Sunday, May 28, 2017

Everything You Think is New is Old

A lot of technology you may think of as recent is really decades old.

People love to gush about Apple Pay or the "Digital Wallet" but fail to realize the technology has been around a long, long time.  I had a friend who worked for a mobile phone company back in the early 2000's.  They were trying to combine the RFID technology (near-field communication as we now call it) of the Mobil Speed-Pass (remember those?) with the primitive cell phones of the time.   He was quite excited about it - "Imagine, using your cell phone as a means of payment instead of a credit card or wallet!  You'll have a digital wallet!"  Bear in mind that cell phone cameras were just becoming a thing back then, and this seemed like a far-out idea.  The smart phone, as we know it, was years away.

But the basic bones of the technology was already there.  The problem would be getting enough people with the correct kind of cell phone (with the hardware and software) and all the merchants to have near-field communications technology Point-Of-Sale terminals in order to make it all work.   More than a decade later, it finally is hitting the market, although the real key is getting people to use the technology and that still appears to be a stumbling block.

Self-driving cars seem like all the rage now and an example of "the latest technology" of our Century.  However, the National Highway Administration has been funding this research since the 1980's.  One of the first Patents I wrote in the late 1980's was for a research group called IMRA which was loosely affiliated with Toyota, on using optical systems to self-drive cars.  I did a lot of background searching on this and was amazed to see how many people were working on it for decades.  The University of Pittsburgh, as I recall, was a leader back then, slowly driving (autonomously) huge box-trucks around campus, loaded with computers and sensors.

Of course, like any technology, there were a lot of dead-ends to explore.  Some suggested driving magnetic nails into the roadbeds so the cars could sense the lanes.  Others relied on optical approaches.  Each had advantages and disadvantages.   The real key was in developing better, faster, and smaller computers to replace the racks of mainframes being used in the early models.

Dry-clutch automatic transmissions may seem like high-tech stuff from the likes of BMW these days.  These transmissions do away with a torque converter in place of an electronically shifted (and clutched) transmission that acts like an automatic, without all the energy loss.   Sounds new and sexy, eh?  Well, back in the 1970's my Dad went to a demonstration of such a transmission, for truck use.  It was a huge thing - requiring a trailer and generators to drive all the computers.  But it did work.   The problem was not in figuring out how to make it work, but in how to make the electronics small enough to fit into a vehicle.  The technology was there, it just wasn't practical.   Decades later, well, the electronics caught up, and now that van-load of computers is on one single chip.

Anti-lock brakes and traction control first appeared about the same time, in the 1970's - in production vehicles (along with airbags).   None of them were popular options, even thought DOT tried to make them mandatory for big rigs for a short time.   It was only later on - in the 1990's that they became commonplace, and today, pretty much standard equipment in every car.   Smaller computers and the lower cost brought on by mass production made them a viable technology.

Virtual Reality goggles may seem like "the next big thing" but the idea has been around for some time.  The problem was, in the past, those pesky CRTs were pretty heavy on your head.  Lightweight and cheap flat-panel displays are making 3-D virtual reality, a reality that is more than virtual.  Whether anyone really wants to buy these things remains to be seen.   For a lot of people, the idea of completely retreating into an online world sounds more frightening than good.

The list goes on and on.   We are talking about technologies that have been proven to work, not just some pie-in-the-sky idea or futuristic concept.   What prevents the technology from coming to market is a number of things:
1.  Materials Science - "Mat Sci" tends to drive a lot of technology.  Until materials can be invented to do things that we want technology to do, a lot of great ideas stay in the lab.  Whether it is teflon or the heat tiles on the Space Shuttle, it is the availability of materials that make technology work.   Aluminum - once one of the rarest metals on the Earth, became one of its cheapest.  And everything from airplanes to beer cans became possible not because the technology wasn't there before, but because the material to make the technology didn't exist.

2.  Miniaturization - almost everything you can do with a computer today could be done with a computer back in the 1960's or 1970's.  The difference is, of course, the computer back then would fill an entire building, cost millions of dollars, and take overnight to render just the welcome screen on Windows.  Microprocessors with more power than a "supercomputer" of the 1970's are now no larger than your thumbnail, if that, and even a mundane run-of-the-mill car may have dozens of them.  Once the technology is sufficiently compact, it can be integrated into products.

3.  Cost and Volume - once you make enough of something, the cost goes down considerably.  When you are offering traction control as an option on select Buicks in 1973, well, you sell maybe a few hundred a year.  When it is standard equipment on all models, well, the parts cost drops off significantly.  There is a tipping point where volume of production and costs reach a point where the product becomes affordable.
4.  Consumer Acceptance - this is arguably the hardest part for some technologies.   Consumers don't like to feel they are being forced to do something.  At the same time, they will latch onto the "latest and greatest" technology in an effort to appear to be sophisticated and modern.  But if you can't get people to like the technology, it may fail from the get-go.  Self-driving cars, for example, is an exciting technology.  Yet there is a drumbeat of discontent among some people against these cars (and indeed, hybrid and electric cars as well). Overcoming this will be the key to implementing the technology - the "tech" issues are really secondary.

This last item is the real stumbling block.   When I was very young, my parents took me to the 1964 World's Fair in Flushing Meadows, New York.  One of the exhibits was the world's first picturephone, which allowed you to call someone and see them as you talked to them.  The technology was crude and expensive, but over time, the costs came down.  Funny thing, though, people didn't clamor for the service.

Today, you can picturephone anyone with an app on your smartphone.   You can Skype on your laptop or PC.   For some reason, these apps are not as popular as people thought they would be.  In fact, texting has surpassed even voice calls as the main source of communication these days.   It seems that we don't want more communication but less and less personal communication.

As it turns out, and as the folks at the "Bell System" discovered by the 1970's, people simply didn't want to look at each other on the phone.  Chalk it up to answering machine stage fright or whatever, but for some reason, it was not the "must have" application that everyone thought it would be, even as the Jetsons demonstrated it.

(I suspect that video calls are popular, but not for the reasons that the inventors originally thought they would be.  Porn and sex seems to drive a lot of the Internet and today Smart Phone apps.   Sexting and video sex seem to be the major applications for many of these new phone features.   Why do you think middle-school kids favor an "app" that erases their photos automatically?  Because they don't want Mom and Dad to see what they've been up to!).

Whether Virtual Reality takes off where the "picture phone" failed remains to be seen.  However, I think that once again, sex will rear its ugly head, and if VR is a hit, it will be porn-driven, sadly.

As for other technologies like self-driving cars and whatnot, again, it will depend on consumer acceptance more than anything.   We all say we want a self-driving car, whether we are willing to spend twice as much to have one is another question.