Category: Innovation

0

3D Printing and Quality Ears. Ears? Expensive Monitors Really

It turns out that musicians wear customized earpieces called monitors to hear the music they make at a concert and to protect their ears from the speakers. A company called Ultimate Ears Pro is in this line of business and uses 3D printing for its next step in creating the devices. As Digital Trends explains the shift is not lowering cost but is increasing the quality:

“Bringing this process in required a tremendous investment in capital, time, resources and training.” Dias explains, which is why 3D printing hasn’t lowered the price points for the devices, as we had imagined. In fact, the company apparently had to take a hit just to keep the pricing the same. Apart from throwing down a hefty load for equipment and software, all of the craftsman who had been working with UE Pro’s in-ear monitors in the traditional method had to completely relearn their craft to work with the new 3D printing technology. As difficult as the process was, the company believes it was necessary to create a revolution in “speed, fit, quality, and comfort” for UE Pro’s monitors.

The company has been mainly serving professional musicians, but is now reaching music lovers too. UEP started from work for Van Halen’s drummer and then its opening act at the time, Skid Row. The desire to keep the quality up is where 3D printing comes in. The turn around time is abut half but given the customer-base, professionals and upscale music lovers, the quality improvement. As Ryan Waniata put it in his article, designers “can be more brazen with their sculpting, allowing them to create a fit for each user that is virtually perfect. And when it comes to in-ears, it’s all about the fit.”

The process still require several other steps including taking a mold of your ear. But the head of UPE mentioned something Gerard and I discussed in Patents, Meet Napster: 3D Printing and the Digitization of Things. Scanners may soon allow someone to get a scan at a store or make the scan themselves.

It’s not magic, but each step may move us to a world of bespoke earpieces for almost everyone. An upgrade for an iPhone or Samsung phone may be supercool headphones, customized and as good as rock stars, which, after all, is what Apple claims we can all be, at least in our heads.

2

There She Is, Your Homemade AR-15

I cannot give a talk about 3D printing without addressing the question of homemade guns. As Gerard and I pointed out in Patents, Meet Napster: 3D Printing and the Digitization of Things, this is America and making guns at home is legal. The issues many faced was whether the gun would work well, fail, or possibly misfire and harm the user. These issues are important as we look at the shifts in manufacturing. Many of us may prefer authorized, branded files and materials for home made goods or prefer to order from a third party that certifies the goods. That said, some gun folks and hobbyists are different. They want to make things at home, because they can. And now, Defense Distributed has made the “Ghost Gunner” “a small CNC milling machine that costs a mere $1200 and is capable of spitting out an aluminum lower receiver for an AR-15 rifle.” That lower is the part the the Federal government regulates.

Accoridng to Extreme Tech, Defense Distributed’s founder Cody Wilson, thinks that “Allowing everyone to create an assault rifle with a few clicks is his way of showing that technology can always evade regulation and render the state obsolete. If a few people are shot by ghost guns, that’s just the price we have to pay for freedom, according to Wilson.” This position is what most folks want to debate. But Gerard and I think something else is revealed here. As ExtremeTech puts it, “This is an entirely new era in the manufacturing of real world objects, in both plastic and metal. It used to be that you needed training as a gunsmith to make your own firearm, but that’s no longer the case.” That point is what motivated me to write about 3D printing and look deeper at digitization and disruption.

The first, short, follow-up on these ideas is in an essay called The New Steam: On Digitization, Decentralization, and Disruption that appeared in Hastings Law Journal this past summer.

1

Now That’s Innovation: Punkin Chunkin – He Chunked It!

Several Thanksgivings ago, John Scalzi and I had returned to his house after a lovely meal at his in-laws and melted into his couch as food coma rendered our brains incapable of thought. Required channel surfing followed. We hit upon the Punkin Chunkin contest (before the Myth Buster folks tagged in). The coverage lacked quasi-reality show production. It was pure unadulterated silliness. We had no idea what it was, but the first images of a launched pumpkin exploding in the air and the phrase “He chunked it!” had us rolling in laughter.

