When Hardware Becomes the New Software

By Dan Weingrod

For years, it’s seemed like software has been the key driver of just about everything in interactive media. Starting from the Web itself to apps and the Cloud, software has been the dynamic, flexible, force for innovation that has created the interactive communications culture we are used to. There really is an app for everything, because the processes and costs of developing software, as well as the huge stack of software available to build upon, have made it more efficient, easier to create and faster to deploy software solutions.

So where does hardware sit in all of this?  I would argue that the growth of the Internet and specifically Web 2.0 has created a world where hardware has been primarily driven by software. Sure, the iPhone is a piece of hardware that has revolutionized mobile communications, but consider how much of its success came from apps, a software category that Steve Jobs resisted and whose explosive growth he did not predict.

But now, we are seeing the beginning of a whole new world of hardware. Today’s hardware can be created with the efficiencies of software. It can be customized and personalized for specific use cases, differentiating ways users interact with it. And hardware now takes advantage of the culture of innovation agility and speed that software has created.  This new age of hardware is being driven by two key developments: 3D printing and the “Maker” movement.

3D printing has now reached a point of critical awareness that has taken it from the realm of geeky, small-scale tinkerers to being heralded as the next industrial revolution. 3D printing technology is now creating a range of physical objects, from high-tolerance engine parts to toys and, sadly, guns.  With rapid improvements in the technology, entry-level prices for 3D printers have dropped to $500. And they are even “portable.”

HardwarePortable

But the larger change that 3D printing has heralded is the ability to create one-of-a- kind, custom, physical objects on demand and for a focused use case. Instead of investing in a factory, and the requisite customer base, to produce physical goods, we are rapidly moving into an age where limited edition and product personalization is no longer cost prohibitive. In this way, 3D printing creates a world where, just like “there’s an App for that,” there’s also “an object for that.”  It’s easy to envision countless situations where 3D printing will change how we design, create and deploy objects.  Examples range from eyeglass frames printed in multiple styles and colors that are custom fitted to a single person, to surgical instruments individualized to specific personal requirements.

What’s also important about 3D printing is the way that its culture has been built upon the now-familiar culture of software. Just like software, 3D printing allows for rapid prototyping, customization for a variety of use cases and, most importantly, a whole network of connected communities who share plans, ideas and results. This open-source world of physical production is clearly based in the software traditions of GitHub and Linux. But it is specifically these traditions and culture that have informed the culture of 3D printing and the larger “Maker” movement and its inventive collage of DIY electronic, robotic and machine building that it is part of.

The second element that is making hardware culture into software culture has been the introduction of small, inexpensive, highly flexible and connected microcontrollers, computers and sensors. The Arduino, a microcontroller board, and Raspberry Pi, a credit card-sized computer costing $37, are two primary examples of how the ways we connect digitally are changing. Much like 3D printing, these tools allow for simple, inexpensive and highly creative customization. Arduino, originally designed as an education tool, has been used to create interactive projects ranging from simple robots to controllers for drones to this candy machine that dispenses specific candy depending on the word you tweet it. Rasperry Pi can allow users to create home entertainment centers, Virtual Private Network controllers and a host of other discrete, customized hardware tools.

HardwareControllers

With all of these similarities to 3D printing, and a similar open culture of sharing and collaborative learning, these tools also bring another critical element into the mix, their capacity to be easily networked. Both of these boards and others can easily be fitted with a wi-fi connection and address, enabling a whole range of communications and control. Much of this is seen in projects like the Nest thermostat, a commercial example, where hardware is able to analyze conditions and respond or report on situations based on conditions that have been programmed into it. While much of this work is still in the realm of hobbyists or tinkerers, this is another example of hardware’s potential to develop tools and products that can be easily personalized, open to revision and updates, and connected to the world.

Sounds a lot like what we’ve always expected from software.

It’s when we put these two trends – 3D printing and the Maker movement – together that we can see the potential impact for hardware as it takes on the attributes of software, not only on the world of digital product development, but on interactive media as a whole. On the one hand, we have the growing potential of customized objects that fit our personal and professional needs. On the other, we have the ability to link these objects via small, customized sensors that can deliver information or respond to communication. We see this already played out with Nike’s Fuel Band or the Fitbit, but the near future promises to bring us many more options and opportunities.

For interactive media, one impact of this trend will be the world of the “Big Sensor.” We are just beginning to comprehend the implications, both positive and negative, of “Big Data.” Big sensor, a relatively new term, is a subset of Big Data that covers the enormous amount of passive data received from video cameras, temperature sensors, GPS-enabled and other devices. When we start adding connected personalized devices to this mix, a whole host of potentialities arise. Some of these, such as individual tracking, raise scary and complex privacy issues, but others might allow for small networks to communicate at different levels or add data that enable individuals to improve collaboration. These latter could create opportunities to improve communication and connection in ways we have not yet considered.

The growing potential to create 3D printed customized connected objects such as clothes, shoes and the soon-to-be-ubiquitous, wristband/watch/phone will also begin to change the way we interactwith the physical world. I recently saw a demonstration of the Leap Motion sensor.  Based on Kinect technology, it allows control of a computer interface purely through gestural movement and is priced at the already low price of $79.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=Ew_8Uj5RnXs

We are rapidly approaching a world where we will carry or wear custom connected objects which will enable us to interface with the physical world around us in new and innovative ways. We’ll be able to constantly adjust, retune and rebuild how these objects look and feel, how they connect and what they control. And in many ways, we’ll be able to do with these objects what we did with full-fledged computers just a few years ago. In this new environment, we’ll be using hardware in many of the same ways as we have software, changing, adjusting and fine-tuning to our needs. Within this environment, the challenge for interactive communications will be to help make these new forms of connection useful and relevant to users.

Dan Weingrod is a digital and social media strategist with over 15 years experience helping businesses build successful Web presences, digital marketing capabilities, and social and emerging media strategies.

Dan has established, led and grown digital departments in advertising and digital agencies and has hands on expertise with SEO and PPC, Web analytics, and online media. Dan’s latest focus is on helping brands and businesses build participation and driving innovation and creativity through the use of Agile and Lean methodologies.

Along with his consulting practice, Dan is an adjunct professor in the Interactive Media program at Quinnipiac University, an experienced photographer, avid cyclist and expert beginner.

Comments

  1. Great article.

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