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Is Smartphone Dominance Slowing Down Innovation?

Photo of Karol Severin
by Karol Severin

In 2009, young prodigy Pranav Mistry introduced his SixthSense Technology Device at a Ted event. The possibilities seemed endless. If you don’t know SixthSense, please watch this video to understand its sheer potential.

Back then, the world went nuts over the presentation, as it seemed like we jumped 25 years ahead in those 13 minutes. Just one year after the iPhone started global smart device mania, a genius comes along and shows how we don’t actually need any of these devices at all. Furthermore Pranav made the whole thing open source for everyone to start building and developing.

But after the initial excitement everything went surprisingly quiet. Samsung snatched up Pranav in 2012 where he was kept busy as the Head of the Think Tank team and later Vice President of Research. In December last year he became the global Vice President of Samsung. Keeping Pranav busy is a logical move for any sane smartphone manufacturer. Luckily for them, Pranav is an inventor at heart and gets his kick out of creating awesome new things to help people, rather than making tons of money. Following this logic, Pranav’s goal regarding SixthSense has already been achieved. He invented the prototype and gave everyone a recipe to build one too. But very few people have done so despite the affordable cost of $350 to build one. Over the years I kept asking myself, why?

How money slows down tech development

I often hear things like ‘the public is not ready for this technology’. To me this is more a matter of ‘the industries are comfortable with smartphone are not ready to kill a golden goose’. This is not just smartphone manufacturers. Enterprises around the world have been sweating blood and tears to adjust to the smartphone environment. Now that they are somewhat getting there, the vision of dealing with a whole new concept for the next decade seems naturally daunting. The amount of money that has been committed to the smartphone environment is simply too large to ‘forget about it and move on’. Although I understand this argument, I certainly don’t support it. New technology always disrupts old habits. That’s how we move forward. When financial commitment holds back new useful technology from launching properly, it feels like going against the core goal of why we invent new technology in the first place.

More importantly, who is to decide whether the world is ready, if not the general public? Firstly, I haven’t met a single person who wasn’t interested in owning a SixthSense device after watching the presentation. Secondly In June 2015, the phrase ‘buy sixthsense’ had over 400 thousand Google searches. 6 years passed after SixthSense’s introduction, yet when you actually Google the phrase, what comes up are mostly investigative articles about what happened to SixthSense and why is no one really working on it? Due to the emergence of tech giants and commoditization of the innovation world, introducing new tech has become a matter of ‘linear curation’, rather than ‘on demand’ process.

The Developer’s Dilemma

So developers haven’t exactly flocked to SixthSense. Timing didn’t help. If you were an independent developer who needed to pay the bills, it was a much safer bet to spend time working on mobile apps. If you worked for a bigger company, they had enough business coming from mobile to focus on anything else. Finally, no ‘messiah’ with significant backing stood up to offer proper support and attract developers to this environment.

Developers work to create innovative things. But they also need to eat. This inevitably affects their ability to work on the more risky/disruptive projects. Mission statements aside, for-profit companies work to make money. They are risk-averse and will never get behind anything that could disrupt their own business or the one of their partners. But now, everyone is in the mobile business one way or another, so the chances of innovation ever going against the very concept of the smartphone are slimming down by the hour. Are we getting to the point where the most disruptive invention of the last two decades (the smartphone) will actually hinder further progress? Developers face the same dilemma doctors often have: Shall I go ‘by the book’ and get by ok? Or should I do something out of ordinary with the potential of extraordinary results, but with the risk of bearing consequences on my own?

How many developers does it take to take to bring down the smartphone industry?!

Developer economics has gone a long way since 2009. With the rise of middle class developers, more of them are now able to secure basic funds for living as well as working on ‘side projects’. This is how most developers work on IoT projects nowadays. The SixthSense technology could follow the same curve, as long as there are developers out there who are willing to take it on. If this really took off it would certainly anger a whole corporate chunk of the world, but you developers care about technology progress and helping people as opposed to money, right?

My question to all developers: Why are you not working with SixthSense today and what would it take for you to start working on it? Please comment below and be sincere. This is my genuine attempt to find out what’s still missing for this fantastic vision to be ushered to the general public.

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