I have watched the T.V. coverage since then and despite the rubbish narrative/competition/inner thoughts of the contestant shift, I still love the event. Each category is great. The way contestants study the previous winners’ work; create, test, and iterate; and invest in expensive rigs or squeeze huge results from limited resources makes me think, “Now that’s innovation!” And it seems quite American. Junk yards, scrap iron, applied engineering, contests, bragging rights, open fields, and a big ole party (chili and I imagine beer) to see what’s what is all very American to me. It may not be the America’s Cup, and I am not sure that we will need siege engines in the near future, but the spirit is in the right place. Take your ingenuity, build something fun, and share it.

5

Tesla encourages free use of its patents—but will that protect users from liability?

Tesla Motors made big news yesterday with an open letter titled, “All Our Patent Are Belong to You.”

The gist of the letter was that Tesla Motors had decided that, in the interest of growing the market for electric vehicles and in the spirit of open source, it would not enforce its patents against “good faith” users. The key language was at the end of the second paragraph:

Tesla will not initiate patent lawsuits against anyone who, in good faith, wants to use our technology.

Tesla made clear it was not abandoning its patents, nor did it intend to stop acquiring new patents. Rather, it just wanted clear “intellectual property landmines” that it decided were endangering the “path to the creation of compelling electric vehicles.”

The announcement, made on the company’s website, immediately attracted laudatory media attention. (International Business Times, Los Angeles Times, San Jose Mercury News, Wall Street Journal, etc.) As one commentator for Forbes wrote:

[H]anding out patents to the world is smarter still when you think how resource-sapping the process is. Engineers want to build not fill out paperwork for nit-picking lawyers. Why bog them down with endless red tape form-filling only to end up having to build an expensive legal department to have to defend patents that would likely be got around anyway?

Patents are meant to slow competition but they also slow innovation. In an era when you can invent faster than you can patent, why not keep ahead by inventing?

That’s a pretty concise summary of the general response: Patents are bad, Tesla is good, and all friction in technological innovation would be solved if others followed Tesla’s lead.

Setting aside a pretty loaded normative debate, I had a practical concern. Just how legally enforceable would Tesla’s declaration be? That is, if a technologist practiced one of Tesla’s patents, would they really be free from liability?

The answer isn’t clear. (At least, it wasn’t to a number of us on Twitter yesterday.) Certainly, Tesla could enter into a gratis licensing arrangement with every interested party; a prudent GC should demand that Tesla do so, but it’s unlikely Tesla would want to invest the time and money. In a nod to the vagueness of Telsa’s announcement, CEO Elon Musk also told Wired that “the company is open to making simple agreements with companies that are worried about what using patents in ‘good faith’ really means.”

But assuming Tesla offers nothing more than a public promise not to sue “good faith” users, this announcement may be of little social benefit. Worse, it seems to me that such public promises could provide a new vehicle for trolling.

Sure, Tesla may be estopped from enforcing its patents—though estoppel requires reasonable reliance and this announcement is so vague that it’s difficult to imagine the reliance that would be reasonable—and Tesla isn’t in the patent trolling business anyway. (Sorry, patent-assertion-entity business). But what if Tesla sold its patents or went bankrupt. Could a third party not enforce the patents? If it could, patents promised to be open source would seem a rich market for PAEs.

Tesla is not to first to pledge its patents as open source. In fact, as Clark Asay pointed out, IBM has already been accused of reneging the promise. (See: “IBM now appears to be claiming the right to nullify the 2005 pledge at its sole discretion, rendering it a meaningless confidence trick.”) The questions raised by the Tesla announcement are, thus, not new. And, given enough time, courts will have to answer them.

