Technology: Then + Now        

Technology: Then + Now

May 3, 2018

By: Michael Prince, President & Founder, Beyond Design, Inc.

Light emitting diodes, LEDs, started as a tiny, dim burst of light and have grown over the past several decades to become one of the fastest evolving technologies. They have inspired the way we interact and control the devices and technology we use today and what we see progressing tomorrow. Here at Beyond Design, we use every kind of display technology at our disposal and have found their need and demand continually expanding. In this article we will travel through the start of Nick Holonyak’s creation of the LED to how the technology has branched into LCD, resistive touch, capacitive touch, and even audio.

Seeing Red
Nick Holonyak Jr., a Midwest native that graduated from University of Illinois Champagne-Urbana, is the engineer that invented the first LED. While working in Syracuse, New York at General Electric, he worked on colleague Robert N. Hall’s laser which used a semiconductor diode. Hall’s laser emitted only infrared radiation which was invisible to the human eye. By 1962 Holonyak had successfully made a diode device that produced visible red light. The small glowing red light was the start of what was to come and 50 years later revolutionized the way LEDs are used.

Consumer Products: Calculator
Although it took a few decades for LEDs to evolve past their natural red hue, they were used in many ways due to their low cost and practicality. Their most commercially used application was in the pocket calculator. Japanese company, Busicom, used LED lights for the their Handy-LE pocket calculator. This user friendly calculator was one of the first devices to encompass all the components (processor, battery, key pad, display, etc.) needed for today’s hand held devices. Introduced in early 1971, the Handy-Le cost upwards of $400 for the luxury of carrying a “computer” around with you (which was simply a calculator). Texas Instruments actually invented the integrated circuit technology in 1958 and in 1965 started on the hand held calculator project. Two years of product development and testing later, TI introduced the “miniature calculator.” They called it the Cal-Tech; it was IC-based, battery-powered, completed basic arithmetic functions, and could print. Pictured below is the first Cal Tech which was engraved and given to cofounder and former president and chairman of Texas Instruments, Patrick E. Haggerty.

The Cal Tech (left) and an ad for the Handy-Le targeted to Japanese businessmen (right).

Consumer Products: Watch
Before there was the Apple watch, there was the Pulsar LED watch. Released in the early 70s, still an era of massive and intimidating computers, the Pulsar’s “Time Computer Calculator 901” was marketed as a giant step forward for time pieces and technology in general. The Pulsar simply was an expansion on LED use in gadgets as they became trendier and more accessible. The 6 digit display piece sold for a few thousand dollars because it utilized the LED technology in an extremely small package and was showcased as an exclusive and luxury item. Fast track to the 1980s when the watch was mass produced and the clientele became less CEO and more Marty McFly (as pictured below).

Indicator + Illumination
Not until the early 1990s did we see the dated red of LEDs explode into colorful blues, yellows, greens, and vibrant whites. Previously, LED reds lit up calculators, watches, and were the primary indicator color on other electronics. Then Japanese engineer, Shuji Nakamura, had a breakthrough in 1993 that resulted in the Blue LED. Most of the energy used by an LED creates light, while in contrast 90% of the energy used by incandescent bulbs escapes as heat. With the burst of color LED, specifically white, there was a shift of gadgets using LED as a primary source of light. Both for their energy saving properties and efficiency. Similarly, incandescent lights fell to the wayside – starting with flashlights. The LED lights last for years and are extremely powerful (like the famous SuperSign in New York, below). Soon more and more products followed suit until we had the massive LED light bulb market we see today due to both their durability and how earth friendly they are.

From Vintage to Vapid
LEDs have come a long way since their modest beginnings in calculators and watches. They have even branched into beauty trends and fashion. Soomi Park, a speculative designer and multimedia artist, uses LED lights to enhance and enlarge the eyes. The concept was inspired by the desire of women, specifically of Asian decent, for a larger more defined ocular look. Park’s design includes on and off sensors that react to the movement of the user’s pupil. The eye enhancer slips over the ears, similar to headphones, and the actual LEDs are applied as easily as false eyelashes. It is a striking addition to mascara and creates a bright and colorful eye that will welcome attention. Park has used LEDs in other fashion focused designs such as the Swing Skirt and the Snow White Magic Mirror.

Photo courtesy of Soomi Park’s online portfolio.

