long time and was, without doubt, one of the highlights of my visit to San Francisco. Right off the bat I was hooked, with Google’s Tiltbrush proving the perfect introduction to the magic of high-resolution VR. I will do my best to describe what I experienced but as with trying to do VR justice in any other medium than actually trying it for yourself, it may not hit the mark.
VR experiences, Google Tiltbrush & WeVR theBlu
Two of the amazing VR experiences on the HTC Vive

As soon as I donned the headset I found myself standing in a blank, flat landscape, fringed with stars on the horizon and a beautiful night sky. Avi, with a simple selection from the menu, changed this setting such that I now found myself standing in the middle of space, surrounded on all sides by stars. Magical! However, this was nothing compared to what was to come next. Using the two controllers supplied with the Vive, I had all the tools of a master artist, with my left serving as a rotating smorgasbord of art options and my right as the main tool. With a simple ‘laser light’ tool selected I started drawing in the void in front of me. Yes! Drawing right there in space! This simple action may not have been that impressive on a 2D surface, such as a graphics tablet, but the fact that I was laying down graphics in 3D, such that I was able to walk towards, through, and around it made the entire experience a revelation. Much as I can imagine how Michelangelo would have felt at discovering the power and potential of sculpting clay as a medium for artistic expression, I felt the same thrill and joy at the potential for just what was now possible using this medium. A childish grin the size of the Cheshire Cat’s instantly spread across my face as I quickly learn’t how to select different tools, colours, effects and with all the enthusiastic urgency of a toddler at play set to creating my ‘masterpiece.’ The fact that what I was drawing/ building/ creating was nothing more than formless nonsense was immaterial. What was important was just how addictive, immersive and unique the experience was. I can not even imagine a child not becoming deeply fascinated in art and the process of design and creation using such a powerful yet intuitive tool as VR. As a medium for limitless artistic expression it is un-rivalled and for anyone professionally involved in design, from architects to product designers, being able to walk around, through and view your creations from any and all angles it surely renders the lowly drawing board redundant. It is testament to how incredibly fun this one VR experience is that I spent about an hour playfully immersed in it and the fact that I was then able to record what I had created and thus take it away with me provided the cherry on the big VR cake.

Upload Collective, VR room
Creating entire Universes in VR
(click to view video)

Other experiences were just as powerful, from Universe Sandbox that enables users to literally ‘play God’ by creating their own galaxies and the like, with celestial bodies even adhering to the laws of physics, to WeVR’s incredible experiences, theBlu that saw me standing on the bow of a sunken ship surrounded by incredible reef life and a whale that slowly swam out of the depths, passing me within touching distance, allowing me to look the beautifully rendered animal in the eye, and it into mine, the scope for becoming utterly and entirely lost in VR was limitless. This latter experience really helped solidify my view of VR as an incredibly powerful empathy generator, with evidence backing up the idea that immersion drives empathy and empathy really drives understanding and action. Can you think of a more powerful framework for effecting real educational outcomes? I can’t. VR enables users to experience, first-hand, albeit in a digitally-rendered simulation, the experiences of others and to put people in situations that they would otherwise not be able to experience either easily or at all. Want to understand what it is like to live in a Syrian refugee camp? Within’s ‘Clouds over Sidra’ achieved this very same thing. What about experiencing life on the streets? Upload created such a VR experience, ‘A Day in the Streets’, to help educate through empathy on the plight of San Francisco’s homeless population. I can imagine how the same approach could be applied to creating a similar experience to simulate the life of a stray dog or cat, or perhaps show what a journey from being owned to abandoned might ‘feel like’ in order to drive empathy and make people think twice about taking on a pet when they are not truly committed to providing a home for life. The potential is limitless and the effect of VR truly impactful. Just ask anyone who has donned a headset themselves.

Upload Collective from Chris Queen on Vimeo.

 Even though I spent just a few hours at the Upload Collective they were fascinating, fun and insightful. I could not help but feel as though I was at the epicenter of an exciting new movement in technology, all whilst standing in the undisputed center of the tech universe that is San Francisco. I look forward to getting more and more involved myself and to see where we’re all headed with spatial computing. As virtual as much of the content it, the effects are very real indeed.

Virtual Reality. Real Potential.

“Virtual Reality was made for education.” I have no idea who first said that – can I claim it? – but I am sure it has been uttered countless times since and I assure you that it will be said countless times in the future. From feeling as though virtual reality (VR) was nothing more than a sci-fi promise of things to come yet never quite delivered to the current situation in which VR feels as if it is undergoing a true renaissance.

VR AWE 2015
VR does need to be experienced to be truly believed. If you haven’t yet then do try it out.

With the arrival of devices, such as the Vive, Oculus Rift and Samsung GearVR, that are finally capable of delivering truly-immersive, high resolution and, most importantly, non-nausea-inducing experiences that captivate both young and old alike, VR has arrived and the exciting truth is that we are simply getting started!

