University Research: A Skeptical Perspective by A. Michael Noll



A. Michael Noll

January 13, 2018

© Copyright 2017 AMN

University research has skeptically made little contribution to the striking advances in communications technology of the last 50 or so years. This is hardly surprising, since most of the advances came from R&D at industrial facilities. The skeptical perspective in this piece is based on my early experience at an industrial research laboratory, in government, and later at a university. My conclusion is that university research is essential mostly for the education and training of students, who then graduate and conduct meaningful research for industry.

Ivory Tower

One important example of technological innovation in the communication area is communication satellites. But they were not the result of university research. Bell Labs pioneered satellite communications over a half century ago. In fact, science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke, as early as 1945, first proposed communication satellites. The Soviets (Sputnik in 1957) developed the first satellite. Then Bell Telephone Laboratories (Echo in 1960 and Telstar in 1962) developed early communication satellites — none of this was university research.

Another technological innovation is the Internet. Was it solely the result of university research? The precursor of today’s Internet was the Arpanet, which utilized packet switching to avoid then costly data service. The Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) of the Federal defense department funded the development of the Arpanet, which was the brainchild of Dr. Larry Roberts, who directed the project at ARPA. Much of the actual development work was done at Bolt, Beranek, and Newman (BBN). Although university people were involved, the Arpanet was not solely the result of university research.

I am not familiar with chemical research and physics, and thus do not know how much practical research has occurred at university facilities. My expertise is in electrical engineering and telecommunications technology. Interesting university research has been done in astrophysics, but little relevance has occurred from this research – it deals with such topics as black holes and distances measured in millions on light years. Decades ago, John McCarthy at his laboratory at Stanford University, and the students he educated did exciting research in artificial intelligence and robotics.

The broader question is what is the purpose and mission of universities, and what is the role of university research? This can become the domain of self-serving opinion. It is a controversial topic with “muddy waters” on its importance depending on personal opinions and perspectives.

Sitting here at my desk with the computer on which I am writing this article, I think of the technology around me. The graphical interface on the computer was invented at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC); the mouse was invented at the Stanford Research Institute; researchers at Bell Telephone Laboratories invented the Unix operating system. None of this was university research. Many innovations are the result of discoveries by many researchers at different organizations – credit frequently should be more collectively attributed.

The Federal government through a peer-review process sponsors much university research. The process in seeking support for peer-reviewed research is lengthy and elaborate. It sometimes appears that more thought and effort goes into writing the proposal than the actual conduct of the research. The peer review process assures that the research will be mostly mainstream.

Decades ago, when I worked in Washington and collaborated with the Office of Management and Budget, I wondered whether university research funded by the National Science Foundation was a form of welfare for academics. It was also a reason for being released from teaching a course or two — teaching is real work.

I wonder whether it would be simpler and would result in more innovative groundbreaking research if the university simply supported the research from its endowment and own funds. But these funds would need to be distributed evenly and might not be sufficient to support current levels of research. However, avoiding proposal writing might add efficiency.

University research frequently is more theoretical, not very practical, and long term. It usually is not the kind of proprietary research that leads to breakthroughs and pioneering innovations with practical industrial application. The mission of university research frequently is “new knowledge for its own sake,” as contrasted with industrial research that supports the mission of the industrial firm. It is not the mission of the university to make new products and provide new services.

The best research supports the mission of the sponsoring organization. The mission of a university is education – not providing telecommunication service, space craft, refrigerators, and so forth. Indeed, the major mission of the university should be education. If doctoral students are to be educated and trained, then they need the opportunity to perform some form of research. After they graduate, these doctorial students then frequently go to work at industry performing practical and relevant work. The career path for doctoral students that seems to be most applauded by the faculty is to graduate and work at another university, where their doctoral students then apply to yet another graduate program – not for industry or on practical problems. “Practical” and “relevant” seem to be characterizations to be avoided at many universities.

Research usually tackled practical problems in support of a real-world mission of the sponsor. A good way for a university to be involved in such research is through a separate for-profit research unit. The researchers would not teach nor be tenured – they would be employees. Patents would be obtained, along with other intellectual property. Students and faculty could also work part-time at the research facility. The management of the research unit would evaluate the research. An issue with university research is that the departmental administration does not evaluate it and instead relies on outside peer review.

The “product” of universities is its graduates. Research universities educate and train doctoral students. As graduates these newly minted doctorates go to work in industry performing propriety industrial research and devolvement. The results of this R&D makes their way back to the university, affecting and refining the topics of research done by faculty and current doctoral students. This is a tight loop.

I have taken a skeptical and controversial tone in this piece. But in the end, what should matter is meaningful research that solves real problems or leads to new knowledge and innovations — not where it is performed. Research should make our lives better through new products and services.

