The tagline for Solid 2014, O’Reilly’s newest annual conference, is “Software/Hardware/Everything,” so even though I felt like an outsider, that was exactly the point. Here’s what I learned about the future of tech. 

3D printing is more or less what brought me to Fort Mason in San Francisco on May 21-22, 2014, though I didn’t feel like I was exactly the target audience of the very first installment of O’Reilly’s new annual convention: Solid. I wasn’t the only fish out of water in attendance, which basically means the meeting for “Software/Hardware/Everything” was right on target.

The main theme of Solid is the blurring of the once distinct line between the material and the digital world; the line between hardware and software, manufacturing and design, making and coding, building things and connecting things.

Naturally, the conference brought together a very diverse techie crowd, an intriguing lineup of sponsors and exhibitors, and brilliant big-picture speakers. After two days of keynote sessions and discussions that ranged from Augmented Reality and consumer electronics to the Internet of Things and digital manufacturing, here’s my review of what one of the least tech savvy people in the building (me) learned about the future of technology:

“The future will be grown” – Andrew Hessel, Autodesk Inc.

Echoed by many speakers throughout the conference, Andrew Hessel reminded us that there is no assembly line more sophisticated than life itself and no nanotechnology more intricate and advanced than that of living organisms – in fact, it is so impressive it’s no wonder life’s creations have popularly been attributed to gods and deities.

So there you have it, organic life holds all the answers to today’s challenges in manufacturing. Life manages to consistently produce resilient, self-replenishing and self-improving mechanisms. Did I mention recyclable and adaptive? DNA is already a programming language we understand. The next years will see “biocoding” and “biomanufacturing” transform the way we make and program things.

“Yesterday’s software tools are failing today’s engineers” – Carl Bass, CEO, Autodesk Inc.

After discussing the challenges and fascinating prospects of tomorrow’s hardware making (3D printers naturally monopolizing yet another talk) Bass went on to discuss software, starting with this provocative claim. Yesterday’s design software tools, according to the Autodesk CEO, were made for another world in which computational power is expensive and scarce and design is handled exclusively by experts in established corporations.

Today, there’s ample computation readily available on the cloud or in our very pockets. For hardware startups embarking on high speed-to-market development with little funds and limited design know-how, computer-aided design and manufacturing (CAD & CAM) solutions need to be flexible, affordable, and inviting to amateur makers. Moreover, they must facilitate rapid development by catering for not only proper form, but also proper function and fabrication of newly designed products.

As Bass admits, “If you knew at the beginning of a project what you know at the end, you would have done it differently.”

“Folding is coding for matter” – Matt Gardiner, Ars Electronica Futurelab

Matt Gardiner creates art from hacking materials, geometry, and folding behavior. In his keynote, he put the various implications of folding for art and design, for robotics and manufacturing, out there for us to reflect on. His perspective is that folding is a shared feature of organic and man-made constructs alike. To him, Origami folding is programming with paper and DNA assembly (which he refers to as DNA Origami) is no different.

What does the future hold? Oribotics: Robots that rely on the kinetic abilities of self-folding, self-assembling structures and approaches to manufacturing organic tissue that will be founded on the mathematical principles of folding.

 “We have already built the Internet. Are we now going to build it again?” – Ayah Bdeir, LittleBits

The brilliant Ayah Bdeir took to the stage to argue for simplicity and openness in new product development for the Internet of Things (IoT) era. Protesting how narrowly functional, secretive, and complex the first generations of IoT-enabled products are, she warned of an IoT era where “More and more things will break down that no one will know how to fix.”

She went on to remark that, although IoT is evangelized as a development that will ultimately make our lives easier, today’s products are cynically “over-guessing” how our life can be improved and leaving us no say in the matter.

An MIT Media Lab alumnus, Bdeir is on a venture to enable and democratize the creation of interconnected electronics tailored to anyone’s needs from simple and modular but highly capable Lego-like components. The company she founded, LittleBits, is an ever-growing Arduino-centered platform of electronic puzzle pieces, each with distinct but not limited functionality, which can be combined in gazillions of ways into formidable IoT applications.

Such “dumb,” uncomplicated, DIY devices with only the right amount of computational power will make up the true building blocks of IoT, Bdeir preaches. “Your door lock or the thermal sensor in your fridge – why do these need to have the same computational power as your laptop?” The Internet of computers already exists. We don’t need to rebuild it in the physical world.

“Hardware was hard…” – Renee Di Resta, O’Reilly AlphaTech Ventures

Hardware was hard “…because it was lonely.” With an average of 250 new hacker spaces sprouting up every year around the world for the past five years in a row, and with more than 100 Maker Faires taking place in 2014, hardware need no longer be lonely. Add to that the increasing number of hardware-specialized venture accelerators, prototyping tools like 3D-printers getting cheaper and cheaper, and a richer support ecosystem of products and services that facilitate hardware development.

“…because China was far.” China is still far, but it’s not the only option for manufacturing anymore. Nearshoring, a.k.a. producing close to your location if not in the same country, becomes an ever more popular option for Silicon Valley companies as US factory legislation warrants manufacturing quality and reliability, while Mexico’s low wages make it an even more attractive choice for mass production.

“…because investors were scared.” With the likes of Kickstarter and Indiegogo providing the first gentle push, numbers are on the up for hardware startups and even though many still struggle to raise the money they need in consecutive rounds, the future looks bright. The Internet of Things has blurred the border between hardware and software and helped make investors less picky. The latest noisy exits and lucrative acquisitions in robotics (Google took over seven robotics companies in 2013 alone) and 3D printing (Stratasys’s 2013 acquisition of Makerbot stormed the industry) may have changed history forever.

All in all, Di Resta gave us a feel for all that is changing to enable hardware tech to capture the huge potential of the IoT: five billion things will be online by 2020, and that is not even three percent of all things out there!

“Making is the BEST” – Ian Ferguson, Formlabs

In the very last talk of the day, Ian Ferguson, the engineer behind the industry standard for enterprise quality desktop 3D printers, told the story of how the Form 1 came from a bare prototype to the first batch to the mass production. He detailed the challenges Formlabs faced along the way and the myriad of services and products that exist out there to assist hopeful hardware entrepreneurs in bringing their physical product to market successfully. He prompted the developers in the audience not to be disheartened by the troubles of building and mass producing a product that works and to enjoy the journey above all.

So, for all you developers, entrepreneurs, techies out there, the main thing I learned at Solid is this: whatever your discipline, software or hardware, you no longer need to pick a side. The future of all things connected is here and it includes everyone and everything. After all, “On the Internet of Things, nobody knows if you’re a fridge.”

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