The adventures of an analog engineer and digital storyteller who studies emerging networks and their impact on the great game of business.
May 15, 2013

Adopting new technologies is like a good-news/bad-news joke. The good news is that we have a new way of doing things. The bad news is that we have a new way of doing things.

While innovators and early adopters love to play with new technologies, companies who’ve built their businesses upon the limitations of old technologies will try valiantly to fend them off. It’s inevitable. Whenever their livelihoods are threatened by new technologies, industries will argue for the status quo.

But, there’s an odd flip-side to this self-centered view of new-tech adoption.  Just as established industries will fight to hold onto their competitive advantage, it’s common for some early adopters to fight to hold onto theirs.

It’s like the story of David vs. Goliath. David’s slingshot gives him a competitive advantage over the size and strength of Goliath. But what happens if Goliath decides to adopt the slingshot for himself? Is that unfair to David? Forgetting that technologies are free to be used by anyone, some early adopters seem to think so.

We’ve seen this situation play itself out many times in social media. When the main stream media started adopting podcasting, some early adopters cried foul. When Ashton Kutcher saw an opportunity to converse with his fans via Twitter, many early adopters started sounding like cranky old men screaming at the neighborhood kids to get off their lawns.

And, as it always does, history has repeated itself again. No longer an obscure little crowdfunding site, Kickstarter has hit critical mass as everyone and their grandma can see it as a viable way to fund a project. While Kickstarter remained an obscure website that funded little indie-art films, early adopters could place their projects in front of small, dedicated audiences of other early adopters. However, once Kickstarter projects entered the big leagues, producing millions of dollars for ideas such as the Elevator Dock, DoubleFine Adventure, Pebble, or OUYA, that’s when it drew the attention of others…such as celebrities.

Coming on of the heels of the successful Veronica Mars Kickstarter campaign, producer/actor Zach Braff decided to launch his own Kickstarter campaign called Wish I Was Here. Braff exceeded his $2 million goal in four days and with nine days left in the campaign, 38,000 people have already pledged $2.6 million.

It didn’t take too long for the Davids to start complaining that Goliath had dared to use a slingshot, thus giving the actor unfair advantage over less-famous competitors.

Putting aside the hypocrisy of the argument, the Davids don’t understand that the more people that are exposed to Kickstarter, the larger the potential base is to market new projects to. Sure celebrities have larger audiences to draw from, but at the same time, they draw large numbers of new members into a growing crowdfunding ecosystem. Paraphrasing one of my favorite authors, Paul Zane Pilzer, celebrities aren’t taking a large slice of a fixed pie. By their very involvement, they are helping the crowdfunding community “…grow a bigger pie.”

Innovators and early adopters bring new technologies into the world. But at a certain point, they must act like parents and let their children go, thus allowing new technologies to finish the creative destruction for which they were born. And whether early adopters like it or not, that creative destruction must change everyone, not just a select few.

And that’s a good thing.

Image Credit: PuddlesMcGee under Creative Commons

Filed under: Disruptive Tech

Feb 7, 2013

Crashspace-LA Storefront

For the past year, I’ve wanted to visit a hackerspace–a physical location where inventors of all ages gather to share equipment, knowledge, and experience. I got my opportunity two Saturdays ago when I visited Crashspace in Los Angeles.  I attended the eLeCTRONiC WeAraBLes Meetup as a member of Epson America to help product manager, Eric Mizufuka, demonstrate Epson’s Moverio BT-100 transparent display glasses to those who might want to incorporate the platform into their own projects.

Crashspace-LA consists of a small storefront located on Venice Boulevard in Culver City, California. Its meeting room held about fifty people, who had self-organized themselves into three groups: those who sat on folding chairs, those who sat on an old couch, and those who stood along the walls. Latecomers peered into the room through two open doors that lead to the sidewalk.

The attendees included parents, teachers, students, entrepreneurs, recent college grads and old, crusty engineers like myself. And although our interests varied wildly, the reason for our attendance remained the same–something that Annika O’Brien, founder of the LA Robotics group, explained perfectly.

“I need other nerds to nerd-out with.” dress demonstration.

After quick introductions, attendees were encouraged to demonstrate projects. One-by-one,they showed their work. Rich demonstrated his “hug-o-meter,” a jacket lined with conductive sensors that sent signals to multi-colored LEDs. Others had stitched Arduino microcontrollers into swaths of fabric…and in one case, a hat. A representative from Illuminode raised the bar by demonstrating commercially-available, LED-laced garments, that were programmed to interact with each other, changing colors based upon variables such as proximity and the relationships.

