The Pace of Innovation

The Pace of Innovation

by Stephen Atwood

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It seems that everywhere I turn I hear or read something referring to the rapidly increasing “pace of innovation.”  Any reasonable person could look at the breadth of technology developed over the last few decades and compare that to a comparable period of time a couple of centuries ago and see the difference.  It is not just in electronics but all fields of science, including agriculture, medicine, atmospheric studies, astronomy, geology, genetics, and on and on.  In a Wired magazine essay (November 2013), Bill Gates said key innovations such as synthesizing ammonia and immunizing against polio are reasons why as much as 40% of our world’s population is alive today.1  Certainly among those 40% are some really good innovators themselves, helping to feed the growing trend with their own achievements.

A question we might pose is how to quantify this increasing pace and in so doing derive a model similar to Gordon Moore and his “Moore’s Law” about the rate of increasing density of transistors in integrated circuits.  Possibly, one could start with a similar premise that some arbitrary metric of human-science output could or would double every X years.  Pick a field, pick a problem area, and start measuring.

In any attempt to model a system, you need to define the inputs and outputs in some rational way.  The outputs are relatively easy to define and measure: better weather forecasts, lower mortality rates, cleaner air, improved quality of life, etc.  In terms of inputs, innovation is fueled by the need to solve a problem, the human drive for creativity and achievement, and the availability of vital resources.  Those resources almost always include money and time – both of which can be in short supply.  But, as anyone at a high-tech company can tell you, the right innovation, properly monetized and nurtured, can become a veritable flood of additional  income that can then be re-invested to solve all kinds of future problems.

Of course, true innovation can happen without regard to money but in many cases, and especially in our industry, money is a necessary input to the process and that money usually must come from the commercial success of ongoing efforts.  In other words, we need our current ideas to make money so we can invest in the commercialization of our new ideas.  Because of this reality, it would be great if we could apply some form of empirical model that would tell us which ideas will be commercially successful and which will not – so we could focus our resources on the best ideas first.  But, clearly, history has shown that it is practically impossible to know in advance which ideas will lead to commercial success and which ones will not.

The challenge develops when people try to predict the future potential of ideas based on the framework they have in the present time.  Without being able to “see” the future, we are stuck in a tug of war between our imaginations and our practical senses.  Being practical means it is almost always easier to see what can go wrong, to understand how an idea can fail, and to say “no” when asked for support.  It is harder to take risks (especially financial ones) by saying “yes” to new ideas.  Consider the last hundred years of work on computer technology and all the incredibly creative milestones along the way.  At almost every step there were decision makers rejecting the new ideas as either unreasonable or too unlikely to succeed based on what they knew at the time.  This negative pressure slowed the pace of computer innovation, but did not stop the true believers who, when met with seemingly endless resistance, went their own way, found their own resources, and proved the conventional establishment wrong.

A great book about this subject is The Innovators by Walter Isaacson, in which he illustrates how teamwork and spirit among truly visionary teams have consistently overcome the negative pressure of conventional wisdom.  Imagine how much faster the pace of computer-science innovation might have been if every leader had been truly “on-board” from the beginning.

Clearly, we cannot create a simple model to measure the pace of innovation any more than we can define the success of innovation itself in simple terms.  But we all can understand innovation as a process of inputs (efforts and resources) producing (hopefully) productive and profitable outputs.

As leaders in our own spheres of influence, are we providing the right inputs by effectively evaluating and promoting the best in creative thinking?  Are each of us truly open-minded to the types of radical ideas and unconventional thinking that have made so many great technological achievements happen?  If so, are we communicating that every day to our teams and re-enforcing it with the right support?  Or are we the ones who shy away from risk, hold on to conventional norms, and put negative pressure on the pace of innovation?

As I learned from reading Isaacson’s book, really great ideas will break through no matter how much negative pressure exists.  And if your organization does not provide the right environment, those great ideas may spring up somewhere else instead.  If the people in your organization cannot find an avenue to explore their ideas and fuel their creative spirits, they will go elsewhere to do it.  The annals of history are full of once-great companies that failed to adapt and embrace innovation – for a myriad of reasons.  Many times they had it all within their grasp – the ideas, the resources to develop them, even the infrastructure to commercialize them – but for familiar reasons they chose to ignore those ideas and play it safe.

In contrast, we can all probably cite numerous examples of businesses that have exceeded our wildest expectations through innovation and great leadership.  There are many more of these examples today than ever before.  These businesses know how to take risks, provide the necessary fuel for innovation, and remain open minded about what comes out.  Sometimes what you get out of the process has even more value than what you originally expected.  The results can be seen in our industry every day as new technologies combined with new ways to enable human–machine interaction to create stunning and in some cases life-changing new products.  The incredibly rapid penetration of smartphones and tablets into our everyday lives over the last few years shows how a simple idea can become a whole new paradigm.

