Steven J Webster

July 23, 2013

Hardware+Software: Disruption for a $1.5B+ Market?

By 2014, the oscilloscope market is expected to reach over $1.5B in size. In 2009, 35% of the oscilloscope market was in “low performance oscilloscopes”.  That in itself is a market worth taking a shot at share of.  And looking to take a shot at it, are companies like Red Pitaya.

In my last post, I discussed how the barrier to entry for hardware+software startups was lowering, as rapid prototyping with Arduino and Raspberry Pi intersected with industrial design within reach through 3D Printing and TechShops.  Back in 1998, I worked for Wolfson Microelectronics.  I was employee number 12 of the then 4 year old startup.  A fabless semiconductor company, this was the most capital un-intensive of hardware companies, yet still the average chip designer had several thousands of dollars of workstation on their desk for design and simulation, and the average test engineer had tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars of oscillioscopes, spectrum analyzers, digital signal generators, etc, on their desks.  The cost of entry, from a hardware perspective, was high.

So I’m intrigued by this kickstarter campaign for Red Pitaya.  Themselves a “hardware plus software” startup, they have created a small hardware board that allows them to deliver oscilloscopes, spectrum analysers, waveform generators and more, as software applications that can run on a touch enabled tablet device.  Similarly, other companies in the Apple iTunes Store, such as Oscium, are also delivering mixed signal oscilloscopes, signal generators and spectrum analyzers for iPads, with a combined hardware+software solution.  In both instances, $300 is all it takes to put tens of thousands of dollars worth of equipment on the desk of the new wave of lean and agile hardware+software developers.  It’s an incredible opportunity for disruption of the electronics and EDA category, and it’s further evidence that hardware+software is becoming as accessible to lean startups as software has in the last several years.

Later in my career, working for Cadence Design Systems, I worked on products for co-simulation of hardware and software.  I wonder if there may be a marketplace for agility in creating hybrid hardware/software products, with catalogs of devices such as sensors and microcontrollers, that allow the maker movement and lean and agile hardware developers to rapidly build and prototype.  I wonder what the “github of hardware collaboration” will look like, and who will own that lean hardware engineer ecosystem.  I wonder if cloud delivered PCB layout tools will reach the masses, enabling collaborative cloud-based design of hardware products to physical, picked, placed and soldered PCBs.  I wonder if companies like Upverter are on the way to being the next github ?  I wonder if we might even see consolidation as such.

Programming has become an accessible craft for the general population, with the barrier to entry “do you have a browser”.  Might electronics and hardware development be on the same path to democratization ? I suspect so; what do you think?




July 22, 2013

(Hardware) Startups for (Hardware) Startups

Back in 2008, Paul Graham of Y Combinator shared some ideas of “startups we’d like to fund”.  In the same list of ideas for startups, Paul listed “Hardware/Software Startups” such as Meraki.  Since Meraki was acquired by Cisco 4 years later for $1.2 billion, I’d chalk that up to a fairly astute consideration.

In the last several years, with the advent of cloud hosting such as Amazon AWS or Azure, with collaboration platforms from Heroku to GitHub, a highly available worldwide labor market for design and engineering, and a slew of “startups for startups” such as LaunchRock, one can engage in a software startup on a 4 or 5 digit budget, rather than a 6 or 7 figure budget of years gone by.

A number of trends of late are moving hardware design and development towards similar levels of accessibility in a way never before possible. Moreso, platforms such as Arduino and Raspberry Pi are bringing software-like agility and iteration to hardware development.  For under $100, a newcomer to hardware with an idea for sensor-aware hardware that tethers to the cloud through a phone, wifi, or Bluetooth connection, can be up and running with a prototype in weeks.  The increasing miniaturization of Arduino  form factors, allows prototyping and testing of product/market fit to be undertaken without the need for PCB design and pick-and-place of components.  Furthermore, the availability and lowcost of 3D printing and techshops, ushers in an era of industrial design within reach.  Software is no longer eating the world by itself.  Hardware has found it’s appetite again.

And so just as Paul Graham predicted back in 2008, that “startups for startups” would be an interesting opportunity for rapid growth companies (and I think GitHub and Heroku, amongst others, would agree), so too is the same opportunity creating itself for hardware+software startups to support hardware+software startups.

I’m going to focus on a number of these in ensuing posts; are there any such startups that you’re tracking ?




February 28, 2013

Next generation of gesture control?

Though technologies like Microsoft Kinect and Leap Motion are bringing gesture based control of devices to reality, they still require a “field of vision” for the device to recognize and track gestures.

