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Copyright

Title: The Silicon Eye
Author: George Gilder
Publisher: W. W. Norton
Copyright: 2006
ISBN: 0393328414
Pages: 318
Price: $15.00
Rating: 60%

 

George Gilder, the futurologist whose predictions are always entertaining, even when incorrect, changes tack in this latest book: instead of looking at the future, he rides along with the present, narrating the story of Foveon, a company with innovative ideas for imagers, or the chips used to convert light to bytes in digital cameras. (To be fair, this book is similar to the first part of Gilderís Microcosm, published in 1989, where Gilder examined the hullabaloo around computers in Silicon Valley.)

 

But Silicon Eyeís title is misleading: Foveon's sensor is nothing like a "silicon eye". It does sense light differently--and perhaps more efficiently--than standard digital camera sensors, but it in no way approaches the powerful resolution of the eye, retina and brain processing that allows us to see with such precision. In Gilder's explanation, standard sensors record "only one of three colors at each pixel," computing "the actual mix of colors on the basis of the value of colors of neighboring pixels." The Foveon sensor, however, attempts to "measure every color at every pixel." It "registers real features of the image rather than digital simulations of it." Foveonís "direct image sensors" actually have three layers of pixels embedded in the silicon, each of which records red, blue or green light, providing image sensing similar to that of film. Currently, however, only three companies sell cameras using this technology.

Gilder tells the tale of the people and ideas behind this technology.

 

We meet such people as Federico Faggin, who, according to Gilder, invented the first microprocessor. (It wasn't that other guy, because, apparently, Faggin's contributions were used without giving him due credit.) Other characters with quirky personalities come into the story, as Gilder traces the evolution of the microprocessor and neural networks--slightly off-topic, frankly, but they do tie in to the denouement of the story.

Faggin went on to found a company called Synaptics, which would apply the concepts from these neural networks to processors, first applying them to create an optical reading chip that would read checks, then developing trackpads. At the same time, Carver Mead, one of Synaptics' engineers, was pursuing digital imaging projects. Other engineers come and go (one by jumping in front of a train), and Gilder paints a portrait of people with interesting ideas who have a great deal of trouble dealing with the world around them.

 

The story continues as Foveon develops their revolutionary idea, manages to get a few companies to include their sensor in cameras, and... Well, nothing much. To Gilder's credit, he does point out the difficulty that Foveon will have in making inroads into the optical sensor market. Better technology does not always win out, faced with competition from the mammoths of the industry. Not only are other companies well entrenched in their positions, but how many users really want this extra quality? Many of them seem happy with the pictures they take today, even with their cellphones. At best, Foveon seems to have a possibility for attracting high-end users: professionals, who really care about colors. But even those users do not, as yet, seem convinced.

There are many problems with this book.

 

In the early chapters, Gilder gets bogged down in details, making this a tough read for anyone unfamiliar with the lingo of electronics and microprocessors. In addition, this detail adds little to the actual story he tells; he could have skipped over much of the technical stuff and focused on the human side of the story a bit more, but then the book would have been too short. Gilder seems to want to tell every step of the innovation, and the frequent forays the company and its engineers made into different technologies becomes confusing. But in the end, Gilder (or his ghostwriter) is not a good enough storyteller to really make this interesting, and the technology, while potentially disruptive, hasn't become familiar enough to entice readers into wanting to understand it. Sure, people working in the microprocessor and especially the digital imaging industry will find this book interesting, but others may not.

 

One might wonder why Gilder wrote this book--is it to present what he thinks is an interesting technology, or is it simply as propaganda for a company that he may own stock in? Given Gilder's track record of publishing more forward-looking books, and his newsletter, the Gilder Technology Report, he certainly doesn't need the modest income that such a book provides. It's hard to imagine that a man with so many occupations would take the time to write such a tale for such base reasons as simply talking about the technology and telling its story.

 

Prospective books about companies and technology face a great deal of difficulty, both in the marketplace and in the larger scheme of things. This book may be quickly forgotten, in spite of the brand recognition of its author, but there is the slim chance that, should Foveon succeed in its quest for the perfect image, that the book will be hailed as a classic of futurology. Frankly, at this point in time, unless you work in the chip or digital camera industry, who cares?

 

Kirk McElhearn  

 

Kirk McElhearn (kirk@mcelhearn.com) is a freelance writer and translator living in a village in the French Alps. You can find out all about him at his web site, http://www.mcelhearn.com.