Shifting from LED to LCD
As LEDs branched off into more colors, Liquid Crystal Displays were gaining steady traction as well. LCDs are used in almost every tech gadget we can buy: televisions, computers, watches, phones, cameras, etc. Their conception was in the 19th century and had similar applications as the LED (i.e. pocket calculators) but their complexity from the LED has varied. Liquid Crystals were invented in 1888 by Austrian scientist, Friedrich Reinitzer, when he discovered that the cholesterol extracted from carrots had LC properties. Fast forward to the early 1960s when a New Jersey engineering team led by George Hellmeijer created the first display method by harnessing the electronic control of light reflected from those liquid crystals. Hellmeijer’s method was called DSM (Dynamic Scattering Method) where an electrical charge is applied which rearranges the molecules so that they scatter light. This eventually led to our LCD phone screens and curved LCD televisions.

7 Segments
Seven-segment displays (SSD) use a combination of LCD and LED. The seven elements, depending on their combination, create different numerical digits. They are broken down by the letters A to G, resemble a squared “8”, and are most commonly used for alarm clocks and gas station signs (above). Like traditional LEDs, the SSD are also primarily used in calculators, specifically Texas Instruments, and the segments can be manipulated to look like letters.

Resistive + Capacitive
As display technology continued to evolve into interactive technology we saw E.A. Johnson invent the first finger-driven touch screen in 1965. Out of that discovery came the capacitive and resistive touchscreen. Resistive is a touch-sensitive computer display composed of two flexible sheets coated with a resistive material and separated by an air gap or microdots. Due to it’s durability and versatility, it is used in factory and restaurant settings and works with a stylus or gloved figures. In comparison, capacitive touch is more delicate and responsive and what we see most commonly being used for our phones today (swiping, tapping, and pinching) as well as some BD designs.

Trane’s Touch Screen Thermostat
Beyond worked with Trane to develop a smart touch screen thermostat, the ComfortLink™. We created a user interface that was intuitive to the touch for people of all ages. The user has the ability to program as much information as they want on their thermostat, including the status of their indoor air quality, humidity, and individual room temperatures. It also is unique in that it defaults to a screen saver that can complement the look and feel of the home, or can be used as a digital picture frame with its built-in SD card slot.

The Trane Thermometer as seen on our website.

Touch Screen Timeline
1982: First multi-touch screen technology developed by University of Toronto.
1983: Hewlett Packard creates HP-150, world’s earliest commercialized touch screen computer, for nearly $3000.
1993: First phones with a touch screen interface are launched. Originally from IBM and BellSouth (Simon Personal Computer), followed by Apple’s Newton PDA (below, left).
2000s: We see the original technology from E.A. evolve even further into the tablets, smart phones, and touch screen appliances.

Machines That Listen
As technology has weaved throughout history from LED lights and indicators to LCD televisions and phones and tablets, it has naturally progressed into the next level of convenience and communication: speech recognition. There were glimpses of personal assistants with touch screen handheld PCs, but now we are seeing a new era of responsive and unique personas in virtual assistants like Siri and Alexa. First appearing in the Apple 4S, Siri is the famous and familiar “pocket sized” assistant that can complete voice commands and interact with the user.

Shoebox + Harpy + Clippy
Although we think of voice assistants as a phenomenon of the last decade, their start came before Siri in the early 1960’s similar to LCDs and touch screen technology:

1961: IBM creates computer that performed speech recognition, up to 16 spoken words and the digits 0 through 9.
1972: Funded by the U.S. Department of Defense, Carnegie Mellon developed the speech recognition system, Harpy. Harpy recognized 1,011 word and was able to translate those spoken words into text.
1990: Dragon Systems releases Dragon Dictate for Microsoft Windows. The $9,000 speech recognition software was the first of it’s kind released for consumers. In 1997 a more refined version was released that could understand continuous speech.
1997: The wildly unpopular office assistant, Clippy, was released in the late 90s and bundled with Mircrosoft’s software. The user interface agent could assist with proof reading, resume writing, and letter drafting.
2011: Created to crush humans on Jeopardy, Watson is IBM’s brain child. The question-answering computer system won the game show and $1 million.
2011 – 2018: Siri was “born” in late 2011, followed by Google Now, Cortana, Amazon’s Alexa , Echo Dot, and a string of other assistants.

Although Watson won, “he” incorrectly answered a handful of questions like, “Its largest airport is named for a World War II hero; its second largest for a World War II battle” with “What is Toronto?” (correct answer of course, is Chicago).

Alexa has a slew of commands and functions and her most recent addition is the ability to remember things (i.e., “Alexa, remember that I have a doctor’s appointment in June.” And Google Home now comes in Google mini (right).

Technology Today + Beyond
As our every day lives are integrated with voice assistant and display technology more than ever before, it is expected to continue into a natural and welcomed addition as we move past 2018 and beyond.

To read more about Beyond’s work in the forefront of technology please visit our website or drop us a note at: Thank you for reading + look for our next article later this month!

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