Sanniti Pimpley met with Eric Rosenthal, Adjunct Professor and Scientist in Residence at ITP, to talk about his life as an engineer, his journey while doing R&D at some very renowned companies and institutions, how he came to be at ITP, and things he’s passionate about.
This interview has been edited for content and consistency.
Sanitti Pimpley: I’m curious what the 10-year-old Eric was like.
Eric Rosenthal: Ten-year-old Eric basically took a lot of things apart. When I got a gift from somebody, I would take it apart, figure out how it worked, put it back together, and then begin to play with it. I had this desire to make sure I understood how things worked. I would be constantly building things. I built HAM radio transceivers when I was 10 and got my HAM radio license when I was 11. I learned Morse code; got a 35 wpm Morse code endorsement from the Amateur Radio Relay League.
I would automate model trains and would figure out how to make the power supplies to make the whistles blow on trains. I was not really into trains but I sort of propagated towards things that were electronic. In those times, we didn’t have 555 timers. So, in order to flash a light, you had to be kind of clever. I would build things that would turn off a relay that would be in series with a rectifier tube and have the relay turn on the filament on the rectifier tube. The rectifier tube would begin to conduct, which would turn the relay on, which would shut off the filament, which cooled the tube down; the tube would stop conducting and the relay would shut off, which would turn the filament back on. So, those were the magical things in those days. We make them today with just a couple of parts.
SP: How did you teach yourself all these things?
ER: Well, we didn’t have internet in those days [Laughs]. So, I taught myself a lot by experimenting. I did go to the Grand Army Plaza Library every Saturday; I had memorized what books were in the library and I could tell you which books were taken out and which were new. But I would say more of the learning was hands-on.
On Cortlandt Street, where the World Trade Center is now, there used to be rows of electronic stores that were equipped with all the surplus electronic equipment from the military, because it was just after the war. I would go there—in those days you would get on the subway as a 10 year old—and buy that stuff. I would buy magnetron tubes and experiment with them. I would smell something cooking and discover that it was me. I would basically be able to buy just about any electronic component I wanted at a low cost, and I would experiment with it. It either failed or blew up or I got a shock, but I wasn’t really afraid to try things. I had to know how things worked.
SP:And how did you take this curiosity and drive to build things into college or further?
ER: When I was a teenager, I got very interested in broadcasting. I’d get on the train, at midnight, and go to the ABC Radio Network where I had befriended some guys that worked in master control. I would sit with them for a couple of hours and they would show me how the radio network worked. So, I ended up having a big interest in radio. One of my friends got a job at a New Jersey radio station, so I would go to work with him and hang out there and learn how radio stations worked.
Eventually when I needed a job, I really wanted to be a lighting designer but couldn’t get a job as one for a number of reasons. First of all, there aren’t as many lighting designer jobs and secondly, lighting in NYC was a closed union shop. But the union actually told me that ABC was hiring. At the time, I had a first-class radio telephone license from the FCC, which means that I was allowed to repair and control radio and TV transmitters. I went for an interview at ABC and they asked me whether I had a radio telephone license. I said yes. They asked me if I could edit audio tape. I said yes… but I had never done that before. They gave me the radio engineer job. First thing I did after the interview—I went down to Cortlandt Street and bought a tape machine and taught myself how to edit audio tape. As it turns out by the time I came in on Monday, I could probably edit audio tape better than anyone. I became basically the engineer for disc jockeys on WABC Radio, which was a number one rated radio station at the time. I did that until the Labor Day weekend came around. The Labor Day weekend was long and a lot of the equipment wasn’t working. I went to the supervisor and said ‘You know, we are not going to make it through the weekend. There’s not enough equipment working.’ In those days the radio network repaired the equipment and there was no one they could send over. I offered to repair the equipment. They never knew I could fix anything. I repaired all the equipment in about two hours, and then from then on I was the maintenance person. I just spent time fixing all the equipment.
