@Pixvana this week we announced our Virtual Reality Video platform, now known as SPIN VR. The word SPIN has obvious connections to the new VR and AR medium, namely, the ability to “spin” or otherwise adjust your point-of-view to perceive the experience from different perspectives and angles.
The photograph image of “spinning” fireworks was a direct inspiration–it captures both the beauty, power, and chaos of the VR industry and VR Video as a medium, in fall of 2016 (at ground-zero!)
The first two components of Pixvana SPIN will be our SPIN Player and SPIN Publisher. SPIN Player is both our own cross-VR-headset (eg: Android, Windows, Web) playback engine which connects to the Pixvana SPIN cloud to playback VR videos, as well as a set of tools for developers to implement support for SPIN’s video capabilities, in their own applications. SPIN includes a plug-in for Unity development, as well as a full-reference player so that media brands can build and distributed their own branded applications for VR Video. The SPIN Publisher is our cloud publishing toolset to load, encode, optimize, and stream vr-videos from Pixvana’s AWS hosted infrastructure. Videos created with SPIN can be hosted on Pixvana’s system, or, published to your own IT/cloud, for integration with your existing video delivery pipeline and resources.
I’ve worked on naming many products in my software career (Microsoft Expression and Silverlight, Puffin Design’s Commotion, Pinnacle Systems’ CineWave, and for better or worse, buuteeq!). With SPIN we went after a inspiring term for our broad platform for virtual, augmented, and mixed reality storytelling. SPIN aims to cover extensions such as SPIN VR, SPIN AR, and SPIN MR (eg: virtual, augmented, and mixed realities). I know it will be a great container brand to graduate all the way up to SPIN XR (as in “x”-reality).
There is a lot more coming from SPIN. We will be releasing technical previews, the full product, and other news about SPIN’s capabilities.
Too fun. So in 1999 some buddies and I put together a series of instructional video tapes (that we shipped out on VHS) called the Masters of Visual Effects series. The series had originally intended to have some true masters of visual effects, eg: Scott Squires, John Knoll, Eric Chauvin… real veteran / gurus of the industry.
Unfortunately we only got chapters 1 and 2 produced and we ran into some production $$ overruns, and long story short we never got the real masters in front of the camera. What we do have in this historical record, thanks to a remnant VHS copy that was found and digitize by my buddy Matt Silverman, is a time-capsule of vfx and post-production issues from 1999, immortalized by the presenters. I may get take-down requests from some of them so i will leave their names out of the meta-text here, and submit, humbly for your viewing pleasure.
It is interesting to me now in 2016 how many of these issues from 1999 are becoming issues again in the age of VR video production. Post-production has become relatively effortless in 2016, with basic laptops easily being able to handle UHD 4k video editing and effects. However, doing full immersive VR content requires some of the same proxy-resolution workflows that we employed in 1999 to deal with the film-video-digital steps of that era. Everything old is new again!
Masters of Visual Effects – 1.1 – Introduction
Masters of Visual Effects – 1.2 – Film as Digital Images
Masters of Visual Effects – 1.3 – Post Production Basics
Masters of Visual Effects – 1.4 – Pre-Viz and Editing
Masters of Visual Effects – 2.1 – Compositing Concepts Part 1
Masters of Visual Effects – 2.2 – Compositing Concepts Part 2
At Pixvana we use a company culture mini-pulsing product from one of my favorite seattle startups, TinyPulse. Each week the tool asks our team a fun question that can be answered anonymously via browser or iphone and usually takes less than 1 minute. The surveys invite a participatory, transparent, proactive company culture. I’ve written about TinyPulse use at buuteeq, but since Pixvana is a new company, we are enjoying it anew with our 12 person team.
This last week’s question is a really fun one, and I thought i’d share. Photos of the animals were added by me (not the team member who submitted)–i hope it captures the intent of the suggested animal!
If you had to describe Pixvana as an animal, what animal would it be, and why?
Pixvana is like a baby elephant. Although we may be small now, eventually we will grow up to be very big. Elephants are one of the most intelligent animals in the world due to their large brains. If you combined all the brains at Pixvana, it would be like one big engineering elephant brain. Elephants learn to use tools in creative ways without being taught first, which is something that we are doing at Pixvana. They have excellent communication skills and work together to make sure their entire family is successful. Elephants are also snack lovers, and can be found constantly grazing on delicious healthy snacks such as bamboo, leaves and bananas.
An eagle. We need to have incredible vision like an eagle to spot the emerging VR market trends and keep our focus sharp. Also, we need our pixels to be in clear focus like an eagle’s vision. Eagles aren’t the biggest but they move fast and can stay on target. Be nimble, be quick:)
A viper snake that is green and stealthy, because we are currently a relatively stealthy, hidden in the grass kind of animal… that has a lot of venom to unleash when we are ready to strike.
Ants... we’re small (but in a good way) and we work well as a team.
“Known for their massive intellect orca whales often use complex sounds to communicate with each other and coordinate their activities among the group very effectively. They are also formidable problem solvers.”Pixvana would be an orca whale calf. With superior intellect, curiosity, and communication skills it is exploring the uncharted oceans of XR storytelling.
Owl. it’s has great vision and is swift and can turns its head 360!
We should be an Owl.
* like owls we are far sighted in that we can see VR is going to be big and we are running to be there when it happens
* Owls are traditionally thought of wise in stories and we have a gang of wise old men (Paul,Mike,Bill,Suki, Forest, Scott, Sean) [sorry, yea you guys are old :)]
* Owls are a bird of prey. We will prey on the competition
* Owls can swivel their necks and and view the world behind them just as VR video opens the world behind the viewer
* Owls are stealthy just as we are silently building a killer
Chimera – adaptable to any situation.
Parrot– because they are smart adaptable animals able to use a foreign language from a different species, can fly which allows it to be extremely nimble. Parrots don’t get the credit they deserve as avians.
My son Carlos Key’s film won an award at the local film festival, the Seattle International Film Festival, and he has a nice write up in the Seattle Times–Carlos Key won the Youth Award at SIFF for the 3 minute short film category.
But probably just as cool, for us tech geeks, is that Seattle’s own tech blog of record, Geekwire, wrote a nice piece highlighting the work of Carlos as a young film maker, and how changes in film tech and software have made film making for teenagers something entirely magical, with the advent of lower cost equipment in the last decade.
Kudos to Aaron Rhodes and Sean Safreed for the first of many Pixvana videos that outline some of the unique challenges, and solutions, to making great stories and experiences using video in Virtual Reality. This video tackles the unique challenges to working with *really* big video files, on relatively under powered devices and networks. This general approach is something that we think of as “field of view adaptive streaming”, in that unlike traditional adaptive streaming where multiple files are used on the server/cdn to make sure that at any given time, a good video stream is available to the client device… in VR we have to tackle the additional complexity of *where* a viewer is looking within that video. The notion of using “viewports” to break up the stream/video into many smaller, highly optimized for a given FOV, videos, is something we are firing away on at the office these days.
So, should we call this FOVAS for short, for Field of View Adaptive Streaming. ? It is kind of weird, but it makes a lot of sense… i’m using the term regularly, maybe it will stick!
We’re having a lot of fun at the Pixvana working on various VR storytelling technologies, what we have termed “XR Storytelling” as we are thinking broadly about both AR and VR but also xR, such as virtual reality caves, and other as yet to be conceived of immersive platforms which will require similar tools and platforms. One of the key challenges we are working on is how to deliver absolutely gorgeous/high-quality adaptive streaming 360 VR video.
