Code + Matter: Agile Hardware
It’s common knowledge that hardware is hard. But don’t say that to Ilya Polyakov, CTO at Revolve Robotics. Presenting at Code+Matter, Polyakov questioned the premise that hardware development is inherently more difficult or slower than the rapid iteration we’ve come to expect of software products. “Everything is hardware,” he insisted, noting the walls and tables around himself and the audience, as if to dismiss the argument by celebrating the fact that those in the room had managed to come together for the evening despite the limitations of the physical world.
Software has exploded in the last decade, thanks in large part to the rise of developer tools and the movement of software infrastructure to the cloud. The ability to code from your laptop in your bedroom without having to set up your own servers or infrastructure has helped to enable small teams to build software products without the resources of a large corporation. The rise of Agile processes that emphasize development of a Minimum Viable Product that can be tested with actual users and rapidly iterated upon has also helped the quality of the user’s experience in software applications to skyrocket.
Hardware and software, obviously, exist in a mutually-dependent symbiosis; new devices require code to come to life, and the physical housing of code has been displaced, not disembodied, by the cloud. But can the lessons of software’s success be applied to the development of physical devices?
At May’s Code + Matter event, eight hardware companies came together to share insights and best practices. The dominant theme of the evening was the value of software-developed principles such as rapid prototyping and lean product development. Presenters celebrated the existence of an arsenal of apps and services that are becoming available to aid the development process, so that hardware hackers can focus on their core innovations without having to build and code every component of a device from scratch.
Key talks came from Dave Evans of Fictiv and Jeff McAlvay of Tempo Automation, two hardware startups working to make hardware development and prototyping easier and more agile. McAlvay, who founded Tempo Automation with a mission “to make electronics prototyping as easy as compiling code,” discussed the labor-driven model of industrial electronics production, which is optimized for a high-volume process – too slow and expensive for the low-volume, rapid-turnaround hardware hackers need for rapid iteration. McAlvay’s company obviates much of the labor typical in industrial electronics production with software that automates the process for rapid prototype production.
While McAlvay’s Tempo Automation focuses on circuit boards, Dave Evans’ company, Fictiv, enables rapid production of polymer components for prototyping. Evans laid out a six-week roadmap for hardware prototyping adapted from the classic two-week software sprint, explaining that Fictiv was born out of his own frustrations trying to innovate rapidly in hardware. After honing his own process developing infotainment systems at the Ford Silicon Valley Lab, Evans co-founded Fictiv, which functions as something like an Instacart-meets-AirBnB for 3D printing, leveraging a network of professional 3D printers and coordinating with them to provide cost-effective, on-demand prototype components for hardware hackers.
Robb Walters, CTO of Sene Cameras, laid out a framework for Lean Prototyping, but was careful to qualify that “Lean should not mean ‘less ambitious'"; "You should pick up the biggest rock you can find," Walters explained. The key is to pick up just one rock at a time: “A lean approach breaks product development down into incremental steps." In developing Sene’s drone-powered, flying portrait camera, Walters and his colleagues wanted "to create the simplest possible user experience," which meant leaving out a lot of bells and whistles – another common component of agile software development practices.
For Tim Golnik, VP of Product and Design at Misfit, software design is crucial to hardware agility, especially in wearables where “you don’t interact with the hardware much.” Golnik’s talk emphasized the modularity of Misfit’s Shine, which can be worn as a watch, pendant, or fob with the addition of a variety of available accessories. Golnik advocated an approach to product development he called “Designing for Change”; in consumer products, he explained, “you can have all the boxes checked,” but emotion rules over requirements: ultimately the consumer’s choice is not entirely rational, and the best way to accommodate all possibilities is to focus on your core value and leave other decisions open-ended.
Polyglotte’s multilingual keyboard is another example of emotion-driven hardware considerations. Asked by one respondent whether hardware for them was “a necessary evil,” CEO Danielle Semeco referred to the idiosyncratic relationship users have with this most tactile component of their devices. Modularity, in this case, means making sure your product can integrate with any possible preference. “We’re working on stickers,” Semeco noted, citing both production costs and the flexibility a keyboard overlay would offer for the end-user.
This idea of downsizing your ambition in order to create the best possible product was echoed by Polyakov, who, like Golnik, emphasized modular design as a core strategy. “When you work at a startup, what you don’t end up doing is more important than what you end up doing,” Polyakov responded during Q&A to a question about a product decision. Instead of pursuing every possible product feature, Revolve relied on existing technology to speed up the development of their Kubi robot. Polyakov’s take on modularity - “not just making building blocks, it’s a lifestyle” – explains why the ethos of integration runs through every aspect of their product, down to the consumer’s experience: Kubi is designed to support any tablet and works with any operating system.
As consumer products like the Misfit’s Shine and Revolve’s Kubi suggest, the benefits of rapid hardware prototyping are not just for hackers: making hardware easier to develop helps bring the future to everyone faster. Wendi Qi, co-founder of Sentri – a smart home monitor that connects all of your smart appliances and learns from them – observed that the ability to test hardware quickly and inexpensively has made possible fantastic developments in consumer products, such as the $35 Raspberry Pi B+ and the first iteration of the Sentri home monitor, which went for $100 per unit. At the city level, smart waste company Compology wanted to help make urban sanitation more efficient and eco-friendly with technology, but found that the companies they were partnering with didn’t want to own the tech themselves. Co-founder Jason Gates credited advancements in rapid prototyping and shortened manufacturing cycles for enabling his company to pitch “an idea with an empty box” and fulfill contracts for ten working units in just a few months. Hardware manufacturing is following software development and becoming accessible to everyone, and with it a better world for all of us.
From wearable tech to the smart home, the internet of things is dramatically transforming the world around us. The possibilities and the realities of connected devices and spaces are dependent not just on groundbreaking hardware and software innovations, but the extraordinary relationship between the two.
PARISOMA has joined forces with TechShop SF and Highway1 for CODE + MATTER, a new event series that celebrates the unique interplay between the worlds of hardware and software as we usher in the era of the internet of things. CODE + MATTER brings together innovators across industries to dive into the most exciting opportunities and challenges in connected hardware.