ENTRIES TAGGED "Innovation"

On Batteries and Innovation

Despite reports of breakthroughs in battery technology, the hard problems of battery innovation remain hard.

Lately there’s been a spate of articles about breakthroughs in battery technology. Better batteries are important, for any of a number of reasons: electric cars, smoothing out variations in the power grid, cell phones, and laptops that don’t need to be recharged daily.

All of these nascent technologies are important, but some of them leave me cold, and in a way that seems important. It’s relatively easy to invent new technology, but a lot harder to bring it to market. I’m starting to understand why. The problem isn’t just commercializing a new technology — it’s everything that surrounds that new technology.

Take an article like Battery Breakthrough Offers 30 Times More Power, Charges 1,000 Times Faster. For the purposes of argument, let’s assume that the technology works; I’m not an expert on the chemistry of batteries, so I have no reason to believe that it doesn’t. But then let’s take a step back and think about what a battery does. When you discharge a battery, you’re using a chemical reaction to create electrical current (which is moving electrical charge). When you charge a battery, you’re reversing that reaction: you’re essentially taking the current and putting that back in the battery.

So, if a battery is going to store 30 times as much power and charge 1,000 times faster, that means that the wires that connect to it need to carry 30,000 times more current. (Let’s ignore questions like “faster than what?,” but most batteries I’ve seen take between two and eight hours to charge.) It’s reasonable to assume that a new battery technology might be able to store electrical charge more efficiently, but the charging process is already surprisingly efficient: on the order of 50% to 80%, but possibly much higher for a lithium battery. So improved charging efficiency isn’t going to help much — if charging a battery is already 50% efficient, making it 100% efficient only improves things by a factor of two. How big are the wires for an automobile battery charger? Can you imagine wires big enough to handle thousands of times as much current? I don’t think Apple is going to make any thin, sexy laptops if the charging cable is made from 0000 gauge wire (roughly 1/2 inch thick, capacity of 195 amps at 60 degrees C). And I certainly don’t think, as the article claims, that I’ll be able to jump-start my car with the battery in my cell phone — I don’t have any idea how I’d connect a wire with the current-handling capacity of a jumper cable to any cell phone I’d be willing to carry, nor do I want a phone that turns into an incendiary firebrick when it’s charged, even if I only need to charge it once a year.

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Where Innovation Lives

Do minds, money, markets, or manufacturing matter most?

I sat down with Jon Bruner in New York City this week to talk about where innovation happens. Concentration still seems to matter, even in a networked world, but concentration of what? Minds, money, markets, or manufacturing know-how?

People we mention in this episode include Brady Forrest, Kipp Bradford and Alistair Croll.

Links for things we mention:

By the way, we clearly aren’t the only ones making comparisons between Silicon Valley and Detroit. Seems to be entering the zeitgeist. However, if you are interested in Detroit as a model for the unraveling of a dominant concentration of innovation, pick up a copy of the classic American Odyssey by Robert Conot or the more recent Detroit: An American Autopsy by Charlie LeDuff.

You can subscribe to the O’Reilly Radar podcast through iTunes or SoundCloud, or directly through our podcast’s RSS feed.

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Four short links: 10 June 2013

Four short links: 10 June 2013

Pseudo Memetics, Top Pinch or Bottom Pinch, Innovation Cartography, and Awesome Compilation Hackery

  1. Anatomy of Two Memes — comparing the spread of Gangnam Style to Harlem Shake. Memes are like currencies: you need to balance accessibility (or ‘money supply’) and inflation. Gangnam Style became globally accessible through top-down mainstream sources (High Popularity), but this gave it high social inflation so it wasn’t valuable to share (Low Shareability). However, scale sustained its long term growth. Harlem Shake was not as easily accessible because it was driven more by small communities (Low Popularity), but for the same reason, being less easily accessible, it remained highly valuable (High Shareability). Lack of scale was what made Harlem Shake growth short-term and eventually killed it prematurely. Caution: contains fauxconomics.
  2. Handedness (Github) — determine left or right handedness from pinch gesture.
  3. Innovation Cartography — video of a talk by Richard Jefferson of Cambia’s lens, on the imperative to innovate held at the Skoll World Forum on Social Enterprise. His story of maritime cartography (starts around 5m50s) is awesome.
  4. Statically Recompiling NES Games into Native Executables with LLVM and Go — or “crack for Nat” as I like to translate that title.
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Four short links: 16 May 2013

