27 Jan 2010

Appreciating the omnipresent pieces of technology

A queer thing I realized lately is that - more and more of technology focus today is towards electronic and software based innovations. In between the hype surrounding the launch of the next Apple device or the newest open source toolkit, we (or should be "I" rather) miss out the real innovations going on in other areas.

As an example - the other day when I almost missed my flight. Thankfully the sweet lady ( yeah she was ;-)) at the IA checkin counter agreed to put me through - though not before giving a 30-second sermon on the ill-effects of arriving late for boarding. I was dismayed that she didn't observe me panting for breath after running all the way from the highway where the cab had dropped me prematurely.

I was allocated the first seat in the economy wing on an Airbus 319. After getting comfy and pulling the seat belt, I noticed that there was no tray which you can pull out from the front seat while having lunch. A digression here - contrary to everyone's experiences, I love the food served on home carrier IA (Indian Airlines). The food is delicious and not just some vegetables cut raw and served in the name of lower calories - you know, the health-freak sort of food. So naturally for that particular flight - food and thus the required tray was primary on my mind and I was wondering whether I'd have to finally have food with the food-tray on my lap.

It was somewhere while reading through the traveller magazines that I noticed the left side-arm of the seat and a spring loaded flap cover . Curiously I opened it to find an assortment of mechanisms inside. I tugged it lightly and the whole mechanism seemed to be pretty solid built (like those hydraulic pipes on the earthmover trucks). Pulled it harder and wow - like a robotic arm the whole mechanism slid out - another tug and it turns left by 180 degrees - there slides out another internal slider which expands to become a tray base and the whole thing turned into a pretty robust tray holder in a matter of seconds. Push and slide it back and neatly folds into the designated seat-arm slot. What a conveniently designed piece of machinery ! Blending aesthetics and functionality into minimal space !.

I was reminded of the "Transformers" movie in which cars transform into robots in a sequence of slick steps. Now the curious chap that I can be at times, I spent the rest of the flight trying to study how the contraption actually worked, all those springs that clicked and expanded at the right time and all those levers that provided the perfect touch sensitive operation. I must mention - I didn't get much anywhere in my R&D save for the first sliding mechanism. Would have carried on - when I saw my neighborly gentleman getting worried about my progress. Probably flight safety was on top of his mind and he didn't much appreciate me counting the springs and levers, 30,000 feet above sea level.

Then I sat thinking how much effort, testing and collaboration might have been required to design that sleek folding seat tray. Who might be the fellow who designed it. Similarly for the iris diaphragm in camera shutters and slide-out doors on Volvo buses. These are innovative pieces of engineering which we have taken granted. Each is a piece of technology that deserves as much applause as the new age algorithm for counting needle's in a haystack.

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