Tom Lawton • British Inventor

Million Mile Light

One night running home, racing against the setting sun I started to wonder if I could use the energy I burn when I’m running to make light to keep me safe when I run in the dark. I researched and experimented and tinkered and tested until I found a solution. Then I spent time to craft my idea into a design I’m really proud of. It’s called Million Mile Light and if you run the night then this is for you. Please register your interest at www.millionmilelight.com – we will be launching on Indiegogo next month. Powered by you. It’s engineered to never give up.

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Oh, by the way…

YouTube just opened up to 360 video which means we have some good things coming. Here’s an old favourite shot on an iPhone 4s. BubbleScope now retailing at £24.99 too.

Doesn’t seem to work immersively inside Word Press yet but if you view direct in YouTube on Chrome you’ll be able to navigate inside the bubble. So much more to come.

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Immersed in the future

I recently spoke at the Edinburgh International Television Festival about, er the future of the TV industry. While I am no soothsayer I have a good feeling about where things are going.

Here’s an interview I gave just before I went on with some clips of my talk nicely edited in.

The audio for the full talk is also available here.

Prior to the event, industry magazine C21 published this article, the content of which I have pasted below.

Inventor and television presenter Tom Lawton argues that innovations, including his own 360º camera and virtual reality, are poised to completely transform the TV industry.

Lawton: 14-year vision

During the mid-nineties I found myself living in South Africa and working on high-end virtual reality applications, and it blew my mind. I happened to have access to a computer that was about the size of a dishwasher and cost £250,000 (US$368,000). This incredible technology that I sat in front of as a 20-year-old has, over the past two decades, evolved into a screen that sits in our hands.

Shortly after that I was in a reality television show called Lost for the UK’s Channel 4, where I was blindfolded and dumped on an island in Northern Russia and had to find my way back using just my wits. I had never been involved in TV before and when it was broadcast it left me slightly frustrated and unfulfilled because it didn’t truly capture the event in the way I had experienced it.

Both of these experiences inspired me on a journey to try to resolve the shortcomings of TV. It was while I was sitting on a train travelling through India in 2001, before iPods, camera phones and streaming even existed, and I had a vision – a vision of an invention. I’ve spent the past 15 years working to make that vision a tangible reality: an ultra-high-fidelity 360º camera, a means whereby people can share experiences in their entirety, in a 360º way, in a ‘bubble’ if you like. I wanted to produce a means of sharing this view from a device in your hand to enable people to tell stories. This immersion is the future of TV.

During my development process I had an inspiring experience. It was April 2003 and I had a phone call from a friend in Baghdad who was on the ground in Firdos Square watching as Saddam’s statue was being pulled down. He and I had talked a lot about my vision for 360º space and he called me to ask what I was seeing on the news. I told him and he explained that what he could see in reality – outside the frame of the cameras – were three tanks with chains pulling the statue down and the Iraqis had been kettled into an area where they were attacking the statue. The statue wasn’t coming down on its own, as we were seeing. This was total propaganda in motion. I’m not saying that it was great conspiracy and we were all being lied to, but what we were seeing was not the full picture.

I’m a truth-ist and a believer in empathy as the most needed requisite in the world. Being able to put yourself in other people’s shoes is truly the way to move society forward, and enabling the media to be more open and truthful is a central aspect of this. I want to enable people to be storytellers. I believe that TV is more than just content, it’s about storytelling, taking complicated things and making something real.

And I’m not on my own. While these ideas seemed to be very esoteric back in 2001, 2002, 2003, it’s now starting to actually happen. YouTube launches 360º video next month; Sky has invested in 360º multi-camera capture and display specialist Jaunt in America; and both Steven Spielberg and David Attenborough have recently spoken about 360º and virtual reality. Attenborough said: “We’re on the brink of simply enormous change in visual communication,” while Spielberg described the evolvement of television as a three-dimensional experience as being “the future.”

We’ve seen how a gamer inspired the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset to get inside the world of games. I’m a storyteller who wants to bring every aspect and side of a story to an experience. By using the technology I’ve developed, we’ll be able to see and hear what it’s like to stand on stage with One Direction or what it’s like to be in the House of Lords.