Four short links: 16 May 2013

Internet Filter Creep, Innovating in E-Mail/Gmail, Connected Devices Business Strategy, and Ecology Recapitulates Photography

  1. Australian Filter Scope CreepThe Federal Government has confirmed its financial regulator has started requiring Australian Internet service providers to block websites suspected of providing fraudulent financial opportunities, in a move which appears to also open the door for other government agencies to unilaterally block sites they deem questionable in their own portfolios.
  2. Embedding Actions in Gmail — after years of benign neglect, it’s good to see Gmail worked on again. We’ve said for years that email’s a fertile ground for doing stuff better, and Google seem to have the religion. (see Send Money with Gmail for more).
  3. What Keeps Me Up at Night (Matt Webb) — Matt’s building a business around connected devices. Here he explains why the category could be owned by any of the big players. In times like this I remember Howard Aiken’s advice: Don’t worry about people stealing your ideas. If it is original you will have to ram it down their throats.
  4. Image Texture Predicts Avian Density and Species Richness (PLOSone) — Surprisingly and interestingly, remotely sensed vegetation structure measures (i.e., image texture) were often better predictors of avian density and species richness than field-measured vegetation structure, and thus show promise as a valuable tool for mapping habitat quality and characterizing biodiversity across broad areas.
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Google Glass and the Future

I just read a Forbes article about Glass, talking about the split between those who are “sure that it is the future of technology, and others who think society will push back against the technology.”

I don’t see this as a dichotomy (and, to be fair, I’m not sure that the author does either). I expect to see both, and I’d like to think a bit more about what these two apparently opposing sides mean.

Push back is inevitable. I hope there’s a significant push back, and that it has some results. Not because I’m a Glass naysayer, but because we, as technology users, are abused so often, and push back so weakly, that it’s not funny. Facebook does something outrageous; a few technorati whine; they add option 1023 to their current highly intertwined 1022 privacy options that have been designed so they can’t be understood or used effectively; and sooner or later, it all dies down. A hundred fifty users have left Facebook, and half a million more have joined. When Apple puts another brick in their walled garden, a few dozen users (myself included) bitch and moan, but does anyone leave? Personally, I’m tired of getting warnings whenever I install software that doesn’t come from the Apple Store (I’ve used the Store exactly twice), and I absolutely expect that a not-too-distant version of OS X won’t allow me to install software from “untrusted” sources, including software I’ve written. Will there be push back? Probably. Will it be effective? I don’t know; if things go as they are now, I doubt it.

There will be push back against Glass; and that’s a good thing. I think Google, of all the companies out there, is most likely to listen and respond positively. I say that partly because of efforts like the Data Liberation Front, and partly because Eric Schmidt has acknowledged that he finds many aspects of Glass creepy. But going beyond Glass: As a community of users, we need to empower ourselves to push back. We need to be able to push back effectively against Google, but more so against Apple, Facebook, and many other abusers of our data, rather than passively accept the latest intrusion as an inevitability. If Glass does nothing more than teach users that they can push back, and teach large corporations how to respond constructively, it will have accomplished much.

Is Glass the future? Yes; at least, something like Glass is part of the future. As a species, we’re not very good at putting our inventions back into the box. About three years ago, there was a big uptick in interest in augmented reality. You probably remember: Wikitude, Layar, and the rest. You installed those apps on your phone. They’re still there. You never use them (at least, I don’t). The problem with consumer-grade AR up until now has been that it was sort of awkward walking around looking at things through your phone’s screen. (Commercial AR–heads-up displays and the like–is a completely different ball game.) Glass is the first attempt at broadly useful platform for consumer AR; it’s a game changer.

