Dept. of Maybe Not-So-Frivolous Modern Marvels


So my last post was about an exciting and vaguely scientific new technology that allowed baseball card companies to project 3D images and animations of the players on the cards when they were held up to a webcam.  I attempted to justify this post on a blog about the role of science in society by citing the technology of how scientific dynamism can dramatically transform a concept and a technology.  Admittedly, in this case it was only baseball cards, but the transformation from cardboard to three-dimensional animation was so dramatic that I thought it warranted mention and bodes well for other technologies.  Although I stand by that argument, I'd like to make another to go along with it.

It appears General Electric is making use of a similar technology for an interactive advertisement on their website.  On the site you can print out a sheet of paper, hold it up to your webcam, and get a 3D animation (this time spinning windmills and flowing water).  It's very similar to what Topps has done, but their motivation for doing it is completely different.  When Topps designed the 3D baseball cards, they were designing a specific product that was the target of everything from market research to branding to scientific innovation.  However, when GE made the advertisement, they were using an existing technology for use in a new way, in this case advertising a smart electricity grid.  There are two reasons why I think this is important.  

First, the example of cigarette warning labels shows us that the visibility of the advertisement can actually translate into altered behavior.  On cigarettes, the change from text to images measurably increased awareness of the message.  It's easy to imagine how an interactive 3D ad campaign could have a similar effect if used properly.

Seocond, and perhaps more importantly, is not what GE is using the technology for, but how they came to use it.  The technology to display a 3D image on a sheet of paper viewed through a webcam was not invented for the expressed purposes of this advertising campaign.  It was an existing technology.  This technology was developed not with GE's specific application in mind, but for a different purpose altogether.  This contrast of the targeted design of the baseball cards versus reappropriated technology of the GE ad campaign is representative of a larger conflict within science: the value of scientific research for its own sake.

There is pressure, most of it originating from outside the science community, for targeted, directed research and sometimes open mockery of research and the accumulation of knowledge for its own sake.  The most recent political campaign simultaneously called for more scientific research specifically targeted at specific causes like cancer research and new fuel technologies, while mocking ecological studies of grizzly bears, seals, and fruit flies as wasted effort and money.  These studies, in my opinion, don't deserve to be mocked.  However small, the GE example shows us that while sometimes the value of some technology can be discovered after the fact, it is still valuable.

This is not for a second to suggest that research specifically targeted at certain problems is not valuable, far from it.  Nor is it to suggest that research should be conducted wildly and without checks.  I'm only trying to suggest that while the value of research like an ecological survey or the investigation of a biochemical pathway may not pay an immediate, obvious dividend, that the accumulation of this knowledge could well be very important in the future.

This, again, comes with the qualifier that I'm easily wowed by new technologies.  I'll talk more about some of the directed research going on in my lab in my next post.


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