Rewiring the World

This post originally appeared in Technology Spectator.

After years of talking about “the internet of things”, it seems that the world of physical computing is finally surfacing as serious business, not just an oddball hobby.

Today’s world belongs to a new brand of geeks and unlike the ones that emerged in the late 90s to build Amazon, Google, MySpace, PayPal and Facebook, this lot is wielding soldering irons.

They build circuit boards and wire up new inventions that flash lights, whirr motors, and sense the world around them. They explore the world of 3D printing and hack their microwaves, and they do far more with their Xbox than just play games.

The first mainstream coverage of physical computing came with Twine. After Apple released the iPhone4S with its “Siri” voice control function, Australian Marcus Scheppi made headlines around the world by controlling lights in his house by talking to his iPhone.

Marcus has recently put his main business on the back burner to focus on commercialising what started as an iPhone hack – and already has over $100,000 of funding through crowd funding site Kickstarter.

Meanwhile, the majority of floor space at geek convention Maker Faire is now taken up with 3D Printing. According to Cornell’s Professor Hod Lipson, there are now more open source, desktop 3D printers in the world than “serious” commercial ones.

The 3D printing movement is big enough now that The Pirate Bay has created a whole category on their site for 3D Printing objects – called Physibles.

And if printing your world doesn’t float your boat, maybe ultra-cheap tiny computing is your thing. The first release of the $25 Raspberry Pi, the educational “computer on a single chip”,sold out in a matter of minutes.

This new world of tiny boxes connected to the internet is interesting in another way. All these things are talking to each other. After the 2011 earthquake and tsunami and Japan, there are now 2337 radiation detectors, setup by the public, feeding data in to Pachube – a crowd sourced platform that “gives people the power to share, collaborate, and make use of information generated from the world around them.”

The new digital revolution

While many businesses and brands try to come to grips with the mobile enabled, tablet waving, globally connected consumer, there’s a new digital revolution going on. This new digital revolution is questioning the role of off-the-shelf products and global brands. This time the geeks are wiring up the whole world, not just the screens and keyboards on their desks.

Brands should be concerned. Sites like Kickstarter mean that if your idea actually has mass appeal, you have the same access to a global market that Samsung, Unilever or Nike do. With this new toolset of low-cost sensors, easily programmable Arduinos and 3D printers, almost anything you can dream of can be built at home. And it’s usually cheaper than you could find it in the stores (if you could actually find it).

The ‘Maker Movement’ has arrived and while this is not a new trend it’s more relevant today than ever before. The followers of this movement will have more impact on our culture in the next decade than anyone else in the technology world. Somewhere out there a couple geeks are creating next Amazon, the next Google, and the next Paypal.

But they’re not coding websites, they’re coding new products. And just like last time, these geeks are likely to rewire business as we know it.

- March 2012