Using video game technology to give house tours “down to the millimeter”

The same technology used for Halo can be harnessed to give virtual home tours:

A new Seattle real-estate brokerage called Surefield hopes to improve the home-shopping experience by harnessing the power of video-game engines and computer-vision technology. Its service includes an online, 3-D, photorealistic model of the home which potential buyers can move through virtually…

“We want to give the homebuyer the ability to inspect down to the millimeter,” said Surefield CEO David Eraker, who in 2002 co-founded the real-estate website Redfin…

And by helping buyers become more selective about which homes they physically tour, home sellers “don’t have to live on eggshells to keep it looking like a hotel every day,” said Surefield COO and broker Rob McGarty, who led Redfin’s real-estate operations before he left in 2010…

Surefield’s technology actually uses a video-game engine similar to one used in modern games like Halo, where a character moves through a space in “first-person shooter mode.”

The company’s chief technology officer is Aravind Kalaiah, a Bay Area visual-computing engineer who led Nvidia’s development of a breakthrough technology in graphic processing.

Sounds like an interesting product that hopefully goes far beyond the picture slideshows available now, especially if a viewer could pan or zoom in and really see what the space was like. This also acts as an elaborate screening device for home listings. With this, potential buyers can get even more information about available properties and do more work on their own without middlemen. Yet, the buyer still needs a real estate agent or broker to get into the homes they are really interested in and relatively few buyers will want to buy a home without seeing it in person.

I wonder how this also relates to research on consumers having more choices. Imagine you could take these virtual tours of dozens of available homes. The consumer gets to see lots of options and can do so very quickly. However, the research on choice suggests giving people more choices tends to reduce their satisfaction as they are more aware of making the “perfect” choice. They might find the home choosing process more to their liking but does it lead to more satisfaction with their home in the long run?

Are NFL fans now better off with all the draft knowledge they can access?

The NFL draft process has been drawn out even further this year and it leads to an interesting question: is a better-informed fan a more-in-control fan?

For many Americans, football fandom is a knowledge contest, an anxious dedication to information gathering that drives us to consume the NFL’s human-resources wing as entertainment. Last year, more than 7.9 million of us watched the draft and another 7.3 million viewed some portion of the scouting combine. This year, the draft moved from April to May, a transition attributed to a scheduling glitch: Radio City Music Hall, the draft’s venue in recent years, booked a Rockettes Easter special during the NFL’s big weekend. But it’s a favor, really: We need more time for recreational panic, more time for our 11-year-olds to prognosticate with radio hosts…

When Mayock started his work, most information about prospects was relegated to team officials and media members. But now, anyone could develop informed opinions about someone like Landry. Anyone who wants to can study six of his games and learn about his perceived value on mock draft sites. Walter Cherepinsky, the founder of one such site, tells me it gets 40 million visits per month. (One of his recent mocks has Landry going to the Carolina Panthers with the 92nd selection.) For the most committed students, there are draft guides such as Matt Waldman’s Rookie Scouting Portfolio, more than 1,200 pages about offensive prospects. Waldman writes that Landry blocks and runs routes like a reserve player, but he catches passes like an NFL star.

While the adage tells us knowledge is power, though, it’s less clear how all of this information empowers draft-obsessed fans. That 11-year-old from the sports talk show wanted his team to select a receiver, but wanting that or having an argument in favor of it won’t make it so. What erudition of this sort provides is a sense of autonomy, in terms of identity, a guard against power abused. NFL insiders tend to whisper the same general stat: that one-third of the league’s general managers have no business overseeing personnel decisions—they’re either misguided in the way they evaluate players or they don’t bother to put in the requisite research. Draft savvy, then, lets fans separate their outcomes (the success of their favored college prospects) from those of their favorite teams (the players chosen by their teams and the team’s outcome on the field); fans can timestamp their opinions and later say, “I told you so.”

