Geo Week News

December 3, 2013

Necessity is the Mother of Invention

In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert M. Pirsig describes an episode from early in his career as a creative writing college professor. He gives his students a few clean sheets of paper and tells them to write a couple of pages about anything they would like. The students simply stared at the paper, unable to decide upon a subject. So, he started giving them restrictions. By the end of the term, he would put a coin on each student’s desk and instruct them to write two pages about one side of the coin. To his astonishment, the students would begin writing almost immediately – many running out of paper before they ran out of content!

History abounds with such examples of necessities bringing forth more creativity than limitless possibilities ever seem to provide. Consider the Mansard Roof. While stylish, and now thought of as the quintessential French gift to architecture, it served the purpose of skirting property tax laws. Similar examples were pointed out to me while in Amsterdam last month at SPAR Europe and European Lidar Mapping Forum

The Hijsbalk is a hook on a protruding beam in the gable of the houses in Amsterdam’s older neighborhoods. These were used for moving furniture and goods into the upper stories as the staircases were kept very narrow to reduce the cost of the house and (you guessed it!) taxes. Almost without realizing it, I had incorporated this design style in my mind as Dutch. It is, of course, but not as a pure creation of desire; it was one of necessity.

The more I watch developments in 3D imaging and its related fields the more it seems that we are moving from the blank sheet of paper to very specific needs and limitations when creating new products. Every week brings us another story of someone using off-the-shelf components to create a new scanner or printer as a solution to a specific problem. Note that I said someone and not some company.

To me, this is one of the most exciting developments in our industry. The proliferation of technology has turned what once demanded a seven-figure budget into a hobbyist’s pursuit in less than 15 years!

One of the favorite aspects of my job is problem solving. I love it when clients bring me problems in search of a solution. Early in my career this was essentially methodology development for applying some existing technology. Today, I have more clients coming to me aware of what’s available in the market, but still finding a solution unworkable due to cost or size or some other restrictive parameter. It is designing inside these restrictions that I, like Pirsig’s students, find more inspiration than I would in designing the “perfect” scanner.

I’m certain that I’m not the only one who feels this way. In fact, I would argue that it is an essential component of the human condition. Look at the development of other technologies. Let’s take our standard GPS example. After the concept had been proven, the second generation hardware was developed for general use. It was great at this (remember those big GPS receivers), but I would argue that the more restrictive design parameters for a less accurate, lower-cost inclusion of GPS for a mobile phone yielded a product that has had a greater cumulative effect on society as a whole.

I suspect a future retrospective on our industry will find the same to be true with fond memories of Leica C10’s and Faro Focus 3D’s, but with some yet to be created, simple, low-cost applications having a greater legacy.


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