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Friday, April 6, 2012

New Ideas, Old Ideas

We have talked about where ideas come from, and that serves to illuminate the process of how new ideas come about. But what of old ideas? And how can old become new?

Old ideas can still be of use, but they must be constantly rethought. Legacy gets boiled away in the frying pan of technology, leaving only the useful bits. The best practices of technology are constantly changing, though, which has a drastic effect on what is possible, and also on how much the consumer must spend keeping up with it.

Tastes can change or differ between demographics as well, which leads studios to make and remake the same old plot line, songwriters to rearrange their songs, and DJs to remix them. What was great on a PC can be even better using the interface advantages of Mac OS X, and now it can be more widely used by moving it to the multitouch environment of iOS.

So old ideas are generally only of use when they represent something that a user still wants to do, but which has not yet been possible with current technology, or has not been ported to a new platform. Oh, there are plenty of these things, like flying cars and instant elsewhere. And porting desktop software, like Painter, to iOS might also provide a tool that is useful to a wider class of users. But is that the only way legacy can continue to be useful?

No. There is the real world to consider. In the gadget world, things can only change so fast because of the constraints placed on technology. We have talked about what accelerates technological advancements, and also what holds them back. Are some of the constraints placed on technology actually valuable?


Light bulbs serve to illustrate this issue. While the electric light is over a century old, it can now be reinvented with such technologies as compact fluorescents and even LED lighting. But new ideas aren't enough. They must still screw into the same old sockets, have the same form factor, and utilize the same electricity, otherwise they won't be useful in the standard enclosures. Sockets and enclosures have been designed to standards that come from the 1950s and 1960s.

OK standards aren't the same worldwide. For instance power plugs have different standards from country to country. But they are still standards, and they must be considered when building something new.

The persistence of a standard helps us in one very important way: it lets us build to a specification. This balances customization against factory production. If we can build something in a factory, it can lead to cheaper, more plentiful goods. When you are building homes, for instance, it is necessary to source your building materials. Things like light bulb sockets all meet a certain set of specifications. These are important, because without them, each house would have to be designed using custom parts. Standards and specifications lead to modularity and thus ease of building.

While standards persist, they can still be changed over time. All these cars using gasoline don't have to be retrofit to use Hydrogen fuel cells or batteries: rather, they will become obsolete and then recycled. Each car has an obsolescence period that means that, even if adoption of a new fuel source were to happen right now, it would only mean a slow transition.

So standards changes must be evolutionary to make economic sense.


Some specifications come right from our own bodies: ergonomics.

While standard can change evolutionarily, there is no changing the ergonomic requirements. These are set in stone. This can involve some differences from person to person, true. Otherwise there would not be several sizes of clothes, shoes, and even hats. But there is such a thing as a standard observer that controls how displays, detail, and color should appear. And there are standard sizes, sometimes referred to as the canon, for target audiences, like children, adults, men, women, and so forth.

There are preferences that differ from region to region. I heard once that European magazines print skin tone quite a bit darker than Americans, for instance, in beauty models. What I considered garish in an ad for suntan lotion was considered normal in Germany. But preferences change a bit like standards. This process has been known as westernization in the literature, though there have been other kinds of changing preference trends over the years.

Preferences also can be the a matter of taste, and can be specific to a given demographic, as I have mentioned before. These do change, and can be influenced. Runaway leaders in any given area, like Apple in the gadget world, like the Beatles, Lady Gaga, or Adele in the music world, like Toyota's Prius in the automotive world, even Emperor Augustus in the world of infrastructure, security, and political stability, do influence taste and preference. This has been happening for thousands of years, but it is happening much faster now than it was in Emperor Augustus' time!

Ah, to have a slice of that kind of fame: the persistent kind.

Physical Limitations

We probably take for granted that there is one thing that are the same for all people: gravity. But even a "given" like gravity may have to be re-examined in the light of something like space travel. For instance, those aboard the ISS live in a microgravity environment. Air and the presence of oxygen is another thing that must be quite similar for all people. Sure, it can be thinner at high elevations.

All these things present the basic boundary conditions of all technology: constraints that they must exist under. And some of them are more than constraints, but actually requirements, like oxygen. This is why there are portable oxygen cylinders for exploring under the ocean, oxygen bars for people who want to invigorate their brains at the end of the day, and such. It is interesting that gravity represents both a limitation and a requirement.

Still, anti-gravity technology would still be extremely useful. Or anti-momentum. Or anti-entropy.