0

Public Service Announcement for Google Glass Team

The Google Glass team has a post about the so-called myths about Google Glass, but the post fails to see what is happening around Glass. That is sad. Instead of addressing the issues head on, the post preaches to the faithful (just read the comments). As Nate Swanner put it “We’re not sure posting something to the tech-centric Google+ crowd is really fixing the issues though.” Google and other tech companies trying to do something new will always face challenges, fear, and distrust. The sad part for me is when all sides line up and fail to engage with the real issues. Some have asked what I did when at Google. Part of the job was to present the technology, address concerns, and then see where all of us saw new, deep issues to come. I loved it, because I knew the technology was driven by high-standards. The problems flowed from not explaining the tech. This post highlights talking past each other. Furthermore the truly wonderful advances that might be possible with Glass are not discussed. That distresses me, as no one really wins in that approach. But I will show what is not great about the post as a possible public service announcement for the Glass Team and others in the tech space.

First, the post sets an absurd tone. It starts with “Mr. Rogers was a Navy SEAL. A tooth placed in soda will dissolve in 24 hours. Gators roam the sewers of big cities and Walt Disney is cryogenically frozen. These are just some of the most common and — let’s admit it — awesome urban myths out there.” Message: Glass critics are crazy people that by into extreme outlying beliefs, not truth. And if you think I am incorrect, just look at this next statement: “Myths can be fun, but they can also be confusing or unsettling. And if spoken enough, they can morph into something that resembles fact. (Side note: did you know that people used to think that traveling too quickly on a train would damage the human body?).” Hah! We must be idiots that fear the future.

That said maybe there are some myths that should be addressed. Having worked at Google, I can say that while I was there, technology was not done on a whim. I love that about the company and yes, the Glass Team fits here too. Furthermore, as those who study technology history know, even electricity faced myths (sometimes propagated by oil barons) as it took hold. Most of the Glass myths seem to turn on cultural fears about further disconnection from the world, always on or plugged in life, and so on. But the post contradicts itself or thinks no one can tell when its myth-busting is self-serving or non-responsive.

On the glass is elitist issue: Google is for everyone, but high priced, and not ready for prime time. Huh? Look if you want to say don’t panic, few people have it, that is OK and may be true. But when you also argue that it is not elitist because a range of people (not just tech-worshiping geeks) use Glass; yet nonetheless the $1500 price tag is not about privilege because “In some cases, their work has paid for it. Others have raised money on Kickstarter and Indiegogo. And for some, it’s been a gift” the argument is absurd. That a few, select people have found creative ways to obtain funds for Glass does not belie the elite pricing; it shows it.

The surveillance and privacy responses reveal a deeper issue. Yes, Glass is designed to signal when it is on. And yes that may limit surveillance, but barely. So too for the privacy issue. Check this one in full:

Myth 10 – Glass marks the end of privacy
When cameras first hit the consumer market in the late 19th century, people declared an end to privacy. Cameras were banned in parks, at national monuments and on beaches. People feared the same when the first cell phone cameras came out. Today, there are more cameras than ever before. In ten years there will be even more cameras, with or without Glass. 150+ years of cameras and eight years of YouTube are a good indicator of the kinds of photos and videos people capture–from our favorite cat videos to dramatic, perspective-changing looks at environmental destruction, government crackdowns, and everyday human miracles. 

ACH!!! Cameras proliferated and we have all sorts of great, new pictures so privacy is not harmed?!?!?! Swanner hits this one dead on:

Google suggests the same privacy fears brought up with Glass have been posed when both regular cameras and cell phone cameras were introduced in their day. What they don’t address is that it’s pretty easy to tell when someone is pointing a device they’re holding up at you; it’s much harder to tell when you’re being video taped while someone looks in your general direction. In a more intimate setting — say a bar — it’s pretty clear when someone is taping you. In an open space? Not so much.

So tech evangelists, I beg you, remember your fans are myriad and smart. Engage us fairly and you will often receive the love and support you seek. Insult people’s intelligence, and you are no-better than those you would call Luddite.

2

The Economist Notes that Patents Do Not Equal Innovation

The Economist had a recent piece about software patents and said, GASP “[P]atent issuance is a poor measure of innovation.” Amen. But wait! Don’t order yet! There’s more! “Patenting is strictly a metric of invention. Innovation is such a vastly different endeavour—in terms of investment, time and the human resources required—as to be virtually unrelated to invention.” (The applause and boos commence simultaneously).

