Pillars

The assumption that health science is inscrutable for all but a few brainiacs is preposterous.

Right now Humaginarium is making. Making a prototype; making a production path; making a pitch deck; making several models that go with. Making though is contextual. It happens in an ecosystem full of influences. I call these influences “pillars” because they hold up the roof of a moral universe.

One of our pillars is behavioral economics. Our slogan Nudge To Wellness springs from this pillar. It means, essentially, that we want people to exercise free will, according to their own nature, when deciding how they’ll deal with a chronic illness. Unlike authority figures like doctors and nurses, we don’t tell people what’s good for them or what to do. Instead we present an engaging “choice architecture” that informs and conditions people so they’ll decide themselves and experience consequences. This pillar is one of the things that makes video games like ours enormously entertaining and influential.

Another pillar is game theory. In order to craft a coherent choice architecture, we first have to understand the logic and dynamics of choice when it comes to managing a chronic illness. What are the options in a given situation; what are their relative advantages and consequences; who gets to make the choices, when, how and why? How do certain choices limit or expand freedom and autonomy? Game theory maps questions like these ultimately to experience design for a simulation. A matrix of if-then events that may lead, of their own accord rather than prescriptively, to each individual’s different and preferred way to win.

Deliberate practice is also a pillar. It evokes the Hole in the Wall (or Hole in the Web) metaphor that explains what Humaginarium is getting up to. We start by rejecting inferiority. The assumption that health science is inscrutable for all but a few brainiacs is preposterous. The belief that health science is useless to regular folks is ridiculous. Health science (i.e. knowledge of a body we spend our entire lives with) is not hard intrinsically. The keys are reductionism (so that folks are not thrown by obscure rhetoric) and deliberate practice (i.e. sustained engagement until challenges become second nature). Because gamers often play a couple of hours a day every day, video games are a pretty good fit for deliberate practice. (Just imagine how proficient you could be on the guitar if you practiced two hours a day every day!)

Constructivism is the last pillar I’ll mention. This one is about building; how building things is maybe the most efficient way to learn. Not only how to make stuff, but also fundamentals like the laws of nature, behaviors of systems, ways to communicate, what to fear, how to overcome anxiety and depression, when to fight and when to flee. This pillar puts the responsibility for teaching where it belongs: with the learner cum builder. It trains the hands, the senses, and the the intuition to figure things out. No skill is more important in play, nor in dealing with a chronic illness that seems to thrive on pain and suffering.

I haven’t mentioned technologies like programming languages, instructional systems, game engines, digital imagery among our pillars because they are all, loosely speaking, means to an end. The pillars I named here are not that at all. They are mental models in Peter Senge’s sense of that term: ways to approach problems creatively and successfully, when outcomes cannot be planned or predicted, even when they are life or death.

MATTER

I parachuted into MATTER and loved the place. It felt like an agora.

Humaginarium recently applied for membership in the MATTER Healthcare Incubator and was accepted. For the first time we’re joining a community of dreamers, thinkers, designers, and makers whose values and aspirations are pretty much the same as ours. All focused on bending the curve of health.

This milestone is an end as well as a beginning. As I applied to MATTER, I ended my membership in the Polsky Exchange of the University of Chicago, where Humaginarium started in 2016. The Polsky Exchange is a nice shared workspace on both sides of 53rd Street in Hyde Park. Location is the catch. Humaginarium is in Oak Park, Polsky is in Hyde Park, and end-of-the-world traffic is smack dab in the middle. Even the genius of Google Maps can’t make that drive tolerable during business hours and there’s no quick mass transit.

Polsky was a blessing in some ways. As a member I met four dozen mentors with varied expertise and life stories; some became friends. Most were patient folks who listened as I stumbled through lame stories of Humaginarium and asked questions ranging from naive to inane. I may have impressed (or bored) a few with my passion, but not with my ideas. For a long time I apparently didn’t know what I was doing, but I kept reading and talking my way onward. Daniel Kahneman famously explains that people think, fast and slow. I’m one of the outliers who thinks slow only, and it sometimes takes forever to actually do things.

A valuable aspect of Polsky was its partnership with MATTER. I parachuted into MATTER events and workshops as a Polsky member. They were meaningful, often inspiring, and I began to love the place. It felt like an agora jammed with philosophers, geeks, creatives, teachers, scientists, clinicians, and business people. And perhaps because MATTER isn’t an academic incubator, the atmosphere felt pretty exciting.

A thing I didn’t sufficiently recognize about Polsky and about I-Corps as well, is their roots and culture in higher ed. They’re academic institutions designed for students and faculty rather than “community members” off the street. As a dyed-in-the-wool academic, I should have realized this sooner, but I tended to take their rhetoric about “business” innovation too literally. In retrospect I would say that both programs exist to advance academic careers and commercialize institutional IP. They’re an imperfect fit for refugees from the Ivory Tower like myself.

