Content Marketing Manager
I had a chance to visit the inaugural O’Reilly Solid Conference in San Francisco’s Fort Mason yesterday. You could describe it as a wonky, gadget-fueled forum dedicated to the intersection of hardware and software, a kind of executive Maker Faire. It was fantastic. Most of the speakers were genuinely enthusiastic and insightful, and there were plenty of cool robots.
Given that the conference was geared more towards the kinds of people who 3D-print their own bike helmets than sales executives, I was still surprised at the lack of creative discussion regarding business models. All of the exhibitors I talked to could discuss the merits of their products in great detail, most of them had some insight on their ideal consumer base, but not many had any real informed opinions about potential revenue streams other than basic product sales.
Many of these young, voluble engineers seemed to realize that the data generated by their devices might someday become more valuable than the devices themselves, in much the same way the cellular industry has evolved into a free phone distribution system. But there wasn’t much talk of pricing tiers, usage-based models, pay-as-you-go plans, or any one of dozens of clever permutations on monetizing all this amazing creativity.
That being said, some of my personal hardware highlights included:
-The intense-looking robotic donkey from Boston Dynamics (recently acquired by Google) that has been scaring people on YouTube for several months.
-A snazzy, European-looking motorcycle/smart car hybrid from Lit Motors that’s essentially a motorized recumbent two-wheeler stabilized by gyroscopes.
-A sleek aircraft from Makani Power (also recently acquired by Google) that looks like a large glider with propellors but is in fact a flying wind-turbine that generates energy by circling hundreds of feet in the air while tethered to the ground.
-A deceptively old-timey looking box camera on a tripod from Matterport that created ridiculously immersive 3D models of interior spaces.
-A bizarre but incredibly fun-looking self-balancing electric skateboard from Onewheel that behaves a lot like the hoverboard from Back To The Future.
-An intelligent LED lighting system from Digital Lumens that can track walking activity within large fab environments and adjust the lighting accordingly.
-A jaw-dropping video demo from Bot & Dolly, a design studio that specializes in pairing huge mechanical arms with custom motion picture software (see above). They did the camerawork for Gravity.
Naturally there were some duds, including an LED-covered hoodie that looked like a bad Burning Man experiment, a small camera that you can stick to a wall (slow hand clap), and a machine that played the guitar but only if you did the strumming part.
And to be fair there were a few sharp observations on pricing models. The Matterport 3D modeling guy was selling data processing as a monthly service to his real estate clients, who not surprisingly weren’t all that interested in 3D data processing. A group from Ford was doing really interesting things with real-time driving information, which could be potentially leveraged into monthly diagnostic services.
Rob Coneybeer of Shasta Ventures had a great talk about building customer loyalty through hardware that continues to improve itself through iterative software updates, a strategy that is certainly helping our client Nest continue to be ridiculously successful. That approach speaks much more to the idea of developing a long-standing customer relationship enabled by subscription a model, rather than a sell-it-and-forget-it attitude.
Many of the featured speakers had been in the robotics field for several decades, and seemed happily bemused by all the recent frenzy of interest in wearables, Internet of Things, personal robotics, etc. Rodney Brooks from MIT noted that robots still don’t have the visual object recognition of a two year-old, the language capabilities of a four year-old, the manual dexterity of a six year-old or the social understanding of an eight year-old (but once they hit those benchmarks, watch out). Andrea Key from Silicon Valley Robotics observed that the biggest market for robotics remains milking machines for cows, “the queens of the quantified self-movement.”
Still, there was plenty of enthusiasm to go around (one of Bot & Dolly’s giant robot arms twirled a disco ball at the reception, and was a big hit). It’s obvious that this conference is going to be around for many years to come. The folks at O’Reilly deserve all the praise that’s currently screaming across Twitter and Facebook. The Solid discussion will continue, and Zuora certainly hopes to be a part of it.
Zuora will be hosting a lively panel on the Internet of Things at the upcoming Subscribed ’14 Conference in San Francisco, featuring principals from Qualcomm, Autonet Mobile, Lowe’s Smart Home and The Neat Company. Please join us!