Lyndsay Williams, Managing Director of Girton Labs
Backgrounder: Girton Labs Ltd was founded by Lyndsay Williams in 2007. Williams is a computer scientist in the field of human-computer interaction (HCI) specialising in new hardware sensing platforms for digital audio, mobile phones and paper computers. Williams is designing new hardware platforms for digital audio for the PC, sensors for mobile phones and currently a new type of sensing computer embedded in printed paper.
Williams was a hardware engineer at Psion, then a senior research fellow at BT's Labs in Martlesham, Ipswich where she invented SmartQuill, a mobile phone with sensors for motion control and human sensing. Williams then worked as a researcher at Microsoft Research in Cambridge where she invented SenseCam, a sensing camera for helping people with Alzheimer's.
1. Can you give a snapshot of your business - your business model, your main markets and the commercial progress you have made to date?Today I am busy doing hardware and software development for embedded sensor computers. I have some customers interested in one product, SenseBulb, a talking light bulb, as below. The main markets are consumer, assisted living and smart homes. Commercial progress is sufficient to have financed working prototypes. There are orders for several hundred Sensebulbs at present.2. What led you to become an inventor?I saw and heard the Fairlight music sound sampler in 1980 but it cost as much as a house then. I taught myself about the Z80 microprocessor and I designed my own cut down sound sampler, "Action Replay" for the Tandy TRS-80 computer. I then converted this for the Sinclair Spectrum for a retail price of £49 and sold several thousand.The company I sold it to was a start-up with six staff, called Datel. It now turns over $150 million per year in the games market.3. What could be done to help encourage more women to follow your lead?Same advice as to anyone, be tenacious, be passionate about science and engineering and get a good degree in engineering and software. Always be curious and ask questions. Build and test your ideas. Don't expect support from anyone - you will be working on your own a lot of the time.Engineering is a very creative process and there is nothing better than having an idea in your head and then building it and getting it working.4. Of your current portfolio of inventions, which do you believe has the most potential?Possibly the Sensebulb. This is a lower power LED light bulb that has a thermal imaging array and sends text messages based on what is happening in the room of a house. It is useful for assistive living, i.e. the family of an elderly person living alone can use Sensebulb to monitor if a person is eating regularly, if they are safe at home and not leaving cooker hob on unattended. The image sensor can detect people, doors opening, e.g. the fridge, the back door left open, hob left on etc. SenseBulb also can detect if someone is waving for help and sends a text message to the carer.No physical contacts or switches are required, the Sensebulb just replaces the conventional bulb. It is a working prototype and when I am out of the house I get text messages saying fridge opened three times in two hours, so I know all is fine at home with the family.Other designs I have build include SenseSurface which is a method of making a conventional LCD of a PC appear in 3D. This adds real control knobs on top of an LCD and is useful for music and video players. I have a working prototype of this new multitouch 3D surface and orders.5. You seem to have made a great success of being made redundant by Microsoft Research. What have been the keys to that success?I left Microsoft Research in 2007 and afterwards continued the research I had started with SenseCam. This was my invention of a sensing camera to help people with Alzheimer's. SenseCam automatically detects interesting scenes and captures several thousand images per day. I then won a couple of East of England Development Agency Awards, one for my research into SenseBulb. I also had my 1997 patent (British Telecom SmartQuill) sold to Apple on a cell phone with sensors, e.g. accelerometers, face detectors, tilting screen, etc and this technology is now used in the iPhone. I am a part time consulting expert for Apple Inc.I can now spend my time designing and building hardware and writing software for useful appliances for people rather than being concerned with academic peer review as at Microsoft Research. In October, Sensecam got licensed by Microsoft to Vicon of Oxford Metrics Group, which is very pleasing as it will now be a product that customers can buy.6. Sensor technology seems to have come of age over the past couple of years. What is driving the adoption in your view?Sensors that used to be physically large are now size of a grain of rice. The first accelerometers I used when I worked in the aircraft industry were 4" in diameter. Also devices that used to have military applications and were expensive now cost a couple of dollars. Thermopiles used to be used in heat seeking missiles to track exhaust heat of target aircraft, I now use tiny ones to track people and objects as in SenseBulb.The use of multiple tiny sensors in cell phones has many applications. Apple iPhone is a successful example of application of fusing many sensors to make a cell phone more intuitive for users.People don't like to read instruction books and if a phone senses automatically what the user needs, e.g.powering up and displaying the information, this makes it easier to use. I don't think I ever needed to read the instruction book to use the iPhone.7. Do you have any ambitions for Girton Labs to become a corporate entity or are you more comfortable remaining a small consultancy?A consultancy in Cambridge with like minded people would be great. Interest from potential investors or partners would also be welcomed.8. What advice would you give to budding inventors?Be persistent, and build a working prototype of your idea. People don't buy ideas, they want to see working prototypes. Be careful who you trust with your intellectual property. Be aware that sometimes your inventions may come at the wrong time, i.e. five to 10 years too early and people might not appreciate them until later.My sensing telephone patent, SmartQuill, was originally offered to Microsoft in 1998, but there were no sensing phones around then for them to compare it with. However they gave me a position of researcher in Microsoft Research. Apple bought the patent 10 years later in 2008. Generally small companies rather than corporations are more receptive to innovation.9. What are your goals for Girton Labs over the next five years?I would like to see a SenseBulb in every home in the UK, rather like there is a smoke detector in every home now, to save lives.10. The UK is famous for its inventors like Sir Clive Sinclair and Trevor Baylis, but less so for its multi-billionaire tech entrepreneurs like Larry Page and Sergey Brin. What part of the innovation process, in your view is at fault?Sinclair and Baylis were self funded with no institutional financial support when they started their business. Page and Brin were supported by finance and networking from their universities when doing their PhDs. This networking allows like minded people to meet up. Sinclair's success was also due to the genius of Chris Curry who went on to found Acorn Computers. Curry's legacy is the ARM chip that is in nearly every phone in the world.