5 Innovations Disrupting Life as We Know It

How disruptive technologies will change the way we live, work, play, learn—and even how we eat.

Disruptive Technologies

dis·rupt, v: to cause (something) to be unable to continue in the normal way: to interrupt the normal progress or activity of (something)—Merriam Webster Dictionary.
Disrupt: a term so pervasive in the dialect of entrepreneurial startups it even has its own annual conference hosted by TechCrunch, complete with hackathon and “startup battlefield”—an intense, live venture pitch competition.

Disruptive innovation isn’t defined solely by the introduction of novel technologies and gadgets; rather, disruptive innovation opens the door for unlikely solutions to everyday problems.

Take for example the invention of the car. Most would assume that it was Henry Ford’s 1908 Model T that drove through the limitations of transportation with horse-drawn carriages. In truth, cars had been on the road for over twenty years by the time Ford introduced his vehicle. So why is it that we remember the Model T and not the Benz Patent-Motorwagen, developed by German inventor Karl Benz? The answer lies in the disruptive innovation of Ford’s mass-production methods: the first horseless carriage didn’t disrupt the transportation market—finding a way to make the car readily available to the masses did.

Clayton M. Christensen, Harvard Business School professor and author, first coined the term “disruptive technologies” in a 1995 article for Harvard Business Review. Two years later with the subsequent publication of his first book, The Innovator’s Dilemma, Christensen replaced the term with “disruptive innovation” to more accurately reflect the notion that it’s rarely technologies themselves that disrupt, but rather disruptive business models that allow room for novel, game-changing technologies.

“Disruptive innovations were technologically straightforward, consisting of off-the-shelf components put together in a product architecture that was often simpler than prior approaches,” Christensen writes in The Innovator’s Dilemma. It’s these almost head-smackingly simple innovations that open the floodgates of massification. Disruptive simplicity encourages public ubiquity.

Disruptive innovation and technologies will change the way we live, work, play, learn—and even how we eat.

Pulse MonitorDisrupting How We Live

A young startup CEO raises his arm before a crowd of eager technophiles. Strapped to his wrist is a sleek watch-like cuff, but this device—Halo—does more than just tell the time: it tracks your vital signs, physical activities, calendar, communications, and more.

“Today the whole world is your computer,” the young entrepreneur begins. “You simply need elegant access. Halo is always with you. Halo is powered by you.”

No, you didn’t miss the latest Consumer Electronics Show keynote. This scene is a dramatization taken from the Canadian science-fiction show, Continuum. But the idea of wearable personal-health monitoring isn’t as far-fetched as you’d think.

The disruptive innovation at play is micro-electro-mechanical systems (MEMS) consisting of smaller and smaller sensors built to detect and collect increasing numbers of measurements and human data points. The ensuing disruptive technologies of personal fitness trackers and monitors have unleashed a bevy of innovative personal health products like the FitBit Flex, Withings Pulse O2, and iHealth Labs’ Wireless Activity and Sleep Tracker.

Sensor This

Sensor This. The Withings Pulse O2 monitors your vital signs, physical activities, schedules, communications, and more.

Using tiny embedded sensors—the Pulse O2 is smaller than a pack of matches—these wearable activity monitors can measure everything from steps taken to blood oxygen levels and pulse rates, and can even track how much you’ve slept. When paired with complementary mobile apps, you can keep track of your fitness and sleep data over time. You can even manage weight loss goals by pairing many of these wearables with mobile apps like MyFitnessPal, the world’s largest food database with calories and nutritional information.

The Pulse O2 literally ups your personal fitness game by introducing gamification into your daily routine, rewarding wearers with virtual badges celebrating milestones and pitting you against your friends with score-based leaderboards.

Staying in shape doesn’t seem so bad after all when it’s as simple as strapping on a wristband and setting out for your day.

3D Printed LampsDisrupting How We Work

“Just as nobody could have predicted the impact of the steam engine in 1750—or the printing press in 1450, or the transistor in 1950—it is impossible to foresee the long-term impact of 3-D printing. But the technology is coming, and it is likely to disrupt every field it touches,” wrote The Economist in 2011.

While it might seem 3-D printing has only recently emerged as a disruptive innovation, the technology to produce additive manufacturing, also known as three-dimensional printing or simply 3-D printing, has existed since the 1980s. With the commercialization of plastic extrusion technology in 1990, the term 3-D printing became widely associated with the technology we know today.

As with all disruptive innovations, 3-D printing has gotten better, faster, and cheaper, making it more easily accessible to mass consumers and product developers. Long considered a first step in rapid prototyping, 3-D printing has become an affordable means of producing high-quality finished products, allowing businesses to scale with ease, from one-off creations to large production runs.

The MakerBot Replicator 2

3-D Printing. The MakerBot Replicator 2 is a desktop printer that claims to be the easiest, fastest, and most affordable tool for making professional-quality models.

Now, thanks to Amazon, 3-D printing is as simple as a few clicks on their website with their new 3-D Printed Products Store. Introduced in July 2014, the online retailer behemoth offers over two hundred unique print-on-demand products. Amazon.com users can select a number of customization options for each product, something that would have been prohibitively expensive and too time-consuming with traditional manufacturing methods.

While the initial offering includes items such as jewelry, toys, home decor, and curiously enough, bobble-head dolls, Amazon’s commitment to 3-D printing as a marketable option to consumers shows that they’re trying get ahead of the innovation curve by leading the way in consumer accessibility to the technology itself.

And Amazon isn’t just bringing 3-D printed products to the masses: it’s bridging the affordability and availability of 3-D printing to small businesses by offering them opportunities to sell their products through the Amazon 3-D Printed Products Store.