It’s a hugely exciting time in the evolution of television, and as with great inventions like the bicycle, it doesn’t belong to just one inventor. There’s evolvement and variation. Other visionaries are also developing similar versions, but for me, my concept is the culmination of a 14-year vision since sitting on that train in India, and this invention will cement my ambition to put storytelling at the heart of the visual story.

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On the Cusp

In November 2014 I flew to Chicago to present a talk about my story at the inimitable Cusp Conference at the museum of contemporary art, whose theme each year is the design of everything. The talk is live – if you want to get to know about me & my work this is a great place to start.

To say it was an awesome experience is an understatement. It was absolutely awesome and a thrill to be part of not least because I have never visited Chicago before.

Here is a stream of visual goodness illustrated by the talented Julia Kuo. It was the first time I think I have ever really  (genuinely) enjoyed public speaking – in part because I got to talk about what I love (my life) and also because the organisers were so bloody nice.

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Ten minute chat on local BBC Radio

BBC Wiltshire Radio were kind enough to chat to me about my life inventing stuff. Here’s the interview from Graeme Seaman’s afternoon show on Friday.

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Through the eyes of a child

Not everyone can take the summer off to build a dreamboat with their kids (obviously!). Last summer was a TOTAL departure from the challenges and reality of my regular work (I labour to take my product ideas to market, focusing on one at a time), though it would be lovely to have the resource to be so experimental in every day life, but I tend to work on just a few ideas over many years, but you certainly don’t need a lot of resource to be imaginative. I had to plan the time off from work really carefully and we had a lot of help from Channel 4 and the production company Twenty Twenty – but that doesn’t mean you can’t dream big with your kids and inspire each other to think in magical ways. So, rather than selling the car to fund a hairbrained scheme to turn the shed into a great glass elevator why don’t you try painting a magical vision of what you would do together if you could do anything and there were no rules.

The first thing Barney & I did when dreaming up the boat was to paint a picture. The way children’s imagination’s spill onto canvas through paint is a joyful art in itself, to accompany them in bringing such a vision to life is equally rewarding. So make no apologies, be as bold as you can be and dream up a futuristic fantasy – be it an air ship, a holiday house on the moon or a flying cat car – I don’t know, just paint it. And if you do, I really recommend you to find a nice canvas to paint it on (you can pick them up at your local art supply shop from about a tenner). We use acrylic paints and mix of brush sizes. You never know, it could be a future master piece or, as it stands on the wall staring at you for years to come, be the blueprint for a new adventure.

It seems that we’ve already inspired a few others. The sketch below is by young Eric (7) who watched the show. Now imagine that bought to life in colour. It doesn’t have to be real to be amazing. I’ll gladly host a gallery if anyone else wants to send their pictures.

Other than this, when people ask me how I’m entertaining Barney this summer I say I’m not; partly because he just got a big trampoline for his birthday and is pretty occupied with that & also, part of the reason I became an inventor was because I learned how to entertain myself at home through long and boring school holidays. Kids shouldn’t need constant distraction & entertainment – being bored is an important part of growing up – why else did we create games like Football, Monopoly, Tennis, Sack Races – these are all inventions, don’t just think about thing making – think about inventing a game.  If Barney wants to do something he can use my tools (well, the blunt ones) and I’ve given him a pile of wood to play with – he’s got to find his own passions – but of course, I’m always there to help – and pull out the splinters.

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Tom’s Fantastic Floating Home

Last summer I took a few months out of my regular work to build a Fantastic Floating Home for Channel 4 Factual Entertainment. The result is played out in a 3 x 60 minute TV series that airs at 7pm on Sunday 27th July on Channel 4. ‘Tom’s Fantastic Floating Home‘ is my first TV commission and while I’ve never really striven to be on the telly it’s amazing what can happen in life when you say YES to things that normally you wouldn’t dream of. All I want is to inspire people to dare to dream, to live a colourful, unconventional life that’s fuelled by imagination – the premise of the show is that I look at the world through the eyes of my six year old Barney (who is the show’s real star) and together we put our own inventive twist on life. We’re only here once and life really is what you make it. So I am thankful to myself for having had the balls to actually do it (I deliberated so much about this) and allow a film crew to follow me for five months through triumph & failure. Whatever comes next for me I don’t know but all I hope is that if you watch it, you’ll see it for all its positivity & I hope it inspires you. It’s more fun to create than to consume. All power to you & your glorious imagination!

