Inventing the Future: research applications

American companies and institutions tend to create projects based on either immediately practical applications or open-ended research. In Japan I encountered something else: comparatively long term application-oriented research projects.

Consider this project at the National Institute of Information and Communications Technology (oddly acronymed NICT). They want to hook up the real world and the cyber world by projecting live video of street activity into Croquet, adding computer-generated characters, and displaying these on large interactive touch-screen monitors in different street locations and on PDAs. Ostensibly, people walk up to a screen and ask for directions or other information. They are answered by interactive cartoon guides who might preview the route for the visitors in a cyberspace mixed with reality, and then point the visitors in the right direction at real street level. Maybe the guides jump into the visitor’s PDA if they have one. Then the guides meet the visitors at the big screen at the next waypoint.

This is not necessarily an important problem to solve, and there’s no well-understood big payoff. No VC would fund this. However, it is a specific situation that grounds the research. Open-ended design problems get resolved more easily when there’s a specific child-understandable task involved, even if it’s a silly one. I think the task is chosen for having interesting problems that we don’t yet know how to solve. The ideas is that it will produce fruitful areas of research.

I think this idea of five year research applications is a good thing to include in the mix between laser-focused problem-oriented practical applications and completely unfocused pure-research.

About Stearns

Howard Stearns works at High Fidelity, Inc., creating the metaverse. Mr. Stearns has a quarter century experience in systems engineering, applications consulting, and management of advanced software technologies. He was the technical lead of University of Wisconsin's Croquet project, an ambitious project convened by computing pioneer Alan Kay to transform collaboration through 3D graphics and real-time, persistent shared spaces. The CAD integration products Mr. Stearns created for expert system pioneer ICAD set the market standard through IPO and acquisition by Oracle. The embedded systems he wrote helped transform the industrial diamond market. In the early 2000s, Mr. Stearns was named Technology Strategist for Curl, the only startup founded by WWW pioneer Tim Berners-Lee. An expert on programming languages and operating systems, Mr. Stearns created the Eclipse commercial Common Lisp programming implementation. Mr. Stearns has two degrees from M.I.T., and has directed family businesses in early childhood education and publishing.

One Comment

  1. I like this aproach a lot.

    I’ve been meaning to post a wetmachine article about how corporatization of research has come close to destroying science, but I’m still holding out for an essay by AWOL wetmachiner Peg on that subject. . .

    I remember all the oprobrium heaped upon the biosphere people, who said they were going to inhabit the sphere for two years and see what happened. That was essentially their entire research program. “That’s not science!” came the outcry. “You must have a research objective! And where is your Well-Defined Hypothesis(TM)?”

    I thought that the original biosphere project was a fascinating throwback to exploration in the days before science itself had been invented. What was the research objective of Christopher Columbus, after all? “I’m going to sail west and see what happens.”

    I’m also reminded of the Loebner Contest, which I’ve written about elsewhere (see blog box to the right). Many people have (rather stridently) expressed the opinion that the Loebner Contest is “bad science” because it encourages open-ended noodling around, as opposed to deliberate hypothesis testing.

    I don’t know about the merits of the arguments, but I will say that researh of the “open-ended noodling around” variety can be vastly entertaining to watch.

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