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Fresh Air from the November-ly Helsinki

by User Not Found | Dec 12, 2016

For two days, 30 November and 1 December, a surprisingly dry Helsinki was swamped by Slush, Europe’s largest annual start-up event. The stage was (literally) on fire, where ideas, announcements, and product launches were smarting one against another, from peer-to-peer insurance to crowd-sourced space odyssey and everything in between. Out of the sound and buzz created by the 15,000 strong crowds, two not so crazy launches caught my eyes.

The first is a bot that helps users create the most suitable music playlists. Sync Music Bot, as its name suggests, is essentially a bot which users would “chat” with to get their preferred music to accompany certain tasks, for example coding, relaxing, etc., and the bot will generate personalised daily playlists. So far the bot can only be used by Slack teams. The users need Spotify, either premium tiers or ad-funded tier, to stream music, with Slack providing the social aspects, sharing, interaction with each other, etc..

Bots have gained more traction lately, especially since Facebook Messenger enabled the use of Chatbots earlier this year. Most bots are doing “certain” things (pun intended), that is, they provide users with rather definite answers, for example booking a hotel room or checking in a flight. What sets Sync Music Bot apart is that, so far as I have seen, this is one of the first bots that can do a bit more “creative” things. Marko Ahtisaari, CEO and co-founder of Sync Project, the New York-based “music for health” venture which is behind the Sync Music Bot, has told me that the machine has been “trained” to look into more than 10 million playlists with health related identifiers, for example “concentration”, or “distress”, and then make acoustic analysis of the tracks in these playlists. The data reservoir will then become a key input to the playlist generation process. So far, there is no discussion of monetisation. But with the data gathered through user reactions (skips, new conversations with the bot, etc.), and the additional feedback loop from wearables planned for the future, it wouldn’t surprise anyone if the project should expand into more serious health and wellbeing related areas powered by music, given the venture’s background.

The second is the launch of Hatch, both the company and its eponymous game streaming service. Hatch is a spin-off from Rovio, the maker of Angry Birds. Users of the subscription service can play games without locally installing them. There’s the social aspect baked into the service so gamers can interact with each other, as well as live streaming game playing so that others can watch. Though Juhani Honkala, CEO and founder of the company, bills Hatch the Netflix for mobile games, this is more a crossover between Google’s apps streaming feature and Amazon’s live game streaming service Twitch.

I have one surprise and one pleasant surprise. The surprise is the absence of Angry Birds (and Rovio) from its launching partners and titles. The pleasant surprise is the feature to turn a one-player game social, meaning, as a bad gamer like me (I mean very bad) if I get stuck in a level of Candy Crush (not in its catalogue either), I can ask my friend to remotely take over and help me conquer it.

The demonstration showed barely any latency. It may not come as a surprise that one of its partners is Huawei, which would be able to use the streaming service as an opportunity to demonstrate its network capability. I can see in this service some interesting mobile operator partnerships as we see their evolving roles in other media services. For example operators can offer game optimisation to save data traffic a la Binge On, or some titles may want to sponsor the data traffic, a la go90, should local net neutrality regulations allow, that is. The service is planning an invitation only soft launch for Android users at the beginning of 2017.

All in all, I came away with a love and hate feeling for Slush. I hate it as it’s morphing into a Mobile World Congress scale (well, not exactly, but you get my point), making it difficult to see all and talk to all as you could in the olden days. I love it as it gives the technophiles something to get excited about in the miserable November up north (see this brilliant poster that has gone viral). More importantly, after the ill-fated marriage, then divorce, between Nokia and Microsoft in their smartphone thrust, Slush is putting Finland firmly back on the world’s innovation map. If it needs any proof, during the event I also attended the opening ceremony of the Helsinki office of one of China’s leading innovation incubators.


(Photo courtesy of Petri Anttila / Visit Helsinki)

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