So, when did you start working full time at ABC?
ER: Probably 1968. I got hired to be the maintenance supervisor after they moved the radio station to 54th street & 6th Ave. I helped design and fabricate the new station and worked there for two years.
Then we got visited by some people from TV. There was a broadcast operations and engineering department that ran the network. I don’t know why they actually visited the radio station, but when they did, they offered me a job in television. So, I transferred to TV and did maintenance at the TV network. They didn’t really like me there, because I fixed all the equipment that was sitting on shelves for years. And for some reason that was not a popular thing to do. So, they transferred me out of maintenance to master control where I worked for a couple of years and then they offered me a job in the engineering department, designing video systems, and I did that for a couple of years and then eventually they put me in charge of all of the owned and operated TV stations. So, I designed all the facilities for that. We built a new TV station at KGO in San Francisco, We built a new TV station in New York for WABC TV. And during that period of time we also built the Washington News Bureau in D.C. and I was responsible for all of that. There were a lot of other people involved of course. I was just responsible for it.
That got me to the point where I had a really good understanding of how to design television systems. And I did that for a couple of years.
SP: When you talk about designing television systems and building all these stations, what kind of things did you have to build?
ER: Most of the stuff that I did had to do with transmission systems like audio video routing systems, big switchers, distribution systems—how do you get the video from point A to point B.
We streamlined the entire video and audio distribution system, while other people built studios. But over time what happened is, one person who worked there designed lighting and rigging systems for studios, and he would use me as a consultant because he wasn’t that technical as far as electronics and computers were concerned. And he quit one day. After he quit, they put me in charge of designing the lighting and rigging systems. And it just so happened, my original area of interest was lighting!
Then I built a network automation system for their network and during that process, I had to sort of figure out how the network worked. So, I interviewed everybody at the network to understand what their job was, and… no one knew how the network worked! But everybody knew what their job was. When I approached the head of the network and told them how the network worked, he told me I was wrong. So, I built a system based on what I discovered and that didn’t make me very popular. This system put the network on air and is still in operation today. There are a lot of systems that I built that are still in operation today. The clock system at ABC is something that I built in 1981. It makes sure that every clock in the entire network all over the world has the right time. I designed it to never fail; it’s triple redundant.
SP: So, when you were building all these systems for ABC, were any other stations trying to copy that or do something similar? Because you were basically building something really new.
ER: Not really. Because everything that we were building was really unique. At CBS, you built the same studio for every show, which meant that all the creative people had to figure out how to do their show using a standard system. But at ABC, we designed the system specifically for a particular show. And my philosophy has always been to give tools to creative people so they can do their job. So, ABC was very unique in that way. If we were going to build a studio, we first went to the people who were going to do the show and asked them what they needed, and based on their needs, we would customize the entire system for a specific show so that the creative people can do the best job they can. And the reason we did that was because the engineering department was comprised of a bunch of young engineers, and the guy in charge—the director of engineering—who was in his 50s or 60s, would basically take risks with people that he just felt good about. He would hire all these engineers and then he would just let those engineers do their job; he wouldn’t micromanage them. They could do really whatever it took to do the job and not ask anybody, and he would let that happen as long as everything worked. And everything worked. ABC at that time was the number one rated network, so what could be bad about that? It was a very close-knit team of young people doing custom, advanced design work, supported by the guy in charge. And he came from the space systems division at—I want to say—RCA. He didn’t know anything about broadcasting but he knew how to pick people. Basically, he was like a father figure instead of a boss to all these people that worked there.
SP: I feel like that’s the kind of philosophy that ITP follows as well.
ER: Well, that’s kind of why I’m here. At ITP, things sort of happen because we let them happen. Not because someone’s directing that to happen. Everyone has a good philosophy of how to do this, and it’s very different than other places.
SP: You also won an Emmy award for a project you did at ABC. Could you talk a little about that?
