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    Friday
    May032019

    High Tech / High Touch

    Your senses are digitally overloaded. Screens, dashboards and speakers compete for attention. Speedometers project onto windshields. Rearview mirrors warn of passing cars. Backup cameras, navigation, and sound systems jam the center console. Video vines sprout leaves to reward your gas efficiency. Phones call, alarms beep, maps speak, and robots read texts. “OK, Waze…OK! WAZE!” you scream.

    And that’s just your car. At home, you command, “OK, Google, talk to Siri and Alexa. Somebody order heating oil. OK, Google. OK, GOOGLE!” “Sorry,” says Alexa, “Google’s out to lunch again.”

    Your TV tells you that your phone is calling with a video from your front door camera: the dog wants to come in. Facebook sends an alert: everyone is outraged about everything. “I knew that,” you think. Your accountant has texted the password for the taxes he emailed. Your bank wants tax returns from every entity you’ve ever known, but you can’t find all the passwords.

    You’re probably thinking, “How can I cram more information into my life?”

    The most underutilized sense in computing is touch, which is also the sense that generates the most confidence. If you doubt what you see or hear, you touch it. People can live without sight and sound, but we shrivel and die if we are untouched. Touch is so important that we call quintessential examples “touchstones.” Now, touch has come to computing.

    Touch features are called “haptic.” Your car drifts across a lane, and your steering wheel shakes. Your car thinks you’re falling asleep, and your seat shakes. Your joystick pushes back harder as your flight simulator banks steeply into a turn. Your seat rumbles with explosions, and a strap gently thumps your head when you’ve been virtually punched.

    You’re walking, and your phone vibrates when it’s time to turn. You’re playing a shooting game, and your phone shakes when you shoot. Haptic feedback is an important way to convey information to people at a gut level: it makes what you see and hear more real. It’s fairly simple now, but haptic feedback will accelerate quickly with advances in material science and computing.

    Ultimately, haptic feedback will help replace expensive control rooms. You’ll don sensory input devices – haptic gloves and visual reality googles– and step into an empty closet that monitors your movements. Reach out for that computer-generated control device, and the gloves tighten on your fingertips. You’re seeing readouts that don’t physically exist and feeling touch sensations that are computer generated. You could operate this nuclear power plant or conduct this surgery from almost anywhere.

    Scientists call a haptic-enhanced experience “immersive.” The name of  the leading haptic development company is Immersion Corporation (symbol: IMMR, www.immersion.com) Immersion licenses its 3500 patents to manufacturers of cars, cell phones, game machines, manufacturing systems, and other devices that could benefit from haptic feedback. 

    Immersion Corp. reminds me of Universal Display (OLED) a few years ago. I did not do as well as I could have with OLED because the company had chunky earnings in the early days. They would sign a licensing deal, have a big quarter, and very low sales the next quarter. Not understanding the earnings, I bought and sold OLED several times before it took off. My original position purchased at $8 would have increased 2000% to $168 today.

    IMMR has the same chunky financials of a young licensing company. In the last three years, sales have swung from $57 million to $35 million to $111 million while the company lost $39 million and $45 million before earning $54 million in 2018. Most of the profit probably accrued from a settlement with Apple, the terms of which were confidential. After Apple introduced the force-sensitive display and the Taptic Engine linear vibratory motor for iPhones, Apple announced a global settlement with Immersion. IMMR is also litigating against Samsung, which could produce a nice earnings surprise, and a pop in the stock price.

    IMMR has a market cap of only $283 million, no long-term debt, and cash of $125 million, so you are buying IMMR for only $158 million. Only four analysts from small firms follow Immersion.

    I had looked at IMMR in 2015, but was put off by insider sales, which have continued. A 10% owner has liquidated holdings, and the CEO and CFO have recently left the company. The new CEO, Ramzi Haidamus, built large patent licensing businesses at Nokia and Dolby Labs, and founded Via Licensing, a patent pool licensor responsible for over a $1 billion in royalties. Haidamus has the experience necessary to turn patents into cash.

    Even better, one of the Princeton area’s shrewdest investors is now the largest shareholder in IMMR. Raging Capital Management (ragingcapital.com) and founder Bill Martin have purchased 4.8 million shares or about 15.5% of the company.

    Whatever you think about a company, it is often helpful to call their investor relations department to see how they represent themselves. Years ago, if you called Berkshire Hathaway, they would mail a batch of Warren Buffet’s annual reports. In uncommonly straightforward language, Buffet explained his strategies and confessed his mistakes. His annual reports helped create a rabid following among shareholders and employees by positioning the company’s founder as a thoughtful, purposeful leader.

    Some companies say nothing because management is working with a private equity firm to take the company private. The last thing they want is a higher stock price.

    Immersion has outsourced its investor relations to the Blueshirt Group, perhaps a cousin of the Blue Man Group, the mute, blue-headed bald guys who play paint-splattering drums in Las Vegas. The Blueshirts’ telephone system has no operator, no functioning general mail box, and no access to information about the companies they represent. 

    The fact that Immersion’s Investment Relations department is AWOL is also an opportunity to create value. Think of the valuable companies that have been led by awesome storytellers: Amazon, Apple, Tesla, Disney – even Walmart founder Sam Walton focused on one simple message, "There is only one boss – the customer. And he can fire everybody in the company from the chairman on down, simply by spending his money somewhere else."

    Technology and finance are building blocks of value, but a company must tell a cogent story to inspire customers and shareholders. John Naisbitt, the author of the phrase, “high tech / high touch” forecasted a time of tech overload when people would grow weary of technology and seek greater human contact. For marketers, this means emphasizing authenticity and – gasp – picking up the phone, an expensive, but useful exercise because talk is the most effective way to solve problems and learn about your customers.

    NICE (symbol: NICE) is another company I have mentioned here that makes call routing and back-office automation software. NICE stock is up from $96 to $138 in the last year, a 43% gain to a market cap of $8.3 billion. Companies like AAA, LL Bean, and Wyndham Hotels use NICE to manage their call centers.

    Haptics and talk help people connect – especially in an age of screen-centered alienation. High tech / high touch. Buy IMMR at about $9.18. If Immersion’s haptics do as well as NICE’s talk, you’ll have a gain of about 2800%.

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