We think of this aspect as design constraints. They are the fixed givens that represent things we can't change. Which is why changing them would be such a game-changer. Nothing would ever be the same if we figure out how to polarize gravity or extract free power from dark energy.

Revolution, Evolution

How could something like lighting change even further, now that the world is changing quickly towards LEDs and even simpler technologies? Well, you might need a standard for a light panel.

No, I'm not talking about color panels. I'm talking about a part of the wall that produces light. Touch what initially appears to be an inert wall and a UI appears where you touch it. Slide the right widget and the light turns on, ramping from low brightness to useable light, promoting accessibility. This is the kind of panel that doubles as a wall and also as a television. And make it the kind of material that's durable enough for kids to bounce basketballs off of.

A standard might not actually depend upon the technology. For instance, such a panel could have LED lighting or perhaps even some kind of future lighting that uses OLEDs or new technologies, like nanotechnology. Or variable-opacity materials using polarization like liquid crystals.

My point is that we should consider what we want when constructing new standards. Not what exists currently. This will take time to become adopted, of course, which is why it is evolutionary.

Why does some science fiction become dated, even though the ideas are sound? Simple. The ideas and their portrayal no longer match our understanding of how they must work given modern technology. They must evolve along with the world.

Even with Apple's designs, evolution is the ticket to revolution, it seems.

Revolutionary changes like electric vehicles are a great concept, and we must really understand them more so we can make the great leaps and bounds. But you should have a standard first, which addresses what you want to do with them. For instance: how do you charge them? How does it fit into the existing infrastructure? How long do the components last? How can they be replaced?

Tesla seems to be asking those questions and making informed decisions that help to solve the real problems implied by these questions. But there are areas in this field where technology really needs to catch up.

You have to ask the questions that the users will ask, and also the ones that they will ask once they have bought and have used the product. Your standards must be arranged around the best answers to these questions.

Technology Finally Caught Up

Nobody can miss the exhilaration of the first iPhone, of the first iPad. Technology finally caught up with what I want to do!

Ideas abound. They are first called fantasies, like science fiction. Slates that you can view videos on (in 2001: A Space Osyssey) or that you can review documents on (Star Trek: The Next Generation). This shows that they can be mocked up by designers and clever futurists well ahead of the possibility of one being actually made to work. Then, someday, they are called reality. When technology catches up.

This is probably why you can't patent what you want to do, only how it actually can be done: it shouldn't be possible to patent fantasy.

With Painter, there are several instances of this principle. When I started working on Painter in September 1990, I was using a 16 MHz single-core 68030 in my Mac II. By 1998, my PowerMac G3 on my desk was using a 300 MHz PowerPC RISC processor, which was probably 25 times faster when you consider processor speed, the number of clocks per instruction, the memory speeds, and improvement to caches. When I started, to get the brushes to work in real time I had to code the inner loops in 68020 assembler. So the inner loop of depositing a dab of the brush within a stroke could be as fast as possible. But with 25 times the compute power, I could do huge amounts of computation when depositing a dab of a brush, and even completely rewrite how the brush stroke was rendered. Without even resorting to assembler recoding. Some ideas that I had earlier that weren't practical had finally become possible. Technology had caught up with my ideas. At least some of them.

The machine I'm using right now is about 3000 times as powerful than the Mac II I was using in 1990 (or more, because of multiple cores and also a massively parallel GPU). So, if I were to write Painter today, I would make an entirely new set of design decisions. And they would be based on what I want to accomplish, not nearly as much on the limitations of the hardware I'm using.

Moore's Law is not guaranteed to continue, without rearranging the ways we compute. We must begin to use massively parallel and also individually powered (meaning individually able to be turned off) architectures. This has already begun in the GPU and gadget worlds.

Soon enough computation will produce more heat than we can handle, and the conversion of waste heat to more power to compute is also going to count.

Everything that is happening now points to the indisputable fact that local computing is necessary. Some years ago there was a theory that computing would be done somewhere else and all you would need is a dumb terminal and a fast internet connection to do anything you wanted. Now it is becoming clear that local computing is important, and so we will continue to push the limits of Moore's law and also the limits of the minimization of power consumption.

Even in server farms, in the cloud, we will continue to push the limits of these two pacing factors for the technology of computation. Speed, memory, and power consumption will be paramount, while the moving of more and more data in pipes with more and more bandwidth will also be a pacing factor for the cloud.

People still have plenty of ideas with which technology is yet to catch up. You see, old ideas do still count. But they may need to evolve a bit.

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