ER: One day they came to me and asked if I would engineer the Olympics for ABC (The 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, NY. SP). I wasn’t the only one; it’s an army of people. My expertise was in the transmission area, so, I was asked if I could design the distribution systems for the Olympics. Which meant taking a building containing all of the international broadcasters- a building that had not been built or designed yet—and connecting them all together to get them on the air. Putting in power systems, intercom systems, audio/video systems and integrate all together.
During that period of time, the building was supposed to be built but had not even been designed yet by the town. The town couldn’t figure out what kind of building they wanted for after-use, but they knew they wanted a garage for their public works vehicles and school buses. It came to the point that we couldn’t wait any longer for this building to get started. So, I designed the building and, they built it. We developed a lot of new technologies for the broadcast facilities there, including the first ever use of fiber optics for any international broadcast.
SP: Where did you go after ABC?
ER: I went to work for Sony. At that time, digital television was beginning to be introduced and I didn’t know anything about digital television. I took a job at Sony at their systems division to build the first digital television station in Mexico City. I figured that would be a good way to learn digital TV! The project was supposed to take 6-9 months. But it took about 2.5 years because the owner of the TV station, which was the Mexican government, ran out of money.
In any case, after that I got a job at Nike, running a division of their R&D department that would reduce their time to market from 18 months to four months using imaging technology. I worked there for about two years, designing a facility that would do that. I worked by repurposing all the files they already had instead of starting the engineering from scratch every time you needed to do another process. There are about a 150 different parts to a shoe. We figured out how to do object recognition and how to laser cut using femtosecond lasers—which were never used in the commerical world. We were the first industrial users of femtosecond lasers, built to cut Kevlar at a molecular level. We figured out how to molecularly bond parts of shoes so that they would never come apart. And we were able to make custom shoes for people who have malformed feet. We have a patent for that, assigned to Nike. It is kind of like the way the Kinect works: it takes a picture of a grid on your foot and based on the distortion of that grid it turns that into a 3D depth model and that creates a mold of the malformed foot and then we can make a shoe that fits that foot. There’s a whole division of Nike that makes prosthetics shoes.
Interesting thing about that Nike technology is that we actually repurposed it for the Library of Congress. The LOC wanted to scan and digitize all of these old maps from the beginning of the discovery of the continent, which were all hand-drawn. To do that, they would break off the book binder so that they could put the pages in an automatic scanning machine and then throw the book away because it’s now digitized. We didn’t want them to throw away these historic books; we didn’t want them to even break the binders because these were huge. Their scanner basically was curved, and when you put the book on these curved pages the book doesn’t lie flat. We took the technology we developed at Nike and made it so that we projected a grid onto those pages even though the pages weren’t flat and looked at the picture of the grid and the picture that we got from the camera and, perspective mapped it based on the distortion of the grid so that we flattened the page. They got their digitized version and they didn’t have to destroy the original.
During the time that I worked for Nike, I got a call from Disney, asking if I would run R&D at Disney. I felt as though I couldn’t pass that up. Disney has 150 business units, I was responsible for directing the R&D for seven labs, … it was a challenge. We had 175 PhD research scientists working in R&D. Very, very smart people, and we developed a lot of stuff.
SP: What are some of your favorite projects from there?
ER: Well, we developed the world’s brightest projector. And we used that projector on a stage at Lincoln Center, Radio City music hall and Contemporary Resort in Epcot, Florida. This is a projector that could rear-project a 100 foot-candles on a 50 foot diagonal screen. It’s very, very bright. Disney wanted to know what they could do with it. At the time the castle in Florida’s Magic Kingdom was pink. We said, well, if you painted the castle grey then you could project onto the castle and you can make the castle into anything you want. We did a model of that, showed them what it would look like. It took them 10 years to figure out what it would take to paint the castle, and then it took them six years to paint the castle with all kinds of structures and cranes and things all around the castle, and now they project on that castle using 12 projectors and it’s amazing. Things that we designed decades ago are just reaching the park now. It’s kind of disappointing but at the same time it’s rewarding. It’s hard to make a dent in Disney because everything they do has to involve 150 business units. Each one has to benefit by a single change.
