With any innovative technology there are technical and societal challenges. Specifically, once Research & Development creates a prototype that demonstrates proof-of-concept, the technical challenge is to manufacture that technology in a scalable and cost-effective manner. However, being able to produce something efficiently does not guarantee consumers will adopt it—that is the societal challenge: to educate the public about the technology so that they not only adopt it when available, but also that they invest in the industries relevant to its production and distribution. This investment will ensure, through competition, that the technology will undergo continuous improvement and that costs will be driven down for both producers and consumers. Ideally you want to educate the public about a technology in parallel with its research & development so that consumers will adopt it once the technical problems are solved and the product is ready for release.
My general research focuses on the societal challenge of how to educate the public about innovative technologies. The specific technological focus of this research is two-fold: (1) energy harvesters that convert solar, electromagnetic waves, thermal, and vibration into electricity; and (2) photovoltaic cells that incorporate nanostructures for improved energy efficiency and reduced material costs.
The societal challenges are especially difficult for energy innovations, for several reasons. First, people want proof of technology claims (like improved energy efficiency), yet much of the innovation is invisible to consumers since it occurs at the nanoscale. Second, although prototypes may exist, the product in its final form and packaging does not. The research question is: How do you convince the public to adopt a technology whose benefits they cannot see, and whose function they cannot experience?
The approach we have taken to answer this question is to develop and disseminate immersive interactive visualizations. We divide these visualizations into three categories: inner space, virtual space, and outer space.
Inner-space visualizations use 3D animations and virtual reality technology to allow users to experience representations & simulations of structures and processes at scales that are too small for the eye to see. Through these visualizations, users get an appreciation of the scale and the complexity of nanomanufacturing.
Virtual-space visualizations use videogame technology to develop interactive virtual worlds that allow users to see, albeit in a simulated environment, the benefits and costs of innovative technologies that do not yet exist. The benefits experienced are at the individual and community levels.
The final class of visualization is the outer-space visualization. As the name implies, the goal of these visualizations is to show applications of innovative technology beyond the earth.
We will present these visualizations and our use of social networking for viral distribution.