Innovation: The magic and the method

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When Otavio Good sees the word “salida” in a Spanish-speaking country, he thinks of “salad” instead of “exit.” To avoid the embarrassment that can result from mistakes like this, the Mountain View developer created WordLens, a smartphone app that instantly translates texts, from signposts to menus, with a simple camera view. Right now the app […]

Word LensWhen Otavio Good sees the word “salida” in a Spanish-speaking country, he thinks of “salad” instead of “exit.” To avoid the embarrassment that can result from mistakes like this, the Mountain View developer created WordLens, a smartphone app that instantly translates texts, from signposts to menus, with a simple camera view.

Right now the app can translate English, French and Spanish, with German, Italian and Portuguese coming soon. Chinese and Arabic versions are also in the works. Designed for tourists, the app translates texts without using wi-fi – roaming would cost a fortune – and generates translations from a pre-installed dictionary. Built for the iPhone, it will soon be available on Android devices.

The app is so fast you’d think it was magic. This is exactly how it was described by Daniel Glazman, who introduced it at Nexplorateur Forum,  held March 15th and 16th at the UNESCO Palace in Paris. The app was voted one of the 10 best global apps of the year.

Irritated by people (journalists heading the list) who ask him when he got the idea for the app, Good spoke instead of the innovation process. “There isn’t an aha moment,” he said. So there’s no story to tell, unfortunately. In this he agrees with Steven Johnson, whom he tells me he’s never read.

Good detailed six conditions necessary for creating “innovative software”:

  • Competence: Good has studied computer graphics since he was seven.
  • Adopting technologies as soon as they appear: early adopters often get criticized, but, “if you want to have a chance to lead in the field” you need to be open to trying new things, he said. “This is  valuable,” he added, “for communities.” I believe he was thinking here of companies, but perhaps also countries.
  • Reliance on community: What you gain by availing yourself to friends and colleagues is much more important then the risk of someone stealing your idea. No doubt because innovation is a slow and complex process.
  • Experimentation: “Start building and you’ll begin to see the real issues,” he said. Good said that he works on a new software idea ever fifteen days. For the last five years. “I rarely finish them,” he said. “But it’s good. It helps me figure out what makes sense and what doesn’t.”
  • Taking risks: “We underestimate the value of risk,” Good said. His first was “in a research project that ran for two years, even though I didn’t know where I was going. There weren’t any devices capable of doing what I had in mind when I started. There was no market – hardly 2 million iPhones.”
  • Hard work: Which, to the chagrin of journalists, doesn’t make for a very good story: “There’s a bug, you debug. There’s a bug. You debug. Hard work is a part of the innovation process whose importance is often forgotten,” he said.

 
Shakespearean conclusion: there is method in his magic.

In terms of innovation, magic is only in the end result, and doesn’t happen every time. Everything leading there is a result of a rigorous method.

It’s up to us to whether we think that’s a good thing, but don’t tell me it’s not a good formula.

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