Another thing I did at Disney was fixing failed attractions. They would build theme park attractions and sometimes they didn’t work, sometimes they were too scary or, sometimes they didn’t like the audio, or whatever. My team would be brought in to fix these over a period of six weeks within an unlimited budget and just get them working so they can open up for guests. On an engineering level, these were challenges, but they were good challenges. On a psychological level, you’re dealing with a crew of people who dedicated their lives for four years building an attraction on a limited budget. They did the best job they possibly could under the circumstances and then we come in in six weeks and just do whatever we want to do to make it happen and have it open. Trying to balance that and keep a team together is very, very difficult. Over time, what happened was, when they wanted to build new attractions, these same people that we were being very delicate with in terms of trying to maintain relationships, would call us first thing, and say ‘What would you do for this?’ which was very, very satisfying because now they were bringing us in on their team and not looking at us as after-service. It’s a fine line. I’ll tell you that doing that job at Disney was very stressful.
After six years they’d started building a TV studio in Times Square and it was beginning to fail in its construction. The construction manager had gone over budget and delayed the project. It had to open for the millennium. So, I was called in to fix that. I ended up spending about six months there continuously 24 hours a day, seven days a week for six months, beating that project into submission and getting it on the air, four hours before the millennium. After that I decided that I had had enough.
SP: Is this the point where you started with Creative Technology, LLC?
ER: During the time I was with Disney, the Department of Defense (DoD) was looking for industrial liaisons—companies to collaborate with. One of the companies they decided to collaborate with was Disney. I signed an agreement with the DoD where they would share technologies with Disney. Disney would be the first to commercialize military-type technology, and we would share technology they didn’t know about with them. Some of the technologies we repurposed were technologies to identify and track costumes, pillowcases, sheets for each of the hotels. We did that using fluorescing dyes—the same dyes that are used for making money. I think Disney is still the only commercial user of those dyes.
When I left Disney, the DoD—again—needed an industrial liaison but Disney did not want to renew the deal. So, they came to my company—it’s a consulting company—to continue doing industrial liaisons. At that time, DoD had switched over from taking surveillance pictures on film to taking surveillance pictures using digital cameras. We had advised against that because digital cameras don’t capture the same kind of information that film cameras capture. We felt that the analysts wouldn’t be able to just do their job. As it turns out, they came back to us five years later after realizing that we were right, and asked me and my team what we would do to redesign digital television today. I told them first thing is: completely forget about any legacy technology that has ever been developed for TV because it was developed based on an erroneous perceptual understanding. We see more colors than the existing RGB color space. We see more dynamic range than we can capture with CCDs or CMOS and we, still today, don’t understand how we even see—how we see the images that we see. We don’t understand how the human visual system works. We have ideas that were taught in school and they are totally wrong. They can’t possibly create the images that we see.
I was contracted by the DoD to go around the world, talking to the vision scientists to get a better understanding of how we see. And what I discovered was…they don’t know. But we put a lot of pieces together and developed a technology around that—I got five patents on that—that better understands how the cones work in the human retina, that better understands how to create projectors and displays that display images that are a better match for human vision so that you could actually display images that looked real. You’re never fooled into believing in any of the images you see on TV or anything that we create artificially, is real. Because there’s information missing.