There are already creative, innovative and fast-moving teams working on sating the appetite for immersive content, with gaming naturally leading the charge, and 360-degree video experiences also offering many their introduction to the world of VR. This, however, is not where VR ends and it continues to excite me to see the educational promise that this technology offers and that pioneers in the field are indeed delivering on. Unimersiv, one such team, refer to the idea that whilst 10% of knowledge that is read and 20% of that heard is retained two weeks later, a staggering 90% of what is experienced, or physically acted out, is recalled. If that is indeed the case then VR, with its power to immerse users in any environment that can be digitally rendered, offers a hugely powerful educational tool. The fact that the big players in the tech arena, such as Google, are now taking VR seriously speaks volumes for how impactful it is predicted to be, and that I believe it will be.

cat with virtual reality gogglesPotential medical, especially educational, applications abound, with veterinary no exception. Whilst my interests in the technology are NOT limited to veterinary, it is an area that I have direct experience of working in and so where perhaps I am most effectively able to postulate on the future applications of a technology that IS, I strongly believe,  going to shake things up for all of us. In terms of medical and science education, for example, work such as Labster’s simulated world-class laboratories, where students can learn cutting-edge science in a realistic environment and with access to digital versions of professional equipment. It may be digital and simulated but that does not diminish the educational power that such experiences delivers. I can see Labster’s technology inspiring a new generation of scientists to develop a fascination for the subject and ultimately help solve many of the world’s most pressing problems, such as the issue of antimicrobial resistance and the drive to develop new drugs.

So what about the potential uses for VR within veterinary? Well, perhaps some of the following….

  • Dissection – Anatomical training without the need for donor animals/ biological specimens. More efficient, with multiple ‘reuse’ of specimens in a digital environment, leading to revision of key concepts and better learning outcomes, translating into better trained, more confident practitioners.
  • Physiology – take immersive ‘journeys’ through biological systems, such as the circulatory system, learning about how these systems work, both in health and disease. Simulation of the effects of drugs, parasites, disease processes can be achieved, with significant learning outcomes compared to traditional learning modalities.
  • Pharmacology – model the effects of drugs on various biological systems and see these effects up close in an immersive, truly memorable manner, thus deeply enhancing the educational experience.
  • Surgical training – simulate surgical procedures thus enabling ‘walk-throughs’ of procedures in advance of actually physically starting. With advances in haptic technologies, tactile feedback can further augment the experience, providing rich, immersive, powerful learning environments. Surgeons, both qualified and training, could learn in a solo capacity or with team members in the digital environment – great for refreshing essential skills and scenario role-playing with essential team members. For example, emergency situation modelling to train team members to carry out their individual roles automatically, efficiently and effectively.
  • Client education – at home and in-clinic demonstrations of important healthcare messages, helping drive healthcare messages home and driving clinic sales, revenue and profitability, and leading to more favorable healthcare outcomes and client satisfaction.
  • Communications training – many of the issues faced in medical practice stem from breakdowns or difficulties in communication with clients or between colleagues. Communications training is now an integral part of both medical and veterinary training and should be extended to all members of a clinic’s team, from receptionists to nurses and veterinary surgeons. With the immersive power of VR and the ability to create truly empathetic experiences, it offers the perfect tool for communications training.
  • Pre Vet School education/ Careers counseling – think you know what it means to go into veterinary practice? Can’t arrange a farm placement but still believe you have what it takes to pursue a veterinary career? Imagine being able to experience a range of VR simulations that guide you through a host of realistic scenarios faced by veterinary professionals, enabling you to make informed career decisions based on ‘real’ experience. It has been demonstrated that those who experience high-quality VR feel genuine empathy for those situations into which they digitally stepped. The power of this for making informed choices about future plans and for challenging preconceived notions about what it means to be or do something is compelling.
  • Commercial demonstrations/ trade show experiences – custom-made VR experiences for showcasing new products and services to prospective customers, creating truly memorable and impactful campaigns. I for one look forward to VR becoming a mainstream component of company presentations at trade shows.

These are simply a snapshot of some of the potential applications for VR with most easily being applied in other, non-veterinary contexts. I look forward to continuing to grow my knowledge and expertise in this exciting area and welcome anyone who shares the same sense of wonder and optimism at the possibilities to get in touch.

Virtual Reality – THIS is why I am so excited

The big issue that virtual reality (VR) faces in achieving mass adoption and truly being the transformative technology that I believe it represents is how to really extol its virtues to those who have not had the opportunity to physically try it out. How do you really sell something that requires users to try it to truly get it?

Being a self-confessed tech nerd I have always felt truly excited by the idea of VR, and also Augmented Reality (AR), and read with enthusiasm all of the reports and promises coming from companies like Oculus Rift. I also knew that pretty much anyone who got to physically try out the technology came away an instant convert. You just have to do a quick search for VR on You Tube to see the countless ‘reaction videos’ from people who donned a VR headset for the first time, from traditional gamers to the elderly and beyond.

I had my first experience of VR when I traveled to California and Silicon Valley in June 2015 for the annual Augmented World Expo (AWE) and was instantly amazed at how incredibly immersive VR was, with insanely rich graphics and the feeling as if I was suddenly physically transported to the worlds in which I found myself in. There is something magical about being able to turn around, a full 360-degrees, including looking up and down, and seeing a new world all around you. Your brain knows it’s not real and that you’re still standing at a trade fair stand, but then, your brain starts to forget that and, well, you find yourself reacting as if you’re actually in your new environment. It’s surreal. Awesome but truly surreal. I am not a gamer but I could easily see myself become one through VR such is the richness of the experience. One of the highlights of the trip for me, and my favorite VR experience, was being strapped into a horizontal harness, with fans blowing air at me and then having an Oculus headset and headphones placed on my head. Suddenly I was no longer hanging uncomfortably and self-consciously in a rig on full display to amused onlookers but was flying as a wing-suit skydiver through a mountain range, able to turn by physically adjusting my body and head position. Everywhere I looked I saw the mountains, the forests, the new world in which I was present. Except I wasn’t. But I had to remind myself of that. Repeatedly. The experience was simply that awesome and that immersive. Unsurprisingly that demonstration won “Best in Show” and anyone who was fortunate enough to experience it agreed that it was totally deserved.