Last week we combined our love for food with our love for VR, and shot a rough blocking short film that we intend to turn into a higher quality production in a few more weeks, when we can bring a higher quality camera rig into the mix. Aaron blocked out the shots while the team at Manolin, the f-ing awesome restaurant next to our office, was prepping for the day. Here is the rough cut:
Then, we threw it into our cloud elastic compute system on AWS and produced several variations as a series of “viewports” which when viewed on a VR headset like the HTC Vive (the best on the market so far) produces some pretty darn immersive/awesome video at a comfortable streaming bandwidth that can delivered on demand to both desktop and mobile VR rigs. Here’s a preview of what the cumulative render “viewports” look like in one configuration of the settings (we are working on dozens of variations using this technique, so we can optimize the quality:bandwidth bar on a per-video basis):
Looking forward to sharing more of what we are up to with the public in the near future–for now, if you are a seattle friend, stop by for a demo, and, delicious dinner at Manolin Restaurant!
Here’s some really clear images and videos that illustrate a VR Video assembly process using a 6 camera go-pro rig. This isn’t meant as a comprehensive how-to, rather, just a visual only guide that I will be using in presentations to walk folks through the process.
A lot of my friends have asked me why i’ve plunged into starting a new company, and, why / how i chose building a VR Video Platform specifically as an area for software innovation? I think i can succinctly summarize as: VR Video is *magical*, and things that are truly *magic* are f8cking cool and rarer than unicorns. I see a unique confluence in time for me, my skills, my passions, and a market need and opportunity. It’s only been about 90 days since I put on my first vintage 2015 VR headset (like many i had tried the 1990s era stuff which just made me vomit), and my Pixvana Co-Founders and I gave birth to our VR Video startup Pixvana this week.
When i put on a HTC Vive headset for the first time and experienced the demos Valve has been showing in summer of 2015, i experienced a profound, complete, pervasive feeling of what I knew immediately to be what the VR industry calls “presence”. The sensation was right there with other must-try-in-a-lifetime, hard-to-describe-to-someone-who-hasn’t-done-it-yet experiences: falling-in-love, skydiving, scuba, sex, certain recreational mind-expanding drugs, finishing a marathon, watching my wife give birth to our boys… Specifically, for me, I experienced a sense of outer-body time and space travel: time stopped functioning on the normal scale of my daily routines, my body perception was replaced with something “virtual” that was not quite real but not quite fake either, and i was taken to far away imagined worlds–underwater, into robot labs and toy tables and several other places that while not photo-real in their rendering, felt and behaved in ways that were significantly real enough that it WAS REAL.
When i took the goggles off after that first experience, it took me a good 3-5 minutes to “come back”–just like landing in Europe after a long flight and sensing the Parisian airport as different than my home city departure equivalent, coming back from the virtual world took me a moment of reflection and introspection to balance the “wait a minute, where am i now”? It made me think of existentialism and some of my favorite Jorge Luis Borges short stories–my mind immediately considered “wait, am i still in VR and i am just perceiving another layer of possible reality, waiting to take off another set of goggles within goggles?” This wasn’t a scary thought or psychotic split, rather, a marvel at the illusion that i had just witnessed, like a great card trick from a magician–only it was my own mind that had played the trick on me…
In addition to the Steam VR experience (HTC Vive is just one hardware implementation, what I was really marveling at was Valve’s SteamVR vision and software–not the hardware form factor) in the last few months I’ve tried most of the other mainstream 2016 expected delivery VR experiences: Oculus Rift, Samsung Gear, Playstation’s VR, and a variety of configurations of Google Cardboard and various phones. In terms of delivering “presence”, without a doubt the Vive is on a completely different level–i’d rate it a 10 on a scale of 1-10, the DK2 Rift and Sony VR a 5, Samsung Gear a 3, and Google Cardboard a -5 (i’ll write more in detail about Cardboard in the future–suffice to say it is antithetical to creating any sense of presence, and it does VR an injustice to have so many of them floating around out there, suggesting a inferior experience is to be expected to all the unknowing consumers who have tried it and think they have seen what is coming in VR). But these distinctions between hardware systems this early in the market is really inconsequential. I believe that just like with mobile devices or PCs, within 5 years the hardware will become pretty uniform and indistinct (is there really any difference at all between a iPhone 6 and a Samsung Galaxy 6?), and the real business and consumer differentiation will be in the software ecosystems within the app stores and developer communities that will rise, as well as in the software applications that will be fantastic but will run cross-platform on all of these devices.
So for that reason, i’m much more interested in the content and software enablement systems that need to be built to enable creators to build cool shit that will be compelling and magical for consumers. The more magic experienced, the more VR consumption and headsets will be sold, and a virtuous business cycle of new content, demand for that content, more content creators, repeat….
It is clear to me that there are two (2) canonical types of content for these devices–3d CGI environments, and video/still image photography based content. 3D CGI material is very attractive and inherently magical, as it can fully render images that track the users head movement side to side and even at “full room scale” if she walks around and freely explores the environment. A pretty mediocre piece of VR content in 3d CGI on the Vive is pretty darn amazing. A great piece of CGI VR is astoundingly cool (eg: WEVR’s theBlu Experience.
On the other hand, even a really great VR video can be pretty darn “meh” on any of the VR headsets, and pretty darn awful and nausea producing on a bad VR headset (‘wassup Google Cardboard!). But it won’t be that way for long–this is more a reflection of the nascent state of VR video than of a fundamental problem with the medium. VR Video Content and the technology to shoot, prepare, fluff, and deliver for playback of VR video will follow a rapid improvement cycle just like other new film mediums have enjoyed. Consider:
In the late 1890s when motion pictures were being introduced, Vaudeville was the mainstream performance art form and most early cinema consisted of “filmed vaudeville”. Within 20 years, unique storytelling technology and production and editing techniques were introduced with films such as the Great Train Robbery, and various intercutting techniques between very different camera compositions (wide shots, close ups, tracking shots, etc.) started to tell stories in ways that bore no resemblance at all to vaudeville’s tropes. This transition from Vaudeville-to-cinema was ~1900-1950 phenomena which included the addition of audio in the 20s and color in the 40s and large format wide aspect ratio spectaculars like VistaVision and Cinerama in the 1950s.
Television came next and introduced live broadcasting and recorded programs which were stored on tapes in both professional (and later) for consumer distribution on VHS/Beta. Editing was done as “tape-to-tape” transfer, cumbersome and time consuming and actually slower than just cutting film pieces together on a Moviola.
In the 1990s when i worked at Industrial Light and Magic, the first digital effects and digital post-production projects were just being introduced. When Jurassic Park was made in 1993 there were less than 30 digital effects shots with CGI creatures, but 5 years later there were films being made with 1000s of shots and some that were color graded digitally and thus 100% processed through computers. In that same timeframe non-linear editing tools like the Avid made it so much quicker and time efficient to edit, that editors started to cut films in a whole new style that was much more rapid and varied–it is incredible to watch a sampling of films from the 1985-92 period, and compare them to those from 1996-2000. My teenage sons see the earlier films as i might see a 1922 film pre-sound/color. The analog-to-digital-cinema production transition was perhaps a 1990-2009 transition that started and ended with James Cameron films (The Abyss was the start, and Avatar as the culmination in its perfection of blending digital and analog content seamlessly).
In the 2000s the web was the big disruptor, and technologies like Quicktime, Flash, Silverlight, Windows Media, and the enabling web infrastructure have pushed televisions which were once broadcast reception devices, into on-demand streaming playback screens for web-content and DVR playback. My household is now dominated by Youtube (which consumes my teenagers free time at all hours of the day on their phones) and Netflix and HBO GO (which dominate my wife and my evenings). Early web-video was mostly inconceivably small and crappy looking, but by 2010 was of the highest quality and matched master recordings in resolution and fidelity.
Which brings me to VR Video. It is clear to me that VR Video will disrupt other forms of video consumption and viewing in a similar manner, and following the trend of other media tech adoption, will do so in a much shorter time frame. There is so much to do, so much to build, so many creative problems to solve. I’ll write more about that soon–but for my friends that have asked, now you know the context for my excitement about VR Video.
I’ve got a new favorite word that i’m investing energy in imbuing with greenedness: Pixvana.
Pixvana is evocative of video delivery and virtual reality, and has its very own domain at http://www.pixvana.com. I really like the combination of the pixel and nirvana concepts, as in the place pixels grow up and get to go when they achieve enlightenment. I’ve chosen this lovely photo of green tea that i enjoyed while at a bamboo garden in Japan last spring to capture the feeling that Pixvana gives me. Here are some more evocative images of Pixvana, in a bamboo forest. I hope to grow Pixvana into a little bamboo garden just like this, someday.
My Family and I just completed a marvelous 9 day expedition on the Colorado River from Lees Landing launch, down through the marvelous Grand Canyon National Park. We used Hatch as our expedition outfitter/organizer and we were absolutely thrilled with them, our crew, their end-to-end service, and of course, the amazing experience and majesty of the canyon/river. I wanted to post a few thoughts here for the benefit of others considering the trip, and, Hatch as an outfitter for your adventure on the Colorado/Grand Canyon. Hatch was FANTASTIC.
Here’s what we did:
From Las Vegas, we took a regional small plane flight from the city of Boulder to Marble Canyon (not really a town per se, more like a landing strip for the plane and next to a bridge that crosses the Grand Canyon in the “Marble Canyon” area of the park). The flight was arranged with the help of Hatch expedition folks but was a cost separate from the expedition itself. Here at the upper North-East of the Grand Canyon National Park we met our group which totaled 16 family members, some of whom took their own cars to park at this location, or, who took shuttles from Las Vegas by land. We all stayed the night before departure at the Cliff Dweller’s Lodge, a very nice little motel on the side of the road with clean updated rooms, with a nice little restaurant and supplies shop for food/water/snacks.
We awoke early and met the Hatch Expeditions team at our hotel, loaded up in a van, and 15 minutes later we were at Lee’s Ferry, the departure point for the trip (where we met our boat, boat captain, and “swamper” who would assist the boat captain–thus making our total boat party 18 folks).
We then boarded out boat and started our journey down-stream which comprised of 9 days 8 nights. The trip can be configured to be 7 days or as long as 15–in our case we were in a motorized boat (small outboard engine powered the vessel through rapids and long stretches that would require some real paddling effort), we saw other groups that were in mixed use paddle/cayak configurations… i can imagine any and all configurations to be great fun, but the motorized option was definitely optimal for our group that included children ages 10, 12, and 14, as well as several 60-70 year olds in various states of good conditioning (but not strong enough to be paddling a boat for 4-6 hours a day every day).
Each day consisted of a routine of (a) rise with the sun, (b) breakfast and break camp usually before 7:30am and on the river (c) a mixture of river rapid ridding, short stops for short walks, and longer stops for side-canyon hikes that lasted upwards of 3 hrs round trip, (d) lunch break mid day usually in a shaded river-edge spot, (e) more rapids and or hikes in the afternoon, (f) make camp landing by 4pm, set up camp, relax a bit before (g) dinner and then lights out with sunset.
All camping is on rivers edge on sandy beaches that have mix of rocks/bushes–very very comfortable camps on cots/tents as needed, but we slept outdoors with no cover all nights and enjoyed the stars. Warm temperatures in July averaged 80+ at night and 100 during the day. No mosquitoes, very pleasant lack of nuisance bugs of all kinds, with exception of red-ants that re everywhere but only bit 1 in our party 1 time…
Fantastic meals and snacks entirely organized and prepared by our captain and swamper. Our responsibilities as passengers included helping unload/load the boat, and setting up our own camp and sleeping equipment. We participated as a group in helping with cleaning post-meals, but largely were taken care of by the crew (i don’t know how they did all that cooking–but they did). Meals were *VERY* good and complete with mixed preparation, sauces, sides, etc…. we were NOT wanting of food comforts, ever!
End of trip involved being picked up in a helicopter and flown out in groups of 6 to Bar10 Ranch, from where we had our first showers in 10 days, before boarding a small plane and being returned to Las Vegas area (this flight is included in the expedition fees from Hatch).
In summary–absolutely great experience for all in our group, it truly is a once in a lifetime, one place in the world kind of experience. Where else can you travel 180+ miles through a national park, take in the absolute majesty of millions of years of natural geology, and never see any cars/villages/cell-phones, etc.? I now understand why this trip is on so many people’s lifetime “bucket lists”… surprisingly, it wasn’t on my list before taking the trip, but upon returning, i would highly recommend to anyone who enjoys nature. Hatch was a wonderful outfitter and I will strongly recommend to my friends who consider the same trip–their attention to customers, professionalism, great equipment, and real meaningful multi-generational commitment to the park and river guiding (grandpa Hatch started the company in the 1950s) is evident in the excellent service they deliver.
I changed the kidney grill “bib” from the factory chrome to a matching black; this is apparently pretty common cosmetic upgrade/change, and it was ultimately pretty easy to do–however, i found the online documentation/help to be a bit confusing so I thought I’d pass my learnings forward herein for others, feel free to post a question if I can help you out with more details.
First, I bought from IND who were very good with customer service, prompt on delivery, and super knowledgeable when i called a few times with questions before and after purchase. Highly recommend. Here’s the F80 Front Grill Surround part that i ordered.
Here’s what the part looks like:
IND provides a DIY video tutorial which is generally correct, but, it was not sufficient for me to succeed with the installation. Here’s the video:
And here’s what was wrong / additional information needed to be successful:
In addition to a Torx 27 tool to remove 6 screws that hold the top of the bumper to the frame (which need to be removed in order to lift the bumper forward to gain access with your hands to the rear where 8 separate tabs snap the plastic of the cover to tabs on the bumper), there are 2 ADDITIONAL screws that require a Torx 25 screw driver. It may be possible to complete the project without pulling these additional Torx 25 screws, but I would not recommend as it would put needless pressure on the plastic bumper element. See photo for location:
With all screws removed, the next step is correct in the IND video, but grossly oversimplified. it is VERY tricky to find and remove the 8 individual snap/pressure points to get the original grill off the bumper. After 20 minutes of fidgeting and trying to figure out what to do, i found this very helpful and more accurate video illustration that correctly captures the effort and steps needed:
Despite being much harder/trickier then the IND video made the project look, it is actually only a 10 minute project and very DIY… just a little tighter space to work with and some small hands come in handy given the tight spaces.
I love the result and i think it is a great cost/benefit upgrade, much better looking!
Here’s some additional photos in the process which i wish I had as reference, hope they help you out:
In photo above: try to get one grill off first by starting with top 3 fasteners, then either the left/right one which allows to start to pull out of frame (as seen in picture, where top 3 and left 1 (so 4 of the 8) have been unfastened), with the right 1 and the bottom 3 still to go. Once all 8 of them are unsnapped, the piece just pops out. And THEN, the other grill is easy, as you can now stick your hand through the empty space you created, making for a much faster remove of the 8 snaps. It took me 10 minutes to do the left grill, and less than 1 minute to repeat for right side.
Photo below: shows both grills removed. Inserting the new grills is a simple push/snap gesture, takes 2 seconds each. So all the work is in getting the existing grills to pop-off!
I sold my Apple Watch after 1 week of use, here’s why!
After a sordid 1 week fling with the Apple Watch, i decided this AM that I had had enough and i posted it for sale on my internal company bulletin board. I hope to unload it quickly to a lucky colleague so that she/he can have at least a week of fun, if not a lifetime!
