Aris Silzars Display Technology Consulting

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The Display Continuum



A Few More Things to Understand…December 2004

Outside my office window, hanging from the branch of a small tree, I keep a hummingbird feeder -- well supplied with sugar water. Even though hummingbirds are supposed to be migratory, I seem to have acquired several that have decided to stay through most of the winter. I don’t think my feeder has anything to do with it, but just in case, I make sure that there is never a time when the food runs low.

Japanese GardenThe more that I have watched these little creatures the more fascinated I have become with them. One thing that I have observed is that just like us humans, they don’t like to share very well. Of the three that are currently regular visitors, one is clearly the dominant “bully.” He will sometimes tolerate one of the other two to drink at the same time, but not the third. The shy one has learned to make quick visits when the other two are not around. However, with one trying to dominate the feeder, inevitable squabbles break out. These are temporarily resolved by displays of flying skill that would make any fighter pilot envious. The speed, agility, and maneuverability of these little flying machines is something that can only be appreciated by observation. Otherwise, it would be beyond description and most of us would not believe that such capabilities can exist.

Thinking about this as a scientist and engineer, I began to try to imagine what it would take to “design” and “build” something like a hummingbird. Surely, given the volume, the information processing capabilities of a hummingbird’s brain cannot be all that great. But clearly the real-time image processing capability is in some ways better than what we humans have and the I/O capability is something that is still a long ways beyond what we know how to do. Basically, they never run into anything even while flying at full speed (I think around 30-40 miles per hour) and within inches of tree branches and other objects. They have the ability to catch insects on the fly. And of course they can hover and/or fly backwards on a whim. They are so sure of their flying skills and quick reaction capability that I have had them land and drink from the feeder while I was holding it in my hand. And the final difficult-to-imagine feat is that they are known to migrate over distances of over 1000 miles.

I have to admit that I cannot even begin to grasp all the technology pieces that would have to come together to design even a poorly performing hummingbird. We may have the raw compute power available but we don’t have the image-capture and processing capability and we certainly don’t have the techniques to put this capability into a package the size of a hummingbird. And perhaps most important, we don’t have the energy sources developed to power such a “mini-bot.”

Have I picked an unfair example? Well, then how about a common housefly? It’s taken us until recently just to figure out how they can land upside down on a ceiling! So would you like to try to design one? In this case, the compute power must really be modest. But how is it that a fly can evade a clearly superior human for hours on end? The real-time image processing capabilities of a housefly are obviously also quite impressive. And for nature, it only takes a miniscule amount of waste products to make one.


Japanese GardenLately we have read and heard great predictions regarding MEMS technology and how we will have “nano-robots” flying everywhere doing surveillance activities and perhaps repair work within our bodies. We may have some of the rudimentary pieces of this technology in hand or under development, but how about power sources that are sufficiently compact and long lasting? After years of development, we have only solved the power source problem for a few portable items like watches and calculators. But for almost everything else, we are way behind in providing the “battery” life that we would like to have. Wouldn’t it be great if your laptop computer ran on sugar water like a hummingbird? What a plot line for a science fiction comedy -- your laptop runs out of power and you pour the rest of your latte into it and you’re back in operation.

Feeling properly humbled by my inability to come up with even a rudimentary design for a hummingbird (or a fly), I decided to move on and contemplate even deeper subjects. Perhaps the approaching Christmas Season has something to do with this.

What other important things might there be that we don’t know? What could there be that we don’t even know that we don’t know? For example, if you did not have a television receiver or a radio, how would you prove to someone that the space around you is filled with useful information (although sometimes the useful aspect may come into question)? Without a detector “box” of some kind, we have no way of knowing that weak RF signals are present all around us. We can not see them, feel them, or hear them. For all practical purposes, they do not exist. And what do you think someone would think of you if you tried to convince them that indeed they do exist, and that some of these signals even originated thousands of miles away? So the big important question is – is there something else out there for which our known detector “boxes” don’t produce a result? Hmmm… That could be a very interesting question to ponder as we approach the Christmas Holidays.

In our day-to-day activities, it is easy to become immersed in the details of what we are doing. And because our technology progress has made life quite comfortable for many of us, it is easy to become enamoured with the material benefits that technology has provided us. But perhaps we still have a long road of exploration ahead of us. It seems to me that so far we have been like children playing in a giant sandbox – that we call planet earth. All kinds of basic materials (minerals, ores, fuels, etc.) have been provided for us, in nicely concentrated clumps, to discover and put to good or bad use. But up to now we have simply taken advantage of what is already here. We have refined and modified these basic materials but not really created much of anything. We are consumers in the full sense of the word. But, the future may require a different approach. We may someday have to learn to create and put back. And in the process, we may also discover that there are other signals floating around in the “ether” that it takes a different approach to detect. “Tuning in” may take on a meaning that only a very few can appreciate at the present state of our understanding.

So my special wish to you for this Holiday Season is to give yourselves the blessing of a few moments of quiet contemplation to find the peace within you that can help you throughout the coming year. After all, isn’t that what is meant by the well-worn but wisdom-filled phrase -- “Peace on Earth and Goodwill toward All”?

Your comments on this topic and others are most welcome. You may reach me through this site, directly by e-mail at Email, by phone at 425-898-9117, or by fax at 425-898-1727.