Random searches on the Web often turn out to be adventures in happy chance findings. While search engines are investing extraordinary resources to make search results more accurate, to bring to the searcher a result closer to exactly what he had in mind, the internet often reveals nuggets of information when searchers start following links at random. So never discount the power of serendipity since many inventions which upended established ways of thinking and acting had their origins in happy chance findings.
SERENDIPITY HELPED MIYAMOTO OVERTURN INDUSTRY DOGMA
Let’s take an example from the world of gaming. Shigeru Miyamoto is a legend in the world of video gaming. Starting from Donkey Kong to Super Mario Bros, and The Legend of Zelda, Miyamoto had re-defined video gaming and made Nintendo a major force in the industry. But by the early years of the aughts, Miyamoto was considered past his prime, and the creator of some of the most critically acclaimed and successful games and franchises of all time was regarding by some as past his best.
The gaming industry itself had by then switched on to a period when power, and the intensity of the graphics embedded in the consoles, were considered everything. As Joshua Cooper Ramo narrates in his book The Age of the Unthinkable, “Sony and Microsoft spent hundreds of millions of dollars to custom-build graphics processors capable of performing several trillion calculations per second. These chips were so expensive that Sony and Microsoft lost money on each gaming console.”
What’s more, both the companies, which were by then leading their market with their PlayStation and Xbox consoles respectively, started investing millions more in new chips and hardware, anticipating the arrival of hi-definition television and more intense power computing. But at his lab in Kyoto, Miyamoto remained unimpressed. “Too many powerful consoles can’t co-exist,” he had concluded. “It’s like having only ferocious dinosaurs. They might fight and hasten their own extinction.”
When word leaked about Miyamoto’s shift in thinking, the gaming press started bombarding him with questions. All he would say was a cryptic comment: “We are kind of in a strange period where power is the crux of whether something is going to be successful,” he said. “That seems a little bit odd. If we rely solely on the power of the console to dictate what we are going with games, I think that tends to suppress the creativity of the designers.” Enough said. Many of the listeners thought the gaming veteran had finally lost his grip on the industry.
Wii SCORED WITH TECHNOLOGY SOURCED FROM AIR-BAGS
As it happened, Miyamoto had the last laugh. Nintendo’s new console called the Wii, released in 2006, used graphics technology two generations behind PS3 and Xbox 360. But it just came out of nowhere to turn the industry upside down. What distinguished it was its motion control element which transformed gaming, till then an experience enjoyed by couch potatoes, into a much more physical sport. As Ramo says in his book, “In homes in Japan, the United States, and Europe, owners cleared space in front of their TVs, pushed their couches out of the way instead of sitting on them, then jumped, crawled and flailed around with their Wiimotes. Wii killed the idea that a video game was something you played without breaking a sweat.”
Powering all this action was an innovative chip inside the Nintendo Wii. It had rather interesting origins. Ramo says, “It hadn’t come from some geek-stuffed gaming chip design house. It had come, instead, from inside an automobile air-bag system, very similar to what you have in your car. The chip was a small silicon tab called accelerometer, a breakthrough device that could measure the most minute changes in direction and speed. In your car, the chip is programmed to notice the sort of changes that could be associated with an accident — sudden jerks, wild skids, the instant snap of collision. When it senses these radical changes, it fires off the air-bags in a carefully planned sequence. But the best of these chips, the most advanced, could measure smaller and more nuanced movements.”
Miyamoto was struck by its possibilities. How about combining these chips with the hand-held controllers of video game consoles, he wondered? Nintendo, ever ready to invest resources into transforming Miyamoto’s every new idea into reality, worked hard at it. Still it took them four years to get the accelerometer to work in a gaming console. Nintendo’ software engineers developed new ways to translate human movement into virtual action. In the end, the efforts were worth it. Sony and Microsoft were soon forced to play catch-up with their PlayStation Move and Kinect, respectively. Gaming was never the same after Wii. So who says random searches and enquiries have no value?