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Butterflies and eReaders


Butterflies and eReaders

Where do great ideas come from? I’ve had students periodically ask me this – perhaps looking for a common methodology that will inspire a thesis, a new company or a career. I recently found myself stumped in response to this question posed to me in a press interview about the origins of Solstice. I’ve found it’s hard to vocalize my own internal creative process. Try to find a pattern in your ideas. It might be difficult to grasp, somewhat like detailing a dream. But there are a few scaffoldings that help frame what ultimately has to be an individual process for exploring new concepts.

One of the most powerful is the idea of transference, which is the thought that objects, concepts and solutions in one domain can be reinvented in a different context. Pick an interesting aspect of a domain you know well and apply the concepts to something else. For example, what if the economic and market model that defines commodity prices was allowed to influence the price of airline tickets? Or if the localized pheromone-driven communication system that aggregates millions of individual termites into coherent emergent actors could be used to organize emergency responders into an efficient organization in the absence of a global communications infrastructure? Who knows, it may be nothing valuable. But these questions can often lead to interesting dialog and even new technologies.

Perhaps the most well-known type of transference problem-solving is known as Biomimicry. Biomimicry is supplementing design concepts from the natural world and using them to implement technological solutions to existing problems. Biomimicry is a powerful concept: utilize and leverage the millions of years of investment, the optimization functions that involve many variables, and the operation over planetary scales that yielded an unbelievable number of distinct design principles. It’s no surprise that the world of visualization technologies has benefited from Biomimicry.

In fact many cellphone displays are based on the same design principles of the butterfly wing. It’s hard to think of a better place to look in nature for display ideas. The beautiful, high-contrast color gamut and effective brightness of the Morpho butterfly isn’t lost even in direct sunlight (try to think of a digital projector that can do that). All of this is accomplished in a display that is only two micrometers thick. Oh! And the display doubles as a functional element of flight. If you can grasp how a butterfly accomplishes this, you may be able to build a display on similar principles.

Many of the brilliant colors of the butterfly wing are not created via a traditional pigment. The iridescent blur of the Morpho wing, for example, is created through structural color. The nanoscale structure of small plates in the wing disrupts incoming lights in such a way that only a few of the wavelengths are reflected back to the observer, resulting in the appearance of a specific color. Different colors are created by changing the parameters of the nanoscale elements of the display (or wing). By adjusting the spacing and angle of the different inter-reflectors, new colors are created. Fundamentally, incident white light is passed through mechanical interference grating and colored light is reflected back.

This principle is related to a well-known area of science known as interferometry and is already used in other fields including medicine and remote sensing. For example, my PhD thesis focused in part on interpreting the signals produced by space borne interferometic synthetic aperture radar systems. By measuring the interference patterns that emerge when different wavelength radars are directed at the ground, you can create a very accurate 3D model of the earth’s surface that can help us better model glacial evolution and the shape of a rainforest canopy. It’s a powerful method, and the fact that butterflies have used similar principles to generate color patterns has been known for a long time.

But no one asked how it could be used for display technology until the early 2000s, when an MIT grad student named Mark Miles came upon an article about the color generation properties of the butterfly wing. Mark was working in the area of microelectromechanical systems and became interested in the idea that incident light was used to create color through a process that didn’t involve the traditional chemical absorptive process of pigment. Mark thought about other domains needing an ultra-thin bright display that can be seen in direct sunlight: Consumer Electronics.

The company Mark founded was ultimately purchased by QualComm and is now used in the Mirasol display. The Mirasol display uses an array of microscopic interferometric modulators beneath its glass surface. The depth and angle of these tiny reflectors defines the wavelength interference pattern that is reflected back to viewer. QualComm has one-upped the butterfly and can drive the parameters of the modulators at microsecond intervals to change the different color pixels for live video display. It’s an interesting approach to consumer electronics displays that overcomes a significant drawback to other display technologies likes the LCD that must generate its own light. The Mirasol display utilizes incident light to become brighter rather than competes with it. The technology is embedded in an eReader from QualComm and is being licensed to smartphone manufacturers.

So where do good ideas come from? Look around you. Innovation is often inspired by nature. The world of visualization has borrowed significant ideas from nature, molded them into operation technologies, and delivered them as successful products.

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