Here’s my experience with the Apple Watch, starting with the many cons/problems that led me to such a rapid falling out of interest for what otherwise should have been an exciting new product for a ultra geek early adopter like me! :
Another device that needs to be charged every night and that with any kind of active use during the day, runs out of battery before dinner time (and thus creates more battery anxiety that governs the use of the device during the day!)
Another USB cable to take on business trips or vacations, with a completely proprietary charging end which thus requires that this cable be taken anywhere if the watch is going to be used for more than 1 day!
I’m not a watch guy to begin with–haven’t worn a watch for 10+ years, and only started to have a time-piece on my wrist in the last year because of my interest in activity trackers (i’ve owned 3 to date, and found myself liking having the time on my wrist again and not needing to reach for my phone to get the time throughout the day). But the Nike Fuel Band, FitBit v1, and FitBit Surge (the 3 trackers i’ve owned) are all much better casual time-checking tools as they are smaller/lighter and or can be charged 1x per 7 days. This is a huge tradeoff for me–i can take a business trip and not need another cable, and, they use a standard cable that works with other things besides themselves.
The daily activity app is lame. I like the visualization with the cool colors and wheels, but am totally disinterested in tracking “minutes of activity”, “number of hours in the day where you stood for at least 1 minute”, and “calories”. I’m much more interested in tracking miles walked/traveled, stairs climbed, points against an index of activity (such as fitbit steps or nike fuel), etc. type metrics
The exercise tracking app is lame. I’ve had a lot of experience with FitBit and Strava apps as well as MapMyRun. All much better than the app on the watch which does not integrate with any gps/map functionality despite its dependency on the phone? Or if it does, after 1 week of use I couldn’t figure out how to do that, which means it is an impossibly confusing and hard to use device which is just as bad! The heartbeat tracking on the watch is very intermittent (not continuos throughout the day, like the FitbitSurge), which makes it just a “approximate” tracker of heartrate at best, and at worst a waste of battery since it read my heart rate at 180 beats per minute for a contiguous 30 minutes today on a run (which is at least 10% too high as that rate of beats would have killed me!)–i sense the heart rate reader is just crap bad (maybe they can fix with a future software update).
The UI for finding and loading apps is lame. It has a dedicated button to get to “friends” screen, which in 1 week i didn’t use once. When i want to IM or call a friend I reach for my phone. However, when I want to use the various apps on the Watch (which I did often) such as the exercise, music play controller, Strava app, stock picker, settings menu, New York Times reader, etc. you enter into wacky land of hunting and pecking with tiny screen real-estate and the scrollable nob. I found that by the time i found the app and got it to load (very slow to load apps, eg: 3-5 seconds per app) i could have much more quickly reached to my pocket and pulled out phone and gotten to the information/app i wanted.
The actual “killer apps” for me on the Apple Watch turned out to be…. none. there is nothing that i found myself using the watch for that was actually useful, or fun, or exciting, or … anything other than “meh!”. That coupled with the hassle of taking it off to shower (it is not water proof), taking it off to charge each night, and having to look at yet another cable to drag with me everywhere I go so it can be charged… wow, really underwhelmed.
Just to state some positives for fun, and to practice being a positive person:
Its cool how it lights up the screen when it senses i’ve raised my wrist or otherwise gestured with the intent of looking at the screen. it works most of the time–only a few times did I find myself having to tell it to turn on by touching the face
several nifty/cool UI concepts at play that with iteration could really be fun/work.
lots of support from 3rd party apps–good for apple to being such a powerhouse monopoly with the attention of phone app developers… there were almost TOO many applications, i found myself almost wishing there were fewer so i could focus on a few great ones (most of them are not that interesting)
the band fits really nicely, doesn’t chafe, and snaps on/off easily but securely.
The dictation voice-to-text is good, you could use to send text messages to friends without pulling your phone out of your pocket (if you aren’t a total Dick Tracy want to be dweeb!)
The talking to the thing as a microphone/speaker to answer a call works if you are Dick Tracy and don’t mind being a dweeb!
So i’m going to go back to my FitBit Surge–charges 1x a week, tells the time, is a better health tracker for both casual activity (walking around) and exercise (has GPS and more accurate distance and performance tracking, and a great community of friends that use fitbit, and integration with Strava which I use for more serious training for marathons and such). Here’s a photo of the surge next to my apple watch on its last day of use (when i wore them both to compare the data they generated).
I actually am not sure who the Apple Watch is for other than people that really like watches? If the battery life approached 5-7 days on 1 charge, it was 50% thinner, and the physical buttons or other macro gestures could be linked to the 3-4 apps I actually care about (so it was faster to get it to load the info/app that I want when i want to use it), i would give it another try. Otherwise, this is the first apple product in 15 years or so that I wish I hadn’t bought (last time that happened was… wait, that has never happened!?)
God forbid anyone would buy a product like this and pay $10k+ for the Gold Edition. I can’t think of a less practical way to spend that kind of money–the shelf life on this thing, at very best, will be 1 year. Apple desperately needs to make a v2 of this product that overcomes the many, many, many v1 deficiencies that I think make this a product strictly for super-fan-boys and or fetishist of watches.
Update: after a day on my company bulletin board i had no offers–i guess the demand amongst my peers is zero? So i ran it over to the Apple store and was given a full refund, no questions asked–A+ customer service Apple, once again.
I’m training for the Copenhagen Marathon in May of this year (2015), and have been using Strava and a new Fitbit Surge device to track my runs. Unfortunately the two systems are not compatible (update May 2015–they are now compatible, details towards end of this post), and I can’t use the heart-rate readings from the Fitbit Surge as health data inside the surge app. I just completed a 15m training run and I thought I would post the side by side data that the two apps gathered in hopes this might be of use to other runners considering using either of these two systems.
Some immediate observations about the differences in the data that was gathered:
The GPS tracking of the Strava, which is running on my iPhone 6, is much more accurate than the location readings on the Fitbit Surge. The Strava/iPhone readings are really precise and show small variations in my 4 laps around the lake. The Fitbit Surge GPS is almost comically “loose”, suggesting a meandering variation on each lap, sometimes straying into the lake itself or across non-existent streets.
The splits/pace information is pretty consistent. I tried to start both devices tracking at the same time, but the differences in the splits and the total distance and time of the run may be as a result of slight differences in start time, and, when I paused for a 40 second water break mid-way i manually paused the fitbit clock, but the Strava was on auto-pause and may have taken a different sense of that timeframe. That would account for the 2:05:08 (fitbit) v 2:05:34 (strava).
No idea how to rationalize the 15.01m Fitbit distance vrs. the 15.3m for Strava, which results in the pace discrepancy: Ftibit says i had a 8:20 overall pace, Strava 8:13 pace.
My sincere desire is that Strava and Fitbit will get their systems connected, not sure who has the burden to do what work, but certainly can’t be very far from core to their missions to support as many devices/APIs as possible in this connected health tracking wearable category? Strava is focussed on community, Fitbit on devices–let’s go guys!
Later update (March 10 2015): I’ve continued to run 4-5 times per week using both Fitbit Surge and Strava and can add some new data:
The Fitbit Surge is VERY inaccurate in terms of distance travelled on a run, whether that be a 3 mile or a 21 mile course, on road/path or on a treadmill. I’ve seen a consistent 15-20% under-report of distance run in both free-run (GPS tracking on) mode and “treadmill” run mode. In Treadmill mode the distance travelled is under-reported almost comically–the device is just pretty much worthless in accuracy on a treadmill. I would think that the device’s software could compare my GPS enabled and not-enabled runs and correct itself to a better estimate of my gait/pace based on the other data its sensors are gathering. Alas, the software is clearly NOT doing that kind of comparison of the data and optimization to individual user performance.
