Technology as a bridge in time: Shaping the future of brain health via today’s innovations–including those that “fail”

Remem­ber Google Glass? Google invest­ed mil­lions of dol­lars and came to mar­ket in 2014 with the first gen­er­a­tion of wear­able aug­ment­ed real­i­ty (AR) tech­nol­o­gy. You could wear their cool head­sets with or with­out glass­es and use them to read and send email all while going about oth­er tasks.

Even before it was avail­able to the pub­lic, Glass cre­at­ed a huge amount of buzz. In 2013, every­one want­ed to get in on beta testing.

Almost every keynote speak­er I saw that year would come out wear­ing a Google Glass headset—and then invari­ably admit the bat­tery had run out weeks ago and they were just wear­ing it to look cool. I have to admit, I did the same.

Maybe that’s because it made me nos­tal­gic for a prod­uct we had designed about ten years ear­li­er, in 2005. Our Visu­al­ly Inte­grat­ed Sen­sor Unit, or VISUnit, was an ear­ly ver­sion of an AR headset.

Every­one agrees that Google Glass failed when it came to mar­ket, but to me, it’s a sym­bol of hope. Just the fact that it got to mar­ket makes me even proud­er of VISUnit, even though our jour­ney was quite a bit dif­fer­ent. Glass may have inspired the next gen­er­a­tion of AR devel­op­ers com­mer­cial­ly, but our work was like­ly the first to demon­strate the fea­si­bil­i­ty of aug­ment­ed vision sys­tems in the military.

I’ve talked about how tech­nol­o­gy should enable human capa­bil­i­ty. It should take us from what we can do to what we want to do. In an ide­al world, tech­nol­o­gy bridges capabilities.

Tech­nol­o­gy is also a bridge in time.

An inven­tion doesn’t always receive recog­ni­tion or gain an imme­di­ate user base. But it cap­tures and doc­u­ments a moment that gives rise to the next gen­er­a­tion of creators.

The world of tech­nol­o­gy doesn’t always think this way. Peo­ple argue over who invent­ed some­thing first. Patents are a way to put a stake in the ground, but that’s all they are. Just because you patent some­thing doesn’t mean it will be a viable prod­uct. Although tim­ing is prob­a­bly one of the most crit­i­cal fac­tors in the suc­cess of tech­nol­o­gy, it is impos­si­ble to pre­dict or control.

What’s inter­est­ing with Google Glass is that they prob­a­bly sus­pect­ed the tim­ing was wrong, but they tried anyway.

Bring­ing a tech prod­uct to mar­ket suc­cess­ful­ly requires a sweet spot in the Venn dia­gram over­lap of cus­tomer need, tech­nol­o­gy matu­ri­ty, and mar­ket readiness.

If you think of the inven­tions dis­cussed in pre­vi­ous chap­ters, you can see why mar­ket suc­cess is almost always a long shot. In the case of Cos­moBot, despite the high need for inno­v­a­tive, inter­ac­tive edu­ca­tion­al tech­nolo­gies for kids with dis­abil­i­ties, the tech­nol­o­gy was not mature. Con­sumers were not ready to pay the price. So we switched gears and devel­oped Cosmo’s Learn­ing Sys­tem to hit the sweet spot of need, tech matu­ri­ty, and market.

But that Venn dia­gram, pic­tured at the chap­ter begin­ning, is not sta­t­ic. It’s con­stant­ly chang­ing. In the case of CLS, the tech­nol­o­gy and there­fore the mar­ket changed even though the need did not. As the iPad and oth­er tablet com­put­ers became the norm, the tablets drove and changed the need—even though their use was not ini­tial­ly backed by science.

The Accele­Glove flaunt­ed a sim­i­lar mod­el to Google Glass. We put inno­v­a­tive tech­nol­o­gy out into the world with some demos and a developer’s kit and let the mar­ket cre­ate the need. As with Google Glass, the prod­uct didn’t make it very far. But both became cat­a­lysts for change, albeit on dif­fer­ent scales. The Accele­Glove bridged our ideas for ges­tur­al inter­faces to appli­ca­tions devel­oped by those who pur­chased the kit or saw a demo. Google Glass gave hun­dreds of inno­va­tors a chance to expe­ri­ence the poten­tial of aug­ment­ed reality.

Both inven­tions set the stage for killer apps and com­pelling use cas­es. In the case of ges­tur­al inter­faces, Nin­ten­do and Microsoft lat­er made ges­tur­al inter­faces the norm for video gam­ing, with Wii and Kinect. Just as Ocu­lus and Hololens are now mak­ing sim­i­lar inroads for VR/AR. And tech­nol­o­gy does come back around. Microsoft recent­ly won a $22 bil­lion con­tract from the mil­i­tary to devel­op the Inte­grat­ed Visu­al Aug­men­ta­tion Sys­tem, which is an AR sys­tem for sol­diers’ deci­sion making.

Sounds famil­iar?

On the con­sumer side, the fact that Google Glass exist­ed was enough. It inspired peo­ple to think beyond tra­di­tion­al ways of mov­ing about our envi­ron­ment. Instead of look­ing down at a device, we could look out at the world and have an over­lay of dig­i­tal infor­ma­tion. It was one of the first steps in physical–digital con­ver­gence that we are see­ing today through­out many indus­tries. And as some­one who has cre­at­ed many inven­tions that nev­er left the lab or were too ear­ly for the mar­ket, I love the fact that Glass came out at all!

Face­book, Ray-Ban, and Snap have released smart glass­es, which con­tain embed­ded cam­eras. The com­pa­nies are bet­ting that focus­ing on the form fac­tor of cool shades and the con­ve­nience of being able to take a pho­to quick­ly and eas­i­ly, while not cut­ting edge, may in fact be the killer app that final­ly breaks the con­sumer mar­ket open.

Time will tell.

– Dr. Corin­na (Cori) Lath­an is a tech­nol­o­gy entre­pre­neur who has devel­oped robots for kids with dis­abil­i­ties, vir­tu­al real­i­ty tech­nol­o­gy for the space sta­tion, and wear­able sen­sors for train­ing sur­geons and sol­diers. Above is an adapt­ed excerpt from her new book, Invent­ing the Future: Sto­ries from a Tech­no-Opti­mist (Lion­crest Pub­lish­ing; 2022), which explores the many pos­si­bil­i­ties of tomor­row through Cori’s twen­ty-year jour­ney invent­ing at the edge of tech­nol­o­gy and human performance.

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About SharpBrains

SHARPBRAINS is an independent think-tank and consulting firm providing services at the frontier of applied neuroscience, health, leadership and innovation.
SHARPBRAINS es un think-tank y consultoría independiente proporcionando servicios para la neurociencia aplicada, salud, liderazgo e innovación.

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