As our new era of incubation begins, I’ll be able to enjoy a 20-minute ride on the Green Line to Clark and Lake, my stop for MATTER on the 12th floor of the Merchandise Mart in the Loop. It’s the apex for health care innovation in Chicago. See you there!

Alexandre_Cabanel_Birth_of_Venus

Scientific entertainment. Variation on The Birth of Venus, by Alexandre Cabanel

Prototype

We’ll escape the dungeon of prototype development and bask in the sunshine of MVP.

After two years of dreaming and thinking, writing and arguing, Humaginarium is getting around to making. A prototype actually! We’re coming to the job from several starting points at the same time, weaving loose threads into tapestries that tell a fabulous story.

This is our second prototype project. In the first a few years ago, when Humaginarium was no more than a sparkle in my eye, three collaborators made some beautiful pictures and movies. We tried to make a vision of health education tangible and we succeeded to some extent, but the project was backasswards. I know now that prototypes should describe structure and flow, mechanics, utility, feasibility, usability. Ours was merely storytelling. You can view pieces of it on the Humaginarium channel of YouTube. It’s no big deal.

This time around we’ll start with a Paper Prototype, and probably go no farther for a while. A Paper Prototype is rough sketches paired with design specifications. In other words, a script and a flip book or a set of storyboards explaining how Diabetes Agonistes software may work. A Paper Prototype itself doesn’t work. It just lies there making people think and think again until “fabulous” begins to stir.

Sketches are visual, so there is a visual dimension here. A Paper Prototype is more than words, but it’s not the slick CGI that we produced the first time around. Our sketches will demonstrate how people control software operations; how they interact with objects on a screen and with other players; the kinds of content they view and touch; the way objects behave when they show up and perform; how learning is fostered by entertainment; and then how new knowledge gets used beyond the fantasy, in a player’s real life.

A team of Humaginarium creatives will make the Paper Prototype. Our technical partners at AWS will offer practical advice and connect us with resources that can validate, or at least critique our designs from expert and naive perspectives. Naive because the purpose of any prototype doesn’t end with self-expression. A Paper Prototype must be shared with people like the customers we have in mind – those who love to play video games and have a chronic illness – who have no functional or economic stake in what we’re doing. Their questions and suggestions should give the “fabulous” in our Paper Prototype a boost.

The Paper Prototype will take weeks or months to finish. What then? More prototypes actually.

  • A Proof-of-Principle Prototype to demonstrate core functions in our software specifications. It may draw little more than lines, shapes, and characters on a screen, but will show that our mechanics are feasible and compelling.
  • A Working Prototype to grow out of these coding experiments. Based on iterations known as Horizontal and Vertical Prototype, we’ll get to an integrative system that can be tested and optimized.
  • A Visual Prototype that returns us to the artistic realm of storytelling, where we were a few years ago. Here we decide how things look and feel not just in sketches, but with colorful illustrations and animations.

At that point, after much exploration and decision making, we’ll leave the dungeon of prototype development and bask in the sunshine of MVP: minimum viable product. An MVP is Diabetes Agonistes all worked up (pretty much): unfinished, imperfect but ready for showtime. The MVP is given to people who play with it and offer feedback; and since they’re playing in the Cloud, their usage analytics will generate bundles of fresh insight for product optimization.

We hope that the distance between MVP and launch will be very small because by the time we get to MVP, “fabulous” will no longer be a goal. It will be a certainty.

Infrastructure

IAAS is the “how” of how things get done in the 21st Century.

Humaginarium is fascinated by Amazon Web Services. And why not? AWS is new and different. Rock solid and continuously evolving. Hard to fathom as dark energy, yet earthy and ineluctable. I see AWS as our ideal business partner, though I’ve barely begun to figure it out.

I noticed AWS last year, when the Amazon Lumberyard (beta) game engine appeared on our horizon. Lumberyard is called that because it’s for building stuff, though precisely what and how were unclear. After all beta means in-progress, unfinished, experimental, randomly documented, high-potential, go-away-and-let-me work-on-this. I didn’t even know how to ask questions about it.

Maybe for just that reason, Lumberyard had charisma. It made no overt claims, but I felt a powerful brand promise sloshing in its amniotic fluid. The kernel of an idea that high-end graphic animation and massive, immersive interactivity can be made by a small company and delivered straight from the cloud to millions of screens.

Intrigue deepened when I started reading about AWS, Amazon Game Studios, Amazon Game Tech; and attended an AWS Media and Entertainment Symposium in Los Angeles on July 31. You know, I make the point almost daily that reading is not the best way to learn (and I say that as an avid reader). Case in point: it’s quite easy to spend an afternoon reading web pages about AWS and still be mystified. Attending the Symposium in LA and then the Amazon Startup Day in Chicago on September 6 was better for me. Listening to practitioners tell how they made things, even things that have nothing to do with games or medicine or education, produced helpful insights.