During that period of time an artist in New York, Clifford Ross, made a camera, which he used to take a picture of a mountain in Colorado. He worked for a year to process that image making it into a 2.4GB image that got printed on an HP printer that was eight by six feet. It was displayed in a gallery on the West Side and I was instructed by the DoD to take a look at that picture and tell them what I thought. I was very disappointed when I saw it, because he used the wrong film. He processed it the wrong way, he printed it the wrong way and it was lit at the gallery the wrong way—with room lighting and artificial lighting at the same time. I called him and said ‘I was sent by the DoD to look at your image. There’s a lot of technical things wrong with it. If you’re going to do this again I would like to help you do it better.’ We met a couple of times in NYC to talk about that and we decided to put together a team of experts in big images and call that the Big Picture Summit. We gathered together people from Los Alamos, companies that made all kinds of very large format cameras, people that know how to process images and the first meeting of the big picture summit was right here at ITP because Red Burns offered the conference room here. At that point of time I never knew that ITP existed.
The third summit was at USC at their motion picture school and I was asked to present a 20-minute presentation of what I was working on with the DoD—how to capture images that capture the most information. After the presentation was over, there were Q&As and I tried to get out of my chair to leave, but there were two people standing behind me that wouldn’t let me leave. One of them was Red Burns and the other was Dan O’Sullivan. They said, ‘we don’t want you to leave without agreeing to teach a class.’ So that’s how my ITP class, Digital Imaging Reset, came about.
After I taught for a couple of years here, and I started getting involved with students that needed help… basically students would run around and ask questions about technical things, and a lot of the questions were about electronics and analog circuits. I We teach physical computing, Arduinos, how to program… But we don’t teach how to connect sensors to Arduinos and how to build things without Arduinos. So, I offered to do a lecture. I offered that up to Tom Igoe and he said, ‘No, I don’t want you to lecture. I want you to teach a course.’ So that’s how my other class, Basic Analog Circuits, came to be.
SP: You also did a Kickstarter project here, called Wear. How did that come to be?
ER: I was teaching a class and one of the students was hearing impaired. He had no hearing whatsoever. Attached to him was an interpreter, someone who would listen to the words and type it on a little keyboard and it would come out in big letters on his screen so he could see what I was saying. One of the transcribers paid attention to what I was teaching. She decided, based on that, to enroll at ITP. She ended up taking my classes to learn analog circuits. She had learned how to make PCBs and how to use electronic components, but her core interest was hearing impaired.
Over time we started talking about the possibility of making a better hearing aid. I had some ideas about that; using new types of microphones called MEMS microphones. These are really, really tiny mics that are used in cellphones. Which meant that you could use a lot of these microphones in one location and create different patterns. We found that there’s a certain configuration of those microphones that causes a pattern to exist that allows you to hear what’s within five feet in front of you in a circular pattern, like a conversation at a restaurant table, and all the sounds that are further than five feet would be attenuated by 11dB. The beauty of this is that it doesn’t have any digital electronics in it since digital electronics delay audio because of signal processing. So, by having this all analog means there’s no latency and the battery life is very long and the cost of components go down. There’s no software, no computers, no signal processing. So we developed some prototypes of this and she had this passion for making things. She made the PCBs with the artwork made with Eagle, the design software, soldering components on the board. I did the design work. It got to the point where we made something that we tested with hearing impaired people who said it worked better than their hearing aids.
So we decided to do a Kickstarter. A former ITP student,John Dimatos, worked for Kickstarter, and he guided us through the Kickstarter process. He was quite excited about the product. There were certain limitations. We couldn’t call it a medical device, we couldn’t call it a hearing aid. We had to call it an assistive listening device because Kickstarter wouldn’t allow any medical devices. But eventually we did the Kickstarter and it was successfully funded. Then we had to learn the production business. We learned about injection molding because we had to make boards in the thousands instead of ones and had to deal with companies that do pick and place and put the components on. We went to a company to do pick and place. When they’re all done, they put the board in a dishwasher and they wash the boards so they look nice and clean. That was a major problem, because when they did that to our boards, which have 10 microphones on them, they destroyed all the microphones. So, we learned that they have to be instructed not to clean the boards. Meantime we replaced 10,000 microphones by hand. It gives 10,000 a new meaning! Took a few months.
