What is the actual product or solution? Is it a hardware device, or a software application, or…?
Continuum is both software and hardware, and is designed as a holistic communication platform that can be experienced through multiple devices, including portals (specialized video communication devices), mobile applications, web interfaces, and smart watches.
Continuum’s products are designed around four concepts:
Portals: high-fidelity video communication devices that virtually connect spaces
Presence: the ability to see or sense when someone remote is available to talk
Stories: tools that make it easy to catch up when working across different schedules
Assistance: tools that automate the capture, synthesis, and sharing of information
As a product, Continuum is most often experienced through portals. These are large, high-fidelity floor-to-ceiling displays with high-definition audio, designed and installed architecturally into spaces with the goal of becoming a unique spaces for remote conversation and collaboration. Try to imagine something like a video chat that covers an entire wall of a room, so large that people and objects are true to scale, and so visually and acoustically immersive that you may feel as if you are in the same room with the person on the other side.
Other parts of Continuum are experienced through software applications that run on your phone, laptop, or smart watch. These are communication tools similar to Slack or Messenger, but designed with an emphasis towards connecting people to communicate through portals rather than online, and with additional features that make it easier to see when remote people are available to talk (what we call “presence”). Continuum’s communication tools also have features that simplify remote work, making it easier to catch up through stories, and stay informed with the help of machine-learning-based assistance that automates tasks like note-taking, project management updates, and sharing information within teams.
Our team’s core focus is to design and develop the underlying software platform and services that powers these experiences, along with hardware prototypes that can be ultimately developed with hardware partners to be productionised, sold, and installed in locations worldwide. In 2018, we’ll begin testing initial versions of our products with trusted groups and partners in a variety of enterprise, co-working, and community settings, and refine our solutions through longitudinal user testing in real-world scenarios. In late 2018, we hope to shift from R&D to production, and begin working with strategic partners to develop a scalable and commercially viable product suite for enterprise customers and large organizations. Over time, Continuum will also become more scalable and less costly to be usable by smaller organizations, local businesses, and homes.
How will this feel different from using Skype or other existing video communications tools?
Most online communication tools today -- including email, chat, Slack, Skype, or Hangouts -- require us to adapt our style of communication to the limits of the technology. We are inhibited from communicating naturally, the way we would if we were in the same location. The friction of these tools and the difficulties of communicating nuance mean that even simple questions can result in long and complex conversations, back-and-forth email and chat threads, or waiting long periods to talk due to the pains of scheduling and setting up video calls.
Moreover, these tools don’t convey the nuances natural communication that are necessary to build trust and improve relationships. Even with modern video communication tools, it’s difficult to make eye contact or convey gestures, our view is shrunken and restricted to a small frame, and poor video and sound quality frequently degrade our experience.
Continuum strives to combine technology, design, and architecture to create the experience of being in the same room with others in remote locations. Portals are always on and thoughtfully integrated into the architecture of a room, so that they are not necessarily perceived to be devices that require interaction or setup to be used, but instead simply become seamless and transparent windows that combine two spaces into one.
The scale, simplicity, and realism of portals make it possible to communicate and collaborate naturally and face-to-face between locations, without the fuss of scheduling appointments, setting up tools, or switching between browser tabs and applications. And because they are designed architecturally, they fit into the consideration of how a space is already used: portals connecting two mini-kitchens in a corporate office would allow remote co-workers to casually chat while having a coffee or snack; portals connecting two breakout spaces with digital whiteboards would enable two or more colleagues to draw together and collaborate as if they were standing in front of the same whiteboard.
Through these advances, we hope Continuum will enable new kinds of casual and spontaneous remote interaction that aren’t possible through existing tools, enabling individuals and teams to work more efficiently and build trusting relationships as if they were in the same location.
In what kinds of environments and scenarios do you envision Continuum being used?
In an ideal outcome, where the cost of technology continually decreases and internet connectivity continually improves, Continuum could be used to connect remote locations of all kinds: offices, coworking spaces, community centers, health clinics, schools, homes. We have a few scenarios that we are actively thinking about and designing towards:
For distributed teams in large enterprises -- for example, Google, where Ryo and Taj previously worked -- we imagine Continuum portals connecting spaces like mini-kitchens, lounges, cafeteria/event spaces, and other spaces where people casually work and gather. These would create connected spaces across Google’s many offices where remote co-workers could casually meet to talk, collaborate, and maintain bonds without the overhead of frequent travel between offices or scheduling video calls in meeting rooms.
For networked coworking spaces, like FabCafe or WeWork, we imagine Continuum portals being installed in event spaces, private meeting spaces, and lecture rooms. This would enable distributed members of these global communities to connect through events, attend workshops and talks in remote locations, and meet and stay connected with their teams while traveling between cities. It may also create new opportunities for work and collaboration among freelancers and entrepreneurs in these communities, making it easier to hire each other and form global teams across multiple locations.
