Aris Silzars Display Technology Consulting


The Display Continuum

Segueing into the Future…July 2004

Sometimes technology progress seems to resemble a random walk -- with many bumps into unseen walls -- rather than anything that can be planned or predicted. That is not a comforting thought for those of us who would like to be able to identify and develop new business opportunities based on new technology innovations. What is especially fascinating, however, is that these initial product introductions often stimulate further attempts at solving the same problem. These competing efforts provide choices that, when combined with consumer feedback, eventually lead to products that are truly useful and beneficial.

A recent, and highly publicized, example is the Segway personal transporter. You may remember the initial news stories alluding to a mysterious new concept so revolutionary that it would change the way we lead our lives and would have immediate and dramatic impact on all society. These pronouncements were shrouded in secrecy and supported by famous personages who were allowed preview glimpses of this revolutionary innovation. These carefully orchestrated news stories created an immense amount of curiosity about this revolutionary “thing” – whatever it might turn out to be.

Some months later, we common people were finally let in on the secret. What we were shown was a gyroscopically controlled two-wheeled scooter that is self-stabilizing and is controlled by a shifting of body position. The assertions were made that this would result in a completely new way for people to get around. We would all need one and would use it as our major mode of transport. Legislation was introduced in all parts of the country to allow these transporters to be used on sidewalks and anywhere else that people currently get around by walking. The carefully constructed publicity campaign about this “completely new mode of transportation” prompted many states and cities to rush through new laws approving the use of these devices with few restrictions.

Could this really become the people mover of the 21st century? The high-tech aspect of gyroscopic control and body-lean control has certain appeal. But stripped of its technology glamour, what is this thing -- really? It seems that what we actually have is an electrically powered scooter with side-by-side wheels. How is that better than a conventional scooter with the wheels in-line? The self-balancing part is good, but the extra space needed for a side-by-side wheel configuration will limit how many of these can navigate on a crowded sidewalk. Suppose you gave one to everyone on a busy day in New York or Tokyo? I think we would end up with quite an impressive pile-up of high technology gear.

Then something else happened that I think is more subtle than the “minor” practical problems just mentioned. Most who tried it were not comfortable with the way the movement of this transporter was controlled. Not too long ago, there was a promotion at our local park where people could try one out. The person demonstrating was, of course, a very proficient operator and the machine seemed to respond to his subtle touch in an almost magical way. However, when asked, most people seemed uncomfortable to participate and the few who did had difficulty making the transporter do their bidding. There was something about it that was not only not intuitive but also quite disconcerting. Could it be that we have learned from our earliest childhood days that you put “one foot in front of the other” when you learn to walk, while this machine demands that you keep your feet side-by-side while leaning like you are about to fall over? That is not a comfortable way for me to try to maintain my balance. Even when we ride a bicycle we tend to have our feet move in the direction of motion.

Evidently, some of these perceptions and concerns got others to thinking about what the real essence of this “transporter” is and what other versions could be introduced that would be better and/or cheaper. So what do we see happening today? There is currently a rapidly developing market for all kinds of motorized scooters. Some are electric and some are gas-engine powered – and a few even have no motor at all. A recent model that is described in the June issue of Popular Science magazine has four-wheels and is styled to look very much like the Segway. The two additional smaller wheels are in the rear for non-gyroscopic balance. The selling price is less than one-fourth of the price of the Segway. Even with the power off, this machine will not fall over. And the controls are about as easy and familiar as the ones on my lawnmower. That to me seems like an elegant and cost effective solution.

So, what about the Segway? The recent news reports are that the company is a long ways from meeting its sales targets. Will it succeed or eventually fade into oblivion? That may depend on how willing or unwilling the founders are to consider what is really important to consumers. The early technology hype was great for stimulating thinking and in awakening consumer desire for personal transporters. Once that demand was created, however, others realized that there were simpler solutions. Those may be the ones that will eventually prevail. Consumers are smarter than we technologists sometimes give them credit for. They have a way of waiting until the time is right before they invest their money in new technologies or unproven ideas.
For us in the display industry, these same principles apply. Recently we have seen a high level of enthusiasm for LCD and Plasma technologies. But it seems to me that the value proposition of quality versus cost for the traditional CRT is still viable. The recent development of a shallower CRT by Philips may be just what is needed to keep this technology from disappearing. Since even the flat panels need some mechanical support and are not as light and thin as some of us would like to think, a CRT that is not quite as big and heavy as today’s products could have some renewed appeal.

What do you think? Could we see a CRT revival -- at least for television applications? Let me know your thoughts. You can reach me by return e-mail from this site, directly by telephone at 425-898-9117, or by fax at 425-898-1727.