Rich shows off his "Hug-o-meter."

At this point in the meeting, my expectations had been met. I was among inventors demonstrating whimsical applications. But my experience changed when Frank took the floor to demonstrate his latest wearable technology project.

Sleepless in Los Angeles

Frank explained that he hadn’t slept much since he heard about the tragic death of Chief Petty Officer Terrell Horne III, who died of injuries inflicted when he was rammed by a suspected drug-running boat.  Although Frank had never met the Chief Petty Officer, he felt the loss personally, leading to many long nights trying to find a way to avoid this type of death in the future.

Dressed in sweatpants and a white T-shirt, Frank stood in front of the crowd revealing material after material that he was testing to build a new type of helmet. Frank’s interest in safety didn’t just begin in December. He was issued US Patent in September 2011 for a Damage Resistant Aircraft.

Frank shows off some helmet materials.

I shouldn’t have been surprised at the intensity of Frank’s motivation. The night vision demo brought by Epson was also inspired by a tragic news story. Conceived while watching news footage of rescuers trying to find Hurricane Sandy victims, its inventor set out to develop a wearable device that switched between night vision and clear glass depending upon whether a rescuer was looking into dark or light spaces. The inventor achieved his goal by mounting an infrared camera with infrared transmitters onto the Moverio BT-100 platform.

As Eric demonstrated the night vision application, Annika O’Brien recognized a potential solution to a problem that she had been thinking about for a while. She told the group about a friend who suffered from Face Blindness, a condition that inhibits sufferers from being able to recognize other people’s faces. Annika asked if a combination camera+Moverio+facial recognition software might be able to help those with Face Blindness identify people as they approached.Trying on the night vision glasses that were built upon the Epson Moverio BT-100

The Makerati

I sat there admiring these fascinating people who represented a new breed of inventor: The Makerati. Rather than toiling individually in dank garages and basements, the Makerati work collaboratively through websites, chat rooms, coffee shops and hackerspaces.  Driven by interest, desire, and caring, they willingly invest their own time, money, and deprive themselves of sleep in order to make a difference in the world.

I’m looking forward to spending a little more time with them.

Oct 29, 2012

The history of business has been driven by three forms of mathematics: subtraction, division, and differentiation.

Consider for a moment the terms that we use to describe our businesses with. We organize our companies into “divisions,” “departments,” and “branches.” We “segment” the marketplace and “allocate” our budgets.

The majority of our manufacturing process has been based on the process of subtraction. For example, we start with raw stock and subtract from it until the component that we want is revealed. We carve with chisels, cut with saws, make holes with drills and punches, and shape with grinders. In all of these manufacturing techniques, we start with raw material and end with a product plus significant waste.

Why do we break things into smaller pieces?  Because up until now, it has been the most cost-efficient way for businesses to manage their resources.

However, recent advances in technology (digitization, networking and the Internet of Things) have opened up new ways to build businesses upon a new math: addition, multiplication, and integration.

Consider the process of building a component with a 3D printer. Rather than subtracting material until a product emerges from the waste, we build the product sequentially, layer by layer. Since we only use the material required to create the product, we eliminate not only the waste, but all of the negative things related with it, such as landfills, stock costs, freight charges, etc…

We are at the dawn of a new economy that is being built through adding resources, multiplying their abilities, and integrating these changes into our professional and private lives. The days of divide and conquer businesses are limited. New technologies allow us to draw upon rich resources that were once too expensive to acquire, such as ubiquitous networks and the instant access to vast resources of the human, capital, and manufacturing variety.

The ramifications of this additive economy will be profound. Managers who are used to creating budgets, schedules, and staffing profiles based on inherent inefficiencies will struggle. Companies who seek to corner markets by hoarding resources will also find themselves at a serious disadvantage.

If Joey has the ability to manufacture your product in his spare bedroom using a 3D printer, what does that mean to your business? If Suzie has the ability to cost-effectively tap into vast labor resources through Mechanical Turk, how can your company’s R&D department keep up with her? If a start-up venture has access to a plethora of shallow-pocket investors, will it be able to enter the great game of business by simply bypassing the venture capitalist gatekeepers?

As we wrap-up 2012, its time for your company to consider the consequences of the fast-approaching Additive Economy. What if the fundamental assumptions that your company was built were turned totally upside down? Specifically, what ramifications might your company be forced to deal with if it were suddenly more efficient to add instead of subtract, multiply instead of divide, or integrate instead of differentiate?

Are you ready for the changes that the Additive Economy may bring?

Photo available under Creative Commons from urbanmkr