Head Tracking, 3D, and the Birth of Firefly: An Interview with Dave Cotter


In this interview, SquareHub cofounder and CEO Dave Cotter talks about his rich experience in the tech industry, the uses of 3D and head tracking in modern mobile software, and the implications that Amazon’s Firefly might have on microtransactions.

Josiah Renaudin: Today I am joined by Dave Cotter, cofounder and CEO of SquareHub. Dave, thank you very much for joining us today.

Dave Cotter: Awesome, thanks for having me. I appreciate it.

Josiah Renaudin: No problem at all. If you could, tell us a bit about your background in software both at Amazon and now at SquareHub.

Dave Cotter: Yes. I'll give you just the quick file. I started my career at Microsoft way too many years ago, which probably dates to about twenty years ago. From there, went to a startup, ended up at Real Networks for several years and particularly there I was focused on our SDK initiative. Helix is an open-source project that allows for anybody to take a streaming media server and a client and embed that into different devices and different back-end systems. I was really one of the early individuals who was part of that project. I went over to BEA and worked on Web Logic Workshop which is an IDE or a visual basic for Java.

It allows you to very quickly create Java-based apps or web services that ran on BEA Web Logic server. I worked at a venture capital firm, ended up starting a company, sold that company and then ended up at Amazon for almost five years. The first couple years I worked in the Amazon web service which ran the product advertising ACI and then moved over into North American retail and ran the Amazon Associates program. My experience in terms of software development have probably managed all of the various disciplines and held many of them. To many of my friends who are not in the tech industry, at a cocktail party I can sound really, really smart.

Josiah Renaudin: Half the fun is sounding smart in this kind of stuff.

Dave Cotter: That's totally true.

Josiah Renaudin: Could you give me a brief explanation of what exactly SquareHub is? I know that your newest initiative is your social media website but could you talk a bit about that?

Dave Cotter: Yeah, certainly. About half way through my tenure at Amazon, my ex-wife and I, we were going through a divorce, so my wife at the time who is now my ex. We were going through a divorce and we had three daughters and we were constantly struggling with how to stay on the same page, everything from coordinating pick-ups, drop-offs, where people are at, sharing photos and we tried text messaging but stuff that was sent on a Monday to be remembered on Wednesday would scroll off of the screen. Our daughters weren't using e-mail hardly at all. We didn't want to use Facebook as a medium to do so.

It felt like to me there was such a real void for a software or a mobile app that really helps divorced families stay on the same page, coordinate a calendar, et cetera, because obviously there's a high need to coordinate activities. It wasn't long after I started down that path and I realized that a highly functional divorced family is no different than a happily married busy family. We decided to create SquareHub and essentially what we've done is we’ve taken capabilities from really five different applications; a little bit of Facebook, a little bit of Foursquare, a little bit of shared calendaring capabilities, a little bit of group messaging and pulled that all together into one application for families to basically stay on the same page.

We also integrate with devices in your home, so messages from your home whether it's temperature changes or expenses, et cetera, are also fed into SquareHub. We like to think of us as being the button on the phone that handles all things family.

Josiah Renaudin: You're going to be working and have been working with Amazon with their Fire Phone which was just recently announced and you had said previously in an interview that it's really easy to transfer SquareHub and other applications to the Fire Phone. What about that new device makes it so accessible? What makes it so different from other platforms?

Dave Cotter: When I think of platform, I think there's a consumer experience and there’s the development experience. I think, just briefly on the consumer side, it's got a gorgeous form factors. It's a fantastic sized phone in terms of the display. The feature capabilities now in terms of the phone and the head tracking the immersive 3D experience and what they've done with Firefly, I think, makes it a pretty special phone. If you're an active Amazon customer, I think you're going to be pretty delighted with the bells and whistles on the phone. From a development perspective, obviously it's a derivative. It’s worked off of Android.

Since we had already developed an Android version and a Kindle Fire version, they did a very good job on the SDK and the documentation to make it very easy to go from especially our Android code base and Kindle Fire code to the Fire Phone code base. A lot of the 2D widgets and things on the Android version they had very easy mapping to their 3D counterpart on the Fire Phone. The attraction layers they had for taking advantage of some of the pretty hardcore technical capabilities like head tracking and then scrolling and things like that, they did a really, really nice job of extracting those that was easy to get up and running.

Frankly, we probably were up and running with the basic functionality of the app within a day and then really the majority or the time, really fine tuning capabilities that we wanted to highlight that made sense for our app and our customers.

Josiah Renaudin: Now people like you who are deeply invested in the tech industry understand the different uses of 3D, the head tracking, and a lot of different functionality that comes with the Fire Phone, but what do you think Amazon needs to do and what do you think it is doing to let other developers know and the consumers know that they need this 3D stuff? What are they doing to make this peripheral worthwhile and exciting to you use?

Dave Cotter: Yeah. Well I think frankly it all starts with the developers. Amazon can’t create all of the various apps and all the various really cool use cases that are going to delight customers. They can certainly provide the platform. Their job is to really educate and get people excited about what’s capable, with the perspective of SDK, what’s capable with the Firefly SDK, and build out the ecosystem of all those apps that people use either everyday from a horizontal perspective or vertical app that help highlight the capabilities of those phones but it’s within the context of what is that app doing for somebody.

In the case of SquareHub, for us we had two major things that we thought were really interesting. The first was on the perspective SDK, the navigational paradigm of being able to swipe left and swipe right … Excuse me, gesture right, gesture right and have things open and close where previously you swiped. It shows up and you’re able to scroll and see the family newsfeed scroll down. We even have the capability where if you’re scrolling and looking through your family newsfeed and you happen to look away from the phone, the scrolling will stop because it detected that you’re no longer looking at the phone.

