After Invention, Letting the Market Drive Innovation

Invention and innovation are not synonymous. While creating or designing a new product can be innovative, discovering the ways that invention can be used to address a range of needs and challenges is an ongoing process. Sometimes, the best applications are not apparent to the inventor. This is something artist and inventor Steve Hollinger seems to understand, as he recently introduced a prototype throwable camera to the world in hopes of soliciting ways to bring it to market.

Hollinger is not new to inventing. He has been dreaming up new designs and products for decades, some with evident applications (like a better-insulated tent) and others just for the apparent joy of creating something borne of creativity and ingenuity (such as a technique for microprinting, creating a business card that can only be read with a microscope.)

Hollinger’s first big break was a computer program – PosterWorks – that made it possible to print large images in numerous small pieces. It changed how billboard owners and others slapped images across big canvases – printing out sections of an image and piecing them together. The original movie poster for “Terminator” on Hollywood Boulevard, for example, was printed with PosterWorks.

As well as owning S. H. Pierce & Co., the high-tech manufacturer and licensor that serves as the clearinghouse for Hollinger’s inventions, he is also a sculptor and artist, whose tactics and experimentation border on the kind of mad genius often associated with novel inventors. The New Yorker’s Susan Orlean wrote a fascinating tale about Hollinger’s quest for a better umbrella back in 2008, and Hollinger’s latest invention seems true to form – a patented gadget whose usefulness will be decided by manufacturers and the market.

He calls it Squito, and it is a throwable camera. About the size of a tennis ball, the device can be tossed into the air while three small cameras continuously snap photos, creating an airborne panorama or stabilized video. The real innovation is how the camera registers the images in sequence and pieces them together. This takes an inertial measurement unit, a microcontroller, and an image processor.

“Throwable camera innovations are accelerating with advancements in sensor and imaging microelectronics,” said Hollinger. “And with the advent of low-cost, high-speed cameras for outdoor recreation, an affordable throwable camera is finally within reach."

Indeed, but to what end? That’s what Hollinger is asking. He is looking for collaborators to help him define Squito’s application – to refine it, make it and bring it to market. Some initial ideas for applications, according to Hollinger’s press release, include: “recreation, professional sports, architecture, reconnaissance, search-and-rescue, first responder scene assessment, landscape photography, projectile point-of-view, full spherical capture for simultaneous localization and mapping (SLAM), and 3D mapping applications.”

The real potential for a new product or design is not always immediately apparent. Sometimes the best applications are only discovered after an invention is turned loose on the world. Warfarin, an anticoagulant, was first brought to market as rat poison in 1948; turns out it is also good for helping human patients at risk of blood clots and stroke. Today, warfarin is the 11th most prescribed drug in the United States. Duct tape was originally used to keep ammunition cases dry during World War II. Today, it is a cure-all for just about any repair job, topping about $100 million a year in sales. For Squito, there may be people working in industries that Hollinger hasn’t considered who are reading about his invention and thinking, “I’ve been looking for one of these.”

The innovation process is continuous, feeding off the collective need. Hollinger’s decision to broadly offer up his invention is innovative in itself. This is an insight likely drawn from Hollinger’s many years at the drawing board. Rather than define for the market how to use his product, he is letting the market tell him how it would like to use it. It is, in a way, idea crowdfunding – letting application and usefulness grow out of many ideas as opposed to putting all one’s inventive eggs in the same marketing basket. Will Squito be the next big thing? That will depend on the many thinkers and doers who weigh its usefulness and put it to work, which is often how inventions end up changing the world.