Designers: Idiots, or morons?

Behold, the "Virtual Wall"!

Impossible laser wall

It's a "barrier made up of plasma laser beams depicting pedestrians" to alert drivers to people crossing, more effectively than could a normal red light.

A magnificent idea, with only two minor drawbacks.

One, there's no way to make lasers do this, and two, there's no way to make lasers do this. I know that technically speaking that's only one drawback, but I thought it was such a big one, it was worth mentioning twice.

(OK, perhaps a "plasma laser" can do it. Who knows, since they don't exist. I bet a phased array of Star Wars blaster emitters would make a pretty good signage device too!)

A few of the commenters on the Yanko Design page have pointed out that you can't make a laser beam that's, I don't know, fatter in the middle, or something, unless you put optics out there in the display area. You'd either have to do that, or otherwise cause the lasers to scatter more light from one part of their beams than from another. This can't be done unless you blow something like smoke into the beam, and somehow magically make it hang there in the air in the shape of the image you want to create.

There are "displays" that do something rather like this with drops of water...

...metered out by solenoids in a sort of a giant skinny inkjet print head. But you can't do that with lasers unless you're happy with your images zooming across the display at the speed of light, which is generally a little too quick for motorists to notice.

I know that most designers are not blithering idiots, but there seems to be an endless supply of things like this, and that idiotic Gravia lamp, trying to persuade me otherwise.

Surely the absolute bedrock of design has to be making sure that what you're designing can actually exist in the real world. If you can actually get good marks in a design course by pulling the basics of your product out of your fundament and then concentrating on the packaging and presentation, aren't you really just doing marketing?

13 Responses to “Designers: Idiots, or morons?”

  1. fizz Says:

    I remember reading about a kind of display that could do something of this kind using the constructive interference of a couple of beams so that at their crossing point the heat was enough to make air transform into plasma. A bit like they do for inside-crystal printing.

  2. Daniel Rutter Says:

    Oh, fair enough - that might actually be what the designer was thinking of, though it is of course nothing like what the picture depicts.

    It's still rubbish, though, because lasers bright enough to blast air to plasma at their beam intersections are also lasers that you probably don't want to just be shining across the damn street. You'd need serious safety systems to cut off the sign any time it even suspected something was in the laser path (to avoid blinding/scorching people or vehicles passing through, not to mention people unlucky enough to catch a reflection from something passing through). Remember that these lasers aren't focussed to points inches from the emitter, so they diffuse harmlessly a few feet further on. They cross the whole STREET, which means their vision-hazard range is likely to be large.

    (Actually, the illustration depicts lasers that only cross HALF of the street - one emitter pole is on the footpath, and the other is in the middle of the road.)

    To get good beam intersections you'd probably also need emitters at more of an angle to each other, giving rise to a sort of soccer-goal construction that'd have to be big enough for trucks to fit through.

    Then all you'd need to do is make the whole huge contraption about as perfectly optically dialed-in as a laser fusion lab - so I suppose you'd better pencil in another safety system, to turn the system off any time there's a breath of wind or any, um, nearby traffic. Then you'd just post your armed guards to stop people stealing some of the huge array of beautifully collimated emitters for toys, weapons or to sell on eBay.

    OK, by the time all of the technical problems are overcome then an air-plasma dot-array presumably won't have a lot of resale value. But since cars driven by humans will have been illegal for about a hundred years anyway - we may, by then, have graduated to folding-wheeled flying time-machine De Loreans - nobody will need to put one of the darn things up, either.

  3. keith Says:

    Right and proper use of the Red Dwarf paraphrase. There are a few times when it's appropriate and this was one of them.

  4. fizz Says:

    by the article, the demo emitter had a range of about 3 meters from the single originating point (it does not actualy use the interference of 2 rays like I believed and like in-crystal printing does, but it does use instead a lens to concentrate a single pre-diffused beam in a focal point). No word about dangerousness of the beam, but considering normal lasers, it's likely that's not so great at least for eyes.
    Color with this technique should be strictly white.
    Cost for the moment have not been mentioned.
    All in all, this is very similar to the Gravia lamp: it can be made to work, but not with parameters that can make it of any usefullness.

  5. kamikrae-z Says:

    Unfortunately I can imagine some of my lecturers praising this design for its level of innovation, foresight and clever reframing of the problem space.

    I also see a lot of "parallels" between this and the clipping barriers in recent Need for Speed games. I think its time I release my innovative design for a transdimensional gateway projector.

  6. HitScan Says:

    "It probably won an award."

    Kudos to anyone who knows what that actually means. ;)

  7. Kagato Says:

    You could achieve something along those lines with some sort of laminar-flow fog machine embedded in the road, and a projector mounted on a post nearby. (Like a Heliodisplay.)

    Of course, visibility would be piss-poor... you'd be better off using something much simpler like a couple of red lights to tell drivers to stop, along with a common sense rule like "don't drive through pedestrians".

  8. dabrett Says:

    In my experience "It won an award" means that it is a fundamental failure when it comes to (one of) the basic function of the product. When applied to buildings it means the roof leaks.

    With regards to these things, precision optical alignment and traffic vibration are not a happy mix. I also note that they seem to think it a good idea to throw this up on a yellow light- I would have thought that something like that suddenly appearing in front of you with no warning would be more likely to cause more accidents than less.

  9. peridot Says:

    @7: You mean that "It probably won an award." is a quote from the fabulous book "The Design of Everyday Things? He doesn't address this particular kind problem (perhaps because he has trouble believing that it could exist?)

  10. adrian Says:

    To be fair, a university Industrial Design course is in fact about packaging and presentation, the intention being that Apple or whoever will have an army of clever little men making naked PCBs for the new iPod, which the designer has then to clothe in the latest satin-look anodised shell.
    To approximate this in a teaching environment would mean getting an Electrical Engineering student to work as a team with a Design student, which would mean getting professors from different faculties to spend time in the same room and have an intelligent conversation about things outside their own field of expertise.

    Good luck with that!

  11. Jonadab Says:

    In fairness, anyone who has ever seen a "laser light show" (at, for instance, an amusement park; the technology has existed at least since the eighties) would intuitively expect lasers to be able to do exactly what is depicted in the image.

    (Well, except for the part about making the stopping car look like it was photographed in much lower lighting than the rest of the picture and has the back end jacked up two extra feet, but that's just bad photo manipulation, not a fault in the idea the image is trying to get across.)

    Of course, laser-light shows actually emit light from multiple angles in three dimensions to accomplish their visual effects, and I don't see any way it could be made to work in a plane from a linear emitter as depicted. And the price would be a bit steep for putting them on every street corner in any case. But you know, those are details ;-)

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