The future has arrived - Clark University

The future has arrived

From apps to robotics, Clarkies are reshaping the way we encounter our world
October 27, 2014

Technology loves a void. It helps us do many things faster and more efficiently than ever imagined by previous generations. It can be deployed for purposes as miraculous as saving lives or as routine as amusing ourselves for hours on end. In a kind of endless loop, technology is both responsible and responsive — driving change while simultaneously adapting to the very world that it has altered; filling spaces of its own creation.

A number of Clarkies are at the nexus of innovations molding our digital landscape. Some, like Elena Zhizhimontova '14, pictured on our cover, are computer scientists designing software and hardware. But others, with backgrounds in subjects as diverse as psychology, government and business, have found their niche as entrepreneurs and managers piloting the course of digital technology companies. So it seems there is room in this brave new world for people with a wide range of skills and passions — which is fortunate, because the technology grounded in the mysterious world of 0s and 1s, bits and bytes, is transforming our future as radically as the industrial revolution did our forebears' two centuries ago.

technology at Clark

Clark computer science professor Li Han

Fired Up

Only in her early twenties, Elena Zhizhimontova '14 already is listed as an inventor on a pending patent for a software tool that she and her team developed during her 2013 summer internship at Amazon in Seattle. Her team worked on the Dynamic Perspective interface, a key feature of Amazon's recently released Fire Phone. In addition to providing a three-dimensional look to maps, lock screens and games, Dynamic Perspective also incorporates interfaces that change in response to user movements, allowing one to control the phone through
natural and fluent gestures.

Zhizhimontova's tool displays polygon-based assets designers can use when developing visual elements for the Fire Phone's screen. Designers can run animations, attach objects, and move, scale and rotate assets, as well as combine and manipulate 3-D models without having to write any code themselves.

A computer science and mathematics double major at Clark, Zhizhimontova is especially appreciative of the independence she was given in creating this tool. During the development process, she met with Amazon designers to discuss new features and then made her own decisions on the implementation. "Getting positive feedback from artists who were using my tool and telling me that it simplified their work made those moments the happiest of my life," she says.

For Zhizhimontova, the people she met at Amazon made her summer internship special. "My coworkers were very inspiring. My team's constructive advice made me a better programmer and their light-hearted jokes created a very pleasant work environment," she says.

Her internship went far beyond just working on her software tool. Zhizhimontova also interacted with other programmers and her mentor to learn more about game development. "Many people on my team had previously worked in game development, and that's my interest, too. So I really had much in common with the people I was working with."

The respect was mutual. The Amazon team wanted her back, and on July 28, a little more than two months after graduating from Clark, she returned to Amazon as a fulltime software development engineer.

The Disruptor

As president and chief executive officer of Axispoint, a company that builds digital technology solutions for heavy-hitters in the entertainment world like Warner Music and the Rolling Stones, Daniel DiSano '90 gets to marry the two things he loves best: technology and business. Axispoint's clients represent industries like media and entertainment, health care, nonprofits and financial services.

Axispoint creates custom software and applications to help businesses grow, beginning with design and implementation, and continuing with support and the provision of cloud services. "Basically anything that touches software, we do," DiSano says.

Dan Disano '90

Dan Disano '90

With an M.B.A. from MIT's Sloan School, and a track record of growing companies, DiSano arrived at Axispoint in 2002, eight years after the company was founded. Over the next few years, Axispoint's name began surfacing in a range of industry lists, from inclusion in the Everything Channel Fast Growth 100 to winning the Deloitte Technology Fast 500, and being named Cisco Systems Mobility Partner of the Year and Vertical Partner of the Year.

During his tenure at Axispoint, Dan Disano '15 DiSano has noticed what he calls "a sea change" in the nature of the services their clients are demanding. No longer are businesses satisfied with technology that just makes them more cost-effective in the marketplace.

"Now we get hired by clients who say, 'Help us take our idea, our creation, and make it a reality to be innovative, to disrupt our industry,'" says DiSano. "That's what makes it exciting."

Prior to the 2008 presidential election, DiSano joined then-candidate Barack Obama's Technology, Media and Telecom Committee and assisted the campaign with writing technology policy. He later served on President Obama's Transition Team as a member of the Technology, Innovation and Government Reform working group, where he helped with initiatives that included the stimulus package, government innovation, and pervasive broadband.

DiSano loved his undergraduate experience. "Clark really helped shape my life," he says, noting the opportunities he had to work one-on-one with faculty. He's now providing internship opportunities to Clark students and alumni who are seeing that the only good status quo is one that can be disrupted.

Some Viggle room

How cool would it be if every time you settled in to watch your favorite TV show, you earned loyalty points redeemable for entertainment rewards? Or, if you're a business owner, you discovered a new way to target only the consumers most likely to purchase your product?

According to Gregory Consiglio '88, Viggle is the only company that can provide both these services.