Dad_Google CardboardSince returning from AWE I have kept exploring the world of VR, purchasing myself a set of Google Cardboard googles for use with my iPhone, even introducing my dad to the experience by ordering him a set for Fathers Day. Various apps have been downloaded, from the official Google Cardboard application to rollercoaster and dinosaur experiences, and amazing immersive video experiences courtesy of Vrse, and I have loved every one of them, insisting that others try them out too. In fact, everyone at work has had to hear me babble on about how awesome VR is and have experienced one if not several of the VR apps that I have on my phone. The reaction is always the same: initial quizzical skepticism rapidly followed by complete and utter conversion once the technology is actually experienced.

And so it was that I introduced my six year old nephew and two year old niece to VR during a recent trip home. My nephew is as excited about technology as I am – smart kid – and so was eager to try out the Cardboard. My niece, however, wasn’t quite so sure to start with, protesting as my sister moved the goggles towards her unenthusiastic eyes. What happened next, however, was worthy of a You Tube video all of it’s own.

VR_reaction
These grins are one of the key reasons I am so excited by Virtual Reality

As soon as her eyes locked onto the new, 3D immersive world that had been presented to her all protests evaporated. Gone! What instantly replaced them was the biggest, cutest, most genuine grin that I have ever seen and that still gets me a little emotional even now as I recall the scene. She was experiencing the pure, visceral joy that full immersion into a magical new world provides. Never have I seen such an instant and powerful reaction to a technology before. I challenge anyone to deny that VR is a game changer after witnessing what I did. Such was the power of the conversion and the fun of the experience that I then found myself sitting for the next two hours policing the sharing of my phone and goggles as they both spent time exploring worlds in which dinosaurs roamed, rollercoasters careered up and down mountains, and they absolutely loved the Explorer program on the Google Cardboard app that saw us digitally visit Tokyo, Paris, Jerusalem, the Red Sea, Venice, Rome, and many other global locations, all whilst sat in the comfort of their UK living room.

I am yet to join the ranks of those who own their own ‘high end’ VR device, such as the recently launched Oculus Rift, but that is going to change very soon. I cannot wait to delve even deeper into what is possible with this technology, both from a consumer stand-point and also with a view to creating content myself. The possibilities are indeed limitless and whatever we can imagine we can create and experience through the sheer and utter magic that is virtual reality. Reality will never truly be the same again.

Want to experience VR for yourself? The best, lowest cost way to try out the technology for the first time is to follow these instructions:

1. Get yourself a pair of ‘Google Cardboard’ goggles, many different takes on which can be found online at sites such as Amazon.

