Mr. Watson come here, I want you.
Mr. Watson come here, I want you
History tells us that quote was the first utterance made over a telephone line by Alexander Graham Bell on March 10, 1876.
Innovation happens with small firsts just like that. Sometimes the tiniest thing can be the most significant. Or perhaps a small accidental thing like dropping a telephone receiver on the floor can lead to a major breakthrough. Yes, accidental innovation happens!
Clearly, I am not Alexander Bell, but I do have a Mr. Watson moment. Many years ago, I was working in an R & D lab of a major telecom company. It was the glory days of the dot com boom, and streaming audio was the next big thing. I was tasked with coming up with something that would get a lot of buzz at the next trade show. The idea was, "Stream an internet radio station over a phone line."
Over twenty years ago, the very idea of streaming live audio over the internet was about as novel as Alexander Bell talking over a phone line in 1876, Internet streaming was hardly a mature technology, and add in the complexity of down sampling audio in real time into something that can be placed over an traditional old school phone line, and you have something that probably seemed impossible at the time.
When the task was given to me, I swallowed hard. I had no idea how I would pull off such an incredibly difficult task. Worse, I speculated it was about 3 months of research before a prototype would even be viable. I had just 30 days!
I spent days, which eventually turned into two weeks trying to figure out why the software wouldn't work. I did everything a meticulous engineer should do. I put the code in the debugger. I reviewed my code. I double checked everything. But nothing worked.
I stayed late each night. I would pick up the telephone receiver, dial into the streaming system, and went for the audio. NOTHING. Each night I failed.
One night, I was exhausted, and I dropped the phone receiver on the floor. I read over my notes. I put m head in my hands. I said to myself, "How the hell am I going to pull this off?"
While i was spinning my wheels I started humming. I soon realized I was humming a tune in my head. Then I realized the tune wasn't it my head, it was coming from the phone receiver I dropped on the floor!
Turns out my audio solution had been working the whole time. But how? So, naturally, I repeated the process and dropped the phone receiver on the phone. I waited, and after a pause, the music played. I did it over and over again. I finally took out a stop watch and counted the seconds on the delay. It was consistently -- 32 seconds.
I had my Mr. Watson moment and it was purely by accident!
As it turns out, it took 32 seconds to buffer enough raw PCM audio to play the stream. Eureka! But there was a catch, what do you do for 32 seconds so that nobody notices there is a delay? 32 seconds of silence would be what is known as "dead air." Not a good story for a tradeshow.
Turns out even more innovation was required. Something that would have made PT Barnum proud -- showmanship. Sometimes engineering isn't enough. I pulled my knowledge of film production, radio theater, and all of outside of work skills. What I needed was some good old fashioned misdirection.
I quickly put together a prototype. I had our in-house voice talent record a prompt, "I am tuning in your radio station." I then added in some sound effects that sounded like tuning around a radio dial. (Something that people could relate to.) Then then voice prompt would say, "I think I found it. Here goes." The entire message lasted 32 seconds and then the live audio kicked it. It sounded completely plausible to the user!
When I showed my solution to product management they laughed hysterically. But they all agreed, it worked. Next thing I knew, my idea went into the tradeshow and was a huge hit.
My "Watson com here" moment was complete. A little bit of luck, and pizzazz just to help drive it home. But if it weren't for the fact that I dropped the telephone receiver on the floor, I might never have solved the problem, and introduced the company's next piece of innovation.
About Mark Ross
Mark holds multiple industry patents. He is currently the technical director at an iGaming company based out of Las Vegas. He is the author of books, technical whitepapers, and an accomplished film director as well. Linked In.