I think that those kinds of features really translate for us into time-saving features for customers and I think they’re going to be putting apps in the phone. On the Firefly piece, I think maybe they want to come with exciting components of this device. It’s a QR coder on unbelievable steroid in that you can take a photo of any everyday objects and all of a sudden now, your ability to act on that object whether you want to purchase it, whether you want to research it is almost instant. We have this feature called the Bucket List which we use at the … or our customers use as a way to store information that they want to do as a family.

It could store places they want to go, activities they want to do, restaurants they want to go to, movies they want to see, things they want to buy. Firefly now, what used to be type in a text message saying, “I want a Cuisinart for Mother’s Day,” now it can essentially turn into a picture of a Cuisinart and essentially, you can now have that stored in the Bucket List or in fact if you want to buy it right then and there, you can go ahead and buy it and transact on Amazon and in turn, we then get a referral fee.

For our customers within our app, Firefly is an instant gratification and a real time-saving capability to identify something that you either want or you want to share with your family and then take it into something that you now own very, very quickly and for us, it’s a revenue stream because when they go through and buy the item, we get a referral fee.

Josiah Renaudin: That’s really interesting. The referral fee is something that people outside of that developer loop don’t really hear about because when you first hear about Firefly, you think of it like you said it’s a QR code reader on steroids.

Dave Cotter: Yeah.

Josiah Renaudin: It’s something that we’ve … feel like we’ve seen before but really Amazon is innovating with taking people to the store and not just advancing their own agenda but they can advance developer’s agendas and they can advance consumer’s agendas too because if you’re at the store, you’re scanning things and all of a sudden you see that it’s cheaper on Amazon. That’s going to save you money. I think it’s really interesting that you’d bring up the referral fee. Something else I want to bring up is microtransactions because apps in general today, one of the main sources of revenue and sometimes the only source of revenue for some apps are these microtransactions.

Do you have any sort of plans for using Firefly with microtransactions in your app or to go off of that, do you see Firefly … Revolutionize might be a strong word, but altering the perception and the application of microtransactions in future apps?

Dave Cotter: Yeah. Certainly it’s a no-brainer feature capability for us to do that. If you think of all the things that a family buys and all the gifts and your wish list and things like that, Firefly when combined with our Bucket List is a killer feature, one of the killer features as far as our apps is concerned. From a microtransaction perspective, it makes a ton of sense for us and our family. I do think that it’s interesting because I think you hit on a word … Revolutionary might be too strong of a word potentially because we don’t know how it’s going to play out but this idea that you can basically take a picture of any everyday object or listen to a song or anything essentially that you’re looking at visually and have with a snap of a button, a picture taken and your ability to then go and buy it so quickly is a pretty instant gratification-style feature.

I think the behavior in the past was a little bit more of you would queue up a list of things in an app and then you’d go to the store and buy them or you’d look at your … You’d pull up the app on the web and you’d place your order on Amazon. This is a lot more, if I see something, well I can just take a picture and I'm just going to buy it right now. You’re kind of queuing things up. It doesn’t feel as necessary as it does with Firefly. If you’ve did that in the past that you’re trying to optimize time. You didn’t want to have to go back and forth from a couple of different places to go and make the transaction. Here, it’s just a click of a button.

I do think that it could be very revolutionary and I think the other thing is again, the idea that developers could use this as a business model. It could be a new way that app developers … I mean app developers are struggling with what’s the right way to make money. Do you charge up front? Do you do a premium model? Do you charge for stickers? This is a really interesting way to put app developer in the transaction business, which obviously can be very illusive comparing to what you’re doing. If it’s not revolutionary, I think it is highly, highly, highly evolutionary from a QR code reader and it has the potential to be revolutionary if the right app is created that make it feel easy and comfortable for the user.

Josiah Renaudin: Yeah. I think it’ll be very interesting to see how it comes in from a user end but also, just for developers, what they’re able to do with it and like you said, it’s not Amazon’s job to push all of these different use cases for the innovations. A lot of that is going to come from the developers, how they plan to use it, and if they can use it in a way that makes everyone feel like it’s something fun, it’s something exciting, it is something worthwhile to do then I think that’s what’s going to sell people on not only Firefly but the phone itself.

Dave Cotter: I completely agree. I think that that is … To me, that’s the essence and the exciting things with the developer of the year which they have this amazing piece of hardware where this piece of hardware, it’s long-term in its value and the opportunities for innovation are great and it’s going to be very interesting to see how developers take advantage of it because technically speaking, there are some things that this phone does that other phones just simply don’t. If developers are clever and they think about what things that could be open to them, it could be a great ecosystem for them. It could be a great ecosystem driver for them.

Josiah Renaudin: Absolutely. I'm excited to see what happens next with not only the phone and Firefly but with your company and how you move your app onto this device. It was really great talking to you, Dave. I appreciate your time.

Dave Cotter: Absolutely.

Josiah Renaudin: I look forward to hearing back from you.

Dave Cotter: Awesome. Thanks, I appreciate it.

Josiah Renaudin: Thank you very much.

Dave Cotter: You bet. Bye.

CotterDave Cotter is the co-founder and CEO of SquareHub, a private social network designed exclusively for families. He has more than twenty years of experience in the tech industry, working at companies ranging from Microsoft to Amazon. Dave has worked with open-source and Java-based products since the early ‘90s, and has been involved in starting and eventually selling his own start-up company. 

Podcast Music: "Han Solo" (Captain Stu) /CC BY-NC-SA 3.0

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