Google cardboard
Phone slots in to create a basic pair of VR goggles

2. Download the Google Cardboard app, or any one of the many VR apps that are on the various app stores.

Google cardboard app
The Google Cardboard app is a good one to start with

3. Follow the on-screen instructions and check out of reality as you know it!

Live Freshr – reigniting a passion for food

Food, as far as I am concerned, is one of life’s true pleasures and I personally find the act of cooking and consuming interesting and varied fare to be a very invigorating and inspiring process. I have always been of the opinion that if you want to have balance in your wider life and continue to feel fit and healthy, both physically and mentally, then a carefully considered and, above all, interesting diet is a must. Although I generally feel that I ate well at university I did make a conscious deal with myself when I started working full time that given I was now earning I could therefore afford to buy good ingredients and learn to prepare food of a much higher quality than perhaps I was used to during my student days. I soon rediscovered how preparing simple yet interesting meals does not demand a professional kitchen set-up and similarly does not enslave you to the stove for hours on end. In fact, some of the best dishes are really quick and easy to knock up.
“Food is one of life’s great pleasures.”
Recently I had lapsed back into the classic trap of many young, busy professionals by feeling that I simply didn’t have the time to devote to coming up with new and interesting recipes and so I found myself living on the same few simple meal ideas that I was super comfortable preparing and that took very little time to do so. Although these meals were nutritious, balanced and tasty, the lack of variety that had established itself in my diet did see me start to eat out more in order to re-introduce some of the variety that I obviously subconsciously craved, an expensive and not necessarily healthy option. A friend then told me about her experiences of using a new service in Dubai that one signed up to online, choosing between one of four options – meat eater, vegetarian, paleo, and ‘premium,’ which basically just describes itself as being an ‘organic’ option, for what that is truly worth – and that then delivered, once per week, the ingredients to prepare five meals. Hearing my friend describe the tantalising variety of incredibly tasty dishes that she had already been preparing – a different one each day – peaked my interest and literally had me salivating like Pavlov’s pooch. A quick survey of the simple yet elegant website (www.livefreshr.com) convinced me that the idea sounded like a winner and I duly took advantage of the referral code the same friend forwarded to me, and eagerly awaited my first week’s delivery.
The order process was simple and with only four options to choose from it actually took a lot of the anxiety of ‘choosing what to eat’ out of the equation. At less than 200 AED (£40 / $55) per week for the equivalent of five meals per week I considered the price to be fair, being aware as I was of hardly ever spending less than that per trip to the store and returning home with what seemed to be far less in the way of food. I guess I am not alone in also finding trudging to the supermarket, especially several times per week, to be incredibly tedious and I know that I fall into the trap of opportunity buying whilst in store – not exactly the most cost-efficient approach to grocery shopping. The fact that I was able to specify that I was a single person and so would be cooking per day for just one person, with the ingredients for each recipe arriving in pre-portioned quantities, seemed like a revelation. So simple but yet so brilliant! It is almost impossible to buy base ingredients in the store for a recipe to satisfy the needs for just a single meal for one person, meaning invariably that one either overeats, wastes food (the classic “lets watch veggies rot in the fridge” game that I am sure I am not the only one who has been a regular participant in), or ends up eating the same meal for several days. The promise of a different recipe each day, prepared with fresh ingredients reinvigorated my interest in food, something that I believe is important for wider mental well-being.
Perfect for those singletons among us who also want to cook & eat great food.
The fact that I am able to specify a delivery day and time-window, with the food duly being delivered within the requested time, is another win for the service, and the presentation is excellent. The fresh, refrigerated, ingredients come in an insulated box, complete with ice packs to keep them fresh during transit whilst the dry ingredients and small per-meal ‘ingredient’ tick-lists come in a branded cardboard box, meaning that it can be easily recycled. A simple yet impactful presentation and way less intrusive on my overall day than having to trudge to the grocery store after work.
I have been using the service now for a week and just taken delivery of my second week’s set of ingredients and have to say that the first week has been flawless, so much so that I did feel compelled to produce a simple review video, not an act that I am quick to spend time performing in usual cases. With each meal’s ingredients clearly labelled, getting everything out and in front of me before starting to cook just appealed immediately to the organised process-fan in me that likes the order that it represented. The recipes themselves are found on the website, and can also be viewed as PDFs, and are clear, simple to follow and take, on average, about 45 minutes to prepare, long enough to know that you are, in fact, preparing good food from scratch, whilst not tipping over into tedium that can come with spending more than an hour in the kitchen – after all, who these days really has the time to do that?! I find the entire process of cooking to be quite meditative and enjoy getting lost in podcasts, audiobooks or music whilst I cook. It is, actually, this aspect of cooking that I particularly enjoy as it is a great opportunity to mentally relax before sitting down to enjoy some really decent food and the feeling of immense satisfaction that comes with knowing you are responsible for it turning out great. I can also envisage the service being a great way to get friends and couples cooking together, an activity that I know can be thoroughly enjoyable and a real bonding experience.
“Cooking is actually quite meditative.”
The variety is one of the main perks I have enjoyed with the service. So far I have enjoyed recipes as varied as fresh salmon with citrus risotto, chilli-ginger chicken and pumpkin and gorgonzola cannelloni, to name but a few, with each day being a new culinary adventure. Once again I actually look forward to my main meal of the day and feel the general sense of inspiration that comes with a varied diet, a sense that I feel extends into other parts of my day.
Live Freshr Food Delivery
Live Freshr Dishes
If you fancy trying the service out for yourself, then feel free to take advantage of the following referral link – money off for you and money off for me, so everyone’s a winner!

LiveFreshr.com Review from Chris Queen on Vimeo.

Technology Advances & Its Impact on Veterinary Practices

Technology advances and its impact on veterinary practices – including e-CPD and e-learning options

(as printed in the Vet Nursing Times – see links to PDF versions at bottom of post)

The word technology means different things to different people. Many of us think of smartphones or sophisticated computers as cutting-edge technology and perhaps don’t imagine that there is much in the way of technological advancement occurring in everyday clinical practice.  The truth is that there is a lot of advancement in a variety of technologies taking place in veterinary practice, and it is some of these that I aim to share with you today.

Technology is, for me, anything that helps us to do our jobs better, whether it be enabling us to perform tasks faster, more effectively, or to enable us to achieve a better outcome for our patients and clients. In essence, technological advances should, and usually do, enhance both our personal and working lives. There are three areas in which we see advances in technology in practice. The first is clinical technology; the classic ‘vetty’ gadgets, gizmos and systems that make the process of diagnosing, treating and managing our patients easier and more effective. Secondly, there are the advances in practice management and client communication technologies, an area which in my opinion has probably seen the biggest changes and which offer the biggest opportunities for really impacting on our clinics’ bottom lines. The third area for focus is the use of technology in education and CPD, important in ensuring our personal and professional growth and where technology is certainly having a big impact.

 

Clinical Tech

Although our focus is on first opinion practice, it is worth noting the fact that as general practitioners we have ready access to the very latest clinical technology and cutting-edge diagnostics and treatments through our ability to refer to our specialist colleagues. We are, as vets, able to pretty much do anything that is clinically possible and this is, in large part due to the huge advances in knowledge, expertise and technology at our disposal within the specialist fields.

Imaging is probably one of the main areas in which technology is at it’s most obvious. Gone are the days, for many of us, of long periods stuck in a dark, hot, generally uncomfortable radiography suite taking multiple radiographs and getting more and more frustrated at how long it can take just to get a simple series of images. It was a revelation when I moved to my second job and discovered the joys of digitial radiography. No need to fumble in the dark with open cassettes and film or handle noxious chemicals, and the images were pretty much instantaneously available. The system I first encountered was CR-tech, or Computed Radiography technology, involving the exposure of a plate, as per traditional methods, and then the processing of these films by way of a digital system. Since then there have been further advancements with the emergence of DDR-tech (Direct Digital Radiography), in which the plate is exposed and an image almost instantaneously appears on screen without the need to manually place the plate into a processing unit. This is possible due to the use of a syntillated plate, or direct digital panel (DDP), which effectively replaces the plethora of film cassettes that we’re used to using at present. Never has the phrase “take a quick X-ray” been so accurate!