The consumer begins by downloading Viggle's app and completing a short demographic profile. Then, when he or she watches a TV show, listens to music or — soon — watches video content online, Viggle's patented technology can identify the content, set the clock ticking, and assign the associated points to the user's account. Rewards can be redeemed through the app's rewards catalogue or On its end, Viggle analyzes the data to see which type of consumer is watching and listening to what, and works with interested business partners (TV networks and brands) to direct their ads only to users who fit their target customer profile.

The president and chief operating officer of Viggle Inc., Consiglio has enjoyed a career trajectory that included previous stints at KPMG, AOL, GoFish and Ticketmaster. He says one challenge to making a loyalty program viable is keeping consumers engaged over the long term: statistics reveal that the average consumer who downloads an app uses it only twice. So unless Viggle's platform becomes a habit, consumers don't accrue points and companies lose prospects. To reinforce engagement, Viggle sends related quizzes and games to the consumer during viewing or listening sessions, as well as ads targeted to his or her demographic profile — all additional opportunities to earn points.

"Our business of identifying entertainment and providing rewards for it — including the underlying technology — is patented," says Consiglio. "And when we got listed on NASDAQ I actually got to ring the bell — a very cool experience!"

The 'Wow! Wow!' Factor

If you're the parent of small children, names like Strawberry Shortcake, Wubbzy, and Foofa are probably part of your vocabulary. And if your child has embraced any of these characters as a new best friend, you might want to know about the apps by Cupcake Digital, brainchild of chairman and CEO Brad Powers '96, M.B.A. '97.

Powers, along with Cupcake's president, Susan Miller, co-owner of the Emmy Award-winning animated television series "Wow! Wow! Wubbzy!" has assembled a team of professionals to create apps that both engage and educate children from preschool to the early elementary grades.

Powers credits son Lucas, then age five, as playing a significant role in Cupcake Digital's genesis.

"As the parent of a young child, I wanted to produce apps that would make my kid smile, but also offer educational moments. There just weren't enough of them out there," Powers says on his website. "I saw a great opportunity — one that was personal to me — to enter a new marketplace."

Powers, who majored in psychology, is sensitive to unresolved issues surrounding the appropriateness of digital screen time for young children.

"We preach shared screen time with kids," he says, "not the use of mobile or tablet devices to babysit. We encourage people to use our apps with their kids."

Brad Powers '96, M.B.A. '97

Brad Powers '96, M.B.A. '97

Cupcake Digital has created guides for teachers and parents on using the apps with free downloadable worksheets and activities. "Cupcake retains on staff an expert who was in charge of implementing Common Core curriculum standards for her school district in California," Powers explains. "She makes sure that anything educational is thoroughly vetted and tied to Common Core state standards."

Cupcake Digital has acquired rights to a variety of children's entertainment properties, including Strawberry Shortcake, Dreamworks, and movies.

"Our goal is to be the dominant independent force in the children's app world," Powers says. "Through a combination of organic growth and acquisitions we think we can achieve that position." Sweet.

Dragon Tale

For years, getting our words and ideas into a computer meant using a standardized keyboard left over from typewriter days. That method works fairly well for fast, accurate typists, but not so well for the "hunt and peck" folks among us, or for those with visual or mobility-related disabilities. Designers of human-computer interfaces know that computers should adapt to human abilities, rather than the other way around.

Enter Nuance Communications, which describes its mission as "making technology fluent in all things human." Using its popular Dragon voice recognition software, you can just talk to your computer and let Dragon translate your speech into readable, editable text. Nuance also offers a hands-free tool called Dragon Mobile Assistant (based on Dragon voice recognition) that lets you send and receive text messages and email, post to Facebook and Twitter, and search the Web. It also creates an identifying voiceprint to ensure that your device responds only to you.

Brian Yee '93, director of product management for Nuance's Mobile Input Solutions Division, oversees apps that make it easier for those who prefer to keep their fingers exercised to get their words into their mobile devices. In 2011 Yee was working at Swype Inc. when it was acquired by Nuance to complement its existing text and voice-recognition products. Swype offers several ways to enter data via an on-screen keyboard, notably by letting the user drag or "swype" a finger from letter to letter to spell out the message. As Swype registers the letters, it makes an educated guess at the word the user wants. (Readers may be familiar with the experience of using a 12-key keypad to spell out text messages. That process, T9, was invented by Swype's co-founder Cliff Kushler.) Swype has quickly grown in popularity. Originally only on Android phones, Swype is now available for Apple iOS devices with the launch of iOS8.

Yee stresses that while Swype has transformed how users communicate using their phones — by allowing them to fully express themselves instead of with just a two-word response or question — Nuance technology does much more. Its technology powers many of the virtual assistants available, trying to understand what information a user is seeking with as little user input as possible.

"The more you can understand what the user is trying to do," says Yee, "the simpler you can make the device."

All these gestures need to 'play' nice together so that the user feels in control. That's where the engineering complexity comes in.

— Peter Sibley '03

Not Your Dad's Pencil and Paper

Great ideas often spring to mind in very inconvenient places — the shower, a cramped airplane seat, a quiet woodland trail. Paper, the 2012 Apple App of the Year, and Pencil, an elegant electronic stylus from FiftyThree Inc., are tools that let artists capture their visions on a tablet when the studio is miles away.

