Apr 19, 2012Science and Technology
Crowdsourcing and cloud computing: Putting the future of innovation in consumers' hands

"Invention, strictly speaking, is little more than a new combination of those images which have been previously gathered and deposited in the memory; nothing can come of nothing."
--Joshua Reynolds

Innovation has been occurring thanks to the ongoing development of social media platforms -- like Facebook -- in tandem with websites that leverage crowdsourcing -- like Kickstarter. In practical terms you have ordinary individuals across the globe, who understand what they want, assigning value to inventions by providing immediate feedback and financing. This is counter to the trend which was once prevalent in the technology sector where engineers and programmers create products and their companies in turn assign the value to those products.

Interestingly, this dynamic -- which is difficult to create in established corporate environments -- creates convergence points between 'old school' technology companies who produce products on scale and 'new school' start-up companies. Smaller companies can't create on scale, but they can rapidly prototype and design components which can stand alone or be used as integrated features in existing architectures of larger companies who can better fund production. In turn, these components are juxtaposed by customers who understand their immediate needs better than those who design. When a product is designed in this fashion, it can have an infinite number of uses and usually meets consumers' expectations because they helped create it and make it their own.

For example,  Zipwhip, a startup from Seattle that focuses on cloud-based texting, created the 'Textspresso' machine. By combining their technology with over 300 parts, they built a coffee maker that takes orders via text. The idea was that employees could text their orders to the machine on the way to work and have their morning coffee or latte waiting for them when they arrived.  And just in case there's any confusion over who ordered what, the machine imprints the telephone number that the text was received from in the foam on top of each cup in edible ink. 

The concept of using the cloud -- not just as a storage medium, but as a distribution point for information and also for access to applications -- is representative of a trend in which consumers validate the touch-points between technologies in a way that, just a few years ago, would have been considered unfeasible or just plain crazy. This sort of thinking can be recognized in dozens of products being funded by the masses via the popular crowdfunding website Kickstarter.

The Pebble watchEric Migicovsky, the engineer behind the InPulse smartwatch, debuted a new smartwatch on Kickstarter called the Pebble that is the first smartwatch that can communicate with both Android and iOS operating systems. Its built in capabilities include viewing emails and Caller ID, tracking distance through the phone's GPS, and controlling the music playing on your phone. You can set filters for emails and sync multiple inboxes to the Pebble. Once it has been developed, the makers plan to release a software kit so that developers can create their own apps for the watch. [Editor's Note: The Pebble has now become the most successful Kickstarter campaign ever, raising over $5 million.]

The commonality -- regardless of the underlying technology -- is that value is being created by component-based applications and hardware extensions that can provide immediate value to consumers in ways that are much more tangible because of their versatility. In some cases, these components exist in the virtual world -- like cloud based messaging -- but in other cases these components take on a tangible physical dimension.

Case in point would be another Kickstarter funded project called Ninja Blocks. 

A Ninja Block prototypeNinja Blocks are small, computerized boxes with built-in sensors that can be programmed to perform any number of tasks. A Ninja Block can trigger an alarm, a camera, or a text message straight to your mobile device when a predetermined stimulus occurs.  Rachel Metz of MIT's Technology Review writes that "A Ninja Block might also be programmed to turn on a hall light when a child cries in her crib, or sound an alarm when the cat jumps onto the sofa."  The device, as founder and CTO Mark Wotton says, could have hundreds or thousands of possible capabilities because it is fully customizable (both hardware and software are open source), but requires no programming knowledge. The "rules" for Ninja Blocks are set on the Ninja Cloud server through either an ethernet cable attached to the block or via a USB Wi-Fi connection.

The possibilities are endless because, unlike some technology models which are closed systems designed to be proprietary, the world we are now seeing is being created by individual inventors and start-up companies who actually listen to their potential customers and typically design products to be tinkered with by their users in a way that lets them establish immediate value.  As said by Wotton, "Chances are people will have good ideas [for the devices] we've never thought of."

These innovations all support the concept of The Internet of Things, a term coined by Kevin Ashton in 1999 that essentially refers to "a world where computers can automatically sense and identify everyday objects in the world around them."  The creation of products with perceived value by innovators and validated by consumers via social media feedback is a trend likely to continue.  As Issac Netwon famously said, "If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants."  While these words were spoken over three centuries ago, we can see the innovators and inventors of today paying tribute to this thinking by creating new technologies which leverage the best of scale while soliciting feedback (and funding) for individuals who have specific needs or uses for a new product.

Georgetown University Professor Michael R. Nelson bought a Ninja Blocks kit, but not with a specific function in mind. Rather, he says, "It's because I can start thinking of problems to solve."  If these products are any indication, this way of thinking may be what drives innovators in the future.

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