Featured Engineer

Interview with John Ladd

John Ladd

John Ladd - CEO, Futurist, & Inventor of RSE Technology

Sum up Roman Systems Engineering in one sentence.

RSE solves some of the problems facing todays 3d laser scanner systems by utilizing ancient Roman technologies in conjunction with modern dielectric fluids and novel hybrid binary tree branch computational solvers.

What is your value proposition?

Modern 3d laser scanners which utilize time-of-flight approaches have difficulty imaging transparent or highly reflective samples. Because RSE liquid scan technology does not rely on radiation, it can overcome these limitations. In addition, RSE scanning allows penetration into the cavities of a porous medium. Imagine being able to scan a crouton that has a hollow cavity or rigid but porous food that contains a jelly filling. There are of course many interesting applications.

Can you tell us about the early start-up days at Roman Systems Engineering?

We still consider ourselves in the early start-up mode until mass production is achieved. Our defining moment occurred on March 9th, 2011, when Peng Tian, Guanbo Chen, and I decided to run a Matlab simulation to test my theory about the purpose of the Roman Dodecahedron. We were busy in our graduate microwaves course with 50 page lab write-ups, but the idea that the Romans used the dodecahedron as a liquid-displacement based 3d recording device was inescapable. I dropped out of my plasmas course to pursue this theory and related experimentation as a full time endeavor and began writing patents, copyrighting our material and pursuing trademark protection. We were lucky to have the mentoring and advices from a top U.S. patent holder Salman Akram, and some valuable advices from technology leaders such as David Orton (CEO of Aptina), Gennady Agranov (VP of imaging technology), and especially theoretical physicist Dr. Sergey Prokushkin. The inspiration to do something beneficial for the U.S. economy came from an inspiration we had felt (co-founder Megan Albrightson and myself) after taking electromagnetics instructor Rick G. Branner’s electromagnetic and RF courses at U.C. Davis.

By April 25th, we were already ready to present our technology in a public forum and had achieved hundreds of provisionally patented ideas surrounding our core technology. It was a one-month patenting binge and the most productive period of my life. To date, our theory about the Purpose of the Roman Dodecahedron has been unchallenged. It was also thoroughly reviewed in advanced and then defended for two hours in front of technology leaders in San Jose on June 29th. We have also been interviewed by the Fox News reporter who had run the story that the Mystery of the Roman Dodecahedron may never be solved and answered all of her questions we think to her liking.

Please explain what the Roman Dodecahedron is and why you believe you have solved this mystery.

The Roman Dodecahedron is an ancient bronze (or sometimes stone) artifact that has turned up by the hundreds and looks like a highly optimized characterization device. Not all dodecahedrons or icosahedrons appear the same at first glance, but there are common traits that give evidence to its purpose. Dozens of theories have been developed and all of them discounted and web-sites are devoted to the topic. In fact, doctoral thesis’s have been written in attempts to discover the intended use. We are confident that the purpose has finally been revealed and that I discovered it in a microwave engineering course while in graduate school in Ann Arbor, Michigan. We think that the Roman Dodecahedron was used to record the three dimensional shape of an object under study by measuring the fluid displacement of the object under various angles and depth of immersion.

We don’t buy it. Give us more details.

Not all dodecahedrons or icosahedrons appear the same at first glance, but there are common traits that give a clear indication to its probable use. There is evidence (scuff marks etc.) that objects were placed in it, but we found that in order to wedge a device holder between the supporting vertices it required a flexible object holder in order to achieve high repeatability in the device placement. We suspect that the Romans used wood, and, similar to the situation of Egyptian engineering of and construction of pyramids, the tools rotted and created and left historians scratching their heads due to a lack of empirical evidence. In order to fully appreciate our theory, it requires an approach for engineering such a device from scratch. You must start asking fundamental questions that lead you to the design of the Roman Dodecahedron by considering all aspects of designing a 3d recording device. In fact, we were unaware of the existence of the Roman Dodecahedron and asked how to solve a practical engineering problem. It was after our design was finished and we were performing some volume calculations did we notice the artifact on Wikipedia and was quite shocked to see its purpose was unknown. We immediately began compiling a list of traits that Roman Dodecahedrons must exhibit in order for our theory to be valid. We saw that all the dodecahedrons found so far did exhibit those traits and reminded us so much of the debates we had when designing our own device. It looks like the Romans had the same debates about the optimal design of the dodecahedron that we had, which was pretty exciting for us.

Please explain what fundamental questions led you to the design of the Roman Dodecahedron.

At the beginning of our design project, we asked the question about how we could measure the spatial dipole impulse response at an arbitrary location around a two terminal conductor of arbitrary shape (analogous to a Green function in electrostatics). We begin with ideas for a rotating sphere (i.e. trackball design) that could have dielectric fluids injected into the “hamster ball” at various levels and rotate at various measurement angles. It was an idea for a variational technique that we believed would lead to information to determine the lower and upper bound for the effect of a “dielectric raindrop” on the total capacitance seen at the two terminals after the dielectric raindrop was brought into proximity of the electric fields. We were to develop a measurement system and algorithms to study this idea, determine how useful it would be for mapping tensor behavior, and we were ultimately to place a dielectric drop on a Styrofoam rod to test our experimental or analytical algorithms we would uncover. It was a very aggressive project for a 3 credit course where we were obviously extremely busy with the laboratory write-ups and teaching and research assistant commitments.

