How to Spot Technology Trends II: Replacing ‘Impossible’ with ‘Never Before Possible’

This is part 2 of a post on spotting technology trends.  In the last post I explained that the best place to look for technology trends is my mother’s demographic (a mainstream demographic, with disposable income, that is not very technologically savvy). In this post, I describe the mindset required to do that.

My answer whenever my mother makes some unrealistic demand for realism or quality is normally to explain that what she wants technology to do is not possible (mainly for my peace of mind).  In the back of my mind though, I’m always careful to recognize that what is not currently possible, is entirely different from what is impossible.  The development history of dynamic LED TV is a perfect example of how technological development can be crippled by the confusion of these two very different ideas.

In the early days of what is now called LED TV, or local dimming TV, we knew that people love sparkly stuff.  It’s nothing new: people like diamonds, crystal chandeliers, crystal glasses, gold, silver, chrome and other shiny materials.  We even polish our motorcycles and cars.  God knows why. Maybe due to some evolutionary advantage to spotting the eyes of predators, but we are attracted to things that shine.  The problem with displays at the time was that they couldn’t show sparkly stuff.   Displays were limited to a range of brightness that made it impossible for them to show sparkles (8-bit per channel so 255 steps from black to white); they just couldn’t produce enough bright light to give the impression of a reflection. After a few decades of living with these limited displays, the bulk of the TV industry concluded:  “Making this better is hard, so 8-bit is the end of the line, and we just accept this constraint.”

A whole community – an entire industry – convinced itself that, ‘8-bit is enough.’

A whole field of science sprang up to argue that 8 bit was all that human beings could see (often through industry sponsored research).  When you pointed out that in the real world the eye can see more (I can see shades under my desk and, simultaneously bright buildings through the window), they would just respond that my brain is fooling me, that sparkles don’t really matter, that you don’t consciously perceive it more than 8-bit, or that it’s simply not that important. The Emperor had beautiful clothes…

The consequence was that all development of display technologies that would go beyond  8-bit ground to a halt. Industry, investors, and scientists collectively simply said no to a whole realm of possible innovation. At Brightside I remember pitching to a venture capital fund who had hired an “8-bit is enough expert”. Even looking right at our display and physically seeing that 8-bit is not the limit of human vision, they would stick to the line that the technology wasn’t needed.

A much smaller camp of rebels admitted that 8-bit might not be enough, but decided to focus their energy on dealing with the problem instead of solving it (clearly, no one was encouraging them to solve the root problem).  So they developed so-called tone mapping algorithms, and other image processing techniques that basically allow you to squish the high contrast real world scene into the limited range of an 8-bit display.  At least they were acknowledging the problem, but they were unfortunately focusing all of their energy on addressing a problem based on an arbitrary technical constraint.

That’s right, an arbitrary constraint. Because deep down we all know where the 8-bit magic comes from. Somebody in the early days of computing decided that 8-bit would be a nice unit for microprocessors, later CPUs, and ultimately for the operating systems that ran on those CPUs. With the advent of digital displays in the 90s it was simply convenient to use the same integrated circuits, processors and software on the display side as well. It would be an incredible coincident if the human visual system just happened to have the same constraints as an arbitrarily chosen electronics requirement driven by supply chain convenience!

It took us years at BrightSide to break through these self-created mental barriers and push dynamic LED TV as a higher contrast/bit-depth solution. Today, LED TV accounts for some 30-40% of the global display market and 8-bit displays are quickly disappearing from the market entirely.

Let’s come back to innovation. The problem in this example wasn’t that people were stupid or unwilling to listen. It was that a myth had spread to the point that it had become part of the fabric of that field. The vast majority of display researchers, engineers and marketers didn’t know enough about visual psychophysics to invalidate the myth in the mind, so they perpetuated it as gospel instead. Such people have difficulty articulating the true problem statement(s) in their field and thus have no hope of developing anything other than incremental improvements.

Major disruptive innovation comes from the recognition of a major problem. Inspiration for that is easier to find with those who imagine the world as it should be, rather than those who “know” how it is.

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