After drinking from a proverbial fire hose for a year, I can suddenly step back and hold up my discovery: IAAS (infrastructure as a service). Amazon is maybe technology’s greatest example of an adage, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. IAAS is the whole of AWS. The parts are myriad ideas, people, systems, and companies that are to digital enterprise what transportation is to travel. IAAS is the “how” of how things get done in the 21st Century.

What is the whole of IAAS for Humaginarium in particular? It’s hard to overstate it. IAAS makes us feasible. It empowers us make and deliver numerous portfolios of exquisite scientific entertainment without having to beg investors for beaucoup millions in capital. It de-risks our business model and accelerates our production of things people love that they don’t already have, but which they need. It equips us for a long journey to success with a mass market, and shortens the journey with many amazing shortcuts. Most of all perhaps, it partners us with a company that shares our values and thinks the way we think, even though we have to work very hard to understand everything about it. Or maybe, because we do.

Scientific Entertainment

We’re joining the DTS Startup Company Showcase, November 7-10 in Bethesda.

Humaginarium has coined a phrase, “scientific entertainment,” that may be worthy of a trademark. It will depend on the reception it gets from three constituencies: consumers, artists, and scientists.

Consumers may view scientific entertainment as an oxymoron; like something Lewis Carroll uncorked with the mad Hatter. Though television stars like Carl Sagan and Neil deGrasse Tyson have famously made science entertaining, it’s entertaining in a public television sense of the word. In other words, not really. More edifying than fun.

Artists may view scientific entertainment as a dialectic; a juxtaposition of two opposing forces that catalyzes a third force, one that is more than the sum of its parts. Art history is full of examples, wherein monumental aesthetics emerge from a close study of nature; for example in the career of Leonardo da Vinci.

Scientists may view scientific entertainment as… well, I don’t know how they’ll view it! Most likely with grave suspicion because scientists, being truth seekers, are often misunderstood or utterly ignored by masses of people who can’t fathom what they’re up to, or even what they’re talking about. Have you noticed that most scientists portrayed in popular culture are mad? A scientist once pointed that out to me, sardonically.

Humaginarium is going to discover how some scientists view scientific entertainment on November 7-10 in Bethesda, Maryland, at a conference of the Diabetes Technology Society. We’ve been invited to join the DTS Startup Company Showcase, and tell a story about scientific entertainment that may win converts, or cause boredom, or maybe get no reaction whatsoever because we seem unscientific. That last outcome would be the hardest to bear.

To explain what we’re up to, we’ll present our first scientific poster. It will express our mission without any of the eye candy or theatrical heuristics that we employ when pitching. Because we are not going there to pitch. We’ll be there to make a case for scientific entertainment as an incredibly powerful medium for health literacy and education, and scientific acumen among the folk. The poster will describe our startup as though it was an experiment to test a hypothesis that regular folks are not dumb, are not oblivious to their bodies and health, and not incapable of understanding and using erudite scientific concepts so long as the information is reductionist and nicely staged.

In addition to a poster, we’ll hand out a flyer, run a slide show for scientists who want more insight, and conduct dozens of stakeholder interviews. As graduates of I-Corps, that part will be déjà vu all over again!

We hope our experience at the DTS Startup Company Showcase will inspire belief in our idea among the hardest of three constituencies to please. Especially because our prototype and proof of concept is named Diabetes Agonistes. We’ll be putting our hearts on the line, kind of like all scientists do when they’re seeking.

Jacques-Louis_David_Patroclus

Scientific entertainment. Variation on Patroclus, by Jacques-Louis David

Next Steps

In Phase 2 we’ll move fast and break things other than hearts.

A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step; or in our case a bunch of next steps. We pondered them at the end of August, gave ourselves until the end of December to finish, and got right to work. Here are highlights.

Last week I mentioned the slippery, slimy Business Model Canvas, still wriggling and flipping like a fish out of water. We’re going to reform it yet again, this time after reflecting on what we learned from customer discovery. Ready-aim-fire rather than shoot ourselves in the foot.

We’re going to plan commercialization using Scott Meadow’s model. The practical objective here is to de-risk innovation, a critical success factor in our case because so much of what we do is unfamiliar if not downright unprecedented.

We’re going to qualify business partnerships with Amazon and two medical centers who offered to join us in prototype development. Amazon is intriguing because they’re incredibly exciting; we want to catch their vibe.

We’re going to design a scientific poster for a Startup Company Showcase of the Diabetes Technology Society. (Thanks, Sam!) This is our first chance to pitch the science in our “scientific entertainment” to a community of scientists, a welcome change from geeks of our recent past.

