“The Function of Form” Flashback
Back in the early ‘00s, I covered the latest in wearable wireless technology (see below, “The Function of Form – Flashback”). Today, my Facebook friend and past colleague Nigel Ballard posted a blurb about an antenna made from seawater. I wonder if such an antenna could be coupled with a Wi-Fi woven swim suit? Of course, the swimmer would have to be out of the water for it to work. — JB
The year was 2001 as I walked in the footsteps of Elvis to cover the wireless innovations being showcased at the CTIA Wireless show in Las Vegas, NV.
I have walked in the footsteps of the King! No, really, it’s true. Elvis was walking before me—sideburns, glittering cape, and all. We were both trapped in the labyrinthine marketplace of the Aladdin Resort in Las Vegas, NV.
I had just returned from the March 2001 CTIA show which was being held a few blocks away and was trying, without success, to navigate the Aladdin’s marketplace version of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT’s) “infinite corridor.” My goal was to eventually reach the actual hotel and thereby, my room. Elvis had been shopping, presumably for Priscilla, and was also trying to escape from the seemingly endless maze of small shops and stores. Weary from the walk and lost at one of the many unmarked crossroads of the marketplace, Elvis and I chanced to plop down on a couple of adjacent crates in an area that looked like the set from the Bogart classic, Casablanca.
“Are you really the King?” I asked, with a slight smirk. He smiled and said, “Does it matter?” After a pause, I nodded in agreement. His glance chanced to fall on the silver and black bag I had been toting. It had a black silhouette of Elvis with the words: The King of Wireless Shows, CTIA Wireless 2001. I suddenly felt sorry for the figure who had become an icon for so many different products and events. His expression was one of tired acceptance, but also curiosity. He asked, “What is wireless?”
My brow netted together as I muttered, “How long have you been trapped inside here?” Laughing slightly, he sighed, “A long time.” With nothing better to do, I started to describe wireless systems and the latest technology that was presented at the CTIA show. Speaking candidly, as one sometimes does with a total stranger, I described how different this show was from the typical component and design-oriented conferences. This show seemed to combine everything together, from component through product vendors and service providers. Perhaps the most distinguishing characteristic of the show, I explained, was the suaveness in which the various vendors combined sexual innuendo, entertainment, and live action skits to attract potential customers. Madison Avenue was finally learning how to market high-tech products to both average consumers and technical designers as well.
Elvis smiled at my monologue, encouraging me to proceed. Consider, I said, the Samsung booth. Huge in size, the booth included a small stage surrounded by comfortable, reclining chairs on a sea of thick raised carpet. Every hour, four young, attractive, and racially diverse women would emerge on stage to sing and dance the virtues of Samsung products. This was a class act, well choreographed, performed, and with a catchy rhythm. Even the words to the song, “Living Out Loud,” were well conceived; “Put us to the test, with backwards compatibility” and “Make it all the way with CDMA.” What were they selling, Elvis asked, noticing that my foot was tapping? I had to think hard to remember the base stations and personal digital assistants (PDAs). Slightly embarrassed, I move onto another example.
Most engineers still tend to focus more on function than form. But form is on equal par with function or feature sets in the consumer world. So it should be no surprise that some clever and enterprising folks would combine the two together. They have, and the company is called “Charmed Technology.” Appropriately, Charmed chose to display its line of stylish, miniature wireless Internet-connected devices on fashionably attired male and female models. The result was a high-tech fashion show that convinced me of the importance of product form.
But beauty here was more than skin deep. I had the pleasure of speaking with the co-founders of Charmed, Katrina Barillova, herself a former model, about the technology behind the hype. Of particular interest to me was the use of NANIX as an open source, Linux derivative, standard for the software development of a variety of the wearable, wireless products. This tailored operating system, combined with the Transmeta Corp.’s Crusoe processor, make for some sexy engineering.
Everywhere vendors were trying to catch the eye of the attendees. Several of the larger exhibitors had small stages where actors performed various product-oriented skits. One such performance even included an “engineer” who did everything but sing. While entertaining, I found his performance strangely disturbing, somehow incongruent with the real behavior of most engineers.
All in all, though, most vendors displayed their products with much less ado. There were many new significant products, too. Consider cell-phone and PDA batteries that can recharge without connection to an electrical outlet. Electric Fuel Corp. designs and packages primary and refuelable Zinc-Air fuel cell technology. There was also a company that makes software that allows the human face to act as an interface to the computer, instead of voice or fingers. Or the wireless car . . . the list could go on.
But behind this thin veneer of glitter and silicon implants was hard-core engineering and companies with ruthless business agendas. This is an industry were everyone plays for keeps. The stakes are high. To the winners will go wealth and prestige to rival the treasures of Aladdin. Obscurity will be the companion of the losers.
I paused in my soliloquy to see if my companion was still listening, when I suddenly realized that I was alone. Elvis had left the marketplace. All that remained was a small gemstone from his cap. I picked it up to discover that it was an imitation, worthless except for its shine. But, when woven into the fine fabric that formed the garment worn by a talented and innovative singer like Elvis, the worthless paste jewel became a marvel. Not unlike the CTIA show, where the glitter attracts the eye but the combination of good engineering and clever marketing can produce products of real value.
(First published in Wireless Systems Design magazine, May 2001.)