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Hardware Design: The Future Is Complicatedly Simple

LittleBits founder Ayah Bdeir said that many of of today's emerging technologies are too rigid and esoteric.
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An unsettling thought emerged from a recent PEW Research Center report on the Internet of Things.

Though the report concluded that the Internet of Things--the hardware trend in which everyday devices are connected to the Internet--will be in full swing by 2025, PEW predicted that it will lead to complicated and unintended consequences.

"We will live in a world where many things won’t work, and nobody will know how to fix them," Howard Rheingold, an Internet sociologist, wrote in the report.  

When LittleBits founder Ayah Bdeir read that, she was unsurprised. "I hate to break it to you, but that's already happened," she said Thursday during her talk at O'Reilly Media's hardware-themed Solid 2014 conference. The event drew 1,400 attendees.

She related what happened during Hurricane Sandy when the lower half of Manhattan lost power and the upper half remained lit. Even her brightest friends were frustrated and couldn't comprehend why only parts of New York were in a blackout. 

"There was this fundamental misunderstanding of how an electricity grid works and how power stations work. We've really reached a point where technology has become so far from us that we really don't understand it," Bdeir said.  

Through her company, Bdeir has been working on this problem in her own way since 2008. LittleBits creates hardware components that users can combine to form circuits. The idea is to enable users to take virtually any problem that can be solved with a circuit an solve it, regardless of whether or not they have an engineering background.

For example, one of her employees used the parts to create a light signal near his desk to let him know when the office restroom is vacant. (Picture an airplane lavatory light.) The demo video he made, which Bdeir showed, elicited a lot laughs from the audience.  

It's silly, Bdeir admitted, but she loves this use case. "Sometimes you need to know whether somebody's in the bathroom! And that may be a need that only you have in the world, but that doesn't mean that the product should not exist," she said.

Bdeir advised those in the audience to avoid predetermining just one use for their products. By taking that blanket approach, it's unlikely that your product really can make everyone's life easier -- as a lot of today's technology companies promise.  

However, each of your customers probably knows exactly how to use your product to make their own life easier, even if their solution is so unique that no one else has any use for it.

"And that's OK, and that's beautiful and that's essential," Bdeir said. 

IMAGE: EJP Photo / Flickr.com
Last updated: May 22, 2014

LAURA MONTINI | Staff Writer

Laura Montini is a reporter at Inc. She previously covered health care technology for Health 2.0 News and has served as an associate editor at The Health Care Blog. She lives in San Francisco.




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