I believe that real breakthrough in gesture and posture recognition will be about introspecting rather than inspecting the body, and I’m tracking closely on the companies that are creating parts or whole products that enable this, or software and platforms that build upon this.

I believe that real breakthrough in gesture and posture recognition will be about introspecting rather than inspecting the body


One such product is Myo, created by graduates from the University of Waterloo who founded Thalmic Labs, funded and backed by Y Combinator and $1.1M of seed funding from a portfolio of early stage investors.  The device seems to be based not on external observation from a camera, or solely the positional information from accelerometer based sensors, but on the principle of electromyography.  This is a non-invasive means of measuring the electrical activity from neurological activation of muscles, including the “recruitment order” of muscles.  Or in English, sensors that can tell your muscles are moving, by how much, and in which order … essentially recording and recognising a signature for complex and intricate movements at the degree of accuracy of a finger twitch.  In terms of latency, since electrical activity to muscles precedes the movement of the muscle itself, not only does this offer a non-invasive measurement with infinite field of vision, but it will offer the perception of zero latency…any computed reaction to a gesture will be immediate and delightful.

Check out the video here.  The future is now.

Like Kinect, the team at @Thalmic Labs are releasing an open SDK for Myo, allowing others to innovate upon their innovation.

I trust, as an industry, we are only just getting started.

December 19, 2012

Digital Health: “Prescription as a Service” ?


A little research around the topic of my last post, had me stumble upon the “Reflexion Rehabilitation Medical Tool”.  This is another Kinect based occupational therapy tool, that is entering clinical trials at the Naval Medical Center of San Diego.  The software is designed to address musculoskeletal disease, which has a cost to Americans of over $127 billion per year.

You can see the software in action here, and be struck as I was by the similarities to fitness applications such as Nike+ Kinect  or Ubisoft Your Shape here.

Back in October, Reflexion Health raised $4.25 million in seed-funding from the West Health Investment Fund, to advance development of the software.

I’m curious as to whether the intention here is the notion of a disruptive business model, where rather than prescribe drugs, the prescription could instead be preventative and restorative therapy, that the patient can undertake themselves at home.

Spending on branded prescription drugs in the US alone, in 2010, was around $230 billion, so this is an interesting market for sure to try and disrupt with a software alternative, or even a software additive, to a pill in a bottle.

I wonder just how many opportunities there are for “prescriptions as a service” that can be delivered, administered, measured and monitored digitally, with low-cost devices and cloud-scale services.  I wonder the extent to which big data and analytics could be applied, so that the prescription itself could be optimized and tuned according to the measured effects of improvement on large clusters of patients.  Rather than conventional wisdom and research papers being the slow-pace of “innovation” in treatment techniques, could observation, measurement and big data analysis fine-tune and optimize healthcare on a patient-by-patient basis, in Internet time ?

Seems like an intersection worth investment of time and of money.

What other areas of healthcare do you think could be prescribed digitally with low-cost hardware and cloud-based services ?


December 18, 2012

Digital Democratization of Healthcare

Drawing by Phyliss Tarlow (

In an earlier post, I spoke about a passion for the intersection of digital and sport, and specifically the work of accelerators like Nike Accelerator, and RockHealth.  Another example caught my eye today, this time of some work that Microsoft is undertaking with the US Air Force, to leverage the skeletal tracking capabilities of Microsoft Kinect to provide physical therapy to veterans and injured soldiers.

There are a number of underlying trends here, that bring health, wellness and sport ever closer together in the digital domain.  Microsoft Kinect brings positional and skeletal tracking as a natural user interface upon which innovative solutions can be delivered.

By bringing this natural user interface together with off the shelf physical therapy packages for range of motion improvement, we can imagine the democratization, availability and accessibility of digital healthcare, in a cost effective and scalable manner.

You can see in this video, how such a system would work – the user-experience needs some work.  The patient is prescribed an exercise, and the system can give real-time feedback as to whether they are performing their rehabilitation correctly, and gauge their improvement over time.  Results can be stored directly to an online health vault, such as “Microsoft HealthVault”, which allows personal medical information to be securely stored, and made available at the patient’s discretion, to the appropriate medical professionals providing care.

The availability of low-cost hardware intersecting with powerful software algorithms, natural user interfaces that can observe and measure position and movement, allows us to deliver low-cost devices for digital health and sport.

The ability to process that information in real-time, to cloud-deployed solutions that can provide digital coaching, or digital feedback on physiotherapy, along with the ability to capture, store and securely share progress and performance with trusted advisors, delivers us that associated services for digital health and sport.