A. Michael Noll

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A. Michael Noll

December 16, 2017

© Copyright 2017 AMN

Walt Disney is purchasing Murdoch’s entertainment empire for over $50 billion. Is this a great deal – or a huge challenge for the future of Disney?

The vision is a future in which video entertainment (and sports) is downloaded over the Internet directly from the source, bypassing the middle distributors, such as the cable TV company, the satellite company, or the phone company. This vision has been known as cable bypass. But it assumes an Internet that is “free.”

Disney, and its Bob Eger, should be frightened that the FCC just terminated “net-neutrality,” which means that the middle distributors can charge different Internet rates depending upon the source and the content.

Rubert Murdoch is known as a very shrewd businessman. The fact that he wants to sell his entertainment properties should be the cause of suspicion. If it looks like a good deal, it most likely is a good deal – for Murdoch.

Indeed, the Internet was not designed for the delivery of broadband video. The bandwidth (or data capacity) and need for instantaneous delivery, coupled with the one-way nature, of video is costly. One solution is to charge more, as now allowed by the elimination of net-neutrality. Another solution would be a network optimized for the technological demands of video – but that would require technological innovation. Unfortunately, the Bell Labs of the past that used to give us such innovation is no more, and the telephone companies, such as AT&T, simply are not innovative.


A. Michael Noll is Professor Emeritus of Communications at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California. He has written many articles and opinion pieces about the telecommunications industry and technology.

A. Michael Noll

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Proof of Technology Transfer across Universities


Clear evidence of the transfer of knowledge across universities is illustrated by an innovation in the Department of Media and Information that will bring a coffee & cakes event this Friday, 3:30pm in the MI Conference Room. Coffee and cakes will be available to all MI staff, graduate students, and faculty who attend.

Tech transfer? Well, this innovation comes via Dr Bibi Reisdorf, Assistant Professor & Assistant Director of the Quello Center, who received her DPhil from the Oxford Internet Institute (OII), where there is some claim to beginning a tradition of coffee and cakes late on Friday afternoons.

Coffee & Cakes!

We thank Bibi and the OII for fostering an innovation at MSU that is sure to be a hit and help bring colleagues together in ways that will stimulate collaboration in more ways than enjoying desserts 🙂

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Quello Board Member Alyssa Harvey Dawson Joins Sidewalk Labs


Alyssa Harvey Dawson is now General Counsel at Sidewalk Labs, an Alphabet company focused on urban innovation — and

We are delighted that her work on the Advisory Board of the Quello Center will continue to work with the Quello Center’s Advisory Board. Given the Center’s work on projects like ICT4Detroit, we can see her new role providing a continuing stream of useful perspectives and advice for the Center.

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‘3D Yet Again’ by A. Michael Noll


‘3D Yet Again’

A. Michael Noll

November 26, 2015

© 2015 AMN

Stereoscopic 3D has always created a strong fascination with its feelings of depth and realism. Today it has morphed into the hype of something called “holographic enhanced virtual reality.”

As a child, I had both a Tru-View stereoscope that used 35mm filmstrips and also a View-Master™ stereoscope that used small images on disks. They both presented separate pictures for the left and right eyes that created the feeling of stereoscopic depth.

While employed at Bell Telephone Laboratories in New Jersey during the1960s, I programmed the computer there to create stereoscopic pairs of random shapes, a form of virtual sculpture. I used various stereoscopes to view the 3D pairs, such as the cardboard viewer shown in the Figure. I also made computer-animated stereoscopic movies, such as a computer-generated ballet, random kinetic objects, and four-dimensional hyper objects. [Noll, A. Michael, Computer-Generated Three-Dimensional Movies,” Computers and Automation, Vol. 14, No. 11, (November 1965), pp. 20-23.] The 3D movie of the 4D hypercube can be seen at: Simple cross-eyed viewing will give the 3D effect without the need for any viewing device, although some practice is required. We who did research on 3D learned how to relax or cross our eyes to see 3D pairs without the use of any viewing device.

Decades ago, it was suggested to use half-silvered mirrors so that the computer-generated imagery could be superimposed on reality. When the head moved, the computer-generated images would be suitably changed so that virtual shapes and objects would be seen in real settings. It was even suggested back then to couple this 3D imagery with tactile sensation so that virtual objects could be seen and felt in real settings. [Noll, A. Michael, “Man-Machine Tactile Communication,” SID Journal (The Official Journal of the Society for Information Display), Vol. 1, No. 2, (July/August 1972), pp. 5-11.] Prototypes were invented and built, but applications were not clear – and the technology was massive and complex.

Google is promoting its 3D viewer – called Google Cardboard. It has two lenses to view separate stereoscopic images on a smart phone. It is little more than the Tru-View, 3D Mail-O-Vue, and View-Master of the distant past.

The term “holographic” is even being used to describe today’s 3D imagery. But the images are not holograms at all – they are just simple 3D stereographic images and technology from decades ago.

