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Hardware innovation often flies under the radar. For proof, look no further than the sidelines at the 2022 World Cup. Photos of balls charging up to power their spatial positioning sensors garnered headlines and baffled fans, who had no idea this new technology had been in development for six years.
It’s understandable that most people don’t realize the scope and pace of hardware innovation; software tends to get the most attention, especially software made for smartphones. But while mobile software has been changing the way we live, new developments in hardware have more potential than ever to revolutionize our quality of life and protect our planet by creating entirely new platforms and use cases — and it’s time to pay attention.
Hardware innovation in multiple areas
To understand how much innovation is happening in hardware, it’s helpful to break the market into three areas.
1. Data collection
The first section is the sensors that collect data for analysis. We’re seeing progress in terms of what we can sense and digitize, the types of analyses we can do on that data, and the ways we can communicate that information quickly and securely.
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The spatial positioning sensors in the 2022 World Cup match balls are a high-profile example, but sensor-embedded concrete may soon also help states prioritize road and bridge repairs, and sensor implants already allow doctors to monitor cardiac patients remotely.
This progress matters because the more we can sense, digitize, understand and share, the better we can evaluate and optimize systems for efficiency and the better we can understand and serve consumers.
2. Talking to machines
The second area is human-digital interfaces. People are analog and need hardware like keyboards and touchscreens to interact with the digital world. The latest innovations are making these interfaces feel more natural and less like talking to an assistant on the other side of a wall. This progress drives up adoption.
Already, immersive platforms like VR and AR are taking us in this direction, with large investments like those of Meta ongoing to keep pushing this area forward.
The third area is automation and robotics.
We’re also seeing manufacturers pushing boundaries in this section of the market to change the physical world. For example, an EU-sponsored consortium has built an autonomous aquadrone to skim plastic trash and algae overgrowth from harbors and lakes.
Moving beyond hardware use case limits
The convergence of these three areas of hardware innovation could be critical to improving humanity’s quality of life and sustainability. People and our planet are analog — we need hardware of some kind in order to interact with them. Even with the amazing capabilities of smartphones, consumer robots, digital assistants and industrial automation, humanity has needs that can’t be served by the current range of available hardware. The devices that will meet these needs have yet to be invented.
This can be difficult to imagine because there’s already so much focus on developing and iterating software for existing hardware, especially for smartphones. But sticking with the hardware that already exists limits potential.
While apps might help make consumers more energy-conscious, we need new hardware innovations to directly capture, transform, and sequester carbon.
For another example, consider digital health initiatives, many of which are solely software-as-a-medical-device (SaMD) on smartphones and in web applications. Many potential digital health consumers have physical or cognitive challenges that make smartphone use difficult or impossible. And relying entirely on smartphones would have precluded the development of new robots to help rehabilitate people with central nervous system damage and implantable cardiac sensors that remotely monitor patients living with heart failure disease.
Creative hardware projects like these show that, while it might sound audacious, it’s increasingly possible to make the product for virtually any use case, thanks to miniaturization, cost reduction and increased processing power.
Now, the primary limitation for hardware innovation is the strength of the use case and the business value enabled by it.
Of course, taking new hardware from idea to market isn’t easy. Any new hardware product business opportunity has to be big in order to get the attention and funding required. New hardware ideas involve complexity and technological risk distinct from pure software because of the multidisciplinary nature of the development, the relative time scale and difficulty to iterate, and the capital needed for materials and the supply chain.
Constraints such as the form factor, reliability, battery life, processing power and device cost all must be carefully balanced to create a device that provides users with a natural-feeling experience, with no indication of the complexity behind the interface.
Hardware risks and rewards require an investor mindset shift
In addition to finding the right talent for these projects, innovators need to find funding. Typically, small startups and labs have the creativity and vision — and freedom from the pressure to deliver enormous short-term returns — but they lack capital. Enterprises, meanwhile, are often willing to buy, refine and market that hardware after it’s proven to be widely applicable, but they don’t usually have the impetus to sink their own capital into hardware concepts that may not come to market.
Bridging that gap means finding investors who understand the rewards and risks of hardware development.
This can be challenging because many investors are used to the software model: With a relatively modest investment, you can bring a minimum viable product to market to test it. Hardware typically requires more investment, more testing, and a longer time to market.
Those are some of the reasons there’s been such a disparity in software versus hardware investment up until now.
However, when a hardware product comes out, it tends to be defensible and sticky, with less competition; that’s one reason the smart medical device market is growing at 7.5% and will surpass $83 billion in value by 2028.
While the risks are relatively high for hardware investment, the need for new platforms and devices to improve quality of life and preserve the environment is urgent. The area of green infrastructure alone requires $56 trillion in investment by 2050 to reach internationally agreed-upon climate targets.
The U.S. Inflation Reduction Act is filled with loan supports and incentives for green technology development, but green tech is just one facet of how hardware innovation can make life better now. Healthcare, disaster preparedness, accessibility and other domains can also benefit from new technology.
Building a better future
There’s no question that technology and hardware hold the potential to improve human health, drive sustainable practices, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and more. The question facing us now is whether innovators will get the resources they need to create viable hardware that scales to solve some of our most pressing challenges.
Tom Stevens is cofounder and CEO of Tombot.
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