Welcome to our latest Tech Talk. Today, we’re speaking with Doug Button, Chief Engineer in the Corporate Technology Group at HARMAN Professional Solutions. Since Doug joined HARMAN in 1988, he has developed innovations, such as the Differential Drive® that have played a vital role in JBL speaker technology.
Along with authoring 21 patents, Doug has been a key contributor to popular product lines, including the JBL VerTec line array, the JBL EON all-in-one mixer, amplifier and speaker portable PA line, and others. In recent years, however, his Constant Beamwidth Technology™ (CBT) array column speaker series has been a major focus of his engineering efforts.
Throughout Doug’s career, the pace of technological progress has fascinated him. Over time, he has concluded that innovation often misses opportunities where, by exercising more foresight, effort and ingenuity, it might have leap-frogged further into the future. Instead, as he’s observed, technological advances tend to move incrementally along predictable trajectories.
I recently reached out to Doug to discuss how this has impacted technology, which we’ll discuss in two installments. This week, we’ll focus on how technology evolves, and next time, we’ll explore how he has applied his conclusions to the development of the JBL CBT 1000, the latest of the CBT series. The CBT 1000 is a column loudspeaker that deploys an older style of circuitry in a new way. The goal was to build an easy-to-use loudspeaker with adjustable coverage patterns for use in variously configured spaces, such as theaters, auditoriums and houses of worship.
[MM] Can you sum up your thoughts about how innovation advances from one accomplishment to the next?
[DB] As technical progress tends to be exponential, it’s important to stay tuned to what we already have that’s valuable and understand that innovation can move in more than one direction at a time. For example, while most people believe the tech trend is toward more and more computer-based systems, at HARMAN, we don’t think that is necessarily true.
We’ve learned from our customers that simplifying the work process is extremely important to an average person working AV at a church or in a school. A lot of those people don’t want to have to be an IT person to deal with their sound system. In the last several years, we’ve become very conscious of not being more complicated than necessary.
[MM] Thinking about progress moving in multiple directions at once, does it ever feel like the tech community sometimes moves so fast, it doesn’t take the time to consider how what we already have could serve people in different or maybe better ways?
[DB] Technology tends to be evolutionary; it always plays off of an idea in the recent past and rarely makes any kind of dramatic jump forward or delves far into the past. This idea is well described in Steven Johnson’s book, “Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation,” in which he describes “the adjacent possible”—the likelihood of possibility at a given moment.
What happens is that many technologies and innovations are based on what can be put together with available materials or resources. Sometimes, though, if you were able to turn the clock ahead knowing you’re going to have something that isn’t currently available, but will be in the future, you’d realize there might be a very different path.
An example is the evolution of things like computers. You could have had gadgets like iPads much earlier than we did, but they wouldn’t have been created from parts that already existed. Technically, people could have used touch devices instead of the keyboard-based interface, but electric typewriters were much more evolved. Touch devices existed in the 60s and 70s, but people didn’t use them in the way we eventually did; the evolution wasn’t fast enough and it wasn’t easy to lash it all together.
Using a TV as a user interface for a computer was fast, because TVs already existed. So we adapted TVs as computer monitors. But, had people known technology was eventually going to go to touchscreens, they could have gotten there much sooner. At the time, it was easier to just use an old-fashioned keyboard and an old-fashioned TV and put a computer between them. You could do that very quickly. For the most part, the PC evolved from what could be pulled off shelves and lashed together.
If you knew in 1965 or in 1970 where all of this was going—and there are people who did—and spent your time refining the touchscreen, you would have gotten there much faster than having to go through the whole PC evolution and not really coming up with decent touch devices for 40 years. The technical evolution took the easier path.
[MM] Has there been a parallel in loudspeaker systems?
[DB] Definitely. Trying to find a path to the JBL CBT series 30 years ago would have been really hard. It wouldn’t have been impossible, but it wouldn’t have been the easy path either. What has been relatively easy to do in the last 10–15 years is to use a computer, available DSP and available amplifier technology, lash it all together and make a steerable line array.
We were inspired by those systems, because they work really well, but end up being more complicated than necessary for many purposes. If you were able to turn back time and ask if the goal really required following the technology path of the computer, maybe you’d find you just need to build a loudspeaker that has good sound and simple flexibility. When all is said and done, that’s all that actually matters. If you don’t need a computer to operate it, then you’ve simplified things. We did use a computer to design and optimize the speaker, but not to operate it.
[MM] When you say someone could have developed something like the CBT series 30 years ago, what would it have been based on then?
[DB] It would have taken a real leap of faith in terms of thinking about the idea of variable vertical pattern control being a necessary feature. It was only after the computer came along that people could even imagine that. Thirty years ago, people weren’t imagining that they needed variable patterns.
[MM] Where were we with loudspeakers 30 years ago?
[DB] Big horns and big ol’ cabinets. Nobody entertained the notion of a single loudspeaker that could do several things. We had a horn that did this and a horn that did that, and you bought the one that made the most sense. Nobody thought about flexibility as having any value.
A lot of people would talk about falling into the Swiss Army Knife pattern. They didn’t really want to solve all the problems with one tool. It was about making the right tool for the job; that was kind of the mantra back then. You wanted to have the right speaker for the job and not make something that is shoehorned—and thought to be compromised—into it.
It wasn’t until digital came along that people started to build flexible systems and recognize their value. It’s really been in the last 10 years that people have grasped the value of flexibility, but they still have all the technological baggage from the computer they didn’t need. What they did need was the technology pathway to arrive at the notion of flexibility being a really useful thing.
[MM] Is there an issue of not recognizing junctures along the way, seemingly illogical paths that would, in actuality, have made more sense?
[DB] Yes, the road less traveled, so to speak. That’s the thing about technological developments, they follow these strands, a certain branch, and could have easily made a departure a long time ago, but sometimes they just don’t. I always ask myself what’s going to happen 20 years from now that I’ll look back from and think, “Should I take a different path right now?” I try to figure out what the next different path I should take is, the one that will lead to what people actually want as opposed to what’s easy to build.
[MM] Is it better to focus on building things that solve existing problems or push the envelope with innovations people aren’t thinking about yet?
[DB] That’s the notion that people don’t know what they want until they see it, so we have to tell them what they want. It was Henry Ford who famously said, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said ‘a faster horse’.”
There are some companies and people who are brilliant enough to be able to see into the future, but more often than not, it’s hard work. Today, many technologists talk about the importance of failing fast. This has been my mantra for a long time. I like to know, as soon as I can, what won’t work.
The thing about figuring out what people want is that a lot of it is an evolutionary and empirical thing. There are many different ideas that populate the world. The ones that win are the natural selection of what people tend to like. It’s pretty difficult to really be smart enough to figure that out ahead of time. I think there is a lot of luck involved, but more often than not, it’s just the hard work of trial and error.
Many thanks to Doug for his fascinating insights into the thought process of an inventor. Stay tuned to the HARMAN Professional Solutions Insights blog for part two of our conversation, in which we’ll dig more deeply into the development of the CBT 1000.
Do you work in design or engineering? Let us know how you perceive the evolutionary process of technology in the comments.