Corrections or additions?
(This article by Robert Saxon was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on
December 2, 1998, an addition was made on August 10, 2005. All rights
Everyone who drives along U.S. 1 knows the Sarnoff
Corporation, the giant laboratory near the Harrison Street exit. But
not so many of us know what is going on behind its walls; like most
R&D firms, it keeps a fairly low profile, until it has something
to announce. Earlier this fall Sarnoff lifted the veil a little,
a conference to describe its recent developments in electronics,
about 200 venture capitalists to see what’s been going on (and perhaps
consider investing, as we shall describe shortly). Reporters were
invited, as well. So we can report to you that Sarnoff is brim full
of new ideas, many of which are now ready for largescale development.
First some background: The Sarnoff laboratory was founded by RCA
over 50 years ago, under the name of RCA Laboratories, to develop
the then-new medium of color television. The lab’s color TV tube —
the big breakthrough of 1946 — is probably still its best-known
achievement, but there have been plenty of others since, including
liquid crystal displays (LCDs) and the charge-coupled device (CCD),
which is a key element in video cameras.
Meanwhile, RCA got out of the TV business, and in 1987 its parent,
General Electric, donated — that’s right, donated — its
laboratory to Stanford Research International (SRI), itself a contract
R&D giant that had spun off from Stanford University some years
(and, in the opinion of most observers, spawned the vast phenomenon
known as Silicon Valley). The Princeton facility, known today as
Corporation, continues to produce pioneering innovations for the
industry. It is the for-profit arm of the not-for-profit SRI. Its
annual revenue of $130 million, combined with a somewhat larger figure
for SRI, makes the entire operation one of the largest independent
R&D organizations in the world.
Sarnoff (and SRI) are noted not only for their technical skills, but
also for a creative business model which promotes spin-offs rather
than simply doing government or industrial contract research. When
a novel piece of technology has been demonstrated in-house, the next
step is to interest outside capital sources in helping to finance
further development. The result, ideally, is a spin-off company
from Sarnoff; the latter then gets its reward from licenses and
rather then ownership of the new firm. Interestingly, the researchers
at Sarnoff who created the new technology in the first place rarely
join the spin-off company. Sarnoff asserts that the creative types
prefer to stay with them and create still more things (though they
may enjoy a personal share in the financial success of the spin-off).
The spin-off, then, is staffed chiefly by new hires from the outside.
Overall, this model seems to be working well, since two to four new
technology ventures are established by SRI/Sarnoff each year, and
about 15 such companies are currently somewhere along this
pipeline. How will these new Sarnoff spinoffs do? Well just consider
some of the earlier successes:
venture (1992), uses the iris of the human eye as the basis for a
personal identification system. Remarkably, the iris pattern of each
individual is unique (even identical twins have different patterns)
and it remains stable from age two years until death. Described as
the "human bar code," the iris can be photographed safely
with an ordinary video camera, and the data can be compared with a
previously-stored record in just a few seconds.
So you — and only you — can withdraw money from your account
at an ATM without need for a bank card or PIN number. And if you try
to rob a bank, the FBI can know exactly who you are. Currently, there
are about 100 iris-reader units in field use, and a low-cost version
($1,000 per unit) is planned for introduction by the end of 1999.
Park, California, has developed a turnkey video-on-demand system for
cable operators. If, as a cable subscriber, you want to watch, say,
"Casablanca," at 10 p.m. this evening, you can call your cable
company, and you will get the film delivered to your set regardless
of what else the cable company is offering at the time. This product
is being tested in several locations including Delaware County,
(215-579-1308), was created to cope with the fact that there are
three mutually incompatible digital TV transmission systems (cable,
broadcast, satellite), all authorized by the FCC. SDC has a single
multifunctional receiver that will handle all of them. With
digital TV already launched, though still with plenty of technical
and economic bugs, this could represent a significant step in assuring
wider acceptance of the new technology.
(things they know will work but haven’t yet fully financed). All are
hosted at Sarnoff:
voice recognition technology — which you can already buy for
to your home computer — into new realms. Thus you will be able
to hold a reasonably intelligent conversation with a remote computer,
e.g. to order from a catalog or make an air travel reservation. Or
you can trade stocks, and if you’ve "registered" your voice
with your broker, the computer will know it’s you, will handle the
transaction and then say "Thank you, Ms. Smith" if that’s
what your name happens to be. No more endless "push 1 if you have
a Visa card." Based on speech recognition technology developed
for the Pentagon, Nuance’s system will even understand you if you
have an unusual accent or dialect, though its responses are always
in well-modulated standard English. Widespread acceptance of the
system is said to be one or two years away.
