The History and Background of AmbiFi
RJP: Today’s guest is Jeff Bonasso, CEO and Founder of AmbiFi. I think it would be good to start things with a little about you and your work. How did you get started?
JB: I’ve been working in content management, authoring and delivery for over 25 years now. I started at IBM in the mid-90s and IBM saw the opportunity with online learning for their Fortune 500 clients, so to scale that up they came up with the Knowledge Factory Model. This model automated the development process similar to what Ford did for automobiles, and I was the technology architect and lead developer that came up with the content production tools for the Knowledge Factories. These tools were designed to lower the skill levels needed to develop robust online learning as well as significantly reduce the time to market. I continued with IBM for about 12 more years. I then left to go to go to Ninth House which was an internet-darling at that time that made these complex, immersive learning simulations for leadership training. They would take content from leadership gurus like Stephen Covey, Ken Blanchard or David Allen and essentially make a choose-your-own-adventure interactive movie to train people on the principles. These were Hollywood quality videos you would watch and then you would get to decision points and choose what to do. Each of these interactive movies was about an hour long and it would cost about $2 million to create because it was all custom programming. When I came in, I worked to standardize things and build authoring and delivery tools to make these immersive simulations with minimal programming required. Once we had implemented this platform that $2 million went down to a couple hundred thousand for the same type of module with even more fidelity because the approach could take advantage of the latest technology innovations in the marketplace. The key to it was building an interactive player independent of the content development process that could evolve as technology rapidly marches forward. When new UI technologies come along, as they always do, most of your investment in the hard part of design, content management and content development is preserved.
RJP: I’m sensing a theme here where your building content development platforms for non-technical people.
JB: Exactly! At the end of the day, when it comes to content development, with the right approach, it doesn’t matter if it assessments or rich interactive content, you can follow a similar methodology and models to create that content, centralize that content and use it across multiple deliverables. You can create a platform that automates the complex programming and puts that authoring capability in the hands of the people in your organization with the knowledge - the subject matter experts as well as anyone with knowledge to share.
RJP: Which brings down the cost…
JB: And just as importantly, lets the designers and creative people make their own content. You shouldn’t have to be an engineer to do this…
RP: I see your point. Then what happened?
JB: So, at this same time a number of things were happening and that led to the creation of AmbiFi. For one, I’m a pilot and at that time I had my license and was going for my instrument certification. I saw first-hand that there was a big gap in good technology for pilots to follow the methodology used for checklists - in the industry they were invented in. At this same time, I was also reading Atul Gawande’s book, The Checklist Manifesto. This was a super interesting book where Gawande goes to the Boeing Corporation to learn how the aviation industry has such an amazing safety record. He wanted to learn their methods and apply them for surgery for a project he was leading for the World Health Organization (WHO). This resulted him implementing a checklist approach — basically, it’s like a preflight checklist: Did you have all the equipment you need? Have the antibiotics been given? etc. — and doing that, he lowered the death rate 47 percent. Which is amazing!…so there I was, 20+ years of building learning platforms, seeing a way to close the technology gap with my own personal passion for pilot checklists and then reading this book that convinced me that nearly any industry could benefit from such a platform.
RJP: The perfect storm?
JB: But wait, there’s more. The other thing happening about that time was Amazon Web Services, AWS, came out and provided the infrastructure so an architect/developer like me could create a platform that that the whole world could use. Before that you would need a large amount of capital and a whole team of people and a data center. But with AWS, if you really learn all of its wonderful services, you can provide a global platform for very little time and money. And I got to prove this out with a system called MiraCheck, which is a system I created for pilots to create their own checklists.
RJP: Tell me more about MiraCheck.
JB: MiraCheck is a platform I created for pilots that has gotten rave reviews in multiple aviation magazines and won awards and has done really well in the pilot community. With the app, you interact with Mira, a virtual co-pilot to perform all preflight, inflight and postflight procedures. This can be done completely hands-free, speaking and listening to Mira through your aviation headset on your mobile phone or tablet. So, we proved that it would work in the harshest of conditions - a noisy cockpit with a blaring engine and no network connectivity and then scaled it up to evolve into the AmbiFi platform today. It can really be used by anyone for any sort of digital checklist, microlearning or live data capture.
RJP: So why AmbiFi?
JB: Well there is an evolving trend in computing going on where the computer is blending into the background and you just tell it what you want. You see it now with Google Assistant and with Alexa. This trend is called “Ambient Computing”. The idea is computing is all around you rather than tied to a single device. The logical next step is “Ambient Learning”. So, the vision for AmbiFi if that it lets you create an activity that can be used on a PC, smart phone or even a digital assistant like Alexa. Instead of clicking and swiping, its hands-free and you say, “Play the XYZ process” and it tells you what to do. We have it all figured out for you in the platform, so you can create something once and people can use it on any device.
RJP: Its seems like that is the future. Voice interface, intelligent assistants. People have them at home, but they are not really in the workplace yet.
JB: It’s starting to take off with all these new Alexa-enabled devices from Amazon. They rolled out the Alexa for Business platform, which is designed to bring voice-first applications to the workplace. There will be a lot more hitting the market next year with Google making big announcements recently. AmbiFi was built from the ground up with voice as a first-class citizen, both from authoring capabilities as well delivering and controlling narrative content. As what is being coined as “Ambient Computing” takes off, because of our agnostic approach to being able to author and deliver content to a wide variety of platforms, AmbiFi is positioned to take advantage of this evolutionary vision of computing.