John Finan, thinking ahead

Writer: 
June 1, 2006
John Finan

John Finan. Jon Gardiner

By his own account, John Finan was destined to become an engineer. During his freshman year at University College Dublin in his native Ireland, he entered an essay contest that asked him to explain his choice of academic field.

"I wrote this essay about my conception, basically," says Finan, now a fifth-year graduate student at Duke. "The idea was that there were all these sperm racing up my mother's fallopian tubes. I assigned them personalities that corresponded to different professions. So there was a doctor sperm and a lawyer sperm. Also among them was an engineer sperm.

"Along the way, the engineer sperm became fascinated with the reciprocating motion of its tail. And it decided that a corkscrew motion would generate more thrust. So it applied a corkscrew motion and ended up arriving at the egg first. The idea was that I was branded as an engineer from birth."

His creative thinking won him first prize in that contest, $500, but it's his winning submission to a more recent competition that has garnered Finan national acclaim, not to mention a BMW, $10,000 in cash, and an apprenticeship offer with one of the nation's leading wireless communications firms.

Last summer, cell-phone giant Motorola announced its MOTOFWRD contest, which challenged participants to project the future of "seamless mobility," a company tagline that, in the words of its website, involves "creating a new world of uninterrupted access to information, entertainment, communication, and more." Entries would be judged on three basic criteria: depiction of seamless mobility, creativity of entry, and feasibility and sophistication of ideas.

Many entrants took a big-picture focus, using their presentations to make predictions about the future of wireless communications in general. Finan took a different tack, focusing instead on one specific innovative product that he believed could be the next big thing: a "mood phone" that uses voice-recognition technology to identify the emotions of the person on the other end, and indicate them using different colored lights.

He presented his idea in the form of a short story. The protagonist, Ian, suffers from mild Asperger's syndrome, a mild version of autism marked by difficulty reading nonverbal cues. Ian's mood phone is his key to getting along both in the workplace and in his home life. Through Ian's eyes, Finan cleverly describes the phone's transition from niche product to mainstream must-have, as features like downloadable "celebration sparkles" win over the high-school crowd and color conventions help onlookers avoid interrupting important calls.

Finan came up with the idea after reading The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, a mystery novel featuring an autistic child, and from discussions with colleagues about voice-recognition technologies and mood-interpretation algorithms. The concept was nurtured by his belief that the product could realistically become a hit.

"This is not crazy 'Star Wars' stuff. There's no reason why this couldn't go to market in two or three years as far as I'm concerned," he says. "The other thing about cell phones is that they're big money. One thing you learn in research is that the things that are lucrative tend to develop quickly."

Motorola, for its part, has offered him a summer apprenticeship to spend developing the technology. "I went to them saying, 'I know it's kind of wild, but maybe we can take certain ideas away from it and run with them,' " he explains. "They're like, 'No, dude, build the mood phone.' "

Finan, who is in the biomedical-engineering department, spent his first four years at Duke studying brain injury and crash protection and now works on cellular biomechanics in arthritis. He says that those real-world applications are what he likes best about his chosen field. "I love working with things, making tools for people to work with. Not just imagining huge concepts, but actually putting them to use."

That knack for solving problems and creating tools is why he got into engineering in the first place. Well, that, and the twist of a certain tail.