Giving Humans Invent an insight into his day-to-day life at the laboratories Mather explains his obsession with how things work, how his job at the labs has affected his life at home and his key principles behind good scientific practice. From deconstructing the best cake mixture, to improving the bicycle and refusing to believe experiments can go wrong, Humans Invent shares an insight into the mindset of a modern day innovator.
What is your official job title at Sharp labs?
Research supervisor in the Optical Imaging and Display Systems Group at Sharp Laboratories of Europe.
First and foremost, I have always gained a lot of pleasure from understanding things. I had to know how something worked – no matter what. When I was young we had a home computer (the ZX Spectrum) and we used to play games on it. This lead me to want to understand how they were made, so I went to the library and found a book so that I could teach myself how to write games in ‘machine code’ which operates the ‘heart’ of the computer. That understanding of how computers work continues to serve me well to this day. At school I chose subjects that were science based and I really enjoyed them, so I decided to carry on further study at university in the hope that I could find a job in the science sector. It’s very satisfying to find that what I enjoy is commercially useful so that I can earn a living from it.
So you committed your life to science from an early age?
Yes. It seems to me that some people have a natural aptitude for science. A little like some people have a natural aptitude for music. I think my brain has always been able to look at things very rationally. For example, I used to play a lot of chess, in fact I used to be the county number one in the under-11 age group but after that I gave up playing almost entirely.
The goal is to make a 3D display that is totally natural to use, no glasses, no restrictions on head position, just natural 3D
You are currently working on 3D technology at Sharp labs. What is the future for 3D tech?
The goal is to make a 3D display that is totally natural to use, no glasses, no restrictions on head position, just natural 3D. I think in the future when we receive a photograph of a friend’s new house, we can expect to be able to look round it in full 3D rather than be restricted to one viewpoint. I think this type of function will lead to better technology for interacting with 3D images. But the ultimate 3D display is a holographic display. Many people don’t realise but there is one thing missing from today’s stereoscopic 3D displays. Despite the depth that they show, the objects always appear in focus; in a holographic display even the correct focus of the light is recreated to form a perfect replica of the real world. However, this is not without the addition of significant technical complexity. We may have to put together another 40 years of technical progress before we gain the benefits of such a display.
Apart from 3D, what have you worked on at Sharp Labs? And what are you working on in the future?
The biggest project I have worked on in Sharp is the ‘Dual View’ display, and this has also been my favourite because I began working on it from the start. Initially, we were asked if we could make a display for a car in which the driver, looking at the display from their angle sees a different image (a map for example) from the passenger, (who could be watching a movie from their angle). As far as we know when I started working on the project no-one had ever built a dual view display before so the challenge was clear – build a viable dual view display by any means necessary. I like this kind of project.
I spend a lot of my time thinking about the future; what is the next new device that we can viably manufacture for people, is one of the hardest questions. Robots are beginning to grow in popularity with the advent of cheap computing power and cameras.
Have you ever had an ‘experiment’ go wrong in the lab?
As a scientist, I would say that experiments always give the right answer. I gave a lecture recently and I wanted to demonstrate a display with a picture of a dinosaur and when you move to the side the viewpoint of the scene changes so that you actually see the side of the dinosaur (there is a camera to determine the angle you are viewing it from). It didn’t work because the lights had been turned off so that people could see the projector and it was too dark for the camera. But, in fact the experiment worked perfectly; it showed that the cameras don’t work in the dark – it’s just that it was a different experiment to the one I intended to show (in which the display works beautifully). This is something else to perfect if we were to ever put the Sharp brand upon it.
So, does your obsession with understanding spill over into your life outside the labs?
I have a drive to create things that people will find useful in their day-to-day lives. Fortunately that is what I do here at Sharp Labs – we get the opportunity to explore, whether it be with 3D technology, healthcare or sometimes the very exotic. Our remit is to apply our knowledge and skills to improve existing products and to create new ones. If we see a reason that a technology could help another sector, we are encouraged to go and investigate. For someone with my obsession with how things work, and could work better – I can safely say I have the perfect job.