We ended up having a successful Kickstarter, we delivered everything we were going to deliver and after a while a company approached us and wanted to buy the technology and the ability to manufacture, which we sold to them. They’re based in Israel and they now manufacture and sell it.
SP: You’ve worked in a lot of different fields; mostly audio/video but it also seems like you work a lot with human sensory systems: Vision, hearing and also smell—I remember you talking in class about a project for a Disney attraction in which you had to work with chemicals to create certain smells and then other chemicals to eliminate that smell.
ER: Yes, we developed the technology with International Flavors & Fragrances that injected smells into space at a molecular level. We actually counted the molecules. Then we developed the anti-odor so that we could turn the odor off. We did that for California Soarin’. The other attraction we really developed it for was called Alien Encounters, which no longer exists at the Magic Kingdom because it was too scary. It injected ‘alien breath’ odor into the room and we could shut it off. I can tell you that I smelled like Alien breath for years while testing this stuff out. [Laughter]
SP: Has all this work with sensory systems been a conscious choice or coincidence?
ER: Well, one of the things about Disney is that it’s multidisciplinary. You’re working with 150 business units, some of them want to know how many people are in the park many times a day so they can distribute the crowd. For another unit, we developed a technology for embroidery. We invented SmartTV. It’s a system that learns your viewing preferences and over time–you don’t have to select a channel, it does it for you.
When I worked at ABC, bunch of other people and I invented closed captioning for the hearing impaired, which is still in every television made today. We went to Gallaudet University in D.C. and presented this for the first time. People were crying—they were so happy that they could actually see what was being said. We invented a court stenographer’s keyboard that would allow you to do live captioning so that, as the news came on, they would live caption. The reason all that happened was because the guy who was in charge of operations and engineering at ABC had a child that was hearing impaired and he decided to put a million dollars into this. ABC supported that and we did development of it.
At ABC it was AV related, but my main interest was always optical. As I said, I wanted to be a lighting designer. Everything that I built for myself, like this TV camera, I didn’t build it to be a video camera. I built it because it used optics. Everything that I’ve built for myself use optics. My projects at Nike were imaging-based and how to apply technologies that were optical. Femtosecond lasers are optical—that was way futuristic. At the time, we went to Lawrence Livermore Labs and saw the first femtosecond laser sitting on a bench that was bigger than this room. They were applying it to the development of jet engine blades so they could make every blade the same at an atomic level..,.the exact number of atoms in every blade. There were absolutely no vibrations. And we applied it to make new shoes [Laughter]
Now I am designing a microphone now that’s an optical microphone—it’s an interferometer microphone. I built the prototype and testing it now. Seeing whether I can beat that into submission. That combines optics with audio.
SP: That sounds very unusual. Could you talk a bit about how it works?
ER: It works on the basis of shining laser light at a membrane and taking a sample of the laser light and a sample of what’s reflected off the membrane, combining them, creating an interference pattern. I detect that interference pattern on a photodetector which converts it to samples. So, it’s detecting the phase difference of light based on the movement of a membrane.
SP: What are the applications for it?
ER: It’s low noise and very, very wide frequency response. The idea is that this would go way into the ultrasonics. I also built an ultrasonic microphone that is a heterodyne ultrasonic microphone. So right now that mic is being used to listen to the giggling of rats. The idea for all this actually came from a meeting we had here with Princeton University. Princeton had a project that looked at the health of a tree and the area surrounding a tree. We got to talking and I said, ‘You know, trees sway in the wind. If they’re healthy trees, they’re moist on the inside so they don’t make noise but as a tree gets bad, or decayed, we hear creaking, right? Birds don’t hear creaking. They hear the ultrasonic sounds of the tree, so that tells them that tree has decaying material in it. Which means there’s bugs in that tree—a food source.’ So, we developed an ultrasonic microphone that’ll listen to trees to tell you whether it’s a healthy or a decaying tree. I’ve been trying to think about developing microphones that are better than what we have right now. There isn’t a mic that actually can be used in harsh environments. You can put an optical microphone under water.
