They wanted to understand the mind. To do that, Carver Mead and his associates, ensconced at Cal Tech, decided that they had to understand the brain. That search for knowledge led to madness and suicide, as one researcher delved too deep into pharmaceutically assisted research, and to unexpected discoveries. In the end, understanding the brain turned out to require understanding vision.
George Gilder’s “The Silicon Eye” (Atlas Books, 318 pages, $22.95) traces the history of Foveon, the ground-breaking digital imaging company that grew out of the Mead team’s efforts, and finds it to be nearly as tangled and interconnected as the axons and dendrites of the brain itself. The complexity accounts, in part, for the story arc of the book or, perhaps more accurately, for the lack of a story arc, for this is no straightforward tale of innovation. Mead’s group started out in the 1980s with neural networks, took a detour into check-scanning machines, made a good deal of money with touch-pad technology and wound up, around the turn of the millennium, producing the Foveon imaging chip, which itself may wind up in a different class of devices than its inventors imagined.
Foveon is itself a story in search of an arc. The chip — which can image all three colors in a single pixel instead of relying on the Rube Goldberg array of filters and post-processing techniques employed by conventional digital cameras — is far more elegant than the technology it’s slated to replace. In a conventional story, this superiority would translate into commercial success. But Foveon hasn’t managed to find it yet, and the application of its technology to cameras has turned out to have a lot of rough patches. The first consumer-grade camera employing Foveon technology was recalled last month for poor image quality.
The muddled nature of Foveon’s story, in fact, led me to wonder why Mr. Gilder chose to build a book around the company. I’m a digital photography fan (I own five digital still cameras, ranging from a superb but balky Nikon D70 to a rugged but mediocre Olympus 520, and two digital video cameras), and even to me Foveon seems an odd choice. The technology is great in theory but nowhere near as revolutionary as the book’s subtitle proclaims: “How a Silicon Valley Company Aims to Make All Current Computers, Cameras, and Cell Phones Obsolete.”
A cynic might guess that Mr. Gilder’s focus on the company’s twists and turns (“like everything that happened to Foveon, it was nearly fatal and nicely fortuitous”) is his way of seeking absolution for a series of unimpressive stock picks he made in the 1990s, when he was publishing an influential technology newsletter. But I think there is more to it than that. Like Foveon’s founders, Mr. Gilder wants to understand vision, albeit of a different kind: the vision of innovators.
His book is the latest in the genre of true-life techno-capitalist thrillers that started with Tracy Kidder’s “The Soul of a New Machine” (1981). But where Mr. Kidder’s story revolved around personalities, Mr. Gilder’s revolves around the unpredictability of markets and competition. Yes, there is something self-absolving about that but also something very, very true. Nothing in Foveon’s history turns out as planned and that, perhaps, is the real story.
In the course of the company’s developing a neural-network processor with analog settings, for instance, designers elsewhere “more than doubled the capability of digital technology,” making the company’s laborious analog effort moot. Later, a promising black-and-white imaging chip, for cameras, proved to be a dud when Foveon tried to make it work for color. “Silicon might make a great color imager in theory,” observes Mr. Gilder, but “there was no silicon semiconductor process [at the time] that could yield an effective camera chip.” Foveon was forced to take an entirely new tack — a successful one, as it turned out.
But after all, capitalism is about surprises. As the writer and engineer Samuel Florman noted years ago, those who argue that Big Business dictates consumer tastes and purchases through advertising and market power have to explain the Edsel. Products that look good flop all the time. Products that look weak succeed beyond all expectations. New technologies come out of nowhere to disrupt settled markets, even as other long-expected innovations either fail to materialize (the flying car I expected to have by now is still missing in action) or fail to catch on (people don’t much want PicturePhones because you have to comb your hair before answering). When you combine the unpredictability of technology with the unpredictability of consumers, you wind up with an environment that is, well, really unpredictable. And the results are often fatal (to companies) and fortuitous (to consumers and society).
So it is with Foveon. Perhaps the technology will take the world by storm, as Mr. Gilder predicts. (He thinks that cellphone cameras will be the killer app, as they capitalize on the chip’s compactness and low power consumption.) Perhaps it will fail, or succeed only after years in the wilderness. But by its mere existence, as Mr. Gilder reports, it’s pressuring digital-camera makers to push existing technology much further — toward compactness and high resolution, for example.
This disorderliness and unpredictability has always upset those who prefer their markets tidy. And it has caused plenty of headaches for businessmen who have tried unsuccessfully to guess the future and get ahead of the competition. But the unpredictable disorder of markets is, in Microsoft parlance, not a bug but a feature. That’s a lesson that Mr. Gilder’s book drives home.
Mr. Reynolds is a professor of law at the University of Tennessee.