Aligning Academic and Industry Research

Date:   Tuesday , October 30, 2012

Lars Erik Holmquist is the Principal Research Scientist at Yahoo! Labs and heads the Mobile Innovations group. Yahoo! Labs is a division of Yahoo! (NASDAQ: YHOO) responsible for research into the science of the Internet and creating the next generation of businesses for the company. Headquartered in Sunnyvale, CA, Yahoo! Labs delivers both fundamental and applied scientific leadership, publish research and create new technologies that power Yahoo!’s products. Prior to joining Yahoo! Lars was a professor in Media Technology at Södertörn University and was a co-founder and research leader at the Mobile Life Centre, a joint research venture between academia and industry hosted at Stockholm University, with major partners including Ericsson, Microsoft, Nokia, TeliaSonera and the City of Stockholm. In a candid conversation with Lars, he opens up about various researches and how it helps Yahoo! build products for the masses.

Current Initiatives for innovation at Yahoo labs:

Mobile users are doubling every year. It is not a stationary device and follows you wherever you go. My current focus at Yahoo! is to see how we can take advantage of the different situations that users go through on a daily basis, like locations, their company (who they are with), and what they are doing. Our area of focus is to device ways to leverage all this mobile data and users that Yahoo! is gathering. We must be able to shift and create an experience for users that goes across all screens from the desktop to the tablet to the mobile. Yahoo! has over 700 million users and we have witnessed them shift to the mobile at a very fast pace. We are at a point where we can start leveraging all the data that we get from mobile and help users get new experiences.

Aligning academic and industry research:

Yahoo! Labs is one of the few labs which fall between academic research and the product R&D. At Yahoo! we can have a theoretical result that will be published at an academic conference but the result might also be taken to the product leaders who could turn it into a million dollar product. A middle path between academic and industry research helps a company because it can help map out the future. It can help companies understand where users are at present and where the shift will be in a few years.
In case of research we consider the consequences of scaling. When a million people begin to use a new service, a different behavioral set comes up. We can build applications around this behavior set. A lot of research has been done in the field of mobile. For instance, research on location based services is very relevant to how we design services today. Such research can aid young startups who build small scale social apps. They have no idea about all the research that has been done before that and for the same reason their products are not very good. So while you are building a product, if you go back to see all the research that has been done, you can apply that to your product.

Research aiding products:
We did a research on location based services such as ‘Foursquare’. Interestingly, early research projects and products in location, tried to track the user at all the time which was kind of creepy and also technically very difficult to do. It drained out the phone batteries and the locations were not exact and had anomalies. Foursquare’s concept was very smart. They allowed users to tell where they were, be it a café, or a bar or home. This does not give a particular line but it gives a particular expression of the user at a place. When we interviewed Foursquare users, location was not just a line on the map but was actually an expression. Location went from being a property to being an expression. If developers can understand the social implications of services, they can influence services that will appeal to a bigger part of the population. Before developing an app they must think deeper. For instance, apps which introduce you to people who share the same interests in your vicinity is a common idea. But how do you go about after you receive the information? Developers must think about the social implications of such applications.

Ubiquitous computing: A vision

Ubiquitous computing is a 20-year old vision and has been very influential. 20 years ago, we had the main frame which was the big computer and then came the personal computers. The smartphone and the tablet are influenced by the ubiquitous computing heavily. The cloud was not originally a part of the ubicomputing vision but we have actually turned towards it. It enables millions of people to use the same computer, so we are back to the main frame model. We have a down terminal because they just connected the system to the main frame. Increasingly mobile phones are becoming like that. If you talk to your own phone, like using Siri , it senses the sound and sends to the main frame where it gets processed and comes back. Computers now are ubiquitous but the information is moving to a distant location which makes the products potentially much more powerful. By connecting smart products to the cloud we multiply the intelligence in a different way.

Grounded innovation

With grounded innovation, I try to balance the two axes of inquiry - understanding how the world works; and invention - coming up with something new. You do not just want to have something new because it might not be realistic or practical but you want to understand the world and do your inquiry. Innovation according to me is not just inventing something new but it has to be something that can be used. Open source is a big innovation in how we think of software. It has had an enormous effect. For instance, we worked to make digital photographs more interesting by introducing an element of surprise. We added some filters and the results were very different from conventional images. The images looked very much like Instagram pictures which is now a multimillion dollar business. This is an example of grounded innovation.

My current priority is to take Yahoo! ‘Mobile’. It is very clear that with all the deep understanding about mobile, we can take existing products mobile and also how we create entirely new products. We are also studying how people use the tablet at home which is a new product category. Yahoo! Labs is the perfect place for me to be because after having done all the dreaming, theoretical work and studies; I have come to a stage where we can build products on a large scale. (As told to Rachita Sharma)