About ten years ago, I visited my aunt who’s a famous photographer. She had a new, top of the line Nikon digital camera with a 8 MP resolution. I was amazed at the clarity of the photos and how you could manipulate and print the crisp digital images. I really wanted one, but the $5,000 price tag was too much. This was a super high performance rig aimed at a tiny cadre of professionals, not for an amateur like me who would use it for family pictures.
Fast forward a decade. Camera manufacturers figured out how to radically drive down prices on hi res digital cameras. Now they’ve found their way into hundreds of applications we’d never have dreamed of. In fact, I walk around with not one but two in my pocket at all times – there in my phone. They’re everywhere: in every laptop, desktop, even in kid’s toys.
There’s no stopping a technology whose time has arrived…and it doesn’t have to be a brand new idea.
Just to make my point, I’ve recently witnessed two technologies at the start of their entry into mainstream high volume application. For years, these technologies seemed to belong squarely in the category of life changing futuristic technologies, like nuclear fusion, that are perennially just over the horizon of feasibility for the mass market.
Machine Learning has been a concept that has been talked for as long as I can remember. It’s one of those ideas that has shown up in countless movies and science fiction novels. Over on the Harvard Business Review, Chris Taylor has pointed how Big Data is accelerating the application of machine learning. In a sense, necessity has become the mother of invention. The midwife in this case is the massive performance and cost improvements in storage and computing power. This combination has expanded the universe of applications to the mundane level of temperature control with the Nest thermostat. I expect to see many more applications in the next few years.
Sometimes the technologies that arrive aren’t something that makes the headlines of TechCrunch. Sometimes the unstoppable tech is one that suddenly becomes more important or less expensive. A great example would be Aerogel.
Discovered in the 1930′s, it’s been around for years, but wildly expensive. Aerogel is the high performance, ultralight insulator and fire retardant that you select when cost is no concern. When NASA needs to insulate a spacecraft, they choose aerogel. The military demands it in billion dollar weapons systems. Big oil uses it to protect million dollar pipelines.
I recently talked to a colleague from business school who’s the CEO of a rapidly expanding aerogel startup in Irvine, California. His company, Jios Aerogels, produces industrial scale aerogel in Korea and has driven down aerogel production prices to a fraction of prevailing prices, opening up potential application to things that touch all of us, every day. He’s been signing deals with leading building materials and appliance makers to allow them to offer high performance, premium lines for everything from drywall to coatings.
When the time arrives
Cameras aren’t a new idea by any stretch, they just took an enormous leap forward into accessibility, just like machine learning and aerogel. The world spends a great deal of time looking at what’s flashy and new but in reality, the next big thing is often something that’s been around but just hasn’t had its moment. Lots of new ideas come and go quickly…we love the new and shiny for a little while, but there’s no stopping a technology whose time has arrived.