By Rachel Riley
When Greg Blonder (ME) received an HP 35 calculator as a high school graduation present, he did not use it for a few weeks. He simply held it, astounded by the idea that a pocket-sized device could hold the power equivalent to rooms of bulky IBM computers.
Years before his career in product design even began, Blonder marveled at the genius of other innovators.
“It’s like having a transcendent meal at a restaurant or seeing a sunset,” said Blonder, who began teaching at Boston University’s College of Engineering in the fall. “These things happen with products, too, and it represents the best that people are capable of.”
The shelves of Greg Blonder’s BU office are lined with inventions of his own. He has over 100 patents, from headphones that can convert into speakers to fiber optic blood pressure sensors that can slide down the needle of a syringe.
He developed about half of his inventions during his time at AT&T’s Bell Laboratories, where his position as a basic researcher soon evolved into something more.
“I realized that the laboratories’ mission could no longer be unrestrained long-term research, but had to be more focused on the markets that the company would benefit from, which meant we had to be able to peer into the future,” Blonder said. “It turns out that skill of peering into the future is exactly what you need for product development.”
As a result, Blonder established Bell’s Customer Expectations Research Lab, where he used insights from consumer psychology and anthropology, as well as information about available technology, to anticipate customer needs in the communications market.
He later became a venture capitalist, investing in various startups and reviving struggling companies.
At one company, Blonder worked with programmers at an electronic game advertising firm to incorporate ads into video gameplay. For example, a player of a post-apocalyptic game might be walking through an abandon warehouse and, between dodging zombies, spot an ad for Vans sneakers plastered to the wall.
“We would provide the service of taking advertisers ads, modifying them so that they appeared seamless in the game, and then inserting code into the game so that the ad would appear,” he said.
Many of Blonder’s inventions are related to green energy technology, such as the wind turbine he’s currently designing that can function effectively in turbulent winds. While other turbines are more efficient in uniform winds, his design would maximize the amount of hours each day that the machine is capable of converting energy in choppier atmospheric conditions.
“Sometimes reaching for perfection actually reduces the value of the product or its applicability, and it’s through compromises that you tend to be successful,” Blonder said. “A good engineer spends the day trying to balance the tradeoffs between costs and product features, availability, time and all the other criteria that you have.”
Outside of his career in product design, Blonder is also passionate about food science. He serves as the scientific advisor for Amazingribs.com, a popular website that aims to bust barbeque-related myths.
“A lot of what we believe about barbeque is just purely myth,” he said. “It’s an experience that grew into fact, and when you look at it more closely, you realize that the principles are wrong. If you follow the science, it turns out your better at barbequing.”
An example would be the belief that sprinkling salt on hamburger, or any sort of ground beef, right before it goes on the grill enhances the juiciness of the food. It takes about two days for salt to make its way an inch into a cut of meat, so it’s too little too late.
Worse yet is mixing too much salt or salty ingredients (like onion soup mix) into the ground beef: “The high salt levels will cause the meat proteins to unravel and rebound, causing a gelatinous mass,” he said. “You’ll end up with a hockey puck instead of a tender hamburger.”
As a professor of the practice at BU, Blonder enjoys the opportunity of digging deeper into the subjects he teaches and the chance to make a difference in students’ lives.
But he emphasizes that the concepts behind his curriculum are useful not only for budding engineers, but for nearly everyone else: politicians, city planners, even artists.
“Learning design thinking, which is a way of critically approaching a problem and generating multiple solutions before settling on an approach, is a generic skill,” Blonder said. “More people should learn.”