Evolutionary Innovation and Garrett Brown’s Latest Venture

zero-g-arm-abc-w520.jpgA recent “Ahead of the Curve” segment on ABC News (also available on YouTube) features an interview with inventor, Oscar-winner, former radio advertising pitchman, and erstwhile folksinger Garrett Brown. Brown, along with business partner Eric Golden demonstrate the results of their latest venture, the zeroG arm marketed by Equipois.

The device assists industrial workers by allowing heavy equipment to seem virtually weightless. Using a new generation of the technology Brown developed for the original Steadicam camera stabilizer, the zeroG arm makes it easy to hold equipment for long periods and while providing fine control for delicate tasks.

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It is instructive to observe how Brown has continued to innovate around the core ideas he first developed in the mid-1970s for stabilizing motion picture cameras.

The original Steadicam went through several prototypes before it was perfected. The first version used a simple T-bar counter-balanced weight. Then followed a version that employed a parallelogram mechanism keep the camera level when raised vertically. Finally Brown developed a vest-like harness to shift much of weight of the camera back to the operator’s body, which led to the initial production model of the Steadicam. The first major motion picture to use the Steadicam was Hal Ashby’s Bound for Glory (released in December, 1976). Rocky, Marathon Man, and many others soon followed.

Since that time, Brown has continued to innovate along two different tracks. Along one path he explored new techniques for moving the camera. These experiments led to entirely new control mechanisms such as the SkyCam and its descendants like the FlyCam and the SuperFlyCam. Other approaches led to products such as the DiveCam and the MobyCam.

Along a parallel path, Brown continued to develop and the enhance the balance and control mechanisms of the Steadicam. This more evolutionary approach led to another series of inventions, from the Steadicam Merlin for consumer grade camcorders to new generations of the Steadicam for professional cinematographers like Tiffen’s recent G-Series. Brown’s patents for the original Steadicam expired over a decade ago and Steadicam-like clones are now on the market, but his continued focus on perfecting and enhancing the mechanical characteristics of the device has continued to sustain the Steadicam as the brand that defines the field. And it has now led to entirely new product lines like the zeroG arm from Equipois.

The two paths followed by Brown’s stabilization inventions demonstrate how innovation can be both revolutionary and evolutionary, how it can break from the past or extend and enhance previous breakthroughs.

If you’re interested in Garrett Brown’s work, he discusses his views on innovation and invention in an interview I did with him for Knowledge@Wharton. The piece includes a sidebar on this rather colorful career and a small photo gallery. Additional photos are available in my Flickr photostream.

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