Some “new” devices present separate images to each eye from two small screens mounted in some form of viewer that is attached to one’s head. But even this is not new, and such technology was used in the 1960s for helicopter pilots to see the ground under them. [Upton, H. W., “Head-mounted displays in helicopter operations,” USAECOM-AAA-ION Technical Symposium on Navigation and Positioning, Fort Monmouth NJ, September 1969.] The use of such head-mounted displays was also used for computer graphic display. What is “new” today is the ultra-miniaturization of the technology, along with motion and position sensors, and vast computing power that was unimaginable decades ago. But what applications of all this 3D technology will excite consumers?

Stereo Mail-O-Vue

Figure. Photo of Stereo Mail-O-Vue viewer. This cardboard foldable 3D viewer was used for seeing 3D stereoscopic images on a 35mm filmstrip. [Photo courtesy of A. Michael Noll.]

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Being There – a personal perspective on the culture of innovation at Bell Labs


Michael Noll has been teaching and conducting research on communication and technology since the early 1980s, most recently as a Professor of Communication at the Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism at USC. Prior to joining Annenberg, he was an engineer at Bell Labs in its heyday, from 1961-1971. At Bell Labs, Michael pioneered in such areas as digital art, three-dimensional displays, and tactile communication, and video communication. Michael as drafted in to design the prototype of video conferencing used in Stanley Kubrick classic film, 2001 Space Odyssey. Professor Noll has been supporting the Quello Center, such as through his blogs on technology and policy, and also drafting a book that reflects on his experience at the center of innovation in communication technology before the locus of innovation shifted to Silicon Valley. While so much has been written about the culture of Silicon Valley, relatively little has been written about Bell Labs. Professor Noll’s book helps rectify this imbalance. Written in a clear and accessible style, Michael blends personal anecdotes and engineering insights into an informative and engaging history of this center, illuminating the dynamics of a culture that fostered innovative people and ideas used round the world.

− Bill Dutton, Director of the Quello Center

Memories: A Personal History of Bell Telephone Laboratories

by A. Michael Noll


This manuscript tells the story of Bell Labs, concentrating mostly on the 1960s, from the personal perspective of the author who actually was employed at its Murray Hill laboratory as an engineer and researcher. Bell Labs continued the tradition of Thomas Alva Edison’s invention factory and had an environment that today is associated with Silicon Valley. The buildings, various locations, amenities, and most important—the people—are described to give a sense of what it was like to be at Bell Labs and why so many wanted to work there and contribute to its many inventions and discoveries.

Biographical Sketch: A. MICHAEL NOLL is professor emeritus at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California. During most of the 1960s, he was employed as a Member of Technical Staff at Bell Telephone Laboratories in Murray Hill, NJ, and recently worked on the papers of Dr. William O. Baker, who was vice president of research during what many consider the “golden years” of Bell Labs. He brings this personal knowledge and perspective to this manuscript.

This manuscript is a work in progress, distributed as a working paper of the Quello Center at Michigan State University for educational use. The author welcomes comments and questions on this site as he moves this toward publication.

The manuscript can be downloaded here: Memories-Noll.

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Signs of Healthy Competition in the Online Video Market


A March 10 article in Variety by Todd Spangler discusses recent competitive trends in the sector of the online video market that has long been dominated by Google’s YouTube platform.  Its main theme is summed up by a quote from Peter Csathy, CEO of investment and consulting firm Manatt Digital Media, who sees “a critical mass of threats that represent real challenges to YouTube’s complete dominance for the first time.”

As one would expect in a media industry trade publication, Spangler’s long and informative piece approaches the subject mainly from a “who’s winning and who’s losing and why” perspective.

If there could be said to be a poster boy for YouTube, it may well be Freddie Wong. Known online as FreddieW, the 29-year-old is the creator of “Video Game High School,” a comedic sci-fi series…But when the time came for Wong’s digital studio, RocketJump, to shoot his next project, he says YouTube didn’t exactly jump at the idea…Unsatisfied with YouTube’s offer, RocketJump and Lionsgate Television steered the project to Hulu, where the untitled eight-episode series will be available exclusively…

Hulu is not the only company complicating life for YouTube these days. It’s bad enough that social-media giants like Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat have upped efforts to bring video to their services — and plan to more aggressively compete with YouTube for advertising dollars. But there are also upstarts like Vessel and IAC-owned Vimeo, which, like Hulu, are signing deals with some of YouTube’s homegrown talent, and promising creators bigger bucks for their work in exchange for exclusive rights.

As Spangler notes, YouTube’s competitors are pursuing a range of business models.