This mic falls into an area that I have a lot of experience in because I have developed other technologies, mostly for the storage of digital data in perpetuity. I have patents on that—it’s called WORF—Write Once Read Forever. It allows you to store data optically in black and white emulsion but it stores that data in colors on a B&W emulsion using a technology that was developed by Gabriel Lippmann, over a hundred years ago. He won the Nobel Prize for the invention of colored photography in 1908 using the same technology that I am using for the storage of data on B&W emulsions. Now I’m applying that same expertise on microphones and other things that are optics because that’s my real passion.
Over the years you develop a list of the things you want to do, that you dream about, and you say when I have time I’ll work on those. After I left Disney, I started working on my own projects and this is part of my to-do list, and many of them are optical.
SP: What are you working on right now?
ER: I’m working on this keeping-data-in-perpetuity project, because there’s no technology that’ll store data for more than a human generation. We are working on that primarily for human genome research because in order for the DNA information to be really valuable, it has to last generations and none of the storage technologies that we have today, like, hard drives or SD cards, keep data forever. But WORF keeps data forever. I’m working with NASA to put these media plates on the International Space Station for a year; see how they survive because long-term space missions require data to survive radiation, and right now data is not surviving radiation. It gets contaminated, and that’s a big problem for NASA.
I’m also trying to find applications for the technology that people would understand. Because basically, my patent attorney says that the technologies I develop are next-generation technologies that people don’t understand what they’ll use them for right now. I am constantly asked, what’s the killer app? And I don’t know what the killer app is. When lasers were created, they were created by the telephone company to transmit audio over fiber. In their wildest dreams they could never think at that time that the killer app for lasers would be laser pointers or CDs to record/playback audio.
We are trying to identify technologies where the application requires data to last forever. Right now it costs a fortune for the Googles and Amazons of the world to keep their data forever. Every three years they have to transfer the data off of hard drives that are failing onto new hard drives that will fail. The drives have to be kept cold because magnetic fields go away at temperatures above 130 degrees; all the data would be lost. Which mean they require so much cooling and so much power that they are building these server farms at power plants near rivers. It is an unsustainable technology. So we developed WORF in order to solve some of these problems. It’s very hard to try to sell this to an Amazon or a Google. But in the world of DNA analysis, in order to do identification of mutations over generations, the data has to survive human generations. We don’t have the tech to do that. So we identified that as a possible application that might be of interest and that might be enough money to develop for that application; we’re working on that. Then, space missions require data to last forever, otherwise when you get to where you’re going and you have no data, you’ve got a big problem.
SP: When you are working on your projects, how many times have you come across a situation where you were on the brink of giving up or maybe, even gave up?
ER: Well, I can tell you that the WORF project involves work that was done 120 years ago, so I knew it was possible. I spent six years trying to replicate that, getting color from a B&W film emulsion. Failing for six years. But I knew it was possible, so I kept at it. And now, I do it every day in a dark room, which is my bathroom, and I get the same results every day.
SP: What was it like when you finally succeeded?
ER: Quite amazing actually. We were actually doing this in a way that everyone said wouldn’t work, but it did. It made us, me and my associates, realize that this actually had the potential to work better than we thought. We wouldn’t have to use lasers, we can actually use regular lighting, which is remarkable. And then we didn’t understand why it was working. So we brainstormed with a bunch of people (We were told by DARPA that this couldn’t possibly work) and this guy at UPenn, Jonathan Smith, recognized that what we’re doing is freezing time and when you explain it that way, it becomes possible.