In parallel to advances in the technological hardware itself comes developments in software, meaning that the process of taking, processing and working with radiographic images is much more user friendly and clinically helpful. There are, for example, bespoke software packages that will guide the vet through the correct measurements required for planning a tibial plateau levelling procedure, for example. The reduction in the sheer size and amount of necessary hardware, coupled with the options of cloud storage, where digital files are stored on a remote server away from the clinic (think Facebook, whereby your profile is actually hosted on a server in the US, or elsewhere, and not all on your desktop) has meant that even the smallest of clinics can boast an impressively powerful and versatile radiography capability, with none of the hassle associated with the secure storage, organisation and retrieval of hundreds of radiographs. Much simpler and much more elegant.

portable ultrasound scannerUltrasound technology is another area where we have seen impressive changes in practice. From super-powerful, all singing, all dancing set-ups, such as the Logiq S7 Expert, which makes use of new matrix probes and B-flow technology, useful for assessing vascularisation in tumours, for example, to the miniaturisation of the scanners, allowing us to both reduce the amount of space taken up in our clinics and ‘take the scan to the patient,’ whether in a hospital or out on calls, the changes have been staggering. To have the kind of imaging power that we have in a device no bigger than a laptop computer is a sure sign of the advances in technology that we are enjoying as vets.

vgel endotracheal tubeOne of the key attributes of a true technical advancement is one which takes an established way of doing something and completely rethinks it, or revolutionises it. One such example of new technology that does just that is the v-gel, a new airway system for ventilating anaesthetised patients. The point to note is that it isn’t an endotracheal tube – that’s the revolutionary thing about it. Instead of inserting into the trachea, through the larynx, the v-gel creates an effective seal around the pharyngeal, laryngeal and upper airway tissues, thus positioning a large diameter opening directly over the larynx to permit normal gas exchange with no trauma to, or even contact with, the larynx. One of the key advantages of this new system is that rather than needing a tube that is in effect smaller in diameter than the trachea, the v-gel allows the tube to be larger in diameter than the patient’s trachea thus maximising air flow and exchange. The soft rubber tip, that atraumatically ‘plugs’ the oesophagus, also serves as a good counter to the risk from regurgitation under anaesthetic. Currently available for both rabbits and cats, with dog versions in development, these new tubes represent a fantastic example of a smart, cleverly designed advancement of an existing technology.

 

Client Engagement

MailChimp screenshotWe’re all aware of the need to better engage with and market to our clients, both current and prospective, with the level of competition between practices apparently increasing all of the time. The methods for doing so these days have never been so plentiful nor powerful, yet many of us are still failing to maximise on the potential returns that doing so could bring. One of the simplest ways of better engaging with our clients, and those who show an interest in our services, is through email and the careful but MailChimp email marketingeffective management of email lists. Email management services such as MailChimp, which enable even the most technophobic of users to set-up a mailing list, design a web form to be posted on a website, social media, or even accessed via a link which can be emailed, and then organise, manage and communicate effectively with the people on that list, are brilliant and it is amazing how useful they can be for practices. Imagine, for example, how impressed your clients would be to receive an email on their pet’s birthday wishing them many happy returns. Combining such a thoughtful gesture with a suggestion of a senior health check if the pet has just turned seven, for instance, could be an easy yet effective way of driving more business through your doors. Through careful segmentation of lists, such as having a list containing only those clients who own cats under 7 years of age, for example, it becomes much easier to provide them with relevant information that they will find interesting and useful, with the result being a much greater level of trust in and bonding with you and your practice. How many of us actively ask our clients or new prospects, for their email address? My guess is very few. The truth is that these days people almost expect to be asked for it and we should be making a greater effort to make use of the advances in email and online marketing, much of which is available either free or very low cost, especially when compared to other marketing media such as print. Done well, email could be the best use of technology you have in your practice at present.

Social media is another potentially powerful way to engage with our clients and to help make us stand out from the crowd. People are interested in what we do as vets and what can often seem like the most run of the mill, mundane, day to day event in our clinics may form the basis for a fantastic Tweet or Facebook post, which can encourage a conversation between people and raise the prominence of us and our clinics in a good way. Obviously care has to be exercised, like with anything, but Social Media is one surefire example of a recent technology that veterinary practices have a lot to potentially gain from. Some clinics have embraced this aspect of marketing, using it to converse with clients and to provide updates, information and education through the use of videos, for example. Engaging clients in such a manner is a great way of strengthening the bond they have with your practice.

vet using ipadSome clinics have embraced technology more than others with some even rewriting the rule books on how we can manage our practices. Vets Klinic in Swindon have just one desktop computer in their practice, with each vet and nurse issued their own, personal iPad on which the clinic’s bespoke practice management system is accessed, meaning that patients’ records are readily accessible no matter where you are in the clinic and making the consulting rooms, and other areas feel clutter free. Use of tablets also enables patients’ time within the clinic to be recorded, and photos and notes about their stay easily uploaded to their clinical ‘timeline.’ Owners can access their pet’s timeline and see in realtime how their pet is getting on. Clients are actively encouraged to register and book everything from appointments to surgery online, with an airline style booking system showing prices and times of appointments with each vet, with real-time variable pricing a feature and a discount on offer for clients who prepay in advance of their appointment.. Tablet computers do appear to be excellent devices for use in a busy hospital environment, with the ability to readily access a patient’s notes wherever you, as the vet or nurse, happen to be within the clinic.