We’re going to write a business pro forma that weighs Humaginarium on the proverbial scales of venture capital. VCs are anything but blind, so we’ll be explicit and transparent. We have a framework but the devil is in the details, waiting for us like Morgoth holed up in Angband.

We’re going to storyboard prototype media: a narrative game simulation that streams to desktops and a casual game that downloads to mobile devices. Both will take on the same chronic illness but in different ways. We want to see which consumers prefer, if not both or neither. Our seed funding will finance production of these digital wonders.

Speaking of seed funding, we’re going to update our website so it says what we say, and write two pitches; one lasting about 10 minutes, the other 30. And now hear this: we will memorize our speaking parts until we can recite them while crossing the Grand Canyon on a tightrope. No more blank stares and stuttering.

Of course we’ll rehearse and refine our pitches with wizards who don’t know what we’re doing; members of the “seen it all, don’t give a shit” investor class that expects mastery of the universe and 30% ROI in five years. Meantime we’ll qualify a list of real prospects for when we’re ready to withstand the inevitable slings and arrows.

Did I mention that we’re going to write a Phase 1 NSF SBIR grant for submission in December? I didn’t because I’m trying to avoid the withering thought, but we shall do this. We’ve already been encouraged by NSF program managers so this milestone is not as far-fetched as it feels. They claim to love moonshots.

In closer proximity to our heart’s desire, we’re going to join MATTER in Chicago. The values of that health tech incubator perfectly match ours; and we want to be active members of the MATTER community. This will be a refreshing change from Polsky and much less of a commute.

We have dubbed these milestones our Phase 2, which officially began on September 1. Not only do we have milestones, we’re writing them into a plan in Project Wizard so that we can move fast and break things other than hearts.

One thing we wanted to do but won’t is use I-Corps Go funds to cover some expenses related to business formation. We’ve already discovered that I-Corps never got the famous memo from the Lords of Business Ethics which says “do what you say you’re going to do.” So when Go fell off the table for no known reason, we were disappointed but not surprised.

In any case I got the memo, many years ago, and have never forgotten it. See the Fellowship page of our website for a nice way of putting it.

The Beginning of Days

Much good work and exciting discoveries lie ahead.

Two months have passed since my previous post. In the interval Humaginarium traversed the scary caverns beneath the Dwimorberg, also known as I-Corps, and emerged at the Stone of Erech to plan next steps.

What is I-Corps? It’s hard to say if you haven’t experienced it; and even harder if you have. The words “crossfire hurricane” may be as good a description as any that dribbles down the web pages of NSF.

Humaginarium joined the 2018 New York summer cohort of I-Corps that met from mid July until the end of August. Though called New York, it convened in an isolated hotel at Newark Airport, as far from the Isle of Manhattan as Barad-dûr is from the Shire.

Along with 23 other teams, we went to Newark for a three-day Kickoff meeting and a two-day Lessons Learned meeting. The first was brutal; the second bone-tired.

Between times we met with I-Corps facilitators weekly for 90 minutes on WebEx, to give reports and watch slide lectures; we also met them weekly for online office hours.

Though all of these meetings were milestones, our activity was mostly studying books (The Startup Owners Manual and Business Model Generation); watching  training videos; and conducting extensive customer discovery (what we began at the University of Michigan back in January).

I-Corps has a five-word mantra for customer discovery: “get out of the building.” I have the impression that in Silicon Valley, where the program originated, people never leave buildings where they work so they have to be ordered out, like high-school students in a fire drill. But why?

Well, that’s complicated and could take a long time to explain. Here is a short answer: to remove “confirmation bias.” You get out of the building to interview strangers who can relieve you of confirmation bias.

And what is that odious thing you need to lose like an infection? It can have different meanings such as beliefs, common sense, passion, experience, perspective, expertise. When you get out of the building and lose confirmation bias, you gain something immeasurably more valuable: the wisdom of the commons.

Of what use is that? Well, a narrow objective of I-Corps is to write a Business Model Canvas. If you’ve ever tried to write one you know it can be tricky. That’s because its inventor, a business consultant named Alexander Osterwalder, describes it in ways that may be interpreted subjectively by miscreants who have not lost their confirmation bias. In other words, you can write a BMC that is self-expressive and unreliable. Just your damn opinion!

The commons helps prevent that. I-Corps requires each team to interview at least 100 strangers to test assumptions embedded in a BMC. The resulting BMC serves as evidence that a business idea makes sense on paper and can potentially succeed in a world like Middle-earth; or that it doesn’t, in which case it’s time to pivot.

Humaginarium interviewed 118 people, the second most in our cohort. However we did not write a good BMC. Now as we pass the Stone of Erech, a next step is to make a BMC to our satisfaction. We hate the thing, but it must be conquered and it shall.

In two months we have come through the dark caverns and arrived at our Beginning of Days. Much good work and exciting discoveries lie ahead.