Why the Real World Will Matter More in 2014

In 2013, three trends gained purchase and this year, they’ll ascend.  

The first trend is the democratization of access to the opportunities in the $130 trillion physical economy, which by the way is six time bigger than the digital economy, according to Oxford Economics.

The second trend is the historic growth in “wearables.” Kleiner Perkins analyst Mary Meeker showed in her influential 2013 D11 address that “wearable computing is coming on strong, faster than the typical 10 year cycle” of tech trends.

The third trend is the rise of user experience–UX–beyond screens, as consumers remake physical settings like offices and homes so they adapt to our behavior. Already more than 70 percent of global consumers say they are receptive to using sensors to tailor personal spaces to our quirky needs and habits.

Stitch these together and you see a distinct, welcome trend away from screens and toward the real world.

In 2014 concrete reality will be more technologically intriguing than virtual realms of Twitter and Facebook, and material compounds will hold more disruptive potential than computer code. Moreover, as we focus more attention and action on the real world, we won’t be left scratching our heads around questions of economic and societal value in the tech sector. Rather than just lining the pockets of a few digital tech elite and advertisers (as happens when we devote time to Facebook), this tilt toward technology in the real world will create value in entrepreneurship and improvements in everyday life will be literally seen and felt.

Here’s  a deeper look at each of the three trends and what to expect this year.

DEMOCRATIZATION OF ACCESS TO OPPORTUNITIES IN THE PHYSICAL ECONOMY. From making your own soup bowls to redesigning flawed windshield wipers, many of us are beginning to hear stories about everyday consumer uses for 3D scanners and printers. With these applications we see a vanishing distance—literal and cognitive—between manufacturing and consumer need. From the new vantage point of the burgeoning “maker movement,” we perceive ourselves as a one-person supply chain: in-shoring happens right in our own basement.

Perceptions will shift most dramatically in entrepreneurship, where 3D printing is making it easier to quickly realize ideas, prototype, gain feedback, and loosen the  grip of traditional firms on producing material things. For instance, Chilean entrepreneur Sebastian Errazuriz uses 3D printer MakerBot to turn his sketches into tangible tests for people to see, play with, and offer directional feedback. While he used to abandon some concepts in his head or on paper, he can now make “women’s shoes, racing motorcycles, and high-end furniture.” He observes: “this is the inception of an industrial revolution.”

Entrepreneurs who don’t want to buy a 3D printer can always try out one of the new DIY fabrication studios popping up. Just around the bend from San Francisco headquarters of Twitter, the exemplar of digital entrepreneurship, you’ll find storefronts like TechShop, which offer state of the art manufacturing tools and processes to anyone for about $125 a month.

Inside the studio, budding start-ups are crafting models of anything from lamps to “origami kayaks” that you can carry around like a briefcase but unfold into fully functional vessels. Within 5 months of building a prototype iPad cover at TechShop, for example, Dodo Case reached $1 million in sales.

Not only does this DIY manufacturing process generate feedback and results  quickly, but it also accelerates learning about how to grow the business. Since they are making physical products themselves, entrepreneurs see first-hand where they need to place investments—in talent, machines, and materials—to scale the business.

HISTORIC GROWTH IN WEARABLES. In Being and Time, perhaps the most influential work of the last century on how people perceive everyday things, Martin Heidegger describes how humans mainly see things as useful tools (“ready-to-hand”) rather than as objects for analysis (“presence-at-hand”). In other words, we generally grab a pen to jot a note, not to analyze the physics or efficiency of our penmanship.

But the longstanding perceptual divide between usage and reflection—between using things to complete tasks and leveraging them to analyze how we complete tasks—is eroding. From pens to office furniture to clothing to household tools, consumer goods are increasingly decked with sensors and auto-analytics functionality.  While some are “wearables,” many more are just ubiquitous items with which we occasionally interact, only now these interactions are also occasions to create useful insight.

Consider the sporting goods industry, a pioneer in innovating offerings that users perceive as filling a dual role. For example, you can use the Babolat Play Pure Drive tennis racquet to serve, stroke, and volley in your weekend matches. But you also use the racquet, which has lightweight sensors and chips in the handle, to track to your match analytics and trends (even during a match) on performance factors like ball spin, ball impact, and power.

Like most similarly disruptive sports offerings—from Kayak paddles to cycling power meters—the racquet offers the kind of useful feedback once available only to world-class athletes at a sports lab with a team of researchers and coaches. Now anyone can now see things with an expert eye, though autonomously and at a fraction of the cost.

THE RISE OF UX. When we interact with things we do so in specific physical environments, such as homes and offices. These days there are a multitude of new tools, from indoor GPS to mobile apps, that allow us to adapt actions and behaviors to the peculiarities of our setting. A simple example is LocationList, a smartphone app that uses your grocery list to help you navigate market aisles in the most efficient route possible.

But the bigger perceptual shift is that we are beginning to see physical settings as autonomously adaptive to our behaviors and needs. For instance, the Nest home thermostat not only monitors temperature but also your habits, using activity sensors and learning algorithms to help you minimize energy costs while optimizing heat settings to your preferences. It will learn, for instance, that you tend to rise at 6 a.m. on Mondays and Thursdays, an hour earlier than usual,  and make sure that the house is warmed up to 68 an hour earlier than usual only on those two days.

 The Internet won’t disappear, of course as these trends continue to grow. Rather, it’ll become the perfect tool to enable this shift back to the real world. It will be the utility you use to download code for printing a wiper blade, and a place to put your tennis data for analysis.

I welcome this shift, and you should, too. It makes the internet and screens less of a preoccupation, and living and doing more of one.

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