I think there’s no such thing as bad failures. I’ll think of something and I’ll try it. And it won’t work and I’ll try it different way. For WORF, I built a reader. It’s got a camera in it, with a light source. I can show you a hundred 3D printed versions of that that did not work. I don’t really spend a lot of time saying, ‘Oh, it won’t work so I won’t try it.’ I would rather spend the time trying and I’ll learn from that and not make the same mistake again. Sometimes it’s the same design but a different component that you put in there. A different camera, different lens, different light source or different angle. There are so many variables and you don’t know where the problem is. As someone who started life taking things apart and putting them back together, I don’t really have a problem with that. I like to be hands-on and build stuff. I can tell you that I build things that are all breadboard. It’ll take me ten minutes to breadboard it and when it doesn’t work, I’ll start changing components until it works. But if I didn’t build it in the first place, I couldn’t change components and it would just not work.
SP: I think that’s a good advice to students as well.
ER: Yeah. You know, the other thing about ITP is that it’s unique, In this sense: it is designed for students to nurture their ideas and everyone supports the students’ ideas, including other students. In other labs and universities it’s backwards. Students learn by working on professors’ ideas. Their ideas are never brought to the table. Their goal is to graduate so they can work on their ideas. The goal here is to work on your ideas and then graduate and figure out how to nurture those ideas in the real world—or at least be happy about your accomplishments. It’s a different culture and that’s really why I’m here. I’m here to help students with their ideas; develop tools for students. We have a lot of resources and tools not only because of my philosophy but also because of everyone here, the philosophy of the school. The idea is to give tools to creative people so they can be creative in their own way.
SP: Students come to you with their ideas– is there something that you get asked very often?
ER: I think a lot of the times it has to do with a misunderstanding of the technology. So I try to get them to understand technology. But more often it’s because the students are not familiar with various materials and products out there that would help them do things. Introducing them to those technologies and showing them how that would be an interesting match is not guaranteeing that it’s going to work, but I try to get their creative ideas steered in the direction of possibility.
Very often a student will do something and say it won’t work but they don’t realize that it’s actually working, they’re just not recognizing that it’s working properly. Students who try to do the impossible—I try to support that and make sure that you don’t give up. The giving-up part is something that I spend a lot of time on. Students want to give up too early. They don’t realize that they’re actually heading in the right direction but they haven’t invested enough time yet.
SP: If you had to give an advice or a rule of thumb to follow?
ER: Well, when I teach a class, first thing I do is giving them the history of how we got to this point. And I think it’s really important for students to understand things. Student don’t take things apart. It’s harder to take things apart today. It’s not like the individual components are identifiable anymore. But understanding how things work is really essential. How many students understand how a laser printer works? How many understand how the display on their computer works? These are the things they need to be curious about. In my world when I see something that’s new, the first thing I do is do research to get an understanding of how it works. And sometimes I won’t get a complete understanding—some things might be beyond me, but I will get to a point where I’m comfortable and I feel like I get it. That’s one of the things I try to teach—how the cameras work, how does the eye work, how printers work, how hard drives work. I like to get students to not be afraid to take things apart and understand them. That said, sometimes students take things apart, like laser printers, and they get to the point where they get to the radioactive part. They don’t know that there’s a portion of the laser printer that’s radioactive. I try to keep them safe from stuff like that.
Everyone’s not an engineer. Maybe an engineer is more curious about how things work than someone who’s a creative artist. But I think, if a creative artist is going to apply technology to their art, they’ve got to understand what they’re dealing with to understand how to best use it. And that’s what we try to do here, connect the dots that way.
SP: You’ve probably had some spectacular failures, as that’s a part of being an inventor. Is there a particular project that comes to mind?
ER: I fail every day. And that’s not a problem. You shouldn’t be afraid of failure because you should treat failure as a learning experience. You thought something might work, you tried it, it didn’t work. Why didn’t it work? What else can I try? I don’t give up easily. If I do give up, it’s just a little window of ‘let me think about this some more, but I’ll get back to it.’
SP: Last question. Let’s say there were no laws of physics restraining you, what would you like to build?
ER: Well, a few years ago a couple of students wanted to build a time machine. I told them how they might do that, but I haven’t seen them since. So, I don’t know what happened. [Laughter]