 

Electronic Learning

nerdy vet with laptopThe internet has quite simply revolutionised the way in which we access and consume CPD, with webinars and online learning resources becoming ever more commonly used, and available across virtually every platform, from smartphones to tablets and the trusty desktop computer. The advantages are clear: access to reliable, interesting CPD without the need and expense of taking time out of our busy clinical lives or the hassle of travel to attend lectures. With a plethora of providers, including many of the drug companies, learning online can be achieved at little to no cost and represents a very cost effective way of ensuring we keep our CPD current and maximising our CPD budgets. The only limitation that I could see from my experience of ‘attending’ a webinar was the fact that as the event was taking place on my computer and in the comfort of my own home, unless the speaker was particularly engaging, it was very easy to get distracted with other activities whilst convincing myself that I was still learning as I had the lecture playing. This coupled with the knowledge that I could always go back to the lecture and view it again at another time only acted to fuel my distraction. Somehow there just seems less risk of this happening when you’re physically present with the lecturer and other CPD attendees present in the same room. But then, maybe that’s just me and everyone else is a consumate good student at home. With so many other distractions constantly vying for our valuable attention the challenge, as I can see it, is for e-CPD providers to ensure that their content is as engaging and interesting as possible, including the use of mixed media, from standard lecture-style presentation slides and speech, to clever use of graphics, video and animations to really bring subject matter to life and inspire people. After all, the last thing any vet wants after a long, hard day in the clinic is to sit through a dull lecture, even if they do have the option of switching over, as it were.

One of the exciting challenges for the future will be in seeing how e-CPD can deliver more practical training, with a physical presence still very much required at present for practical CPD courses. Maybe a stepping stone will be the provision of ‘learning kits’, complete with necessary equipment and materials which the student can make use of whilst receiving remote instruction via a webinar or other means of e-learning. Although e-learning is delivering a wider and more accessible range of CPD to the profession, available at any time, anywhere and in any format, it is unlikely that it will completely usurp the strong desire we have as humans to actually congregate in the same space to receive educational instruction and socialise, as is clearly demonstrated by the continuing popularity of congresses, such as the London Vet Show.

Whether we realise it or not, technology and advances in it are all around us in practice. From the scanners we use to make diagnoses to the equipment we employ to safely manage our ill patients, or the plethora software tools, both bespoke and consumer options, technology is pervasive and empowering. It has changed the way we engage with clients, market our services, and continue our professional development, and all pointers are in the direction of yet more innovation and technological advancement, I for one watch on excitedly.

Links to the PDF versions of the original article, as printed in the Vet Nursing Times:

VNT Tech Article Feb2013_p1

VNT Tech Article Feb2013_p2

Go go Gadget, go!

Inspector Gadget, Go Gadget, Go
"Go Gadget, Go!"

Are you a gadget gourmet? A purveyor of all things gadgety, techy and, well, just awesome? Yeah? Me too. Friday thus saw me in somewhat of my idea of Heaven on Earth as I attended the Gadget Show Live, held at the NEC in Birmingham. Attending the day after having gone to BSAVA meant that my week was feeling more and more like a ‘professional holiday’ (if such a thing exists) – not a bad way to spend a week in April. The show certainly seemed to be popular, with thousands of other eager gadget enthusiasts all piling into the large halls that served as home for 5 days to a plethora of tech talk, demonstrations, a fair amount of ‘retail’ and, of course, the main event itself, the live show.

One thing I would say at this stage is that I did perhaps expect to discover a few more real innovations and “WOW” factor technologies than I did, with a lot of the exhibitors tending to fall more in to the category of standard electronics retailers, whether it be trying to flog us a new TV, games console, or accessory for our iPhones, iPads and other such existing gadgetry. Having said that, the standard of displays, stands, demonstrations, activities and talks was superb and it was pretty easy to fill an entire day. As mentioned, the live show was certainly the main highlight, with a fantastically well choreographed and stage-managed show that served up a good balanced meal of fun features, such as Laser Man, the robotic bird from the incredible talents at Festo, and the larger than life 3D faces of our hosts, to numerous chances to win big and bag some tech to take home, with the legendary Gadget Show competitions. The winners all would have gone home with a significantly bigger smile than everyone else, and that’s really saying something!

My mission, as it were, was really just to head along for the day with an open mind and see what was new, fresh and exciting, especially with a view to what might have interesting applications to veterinary and animal healthcare. Afterall, I am The Nerdy Vet so wearing both my nerd and vet hats felt normal 🙂 There were certainly a few stand-out exhibitors for me, with the main ones of note being the following:

1. Aurasma – a ‘virtual browser’ that enables you to hold your smartphone or tablet up to a particular piece of media, or real-life scene (eg a magazine, CD case or poster) and for additional ‘content’, whether it be video, a link to a website, or something even more interesting and unexpected, to appear on the screen overlaid in real-time. This is an example of AR (Augmented Reality) and clearly has some interesting potential for those of us in the veterinary field.

2. Damson – really funky, compact little portable speaker with a difference. Using resonance technology, these little noise-makers work wirelessly to play music and other audio from any Bluetooth enabled-device, such as an iPod, and basically makes use of the surface on which it is placed as a speaker. The effect is to instantly take a small sound when held in the hand and transform, for example, a table, fridge, or indeed any surface or structure into a speaker, boosting the sound. Definately elicted some “wows” from friends and colleagues at the practice.

3. FitBit – this stand seemed to be literally buzzing with activity and it was clear to see why. Their product, a small wireless smart sensor that tracks your activity over the course of the day and then uses some clever algorithms to track, record and analyse various health and fitness parameters seems set to really help in the battle of the bulge. The actual devices themselves are tiny – about the size of a USB dongle – and can even track how well you sleep. Very very cool. And judging by how well they were selling, very very popular.

