Case Studies

Forward Thinking

By David Downs, Chelsea Freyhoff, Kate Pavao, Joe Shepter, and Alison Weiss

November 2010

Block-Rocking Beats

Hunched over a glowing blue surface, Carles López precisely slides and twists an assortment of translucent blocks—and the pulsing music in the background changes with every move he makes. It may not be obvious to people on the dance floor, but he’s actually playing a table.

The Reactable, a new musical instrument developed by the Music Technology Group at Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona, Spain, is drawing crowds to concerts and museums around the world. Up to four people can play at once, manipulating objects called tangibles to create or modify synthetic tones, beats, and samples.

A system of cameras and projectors tracks the position of the tangibles and displays visual cues to the player. Pulsing circles and lines convey information that helps López and other musicians create the sounds they want.

“People ask me if the Reactable is the future,” says López. “I always say the Reactable is the present. The future, who knows?” For more information, see

Dethroning Cash as King

What if consumers could spend money online without having to reach for their wallets? Initiatives supported by some of the tech industries’ biggest players are adding new currency to digital payments.

PayPal—the online payments force behind eBay—is promoting PayPal X, which offers the secure, safe, online currency of PayPal to application developers. PayPal X currently powers BlackBerry’s App World, and technology giants such as Intel are working to ensure their developers can use the open system.

Meanwhile, tech company Bump is combining PayPal X with Apple’s iPhone to let users literally bump devices together to exchange money. PayPal spokesperson Anuj Nayar says mobile technology will be a force that creates the payment models of the future—whether it’s once-pirated music or the latest goofy smartphone app.

“People are willing to pay for stuff if it’s easy. The possibilities of what could be done with digital currency, with actually moving money online, is so much bigger than we’ve known,” says Nayar.

For more information, visit

Are You Rational About Money?

When customers open an account with investment services firm Decision Analytics, they’re quizzed about 20 obscure investment strategies, such as “barbells” and “derivative enhancement.” According to CEO Lee Epstein, the questions are not an attempt to upsell customers into exotic financial products—they are an effort to gauge the human tendency to act on existing knowledge, rather than trying to learn more.

This effort is guided by a field of studies called behavioral economics, which analyzes how people make (often irrational) decisions about money. “Traditional economics is based on two essential assumptions: that people are rational and selfish,” says Thomas Gilovich, coauthor of Why Smart People Make Big Money Mistakes and How to Correct Them: Lessons from the Life-Changing Science of Behavioral Economics (Simon & Schuster, 2000). “Those things may be largely true, but they are not entirely true.”

In fact, Gilovich explains, evidence that we’re not rational abounds. Why should the stock market do better on sunny days than rainy days? Why has the U.S. market been much more predictable on the December 7ths after 1941 than before? Why would we happily help a stranger move a couch for free but never do so for money?

Behavioral economists use psychological experiments to uncover the irrational rules humans use to make decisions. For example, the “endowment effect” leads us to overvalue the junk stored in our attics. “Loss aversion” makes the pain of financial loss more acute than the joy of financial gains. Gilovich contends that awareness of behavioral mistakes will hopefully help us avoid them.

But Epstein is cautious. “These insights are useful,” he says, “but you shouldn’t get taken in by anyone who promises that they can help you beat the market.”

Coasteering: Thrills, Chills—and Skills

The extreme sport of coasteering—traversing rugged coastline without mechanical aids—is the perfect combination of team-building and leadership skills for adrenaline junkies. But don’t jump in without the help of a trained professional. Coasteering guides train in first aid, cold-water safety, cliff-climbing techniques, and tidal assessment and must be familiar with the swell and depth risks of active coasteering venues.

Guides are adept at addressing the human psyche, combining their outdoor skills with team-building strategies so participants learn to help each other navigate difficult obstacles. “Unlike the usual work hierarchy, coasteering means the CEO and the guy who delivers the mail are on the same level, and neither person will have prior experience to draw on,” says Chris Scott, activity tourism manager for OutdoorNI, a guide to outdoor activities in Northern Ireland. “This allows everybody to shine and gives colleagues a chance to learn about each other and maybe even discover hidden talents.” For more information, tap into your sense of adventure and visit

Harnessing the Power of Goodwill

Familiar with the sinking feeling of leaving your cell phone behind at the coffee shop, the airport, the subway . . . or any of the dozens of places your travels take you? Entrepreneur and former Oracle employee Eric Lagier has created a solution to the misplaced device problem—TigerTag, a Web-based lost-and-found network that trusts people will make an effort to return lost items.

Users mark their valuables with stickers from (US$2.99 for shipping and handling), and if a tagged object—electronics, wallets, keys, even a pet’s collar—goes missing, any Good Samaritan can enter a unique ID number into the TigerTag Website and access the owner’s predesignated return instructions. TigerTag has partnered with FedEx to assist in the return of the lost articles, and while owners do have to pay for the cost of return shipping, the TigerTag service is free.

Lagier says 75 percent of “tiger-tagged” valuables have been returned to their owners, most within 24 hours. For more information, visit

Wi-Fi and Wine

Wine enthusiasts are willing to spend thousands of dollars to create elaborate, temperature-controlled storage environments to protect their precious collections. Ranch Systems has taken the idea of preservation one step further by creating a wireless technology solution that helps ensure the well-being of the grapes (or other crops) before they ever hit the crusher.

The Ranch Systems setup collects information through a series of sensors and cameras connected to a radio tower that’s typically stationed in a central location at the farm or vineyard. “The farmers decide what types of conditions they want to measure, like temperature in the field or the amount of moisture in the soil,” says Ranch Systems founder Jacob Christfort. Once gathered, the information is then transmitted back to a secure data center where it can be accessed online or sent directly to the farmer by way of text messages and/or an automated voice mail. “Having information about soil and temperature conditions helps winemakers address issues such as the vines growing too many leaves, which results in the grape tasting vegetative.”

U.S.-based Opus One and Kendall Jackson are two examples of high-end wineries using Ranch Systems technology to improve the outcome of their growing efforts. Through partnerships with international cell carriers, Ranch Systems is also being used worldwide in places like Australia, Europe, and South America. “Our goal is to have people enjoy even better wine in years to come because of this technology,” says Christfort. For more information, visit

Photography by Shutterstock