But does this kind of autonomy relieve fans’ helplessness, or does it make them feel more like pawns beholden to the real draft-day outcomes they want to control but can’t? Let’s say you’re sure, after months of research, your team should use its third-round pick on a quarterback, but the team instead drafts a punter—a punter—and the quarterback selected five slots later goes on to win a Super Bowl within two seasons. Besides a conniption, this could also give you a grudge to unleash on team executives, message board commenters, and media members who disagree with your football opinions.

The evidence seems clear: the draft is popular and the NFL can afford to drag it out when people keep watching. But, do people really enjoy it? More broadly in sports, if fans know even more about potential players (college, minor leagues, developmental leagues, overseas prospects, etc.), does this lead to feeling more in control?

Having more information is generally seen as a good thing in today’s world. The more input you can gather, the better. Yet, this doesn’t necessarily lead to better outcomes or more perceived control. (Read The Paradox of Choice for a good introduction.) I would argue that much of the appeal of sports is the unpredictably, the odd things that can happen on a playing surface at any point. All the information in the world can’t easily explain some of these events – and would we want it to or would we rather see unpredictable things happen in games?

The draft is a good example of this unpredictability and how we might perceive information as a way to limit this. Think about all of the mock drafts. All of the talking heads. Stretching out the draft even longer. Yet, there are still things that happen on draft day that are hard to predict, even for all the experts. (I’m particularly intrigued by recent mock drafts that incorporate more complicated draft-day trades.) Assessing the results of drafts can take years or even decades. Sports Illustrated had a recent story about the Tampa Bay Buccaneers making a disastrous pick in the 1980s that led to 10+ years of ineptitude – but this wasn’t visible for years.

All together, football players make choices, teams make choices, fans respond to all of this with more or less information, and it all collides in a “sports experience.” I suspect sports fans don’t really want to know everything (stronger predictive abilities would reduce the uncertainty about outcomes) even if they often want to immerse themselves in the sports experience. At some point, the return on having more and more sports knowledge likely decreases enjoyment though this curve could easily differ by person.

Americans have more TV channels than ever and still just watch 17.5

A new report from Nielsen shows Americans have more TV choices than ever and still watch on average 17 channels:

Americans have no shortage of options in every aspect of their lives. The proliferation of devices for consuming content has enabled more choices than most can count. But the “problem” of having too many options—including a growing expanse of content—doesn’t seem to be having an impact on our TV viewing preferences.

According to Nielsen’s forthcoming Advertising & Audiences Report, the average U.S. TV home now receives 189 TV channels—a record high and significant jump since 2008, when the average home received 129 channels. Despite this increase, however, consumers have consistently tuned in to an average of just 17 channels.

This finding might fit with research that shows giving people more choices in life doesn’t necessarily equate with happier outcomes. Sixty more channels may sound great but who has time for them or is interested in all of their content? It would also be interesting to look at the programming of these 60 new channels as I suspect many of them contain niche programming or may duplicate what is available elsewhere.

One way I think about this is how many DirecTV channel numbers I have memorized. With all of the possible channels, I still have to occasionally look up channel numbers – like last night when the Blackhawks-Wild game was on CNBC. At least DirecTV groups channels of common themes together so it is easier to flip around. I never did understand why Comcast put certain unrelated channels next to each other.

Sociology: the study of constrained choices

I recent saw a blurb about a new online course that explores how sociology explains how we make choices:

In his lecture “If You’re So Free, Why Do You Follow Others? The Sociology and Science Behind Social Networks,” part of Floating University’s Great Big Ideas course, Christakis explains why individual actions are inextricably linked to sociological pressures. Whether you’re absorbing altruism performed by someone you’ll never meet or deciding to jump off the Golden Gate Bridge, collective phenomena affect every aspect of your life.

Christakis is well-known for research in recent years that shows things like obesity and emotions spreading through social networks and affecting friends of friends.