For mothers with infants, we imagine Continuum portals being installed at specialized childcare facilities or in home offices. This would allow mothers to flexibly stay connected to their workplace while on extended maternity leave, making it easier to return to work once their child grows old enough to enter full-time daycare.
For elderly patients in rural areas, we imagine Continuum portals being used to connect local community care facilities to larger facilities in nearby cities. This would allow patients with chronic illnesses that require frequent check-ins to travel much shorter distances to meet with their physicians or health counselors for certain care needs, reducing healthcare and transportation costs and improving ease of access to care.
For students, we imagine Continuum portals being used to connect classrooms and laboratories between high schools and universities across rural towns and larger cities. This would allow students at small schools to gain access to a larger variety of courses, peers, and educational opportunities that would otherwise not be available locally, or even allow students in bigger schools to take courses from remote instructors with unique specializations and backgrounds.
Why is this a “Social Innovation” project? What is the potential social impact of Continuum?
By seamlessly connecting spaces to improve remote work and communication, our mission is to create opportunities that empower people to live and work more flexibly from anywhere. We believe products like Continuum could reduce how long and how often we need to travel for work or access to services, support flexible work environments for families and those with special needs, and create new work and learning opportunities for people outside of cities.
Over 55% of commuters in Tokyo travel more than 1 hour each way to and from work -- added up over a lifetime, they will have spent more than 2.5 years of their life in transit! Reducing the frequency and distance we need to travel for work would give us more time to interact with our families and local communities, more time to sleep and work on personal development, and reduce our energy consumption to help our environment.
More than 65% of women in Japan never return to work after giving birth. Innovations in this area could dramatically improve the lives of parents and children, with tremendous economic opportunities created by enabling more women and families to comfortably raise children while remaining part of the professional workforce.
In Japan, nearly 900 towns and villages are predicted to disappear within the next two decades. This is largely a result of younger people and families moving out to seek other opportunities, leaving only the elderly behind. If technology like Continuum could create better opportunities for work and education outside of cities, we believe more people would stay or even migrate back to the countryside. Today, more than 40% of people in Tokyo say they would consider moving outside the city if there were better opportunities.
Our aspirations to improve society aren’t limited to these examples. As we continue to develop and test Continuum, we’ll be excited to talk with many individuals, communities, businesses, and organizations about their visions for the future, and who and what we could connect with Continuum to improve everyday lives.
What does it mean for Continuum to be a “social enterprise?”
A social enterprise is an organization that applies commercial strategies to maximize improvements in human and environmental well-being. Social enterprises can be for-profit or non-profit, and can take on various legal forms depending on the laws of the country of establishment. What ultimately differentiates a social enterprise from a commercial enterprise is that its social mission is as important to its success as any potential profit.
As a social enterprise, we aim to keep our social mission front and center, remain transparent with our supporters, and openly and continually engage with diverse organizations and communities that can benefit from our platform and guide our development.
We know Continuum can benefit modern work environments, and can be made affordable to large companies and tech startups to advance its success in the workplace. We believe it’s important to pursue strategic commercial opportunities in order to scale the technology and our operations to reduce the cost of Continuum over time.
We’re also driven by opportunities for broader social impact, and so we’re immediately seeking funding and partnership opportunities that will enable us to make Continuum accessible to everyone. We plan to pursue non-commercial and social opportunities in parallel to commercial ones, and look forward to introducing Continuum in coworking spaces and public facilities to better understand the potential impact of our products in more unique scenarios.
What benefits will I receive as a backer of your crowdfunding campaign?
Backing our campaign on Readyfor not only provides financial support for prototype development, it demonstrates concretely to Nippon Zaidan and future partners that we have a strong community behind us that is excited about Continuum and our vision. In the near term, having more backers also directly influences the outcome of the Social Innovation Award -- i.e. your contribution is effectively a vote for Continuum among the 7 teams competing for a large grant that could fund our development for up to 3 years.
In return for backing us, we hope to establish long-term relationships that will give our backers more access to information and development updates about Continuum, opportunities to experience and test prototypes during our design phase, and priority for early-adopter programs as we bring new products to market.
In addition, at the Ambassador level (¥10,000) and above, we will run a private event for backers to meet our team and be the first to experience a Continuum prototype in a fun and unusual setting, connecting a space in Tokyo to a brewery in Nagano for a special beer event. For this event, we’ll collaborate with AJB of Nozawa-onsen to craft a unique beer, and have a party in which guests can meet and talk with the brewing team through a Continuum portal. For those abroad who cannot attend the event, we bottle some of the beer as a memento to be distributed later.
For backers at the Sponsor (¥250,000) to Visionary (¥5,000,000) levels, you or your organization will also get sponsor recognition on our website, social media channels, and at private events, and additional opportunities to meet our team and partner in an early Continuum deployment.
What will you do with the money you raise through crowdfunding?