There were other innovations and I plan to serve a few more of them up in greater detail over the course of the next week or so. If you’re thinking of going next year to The Gadget Show then my advice would certainly be, in the immortal words of Ben Stiller, to just “do it.”

Wireless Electricity? Really?!

WiTricity, electricity transfer, wirelessThe TED lectures that you can stream online have become one of my new favourite sources of downtime entertainment and, it seems, both education and inspiration. Seeing great people speak passionately about subjects they have a real buzz for is incredibly engaging and addictive. It was one of these talks that prompted me to sit down and write this post. The subject? Well, it was about wireless electricity transmission. Yep, that’s right. The transfer of electricity without wires.

Now, you’d be forgiven at this point for saying “why should I care?” Unless you are especially nerdy then the words that closed the last paragraph with will probably be anything but inspiring. But let me explain. The speaker, Eric Giler, told the story of an MIT professor’s sleepless night due to his wife’s Nokia mobile phone beeping to say that it’s battery was low. His thought was wouldn’t it be cool if the phone could simply access the huge source of electricity that was literally surrounding it in the form of the house mains supply without needing to be plugged in. Very much like your iPod, computer, laptop, and countless other devices now source their Wifi connection. And so WiTricity was born.

WiTricity, wireless electricity, magnetic resonanceThe technology works by means of a phenomenon known as magnetic resonance, in which a magnetic field induced by flow of electric current in an induction loop can, well, induce a magnetic field to form in another device and trigger the flow of electrons, or in other words, the flow of electricity, thus powering the device. Eric demonstrated the technology by placing a specially designed induction loop, about the size of an A3 picture frame near an average flat screen TV. Within a few moments the TV screen lit up! Pretty cool stuff. To demonstrate both the safety and the reliability of the system, the speaker walked between the loop and the TV with no disruption to the TV’s function or any obvious adverse effect to himself. The applications for such technology are pretty wide, as you can imagine, with the need to plug in any device, whether mobile phone, camera or computer to recharge a thing of the past.

The potential medical and veterinary applications are also very exciting. I can imagine a clinic where the annoying beep of a drip pump low on battery will be long-gone, or the ophthalmoscope that someone forgot to return to it’s base station still works as well as ever due to it constantly being fully charged. It may even increase the chances of us achieving the Holy Grail of a GPS-enabled implantable pet microchip. The main issue at present is how to reliably power such an implant for long periods of time (ie the lifetime of the pet), given that you can’t exactly remove it to change the batteries or plug your pet into the mains! Imagine if you didn’t need to worry about it because every time your dog or cat went into the house the chip simply charged itself safely, efficiently and silently, with no adverse effects to your pet yet the peace of mind that comes with knowing that when Pooky heads off again, you can log in and keep tabs on them thanks to GPS. Now that would be great!

A world of wireless electricity? Now that’s an illuminating thought!

Does your practice website ROCK?

Slash rock god guitaristPractice websites – does yours rock?!

The internet is more and more vital to the success of any practice, with the primary role being to gain new clients & help retain existing ones. However, simply having a website is not good enough anymore – it has to rock!

I recently attended an Entrepreneurs Circle event on websites and it really got me thinking a lot about what it is that vet practices can and should be doing to really ensure that their websites are as epic as they can be. I would like to share some of the thoughts that came out of this thinking and offer my take on how practices should be applying the lessons to their own practices. If you are serious about really growing your clinic then I do recommend considering joining the Entrepreneurs Circle.

1. Why have a website?

There are 3 main reasons: 1. to sell things online; 2. to get clients to call you; 3. to get clients to give you their contact details. Most clinics are interested in getting clients into the hospital so getting them to call you, and FIND you is key. Is it clear how they go about doing that on your site? If it is then the second question has to be is there a clear reason why they should bother calling you?

2. Two-second rule

These days we all have the attention span of a hyperactive kid with attention deficit disorder and expect websites to speak to us immediately. Does yours? Is it clear from the first fold (the first view of the homepage) what you do and who you are for? How does your site look on different devices, including mobile, which is becoming more and more important?

woorank.com is a great free resource for checking your site for a number of relevant parameters and will tell you where you can improve things.

Navigation is also an important point here as it must be clear and intuitive how users move through your site. Is it obvious how to contact you? Can users easily switch back to the main homepage by clicking the practice logo in the header, or do they have to follow a long, winding bit of digital string back to the entrance? If so then they’re just as likely to exit the site altogether and find a local competitor. Get as many different people (ideally those representing your clients) to play with your site and feedback on what they thought of the navigation and ease of use.

3. Google Analytics

Do you know how many visitors are coming to your site? Where they are entering and leaving? How many visitors compared to the number of enquiries or bookings made? What about the keywords that people are using to find your site? Information is power and Google Analytics provides information in bucket-loads to enable you to really drill down in to how your website is working and, most importantly, how it can be improved to bring more clients to your door. It is easy to set up for your site and your web developer has probably already installed it for you – ask them.

4. Reviews (What our customers say)

We all love to see that a product or service has been proven and word of mouth (reviews by another name) is still one of the most reliable ways to gain new business. I would sooner use a professional that another person, independent of the business, has had a good experience with than take a punt on an unknown – most of us don’t like being pioneers, especially when it comes to both the health of our animals and that of our wallets. Your current clients love you – if they didn’t they’d go elsewhere. Ask them for reviews, including photos if they’re happy for them to go on the website (most people are), and get them on your website in various, prominent positions.