Could Glass fail? Sure; I know more failed startups than I can count where the engineers did something really cool, and when they released it, the public said “what is that, and why do you think we’d want it?” Google certainly isn’t immune from that disease, which is endemic to an engineering-driven culture; just think back to Wave. I won’t deny that Google might shelve Glass if they consider unproductive, as they’ve shelved many popular applications. But I believe that Google is playing long-ball here, and thinking far beyond 2014 or 2015. In a conversation about Bitcoin last week, I said that I doubt it will be around in 20 years. But I’m certain we will have some kind of distributed digital currency, and that currency will probably look a lot like Bitcoin. Glass is the same. I have no doubt that something like Glass is part of our future. It’s a first, tentative, and very necessary step into a new generation of user interfaces, a new way of interacting with computing systems and integrating them into our world. We probably won’t wear devices around on our glasses; it may well be surgically implanted. But the future doesn’t happen if you only talk about hypothetical possibilities. Building the future requires concrete innovation, building inconvenient and “creepy” devices that nevertheless point to the next step. And it requires people pushing back against that innovation, to help developers figure out what they really need to build.

Glass will be part of our future, though probably not in its current form. And push back from users will play an essential role in defining the form it will eventually take.

Comments: 4

The makers of hardware innovation

Hardware is back and makers are driving it. Here are some of the signals.

Chris Anderson wrote Makers and went from editor-in-chief of Wired to CEO of 3D Robotics, making his hobby his side job and then making it his main job.

A new executive at Motorola Mobility, a division of Google, said that Google seeks to “googlify” hardware. By that he meant that devices would be inexpensive, if not free, and that the data created or accessed by them would be open. Motorola wants to build a truly hackable cellphone, one that makers might have ideas about what to do with it.

Regular hardware startup meetups, which started in San Francisco and New York, are now held in Boston, Pittsburgh, Austin, Chicago, Dallas and Detroit. I’m sure there are other American cities. Melbourne, Stockholm and Toronto are also organizing hardware meetups. Hardware entrepreneurs want to find each other and learn from each other.

Hardware-oriented incubators and accelerators are launching on both coasts in America, and in China.

The market for personal 3D printers and 3D printing services has really taken off. 3D printer startups continue to launch, and all of them seem to have trouble keeping up with demand. MakerBot is out raising money. Shapeways raised $30 million in a new round of financing announced this week.

Makers are discovering that the Raspberry PI, developed for educational uses, can fit into some interesting commercial niches. Read more…

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VA looks to apply innovation to better care and service for veterans

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs launched a new innovation center to solve big problems.

va-header-logoThere are few areas as emblematic of a nation’s values than how it treats the veterans of its wars. As improved battlefield care keeps more soldiers alive from injuries that would have been lethal in past wars, more grievously injured veterans survive to come home to the United States.

Upon return, however, the newest veterans face many of the challenges that previous generations have encountered, ranging from re-entering the civilian workforce to rehabilitating broken bodies and treating traumatic brain injuries. As they come home, they are encumbered by more than scars and memories. Their war records are missing. When they apply for benefits, they’re added to a growing backlog of claims at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). And even as the raw number of claims grows to nearly 900,000, the average time to process them is also rising. According to Aaron Glanz of the Center for Investigative Reporting, veterans now wait an average of 272 days for their claims to be processed, with some dying in the interim.

The growth in the VA backblog should be seen in context with a decade of war in Afghanistan and Iraq, improved outreach and more open standards for post-tramautic stress syndrome, Agent Orange exposure in Vietnam and “Gulf War” illness, allowing more veterans who were previously unable to make a claim to file.

While new teams and technologies are being deployed to help with the backlog, a recent report (PDF) from the Office of the Inspector General of the Veterans Administration found that new software deployed around the country that was designed to help reduce the backlog was actually adding to it. While high error rates, disorganization and mishandled claims may be traced to issues with training and implementation of the new systems, the transition from paper-based records to a digital system is proving to be difficult and deeply painful to veterans and families applying for benefits. As Andrew McAfee bluntly put it more than two years ago, these kinds of bureaucratic issues aren’t just a problem to be fixed: “they’re a moral stain on the country.”

