When we think of technology’s early adopters, we tend to think of the young hipsters in tech hubs like New York or San Francisco, testing out all the cool new apps, gadgets and gizmos before the rest of the nation has a chance to check them out.
But what if tech’s new early adopters are not the 25-to-35 crowd with their growlers and beards and skinny jeans and iPhones, but the earliest possible adopters out there – the toddlers and young kids who are literally growing up using digital technologies before they learn how to spell, write or even talk? The latest example comes from the CES consumer electronics show in Vegas, where both Disney and Sesame Street showcased augmented reality innovations for kids.
This is more than just whimsical speculation – if our early adopters are changing, it could impact how technological innovations are being diffused through society. Back in 1962, a fascinating little book –Diffusion of Innovations by Everett Rogers – sought to explain how innovations are transmitted throughout society. And, to a significant extent, this is the basic model that many in the tech world now follow – whether they know it or not. In short, the adoption of any innovation follows a nice, smooth little curve – at one end of the curve, you have the innovators and early adopters. At the other end of the curve, you have the laggards. And, in the middle, you have the majority – the 68% of us who are either “early majority” or “late majority” innovators.
This intuitively makes sense – in our society, most of us just wait until a technology has been tested out by a few clever "early adopters" before actually embracing it. And some people – the types of people who, ahem, never signed up for a Twitter account – are the "laggards," the types of people who just don’t get it, no matter how hard you try. The goal of any technology company - whether it's an established company like Apple or the newest startup - is to speed up the diffusion of innovation so that it reaches critical mass as quickly as possible. For now, it seems like the easiest way to do that is to get the technology into the hands of toddlers and kids as your new early adopters.
Take augmented reality, for example. By now, most people have heard of the Google Glasses, and may even be familiar with the ways that companies like Nokia are experimenting with augmented reality in their new smart phones. But beyond being just a “cool” technology – do any of us really know how it works or how it could improve our daily lives? So, on Day 1 of this year’s CES consumer electronics show in Las Vegas, both Disney and Sesame Street unveiled augmented reality innovations for kids. With "Big Bird's Words," the basic idea is that toddlers will be able to point their smart phones at specific objects, and augmented reality-generated images of words will appear on their smartphones. This is not just a 1-trick pony -- "Big Bird's Words" is the showcase for a new AR platform called Vuforia that might not have otherwise attracted (adult) users.
Or, take 3D printing as another example. Again, most people have probably heard of 3D printers, and maybe they are aware that MakerBot recently landed on the cover of WIRED magazine or that Staples is working on a plan to bring 3D printers to retail locations around the world. But, other than being a “cool” technology, how many of us really would know what to do with a 3D printer if someone magically plunked down the cash for a brand-spanking-new MakerBot Replicator? That’s why it’s so interesting that one of the “killer apps” being touted in the world of 3D printing is actually the printing of toys for kids. The idea being, of course, that parents spend hundreds – if not thousands – of dollars each year on toys for their kids, many of which their kids play with once before banishing to an unused corner of their room. Being able to print out cheap, relatively sturdy and creative toys for a few bucks at a time would seem to be parental nirvana.
The diffusion of new technologies by and for kids doesn’t stop there. Even mainstream technologies – like tablets and smart phones – are now getting a whole bunch of kid early adopters. Jeff Bezos, introducing new changes for the Kindle Fire tablet, talked up a whole new curated suite of apps and games for toddlers and infants - "Kindle Free Time Unlimited" - that will be available as a subscription service for kids as young as age three. The whole tablet-for-kids movement is taking off, fueled partly by parental fear (“are my kids falling behind?”) and partly by parental exigency (hand your kid an iPad and notice how quite and docile they can become).
So what does it all mean? For start-ups and entrepreneurs, it means that it's possible to stretch and pull the shape of that Rogers Curve, such that the uptake of a specific technology happens more rapidly. Instead of waiting for critical mass when that "68% majority" finally embraces the technology -- Is there some way to transform that “late majority” into the “early majority,” and that “early majority” into “early adopters.” If we assume that these earliest kid adopters have access to some of the same communication channels as their older counterparts – social media, for example – then it’s easy to see how certain innovations could “diffuse” through society more rapidly.
Not surprisingly, the theory behind the Diffusion of Innovations actually stems from epidemiology and the study of how diseases spread through society. It turns out that innovations spread much like diseases. (Right now, alarm bells should be going off if you’ve read Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point). We already speak in terms of “memes” and “viruses” when we want to communicate how ideas spread. Is it possible that we’re now moving to a new kind of innovation-epidemiological model where the earliest adopters of new technologies are also the members of society who have not yet been inoculated against the Technology Hype Machine?
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