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Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Will Spiderman be real soon or is it just hype?

by Idris Mootee

Every time there is a new product launch, there is always hype around how innovative the product is. Not all innovative new products deliver on the hype like Apple. Although the Segway was a big engineering achievement, it didn't live up to the hype. Its sophisticated system of dynamic stabilization certainly showcases electronic engineering excellence and did deserve some hype, but not to the level it soared.

Paul Graham's recent essay about why the Segway failed to change the world is interesting. He focuses mainly on the fact that the Segway basically makes people look dorky - and that a better design might have helped more people find it enticing. But at the end he notes:


"Curiously enough, what got Segway into this problem was that the company was itself a kind of Segway. It was too easy for them; they were too successful raising money. If they'd had to grow the company gradually, by iterating through several versions they sold to real users, they'd have learned pretty quickly that people looked stupid riding them. Instead they had enough to work in secret. They had focus groups aplenty, I'm sure, but they didn't have the people yelling insults out of cars. So they never realized they were zooming confidently down a blind alley."


The Segway Human Transporter (HT) was no question one of the most hyped engineering projects of the last 12 or 30 years. Starting with "managed leaks" to the press, the secret $100 million "Ginger" project that VC John Doerr said "could be bigger than the Internet." I can't think of anything bigger than the Internet. People then were guessing it was some sort of space program.

Apple's new iPad was also very hyped before it launched. It is a great product no question, but essentially the iPad is a big iTouch, or iPhone, doesn't have a camera, doesn't use facial recognition and doesn't have any advanced interactions design or high definition video.

But not all interesting ideas get over-hyped...

Here's a good idea which has the right ingredients for hyping up. A bunch of engineers have invented an adhesive technology has taken its cue from the gravity-defying gecko, but the Cornell team looked elsewhere - to a beetle native to Florida that can stick to a leaf's surface, through wet adhesion, with a force 100 times its own weight. What does this mean? We are talking about the possibility to mass-produce Spiderman capability. Cornell University researchers Paul Steen and Michael Vogel are working on a palm-size liquid-adhesion device that could enable movements just like Spierman's arachno-riffic moves. The design is based on bonding methods observed in the beetle. Their research was funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the National Science Foundation.

The first application may be for the military. It is highly likely that there will be a 'Spiderman' team. Not sure they will adopt the stretchy red and blue tights. The mechanism includes a flat metal plate with micron-size holes and sits atop another piece holding a liquid reservoir. In between is a porous layer. An everyday 9-volt battery pumps tiny droplets of liquid through to the top layer and the surface tension of the exposed drops makes the device grip another surface. Just make sure you don't run out of battery while you're outside 29th floor of a building.

Many science and technology innovations are hyped by the media. Nanoscience and Nanotechnology are hailed as some of the most exciting areas of science with promised to our current and future problems. But translational research in the emerging areas of nanoscience and nanotechnology is sophisticated, complex and expensive and the hype around the technological advance often overstates the applications of nanotechnology. But in this case, Spiderman may soon be real...


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Idris MooteeIdris Mootee is the CEO of idea couture, a strategic innovation and experience design firm. He is the author of four books, tens of published articles, and a frequent speaker at business conferences and executive retreats.

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