Flights of fancy: expensive playthings can sometimes give birth to important technologies

Tom Standage in More Intelligent Life:

ToyAs a fan of new technology, I’m often at the front of the queue to buy the latest gadgets. But even I draw the line somewhere. Consider the HTC Vive, for example, the state of the art in virtual-reality headsets. Using an awesome trick called “volumetric” or “room-scale” VR, it doesn’t just transport you to another world: its position-tracking system means you can walk around in it too. There’s just one problem: the Vive costs £750, and you also need a £1,000 PC to power it. And a spare room. All this makes for a pricey toy, which is why I have not bought one. Then there’s the DJI Mavic, an insect-like quadcopter drone that can fold up to fit in a backpack. Normally when I try to fly drones they crash into the wall, the ceiling or the cat, and I am ordered to go outside and crash them into trees instead. But the Mavic is idiot-proof. If you try to crash it into a wall (and I tried) it beeps and refuses to go any farther. If you hold up your arms to make a Y shape, it follows you around. Make a square shape with your hands and it snaps a selfie. It lands automatically too. It’s great fun, but it costs £999, so I have not bought one of these, either. Yet despite being expensive toys – or, rather, precisely because they are expensive toys – these are both technologies worth watching. History shows that contraptions built to amuse the wealthy can go on to become world-changing tools. Rich technophiles often provide the initial demand for a complex, untested technology – and, as a consequence, the funding and the motivation to improve and develop it.

Automata offer the most striking historical example. These philosophical toys became popular in the 18th century, as an offshoot of elaborate mechanical clocks. Automaton-makers such as Jacques de Vaucanson and Pierre Jaquet-Droz built lifelike mechanical figures that could dance or write sentences. At the time they were the most complex pieces of machinery ever built, yet their chief use was to amaze the courts of Europe. Though they seemed frivolous, their construction spurred innovations in precision machinery that went on to find much wider use during the Industrial Revolution. Jaquet-Droz’s writing automaton pioneered the use of cams to preprogram complex, synchronised movements; de Vaucanson created the first flexible tubing for his famous automaton duck, and later built an early mechanical weaving machine. Rivalry between automaton-makers also led to new tools such as the milling machine.

More here. (Warning: Abbas likely to get ideas from this post and possibly add to his expensive collection of gadgets)