Innovation is meaningless as well, but the first step is to admit the problem. There may be some relationship between patents and incentives to create certain things. But not all patents or all creations show a correlation to a general claim that patents equal innovation or whether innovation will occur without patents. Innovation as “Hey that rally changed the way we do things” probably can’t be identified until much after the event. Innovation as “Hey we made tons and tons of bitcoin, oh we mean cash” is easier to spot but a different metric as far as policy should be concerned. The better disposable razor or even iPhone is incremental while also important. Parsng the differences amongst what types of innovation is well-beyond a blog post. But should folks want to hurt their head and wear out their hands, please write at length. I will look forward to reading what you find.

0

Yep, There It Is, Amazon Embraces 3D Printing

In the mists of yore (i.e., December 2, 2013), I wrote that Amazon seems well-placed to embrace 3D printing to cut labor costs and offer same-day and/or back-catalog things, as in physical goods; now Amazon has. Similar to Amazon’s move of buying one of the major on-demand publishers of books, it has partnered with 3DLT which has been called thethe first store for 3D products. Amazon has also opened a 3D printing store-front. WaPo’s Dominic Basulto gets the point that Gerard and I have been making in our paper Patents Meet Napster, and I keep seeing in so many areas of technology. Basulto notes that just in time retail could take on a new meaning. As he puts it:

[T]he future is one in which users simply upload or download 3D design files and print them out with 3D printers. Everyday consumer products, in short, will eventually follow in the wake of plastic toys and plastic jewelry. In this radically new business model, Amazon would be selling the 3D design files and the 3D printers and the 3D printer filament, but wouldn’t be selling actual “products” as we currently think about them. The consumers would print the products, not buy the products.

Yep. That’s about right. And as Gerard and I argue, this shift will highlight questions about patents and also trademarks. Folks may want to know that the files and the materials for the things they print are safe and trust-worthy. Enter brands and enter Amazon (and eBay to be fair) which have been brilliant at setting up online trust-systems so that we can do business with random company in random place and have a high probability that the deal will occur, be as promised, and not leak our credit cards (Amazon does this by not sharing your credit card with third parties last I checked).

Now all we need is nano-goo-fueled replic– er uh, excuse me, 3D printers — and the Diamond Age will be here.

0

Digital Futures, Why Bother?

I enjoy thinking about the implications of technology but some recent “Theses about the digital future” at Pew are not satisfying as compared to a recent article by Neil Gershenfeld and JP Vasseur called “As Objects Go Online.” Pew does some excellent work, but this one is rather odd. The predictions are vapid, and some contradict each other. In contrast, the Gershenfeld and Vasseur piece focuses on one idea, The Internet of Things, and offers much more. My work on 3D printing with Gerard was partly inspired by the digitization of things. The idea there is about digital mapping and reproducing tangible goods. Gershenfeld and Vasseur are looking at how we are already networking objects:

Thanks to advances in circuits and software, it is now possible to make a Web server that fits on (or in) a fingertip for $1. When embedded in everyday objects, these small computers can send and receive information via the Internet so that a coffeemaker can turn on when a person gets out of bed and turn off when a cup is loaded into a dishwasher, a stoplight can communicate with roads to route cars around traffic, a building can operate more efficiently by knowing where people are and what they’re doing, and even the health of the whole planet can be monitored in real time by aggregating the data from all such devices.

The connection between Gershenfeld (also a leader in 3D printing) and my ideas is the drive to show that many battles will be about “command-and-control technology [versus] distributed solutions.” Gershenfled and Vasseur believe open, distributed ideas will win. I am hope they do. I am not as certain that such outcomes are necessarily where we are headed. That is why even with its somewhat thin offering the Pew Report may help. The collection of obvious observations may help draw attention to pressing issues of today, not Digital Life in 2025, as Pew has dressed up its report. The descriptions are decent but not prescient. They are below in case you want to see them here. THe key take away, I think, is that anyone who thinks the implications of digitization have been addressed, understood, and solved by our experiences with copyright and privacy to date is mistaken. This world and the one coming are quite different. I must admit that I can’t pinpoint exactly how and why it is different. That is my goal over the next several years. But I can say don’t expect the analogies, frameworks, and laws of old to make much sense as we move forward. That does not mean all is lost. Rather it means we get to shape what happens next, just as folks did at the dawn of Western capitalism and individualism in England and at the Industrial Revolution. Should be fun and frightening; so buckle in.

