Aris Silzars Display Technology Consulting


The Display Continuum

So Wrong, and Yet So Famous…

Wouldn’t it be great to be able to see into the future? No, I’m not thinking about the fortune-telling kind of predictions, but the more general understanding of how technology will evolve and how our lives will change as a result. From a personal standpoint, this could be beneficial because we would know what to expect and could adjust our behaviors accordingly – or not. From a business standpoint, it could be a significant competitive advantage to know which technologies will succeed and which will struggle.

Beyond these logical and practical reasons, there is perhaps something else that is not so easy to explain that makes us all wonder about what is going to come next. Human beings seem to have an innate curiosity about the future. Perhaps this has been exacerbated in the last century by the rapid technology changes we have all experienced in our lives. Perhaps it’s the same curiosity that makes us look to the stars and try to unravel the laws of nature. We thirst to know – what is and what will be.

Lake ChelanBecause of my own interest in this area, over at least the last thirty years, I have tracked predictions by a number of futurists, and have made predictions of my own regarding the evolution of the display industry. And then I have tracked many of these predictions against what eventually happened.

I have shared my own views of how display technology will continue to evolve with many of you at various technical conferences, seminars, and through the publication of these columns. It has never been my intent to put these observations into written reports that are offered for sale. That, of course, is not the case with others who consider themselves professional futurists. For these folks, it’s necessary to come up with predictions that will catch people’s attention and cause them to purchase these studies.

The paradoxical conclusion that I end up with is that accurate predictions of the future are not sufficiently exciting to sell reports or books. An accurate prediction -- by definition -- comes to pass, and when that happens, everyone accepts it as an obvious outcome. Aren’t portable music players obvious? Now they are. But how many companies anticipated this new way of providing musical entertainment? Flat panel televisions -- another obvious product. But wasn’t it just a few years ago, that we were all trying to determine how small the incremental price differential would have to be for people to buy a flat panel television instead of a CRT-based one? And could an LCD TV ever be larger than about twenty inches diagonal? Highly unlikely! But now the large-screen future is here and the insightful and accurate predictions of yesteryear are no longer interesting. They have turned into “obvious” outcomes.

Ah, but let’s make some really audacious predictions and then see what happens. In order to do this, let’s step into our time machine and return back to 1999. That way we can make some predictions about the year 2009 and then fast-forward to see how we did. But let’s not be the conservative fuddy-duddies who are overly conservative and too boringly accurate to sell books. Let’s go for a visit to our local 1999-era bookstore and buy a book that is by someone famous for his technical accomplishments and see what he has to say. Aha, here is the perfect tome, a book called The Age of Spiritual Machines by Ray Kurzweil.

We could not have found a more recognized and respected technologist, innovator, and futurist. Mr. Kurzweil has received just about every award and honor that can be bestowed on a human being, including the National Medal of Technology, and over a dozen Honorary Doctorates. He has started a number of successful companies and seems to know just about everything that one human being can possibly be expected to know. If he can’t make accurate predictions of the future then can there be any hope for the rest of us?

With our special interest in display technology, let’s see what Mr. Kurzweil expected us to accomplish by the year 2009.

“Computer displays have all the display qualities of paper – high resolution, high contrast, large viewing angle, and no flicker. Books, magazines, and newspapers are now routinely read on displays that are the size of, well, small books.

Computer displays built into eyeglasses are also used. These specialized glasses allow users to see the normal visual environment, while creating a virtual image that appears to hover in front of the viewer. The virtual images are created by a tiny laser built into the glasses that projects the images directly onto the user’s retina.

Computers routinely include moving picture image cameras and are able to reliably identify their owners from their faces.”

“Students of all ages typically have a computer of their own, which is a thin tabletlike device weighing under a pound with a very high resolution display suitable for reading. Students interact with their computers primarily by voice and by pointing with a device that looks like a pencil. Keyboards still exist, but most textual language is created by speaking.”

“Beyond music recordings, images, and movie videos, the most popular type of digital entertainment object is virtual experience software. These interactive virtual environments allow you to go whitewater rafting on virtual rivers, to hang-glide in a virtual Grand Canyon, or to engage in intimate encounters with your favorite movie star. Users also experience fantasy environments with no counterpart in the physical world. The visual and auditory experience of virtual reality is compelling, but tactile interactions is still limited.”

What happened here? Did we end up living on a different planet from the one Mr. Kurzweil envisioned? Mr. Kurzweil’s view of 2009 doesn’t sound very much like what we expect to be experiencing just a few months from now. And if you agree with me that these predictions are a bit off the mark, you should get a copy of his book and see what he has predicted for us for the years 2019, 2029, and beyond! In my opinion, one could do just as well by reading a science fiction story. Could some of these developments happen sometime in the future? Of course they could. But for sure they will not occur in the time span anticipated by Mr. Kurzweil.

Given Mr. Kurzweil’s successes in building technology-based businesses, I think it would be reasonable to assume that he did not make these audacious predictions for the purpose of making money by selling a few (or even many) books. So why would he be so wildly and overly optimistic in how technology will affect our lives in the coming years? It seems to be a phenomenon that afflicts many technologists. They appear to make their predictions based on what technology may be able to demonstrate under the most favorable of conditions. They drastically underestimate how long it will take for these raw technology demonstrations to be translated into robust products – if ever, for the build-up of manufacturing capacity, and for how long it may take for consumers to accept a new capability. Technology-based predictions also often ignore the impact of political and societal issues such as regulatory requirements and intentional misuse by the less desirable elements of our world’s population.

The last ten years has been an exciting time for us in the worldwide display community. We have witnessed some truly outstanding progress. But as active participants, it was progress that we could see coming. We saw the evolution of flat panels from their modest beginnings in laptop computers. We participated in the rapid build-up of manufacturing capability for both LCDs and Plasma Panels. And we were able to predict quite well how all this was going to come about. As best I can tell, by searching through the pages of his book, Mr. Kurzweil missed all of these significant and commercially successful developments.

Perhaps the lesson from this is that those who claim to be “futurists” are really no more capable at predicting the future than someone staring into a large round glass ball on the table in front of them. That kind of “display” may provide these folks with as interesting a view into the “future” as anything else that their technology-centric view of the world can provide. However, in spite of that their fame and fortune – I predict -- will continue undiminished.

In the meantime, some of the rest of us will continue to strive in relative obscurity making our predictions for a future that is not nearly as exciting -- but turns out to be far more accurate.

Should you wish to offer your opinions on the topic of this column or even to offer some predictions regarding the future of display technology, you may contact me by Email, by telephone at 425-898-9117, or by fax at 425-898-1727.