Well, I never know what might catch my interest in the future but …when I was at school I remember someone pointing a Bunsen Burner at sand and saying ‘isn’t it supposed to melt?’ (it didn’t). To me I found it utterly incomprehensible how sand could change so dramatically as to form wonderfully transparent glass. There was clearly a gap in my knowledge here so I felt compelled to fill it. The trick is to add sodium carbonate to the sand; it lowers the melting point which makes things a lot easier. I mixed a little sand (that I collected when I was on holiday), with some sodium bicarbonate baking powder (from my kitchen), heated it in a home-made kiln and sure enough I ended up with a small block of what looked like green bottle glass. Very satisfying, I gave it to my (now) wife who keeps it on the mantelpiece.
There are a large group of people at work who compete in triathlons, some of whom have very high-tech bikes, and I wanted to know how much advantage that actually gives them. I measured a surprising 15% difference between a rusty old mountain bike and my racing bike, mostly down to the aerodynamics of the riding position. I concluded that a simple change you can make to a bike which should give quite an improvement is to add a pair of ‘inner bars’ which allow you to ride in a more streamlined position. This could take 10% off your daily commuting time.
What other investigations have you explored at home?
There are all sorts of crazy things that I have done. I like to look into areas that you wouldn’t necessarily apply science to, or that you wouldn’t think about applying scientific thought to. One of my most recent projects at home was to investigate, ‘what is the best type of cake you can bake’. For example, you can buy lots of different cakes from supermarkets, cafes and bakeries, but I thought there had to be a clearer and more systematic way of approaching cake making. So I decided to make the full spectrum of cakes, the whole variety – a matrix of cakes if you will. Each one had different ranges of flour, eggs and sugar. I mixed up all the ingredients and I taste tested each one to work out what the ideal cake mixture was. After a few days investigating and a lot of eating, I think the best recipe was the one in your standard supermarket cake. But what I also discovered after looking at these ranges of mixtures I had made was, I had bread at one end, cookies over here and then scones over here. All these different recipes are well known, but it was satisfying to know that if they weren’t I would have discovered them. Anyway, I am certainly a better cook for it.
Understanding how our universe works is of great advantage when it comes to making it do what you want
So you are really fascinated by finding out if something can be bettered, whether it be 3D or a cake mixture?
It’s whatever takes my fancy. I just want to work out how it works and see if I can make it better.
My line of work is mostly applied science, which is a little different from pure science per se, and for that I would say…
A: ‘Understanding how our universe works is of great advantage when it comes to making it do what you want’. Science is the key to this. One of the aims of science is to break the function of things down into small understandable steps and work out what the principles are that underlie them. For example, we have realised that things are made of a various types of atoms, which behave in a particular way, which have then been manipulated to form transistors and computers. After a lifetime thinking with this kind of approach, understanding all the curiosities around us, we end up with a great tool box of tricks that we can use to design electronics displays, and cameras and so on.
B: ‘Observation is the ultimate and final judge of the truth of an idea’, (Richard Feynman). This is another key principle borrowed from pure science. In our field, there can be a lot of uncertainty about whether various ideas and designs are possible, but if you can put a working prototype on the table, the uncertainty stops, as the result is totally clear for everyone to see. Such a prototype can be so convincing that we find it is the best way to get relevant people in the company to take notice and exploit an idea. When we presented a working prototype of a Dual View display, development rapidly accelerated as people realised that the idea could actually work.
C: ‘A complicated design is the mark of an inferior designer’. Credit to Jamie Hyneman from Mythbusters for expressing so elegantly something that I frequently find true. I try to keep my designs as simple as possible and only if they fail do I resort to adding more complexity. Whilst working on one project which required a brand new type of material, we found a ‘spin-off’ use – it could be used to create a 3D display. However, it required a very long and complicated manufacturing technique, needless to say the second (redesigned) version of the device didn’t use it.