<B>Clearvue Digital Video. VHS tapes have a life
of only 10-15 years. There’s a vast store of personal camcorder tapes
that needs preserving well beyond that time frame. Clearvue Digital
Video has created combinations of hardware and software that will
not only transfer taped images to compact disks (which, being digital,
are nearly immortal) but at the same time improve the image quality,
for example by correcting the jumpiness of images made with a
camera. Clearvue’s demonstration of this capability at the conference
was impressive. It certainly works, but it calls for rather costly
equipment (perhaps $5,000 to $20,000 per unit). So Clearvue expects
to sell its system primarily to service centers, such as photocopy
shops, to which consumers can bring their tapes for conversion.
infrared detector business with its "uncooled detectors" that
work at room temperature. With their enhanced sensitivity, such
could, for example, provide "heads-up" displays onto
windshields for signaling hazards on the road ahead in bad weather.
Or pictures of your home environment even on dark nights, for home
security systems. Or heat detectors for monitoring trouble spots in
mechanical and electrical systems.
"Heads-up" displays on airplane windshields, as aids in bad
weather landings, are already available, but the technology is too
costly for consumer and industrial applications. Sarcon’s aim, using
its "microcantilever sensors," is to offer at least twice
the performance and half the cost, relative to the competition. In
terms of practical achievement, Sarcon says it is "close to"
a fully working prototype low-resolution detector. A demonstration
is still a couple of years off.
computers (U.S. 1, November 11). It provides an add-on for your
probably an insertable card, which, along with a small antenna, will
direct your data call to a nearby fixed computer. ETDN’s proprietary
technology will compete with some established firms such as Lucent
Technologies. Sarnoff claims that the ETDN system has some features
that make it superior to Lucent’s: inclusion of multiple modems, for
example, which allow the satellite computers to exchange data not
only with the central unit but also with each other, as well as an
"ad hoc" program that constantly reconfigures the system so
as to operate with maximum efficiency as the user demand changes.
In any event, the burgeoning sales of laptops, plus every user’s
to communicate without the need to find a place to plug into the phone
network, suggests that there is room for several products in this
Sarnoff’s Array Display Inc., can make them as big as you wish,
by seamlessly combining individual display modules, each one of which
shows only a small portion of the total image. Stacked TV sets can
do this now, but the inevitable spaces between the sets make the
look as if you are viewing it from behind the bars of a prison.
Array’s system not only eliminates the crossbars, but it’s a
display. This could spell the end of the bulky cathode ray tubes of
today’s TV sets, as well as the cumbersome projection systems now
used for big displays such as those sometimes seen in lecture halls
and at outdoor gatherings. Array’s low-cost, bright-image systems
are expected to be in test marketing around 2001.
making TV picture tubes with a large viewing area. Cathode ray tubes
have reached their practical limit, even a 36-inch tube necessarily
being so deep as to occupy your entire living room. For intermediate
sizes, say up to 60 inches diagonal, Plasma Displays could hold the
answer. Sarnoff has developed a high-resolution, low cost back panel
for such displays, which are only a couple of inches deep.
Up to now, glass-based plasma devices have been costly and provide
inferior definition. Sarnoff uses ceramic-on-metal structures, with
the electronics arranged around the edges to keep the device thin.
The aim is to offer a back panel for $300, for a total price of about
$500 for the entire display, thus providing a wall-hung unit
appropriate for viewing high definition TV. Pilot production of the
ceramic/metal panel is expected in about 12 months.
using a projection system to show the potential of HDTV in general
rather than any of Sarnoff’s developmental contributions. This was
the first time that most of us had seen HDTV. Your reporter was
impressed by the sharpness, brilliance and presence of the picture,
which incidentally has a remarkable 3-D effect even though recorded
through a single video camera. We look forward to the added Sarnoff
contributions, such as the flat wall screen, which will be fitting
supplements to the new digital transmission technology.
We were curious as to the effect of all these revelations on the
capital community. But, as expected, nobody at the conference came
right out and said "put us down for a million dollars of
in any of the developments presented. Each VC firm has its own area
of interest, and to some extent the choices will depend on the right
chemistry between the individual technology presenter and the
financier. Sarnoff’s track record is very good, however, in attracting
candidate investors, and the full-house attendance at this conference
was testimony to that fact. It’s too early to predict which of the
new developments will actually go commercial, or exactly when.
Beyond this, the thoughtful reader has probably started to wonder
about the impact of new technologies on social issues. If, with DIVA
technology, we can order any movie we want from our cable provider,
won’t that put the nation’s thousands of video rental firms out of
business? If we can place orders with an intelligent-sounding
what will become of those cheerful folks at L.L. Bean or Lands’ End
who are delighted to chat with us at 3 a.m.? If living room video
offers us 500 channels of super high clarity TV, does that mean we
will spend all of our spare time in front of the screen, with nothing
left for travel, social contact or civic participation?
Sarnoff can hardly be blamed for offering us opportunities that we
may well find worthwhile, but it does require us to stop for a moment
to contemplate the direction in which we are headed. In the words
of the bumper sticker, technology is driving us on, but the steering
is still up to us.
— Robert Saxon
Princeton 08543-5300. James E. Carnes, president & CEO. 609-734-2000;
fax, 609-734-2040. E-mail: email@example.com. Home page:
Since this article was published we have received letters questioning
the assertion that Sarnoff invented color TV. A letter and the
response, as below.
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