Aris Silzars Display Technology Consulting


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Who Would Have Guessed?…

technologyFor a moment or two, take yourself back to the early 1970s when we were all looking forward to the next Apollo mission taking men to the moon.  We watched our televisions with great fascination and excitement as those first human beings were walking and then riding around on the Moon’s dusty surface.  Given this great accomplishment would you have guessed that forty years later we would never have been back?  Would you also have guessed that instead of a space station like the one depicted in the movie 2001- A Space Odyssey we would have something that looks like a high-technology junk pile orbiting the earth – a technology contraption soon to be abandoned? 

All this came to mind as I was reading the various recent news reports about the end of the NASA Space Shuttle program and now the latest news that the Russians are also no longer interested in shuttling men back and forth to this barely functioning orbiting assemblage.  If you had told your friends and technically savvy colleagues in 1970 that they should enjoy those images of astronauts cavorting on the moon because there will be nothing more like it in their lifetimes, you would have been viewed as either really stupid or maybe even mentally unbalanced.  Yet here we are in 2011 with every indication that we will continue to abandon even what we should think of as the next modest steps.  The latest program that seems to be in trouble is the next generation telescope to follow the Hubble.   The James Webb space telescope appears to be in danger of cancellation. 

In the decades following World War II, there was a general excitement and almost unbridled expectation of what technology would soon do for us.  There were predictions that we would in the not too distant future all have our own private helicopters, we would travel in supersonic and hypersonic airplanes, and our houses would be pre-built in factories with new sophisticated materials.   

The reality turned out to be quite unlike these predictions.  Helicopters turned out to be too touchy and unsafe even for most commercial applications.  Airplanes fly no faster today than they did at the beginning of commercial jet service.   And our houses are built with “sticks, bricks, and drywall” very much as they were being built in the 1950s.  

Perhaps the underlying characteristic in all of these situations is that progress -- or the lack of it -- was driven or stopped by economics; not what technology could do if cost were no object.  A secondary consideration is perhaps the safety and reliability of any new technology.  Human space exploration has come to an end mostly because we did not find much out there to justify the growing expenditures.  As the initial high-risk approach became replaced by a more prudent and safer one, the costs escalated dramatically and the benefits became ever harder to justify. 

The same can also be said for more mundane technologies such as helicopters and supersonic airplanes.  How much would it cost to make a really safe helicopter and if there were lots of them flying about how would we manage the traffic jams and the noise pollution in the sky?    

Closer to home – in our own area of display technology – can we also see some unexpected outcomes?  I would suggest that the transition from CRTs to flat panels occurred faster than we expected.  The success of LC technology for all display sizes was also a major surprise.  But looking back now, we can see that the cost of LC Displays decreased faster than most of us anticipated and that allowed the transition to take place at a faster pace.  We technologists also underestimated the appeal of the flat-panel’s slimmer shape and lighter weight.      

In the category of what did not happen as expected, one example would be the lack of success for any of the field-emission technologies that were being developed to compete with LCDs.  Field emission based displays were predicted to surpass LCDs and Plasma Displays in image quality and energy efficiency.  The engineers, scientists, investors, and companies who dedicated many years of effort and major resources to develop these technologies certainly did not expect that they would experience such complete failure.

Can we learn anything from this history of unexpected outcomes?  Were these outcomes only unexpected because we were using the wrong frame-of-reference?  I see possibly two conclusions.  The first is that technology outcomes are not very predictable.  We need to work on many approaches and see which one turns out the best.  That is perhaps not a very helpful insight but is probably the best conclusion we can make.  The second observation is we must always pay attention to the economics of a new technology.  If it’s not affordable or not the lowest cost solution, it will not succeed in the marketplace.  (If the moon were made of something more precious than dirt, perhaps we would by now have a mining colony there.)

Given these examples, I’ll leave you with one question to ponder.  How much of a differential are you willing to pay to have 3D capability on your next TV -- just in case you ever decide to use this capability? 

Should you wish to respond to this question or to discuss any other topics of interest, you may reach me directly from this site, by e-mail at, or by telephone at 425-898-9117.         


19916 NE 30th Ct. Sammamish, WA 98074 Call 425.898.9117

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