Given that context, the launch of a new VA innovation center today takes on a different meaning. The scale and gravity of the problems that the VA faces demand true innovation: new ideas, technology or methodologies that challenge and improve upon existing processes and systems, improving the lives of people or the function of the society that they live within. Read more…

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Four short links: 22 January 2013

Four short links: 22 January 2013

Open Pushing Innovation, Clear Intentions, Druids vs Engineers, and Reimagined Textbooks

  1. Design Like Nobody’s Patenting Anything (Wired) — profile of Maker favourites Sparkfun. Instead of relying on patents for protection, the team prefers to outrace other entrants in the field. “The open source model just forces us to innovate,” says Boudreaux. “When we release something, we’ve got to be thinking about the next rev. We’re doing engineering and innovating and it’s what we wanna be doing and what we do well.”
  2. Agree to Agree — why I respect my friend David Wheeler: his Design Scene app, which features daily design inspiration, obtains prior written permission to feature the sites because doing so is not only making things legally crystal clear, but also makes his intentions clear to the sites he’s linking to. He’s shared the simple license they request.
  3. The Coming Fight Between Druids and Engineers (The Edge) — We live in a time when the loneliest place in any debate is the middle, and the argument over technology’s role in our future is no exception. The relentless onslaught of novelties technological and otherwise is tilting individuals and institutions alike towards becoming Engineers or Druids. It is a pressure we must resist, for to be either a Druid or an Engineer is to be a fool. Druids can’t revive the past, and Engineers cannot build technologies that do not carry hidden trouble. (via Beta Knowledge)
  4. Reimagining Math Textbooks (Dan Meyer) — love this outline of how a textbook could meaningfully interact with students, rather than being recorded lectures or PDF versions of cyclostyled notes and multichoice tests. Rather than using a generic example to illustrate a mathematical concept, we use the example you created. We talk about its perimeter. We talk about its area. The diagrams in the margins change. The text in the textbook changes. Check it out — they actually built it!
Comments: 2
Four short links: 21 December 2012

Four short links: 21 December 2012

Reverse PR, Cyberbullying Research, Design Notes, and Evaluating CEOs

  1. Amazon’s Product Development Techniquethe product manager should keep iterating on the press release until they’ve come up with benefits that actually sound like benefits. Iterating on a press release is a lot less expensive than iterating on the product itself (and quicker!). (via Fast Company)
  2. Bullying in a Networked World — Harvard literature review on cyberbullying. (via Kinder Braver World)
  3. Lamps (BERG London) — design notes from a project Google did with BERG a year ago. I treat these like backstory in a novel or film: you see a little bit, but the author has imagined a complex history and world that you only see the consequences of. Similarly, BERG spend a long time making complex stories behind the simple objects and interactions they design.
  4. How AH Evaluates CEOs (Ben Horowitz) — my experience backs this up 150% percent. Filed under “stuff I wish I’d known a decade ago”.
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To eat or be eaten?

What's interesting isn't software as a thing in itself, but software as a component of some larger system.

One of Marc Andreessen’s many accomplishments was the seminal essay “Why Software is Eating the World.” In it, the creator of Mosaic and Netscape argues for his investment thesis: everything is becoming software. Music and movies led the way, Skype makes the phone company obsolete, and even companies like Fedex and Walmart are all about software: their core competitive advantage isn’t driving trucks or hiring part-time employees, it’s the software they’ve developed for managing their logistics.

I’m not going to argue (much) with Marc, because he’s mostly right. But I’ve also been wondering why, when I look at the software world, I get bored fairly quickly. Yeah, yeah, another language that compiles to the JVM. Yeah, yeah, the Javascript framework of the day. Yeah, yeah, another new component in the Hadoop ecosystem. Seen it. Been there. Done that. In the past 20 years, haven’t we gained more than the ability to use sophisticated JavaScript to display ads based on a real-time prediction of the user’s next purchase?

When I look at what excites me, I see a much bigger world than just software. I’ve already argued that biology is in the process of exploding, and the biological revolution could be even bigger than the computer revolution. I’m increasingly interested in hardware and gadgetry, which I used to ignore almost completely. And we’re following the “Internet of Things” (and in particular, the “Internet of Very Big Things”) very closely. I’m not saying that software is irrelevant or uninteresting. I firmly believe that software will be a component of every (well, almost every) important new technology. But what grabs me these days isn’t software as a thing in itself, but software as a component of some larger system. The software may be what makes it work, but it’s not about the software. Read more…

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