How Jim Marggraff is inventing the way to a better future
I’m in a conference room at Google headquarters in Mountain View, California, to interview Jim Marggraff, but before I can even start, he launches into questions of his own: What’s the goal of this article? Who will read it? What do we want them to do with what they learn?
This is the way the serial entrepreneur approaches everything from a talk with a reporter to the lack of map-reading skills in the United States to world peace. “I’m emphatically focused on what is the PTS – what is the problem to solve?” he says. “I ask that multiple times every day, because people typically aren’t clear on it.”
Marggraff’s focus on problem-solving has made him an enormously successful inventor. His creations have included the Livescribe smart pen, which links handwritten notes with audio, and LeapFrog’s LeapPad, an electronic book that helps children learn to read and has had sales of more than $1 billion since it debuted in 1999. In October 2016, Google acquired Eyefluence, a virtual reality company he co-founded.
After a year at Google, Marggraff “found the allure of a startup too great” and left the tech giant to become CEO of Rival Theory, a company that is developing artificial intelligence personas of world leaders and influencers that will give people access to their support and coaching.
A member of the Rotary Club of Lamorinda Sunrise, Marggraff was the driving force behind Rotary’s virtual reality film One Small Act. The film follows a child whose world has been torn apart by conflict and traces the acts of kindness that make a difference in her life. Developed with Google, it debuted at the 2017 Rotary International Convention in Atlanta and can be viewed on Rotary’s VR app, which is available on iTunes and Google Play.
A desire to change the world underlies much of Marggraff’s work. “There is a thread that connects all of these technologies,” he says. “It deals with communication, understanding, learning, empathy.” His new book, How to Raise a Founder with Heart, is about raising kids with an entrepreneurial mindset.
Over breakfast, we talk about the future of virtual reality as a fundraising tool; where he gets his ideas; and how Rotary clubs can learn to think like an inventor.
Q: You have spent two decades bringing together technology and humans. What has been the biggest challenge?
A: With each of my inventions, I thought that after I presented an idea, it would be rapidly grasped and then easily accepted and adopted. I was surprised – although I no longer am – by the amount of time it takes for people to grasp the implication of a new technology, to understand its potential, and then to embrace it.
Q: You’ve said that what motivates your work is making a difference in the world. Where does Rotary fit in?
A: Each time I’d start another company, my neighbor would ask me to speak at his club. I spoke first about an interactive globe I’d invented, and then I spoke about the LeapPad, and then I came in and showed the Livescribe pen, and then, in 2011, I became a Rotary member.
I’d been an entrepreneur buried in my work so long, and I was looking for a means to give back. I wouldn’t have joined just a social club for businesses. It was Rotary’s commitment to doing local projects. As I began to hear about the global programs as well, I was more impressed and more interested.
Q: Rotary is exploring virtual reality as a way for clubs and districts to share Rotary’s story. How do you explain VR to people unfamiliar with the technology?
A: Remember the old View-Master? You put this disc in, and it’s got a pair of images taken from slightly different angles, and it gives you a stereo view. VR is like a View-Master, but now the simplest way is to take your phone, put it in the little Google Cardboard box, and put some lenses in front of it. Instead of it just being a static image, it’s a movie. And instead of it just being a movie, you can look around and see 360 degrees. You see above you, below you, to the left and right. You’re inside the movie.
Q: How can a VR experience help people connect with each other?
A: Here’s an example. Right now, you can connect virtually with 2 billion people on the planet with Google Hangouts or Skype. You can also pick up your phone and utter a phrase and within three seconds have it translated to virtually any language in the world. As we merge those technologies, you’ll be able to virtually sit in someone’s living room and talk to them as the language is translated. You will be able to connect with someone in Libya or Afghanistan or South Africa, and you’ll be able to share your feelings and thoughts. Suddenly, it’s not a remote person in a remote country. It’s an individual you can understand.
As the technology allows, I’m looking to see what framework we can create. First let’s connect Rotarians to Rotarians. Rotary is a global group, and we feel bonds with each other just because we’re Rotarians. Now let’s connect more personally.
Then let’s reach beyond that and connect people outside of Rotary with Rotarians and then with others. And once this happens, it becomes more difficult for people to allow the leaders in their country to say, “Bomb them.”
Q: Might we invent our way to peace?
View One Small Act and other virtual reality films on Rotary’s VR app, which is available for Android and Apple devices. Or stop by the Virtual Reality Zone in the House of Friendship at the 2018 Rotary International Convention in Toronto.
Use VR to share Rotary’s story at your club and district events. Watch for a new VR film in time for World Polio Day in October. Find out more at rotary.org/en/vr.
Jim Marggraff’s gadgets
Problem: How to efficiently transfer voice, video, and data between an organization’s offices while maintaining quality connections even when hardware or communication lines fail.
Solution: ATM, FastPacket, and FrameRelay Network technologies, which enabled computers to be connected globally and enabled high-speed, reliable communication.
Year debuted: 986
Sales: >$1 billion; IPO in 1992; Cisco bought the company for $4.5 billion in 1996.
Problem: How to improve literacy.
Solution: LeapPad Learning System – talking books that children interact with using a stylus to practice spelling, phonics, and other reading skills. (Marggraff wrote and narrated many of the early books.)
Year debuted: 1999
Sales: >$1 billion; LeapPads were used by over 100 million children worldwide from 1999 to 2004. Within five years, 77 percent of U.S. households with kids ages four to seven had LeapPads.
Problem: How to help tweens improve their math, science, writing, and learning skills.
Solution: Fly Pentop Computer, a pen with a computer inside that, when used with special digital paper, can help tweens learn Spanish and math, play music, and more.
Year debuted: 2005
Sales: > $10 million; Fly won 2005 “Toy of the Year” awards in three categories from the Toy Association.
Patents: Total at LeapFrog: 12
Company: Explore Technologies
Problem: How to improve geographic literacy after a National Geographic survey found that one in seven Americans could not find the United States on an unlabeled map of the world.
Solution: Odyssey Atlasphere, a talking globe that children interact with using a stylus to find out about government, population, religion, language, and more.
Year debuted: 1996
Sales: >$100 million. Sold the company to LeapFrog in 1998.
Patents: Assigned to LeapFrog.
Problem: Whether to take notes or listen during a discussion.
Solution: World’s first smart pens, Echo and Pulse, which simultaneously capture handwriting and audio, and allow playback from paper, PC, tablet, or phone.
Year debuted: 2009
Sales: >$100 million.
Problem: How to make fast, hands-free navigation for virtual and augmented reality.
Solution: Wearable eye-tracking and eye-interaction technology.
Year debuted: Still in development; company bought by Google in 2016.
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