When an idea is 10+ years ahead of its time

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CES is happening this week. Since I’m a tech geek, I’ve been avidly following news and blog posts about all the gadgets and technology trends that are being announced.

So far the thing that interests me the most is the connected cars phenomenon. Mercedes-Benz, Audi and Ford each have their own proprietary platform that connects to the internet and allows you to get information from the internet and/or use your mobile phone to check the status of your car. This seems to be an idea whose time has finally come. Here is a video showing the Mercedes-Benz system. (As a former Audi owner I would have loved to show the Audi system instead… but this video is more digestible.)

This is especially interesting to me because some 15 years ago, while I was with a product design consultancy, I was part of a team that worked on an “infotainment car” concept with a cutting edge automobile company that shall remain nameless. We did an ethnography study where we shadowed research subjects for an 8-hour day as they drove around, going about their normal business with us and our videotaping equipment in tow.

We crunched the data, and came up with what we thought people would want to do in the car: get location based information such as nearby restaurants, get turn-by-turn navigation help, get entertainment such as music and video in the car, and get help and support if they get into trouble. We understood that the user’s eyes have to be on the windshield and we thought of wacky ideas like a heads-up display (HUD) superimposed on the windshield, so that critical information may be presented to the driver without requiring them to take their eyes off the road. We called this the “infotainment car” concept.

Considering this was mid 1997, US cellular networks were in the dark ages (GSM/GPRS was not even approved as a standard), and the most advanced connected car technology on the market at the time was General Motors’ OnStar system (equipped with a GPS, an analog cellular uplink and people answering calls), the infotainment car concept was truly a glimpse into the future.

We eventually visited the automotive company’s advanced research lab and saw such a concept car with all the requisite technology. This concept car would have worked from a technology standpoint. Its only problem was that the technology was very expensive and far from mature, and the content and infrastructure was sparse, and in some cases, non-existent. The ideas were wonderful and in hindsight, more than prescient, but the content and technology limitations made it impossible to realize the full richness of the user experience. The concept car stayed in the lab for another 10+ years.

Fast forward to today, and look how far the technology has come. The cellular uplink is now smoking fast – witness the 4G LTE radio integrated into the Audi. This makes it possible to have a really great data download and media streaming experience. Location based information is accurate and plentiful. Many people (myself included) keep large amounts of personal data in the cloud, making it ever more possible to have an excellently consistent connected experience anytime, anywhere. Advanced display technologies are starting to become a reality. Audi is even talking about a heads-up display.

Here is proof that an idea alone isn’t enough to make a successful product or business. Execution alone isn’t, either (the automotive company knew how to make such a car, albeit at a crazy price point). The right external conditions are the third requirement.

I have another case study that supports this observation. Another company I worked with that shall also remain nameless had thought of the exact same core idea as the MakerBot Replicator. Here is a video from the company explaining this incredible 3D desktop printer.

That idea came up well over 10 years ago and remained unactionable until recently, when relatively more cost effective 3D printing technology, better options for the substrate, as well as 3D digital content creation technology caught up with each other.

As a product person, one must stay on top of technology trends and be alert and aware when the conditions arrive that makes a brilliant but previously impractical idea come into its own. Being in the right place and in the right time is a pre-requisite to success.

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1 Response to “When an idea is 10+ years ahead of its time”


  1. 1 mohammad ghahramani November 24, 2012 at 11:18 am

    I brought one of such ideas into existence and developed the product. However, the above products e.g. “connected cars” must have waited for the platform or the base to happen. On the other hand, the 3D printer has recently become low-cost and needed some time. Aside from not having essentials or costly production, how about machines that do no exist now and their existence would change human’s life? Suppose that I have a machine that transports objects from one point to another through existing wire network, should it wait for years until giant companies produce it and then it comes out like mikerbot and compete with various similar models? or there is a solution for that to come to the market as a breakthrough?


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