Chris Barnado of Pelikon waxes lyrical about a small handset… with its glowing electroluminescent display it is, he hopes, set to be the iPod of remote controls.
The humble remote control handset is rarely the cause of unbridled enthusiasm, but Chris Barnardo brandishes his with the relish of a conductor’s baton.
This particular handset is called Kameleon, and it radiates an eerie blue light. Instead of standard plastic buttons it has glowing icons that respond to touch. It switches itself on when you pick it up. Best of all, the universal remote handset adapts to suit the device it is controlling. Turn on the DVD and the buttons for the satellite box vanish. Switch to the CD player and its icons will glow blue in your hand.
Barnardo loves the Kameleon because it is the first mass-market device to use the electroluminescent (EL) interface display system he helped to pioneer at Pelikon, a technology company based in Cambridge and South Wales. Instead of a traditional rubber key mat, the remote uses a thin, flexible plastic EL display to create its distinctive glow and ‘hidden-until-reveal’ functionality.
‘When you look at that remote control there is something outlandishly exciting about it,’ said Barnardo. ‘You know the consumer is going to get a buzz from owning it and using it, because of the features it has and because they get a kick out of what it looks like.’
The ‘kick’ and ‘buzz’ experienced by the customer are rarely the province of materials engineers working in the niche area of inorganic phosphors. But in Barnardo’s case, a preoccupation with the consumer is understandable. For the first decade of his career he was a graphic designer and advertising executive.
He plied his trade in London’s Soho during its glory years of the 1980s, when the nearest most people in the advertising industry got to engineering was choosing the features for their latest model of Porsche.
Barnardo still values the experience of his time as an ad-man. ‘If you were interested and could be bothered you could get involved in many aspects of other people’s businesses,’ he said. ‘You could find out what makes their company and their consumers tick.’
His stint in the advertising world brought Barnardo into contact with everyday brands such as Shell, Bacardi, NestlÃ© and Prudential. He held a range of posts in design, marketing, campaign planning and new product development which he said ‘satisfied the inventor in me to some extent’.
By the end of the 1980s Barnardo was running his own design company, and a merger with another business gave him that ultimate Soho status symbol – his name on the agency’s brass plate (Knight Healy Barnardo of Denman Street, W1).
Then came the recession of the early 1990s, and in Barnardo’s own words, ‘It all went a bit pear-shaped. The economy just went into a tailspin. You’d do work for people then they would tell you, “I’m not paying you. Sue me, I’m going bust anyway.”’
Barnardo took this as his cue for a radical change of direction. He had joined the advertising and design world straight from school. Armed with his science and mechanical drawing A-levels from a decade earlier, he decided at the age of 30 to begin a degree in engineering and biomedical materials at the University of London.
‘It may sound bizarre, but I’m the son of two doctors and one thing I’d always wanted to do was design artificial limbs or work in some field of robotics.’
The ad-executive-turned-student found academic life much to his liking. ‘I think as a mature student you have a sense of really wanting to take advantage of the facilities and equipment at your disposal,’ said Barnardo.
‘I remember being awe-struck that I had the opportunity to look down a £750,000 microscope, and would carry on doing so when a lot of the other students had bunked off down the bar.’
Barnardo freelanced as a graphic designer to help fund his course and emerged with a first-class BEng degree. Now a fully fledged engineer, he went to work for Cambridge Consultants Limited (CCL), the technology R&D group.
To his delight, Barnardo found he had exchanged London’s West End for a different, though equally creative, hotbed of activity on Cambridge’s Science Park. ‘I was a graduate engineer, but I also had 10 years of design experience and when I went to CCL they quickly decided that would come in useful.’
Barnardo joined a newly formed group within CCL researching the impact of technology on disposable products, the type of everyday fast-moving consumer goods he was helping to advertise a few years earlier. Along with his colleagues, Barnardo became intrigued by ongoing academic research into light-emitting polymers (LEPs), organic materials with the potential to create new types of flat, flexible display screens.
He was interested in how future display technologies would change the design and functionality of disposable goods if they could be mass-printed. Rather than the grander vision of giant video screens, Barnardo foresaw the side of a breakfast cereal packet delivering a few seconds of animation. A gimmick, perhaps, but enough to make the product stand out.
They organised some tests using PPV, the original LEP material , at a local printer, sending it through a standard offset litho printing machine to see if its luminescent qualities survived the process. Sure enough, a rudimentary effect was obtained. ‘We knew we were seeing something with potential,’ said Barnardo, but they continued the hunt for materials other than the experimental, and hugely expensive, LEPs.
The breakthrough came when Barnardo and his team came across EL materials, which were readily for sale through electronics supply catalogues. These materials are based on inorganic phosphors that emit visible light, but no heat, when subjected to a low-power AC current. They had been around since the 1930s, but remained too expensive for mass commercial application until the early 90s. Even then they were mostly used for straightforward lighting panels.
If they could be married with electronic drivers, and if cost-effective deposition and printing techniques could be developed, Barnardo decided that they could be what he was looking for.
‘I got together a little posse of electronics guys at CCL to take a look,’ said Barnardo. ‘The beauty of CCL is that it’s a hotbed of highly intelligent engineers who can tackle problems and give you solutions. You chat to someone at lunchtime about an idea and they’ll say, “Oh yes, I’ve done the calculations for that. It was one of my hobbies as a kid.” In five minutes you can find out whether it’s a goer and what the problems are.’
The CCL team set about combining the electronics with the EL materials to develop displays suitable for use on mass-market products. They knew that these would need to be thin, flexible and cost-effective to produce and low in power consumption.
To the delight of Barnardo and his colleagues, it became clear that they were able to tick these boxes. In 2001 the Cambridge team merged with ELumin, a South Wales specialist in EL lighting, to create Pelikon, of which Barnardo is, appropriately enough, marketing director.
With his designer’s hat on, he believes the company’s displays have the potential to tap into the same ‘wow, look at that’ factor that has propelled Apple’s iPod to leadership in the market for mobile music.
‘When you have products in congested marketplaces they sell on features and they sell on design,’ he said. ‘The iPod is basically another MP3 player but it says something to consumers that the others don’t.’
The Kameleon handset is now being produced by Universal Electronics Inc and went on sale in the UK several months ago.
Barnardo is quite happy to predict that some people will buy products that use Pelikon’s displays because they want to ‘show off’. Others will do so because they have a compulsion to own the latest gadget.
Many, no doubt, will just find the idea of an easy-to-use universal remote controller useful. If Barnardo has his way, EL interfaces will soon be appearing on an array of everyday devices. He said a string of product introductions is imminent.
He is ready to pound on the doors of manufacturers to convince them that Pelikon can, literally, make their products stand out from the crowd. Who better to know what buttons to press than an ad-man turned expert in control interface technology?
‘I do feel like I’ve come full-circle,’ said Barnardo.