Per the well-publicized terms of YouTube’s standard revenue-sharing agreement, content owners typically receive 55% of ad money. Vessel is already offering a 70% ad split to creators, while Vimeo pledges to pay 90% of transaction fees back to partners…

Meanwhile, there’s a separate set of rivals using a subscription business model that aims to lure top talent and producers, skimming the cream off the top of the massive base of more than 1 million YouTube creators who make money on the site…

Moreover, there’s yet another class of YouTube rivals, represented by companies looking to license or fund content for reasons unrelated directly to selling ads or subscriptions. Samsung Electronics, for example, last fall launched Milk Video: a proprietary shortform mobile vid service available only on its Galaxy smartphones and tablets.

Spangler notes that while YouTube, over its ten year history, has grown into a “a multibillion-dollar advertising juggernaut…its profits may be negligible — or nonexistent.”

Last year, the service pulled in about $4 billion of revenue, up from $3 billion in 2013, according to a Wall Street Journal report citing anonymous sources. However, YouTube basically broke even, after accounting for content and infrastructure costs.

The broader significance of the industry dynamics reviewed by Spangler from a more academic and policy-oriented perspective is that there appears to be a strongly competitive and innovative ecosystem emerging in the online video marketplace.

Though Google’s YouTube remains the 500 lb. gorilla in key respects, the relative ease of market entry in the online video platform arena (for example, as compared to the wireline access market) is spurring competition and innovation that are pushing Google to continue investing and innovating rather than channeling cash flow into dividends and stock buybacks.

Value creation vs. value extraction

The latter tendency (channeling profits into dividends and buybacks rather than investment and innovation) was the focus of an article by William Lazonick, Professor and Director of the University of Massachusetts Center for Industrial Competitiveness, and President of The Academic-Industry Research Network.  The article, published in the September 2014 issue of the Harvard Business Review was entitled “Profits without Prosperity” and referred to this corporate trend as a shift “from value creation to value extraction.”

This trend was also the focus of an Oct. 6, 2014 piece at BloombergBusiness entitled S&P 500 Companies Spend Almost All Profits on Buybacks.  It noted that:

CEOs have increased the proportion of cash flow allocated to stock buybacks to more than 30 percent, almost double where it was in 2002, data from Barclays show. During the same period, the portion used for capital spending has fallen to about 40 percent from more than 50 percent.

The reluctance to raise capital investment has left companies with the oldest plants and equipment in almost 60 years. The average age of fixed assets reached 22 years in 2013, the highest level since 1956, according to annual data compiled by the Commerce Department.

This makes me wonder whether the rate of innovation, investment and value creation in other sectors of our economy (including the wireline access market) could benefit from some of the competitive pressures we’re seeing in the online video sector.  I invite readers to share their perspectives on this question, as well as the broader trends and issues to which it is related.

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Public Domain(s): Conference at MSU College of Law, 2, 3 October 2014


Professor Adam Candeub, Director of the Intellectual Property, Information & Communications Law Program in MSU’s College of Law, has organised a very promising event for the 2nd and 3rd of October, entitled ‘Public Domain(s): Law, Generating Knowledge in the Information Economy‘. In addition to Adam, speakers include: Johannes M. Bauer, Chairperson of the Department of Telecommunication, Information Studies, & Media, Michigan State University; John F. Blevins, Associate Professor of Law, Loyola University New Orleans College of Law; Bruce Boyden, Assistant Professor, Marquette University Law School; Daniel Brenner, Judge, Los Angeles County Superior Court; Annemarie Bridy, Alan G. Sheppard Professor of Law, University of Idaho College of Law; Jennifer Carter-Johnson, Associate Professor, Michigan State University College of Law; James M. Chen, Justin Smith Morrill Chair in Law, Professor, Michigan State University College of Law; Jorge Contreras, Associate Professor, S.J. Quinney College of Law, University of Utah; Robert Frieden, Professor and Pioneers Chair in Telecommunication and Affiliate Law Faculty, Penn State University; Yaniv Heled, Assistant Professor, Georgia State University College of Law; Justin (Gus) Hurwitz, Assistant Professor, University of Nebraska College of Law; Thomas D. Jeitschko, Professor, Michigan State University; Daryl Lim, Assistant Professor, John Marshall Law School; and Jonathan Obar, Assistant Professor, University of Ontario Institute of Technology; Research Associate, Quello Center, Michigan State University; J. Janewa Osei-Tutu, Assistant Professor, Florida International University College of Law; Sean A. Pager, Associate Professor, Associate Director Intellectual Property, Information & Communications Law Program, Michigan State University College of Law; Mark F. Schultz, Associate Professor, Southern Illinois University School of Law; and Andrew W. Torrance, Professor and Docking Faculty Scholar, University of Kansas School of Law. The schedule of panels and talks is available online, along with related information about the event, at:

Quello colleagues Johannes Bauer & Jonathan Obar presented on Net Neutrality

Quello colleagues Johannes Bauer & Jonathan Obar presented on Net Neutrality

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