Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Prototype - If No One Sees It, Is It an Invention?

When he completed his degree this year at the Human-Computer Interaction Institute of Carnegie Mellon, he received “lots of offers from all the big places,” according to Paul Dietz, who convinced Mr. Lee to join him in the applied sciences group of Microsoft’s entertainment and devices division. “When we told Bill Gates we were trying to recruit Johnny, he already knew about his work and was anxious to bring him to Microsoft, adds Mr. Dietz, a research and development program manager.

Contrast this with what might have followed from other options Mr. Lee considered for communicating his ideas. He might have published a paper that only a few dozen specialists would have read. A talk at a conference would have brought a slightly larger audience. In either case, it would have taken months for his ideas to reach others.

Small wonder, then, that he maintains that posting to YouTube has been an essential part of his success as an inventor. “Sharing an idea the right way is just as important as doing the work itself,” he says. “If you create something but nobody knows, it’s as if it never happened.”

Before posting his own ideas, Mr. Lee watched other people’s videos about the Wiimote. An online community of electronics hobbyists share ideas in video form not only on YouTube, but also at sites like and

Thirty years ago, pioneers of the personal computer industry swapped ideas and tried to outdo one another at meetings of the Homebrew Computer Club in an auditorium at Stanford. Today, these “meetings” happen virtually and globally, with people modifying, improving and otherwise riffing on one another’s ideas — then posting the results in video form. This wide-scale collaboration, Mr. Lee says, lets the hobbyists “take advantage of economies of scale of innovation.”

In late 2002, Mr. Lee started a small company to build and sell an invention that helps filmmakers minimize camera-shaking. He sells this “Poor Man’s Steadycam” for $39.95 online — commercial versions start at five times that price — though he encourages people to download free instructions from his Web site and to build the device themselves for $14 in parts.

Mr. Lee says that the company is profitable, with revenue of about $250,000 in its first five years, but he adds that he is not much of a businessman. He has been out of inventory for over a year.

The steadycam company is his only foray into business. His decision to share, rather than sell, most of his ideas is linked to his definition of success, which he measures in terms of impact, not dollars. This, he says, is a reason he chose to join Microsoft: the company’s enormous customer base represents “real potential to help other people.”

He chooses his personal projects based on what he calls their “work-to-wow” ratio. “I want to get the biggest wow for the smallest amount of work,” he explains, adding that for him, wow is synonymous with impact.

The ratio of the Wiimote projects was fantastic: each idea that has reached millions of people took only three to four days to conceive, build, film and post.

Mr. Lee encourages innovators to ask themselves, “Would providing 80 percent of the capability at 1 percent of the cost be valuable to someone?” If the answer is yes, he says, pay attention. Trading relatively little performance for substantial cost savings can generate what Mr. Lee calls “surprising and often powerful results both scientifically and socially.”

As evidence, he might point to a do-it-yourself interactive whiteboard, another of his Wiimote innovations. Interactive whiteboards, which in commercial form generally sell for more than $1,000, make it possible to control a computer by tapping, writing or drawing on an image of the desktop that has been projected onto a screen. Mr. Lee’s version can be built with roughly $60 in parts and free open-source software downloadable from his Web site.

Some 700,000 people, many of them teachers, have downloaded the software, Mr. Lee says. Much more expensive whiteboards may offer more features and better image resolution, but Mr. Lee’s version is adequate for most classroom applications.

It is also easy to build. An after-school Lego robotics club for fifth graders at Clara Byrd Baker Elementary School in Williamsburg, Va., built a Wiimote whiteboard in four one-hour sessions. “Once it was done, the kids were so excited,” recalls Kofi Merritt, then the school’s computer resource specialist, who suggested and advised the project. “They recognized themselves as innovators and demonstrated the whiteboard in classroom after classroom.”

MR. LEE’S ideas have acquired a momentum independent of Mr. Lee himself. At educational conferences, teachers have presented how-to tutorials for their colleagues. And at Microsoft, his appreciation for online video has rubbed off on others. The company recently gave Mr. Dietz permission to go public with a new invention of his own: a drinking glass that, when placed on the Microsoft Surface table — a table with an interactive, multitouch display built into the top — alerts a waiter to offer a refill.

After writing a paper on his invention, Mr. Dietz wanted to test the concept in the market. His first step? He posted a video on YouTube.

Leslie Berlin is project historian for the Silicon Valley Archives at Stanford. E-mail: