To truly scout emerging technology, stop thinking like an executive

September 13, 2017

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Inspiration for your next innovation might just be found in the movies (and beyond).

A recent discussion with a colleague who has a product background in video games reminded me of the not-so-distant past, playing World of Warcraft with my sons. We would spend many weekends and nights either planning how we would level our warriors, hunters, and rogues or raiding the latest dungeons and trolling for loot. Then my wife would drop in and ask when I planned to put down the toys and get back to work. In a sense, this was work!

For as long as people have had books, movies, and video games, science fiction has been a major source of innovation. These new ideas aren’t just about the next alien that Captain Kirk will face off against; they’re also the basis for real products—devices that, someday, will become part of daily life. Don’t believe me? For the average moviegoer, the concept of a machine that can create whatever you tell it to make—seemingly out of thin air—may sound like a playful fantasy. For a forward-thinking business professional, that Star Trek replicator may very well have been a key concept that drove the development of the first 3-D printers, which are revolutionizing prototyping and manufacturing. The Star Trek tricorder was indeed the inspiration for a recent XPRIZE competition.

For years, I’ve been looking at science fiction—books, movies, television, and games—with business in mind, and I’m not the only one. For example, although the technology wasn’t exactly the same, the flying skateboard from Back to the Future inspired the hoverboard craze. Videophones as imagined in Blade Runner are now in the hands of every smartphone user. The Jetsons’ self-guided robot vacuum is commonplace today.

All of these product ideas were born in sci-fi, and if you think their development was coincidental, think again. Not only is industry actively turning to the world of science fiction for next steps, some open-minded executives are actually paying sci-fi writers to imagine the future for them. The New Yorker recently reported on a firm called SciFutures, which engages in “corporate visioning” for many top brands. The company’s charter? To provide corporate consulting that speculates about the future via written sci-fi narratives.

“For as long as people have had books, movies, and video games, science fiction has been a major source of innovation. These new ideas aren’t just about the next alien that Captain Kirk will face off against; they’re also the basis for real products—devices that, someday, will become part of daily life.”

The business wisdom of crowds

While speculating about the far future can lead to some amazing insights, I also find inspiration in developments that are a little closer to reality.

I invest in lots of things. Not stocks. Things. Crowdfunding projects that I think might someday have a real impact on the world.

Crowdfunding through sites like Indiegogo and Kickstarter has become incredibly popular in the last few years, and for an entrepreneur with a dream and no access to the capital markets, crowdfunding makes a huge amount of sense. Where else can you create a prototype of your vision, shoot a short video, write a few words about it, and wait for hundreds of thousands—or millions—of dollars to pour in so you can actually get your product off the ground?

Crowdfunding sites aren’t just fanciful sites for wild-eyed inventors. These sites are changing the way products are developed, and people are launching entirely new categories of products here. Smartwatches got their start via crowdfunding, and now everyone seems to be wearing one. The Oculus Rift VR headset was a Kickstarter project that attracted so much attention that Facebook bought the company. Major movies and video game projects are increasingly being financed this way. A quick spin through the Kickstarter project archive reveals myriad potential high-tech game-changers, including a liquid plastic welder, a kitchen assistant that has AI, and sound-reactive LEDs. Which ones will be major hits?

The real beauty of crowdfunding, though, is how you (as part of the crowd) can join the inner circle of an inventor or entrepreneur who’s doing something interesting. For a nominal investment, you become a critical part of the operation. Message boards let you chat with creators directly, and they let you learn what other early investors are thinking about along the way. The exploration of ideas on these boards can be just as valuable as the product that’s being developed. Thinking about where the product goes next—that’s the real emerging tech angle.

“Crowdfunding sites aren’t just fanciful sites for wild-eyed inventors. These sites are changing the way products are developed, and people are launching entirely new categories of products here.”

Of course, not every crowdfunded project is going to make it. Many die early on the vine. Some flame out in catastrophic, spectacular fashion. There are lessons to be learned from these failures, too. Were the inventors in over their heads, or was the market not ready? Once you start analyzing prospects, successes, and failures in the crowdfunding world, you start to see a bigger picture of the emerging technology ecosystem.

I’ve kicked my own cash into a number of projects. Some worked out, some didn’t, but I learned some lessons along the way. The Rocketbook Wave was a cloud-connected pen-and-paper notebook that captured your notes via smartphone. To erase it, you microwaved the book! It was a neat idea, but it was crippled by an uninspired app and a mediocre writing experience (kind of important), proving that great ideas are defined by the details.

Here One’s wireless earbuds were earphones with a twist—you could tune how much ambient noise reached your ears. Think about noise-canceling headphones tuned to your surroundings and activity—talking on the phone, listening to music, relaxing, and so on. It’s still early with these headphones; I’m curious to see if and when APIs are made available for them. I can imagine some interesting industrial uses when paired with Siri or Alexa.

On these sites, it’s easy to get lost in a maze of technical minutiae. But when you come up for air, you might find that you’ve encountered the Next Big Thing in its earliest stages of development.

Ultimately, the point is simple: The biggest ideas can come from the most unexpected places. The next time you’re watching a sci-fi blockbuster or deciding whether to kick in a few bucks for next-generation audio gear on Kickstarter, pause for a moment and ask yourself whether there’s something tangible there that might apply to your enterprise. Is it just a fanciful idea or a one-off gizmo? Or is it the start of something more impactful?

To learn about some of the other ways I scout emerging tech, see my posts on university relationships, accelerators and incubators, and mentoring.

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Contacts

Chris Curran

Principal and Chief Technologist, PwC US Tel: +1 (214) 754 5055 Email

Vicki Huff Eckert

Global New Business & Innovation Leader Tel: +1 (650) 387 4956 Email

Mark McCaffrey

US Technology, Media and Telecommunications (TMT) Leader Tel: +1 (408) 817 4199 Email