Peter Sibley '03, a software engineer developing these tools, migrated to FiftyThree from Microsoft, where he'd launched the first version of Photosynth, an application for capturing two-dimensional photos and turning them into three-dimensional views of the world. He also worked on a variety of Bing products, including StreetSide, the equivalent of Google's Street View. He is characterized on FiftyThree's website as having "a passion for innovative user interfaces and novel applications of computer graphics."

Sibley explains that creating an effective user interface is an iterative process dependent on extensive prototyping and testing to ensure that the final hardware and software products "feel right."

Pencil and Paper are good examples. Designing the artist/hardware/software interface requires a deep understanding of the artist's tools and how they are manipulated. For example, when the artist wants to "undo" a mark, the Pencil stylus can be flipped upside down and employed as an eraser, a natural gesture when using a traditional pencil. Pencil also allows the artist to rest the drawing hand directly on the tablet's screen without leaving a mark, much as one would rest a hand on paper or canvas to achieve stability and control. FiftyThree is working on a new feature, Surface Pressure, for use with Apple's iOS8, which will allow Pencil to be used for shading broad areas.

"All these gestures need to 'play nice' together so that the user feels in control," says Sibley. "That's where the engineering complexity comes in."

Virtual Worlds and Wildcat Robots

One of the most exciting uses of computer software is to create virtual worlds that we can explore and interact with in real time. But participation in a virtual world can do more than provide a few hours of fun. It might also save your life.

In 2009, as a newly minted computer science Ph.D., Stephen Berard '03 joined Lockheed Martin, where he worked on a government-funded project called the Future Immersive Training Environment. This virtual environment is designed to give soldiers an opportunity to experience what it's like to take part in urban street fighting — the sights, sounds, smells (yes) and chaos — before they face real bullets from real adversaries.

To participate in the simulation, the soldier wears a system of coordinated hardware that allows him, and his similarly outfitted companions, not just to see and hear, for example, an urban street in Afghanistan, but also to communicate and interact as they move through it. Berard's role was to help integrate and test the complex hardware and software, a task that required him to visit various military bases and get feedback from soldiers testing the system.

Stephen Berard '03

Stephen Berard '03

Berard's real passion, however, is robotics, which he discovered at Clark while taking a course with computer science Professor Li Han. After working at Lockheed Martin for a little more than a year, he joined Boston Dynamics, a company that was creating, in his words, "cool, awesome robots."

Boston Dynamics builds, among other devices, two and four-legged robots with names like Big Dog, Cheetah and Atlas, designed to traverse varying types of terrain conditions. Berard got involved with the development of Wildcat, the next version of Cheetah, which was used to see how quickly a quadruped robot could be made to go. (Cheetah reached 30 mph traveling on a treadmill; Wildcat, an outdoor second-generation robot, hit 16 mph.)

Then, at the end of 2013, Boston Dynamics became one of several robotics companies acquired that year by Google.

Now a roboticist with Google, Berard's lips are sealed. He can neither talk about his job, nor engage in any general commentary or speculation about the robotics industry, lest it be misconstrued as coming officially from Google.

Sometimes silence is what the cutting edge requires.


Protecting hardware and software innovations is where intellectual property lawyers like Brett Alten '85 find their niche in the digital world.

Alten, who earned a Ph.D. in physics at Johns Hopkins University before attending law school at Fordham University, served as director of patent development at Apple Inc. during a particularly exciting period (2006-2010) when several of its signature products, including the iPhone, iPad and MacBook Air, were under development. Among other things, Alten and his team were tasked with harvesting and patenting the software and hardware ideas bubbling up from within the company.

During Alten's last couple of years at Apple he created and led an intellectual property enforcement team, but it became too focused on trademarks for his liking — he missed practicing patent law. Eventually, Alten decided he wanted to broaden his practice and moved to Dropbox in 2012 as the head of intellectual property. Dropbox, a privately owned company valued at about $10 billion at the beginning of this year, offers a popular service that lets users securely store and sync their electronic documents, images and videos in the Cloud and access them any time, any place, using any device they can log into.

At Dropbox, Alten focused on software, which has been the subject of many patent-related court cases over the past 50 years because its abstract nature doesn't cleanly fit the definition of what, in the past, has been considered patentable.

"The U.S. Supreme Court recently confirmed that abstract ideas are not patentable," Alten says. And where software is concerned, it gets really complicated. "It's not easy to articulate a rule that distinguishes abstract ideas from patentable ones — [the latter] are more closely tied to physical processes," he notes.

Such are the subtle issues Alten thrives on. He's since taken his expertise to a new position at SolarCity, the leading provider of residential solar power in California.

"Patent law is a great option that I didn't know even existed when I attended Clark," he says. "There's room for so many skill sets. I wish undergrads knew more about the wonderful career path patent law can present to those who not only like science and/or engineering, but who also enjoy writing and working with people. And, if you read patents written by people who really know how to write, they're an entirely different animal. They come to life and tell a great story, and they're often elegant. They convince you that the invention is special and worthy of protection."

Anne Gibson - Marketing and Communications - Clark University