ParkerVision: A History of Innovation
Added at 1:42 PM ET, Tue April 2, 2015
This is a story of a small company in Florida that invented and patented a very important technology – a technology that helped pave the way for today's Smartphone.
This unconventional story began in 1980, when a company called Parker Electronics was started by a son and his dad based on an idea. Jeff, the son, watched his Dad, Ed, spend years in the somewhat sleepy air conditioning equipment business. As the advent of the computer chip was starting to find its way into all kinds of uses, they believed this new computer chip technology could move the air conditioning industry into the future. So they started Parker Electronics to develop computer chips, or semiconductor chips, for use in air conditioning control systems.
Along with their lead engineer and innovator, David Sorrells, Jeff and Ed Parker manufactured and sold some of the first electronic air-conditioning comfort-control systems for buildings and homes. This led to a joint venture with top air-conditioning manufacturer, Carrier Corporation. The company became highly successful and was awarded over fifty patents for its novel inventions, and became an industry leader with worldwide sales. In 1989 Parker Electronics was sold to United Technologies Carrier Corporation, a Fortune 50 company.
Then, tragedy struck. Ed Parker passed away before he was able to enjoy the fruits of his hard work. Grief stricken, Jeff dug up old home movies hoping to catch another glimpse of his dad. He was distraught to find that his dad was always behind the camera, filming others, never appearing on camera himself. Jeff, remembering how he, his dad and David Sorrells solved difficult problems in the air conditioning industry, was inspired to solve this "invisible" camera operator dilemma as well. And so, CameraMan® was born --a video-tracking product that Jeff and David envisioned would allow a person to be filmed without an operator behind the camera.
Formally launched in the early 1990's, newly formed ParkerVision developed, built and sold CameraMan. CameraMan became the foundation for a video product line that generated over one-hundred million dollars in revenue and became widely adopted by institutions such as ABC World News Tonight, NASA, universities, schools, corporations and numerous broadcast TV newsrooms. ParkerVision even won a Technology and Engineering Emmy award in 2012 for its pioneering innovations.
Initially intended as a home consumer product, CameraMan's size and cost placed it in a commercial segment of the market. Yet ParkerVision refused to give up on the initial inspiration for a consumer product, determined to design it to be smaller, consume less power, run on batteries and be priced at just a few hundred dollars.
Parker asked Sorrells to solve these design challenges, and one might say this is where today's ParkerVision story really begins.
David soon discovered that the biggest obstacle to the consumer CameraMan model was an essential part of its design, the radio receiver. The superheterodyne receiver, as it was called, was based on a decades-old architecture, making it large, hard to manufacture, and power hungry. After working tirelessly, and extensively, studying the existing methods used to build radio receivers, David became convinced that a better method could be developed, a method that would enable a type of receiver that had eluded an entire industry – a high performance, direct conversion receiver.
Sorrells envisioned a receiver that was so small it could be entirely built on a tiny computer chip, eliminating hundreds of parts, using less power, and yet performing as well or better than the larger more complicated receivers that everyone relied upon. He called his new invention "energy transfer sampling" which the company later marketed as "direct-to-data" or "d2d™".
In late 1996, David built a prototype into a wireless PC mouse to demonstrate his new invention. The results were astounding. His receiver, using energy transfer sampling, performed at a distance of 300 feet, while the same PC mouse using a conventional receiver performed at only about 12 feet.
Parker and Sorrells realized the far reaching impact of this invention. They recognized that energy transfer sampling technology could be transformational for a wide range of devices far beyond CameraMan. They thought of the problems it could solve for cell phones, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, GPS products, TV tuners, cable and satellite transceivers and more. They believed that the technology would revolutionize the industry, and one thing they wanted to make sure of was that they secured patent protection for their invention.
They sought the best patent attorney available. One name came up again and again, patent attorney, Robert Greene Sterne, a co-founder of the prestigious Washington, DC firm of Sterne Kessler Goldstein and Fox, PLLC. Sterne himself is an engineer and radio enthusiast. Upon learning of the energy transfer sampling technology, Sterne immediately recognized the far-reaching potential and was excited at this rare pioneering invention that he would have the opportunity to help protect. In fact, he felt so strongly, he later joined the Board of Directors of ParkerVision, a seat he retains today.
ParkerVision carefully followed Sterne's legal advice and implemented an extensive and disciplined program to patent protect the energy transfer sampling innovations. Investing over $20 million in patent protection alone, Parker was confident that ParkerVision could count on the U.S. patent system to protect their inventions.
After the first patents were granted in the 2000's, ParkerVision took its innovations public. In return for U.S. patent protection, the innovator must disclose in its patents how the invention works. Additionally, ParkerVision issued press releases that explicitly described the technology's transformative nature and the wide-range of potential uses and applications.
In May of 2000, quite eager to unveil his invention to the broader wireless industry, David Sorrells presented at a Hewlett-Packard-sponsored conference entitled, "The Coming Revolution: Direct Conversion Radios." He boldly predicted that by the middle of the decade, fifty percent of all wireless designs would employ RF direct-conversion receivers.
Sorrells was ridiculed for making what so-called industry "experts" believed were outlandish predictions. They could not see past the fact that, for decades, direct conversion receivers were plagued by power and performance limitations and could not be widely used to replace the tried-and-true, superheterodyne receivers.
Yet it turns out, not only was Sorrells' prediction 100% correct, it was actually understated. By the mid 2000's, more than half of all wireless designs employed direct conversion, even though these direct conversion receivers were still based on traditional analog designs and therefore lacked the higher performance of their predecessors.
Convinced that ParkerVision's new radio technologies would transform an industry, they invested all their resources in this opportunity, selling off the video products business in 2004 to a leader in the broadcast studio equipment industry. The remaining company, with an engineering design team of over 30 people, including a number of experienced RF engineers, continued to research and develop radio frequency technologies that they believed would further compliment the company's d2d innovations.
With the additional investment in R&D, a new family of RF technologies emerged based on advancing the radio transmitter. ParkerVision predicts this technology family, named direct-to-power or d2p, will become another industry staple.
Today, wireless transmitters for 3G, 4G/LTE, and 5G waste a staggering eighty to ninety percent of the power they use, resulting in shorter battery life and unwanted heat buildup, making them extremely inefficient. D2P solves this problem and enables much longer battery life and cooler operation for smartphones, Wi-Fi, wireless infrastructure and a host of other applications.
In addition, as ParkerVision has continued to build on its energy-transfer sampling receiver technology, its advancements will become critical for the booming "Internet of Things" or IoT industry. As consumers demand more and more, wireless and wired devices will become more power-hungry and require increasingly higher-speed communications, making ParkerVision's technologies even more important.
But the story doesn't end there. ParkerVision believes that many of today's most popular Smartphones are, in fact, being powered by its exclusive patented energy transfer sampling technology - a technology ParkerVision predicted would be transformative. But what they couldn't predict was that the use of their technology would be unauthorized and that they would be forced to resort to long, drawn-out, expensive legal actions to enforce the intellectual property rights they so carefully attained to protect their innovations.
Despite these challenges, ParkerVision believes a bright future lies ahead.