Revenge of the ‘Toys’

How once-dismissed consumer technologies end up revolutionizing business.

Not long ago I spoke with Harvard Business Review writer Gardiner Morse about ABB’s use of augmented reality in our digital solutions as part of a larger HBR report on how critical Augmented Reality (AR) would be to the future of business.

“[AR] will transform how we learn, make decisions, and interact with the physical world,” business professors Michael Porter and James Heppelmann sweepingly predict. “It will also change how enterprises serve customers, train employees, design and create products, and manage their value chains, and, ultimately, how they compete.”

That is grand prophecy for a technology that began as a goofy gaming platform, and was shrugged off as playthings when AR pioneer Google Glass became the consumer breakthrough everyone loved to hate. At one point in 2014, 72 percent of people reported hating Google Glass, even though few understood it. Jon Stewart on “The Daily Show” coined the term “glassholes” for those who wore the high-tech eye wear.

The toys that took over the world

When you think about it, as I said to HBR’s Morse, augmented reality is just one of many technologies that arose on the consumer side and was therefore dismissed as being too toy-like for businesses until they realized the potential “toy” technologies held.

Drones, for instance, were not only toys, but annoying toys. Now we know how useful video-equipped drones can be for our business. Capable of inspecting refineries, pipelines and high-voltage transmission lines in forbidding areas humans can’t reach. U.S. chipmaker Intel showed how drones equipped with augmented and virtual reality could be used to inspect and repair solar farms in remote deserts.

And the list goes on. Blockchain – enabling technology of cryptocurrency for drug dealers and crazed speculators. No, wait: blockchain – fighting world hunger. Walmart, IBM, and major food companies are currently piloting a blockchain project to track the food Walmart sells all the way from its source to the store. This will not only allow Walmart to pinpoint the origin of any spoilage or poisoning, it will also cut down on our current unconscionable waste of food. Right now, one third of all food is discarded after being mishandled, stored the wrong way, or simply lost – all problems blockchain promises to correct.

ABB’s customers are using blockchain to meet some of their biggest industrial challenges, such as improving quality control, reducing downtime, and increasing the speed and yield of industrial processes. Blockchain is enabling our utility, energy service, and grid operator customers to manage the lifecycle of distributed energy resources (solar, batteries, wind) more efficiently, while ensuring secure operations of the electric distribution network and the active participation of energy consumers.

Imagine, there was a time, not too long ago, when Apple computers were considered too toy-like to use in real offices. I recall an old Apple TV commercial where businessmen in “Mad Men” suits encountered an early Mac sitting on someone’s office desk adorned with reindeer antlers attached via suction cups. Business tools? No way.

(For geeks reading this, let me add that the application stack powering web-based business – Linux, MySQL, PHP, etc. – was long dismissed by enterprise software companies as hobbyist toys.)

ABB and Augmented Reality

AR is exciting because it offers a way to display actionable data collected by billions of connected sensors in a way that finally liberates us from the cramped restrictions of the 2D page or screen. AR uses the same 3D space as life itself, superimposing digital data and images on the real world to convey much more information than any page or screen could. That’s why Harvard’s Porter and Heppelmann predict such a disruptive future for AR, and I agree.

Among the AR projects ABB is pursuing, as HBR mentioned:

  • A HoloLens headset that will allow a skilled technician thousands of mile away to see what the wearer is seeing, and guide the wearer through difficult repairs of complex and expensive equipment in many industries.
  • Autonomous ships – from small lake ferries to gargantuan container vessels – that provide complete situational awareness to people onshore, overlaying such things as speed, engine performance, and sailing conditions on a remote view from the bridge.
  • AR systems to improve safety through process compliance. For example, a wearer repairing an industrial motor would be instructed to turn off the power and glance at the switch, and that glance would register the state of the switch, the exact time, and, through GPS, the location.

Clayton Christensen’s “toys” & Star Trek’s Dr. McCoy’s tricorder

Two seers foresaw this migration of consumer-side toys to serious business value. One was Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen, whose theory  of “disruptive technology” is holding its own as the E=MC² of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the meshing of the physical and digital worlds that AR captures and presents to wearers. “The next big thing always starts out being dismissed as a toy,” goes a famous distillation of Christensen’s thinking.

The other prophet is Gene Roddenberry, the creator of the Star Trek TV series. For years, I’ve been amazed at how brilliantly Star Trek – the original 1960s series – predicted tech’s future: smartphones, digital assistants like Alexa and Siri, virtual reality, even Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy’s diagnostic Tricorder. Bones’ Tricorder was one of the first Internet of Things devices- it turned sensor data into actionable knowledge.

The Tricorder caught many people’s imaginations. In 2011, Qualcomm announced a $10 million Tricorder X-Prize for a portable, sensor-reading device that autonomously diagnosed 13 medical conditions (12 diseases plus “absence of conditions”), including anemia, atrial fibrillation, sleep apnea, and diabetes. The contest ended last April, with prize money awarded to several companies now working on commercializing their inventions. Fittingly, the winning entrant was a company called Final Frontier Medical Devices.

Why are these “unloved toys” finding a new, larger role in business? The consumer market offers incredible scale, which enables such technology to get much cheaper and more refined, very quickly. But sometimes the business case ends up not justifying mass adoption (3D TV anyone?). This is when the business world steps in because it can identify cases that leverage consumer refinement to offer much higher returns. To cite one of thousands of examples, businesses found that using drones to detect methane gas leaks offers substantial cost and safety improvements, making investments in toy technology a no-brainer.

The lesson in all of this? Today’s easily-dismissed “toy” consumer technology can become tomorrow’s disruptor. In many cases, the “revenge” of the “toys” portends a healthier bottom line for businesses.

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About the author

Guido Jouret

Mr. Jouret joined ABB on October 1, 2016, as Chief Digital Officer, to lead the next level of develop-ment and deployment of ABB’s digital solutions for customers globally and across all businesses. Before ABB, he was Chief Technology Officer at Nokia Technologies and, prior to that, he was at Envision Energy, where he led the software products business, including a platform for the emerging energy internet. Mr. Jouret spent the first 20 years of his career at Cisco, most recently as General Manager of the Internet of Things division. He was also Chief Technology Officer and General Manager of Cisco’s Emerging Technologies Group, a unit responsible for incubating new businesses. Mr. Jouret is a US and Belgian citizen.
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