Disrupting How We Play

In the late 1990s, massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs) literally changed the landscape of online games by dropping players into expansive, fully navigable computer-generated worlds where they could interact in real time with their friends online, all from a first-person perspective.

Now with technology from Oculus VR—newly flush from a two-billion dollar acquisition by Facebook—gamers will soon be able to immerse themselves like never before, with the help of the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset.

Oculus Rift Virtual Reality Headset

Virtual Playground. The Oculus Rift is an immersive virtual reality headset that’s on track to change the way we experience the world around us.

While virtual reality has already been applied in a number of fields and industries such as defense, healthcare, education, and enterprise, it’s the possibilities for entertainment, such as immersive movies, games, and shared social experiences that have spawned a fleet of competing VR headset technologies.

Samsung has partnered with Oculus to create a VR headset that works with the Galaxy Note 4 phone. Sony announced the development of its own VR headset, Project Morpheus, with bold plans to fully integrate it with the PlayStation4 entertainment system. Meanwhile, Canada’s Vrvana Totem and China’s AntVR have sought out crowdfunding through Kickstarter to develop their consumer headsets.

While Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has shared only vague talking points about Facebook’s acquisition of Oculus, their hefty investment in a seemingly unrelated technology offers us a clue as to the disruptive possibilities of virtual reality. With a global reach of users like Facebook’s (over a billion active users), combined with the virtual reality technologies of Oculus, the ability to create shared experiences with our friends online in a virtual realm is a tangible reality.

Virtual reality combined with social networking has the power to transform the way we socialize, communicate, and experience the world around us.

Disrupting How We Learn

First in the late 1800s, and then following the Great Depression in the 1930s, American community colleges disrupted a long-standing tradition of learning in higher education, imported from England by the first settlers when they arrived in Massachusetts in the early seventeenth century.

With the expansion of e-learning and online education in the mid-1990s, the tradition of higher education was again disrupted by the reach and affordability offered by this non-traditional, non-classroom experience.

Today, Boston-based startup Boundless Learning is poised to disrupt higher education once more.

What originally started as selling affordable online textbooks for college students has expanded into a company with plans to shift the entire way we approach content development for and access to higher education. In April 2014, Boundless announced a new mantra at the core of their business vision: Universal access to high-quality education is a right, not a privilege.

Using “cloud-powered education,” Boundless currently provides textbooks, readings, quizzes, and PowerPoint templates compiled and sourced from Open Educational Resources (OER). Written by educators for educators, the materials are thoroughly vetted by both experts and the Boundless community alike.

Boundless is more than just onto something when it comes to the future of education: In 2012, textbook publishers Pearson Education, Cengage Learning, and Macmillan Publishers filed suit against Boundless for copyright infringement. The cloud-powered, OER-sourced model that Boundless offers students and educators is a direct threat to the traditional textbook publishing regime that has dominated most college campuses.

Boundless settled with the publishers privately in 2013 but it is still a startup to watch, with two rounds of funding totaling almost ten million dollars and a user base of over three million students and educators who have adopted Boundless materials for their classrooms.

Disrupting How We Eat

Harvard professor David Edwards had a crazy thought: what if we took inspiration from how nature packages fruits and vegetables and re-envisioned how we package food and beverage items?

And that’s how the WikiPearl was born.

The idea is so simple and brilliant it’s almost criminal in how casually it steals the idea of natural food packaging from nature itself: food and beverages packaged with edible skins like the skins of fruits, berries, and vegetables. Simply pop the whole food—skin and all—into your mouth and voilà: no waste, no dirty dishes, no napkins for your hands. Their petite size makes them an excellent form of portion control while still delivering nutrient-dense food full of exhilarating flavor.


Pearls of the Future. WikiPearls are food and beverages packaged in edible skins for no waste and no dishes.

These WikiPearls—handheld spheres of ice cream, yogurt, cheeses, and enhanced fruit and vegetables—are at once delicious-tasting, visually tantalizing, and gastronomically avant-garde. WikiPearls up the gourmet ante with a natural-packaging solution that eliminates waste in an industry already burgeoning with environmental impacts.

In a recent interview with America’s Test Kitchen, Edwards revealed the possibility of an edible water bottle based on this WikiPearl technology, where a person can bite open the cap, drink the water, and dispose of or consume the water bottle container itself. There’s even the possibility of enhancing the “skin” with essential nutrients, as they do now for their enhanced WikiPearl fruits and vegetables.

WikiPearls add a touch of joyful whimsy to how and what we eat, and an unexpected way to start thinking about foods and their impacts on our bodies and the environment.

Disruption as a Global Pathway to Abundance

Greek-American physician, engineer, and entrepreneur Peter H. Diamandis founded the XPRIZE Foundation in 1994, a nonprofit organization that uses the power of competition—and lucrative monetary prizes—to further innovation that benefits mankind.

Diamandis is willing to bank on a better tomorrow with his multimillion dollar XPRIZE awards. It’s not just good for mankind, it’s good for business. Diamandis believes “the world’s biggest problems are the world’s biggest market opportunities.”

In his 2012 book, Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think, Diamandis acknowledges the exponential growth of technology and predicts disruptive innovation will become less and less once-in-a-lifetime breakthrough and more business standard. “Technology is a resource-liberating mechanism,” he writes. “It can make the once scarce the now abundant.”

Disruptive technologies are changing our lives, whether we like it or not—and they just might make the world a better, safer, more sustainable place to live in the process.

[©Image 2 & 3 courtesy of Jean Philippe Moulet]

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