Fax machines. Pagers. Cell-phones. It’s hard to imagine life without these products – perhaps as hard as it was for their inventors to imagine them in the first place.
The Quadkey Keyboard. Self-adjusting eyeglasses. The Quicktionary instant translator. Will these products be the Next Big Things of the next 20 years? According to advertising giant Saatchi & Saatchi, they just might be.
In September, Saatchi announced the finalists for its first-ever Innovation in Communication Award. Its goal was to search the world for the most promising and provocative new ideas — whether they exist as commercial products or simply as prototypes. The judges were a who’s who of influential innovators, including Apollo XI astronaut Buzz Aldrin, science-fiction novelist William Gibson, creativity guru Edward de Bono, and multimedia artist Laurie Anderson. “We’re in the age of the idea,” says Kevin Roberts, CEO of Saatchi & Saatchi. “The organizations that can develop a culture of creativity and idea generation will be the winners.”
In business, the most valuable ideas are those that yield breakthrough products. We’re not sure which of Saatchi’s 11 finalists will win the award’s $100,000 first prize. (The announcement will take place in San Francisco on October 30 — too late to be covered in this issue). Nevertheless, here are the stories behind three of our favorite entries. Will they be the Next Big Things? You be the judge.
Small is Beautiful
You don’t need a PhD from MIT to see that personal technology — from computers to cell-phones — tends to get smaller even as it gets more powerful. David Levy (email@example.com), 35, who does have a PhD from MIT, also noticed this trend — and devised an innovation to tap into it. “Things just keep getting smaller and more complex,” he says. “But the human hand has stayed the same size.”
Levy’s solution? A keyboard with all of the functionality of the one now attached to your PC, but at just a fraction of the size. The Quadkey Keyboard is remarkably easy to use. You can be really lazy, be really bad with technology, or have really fat fingers — and it will still work. Quadkey has buttons for each letter of the alphabet, and each of its keys is large enough to strike with your thumb.
Levy, who is now an instructor at MIT, has already filed for four patents on the keyboard, and several big companies are vying for the right to use the technology. (As yet, Levy is reluctant to name names.) No wonder Levy has such big dreams for his small keyboard. “There will be a day when you have a computer, a telephone, and a pager, all in one tiny device,” he predicts. “And there’ll be no way to communicate with that device other than with this keyboard.”
The Vision Thing
Many of the most-complex challenges in the developing world have their roots in simple problems. For example: There are more than 1 billion people in the world who need help with their vision but who don’t have access to an eye-care specialist. It’s hard to work your way out of poverty if you have to work hard just to see.
Joshua Silver (firstname.lastname@example.org), 52, an experimental physicist and a professor at Oxford University’s New College, has created an elegant solution to this problem: self-adjusting eyeglasses. Users don’t need to visit a doctor, get a prescription, or wear corrective lenses. Silver’s glasses contain a fluid-filled cell bounded by a thin elastic membrane. Turning a knob changes the pressure of the fluid and thus the power of the lenses — a procedure not unlike focusing a pair of binoculars.
In cooperation with the governments of Ghana and the United Kingdom, the World Health Organization recently conducted a field trial of the device. Silver and some colleagues distributed copies of his invention in a Ghanaian village where no one had eyeglasses. The results were encouraging. “There was a tailor who couldn’t work anymore, because he couldn’t see close-up,” Silver says. “We gave him a pair of these glasses, and he started working again.”
Silver has formed a company to manufacture the glasses. Its goal is to produce 500,000 pairs in 1999 and to distribute them throughout the developing world. “This device could solve an immense medical problem,” he says.
How Do You Say . . . ?
In one sense, Adi Lipman was your typical teenager, dreaming about space-age, labor-saving gizmos. It was 1995, and Lipman, a high-school student in Tel Aviv, was taking a final exam in English, his second language. “I didn’t have a dictionary with me,” he says, “So I thought, What if there were a device like a pen that I could roll over a word, and it would translate that word for me?”
In another sense, Adi Lipman (adilipm@ dev.wizcom.co.il), now 21, was anything but your typical teenager. A talented programmer, he was already working in his father’s company, Lipman Engineering, when he had his idea for a translator. He proposed it to his father, and thus the Quicktionary was born — along with a new company, WizCom Technologies Ltd.
The Quicktionary uses OCR (optical-character recognition) technology that scans a word, goes into a language database, and displays a translation onscreen — all within about three seconds. The Quicktionary models that are now available translate from English to one of 17 languages, including Hebrew, Korean, and Portuguese. WizCom has already sold about 400,000 units, at a retail price of roughly $200 each.
And the Quicktionary has at least one satisfied customer. “I used it the other day on a recipe for Pad Thai,” Adi Lipman says. “I translated the words for some ingredients.”
For more information on the Saatchi & Saatchi Innovation in Communication Award, visit the Web (www.saatchi-saatchi.com).