Read More

0

Data Driven Ag Science Helped Wine, Now Truffles and Why Not More?

Truffles (the fungi not the chocolate) are infamous as difficult to find and quite expensive that may soon change thanks to data and science. Truffles can range from $400 to $800 a pound depending on whether they are from the U.S., France, or Italy. Methods to find them involve voracious pigs, expensive dogs, and rakes–all of which are expensive and can destroy the treasure sought. But as with wine, cheese and other luxury items, farmers are finding ways to expand the supply. I am sure some will say that the quality of the truffle from new areas such as Chile or New Zealand won’t be up the same. But as with wine and whiskey and cheese, with some science and perseverance, it turns out many areas are able to make some damn fine, if not better, offerings than the originals. Just as UC Davis turned wine-making into a science-based industry, a company is turning truffle growing into an industry too.

The company, Symbios, identified some of the most “successful producers of black Périgords in both Europe and Australia.” They analyzed the areas along about 19 variables, and so had metrics for what a good truffle region would have in place. Then they used geographic data from Google Earth and other sources and mapped which areas would be best suited for truffle growing. Apparently 2.2% of Tennessee is good soil, and other states are on tap for mapping. This approach could change much more than the truffle world.

Imagine having rich data about current agricultural, water, mineral, and other interests and systems. Property values might reflect that data. Agriculture at all levels could benefit. Rather than going with monoculture crops, farmers may be able to see that their land is best suited for other crops which would cost less to grow or may be high value crops for rare foods. Of course subsidies would need to change. But there too we might start to ask whether growing crops in certain areas is wise. Some might try to alter land to mimic ideal conditions. I doubt that is smart. But the better outcome of being able to know more about whether a specific plot of land is where to start your dream vineyard of pinot or cabernet or truffle farm is a super cool step forward.

0

A Slower Boat From China: Pilotless Ships and Changes to Labor and the Environment

A slower but powerful change is coming to a less familiar part of transportation: shipping. The Economist Tech Quarterly headline on Ghost Ships caught my attention because I know the term from piracy and a script I wrote about the subject. Ghost ships in modern terms refer to ships where a pirate crew has gotten rid of the crew, painted a new name on the ship, and/or set it adrift. The new ghost ships will also lack a crew but for a different reason. The autonomous cargo vessels the article describes are an extension of insights from autonomous cars. The returns to this shift could be as important. Shipping has operator errors: “Most accidents at sea are the result of human error, just as they are in cars and planes.” And costs will come down. Not only would a ship not need a pilot; it may not need a crew.

With pilotless ships, a company could almost eliminate the crew. Costs drop not only for labor but for fuel, because ships could move slower for certain goods. “By some accounts, a 30% reduction in speed by a bulk carrier can save around 50% in fuel.” That saving is lost when paying for people and a ship that has to house and feed people. Plus less fuel burnt should result in environmental benefits. And as the article notes, there is a piracy connection. The human cost of piracy would go down quite a bit. I suppose pirates could still try and take over a ship. But holding the crew hostage would not be an issue and so retaking a ship is simpler. Plus I can imagine that a ship going off course and controlled from afar may be more difficult to commandeer. A pirate might not be able to restart engines or take the ship to destinations unknown. The shore control could have a kill switch so that the ship is useless.

As with my thoughts on driverless cars, the new labor will be those who can operate the ship by remote. A shipping center could house experts to monitor the ships and take over as needed. Instead of months at sea, sailors would be, hmm, landlubbers. Not sure I like the sound off that, but then like has nothing to do with what the future is.