Much ink has been spilt on the recent renaissance of hardware. The Pebble Smartwatch raised over $10m dollars in 30 days, more than 10 times its fundraising goal, Ouya launched a $99 game console, and Nest recently sold to Google for over $3.2bn. At Hipmob we work with a few companies on the forefront of mobile enabled hardware, and we see three big trends accelerating this renaissance; the display, the cloud, and the commoditization of sensor components.
Smartphones Become The Input And Display
One problem that long plagued hardware design is the need for a display of some kind. Displays provide feedback indicating you’re using a device correctly (or not). As a result, in addition to building highly functional devices, manufacturers also had to build a display of some kind, which meaningfully increased the expense. This led to tons of tradeoffs. In “The Design Of Everyday Things” (1988), Donald Norman writes:
“. .if you are not careful in your selection, ‘you could wind up with a VCR that brings out fear and loathing whenever you try to change the channel resets or set it up to record a program when you are away.’ It does not take much examination to discover the reason for the difficulties: there is no visual feedback. As a result, user (1) have trouble remembering their place in the lengthy sequence of required steps; (2) have trouble remembering what next needs to be done; and (3) cannot easily check the information just entered to see if it is what was intended, and then cannot easily change it, if they decide it is wrong. The gulfs both in execution (the first two problems) and in evaluation (the last problem) are significant for these VCRs. Both can be bridged by the use of a display. “
Smartphones solved both problems: of input and display. Now, instead of building a large, complex display, manufacturers in hardware/wearables settle for a small one (or none at all), and send data wirelessly via wifi or bluetooth, to a nearby, pre-authenticated smartphone or tablet. This is most obvious in wearable computing (Misfit Wearables, Basis) and home automation (SmartThings, Lockitron). But the trend is spreading to other, non-consumer use cases as well. For example, Senic is developing a laser distance meter that uses a mobile device as the input and the display. These devices rely on the display in every users’ pocket. By forgoing the cost of building a display into the devices, the hardware can be smaller, lighter, faster and cheaper (which can be passed on to buyers), and manufacturers can iterate faster as a result.
The Senic uses a smartphone as input + display
Heavy lifting is done on the Smartphone or in the Cloud
“. . proliferation of ever more affordable cloud computing allows us to offload some of the power hungry processing that you would have to do in the device, to the cloud. As a result, we can offer the user something far more insightful and interesting than what the actual sensor could have done by itself”
– Jeff Holove – CEO, Basis Science
Smartphones brought both computing power, and persistent bandwidth to cloud based servers with infinitely more computing power. This means that end devices an be pretty dumb – all they really have to do is measure and transmit those measurements to the smartphone. The smartphone not only handles the display but can take care of any computing. In machine learning cases such as Nest, which aims to optimize your home temperature based on your habits, that heavy lifting is often handed off to servers.
Sensors Become Commoditized; Smaller, Faster, Cheaper and more Reliable
” . . really recently, over the last 2 years, sensors have gotten really small, affordable, available, can now be put in small form factors with reasonable battery life”
– Jeff Holove – CEO, Basis Science
The widespread use of sensors as varied as GPS, accelerometers, gyroscope, proximity sensors, and others in mobile devices since the launch of the iPhone, have brought economies of scale to sensor manufacturers that wasn’t possible before (what other reason than iPhones and Android phones would you need to manufacture a billion proximity sensors?). As sensors have become cheaper and smaller, they’re more likely to show up in more devices. This means that even manufacturers of devices that don’t require displays (the Shine by Misfit Wearables, or the Myo by Thalmic Labs, benefit from lower prices, increased sensitivity and greater reliability of sensors.
The Basis SmartWatch has 5 sensors, and does heavy computations in the cloud
In light of this, the news that Apple is meeting the FDA about potential mobile medical apps, and staffing up in medical sensor experts bodes well for the cost of health sensors such as pulse oximeters.
The range of sensors included in mobile devices today have thus far mostly enabled consumer use cases – better navigation via GPS, gaming via accelerometer and gyro and so on. If the rumors are to be believed, then the next wave is likely to include more (and more invasive) biosensors, from pulse oximeters to blood chemistry monitoring devices. If the trend continues, you can expect to see more sensors embedded in smaller and smaller devices, ranging from consumer hardware to specialized tools (for medical professionals, building trades and so on. The potential impact can’t be understated.