The seamless integration of these devices and services, is an opportunity for us to democratize access to best-in-class healthcare for treatment, and best-in-class coaching for preventative healthcare and fitness/wellness.

It’s a tremendously exciting intersection to be in and around.


December 13, 2012

NUI (Natural User Interfaces) are getting out of touch

The launch of Windows 8, and a user-experience that is so much more delightful under the fingers, has heralded a point in time where we think about creating experiences that are “touch first”.  However, at the same time, there’s an incredible amount of innovation around Natural User Interfaces (NUI) that is anchored in speech and gestures.

There are many who believe that it’s not ergonomic or desirable to want to swipe on a laptop screen; we even talk about “gorilla arm” to describe tired arms from inefficient form factors.  Having worked with a touchscreen laptop for some time however, I can attest that it is the most natural and desirable of interactions, and you will find yourself sitting at an “old fashioned laptop”, swiping the screen and then in frustration, reaching for the mouse or trackpad with realization and resignation.

Touch is natural.

It is my belief that we will blast past touch as in input metaphor before know it; the keyboard may have been with us since the 1870s, the mouse since the 1960s, but I believe that touch will be old before it is new.  It is merely a springboard to gestures.

Microsoft Kinect first brought gesture recognition at scale into our homes, and in an increasing number of instances, our workplace.  In the intersection of off-the-shelf hardware and innovative software, we can map out an entire room, and follow the movements and gestures of one or more people in that room.  Simple hardware such as low-resolution RGB cameras, IR sensors, an array of relatively inexpensive microphones, allows this kind of technology innovation to be delivered at consumer marketplace scale.  Seamless integration with innovative software allows tracking of up to 48 different body parts, 30 times a second, predicting the time of flight of body parts to be able to “see” them even as they disappear behind a table or chair, or another person in the room.

However, Kinect operates at “room scale” – the experiences that most benefit from Kinect are those that are whole body experiences, such as stepping into a game, or “gross motor movements” such as waving a hand.

Today, Primesense (who developed the 3D sensing technology in Microsoft Kinect) announced they will unveil a compact 3D sensor that will be targeted at consumer electronic and mobile devices, to be unveiled at CES in January for launch in middle of 2013.  No need to sharpen your fingers, just sharpen your gestures…

An area of intense interest for me, is how this kind of gesture recognition moves from “gross motor” (waving your hand to get the attention of your television, like a Samsung Smart TV) to “fine motor” (pointing your finger at a sentence or icon, or swiping your finger as if flipping the page on a Kindle).  This kind of “near field interface”, is I think an emerging area of hardware and software intersection, that will enable a whole new slew of more natural digital experiences.  Leap Motion have gained a lot of mindshare with their yet to be released platform, which indicates I think exactly the kind of natural interactions that “near field interfaces” can deliver.

But I expect that mindshare will not reflect market-share, and we will see many more entrants and innovations in gesturing to the devices on our desks and in our pocket.



December 10, 2012

NikeAccelerator: The Intersection of Technology and Sport

Image credit:

Yesterday, I mentioned the intersection of technology and sport as an area of intense focus and interest for me.  Today, Nike and TechStars launched a new accelerator program, offering 10 companies $20,000 and 3 months of mentoring, to build applications upon the Nike+ SDK, Nike Mobile SDK and Nike Fuel SDK.

You promised me Mars colonies, and all I got was Facebook – Buzz Aldrin

Inspiring and encouraging people to lead a more active lifestyle, enabled and encouraged by digital technology and trends, is an incredible area of growth.  Consequently, we’re seeing an increasing focus on health related incubators and accelerators, and the associated ecosystem of companies.

For instance RockHealth, of which Nike are also a partner, is a seed accelerator for digital health startups.  Entry into the RockHealth incubator yields $100k of investment from Aberdare, Kleiner Perkins, the Mayo Clinic and Mohr Davidow.  Companies are given medical support from Kaiser Permanente, Harvard Medical School and UCSF, as well as Design mentoring from Cooper Design.  It’s a great example of an intersection of health and wellness, technology and design.

As Buzz Aldrin was recently quoted as saying in MIT Technology Review, “you promised me Mars colonies, and all I got was Facebook”, not unlike Peter Thiel’s lament that “we wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters”.

It is heartening to see Valley investment, Valley talent and Bay Area Design expertise intersecting in a meaningful manner, towards something that impacts us all much more fundamentally. Now with companies like Nike opening up their digital platforms, things could get pretty innovative and interesting.


December 9, 2012

Innovation in the Intersections

The intersection of design and technology.  The intersection of hardware and software. The intersection of hardware and sport.  Of design and health.  Of technology and wellness.  Of design thinking and advertising, or education, or government.

