Innovation is all about creating something new that is useful to individuals or companies. Innovation requires taking ideas, information, and resources to get a result which is something that has never been seen before. Sometimes innovations are continuous which means they are just improvements upon existing technologies. At other times, innovation can be disruptive and result in something completely unexpected. Engineers work on a daily basis to translate ideas into real-world innovations and while in many circumstances the world sees hardware as the “new thing,” in many circumstances today the real innovation is all about the software.
Hardware is exciting. Individuals can see hardware, touch it, weigh it, and get a good sense for what it is. The same hardware can be reconfigured and manipulated to provide different solutions in disparate industries. In many circumstances, though the hardware is quite limited. First, designers have to configure that hardware in a predefined configuration in order for it to do something useful. Secondly, there are limits to how quickly and how many units can be physically manufactured. Finally, most hardware today isn’t standalone but requires software to drive its behavior.
A great example on how critical software innovation is compared to hardware innovation (keep in mind this is the perspective from the software guy and a bit overreaching as a statement) can be seen in a tactile feedback solution for touchless interfaces created by Ultrahaptics. Now if that statement sounds strange at first, it’s because it should! The concept is that there is a 3D gesture sensor that a user can interact with, but without any feedback it can be difficult to get a feel for what is happening. The Ultrahaptics solution uses ultrasonic waves at different frequencies to generate a tactile sensation in the user so that it feels like they are interacting with a physical component.
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The reason that the Ultrahaptics solution is such a great example for software innovation is that the innovation is really all in the software. The hardware for the ultrasonic transducers is nothing more than a common Murata component that is used in supermarket automated doors. A common hardware sensor was taken and then algorithms designed to create constructing and deconstructing ultrasonic waves that generate tactile feeling. The hardware is so common and non-innovative that Ultrahaptics provides the hardware reference designs. There is nothing special with the hardware.
The software, on the other hand, is where all the innovation is. In the demonstration unit shown in the picture above, the algorithms must take in distance information for each finger along with the finger position. The reader can see that there is an ultrasonic sensor array beneath a user’s hand and once the input parameters are gathered, the software must generate ultrasonic waves at just the right frequencies to be detected by the human hand. This is not an easy feat given that the ultrasonic waves must construct at just the right distance and position in space to provide accurate and realistic tactile feedback.
The Ultrahapics solution is just one example where software innovation is viewed as much more important than hardware. Another example is to examine the open source hardware platforms that provide a generic hardware system such as Raspberry Pi, Arduino, Beagle Bone Black, and the like. Common hardware pieces that result in a completely new innovation once software is written for it.
In many circumstances today, the innovation is in the software. This doesn’t mean that we should ignore hardware and stop trying to push the envelope. Software innovation can never occur without standing on the shoulders of hardware innovators first. At the end of the day, the software driving that hardware can often do more than anyone might ever imagine.
Jacob Beningo is an embedded software consultant who currently works with clients in more than a dozen countries to dramatically transform their businesses by improving product quality, cost and time to market. He has published more than 200 articles on embedded software development techniques, is a sought-after speaker and technical trainer and holds three degrees which include a Masters of Engineering from the University of Michigan. Feel free to contact him at [email protected], at his website, and sign-up for his monthly Embedded Bytes Newsletter.