The inventor of the ground-breaking gTar – an iPhone-enabled guitar that makes learning the instrument more fun and intuitive – says the next wave of innovation in Silicon Valley is destined to be in hardware.
Idan Beck, a 27-year-old former Microsoft employee and Cornell electrical computer engineering graduate, invented the gTar three years ago and has spent the intervening time preparing it for market. Last month, he and co-founders Josh Stansfield and Franco Cedano demonstrated the product at TechCrunch Disrupt in New York, nabbing second place in the competition. It was remarkable achievement for a hardware start-up competing in an industry that has in recent years been totally dominated by software.
For many in Silicon Valley, hardware is a no-go zone. The costs are too high, the risks too large, and the consequences of failure more extreme than for software, which can be repurposed, spun off, or simply shut down without scorching the books. But Beck thinks that is about to change.
“There are so many ways for tech to integrate into people’s lives that haven’t been explored because of the cost associated with it,” he says, over a call from Santa Clara, where his startup, Incident Technologies, is based. Those costs, however, are now diminishing. It’s no longer necessary for hardware start-ups to have their own factories or manufacturing chains, Beck says, because that can be affordably done in other countries, such as China.
“It’s just as easy as it was to do this maybe 10 years ago, but the costs have gone down drastically, information’s gone up drastically, and people’s mentalities have changed,” says Beck.
He doesn’t support reflexive outsourcing of manufacturing. Indeed, before turning to China, he tried to get the gTar made in the US. He visited factories in the East Bay, but in a year and a half of trying, he got no bids. His business didn’t provide high-enough margins for the factories to justify taking on the job. In China, however, he was met with open arms. He says not only do the factories in China offer generous prices, but the teams he works with are highly professional and qualified. Some of his colleagues there have become close friends.
Beck argues that conditions are thus ripe to take tech to the next level in Silicon Valley. After all, he asks, “How much better is the iPhone really going to get?” Innovation in software and traditional devices is starting to plateau, which means we’re ready to move into a phase of “transparent technology,” in which technology becomes more integrated into our daily lives.
Beck moved to the US from Israel as a boy and is the son of parents who have spent their careers in the innovation industry. He remembers programming in QBasic as a five-year-old, and spending long hours throughout his childhood on a computer. While at Cornell, he developed a stabilization system for an autonomous helicopter, against the advice of his professor, who wanted Beck to work on something more attainable.
Now Beck speaks of a world in which we have intelligent jugs that alert us when the milk has gone bad, or shampoo bottles that tell Amazon when they’re running low, so Amazon can automatically fire off an order for more supplies. He sees huge potential for connected hardware in the medical field, where biometric devices could gather data and help implement remedies for difficult-to-solve ailments, and envisages a time in which we all carry a device the size of a Tic Tac box that acts as a de facto hard drive, turning itself into a computer whenever we walk close to a monitor.
It was this philosophy of transparent technology that drove his development of the gTar. By focusing on solving problems within music education, he could prove the potential of such an approach while building on the platforms laid down by the Guitar Hero and Rock Band console games. The gTar is a fully functioning guitar that comes with a dock for an iPhone. A gTar app activates an array of interactive LEDs along the guitar’s fretboard that demonstrate how to play particular songs.
“The success of Guitar Hero and Rock Band demonstrated the tip-of-the-iceberg effect of that,” says Beck, “although those were very much aspirational sort of experiences. What we’re trying to do is create a truly immersive interactive experience that over the long term does have a positive effect and maybe an educational effect in giving people both a vocabulary, an understanding of music, as well as the dexterity and motor skills required to do those things.”
Despite the early promise of his vision, however, the gTar was anything but a default success. Beck spent a lot of time pitching the idea to potential investors and other industry players who didn’t share his excitement and thought hardware was a fruitless tangent.
“It was like when you ask out that really hot girl in high school to go on a date, and you don’t realize that she doesn’t know you,” Beck says. “And she’s like, ‘Oh yeah, you betcha.’ It wasn’t like getting a door slammed in my face. It was, ‘Wow, you did something really impressive that is completely irrelevant and not interesting for us to talk about or even consider as something serious.’”
The gTar’s impact at Disrupt, however, might just be the catalyst for changing those attitudes. Incident has raised about $325,000 for the project on Kickstarter, and a further $745,000 in an angel round, which includes investments from Dropbox’s Drew Houston, Keith Teare of Archimedes Labs, and Naval Ravikant of AngelList.
While he was disappointed to miss out on Disrupt’s top prize – won by pure-play software company Uberconference – it was more important that the gTar got taken seriously. Beck is now convinced that hardware in Silicon Valley will soon at least be taken as seriously as software.
“I don’t really care about winning,” he says. “What we really won that day is that we broke down that barrier that we’ve been fighting against for three years: That hardware is not impossible to do in Silicon Valley.”