When Tim, Mark and I were laying out our plans for OATV we began with a foundational belief- the technology that ends up being the most disruptive will come from hobbyists, hackers and alpha geeks. This belief stems from nearly 30 years of Tim watching and participating in multiple waves of massive technology transformation- from the early days of open source and the advent of the web to location aware technologies and the DIY movement. Each began with hackers having fun. As Tim put it recently:
Over our years watching the alpha geeks, we’ve concluded that many big technology revolutions don’t start with entrepreneurs, but with hobbyists having fun. Think the Wright Brothers and others who enabled the age of flight, the Homebrew Computer Club that helped birth the personal computer industry, the early web sites that were built with no expectation of financial return, the open source developers who wrote code, as Linus Torvalds admitted “just for fun.”
Returns driven investors struggled with what that actually meant. Who are these alpha geeks and where do we hide them? Of course we had historical examples of how hobbies and side projects morphed into technology movements, but they all felt a bit stale.
So, I’ve been watching with keen interest as the alpha geeks have gone to town creating new and small movement around the Microsoft Kinect camera. As designed, its a slick little peripheral that you plug into your Xbox 360 to play motion based games. A technical marvel for sure, but with a very specific intended use.
Shortly after releasing Kinect to the public, something interesting happened. The clever hackers over at Adafruit Industries offered a bounty for the first person to write open source drivers effectively opening up a future where the device could run on any OS and control any type of application. Less than a week later (and only 3 hours after the device was launched in his home county), Hector Martin had cracked the device.
Since claiming the bounty less than a month ago, the Open Kinect project has sprung up to continue pushing the envelope of what’s possible with the device. Do a search on YouTube for Kinect hacks and you’ll find hundreds of cool use cases like the one above. What was only possible with expensive specialized hardware and software is becoming accessible with everyday hardware and open source software.
Is this solution beautiful or approachable for the average user at this point? No. But this is how the disruption of existing industries and the birth of new ones happens. All at the hands of hobbyists, hackers and alpha geeks scratching their own itch and exploring what’s possible.
So how do we turn what we’re seeing from the alpha geek community into actionable investment themes? We look at what these hackers do in their spare time then try to find possible connections between them and any underlying trends they’re trying to expose. For instance, what do these Kinect hacks have in common with something like Google’s self driving car? They could be pointing to a trend among alpha geeks of exploring machine vision. If so, we ought to look at what immediate investment opportunities may be available directly in the field; but also, what pieces of infrastructure need to be in place for this trend to be fully realized at scale.
Its signal like this we watch at OATV when formulating our own investment themes. And, its this type of signal that aspiring entrepreneurs should look to when synthesizing what the future is going to look like for their next venture.
PS- I owe a special thanks to Tim for both helping me think through this post but also exposing me to the world of alpha geeks and what its trying telling us about the future.