It Doesn't Have to be Emerging to be Amazing

Lateral Thinking with Withered Technology

This is an excerpt from an upcoming book on the discipline of Creative Technology.

In the early ‘80s, the nascent video game industry became a victim of its own success, peaking in 1983 and crashing a few years later. While the industry sorted itself out, technology marched on, producing more powerful processors, lower powered chips, multi-color screens and longer battery life. At the leading edge of the Fourth Generation of video game consoles, Nintendo released the Game Boy in April of 1989, a handheld video game system that kicked off the handheld console wars. Some industry experts criticized the Game Boy for it’s small, monochrome screen and its dated 8-bit processor.

Not to be outdone, Atari quickly followed up by launching the Lynx in October of 1989, the first handheld with a full color screen, sport a 4906 color palette, and a backlit screen. The Lynx received rave reviews, with some critics saying it, “throws the Gameboy [sic] into the prehistoric age.”

Sega released the Game Gear the following year in October of 1990. The Game Gear upped the technology ante by increasing resolution and displaying up to 32 colors at once, doubling the 16 colors the Lynx could display.

In December of 1990, NEC released the TurboExpress. The TurboExpress featured a 16-bit processor, versus the 8-bit processors used by Nintendo, Sega and Atari. The screen resolution of the TurboExpress was over double of its competitors and could display 481 colors at the same time. From a technical specification standpoint, the TurboExpress was light years ahead of its competitors. But it was not widely adopted by gamers.

As the handheld wars continued throughout the 1990s, Nintendo pulled ahead as a clear leader, with the Game Boy selling 6 times as many units as its nearest competitor, the Sega Game Gear. Nintendo would continue to dominate the handheld gaming market throughout the 2000s, taking 4 of the top 5 selling console spots and selling 412 million units vs. Sony’s 86 million, its next nearest competitor.

How did a clearly technically inferior product gain and maintain market domination among handheld gaming consoles? How did outdated hardware make more compelling experiences than the bleeding edge of the industry?

In 1965 Gunpei Yokoi was an electrical engineer maintaining assembly line machines in a Nintendo factory. Hiroshi Yamuchi visited that factory in 1966 and took notice of a toy that Yokoi had made, a simple grab and extend arm. Yamuchi liked the toy and assigned Yokoi to develop it into a proper product, the final edition being the Nintendo Ultra Hand. After enjoying huge success with the Ultra Hand, Yokoi was reassigned to work on other Nintendo toys, moving to digital devices in the 1970s, like the Nintendo Game & Watch a line of handheld electronic games. With numerous successful products under his belt, Yokoi switched to developing software, overseeing Donkey Kong and Mario Bros. As the video game industry began to recover in the mid-to-late 1980s, Gunpei Yokoi led the creation of the Game Boy, Nintendo’s runaway success in the fourth generation handheld console wars.

To understand the success of the Game Boy, it’s important to understand Yokoi’s philosophy of product development. Yokoi suggested that expensive, cutting edge technology often gets in the way of developing great products. Novel, fun gameplay are the things that product and game designers should focus on. This philosophy, embraced to this day by Nintendo, is called “Lateral Thinking with Withered Technology.”

Lateral Thinking with Withered Technology takes cheap and well understood technology and looks to apply a radically different use for it. In the development of the Game Boy, by eschewing a backlit, color screen, the Game Boy’s battery life was over twice as long as competitors. This philosophy extends to modern day Nintendo products like the Wii. Instead of trying to keep up with the Xbox or Playstation in processing power and higher resolution graphics, the Wii changed the conversation by developing new video game controls with internal motion sensors.

How do pull this thinking into the discipline of Creative Technology? What valuable lessons can we learn? One emerging technology that embraces this philosophy is probably sitting in your pocket right now.

In the early 1800s Hans Christian Ørsted, Carl Friedrich Gauss and Michael Faraday had discovered the basic principles of electromagnetic induction. Ørsted and André-Marie Ampère built on these discoveries and uncovered that an electric current produces a magnetic field. As the 1800s progressed, William Sturgeon developed the first rotary electric motor, a design that has all of the essential elements of our modern direct current (DC) motors.

The full scope of how rotary DC motors work is outside the scope of this work, but it essentially involves a positive and negative current, some permanent magnets and an assembly that spins in the center. You can find DC motors on robots, RC cars and other electronics that require something that spins.

How does this relate to your pocket? Most of the time you mount something on a rotary motor you want the object to have evenly distributed weight. If the weight isn’t evenly distributed the rotation will wobble and cause vibration. But sometimes you want vibration. Like when your cell phone rings. Inside your cell phone is a small DC motor with an unbalanced load. When current is applied to the motor the assembly spins and vibrates. A 200 year old invention is the basis for the field of haptic technology.

Haptic technology is a field of research and development that recreates the sensation of touch. Haptics are ubiquitous today, from your cell phone to your Fitbit, that invokes the Pavlovian response when you hit your daily goal of steps. Both of those haptic technologies utilize DC motors to achieve force feedback. But there are a number of other technologies being explored that fit well into Yokoi’s Lateral Thinking with Withered Technology.

In 1965 the Wham-O toy company introduced the Air Blaster toy. The Air Blaster was an example of an air vortex cannon, a pistol shaped object that sent a blast of air that could blow out a candle from 6.1m away. Pulled of the market after some children found dangerously creative uses for it, DIY plans for air vortex cannons have been found as early as the 1970s. The air vortex cannon was reintroduced in 2004 as a toy called the Airzooka, a safer version that is still for sale today. Instructions to build DIY versions of an air vortex cannon are easy to find on the Internet.

This 40 year old technology is now under research as a type of non-contact haptic technology. Using the same basic principles of an air vortex cannon, Disney Research explored a touchless haptic system dubbed AIREAL. AIREAL used a series of audio speaker drivers in a 3D printed cube to generate puffs of air with intensities and velocities. Microsoft Research also looked into air vortex rings, focusing on vortex formation theory. Disney’s use of speaker drivers to create a variable electromechanical mechanism for generating vortex rings is a perfect example of lateral thinking using withered technology.

On the other end of the audio spectrum from infrasound is ultrasound, audio waves that have frequencies above 20,000Hz. In the 1930s researchers developed methods for using ultrasonic to detect flaws in solid objects. These days you can pick up ultrasonic speakers that act as range finders for robots, hyperdirectional speakers that use an array of ultrasonic speakers to direct a narrow beam of sound in one direction and ultrasonic speakers that are being used for haptics.

In 2013 the company Ultrahaptics was founded to create non-contact haptic technology based on research done at the University of Bristol. Ultrahaptics uses ultrasound to create virtual objects, invisible interfaces and other haptic feedback by changing the air pressure of the environment. Paired with VR or AR, this interface provides an extremely convincing experience for users. Ultrahaptics is another example of using a well understood technology in new ways to help make physical-digital experiences more immersive and engaging.