The Fitbit Surge is VERY inaccurate in terms of geo-location in GPS mode, and as a result, the pace readings during a run are absurd as well. While running at a 8:15 minutes per mile pace the surge will report anything in a range of 7:45 to 9:30–ostensibly because it has no idea where i am physically on a map. The readings that come back from my runs are hilarious–showing me running through buildings, into lakes, etc.–yes, it is approximately correct, but nowhere near accurate enough to track distance and therefore useless for pace and overall splits.
While i have no second heart rate monitor tool to compare the readings to, i’m also confident that the hear rate readings are wildly inaccurate, as during a long run where i’m in a steady state zone of pace/energy/effort, the heart rate readings will ramp up and down by 10% range which is attributable to inaccuracy of the device’s readings, not variations in my heart rate load.
Here is a recent run that Strava reported as 21.1 miles, side by side with Fitbit. Notice the accuracy of tracking on Fitbit Surge leaves much to be desired–which makes the device pretty useless as a serious fitness device:
Give my first 2 months of experience with the Fitbit Surge, i would not recommend as a health tracker–way too inaccurate. I’m actually now very curious about the Apple Watch which is shipping soon, given that it will rely on the phone for measurements which i’ve found to be much more accurate (via Strava).
Update May 2015. So a few things happened next for me. On a 15 mile run i tripped and fell face first into a ditch. At the time i had enough natural endorphins pulsing through my body that I just got up and kept running–but within 24hrs i was in incredible pain along my left rib-cage. For next 5 weeks I have been laid up and haven’t been able to run, alas, the travails of training for marathons (this seems to happen to me 50% of the time I train). So i missed my marathons (i had rescheduled my target run to the San Luis Obispo race, since I was ready for a earlier race than the originally planned Coppenhagen). At this point, i’ll be re-starting my training for a late summer date tbd.
But, in that timeframe a lot has happened:
Fitbit released a patch to firmware that some have asked/suggested might improve accuracy. I have yet to try (will update once I do).
Fitbit got their act together and there is now compatibility with Strava, http://strava.fitbit.com, which seems to push performance data back and forth between the two systems. Yay for fitbit. I’m going to try soon, have linked my accounts but am not yet pushing real miles through the system so need to get my runs up to 5+ miles for the data to be interesting.
i got an Apple Watch, and have started using it as yet another ecosystem of data and sensors.
So, here’s my first impressions of the Apple Watch as a fitness and performance sports tracker:
I miss my Fitbit. Apple’s passive tracking focusses on 3 key performance indicators (KPIs)–how often you stand for 1 minute in an hour of each of 12 hours of a day, how many minutes of “activity” you have in a day, and how many calories you burn in a day. I miss the Fitbit Surge’s focus on steps and distance and stairs/steps, which felt more accurate and meaningful to my daily “activity” goals. The Apple Watch notion of standing for 1 minute of each hour leads to several little notifications throughout the day while i’m at work at the end of a 60 minute meeting that has run over a few minutes… when suddenly not only I, but the other geeks in the room with a new Apple Watch, all get this little buzz on their wrists. I feel like a lemming! The little concentric circles in the UI of the watch, each representing one of the 3 KPIs, is *very* cool visualization, but the KPIs that are being tracked are not for me!
As a distance/performance tracker, i’ve had limited experience but the Apple Watch application with the green circle and a figure running, which offers tracking for various walk, run, swim, row, pedal type sport workouts, is really pretty lame. It allows distance, calorie, or time targets or Open setting to just track–but it doesn’t track GPS activity on the watch or give splits or any other serious feedback on performance. I think apple will add more integration of this data in the future, or build a companion app for the iPhone… but for now, this is pretty much useless.
Strava does have a nice handy companion app so that you can start/stop and get other workout data from the watch, while the phone in your pocket running Strava does the real work. This seems likely to be my continued preference, and also gives me a remote on the watch face to control the playback of my iPhone spotify account (which i couldn’t do before without taking the phone out of my fanny pack on long runs). So i thin the Apple Watch is going to be a great REMOTE to control my iPhone, but not a self-contained tracker to replace a wrist worn GPS tracker or activity tracker of any kind. Weird, yet another thing to put on my wrist/pocket while i run which also does NOT actually do all the things I want!
Ok so here we go, 4m run using all three: fitbit surge and Apple Watch on my wrist, Strava running on iOS on my iPhone 6 in my fanny pack:
Apple Watch exercise app says I ran 3.83m, 32:54 time, 288 calories (active), 61 cal (resting–no idea what that is because I was running the entire time, must be part of run where my heart rate was in a lower range, nay, incorrectly reading as low as I was running fast first mile), 349 total calories, 8:34 pace, average heart rate 175bpm (yikes, i’d be dead if that was true–i’m 44 years old). Pretty poor and inaccurate data.
Fitbit Surge says i ran 4.00 miles, 32:38 time, 8:09 pace, calories burned 474, and average heard rate 160 bpm and of the 33 minutes heard rate was in “peak” range 30 minutes, cardio range 2 minutes, fat burn 1 minute (seems like much much better heart rate readings than the apple watch.
Strava says i ran 4.00 miles, 32:40 time, 8:01 pace, burned 686 calories. Not sure how I get the strava/fitbit data to sync, i don’t see the fitbit heartrate data in the strava app… nor did either app post to the other in any other way that I can see. Hmm…
So, 3 pretty messy and different reports. The time differences have to do with me not being able to exactly start and stop them all at once as I had to fiddle with each device. I like the mileage reading from strava+fitbit now showing exactly same figure, which i know from measuring on google-maps to be accurate! that’s an improvement on the fitbit surge with the new firmware (it has never previously reported this run as 4.00m). Here’s the mapping data from fitbit and stava side by side, which looks much better than previous runs (i would still like to test on a longer run and with more varied route, but this does look like it has been fixed by the firmware update last month to fitbit surge!)
In figure above the Strava track is on the left, Fitbit on the right. I can definitely see huge improvements in accuracy and much more frequent samples in the Fitbit Surge data, which actually caught a few subtle route details that were missed by the Strava plot. This is a huge improvement.
Based on this run’s data, if Fitbit and Surge data integration is actually working (still tbd how to make that work) i think i might sell the apple watch to a colleague at work who wants it, and go back to using the combination of fitbit and strava. The apple watch is a turkey–too little battery life (1 day), not enough useful functions, and crappy sports tracker.
So a lot of folks have emailed me this week asking me “what happened to buuteeq”, so i thought i’d write a quick informal post to document for the seo bots. As of first week of January 2015 we’ve changed the name of the buuteeq hotel marketing platform, it is now part of Booking.com’s BookingSuite family. You can now find us at http://suite.booking.com
I remember very fondly the day/time that Brian Adam and I named buuteeq, while in a hotel room in Beijing in January of 2010. The company was originally called Hanbao Software (“hamburger” in Chinese), and it felt like that placeholder name (while undeniably cute/funny to native mandarin speakers), was not going to work for us as we got ready to start offering the product to hotels (at least with a straight face). We spent a good 2+ hrs brainstorming, and thought ourselves brilliant when we opted for the kabal of letters that was b-u-u-t-e-e-q. I was smitten with the visual balance of the double “u” and double “e” framed by inverse symmetrical b and q letters. At the time (2010), what self-respecting tech startup didn’t want an impossibly silly misspelling of a common word, as their mark? Alas, if we could have estimated the spelling-bee tax that buuteeq would become: over the years we probably spent a collective multi-hundred-thousand minutes (as a team) spelling the word on the phone to baffled listeners: “b, u, u, t, e, e, q… yes, like “buuh-teeek”, or “boutique”, the french word”. Would have been so much simpler if the boutique dot com word was not parked by a domain squatter (and impossible for non french or english native speakers to spell without help!) Despite the spelling challenges and sarah lacey hating it, buuteeq as a mark served us well. It captured the aspirational brand ambitions of our hotelier customers… all of whom have a unique product and a unique vision, and need technical help telling that story to prospective guests through digital channels. We continue that journey as BookingSuite, a much easier to spell mark! and one that has instant recognition as part of planet earth’s #1 accommodation site, booking.com! Booking Yeah!