I have loads of photos & bubbles of the whole experiment so follow me on twitter using the hashtag #floatinghome

We also made 4 short films about inventing stuff to accompany the show. These can be found on C4′s official web page for the show

It’s nice to have made it into the local paper too – you can read the full article in the Western Daily Press online here

I did a Q & A with Develop 3D Magazine also

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Are your designs safe?

I recently contributed to a feature in Develop 3D magazine about protecting your designs. I have included the full words I wrote below.

I’ve never held much faith in the power of registered designs to protect anything other than bold, visual designs – Rob Law’s situation with Trunki only reinforces this.  Just by completing the application process it’s evident that they are too lightweight to capture any true characteristics of a fully realised ‘original’ product design, which of course is likely to take a 3D form & be made up of a clever combination of many design considerations that go way beyond just its appearance.

But neither do I have any love for the patent system, for its prohibitive costs & drawn out process seem to favour only those businesses who have the resource to fund &, as importantly, then enforce their rights. Very often also, it’s possible to conceive a design that’s innovative & original but is not necessarily patentable.

I think in most cases innovative product designs sit between these two places.

What adds to the frustration is that most investor parties regard a patented product or technology as being imperative to a business case. But the time it takes between a patent application & worldwide grant can be years – technology, markets, trends all change at lighting pace, which can make patents redundant by the time they are granted. Good for a business case, but in reality, often a pointless waste of money!

I have to make a strategic decision about IP that exposes me to incredible risk (I do accept that comes with the territory) – but let’s say, I have a clever design, no one has done it, but I haven’t proven the market – so it’s not yet possible to build a business case. Do I start to patent it now only to face escalating costs that start in 18 months? Or do I take a flyer and attempt to get lightweight protection via a registered design, which will be published in the public domain almost immediately, allowing competitors to gain sight of what I am doing, well before I am able to manufacture & sell the product and then not really mean anything when challenged by a copycat? Or do I do neither & focus on the quickest & best route to market? Or all the above? Truth is every case is different as is every design but my decision always comes down to one of cost. This means typically I cannot afford to take a corporate approach and protect all of my work. Unlike other creative industries of course, product inventors, have to apply & pay for the right to own their work & they stand alone if they are challenged.

At the start of my career I was advised that my product’s trade name would be my most valuable asset. It’s true, trademarks are easier to protect & enforce, but it’s impossible to create a brand without products to build it around.

So, for fear of just continuing an age old rhetoric, the whole system appears old fashioned and stacked in favour of bigger business, having a stifling effect on SME innovators like myself.

Recently I have experienced a new phenomenon also, first to Kickstarter. While this means nothing in the true eyes of the law I have had patent infringing products appear on Kickstarter, who don’t get involved in such disputes, allowing a third party to gain public notoriety & pre-orders for their product before I have had a chance to build my own story. This becomes an excruciatingly painful especially as they can benefit from the gains of appearing ‘first in market’.

So I think we need a new middle ground – something deeper than a registered design that perhaps can be extended into something like a patent, as a product evolves & business grows. Something that acknowledges a designer’s original work beyond its exterior form. Something that a final year student, SME or independent inventor could actually afford to protect & maintain – in the UK at least, where the design was conceived. When I left university I was paying a patent attorney ten times more per hour than what I could earn in an hour. I don’t know how I even started? Oh, I do, I got further into debt.

Until then I will keep date stamping my sketch books, registering a few designs & reluctantly near-bankrupting myself with patents and mainly keeping secret most of the clever designs & ideas I have while fighting to actually survive, let alone thrive in business.

I feel for Rob. I have been ripped off in every way possible. It’s hard enough getting a product to market yet alone having to fight copycats to keep your market space, but at least he has got this far & is thriving. Thinking ahead of the rest & being original is the best strategy there is & at the end of the day we all have competition to keep us on our toes. That’s never a bad thing.

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I’m Tom Lawton. I’m a designer & inventor based in the beautiful West Country. I love ideas and I love making them happen. This is my blog where you’ll find a pretty up to date account of my projects, my adventures and other musings.