Sunday, November 02, 2008

Open source invention

This is a very good article in the New York Times about publicising inventions via Web 2.0 tools like YouTube. The piece concentrates on Dr Johnny Chung Lee, a 28-year-old inventor who became a YouTube celebrity by posting Wii hacks, including how to make a muilti-touch whiteboard, and the mind-boggling video on generating real 3D gaming experiences. The videos went viral, and attracted 2 million and 6 million views respectively. Dr Lee got so much coverage that when he finished his PhD he got snatched up by Microsoft, and is now working for their technology innovation division. The New York Times makes a good point about how most innovators communicate their inventions to the public:

Contrast this with what might have followed from other options Mr. Lee considered for communicating his ideas. He might have published a paper that only a few dozen specialists would have read. A talk at a conference would have brought a slightly larger audience. In either case, it would have taken months for his ideas to reach others.

Dr Lee has started a trend, and now one can find thousands of do-it-yourself guides on YouTube for anything, from how to use the Wiimote to control Google Earth, to how to beat bosses in World of Warcraft. The idea according to Dr Lee is to use what he calls the “work-to-wow ratio”, which means getting the biggest wow for the least amount of work. Dr Lee shares his inventions in the best open source spirit, and his website has software for the 3D display and the whiteboard.

Something not mentioned in the NYT piece however is the patent implication of Dr Lee's practices. Patenting requires novelty, therefore by making his inventions public before filing for a patent would invalidate any later request. However, by placing his inventions on YouTube, it also precludes anyone else from trying to patent the invention. This is, for lack of a better word, open source invention.

The results are clear. More than 700,000 have downloaded the open source software necessary to make an interactive whiteboard, and it is a cheap option that allows anyone with a Wiimote to make their own version (the cheapest whiteboards in the market go for $1,000 USD). But more importantly, Dr Lee's success point the way towards a new model of invention. Share your ideas and findings on YouTube, and if they are good they will have an impact immediately. Imagine if Mr Lee had tried to patent instead of sharing, he may be sitting on a useless patent with no way to bring it to market. Sharing then becomes a good strategy for the struggling inventor.

On a related note, I hope we had known about the Wiimote whiteboard it at the School of Law, as we spent a lot of money on ours (pictured here).

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