Is failure not just an option, but a necessity?

My latest copy of National Geographic contains an intriguing article about the value of failures in exploration, such as Ernest Shackleton’s famous expedition in the Antarctic, and how the experiences (though sometimes tragic) paved the way for future success.1 After providing numerous examples of failures, the article discusses lessons learned that enabled progress in future explorations, or some realized benefit greater even than the original goal. Failure the first time is an option, the article explained, and many Silicon Valley companies experience disappointing results before ultimately finding success in alternative products or in future companies the founders go on to establish.

One relevant and more current example is Apple’s Newton device, a failure that provided valuable insights toward a future success: the iPad. While few remember the Newton, which debuted in 1993, everyone knows the iPad. It makes one consider some of today’s products and the insights they might provide for technologies of the future.

What about some of today’s products? Will there be a success or a failure that leads us to some greater innovation? Casio introduced a camera watch many years ago that enabled the user to record video (in black and white). It was fun to play with, but I would not consider it a huge commercial success. Today Samsung, Sony and others have new smart watches with improved features. Another consumer product coming to market (with a fairly high price point – around $1,500) is Google Glass. The success or failure of this product remains to be seen. Interviews with several users offer insight into its application, however. A software programmer who is also a Glass Explorer (the group of developers that signed up to get Glass during Google I/O 2012) uses his glasses to monitor the many emails he receives to determine which require action. A recent Carnegie Mellon University graduate discusses how the glasses can be used by medical students to watch a surgery or by an anesthesiologist to monitor a patient’s vital signs while administering anesthesia. Hollywood stars were provided with Google Glasses at a recent red carpet event. Some of the press also had Google Glasses to interview the stars, and the hands-free video capability was entertaining. These may be niche applications, and the product may be too geeky to hit as big as the smartphone or iPad, but it also may provide valuable information that can help develop the next generation of wearable electronics.

Wearing the future. Wearable electronics include a multitude of potential consumer products, not just virtual reality eyeglasses and smart watches, but sophisticated health monitoring devices using elastic wristband or headbands, canes with sensors for the blind, and other clever products. Wearable electronics for soldiers on the battlefield will likely become a near-term reality.

InteraXon, a Toronto-based startup, has introduced Muse, a headset with the form of a comfortable headband that contains six sensors that monitor brain activity. The product, which sells for $269, is said to enable users to understand how their brains work, and to attain peak performance, reduce stress and enjoy better brain-related health.2

Plenty of work remains before wearable electronics become reality for many consumer applications. Improved battery technology with recharging capability will be critical. A recent Intel Developer Forum discussed ultra mobile devices and requirements for low-power processors such as the Intel Quark processor family. Expect additional announcements of low-power devices. Ultra thin chips, perhaps embedded in flex-circuit or thin laminate substrates, may also enable a key future product. Wafer-level packages enable Casio’s first camera watch and will likely do the same for any future wearable electronics.

Whether today’s products are a big hit does not matter. Total commercial success is not required, and failure is OK. What is important is that the developments of today will pave the way for some exciting future consumer products.

A final thought: Although some of today’s products may not be a total commercial success in terms of sales, they will provide the learning experience that enables future generations’ killer apps.

References
1. H. Bloch, “Failure Is an Option: Where Would We Be Without It?” National Geographic, September 2013.
2. P. Moreira, “When the Muse Headband is Upon You, It Senses Brainwaves,” USA Today, Sept. 26, 2013.

E. Jan Vardaman is president of TechSearch International (techsearchinc.com); jan@techsearchinc.com. Her column appears bimonthly.

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