The money we raise through crowdfunding will be primarily used to cover the expenses of hardware, software development, installation, and maintenance for initial prototypes and test deployments of Continuum in non-commercial or social spaces. In selecting locations, we’ll seek open and dynamic communities that can help us better understand the potential for Continuum’s social and economic impact when made available to the public through co-working spaces, schools, community centers, and other accessible spaces.
Readyfor, the crowdfunding platform selected by Nippon Zaidan, will keep 17% of the funds as a service charge for their platform and payment processing. An additional 20% of the funds will be used to support our Ambassador backer event, including space rental, food and beverage, transportation, and other event-related expenses.
What will happen if you don’t win additional funding from Nippon Zaidan?
The grant from Nippon Zaidan, if won, would provide somewhere between 50M to 100M yen -- enough to cover the majority of our development expenses and a handful of test deployments during 2018. In this scenario, we will immediately shift our focus towards hiring and product development, with a goal of deploying our first prototypes during summer 2018.
If we don’t receive a grant from Nippon Zaidan, we will need to pause hiring and development until we can secure other funding and partnerships. Fortunately, the process of preparing for the Social Innovation Award has created opportunities for us to begin building our community and meeting potential partners, and so while this would cause a significant change to our near-term strategy and timeline, we will do our best to continue pursuing Continuum in the same vein.
That said, we are hopeful for the opportunity to win the grant and continue working with Nippon Zaidan. Since Continuum is a social enterprise, we still believe the backing from the Social Innovation Award is both our best short-term financing opportunity, and the best way to build credibility and connect with NGOs and local governments that could enable and accelerate our social impact. We will continue to put our all into successfully presenting ourselves to Nippon Zaidan and others at the Social Innovation Forum, and look forward to hearing the results of the grant competition in mid-to-late December.
Do you plan to seek additional investment from VCs or other partners?
As a new technology product with significant HR and R&D costs, Continuum is a capital-intensive endeavor that won’t be possible without financial support from grants, investors, or other partnerships. Partners may be strategic angel or VC investors, hardware partners who want to share the expenses of hardware development in exchange for certain rights, or large organizations who are committed to financing the installation of Continuum in early strategic locations. In all of these cases, we will seek partners who share our vision and social mission, and have the experience and track record to help us create paths to long-term sustainability.
When can I try it?
We’re already developing some basic prototypes of Continuum, and plan to show a floor-to-ceiling portal demonstration in our booth at the Social Innovation Forum on November 18 at Tokyo International Forum. Though built with lower-budget display and audio technologies and limited software, we hope this demonstration will help allow people to visualize the product and imagine what the future could look like as we reach later stages of development.
That said, a demonstration is very different from a product, both in terms of design, and in terms of the underlying hardware and software components, and we expect to spend most of 2018 designing, developing, and testing prototypes before a commercially-viable product can be made ready for the market.
For our community of crowdfunding backers, we will provide opportunities during the spring of 2018 to see more demonstrations of the technology and our development progress. By summer 2018, we hope to have our first test deployments of Continuum portals installed in publicly accessible locations in Japan.
When will it be available to install in my organization / company / home?
We will work with select partners throughout 2018 to deploy test versions of our products for feedback and evaluation. If you represent an organization that would like to test Continuum during this phase, please reach out to us. We will also release more information and criteria on how to apply in early 2018.
For individuals and home users, we hope to begin testing in 2019. We will make further announcements in late 2018.
What will it cost to install Continuum in a space? How can it be made affordable and accessible to everyday people?
Today’s leading video communication solutions like Cisco’s IX5000 cost as much as $300,000 for the hardware alone. While we don’t expect Continuum to be this costly, this example demonstrates an existing market for high-end solutions, and that some enterprises and organizations are willing to spend tremendous amounts on robust video communications tools in order to offset other costly travel expenses or communication failures.
For distributed teams and companies, we believe the cost of investing in Continuum will be clearly offset by greater cost savings to your organization in terms of office real estate, travel expenses, productivity, and employee retention. And thanks to constant advances in technology, we are confident that the cost of Continuum hardware and services will continue to become less expensive over time, making it more accessible and cost effective for even smaller organizations and individuals within 5-7 years.
How will you overcome problems with internet connectivity? What are some other technical challenges or risks?
With an initial focus on enterprise and organizational use in Japan, we expect few hurdles with connectivity in the near-term; Japan has some of the best internet infrastructure in the world, with access high-speed fiber in most small cities and towns, as well as high-speed wireless technologies with broad coverage. In the longer-term, we believe internet connectivity will continue improving globally at a steady rate, especially as new needs arise.
A greater technical challenge lies in combining hardware and software to create greater realism. For example, a camera placed above a video screen does not have the perspective of a human eye -- this is why Facetime, Skype, and most video call systems today result in a perspective that looks down from above, with infrequent eye contact between persons who are speaking. With advances in computer vision, graphics, and processing power, we believe we can develop powerful software to augment the hardware experience -- e.g. correcting camera perspective to allow eye contact, or improving voice quality -- driving greater realism and performance from less costly hardware, and resulting in better and cheaper solutions than what exists today.