Did any of us really foresee the impact that an embedded digital camera in a handheld phone would have on the world?  Similarly, I do not think anyone could have predicted that a political mandate for space exploration in the 1960s would have fueled semiconductors and integrated circuits innovation for decades to come, along with all that those innovations then enabled.  It is clear, however, that along the trajectory from transistors to smartphones there were countless people with truly innovative ideas and some visionary leaders who had the imagination to embrace and nurture those ideas with whatever it took to succeed.

Our own industry is proof that the pace of innovation continues to accelerate.  Each of us should strive to bring the same creative open-minded cultures to our own teams in our own spheres of influence – whether business, academic, or social – as those who came before us.  The rewards will far outweigh the risks.

So, with that in mind, welcome to our latest issue, in which we preview Display Week 2015, announce the winners of the annual SID Honors and Awards, and also explore some interesting topics in applied vision.  As you all know, the annual gathering of the display industry is just a few months away and this year it’s back to Silicon Valley for us all.  We’ll get to some of those specifics shortly but first we begin with our cover story announcing the annual SID Honors and Awards.  Each year, the Society for Information Display honors those individuals who have made outstanding contributions to the field of displays, and if anything symbolizes the spirit of innovation, this year’s honorees certainly do.  Read about “SID’s Best and Brightest” for 2015 (written by Jenny Donelan) and you will see in each case examples of true creative energy combined with commitment to problem solving and furthering the success of our industry.  These are people who lead by example and continue to give so much back to help fuel innovation not only today but for future generations to come.  Congratulations to all the honorees.

It has been a privilege to work with our guest editor for this month, Jim Larimer.  Jim is a leading consultant in the field of applied vision and has been a trusted advisor to many of us in SID over the years.  In his guest column for this issue, he introduces two Frontline Technology features, the first an article written by Gordon Wetzstein of Stanford University and addressing a self-imposed question, “Why Should People Care about Light-Field Displays?”  During Jim’s introduction, he takes the time to explain exactly what is meant by the term “light-field Display” in a way that is better than any other explanations I have read.  Gordon’s article then paints the complete picture about the potential future and present day capabilities of the technology.  We’ve been covering light-field displays in ID for a while now but this one is one of the best overall views we have had to date.  The next article is a very interesting presentation on various aspects of solid-state lighting and human-vision considerations titled “Solid-State Lighting for Illumination and Displays: Opportunities and Challenges for Color Excellence” by Lorne Whitehead of the University of British Columbia.  In both cases, I urge you to read Jim’s excellent introduction first and then enjoy the articles with his perspective as a starting point.

Now we come to our other major feature for this issue, the preview of the annual technical program known as the International Symposium at Display Week 2015.  If you are looking for proof that innovations are plentiful in the world of displays, this will certainly do it.  Aside from the sheer numbers – 450+ papers in 72 technical sessions and a poster session – the rich array of technical focus areas such as disruptive display materials (including quantum dots), OLEDs, flexible and foldable Displays, and light-field technology will surely make for one of the most exciting symposiums ever.  Starting with the seminars on Sunday, May 31 at the San Jose Convention Center, this year’s Display Week will pack more technical and business content into one week than any other display-industry event in the world.  To start planning your visit, consult the Display Week Web site to register, then sit back and enjoy our preview, “Inspiration and Innovation Abound at Display Week’s Annual Technical Symposium.”

Another good barometer for display innovation each year is the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, which features the latest in actual products, including all manner of TVs, portable devices, wearables, and everything else you can think of that might use a display.  This year we asked Ken Werner to chronicle it all for us and he responded with a wonderful story about all the highlights titled “CES 2015: The Show of Everything (SoE).”  If you  have been waiting to see new innovations in automotive electronics and more form factors for automotive displays, this was your year.  It makes sense, since this is an area where display makers can generate a lot of value with their capabilities and the volumes are very attractive.  I think many of us have been wondering why it has taken so long for electronic dashboards and truly new user interfaces to make it to the marketplace.  This year may be the turning point.  Of course, there was also no shortage of great TV products featuring quantum-dot backlights, ultra-high-definition (UHD) and many more new innovations.  Clearly, CES continues to prove there is no finish line for the pace of innovation, at least in the display world.

This wraps up another issue of Information Display.  I hope to see every one of you in San Jose for Display Week in just a few short months.  •