Laurence Weir

Laurence Weir

Ten years ago I was working for a company which developed low power multimedia processors. My role was to design and build the test and demo PCBs for the new processors. My boards were used for a variety of bring-up and test purposes. The most notable aspect of this all is that in the summer after I left the company, I was reading a technology magazine and saw a picture of one of my boards under the headline: “What is the Raspberry Pi?”.

In my role, most of the boards I designed were relatively bulky and complicated. To be all things to all people, I incorporated every peripheral and interface possible. They had screens, cameras, joysticks, high-speed interface breakouts, HDMI, USB, JTAG and everything else our 400-pin processor IC could possibly connect to. It suited everyone from software engineers to marketing, so fewer boards needed to be developed. 

However, it also meant they were very likely to break.

Usually, on my desk, you would find a large collection of boards which had broken screen connectors, dodgy soldered interfaces, or just had been warped in manufacture. A large part of my job was diagnosing and fixing boards. I also had to keep track of where every board was and what it was being used for. If marketing came to me asking for a demo board, I would take a fully functional board off an engineer and give them one that was half-broken (hopefully not in a way that affected their work).

One day marketing wanted a new type of board created. They wanted something as small as possible. It should have the camera, our processor, a few buttons, an SD card and a USB port. Therefore, it would serve as a spy-camera, with high definition video recording. They wanted a few to show off at trade shows.

I had the intern take my existing demo board schematics and strip out 90% of the circuits. After a short design stage, we approved the board and had a handful made. The boards came back several weeks later and were easy to get working. We gave a few to marketing.

I thought that would be the end of the work needed for this little niche camera board. 

Over the next few weeks, engineers who normally came to me asking for a standard board started requesting the camera board instead. They weren’t even the image processing developers. Mostly, they were engineers who wanted to develop generic programs for the processor and were much happier if they had a board which was small and reliable. Soon, they had created custom middleware to overcome the limited connectivity to the processor, to improve its functionality. We were deciding whether to create a new version of the board just as I was leaving the company.

My point is innovation does not appear in the most obvious places. In my job, I had always tried to give people the development platforms I thought they needed and so build the most advanced board possible. However, this led to complexity and therefore, issues to fix. I would not have guessed that a little camera board would be very useful and would help develop something like the Raspberry Pi and neither did the marketing director who asked me to do it.

It is only by doing these novel projects that the building blocks for innovation are created. With any new technology being developed, it is important to play around with how it can be used, even if it isn’t obviously useful. Most of the time it will not work. However, only by looking at problems from a different angle do we see the utility of the plethora of novel technology available right now. With any new invention, try and do weird and wacky stuff with it. That’s what leads to true innovation. 

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