I’ll also include a 1 paragraph description of buuteeq for the SEO bots looking for “what is buuteeq”. buuteeq was a software company founded by Forest Key, Adam Brownstein and Brian Saab in January 2010 that build the world’s first digital marketing system for hotels, the buuteeq Cloud DMS. The company grew to have thousands of hotel customers and 100s of employees before being acquired by the Priceline Group in June of 2014. Forest, Adam, Brian and the entire product team continue at the company as part of Booking.com’s BookingSuite offering, with many more details yet to come about the innovation roadmap i’m beyond excited and thrilled about–more so than when this journey began nearly 5 years ago! We’re having a blast and the party is still in its early days!
I lived in Spain during a study abroad year in college back in early 1990s, and have returned several times since for business and pleasure. I’ve found myself writing up some of my recommendations for “what should i do if I visit Madrid” for many friends, and after completing this recent email (below) i figured i’d throw it on my blog as I’ve noticed that my “Things to do if you visit Chile” blog post has gotten quite a few visitors in the last year and has been nominally useful to others. So in that spirit, here are my recommendations for things not to miss in Madrid and immediate vicinity (eg: within 90 minute train ride). Note that this was written for a friend of mine from China, so i was stressing cultural elements that she would find particularly interesting!
These are the “towns near madrid to get out of the city to see some smaller towns:
Toledo: small cute town with lots of nice walking things to see, museums, churches, and need small streets on a hill. Town with lots of history. it is 40 minute train ride SOUTH of Madrid. Plan a day trip there and back with a nice lunch. You may want to join a tour with a chinese speaking guide? it is easy to just go on your own, but, you might enjoy a guide as there is a lot of history?
Salamanca and Segovia. Salamanca is a bigger small city about 90 minutes North-West from Madrid which is really great and has a lot to see, it is also a nice drive to get there. on the way there right on the freeway is Segovia, lovely small town. Both are worth seeing, you can do them together in 1 long day eg: start early, drive in car or train, to Salamanca–walk salamanca and see the Plaza (central square), the Catedral (church), and the university campus (very old university, where Chrisopher Columbus did some planning to go to america). Then, go back to madrid via Segovia, have a lunch in Segovia (lunch inSpain is between 2pm and 4pm, so you could have lunch at 3pm at a nice restaurant) then walk Segovia–Roman ruins from an Aqueduct that is 2000 years old, and great little small town with lovely streets). This is a BIG day, but it can be done. Other option is to break this up into 2 trips. Both are worth seeing. If you only have time to do 1 of these, Segovia is closer and thus easier so do that. Salamanca is really neet, but maybe too far. I did in car and really liked the drive, but you may find that stressful? I don’t know? Trains are very good in spain so that’s always a easier way!
If there are any Bull Fights in season i would go, very interesting and old fashioned–sad to see bulls killed, but i recommend. I don’t think they have them in January, however, here is the bull ring website just in case: http://www.las-ventas.com/
If you can, go see a professional soccer match for Real Madrid or Atletico Madrid—spanish LOVE soccer, amazing experience. You can find tickets always, might be expensive, but seeing Real Madrid play (one of best teams in the world) is a real experience!
Then there are the traditional tourist sights:
Plaza Mayor & Puerta del Sol walking area (public squares)
Jardin del Buen Retiro (big park, go in daytime, at night not so safe, daytime no problem)
El Prado (huge museum full of amazing OLD art collections, get a guide of some sort or recording in chinese, without a guide it is pointless as there is too much to see!)
The Palace (king and queens) where there is a lot of stuff to see
dozens of other museums…
and dozens of fun neighborhoods to just walk around in and look at people and windows of stores etc. your hotel can help you with that…
Food (lunch is 2-4pm, dinner is 10-12pm–they really really really do eat at that time, you won’t find the best restaurants open before then! make reservations for the popular places!)
Must try = Botin. A bit touristy, but really good and REALLY old, in continuous service since 1700s. eat the suckling pig and the lamb, both are incredible! http://www.botin.es/?q=en It is near the Plaza Mayor so nice walking area.
Go to dinner one night on Calle Huertas (that means “Huertas Street”), it is a street filled with neat restaurants and bars that you can walk up and down in about 40 minutes round trip. Lots of people out and about walking in this area at night, fun to people watch. Plaza Santa Ana is a nice square surrounded by restaurants right by this street, so maybe walk the street, then eat at the restaurants on the Plaza.
“Tapas” is a style of food where you stand at a bar (usually, although you can also have them at a table) and order small plates of different types that they will give you while you have a small beer. you can go to a bar, have a small beer and a “tapas”, then go to another bar and do the same, and in this way walk between many bars/restaurants eating “tapas” along the way. it is a style of “moving restaurant experience”. very fun. You can go to many neighborhoods where there are lots of “tapas” bars near each other. There are also some new “markets” that have nice organic produce and lots of little stands for tapas”–one such market is this one: Mercado de San Miguel Pza. San Miguel, S/N 28013 Madrid, Spain Be sure to try: Tortilla Espanola (eggs and potato pie), Jamon Serrano (spanish cured ham), Queso Manchego (spanish cheese that is amazing), Gambas al Ajilo (shrimp in garlic), and anything else you see that looks tasty!
I’m incredibly proud and happy to have won the Geekwire Awards Perk of the Year 2014 for buuteeq’s employee travel stipend program, “Trotamundo”. I started buuteeq because of my deep passion for travel and seeing the world. We created the Trotamundo program because we wanted our company culture to embrace and amplify the experience of travel. Travel exposes us to diversity of human experience, inspires us, and ultimately transforms our world view in a way that also makes our company stronger and more nimble in our quest to revolutionize the hotel industry.
I spoke at a Small Talks event last week on the subject of Millennials in the Workplace (millennial are the generation born in the 80s and early 90s, that came after my generation “gen x”). buuteeq has a lot of team members from this age group/generation. A few multimedia and related pieces from the event:
Video of the event:
Thanks to Turnstone for putting together the event and providing snacky snacks!
A cool infographic that someone made that listened/watched the event over the web, love how they captured so much of the content in this graphical/summary form:
And, when i got home that evening and was doing some googling on the subject, I came across this hillarious (if snarky/harsh) summary that makes for a great comedy piece and interesting adjunct (i do not endorse or subscribe, necessarily, to the position it takes–but it did make me laugh!). Why Generation Why Yuppies are Unhappy
My company buuteeq has grown to over 110 employees in 5 offices around the world, so a huge component of my time/role as ceo has been focused on “culture”–how do we create a consistent best-practice culture in multiple offices (while growing rapidly), how do we gather feedback and input from everyone on the team, and how do we communicate and implement changes based on the feedback we receive…
We’ve been using an amazing tool called TinyPulse for over a year now, and while it is not the only mechanism to manage the “pulse” of our culture (a lot of 1:1 coffees at TopPot Donuts down the street is part of my weekly routine to spend quality time focused on listening and responding to team member questions in person), TinyPulse is the systematic breadth process by which we receive regular employee feedback and drive a “virtuous cycle” that repeats itself regularly. TinyPulse asks a weekly question by email (automatically), gathers the feedback anonymously (usually between 50-80% of employees respond on any given week), and presents dashboards that I and our VP of Talent review periodically throughout the week as data is being gathered.
