Let’s face it; research and development is an abstract concept to many. It goes on in laboratories or back offices and is carried out by scientists or PhDs.

But working in the industry, we are fascinated by it. Every day we see how clever new inventions or processes are changing the world in small ways.

But what about those innovations which have transformed our lives in a big way? The kind of things that we just could not live without, or are amazed at how we did things before they came along.

We take a look at a handful of those innovations that started small but have had a big impact on us since the 90s.

What’s on (or in) the box?

Many of us spend more time than we care to admit watching television, and therefore cannot help but notice how they have changed in the last 20 years.

The first thing that strikes us is their appearance. Once unwieldy boxes taking up a corner of the room, Fujitsu set the wheels in motion to change this in 1997 with their first gas plasma display TV. It may have been 4 inches thick but it was a huge improvement on conventional TVs of the time.

So with TVs getting thinner what else could improve…

Just about everything. To the extent that if a child of today went back 20 years in time they would be horrified. Forget HD, digital didn’t even exist which means grainy picture quality and just four channels. Hey, at least they were in colour!

For all these physical traits that have improved in television in the last twenty years, innovation in functionality has been equally impressive. The innovation has different names depending on your service provider. In the UK perhaps the most common name is Sky+, and to a lesser extent TiVo.

What would we do without it?

You can pause and rewind live TV, record straight onto a hard drive… in short watch TV when you want – not just when the schedules dictate.

On the dash and under the bonnet

Cars are a great yardstick for showcasing R&D. We see them all around us with plenty still around from the 90s. Over the last 25 years there have been too many innovations to cover here so let’s look at a couple of the ones that have had a significant impact.

Sat Nav

How did we manage to get around without them? The thought of trying to memorise the page of a road map or worse have your partner attempt to navigate may send shivers down your spine. But it was only 10 or 15 years ago that this was the norm. Of course, sat navs are not without their problems as these hapless drivers demonstrate. That aside, the innovation behind sat navs are the commercialisation of military GPS technology which had been around long before.

ABS

If Sat Nav is in our face then ABS is an innovation hidden under the bonnet. Anti-lock breaking systems had been around before 1990 but in that year Delco Moraine developed a system cheap enough that it could be installed in any car. Nowadays, it would be difficult to buy a new car without ABS. Interestingly, research by the US government suggests that ABS on its own has not led to a significant reduction in fatal car crashes, but when used as part of a wider traction control system vehicles become significantly safer.

Bringing people back from the dead!

You may not know about these unless you have been unfortunate enough to need one, but mobile defibrillators have transformed the survival rates of people suffering an out-of-hospital heart attack – which happens about 60,000 times a year in the UK alone. Once the preserve of hospitals these machines have developed so much in recent years that they are now small enough, affordable enough, and simple enough to be deployed in many public places.

The highest profile example is that of Bolton footballer Fabrice Muamba who technically died for 78 minutes in front of 35,000 fans at White Hart Lane. He was brought back to life with the use of a mobile defibrillator and the expertise of doctors who were watching the game.

The rise and fall of the digital camera

Children of today simply will not believe what used to be involved in taking a photo just 20 years ago. Careful insertion of a roll of film, a limit of about 30 shots per roll, no opportunity to check the photo once it had been taken, a minimum of an hour’s wait (but more typically days) and only then the chance to check which pictures had come out satisfactorily. Quite often negatives were returned because the developer rejected to the photographs subject matter, or the photos would be developed along with stickers attached to critique the photographers technique.

No casual ‘selfies’ back then!

In the late 90s the digital camera changed all that – correcting almost everything that was wrong with taking amateur photographs overnight. Digital cameras unsurprisingly experienced rapid market growth and were one of the must-have gadgets for a number of years. Here are five ways that the digital camera changed our behaviour.

A phantom menace

But something else was developing in parallel to the digital camera. At first it was a very different device but it slowly converged on functionality and is now rapidly squeezing digital cameras out of the market place.

