Wireless sensors are starting to unleash a wave of disruptive innovation that will bring with it immense entrepreneurial opportunities.
There will be more wireless sensors in our world—by far—than there are smartphones, dumb phones, tablets, laptops and PCs combined. Billions upon billions today—and trillions tomorrow.
They will give us superhuman senses: to see "through" walls, to "hear" sounds many miles away, to "know" things we never could have known before.
No matter the size of your company, the ability to look at this new sensor-enabled world through the eyes of an entrepreneur is the price of admission. Already, thousands of startups around the world are laser-focused on implementing new business models that disrupt the status quo.
It would be naïve to expect that none of these bright, well-educated entrepreneurs are targeting your industry.
Do you really think your existing business model can remain unchanged as nearly every object on the planet acquires the ability to sense its surroundings, relentlessly gathering exabytes of data about everything?
Companies that think like a startup will discover huge opportunities; the ability to leverage these forces will dramatically expand the possibilities for start-ups and—more relevant for established companies—for entrepreneurial, start-up thinking.
These sensors will monitor what we say and do. They will track the moisture in our gardens, the proximity of our cars, the location of our kids (and dogs), and the actions of our co-workers.
Refrigerators will know what's inside them, and when it expires. Pots will know when the soup is warm enough and will notify you in a manner you define. Companies will know (precisely) where they made money and where they did not. They'll know which customers they delighted and which they upset—and where those customers were the moment these things occurred.
Sensors will change every industry, because they will create exciting new business opportunities and disrupt established product lines. Who wants to pay $78 for a "stupid" pot when smart ones sell for the same price?
To prove our point, we inserted the following—intentionally very long—sentence into our book Smart Customers, Stupid Companies:
"Today, digital sensors can: monitor your tire pressure and avoid dangerous blowouts; analyze the gait of elderly citizens and warn of falls before they occur; follow the gaze of shoppers and identify which products they examine - but don't buy - in a store; monitor which pages readers of a magazine read or skip; float in the air over a factory and independently monitor the plant's emissions; detect impacts in the helmet of an athlete and make it impossible for them to hide potential serious blows to their brains; reveal when a dishwasher, refrigerator, computer, bridge, or dam is about to fail; trigger a different promotion as a new customer walks by a message board; analyze the duration and quality of your sleep; warn drivers that they are about to fall asleep; prevent intoxicated drivers from operating a motor vehicle; warn a person before he or she has a heart attack; detect wasted energy in both homes and commercial buildings; warn a parent or boss when anger is creeping into their voice, to help prevent them from saying or doing things they will later regret; tell waiting customers how far away the pizza delivery guy is from their house; analyze the movements of employees through a factory to detect wasted time and efforts; trigger product demonstrations or interactive manuals when a customer picks up or examines a product; congratulate an athlete when she swings a tennis racquet properly or achieves an efficient stride while running. What can they do tomorrow?"
Sensors will make dumb objects smart, and smart objects behave very differently than dumb ones. (Dumb objects basically sit there like rocks, requiring you—as a company or customer—to "do something". Smart objects—which can be as diverse as people, products, places or things—"do something" on their own, without the need for external interaction or influence).
You might argue with us and say that sensors won't spread as widely as we suggest. Or maybe you believe they will, but you can't see how they'll impact your industry, or disrupt your business.
Did you predict that Facebook would grow in eight years to over 900 million users? Early in 2007, did you anticipate that Apple would introduce the iPhone and that unit sales per quarter would top 35 million by 2012? Did you predict that Android unit sales would be even higher? (By the way, each one of these smartphones already contains about 5 sensors, plus a GPS. Most modern laptops have 3 to 5.)
These sensors (along with the sensors in your cars, cameras, gaming consoles, HVAC systems, tea pots, refrigerators, gardens, offices, lamps, televisions, body, and more) will make possible all sorts of new services and business models.
Here's one example: We have been tracking the Kickstarter campaign of Sensordrone, a little tricorder-like device about the size of a flash drive that's jam-packed with sensors. It can talk to your smartphone via Bluetooth, enabling literally hundreds of previously impossible apps.
Flash forward a few years and imagine millions of people carrying around tiny but powerful sensing units like these. People will then be able to join networks of individuals who share and/or sell their sensing data. Already, sensors monitor things like air quality, and sudden (i.e. dangerous) changes in the weather. Soon, they'll be monitoring subway overcrowding, in-store customer traffic patterns, the effectiveness of outdoor advertising, or even the popularity of bars and parties.
Sensors will be able to automatically and remotely answer all sorts of questions for you. Is your coffee too hot? Is your refrigerator too warm? Is the humidity in your basement too high? Does your child have a temperature?
Now consider what happens when you combine trillions of sensors with another disruptive force, what we call pervasive memory. Every time we use a digital device, we create a record of our actions—a trail of digital breadcrumbs that create a complex and comprehensive tapestry of our life. They reveal where we go, with whom we interact, and what we're interested in, and in many ways, who we are.
These records, stored in databases around the world, document not only what is happening in your life, but also in the lives of most other people in the world. The more digital devices that exist, the more pervasive memory will become. In fact, most companies have the ability to remember everything about their customers—but they don't. (Which leaves a huge opportunity for smart, entrepreneurial competitors.)
Think about the possibilities. Digital sensors, everywhere, gathering information about everything. And companies that are actually capable of remembering information for customers, instead of just about them.
Sensors are one reason we say to executives of all companies, large or small, old or young: think like a startup, or else.
Adapted from Smart Customers, Stupid Companies: Why Only Intelligent Companies Thrive, And How To Be One Of Them, co-authored by Michael Hinshaw and Bruce Kasanoff, (Business Strategy Press, 2012).
[Image: Flickr user Chris Hau]