5. Personal Touches

Veterinary is more of a people business than it is anything else and pet owners invest as much in the vets and staff they like and trust than they do in any other aspect of the practice’s offering, including price. You could be the cheapest vet in the entire country but if you’re as personable as Jack The Ripper then no (sane) client is going to stay with you. Show your existing and potential new clients just how awesome, friendly and personable you and your team are. Have photos of the team (nice, professional, smiley photos as opposed to dour, happy-snap ‘passport style’ mugshots) and include great photos of your clinic, including some scenes from both outside and inside, preferably showing what you do well.

6. Phone numbers

It is still the case that the phone is the most valuable piece of equipment in veterinary practice today – without it we’d be sunk! Is your phone number clearly visible on each and every page of your website? It is best placed up in the top right corner where it is most visible. Also, ensure that it is entered on your site as text so that it is automatically available to copy, call etc from a smartphone. One thing that might be worth considering as well is the use of call tracking numbers. These divert to your normal phone line but can be a great way of actively keeping track of where calls are originating from. Are clients calling you because they saw a flyer? Or have they searched for you online and found your website? Having a different call tracking number in each place provides a simple method for seeing which media/ marketing efforts are yielding the most calls. www.citynumbers.co.uk is a good place to get them, and they cost a few £ per month, so very affordable.

7. Language

Does your site read like you would actually speak with pet owners or is it more akin to something straight out of a stuffy office in Whitehall? If you’re aiming to project a fun, friendly, caring image then surely the language you use on your website should reflect the same. Have a go now by reading out sections of text from your website aloud. If you feel like you’re addressing the House of Lords when you speak then maybe the language needs revision.

8. Images

A picture does indeed paint a thousand words and the use of professionally taken, crisp, clear, fun photos of you and your team all working harmoniously together in your superbly clean and well equipped practice, surrounded by happy, content animals will do more to make your practice shine in the eyes of new and existing clients than any amount of well-written prose. A professional photographer needn’t break the bank and could well be a very savvy investment.

9. Video

A lot of websites make video available now and it can be a really smart way to offer an insight into what it is your practice offers. I find myself clicking to watch introductory videos on businesses’ homepages far more than I ever used to, and probably make the decision to stay on the site based on what I see more so than on what I read, if I am honest. A short, well filmed and edited video introduction to the practice, especially if presented by someone clients can identify with and relate to, will really help to bond people to your site and to the practice, encouraging them to pick up the phone and give you a call. One question that does arise is that of “to autoplay, or not to autoplay?” I personally have no issue with videos that autoplay as long as the sound is not on and I don’t run the risk of inadvertently blasting the quiet cafe or library that I might be in with noise. If it is appropriate then I can always choose to activate the sound and listen to the video commentary. Whether you choose to autoplay or not is up to you but it is worth considering whether some people might be inclined to navigate off the page rapidly if they are not prepared for a video with sound to suddenly kick into life. Short video is good, with no more than a couple of minutes generally being advised before people get bored.

There is a lot to consider when it comes to really making your practice’s website rock but with the application of some of the principles above then there is no reason why it shouldn’t be performing brilliantly and taking your clinic to epic heights.

Oxford Entrepreneurs Shine Yet Again

Idea Idol 2012I love entrepreneurism and there is one society that really seems to embody all that is exciting and fun about seeking new ideas and opportunities, and that is the Oxford Entrepreneurs. Each year they hold their famous TATA Idea Idol competition for new business ideas and each year the entries simply get better and better and better. This year was no exception.

The format is basically the following:

  • Stage 1: Hopeful future business tycoons submit a short description of their business idea for initial consideration by the board.
  • Stage 2: Those fortunate enough to be selected are taken through to the semi-final, of which there were 40 this year, whittled down from over 200 initial entries. I am proud to say that the apps (Mucky Pup & Purrfect Paws) were among the semi-finalists this year, something I am personally hugely proud of. Following an afternoon training session on writing a great Executive Summary (1-2 page summary of the business plan), we had one week to complete and submit our summary.
  • Stage 3: Just six business ideas make it through to the final, with the lucky six receiving further training in pitching their business ideas before the big night of the final itself.
  • The Final: Each team, or rather one individual from the team, has just 2 minutes to present their business idea to the packed lecture theatre in the Said Business School (Oxford) and then 5 minutes of grilling by seasoned business experts and entrepreneurs who make up the judging panel. This year’s judges were Melody Hossaini (CEO of InspirEngage International and The Apprentice fame), Gary Frank (CEO of The Fabulous Bakin’ Boys), Will Chadwick (VP of Tata Interactive Systems), and Leo Johnson (Co-founder of Sustainable Finance Ltd).

The pitches were amazing and the business ideas presented exceptional. The six companies vying for the grand prize were, in no particular order:

  1. Rehabox – a personalised service to manage prescribed movement rehabilitation exercises for many conditions, including back pain, osteoporosis, injuries and following strokes.
  2. Oxford NanoSystems – a novel re-design of heat exchange systems found in boilers.
  3. BaNaPads – a social enterprise, initially focused in Uganda, providing locally manufactured female sanitary pads made from banana pseudo stems, an abundant organic waste, and a significantly more cost-effective material for pad manufacture.
  4. InVision – software that recognises hidden emotions by detecting facial micro-expressions with video technology.
  5. Medopad – a mobile health start-up providing hospital doctors with secure real-time access to patient data, images and lab results via iPads.
  6. FoetoH – provides home-based monitoring for babies before birth.

FoetoH winn Tata Idea Idol 2012The ultimate winner was judged to be FoetoH and the team, led by Dr Michelle Fernandes, won the grand prize of £10,000.