But this larger idea about constrained choices is interesting. When faced with a new Introduction to Sociology class at the beginning of the semester, this is one of the ideas that I present to them: sociology is less interested in how individuals make their individual choices and more interested in how larger social factors, society, culture, institutions, networks, etc., constrain the choices of individuals in certain ways. While we live in a culture that loves to celebrate individual choice, we don’t really have completely free choices to make. Common areas of analysis in sociology, such as race, social class, and gender, can open up or limit possible choices for individuals.

Of course, there are sociologists more interested in individual choice. This has led to a larger debate in the discipline between agency and structure. But overall, sociologists tend to focus more than other disciplines on social factors that often unknowingly affect all of us.

UPDATE 12/21/11: The Washington Post gives more information on this course that will be offered on a few elite college campuses as well as online.

The guilt of over living in a McMansion

While it is clear that a number of people think that owning a McMansion is a negative thing, I haven’t seen as much reaction from the people who actually live in the homes that others would derisively call McMansions. Amidst a farewell to an “environmental pioneer” who recently passed away, here is one person’s experience of owning a McMansion:

Linda tried to live sustainably long before it was chic and was always health conscious. More than a decade ago, she was reading food labels to avoid eating anything with high fructose corn syrup. She was the first person we knew to drive a Prius.

When Alex and I bought a McMansion nine years ago in McLean, Va., after living in a small bungalow, I felt self-conscious inviting her over, as if we had somehow let her down.

Linda became an informal adviser after we sold what Alex called our BAH (big a– house) in December 2009 and embarked on building an energy-efficient home half the size in the neighboring, walkable town of Falls Church. She, John and their son, Eli, were the first friends we had for dinner in June once the house was habitable. We had talked so much about the project that I knew she’d share my enthusiasm. Besides, she’d understand our green house better than I do.

When she saw the spray foam insulation in the unfinished storage room, she lamented that she didn’t have any in her house, which she had retrofitted as best she could. Yes, she had spray foam envy!

While this is just one story, I wonder if it hints at a broader explanation. Are tastes for or against a McMansion be primarily dictated by one’s reference group? Once you are in a McMansion subdivision (not the teardown variety where there could be other home sizes), presumably there is less judgment about the other houses. But if your friends and family don’t approve of such homes, there would be some dissonance.

The key moments for understanding who does or does not buy McMansion would come at two points:

1. When moving into a new house. While it ultimately is a decision made by the future homeowners, all sort of other people include family members, real estate people, and friends have input.
2. When hosting people from outside the neighborhood in the house. This could get particularly interesting if the homeowners and visitors have differing views about suburbs and home styles.

I think we need some research into this topic: what is the lived experience of McMansion owners and what happens when they encounter criticism for their choice in homes?

Finding community at the office

In a new economy where workers are “free agents” or “portfolio workers” among a relatively high unemployment landscape (at least in the United States), could workers be missing community life at work as well as the regular paycheck?

In the late 1990s the world of work moved away from security and towards freedom.

A job for life was out. Work became splintered, spliced and diced: contract, sub-contract and casual labour, part-time, sessional and seasonal, project-based, freelance and temp work emerged, as the frequencies and rhythms of work became subject to the vagaries of the economy.

Richard Sennett, a professor of sociology at the London School of Economics, described it as ”new economy” work – the work of flexible capitalism where ”workers are asked to behave nimbly, to be open to change on short notice, to take risks continually”…

The experience of being a highly mobile new economy worker is as Sennett says: being continuously exposed to risk can eat away at your sense of character. You are always ”starting over”. And just like your employment, your witnesses are not long-term. The writer Karen Blixen (better known by her pen name, Isak Dinesen) used this line for one of her characters: ”I was constantly in flight, an exile everywhere.”

Sometimes flight cannot be helped. But community helps stave off the feeling of being exiled, of drift.

Some interesting thoughts here. As I have talked to college students, the new economy jobs are what they want: they want to be able to use their skills, to flourish (which may be different than being happy), and to be able to set their own pace and priorities. Of course, these goals can be difficult for many to obtain in the early years after college. Additionally, many of them do want to find a community to be a part of, a place where they can fit into and still be somewhat autonomous. So perhaps this commentary is really about a larger issue: how do modern people who seek after individualistic goals also find enough community so that they don’t become alienated from society? And are there groups or companies that do this better than others?