Each week’s question generates a summary of yes/no, 1-10 scale, or open response questions, AND a subjective detail commentary (if respondent provides) which I can then respond to via a private message while maintaining anonymity. This leads to very different feedback loops than what we hear in person or over email.
I thought it would be valuable, and transparent (one on my most cherished values!), to share some of the data we’ve gathered in the last 6 months. This data represents “feedback”, not judgement, so there is absolutely no shame in sharing what at times looks like mediocre scores/responses. I’ve written a brief summary of “what we took from the feedback” and “what we did to respond” to illustrate how the data drove our management team behavior.
Takeaway: we can do better! Some of the atomic comments suggested some of the managers were sensitive to receiving constructive feedback; we had a discussion with all managers about best practices and how to engage in discussions that would surface constructive feedback from their team.
Takeaway:Totally unacceptably low! Even though the “benchmark” (53%) (what other companies that use TinyPulse received on average response) was even farther below our score (71%), we aspire to more transparency in this (and most) areas. As we dug through the data we realized we hadn’t developed “career stage models” and communicated those to team members. As a young company we had done a good job recruiting people to join the team but hadn’t yet matured into providing a roadmap for careers. This was really great feedback it led to a kick-off of many projects which we are now rolling out (took about 3 months to put in place).
Takeaway:The comments were valuable as they pointed to specific growth opportunities that were being recognized, and others that were being asked to be opportunities.
Takeaway: This question felt like a reflection on how well we were sharing the TinyPulse data itself! When we first started using TinyPulse we would share the feedback each week and discuss comments and then open for public discussion during our weekly friday wrap meeting (held 4-5pm to end the week). This made the visibility of the feedback 100% transparent. We gradually started to do the open discussions less frequently and moved the sharing of the data to our Google+ community and email threads, which i sense was less visible. There are 2 key elements to the feedback loop, (1) to share what is being said so everyone has visibility into how their feedback compares to that of the broader team, and (2) for everyone to see what is done in response to the feedback. This creates a “feedback tax” that I think would scare off a lot of management teams, but i really want to rise to the challenge, even as the data grows in volume and complexity. Blogging about the data here is in part motivated by this very feedback–trying to find multiple ways to drive the transparency!
Takeaway: We’re doing pretty well, but there’s always room for improvement. We used the opportunity to revisit all of our benefits and our VP of HR gave examples of comparable benefits of companies in our industry/size/market, so really we “re-pitched” ourselves in hopes of getting more visibility to just how good our benefits actually are!
Takeaway: This is a perpetual rich channel of feedback, eg: the TinyPulse gathers lots of insights from the teams about office furniture, seating configurations, meals that we bring in for catered lunches, the kitchen/snacks, morale events, etc. etc. So rather than look at the score here, the really interesting takeaways are the comments that highlight what is top of mind “next on the list” of things to work on to make the office environment better.
Takeaway: Sometimes you just have to declare victory. This is one of those. It turns out that on just about any “scale of 1-10” survey, the results tend to come in at an average of about 8.x. We talked with the team about the different perspectives of “what does a 8 mean”, and in many cases 8 is “excellent” and in others “10” is the equivalent. So when the team as a whole is coming in at 8.5, we felt that this is an area we were performing ahead of the curve. Again, not declaring victory outright, but since we are getting this type of feedback WEEKLY, sometimes the pulse feedback insights less urgency/reaction from the management team.
Takeaway: Great reflection of our core value of “never stop growing”, always want to see team members thinking of ways they can do better, and the comments overwhelming reflected specific areas for personal growth.
Takeaway: Similar to the feedback about work environment, this question had very specific recommendations for different processes, training, tools, etc.–super actionable.
Takeaway: Probably the most important feedback of all–this is exactly the entire point of using TinyPulse, to drive transparency, virtuous feedback loop, and to establish a really great culture in close collaboration across the team. Thankfully, this score (8.7) is the highest score we’ve ever received in the tool. Lots more work to do on all these subjects every day of the week for years to come… Several more examples below, i’m out of gas to comment on them atomically, but the graphics speak for themselves and i’m happy to answer any questions in the comments or at my email, twitter, facebook, linkedin, or google + pages!
I get a lot of requests from friends about travel to Chile (for leisure/vacation, usually with family including kids), so i figured it was time to put my thoughts into a blog entry that I can repurpose, so here you go.
First some context: I lived in Chile from the age of 6-11 in the lovely Pinochet military dictatorship era (late 70s-early 80s, several years in Zapallar on the coast, and the others in Santiago the capital), the again after college for a year in 1994 (in Santiago, working as a film editor for commercial television), and most recently in 2010 for a year while i was planning my new business and my family and I divided time between the “small-north” region near La Serena, and yet more time in the smoggy confines of the capital. In addition to these stints homesteading, i’ve also backpacked and otherwise visited the country another half-dozen times… so from a toursim and/or expat perspective, i feel like i have the place dialed in and can make some strong recommendations.
So, with a focus on tourism (not expat relocation, which will be another blog post if I have enough people asking me about living in chile, schools, immigration process, taxes, banking, etc.), here’s my top 3 guidelines:
Skip Santiago. My friends in Santiago will be upset with me for saying this, but i’m sorry–the truth is that Santiago has *absolutely* nothing going on from a tourism perspective. You’ll be flying in and out of Santiago for your international flights, but otherwise SKIP IT. The city is not distinct enough in any way that would warrant precious days that you could spend in the much more interesting other parts of the country. Someone will tell you “oh, it is worth at least x days”, where x is exactly x days too many. Seriously–SKIP IT.
Plan 2-3 “segments” connected by flights. The country is MASSIVELY long and the north/south orientation means that the areas to visit are hugely distinct from a natural flor and fauna perspective, so avoid your intention to “rent a car and drive” as the north-south drive would eat up 4 days of your trip! There are 5 distinct areas of tourism attraction (see below)–pick 2-3 and spend quality time in these with regional driving in each, but don’t try to connect the dots by land. If you buy your domestic segments along with your international ticket, on LAN (soon to be renamed LATAM) airlines (the Chilean carrier) the cost of the segments is very reasonable.
Focus your goals around “natural wonders” as opposed to “culture and civic/city life”–Chile kicks ass as a low population density, magical geography that is accessible, safe, and fun. It underperforms tragically vrs. its peer group of Peru, Ecuador, and Brazil in terms of local food, indigenous culture, indigenous architecture, food, music, and “exoticism” for a typical well traveled american or european visitor. And Argentina is a much better exemplar of “europe in southern hemisphere”. My friends from Asia will find it fascinating, as it is very “european” and that will seem fresh and interesting. But it will absolutely disappoint any “westerner” looking for something exciting “south of the border”… for that, go to Peru (my favorite country in South America, with the best food, home to the Inca civilization and its myriad of incredible ruins/art/etc., magical music, and incredibly colonial area cities, not to mention glorious mountains, coastline, and the birthplace of the Amazon. Not to mention Brazil, which is marvelous for entirely different reasons.
