Where Technocrats Play With Toys of Tomorrow
Monday, December 24, 2007
When Booz Allen Hamilton, the big McLean technology and consulting firm, wants to demonstrate the art of the possible, it invites visitors into a room it calls the "technology petting zoo."
This is where it assembles gadgets and new ideas pioneered by others and lets people see them in action, an exhibition hall that can be particularly helpful when talking about something as futuristic as wireless electricity or smart shirts that monitor your health.
Booz Allen's technology candy story is one of many.
Another large military supplier, Bethesda's Lockheed Martin, installed a pair of flight simulators in Crystal City that allow guests to take the future F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and the F-22 out for a spin.
In the District, XM Radio shows off its radios and makes sure every tour includes a stop by a glass-enclosed command center where an engineer sits in a U.S.S. Enterprise-like chair to monitor the company's four satellites and 170 channels.
Sprint Nextel, in Reston, exhibits a slew of state-of-the-art mobile technology -- such as a pen that converts handwriting into digital text and sends it wirelessly to a computer.
The display centers are part marketing, part customer research, and mostly a chance to get people to put their hands on the next generation of technology. Executives say that's important because customers often have a hard time imagining the potential usefulness of rapidly advancing innovations.
"You may want something but have no inkling or idea that it could be a reality until you see a range of possibilities," said James M. Utterback, a professor of management and innovation at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
To help people imagine the possibilities, the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, a trade group in the District, places future innovations in common settings such as an office, living room or kitchen.
"The goal was to create a clean modern backdrop, and then the products and services tell the story," said Mark Bell, vice president for industry affairs at the association.
But even executives in charge of the display centers caution that their importance can be limited. For starters, cutting-edge technology can often be too costly for practical use. And few make buying decisions based on show-and-tell.
Art Fritzson, the Booz Allen executive who oversees the company's petting zoo, said many clients -- such as the Internal Revenue Service -- stop by focused on one objective and are not looking for a whimsical tour of technology's future.
"Most of them are not interested in pure technology. They're really interested in their mission," Fritzson said.
Booz Allen's 1,000-square-foot zoo features 50 technologies at any given time -- each provided by outside vendors with which Booz Allen collaborates. Each year, staff at the zoo gives more than 1,000 tours to employees, clients and visitors. All new staff members at the McLean facility pay a visit.
The technologies are grouped by themes. One room is dedicated to alternative energy; two items demonstrate the possibility of wireless energy. Small electronic devices are powered over a distance by converting radio waves into energy, either recharging a battery on the device or directly powering a low-energy system such as a sensor.
A look around the room several weeks ago showed other nifty items:
¿ A fabric, coated with shear thickening fluid, which is flexible and can be used in clothing. But when hit by something causing heavy impact, like a knife or bullet, it hardens.
¿ A "smart shirt" system that puts sensors into everyday fabrics, allowing them to send data about someone's health and environmental conditions to a computer in real time.
¿ Printable electronics that use flexible, thin, transparent circuits to replace the hard silicon chips found in cellphones, iPods and other electronics. The special circuits would allow companies to make cellphones that are credit-card thin or print chips on milk cartons so they could send an alert when empty.
¿ A carbon graphite foam battery that weighs significantly less than the lead in most vehicle batteries, does not corrode easily and increases energy efficiency because of its porous design. In other words, it can turn your heavy car battery into a light, longer-lasting battery the size of a fist.
Some inventors appreciate the exposure the petting zoo allows.
Theodore Anderson, an engineer in Massachusetts, had labored nearly eight years on a new technology he hopes will revolutionize antennas. He has created a crude version of a gas-based antenna, made with hydrogen or neon, that is more versatile than a traditional metal antenna and cannot be picked up by radar -- important for the military.
"If I want to get funded by a government agency or get the government interested, all the agencies are primarily in the D.C. area. I could just send them to Booz Allen," he said.