We are talking about the mobile phone. A bit like cars they are a yardstick for innovation – with new features coming out of the research and development pipeline every year. Of course back in the early 90s they were as big and heavy as house bricks with a truly lousy battery life. So much of the innovation back then was about remedying these drawbacks. In an evolutionary process over two decades they have transformed from those early leviathans into the smartphones of today – perhaps the biggest innovations in these times have been the inclusion of built in cameras, high speed internet access, touchscreens and apps.

Between 2006 and 2011 the digital camera market shrank by a third with analysts crediting much of this demise to the success of the smartphone. With smartphone popularity stronger than ever the outlook is bleak for the standalone digital camera.

Untangling technology with Wireless

Another phantom (in that you can’t see it) that has changed our world since 2003 is wireless. To give it its technical name IEEE 802.11g set a universal standard for wireless transmission of data and what we know as Wi-Fi was born. This means your computer can talk to your printer or even your fridge remotely without cumbersome wires draped around the place. Wi-Fi’s little cousin Bluetooth has also helped to connect our devices, for instance our phones to our cars, iPods to speakers and mice to computers.  The technology was named after tenth-century king, Harald Bluetooth, because it’s said that he united the disparate tribes Norway much like the technology helps unify computers and mobile phones.

Light-bulb moment

The light bulb has long being a symbol of a bright idea. In an age when we are turning to green technology to reduce our impact on the planet, the LED light bulb is a shining example of what can be achieved.

85% more energy efficient than incandescent light bulbs and capable of lasting 25 years these seem set to be the light bulb of the future.   The LED lighting sector remains a hotbed of R&D activity.

The sharp end of the mundane

Does anyone remember what hand dryers used to be like? Sadly the answer is probably yes because we still have some of the old generation about – clunky machines spluttering tepid air over your hands with little drying actually going on.

Innovative West Country company Dyson has led the charge on confining these pitiful machines to the history books with the Air Blade. Other companies have followed suit. The perfect example of how small, even mundane, innovations make our lives better.

This changes everything

We’ve saved the biggest change until last:

The internet!

British scientist Sir Tim Berners-Lee is credited with creating what we know as the world-wide web. The main components had actually already been developed but it was he who linked them all together.

He developed the first hypertext to be linked to the internet in late 1989, and then went on to build the first web browser, an editor and the first web server. The first webpage was built in 1991. This was the first ever web address: http://info.cern.ch/hypertext/WWW/TheProject.html (although the current content is not what was there on day one).

In what most be one of the most magnanimous acts ever, he gifted his creation to the world with no patents and no royalties due! Since then he has been heavily involved in its development ensuring that the standards were all royalty-free, so that they could be adopted by anyone.

Growth was, and still is, exponential. But it took most of the 90s for the internet to really start impacting us.

Now it has changed the way we shop, the way we start and live relationships, the way we communicate, the way we share information, the way we are educated, how entertainment is consumed.

It has created new industries and destroyed established ones.

It has shortened our attention spans, widened our tolerance of personal surveillance (George Orwell would not approve!), and turned our attitude to privacy on its head.

It has provided unbounded opportunity to all. Sharp business-people, philanthropists, crooks and governments have used this to leverage power, influence and create wealth. And it presents threats that we have to spend time and money on defending ourselves from: viruses, scams and whatever else the unscrupulous can throw our way.

More than any other innovation, it has changed the way we live since 1990 and there is no going back.

Is your business researching and developing?

So that is the front end of research and development and how it has changed our lives since 1990. Beneath all these game changing innovations is a long and diverse pipeline of research and development. The back end that we work with.

The governments of many developed countries offer incentives to companies that carry out research and development. And the Research and Development tax credit scheme in the UK has been getting more generous over the years.

You don’t need to change the world to qualify. You simply need to be developing a new or improved product or process where there is an element of risk in the outcome. Everything you do doesn’t need to represent a radical advance, iterative changes over time most certainly also qualify for relief.

Claims for small to medium sized businesses can easily be worth tens of thousands of pounds, if not hundreds of thousands of pounds annually. If you would like help exploring their possibilities for your business then contact us for a quick chat.

 

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