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Hardware innovation often flies under the radar. For proof, look no further than on the sidelines at the 2022 World Cup. Photos of balls being charged to recharge their energy spatial positioning sensors garnered headlines and mystified fans, who had no idea what this new technology was under development for six years.
Understandably, most people don’t realize the scope and pace of hardware innovation; software gets the most attention, especially software made for smartphones. But while mobile software has changed the way we live, new hardware developments have more than ever the potential 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 down into three areas.
1. Data Collection
The first part is the sensors that collect data for analysis. We’re seeing progress in what we can observe and digitize, the types of analytics we can do on that data, and the ways we can communicate that information quickly and securely.
The spatial positioning sensors in the 2022 World Cup match balls are a high-profile example, but sensor-embedded concrete could soon help states too give priority to road and bridge repairsand with sensor implants, doctors can already do that guarding the heart remote patients.
These advancements matter 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. Humans are analog and need hardware like keyboards and touchscreens to interact with the digital world. The latest innovations make these interfaces feel more natural and less like talking to an assistant on the other side of a wall. This progress is driving adoption.
Immersive platforms like VR and AR are already moving us in this direction, with major investments like Meta’s underway to push this area forward.
The third area is automation and robotics.
We see trends toward miniaturization, operating systems using machine vision and AI at the edge, and advances in environmental sensing.
We also see manufacturers pushing boundaries in this part of the market to change the physical world. For example, an EU-sponsored consortium has built an autonomous aquadrone skimmed plastic waste and algae overgrowth of harbors and lakes.
Go beyond hardware usage limits
The convergence of these three areas of hardware innovation could be critical to improving humanity’s quality of life and sustainability. Humans and our planet are analogous – we need some kind of hardware to communicate with them. Even with the amazing capabilities of smartphones, consumer robots, digital assistants and industrial automation, humanity has needs that cannot be met by the current array of available hardware. The devices that will meet these needs have yet to be invented.
This can be hard to imagine because there is already so much focus on developing and iterating software for existing hardware, especially for smartphones. But sticking with the hardware that already exists limits the potential.
While apps can help make consumers more energy conscious, we need new hardware innovations to capture, transform and capture carbon directly.
For another example, take digital health initiatives, many of which are solely software-as-medical-device (SaMD) on smartphones and web applications. Many potential digital health consumers have physical or cognitive challenges that make smartphone use difficult or impossible. And complete reliance on smartphones would have prevented the development of new robots from helping rehabilitate people with damage to the central nervous system And implantable heart sensors that monitor patients with heart failure remotely.
Creative hardware projects like this show that, while it sounds daring, it’s increasingly possible to make the product for virtually any use case, thanks to miniaturization, cost savings, and increased processing power.
Now the main constraint for hardware innovation is the strength of the use case and the business value it enables.
It is of course not easy to take new hardware from idea to market. Any new business opportunity for a hardware product must be large in order to receive the required attention and funding. New hardware ideas involve complexity and technological risk that differ from pure software due to the multidisciplinary nature of development, relative timescale and difficulty to iterate, and capital required for materials and supply chain.
Limitations such as form factor, reliability, battery life, processing power, and device cost all need to be carefully weighed to create a device that gives users a natural-feeling experience, with no indication of the complexity behind the interface.
Hardware risks and rewards require a change in investor mindset
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 make huge short-term returns — but they lack capital. Meanwhile, enterprises are often willing to buy, refine and market that hardware after it has been proven to be widely applicable, but they usually don’t have the urge to put their own capital into hardware concepts that may not reach the market .
To bridge that gap, investors must be found 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 for testing. Hardware typically requires more investment, more testing, and a longer time to market.
Those are some of the reasons why there has been such a difference in software and hardware investments until now.
However, when a hardware product comes out, it’s usually defensible and tacky, with less competition; that’s one of the reasons smart medical appliance market grows by 7.5% and will be worth more than $83 billion by 2028.
While the risks associated with hardware investments are relatively high, there is an urgent need for new platforms and devices to improve quality of life and protect the environment. Just the area of green infrastructure required $56 trillion in investment through 2050 to meet internationally agreed climate goals.
The US Inflation Reduction Act is full of loan support and incentives for green Technological development, but green technology is just one aspect of how hardware innovation can improve life today. Healthcare, disaster preparedness, accessibility and other domains can also benefit from new technology.
Building a better future
There is no question that technology and hardware have the potential to improve human health, drive sustainable practices, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and more. The question we face 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 co-founder and CEO of Tombot.
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