Re other inventors

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


Sarnoff’s Vision

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:

Moorestown-based Sensar Corp., Sarnoff’s first technology

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.

DIVA Systems Corp., a 1995 spin-off now based in Menlo

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,


Sarnoff Digital Communications, based in Pennsylvania

(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.

Now a quick run through some of Sarnoff’s "emerging


(things they know will work but haven’t yet fully financed). All are

hosted at Sarnoff:

Nuance Corp., a joint Sarnoff/SRI creation, carries

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.

Sarcon Microsystems plans to participate in the $1.5


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.

We described Easy Talk Data Networks in our story on


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


The Big Picture: How big is it possible to make a TV screen?

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.

Plasma Displays. We mentioned earlier the problems of

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.

HDTV. A nice presentation of HDTV concluded the


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

Sarnoff Corporation, Washington Road, CN 5300,

Princeton 08543-5300. James E. Carnes, president & CEO. 609-734-2000;

fax, 609-734-2040. E-mail: Home page:

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Re other inventors

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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