This reminds me of what one might hear from college faculty: the job of a professor offers a balance between these two goals. We enjoy our jobs because it offers freedom (to study what we want, to have some say over our own schedules) but also places us within an academic context that runs on a very predictable calendar with regular interaction with others.

The commentary also notes the role technology can play: we can be apart from others but are seemingly connected through devices like cell phones or platforms like Facebook. But these seem less like “true” community and more like community of our own choosing, calling whom we want or making “friends” with whom we want. This is quite different than what might go on in an office:

Yet there can be a joyous, awful, wonderful cacophony when you don’t get to choose – the possibility of a richer, messier, wider community; a mosaic of quirks, histories, personalities. Look around your office – they are all there.

This not getting to choose, however, seems to go against all modern sensibilities: it is one thing to put up with others but it is another to do this without any other options.

The quick reference to television show The Office is intriguing. Throughout the course of the show, there is little indication that the employees want to leave. At the same time, there are very few (if any?) moments where the workers make a conscious decision to stay because they really like the community of people there (versus liking one or two people). It is too bad we don’t see more of these characters given options where they could leave but they choose not to because they realize who they are living behind. Perhaps this is too much to ask: if workers are given brighter opportunities elsewhere (money, benefits, chance for advancement, etc.), perhaps they will always go for that over any community ties.

Considering the English character and how the government might push citizens into certain actions

How governments should push or encourage their citizens to perform certain actions is a tricky question. Governments can use financial incentives, cajoling, and brute force, among other options.

The Economist makes the suggestion that “Britain has good reasons to seek a fresh debate on poverty and social mobility.” But in having this debate, it is suggested that the government consider the “English character”:

In the early 1950s a sociologist called Geoffrey Gorer set out to solve the mystery of England’s “character”. To be precise, how had the English gone from being a thoroughly lawless bunch—famed for truculence and cruelty—to one of the most orderly societies in history? Just over a century before, he noted, the police entered some bits of Westminster only in squads of six or more “for fear of being cut to pieces”. Popular pastimes included public floggings, dog-fighting and hunting bullocks to death through east London streets. As late as 1914, well-dressed adults risked jeering mockery from ill-clad “rude boys”, and well-dressed children risked assault. Yet by 1951, when Gorer surveyed more than 10,000 men and women, he could describe an England famous worldwide for disciplined queuing, where “you hardly ever see a fight in a bar” and “football crowds are as orderly as church meetings”. In a book, “Exploring English Character”, Gorer decided that two keys unlocked the mystery: the mid-19th-century creation of a police force of citizen-constables, and the curbing of aggression by “guilt”…

The squabble [between liberals and conservatives] is a waste of breath. Material poverty and character both matter. What is more, they are often linked. Bad choices can worsen poverty; and it is harder to make good choices when life is grim. A more useful debate about character would involve pondering this. How far can the judgmental analyses of the past be applied in modern Britain?…

In most British communities (and more for good than ill) disgrace is a greatly weakened force these days. Mr Cameron’s supporters talk of “libertarian paternalism”, or nudging people to make better choices. Perhaps that will work, though the “tough love” of the past involved sharp prods, not nudges. As each new government discovers, the English are a stroppy lot, and hard to help. It’s not their fault: it is in their character.

A few thoughts about this:

1. I tend to like discussions of character, whether this involves a country or a community or a group. This transformation Gorer described from the mid 1800s to the mid 1900s is remarkable – from public violence to public disgrace.

2. But discussions of character can be very difficult to have because it requires summarizing ideas about large and diverse groups. Governments try to apply regulations to broad swaths of people and this can run into trouble. Making claims about all of the people in poverty in England can lead to negative and unfair stereotyping.

3. How many people in England, or other countries, want to be nudged to “make better choices”? Perhaps the key is to do the nudging without letting anyone know that there is nudging taking place.