Innovation thrives in aN INTERSECTION

It is in these intersections that I am fascinated by the opportunities for innovation.

In the intersection of design and technology, or of hardware and software, we are seeing the emergence of beautiful consumer products.  Perhaps the Nest thermostat might spring to mind.

In the intersection of design and health, the whole notion of the Quantified Self is a rich area of empowering individuals to own, and be pre-emptive, about their health and well-being.

In the intersection of technology and sport, we are only just beginning to explore how the Internet of Things – sensors in our shoes from Nike, Adidas, Garmin, paired with the phones in our pockets – can encourage us, coach us and connect us to likeminded athletes.

Or the intersection of design and entrepreneurship.  The Designer Fund, the Design Council and Design Fellows program at Kleiner Perkins, or the designers on staff Andressen Horowitz – Venture Capitalists and Private Equity firms all recognize the value of design and design-thinking to help startups succeed in the disruptions they wish to create.

Innovation thrives in the intersections.

What are some of the emerging intersections where you think there might be a seam to be tapped, rich in innovation ?

April 10, 2012

Designing the Future at Microsoft. Come join me.

As I migrated this blog content, it would seem that since starting my own company in December 2002, I have been on a mission to bring rich user-experiences to market.  This is a journey that took me from a startup of my own (iteration::two) to an acquisition by Macromedia, and then an acquisition of Macromedia by Adobe.  It has been an incredible journey, introducing me at every stage to unbelievable talent capable of delivering truly disruptive digital experiences. At each stage, I have been given a bigger and broader platform to help ever larger organizations differentiate themselves through simpler, easier, more effective – useful, usable and more desirable – user-experiences across screens and devices.

If you wish to work - as someone I’m sure we all mutually admire so eloquently phrased – at the intersection of technology and design, then you are a kindred spirit.

This post marks another step-change; earlier in the month I started a position at Microsoft, to build out an Experience Design team focussed on bringing the best imaginable digital experiences across surfaces and devices, to the top 250 brands in the world.  The constant challenge I hear within Microsoft is to “Change the Future”, and I believe we can.

As I think about the enabling technologies for the best imaginable digital experiences, I think about natural user interfaces, voice recognition and speech recognition.  I think about digital experiences that are truly consistent in content and context, across screens and devices, whether on my phone, my slate, my laptop or the screens in my home.   Technology properties such as XBox, Kinect, Skype, the beautiful experience of the new Nokia 900 Lumia phone with Windows Phone, the touch-centric experience of Windows 8 (Metro) on a slate…these are the surfaces and technologies where I truly feel world-class design teams can imagine a future like no other.  In the end, it wasn’t a hard decision to make.

I have always spoken about great experiences requiring “Innovation on Both Sides of the Glass”, and this year ahead feels to me like a confluence of incredible engineering, innovation and experience design within Microsoft, to provide a platform for disruptive digital experiences that bring brands to consumers in ever more useful and desirable ways, and most importantly, in useful ways.

I can’t do this myself however; which is why the XD (“Experience Design”) team I’m building requires best-in-industry talent.  Whether you’re a designer that relies upon technical talent to bring your vision to reality upon the technology platforms I describe, or a technologist/software craftsman who only wants to build the most beautiful of experiences that are the product of design-thinking from top user-experience design talent, I would love you to consider being part of my team.   If you wish to work - as someone I’m sure we all mutually admire so eloquently phrased – at the intersection of technology and design, then you are a kindred spirit.

Please check out the Microsoft Careers site, and if the locations don’t work for you, apply anyway, because I’m only just getting started.

Imagine the future.  Then do something about it.

September 29, 2010

The Relevance of User Experience Design in eGovernment

Drawing by the incredibly talented

I recently spent some time with the Adobe Government team to discuss how the ‘consumerization of IT’, and the increasing expectation of users to have simpler, easier and more effective user-centered experiences in the enterprise, is just as applicable to citizens and constituents in open and electronic Government.  We captured our discussions as a series of 3 interviews that the Adobe Government team are posting over the coming days.

In part one, we have a general introduction to the Technology and Experience Innovation team at Adobe, what constitutes a typical day for the team, and broadly, the importance of user-experience as we see it as a complement to technology expertise.  In the interviews that follow, the team asked me about the importance of user experience in government, the relevance to the Open Government Initiative in the United States, and what we consider the future might be for digital experiences in the enterprise and in government.

I’d love to take some dialogue and questions to this blog, and here your own thoughts and ideas!   The first part of the video is here.

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