Ok. So now let me characterize the “regions” to choose from, i’ll outline them from North to South:
The Atacama desert and Altiplano (high altitude plain). This area can refer to a massive 1k+ mile region north of La Serena reaching to Peru border, but from a tourism development perspective, it really means flying into the city of Calama and then planting yourself in the area around San Pedro de Atacama as a home base and exploring the high plain. Volcanoes dot the landscape, you are at 8-14k feet above sea-level the entire time, the star-gazing in the evenings are best in the world (no precipitation, low light contamination from urban areas, no smog, etc.). I visited this area on the Bolivian side of the border on a $10 a day budget in 1993, today San Pedro is bustling (i’m told, have never been) and hotels can run up to $1k per night for a room at a luxury resort that includes meals and tours, but a wide gamut of options are available. buuteeq’s first customer in the town is considered among the best in the country, lovely luxury resort Tierra Atacama. The city of Calama also has tours of the Chuquicamata mine, the largest open pit on the planet, worth checking out on day in/out of Calama, but otherwise spend the time up in San Pedro. This is what any guidebook would tell you to do, so to qualify this and make it a bit more local–let me add that ANY of the cities in the northern part of Chile will give you a feel for this desert vibe–super low population density (there are hours upon hours of driving where you won’t see anyone!). I lived in the Pisco Elqui region near La Serena, much less developed for international premium tourists, and plenty exciting and interesting including the added benefit of having some wineries and distilleries for Pisco (a brandy, national drink). If you want to fly in/out of La Serena and do a few days in La Serena (beach town, lovely coast) there is a hub of neat activities including a marine sanctuary where you can see all kinds of awesome penguins, sea-lions, dolphins, etc. about 90 minutes north of La Serena, observatories for sky-gazing, and the cool-as-shit little down of Pisco Elqui as a home base with funky/hippy vibe. We lived here for 4 months at this little hotel, El Elquimista. La Serena can be reached in 5-6 hours by great 4 lane highway, so this is also a doable road trip from Santiago, if going all the way to the true North is too much, but I don’t think anyone would argue that La Serena is a full replacement for the San Pedro de Atacama gig.
The Central Coast area around Santiago. This is where you go in a rental car from the capital. Roads are totally safe, well signaled in Spanish (easy to follow along with a GPS phone or ipad), and distances reasonable (eg: 2-3 hours max between points). Just south of Santiago are various wineries that offer tours and some homesteading (eg: have cabins or other guest quarters). The city of Valparaiso is a UNESCO world-heritage city for good reason, reminiscent of San Francisco but way dingier/run down yet totally captivating (in a raw way). One night in town at this affordable and family friendly designer hotel (owner is a accomplished painter and mixed media artist) which is in the best neighborhood for exploring by foot, is all that is needed to get the vibe and traverse the hills on foot. Lots of great restaurants. Anthony Bourdain loved this place and wrote up several restaurants and bars on his TV show (google it!). Vina del Mar is 15 minutes north of Valparaiso and is a altogether ritzier and cleaner/safer place, overrun with tourists in January and February but still fun, and a joy in December before the 25th when the locals from Santiago and the Argentines start showing up in droves. Good beach hotel options and beaches. Note that the water is FRICKING cold in chile, don’t expect Mexcian riviera type beach experience–the sand is lovely, but the waters are freeze-your-balls cold and thus it is much more about eating a fresh seafood meal on the beach and sun-bathing than “swimming”. The town I grew up in is 60 minutes north of Vina, called Zapallar. I highly recommend renting a house or staying at one of the (few) hotels in the area near Zapallar and doing 2-3 nights of walking the beaches and coastlines and visiting the neighboring town of Cachagua and Papudo, maybe even hit La Ligua for the local market (daily) to buy some fresh produce, and the fisherman’s market in Maitencillo. I have a bunch of family and friends in Chile, so if you do make this particular trip, talk to me and I’ll see about helping find you a local friend to show you around, host you for a meal, and maybe provide a tip on a rental for your stay in town. Zapallar has a lovely small boutique hotel which does NOT have ocean views but otherwise is a great base and good value. My recommendation in general for this region is to get a house in Zapallar for 3-5 nights, and make Zapallar the base from which to travel to Valparaiso, Vina, La Ligua, etc. as day trips in your rental car. Zapallar is 2hrs from the capital, you can arrive at airport and drive STRAIGHT to zapallar for your first day in the country. You’ll thank me for it! The walking paths along the coast, beaches, and understated tourism sector (few hotels, mostly locals) will give you a great “local” experience for this region of the country. I also have relatives that rent their houses depending on the season…
The Pre-Patagonia area around Puerto Montt (the small south). This is some combination of Pucon on lake Villarica and volcanoe region surrounding, the adorable city of Frutillar, the coastal city of Valdivia, Puerto Montt, and the island of Chiloe. These are all reachable via car by using Pueto Montt or Valdivia as central arrival/departure ports. Lots of great german influenced towns, lakes abound, cute fishing villages… great to walk and drive around. If you aren’t into driving aimlessly around the region there are organized tours, but it is a very accessible region and well touristed in the December-Feb corridor (when the weather is great), not so much fun any other time of year (rains perpetually, like Seattle where I live now). This is relatively populated part of “patagonia”, not to be confused with the insanely not-populated true “south” which starts after Puerto Montt and extends through fjords and icebergs and wild forests all the way down to Tierra del Fuego and the southern tip of the continent.
Patagonia region(s). There are two hubs here that are too far away to be linked. One is the area from Puerto Montt to the town of Chile Chico, which has a road that connects the region (only passable in summer) called the Carretera Austral. Renting a good 4×4 and driving parts of this itinerary is probably akin to northern British Colombia or parts of Alaska. Lots of undeveloped forest, great lake fly-fishing and hiking, but not robust tourism infrastructure except for in pockets, mostly along the coast. Likely best to look for a tour of this region than to wing it. Town of Coyhaique is surprisingly bustling, flying in-0ut of hear and arranging tours might be good option (when I did it i was on $10 a day budget in 1994, so likely has changed quite a bit except for the remaining amazing natural wonders which can’t have been spoiled quite yet). Much much farther south, only accessible by road if you drive into Argentina and then come back into Chile down at the tip, is the popular and “must see” area around the national park called Torres del Paine. This is the classic photo of towering awesome mountains near a glacier emptying into a virgin lake, etc. I’ve never been. Everyone that goes raves about it. Basically a “bucket list” kind of destination. I think the itinerary is to fly in to the region for 4-5 days including time in the national park. If money is no object, stay at this place in the park itself, luxury beyond compare. And fly in and out of Natales, this place is supposedly fantastico for accommodations.
And then there is Easter Island, which might as well NOT be Chile because it is basically a Polynesian island WAY the frick out in the pacific. Never been, can’t say one way or the other, but it is one of the top 3 draws to Chile for tourism so I would look like a fool for not at least mentioning it here. Other than big stone statues staring out into the pacific, i’m not sure why anyone would go all the way out here. If you want to visit islands in the pacific, there are better ones… i would skip as it is FAR to fly for small payoff, and you’ll get more for your “chile” vacation from the main north-south attractions i’ve covered above.
Ok, i’ve probably been too simplistic in this summary, but that’s my quick top 3 don’ts, and my top 4 (skip Easter Island) regions for “dos”.
Overall, as of June of 2013 when I’m first writing this, Chile is very accessible by rental car (by segment) so I recommend that strongly–don’t be beholden to public transport or a car and driver. Roads are very safe. Don’t leave valuables in-sight at tourist parking lots, just like anywhere in the world. There is very little violent crime outside of the capital, expect pick-pockets to be the worst thing you’ll find in the country. Not a lot of scams/hustling going on either, really a lovely place to visit and extremely friendly for kids. Focus on the NATURAL wonders, food will be fine but nothing amazing, wine is good and cheap, and the people will be friendly and not speak english (so brush up on your basics in spanish).
I’ll add more comments to this post as I get a sense of the follow on questions from the folks that have asked me to write this up (you know who you are if you are reading this).
I’ll someday write up the equivalent for Peru and Brazil, which I would favor for more ambitious/exciting tourism… but Chile is a great, safe, lovely place to visit with family and I hope you enjoy your trip!
I’m unabashedly in love with the HR employee feedback tool http://www.tinypulse.com, and sat down with our VP of Talent to discuss a bit re: how we use the tool and some of the company culture at buuteeq.