To implement a practical prototype in a realistic timeframe, Guanbo was adamant that we use an “open” immersion system so that fluid leaks would not be an issue, though we heavily debated the choice of whether to use a closed or an open system. I looked to platonic devices that would have enough angles of measurement for reasonable spatial accuracy based on the theory of binary integer solving theory. I found that to obtain a reasonable resolution we would need between 12 and 24 faces on our immersion cage to be able to perform liquid scans and continuously measure the capacitance of the enclosed 2 terminal device with a practical accuracy (enough to study 3d “flowering” algorithms that would allow a method for interpolation to map out the spatial dipole response everywhere in the vicinity of the terminals). When a dodecahedron is inscribed in a sphere, it has a greater volume than an icosahedron, which for fluid based imaging, is great. You don’t want the device being tested to look like a gnat relative to the size of the immersion bowl. The dodecahedron also has more vertices than the icosahedron and a larger entrance hole on the face for placing the device to be tested. It definitely wins on most levels compared to its icosahedron cousin. Even where an icosahedron holds an advantage (the number of fundamental angles that can be scanned) the dodecahedron can hold its own by having the large “feet” buttressed on supporting legs to gain additional angles of measurement (when a pentagon is supported in this fashion it rests like a wheel-barrow). The dodecahedron is quite manufacture-able compared to the icosahedron and it only required 2 hours with a hack saw to put together quite an accurate device (both halves of the cage came together “perfectly” on the first shot). What is interesting is that there are signs that the Romans also had this debate on whether to use the dodecahedron or the icosahedron since they did find a single icosahedron prototype. We added solder balls on the outside of the cage as “feet” and ground them down on my basement floor to achieve a very level device.

I am missing something. What exactly did the Romans do with the Roman Dodecahedron, in the simplest of terms?

They attached the object to be tested (a projectile etc.) into the dodecahedron by means of a flexible support (most likely wood or wax) that was wedged between two interior vertices (or “corner reflectors”). They put the dodecahedron into a bowl and repeatedly added fixed amounts of water to the bowl, probably using something equivalent to an Erlenmeyer flask for high accuracy. Each time water was poured into the bowl, the fluid level would rise in accordance with Archimedes principle. The degree to which the fluid level rose would depend upon the displacement “slice” of the object being measured, and this fluid level would be recorded into the 12 columns of displacement data representing the 12 angles under study. By performing this measurement on all faces, a reasonable rendering of a smooth shape could be performed, if they had only had a computer at their disposal. Of course we are not suggesting they had a computer or even rendered. What matters is that the data set is unique to the device being tested and can be compared with other devices for a type of one dimensional quality control. By maintaining a high quality control of perhaps projectile manufacturing, a greater kill ratio of the Roman army could be achieved. Laser scanners today are used for quality control, and the Roman Dodecahedron could have easily been used at that time with only 18 minutes of recording effort for the device under study. It was practical and it was useful. It would even be useful if placed side by side with the micrometer in every hardware store on the planet.

Are you suggesting that the 12 inches-in-a-foot also stemmed from the repeated use of this device?

Yes, but it is more difficult to prove. At the very least, it should become a leading hypothesis because it is based upon a fundamental and consistent principle. If you are recording 12 columns of data every day in a table that is approximately 1 foot wide (they probably didn’t use an 8 and ½ inch wide paper with fine point writing utensils) recording scroll, and that the data represented your three dimensional ruler, but you were viewing the data and comparing it in one dimension, wouldn’t you also adopt the same standard for a 1d ruler? It definitely is a possibility if they preferred a consistent unit of measurement between shapes and distances. I don’t see any other reason they would adopt a 12-inches-in-a-foot standard. I think it was based on the “fifth element of the Zodiac.” When the Normans arrived, they brought back the tradition of the Roman 12-inches in a foot. Although no single document on the subject can be found, it appears that during the Reign of Henry I (1100 – 1135) the 12-inch foot became official.

What is your strongest short summary that supports this possible historic finding? If you are right, the world needs to know about it. What would you say to a skeptic?

I would ask the skeptic whether they would think it would be useful or not for the Romans to have the ability to record the 3d shape of projectiles or other devices? If so, I would like to ask them to propose a better way than fluid immersion and a more optimized structure than the Roman Dodecahedron to perform this important task. If they know a better way, then I would agree that skepticism makes sense. If not, I would ask them to look at the commonalities behind all the dodecahedrons, which include large feet for angle adjustment, a large hole on at least one side for DUT placement, and the hole patterns such that all dodecahedrons (or icosahedron) allow for horizontal fluid level settling around the device that is at the center. If the Romans didn’t use this device for 3d recording, they were missing out on an ideal and highly optimal and practical use for this structure. In general, it is very rare for a highly optimized piece of characterization equipment to not be used for an ideal practical use for its design. We think that our theory is the first which gives an optimized solution to a practical problem that the Roman’s would be facing. The other theories simply put, well, don’t make any sense. This device was not an optimized paper-weight or a candle-stick holder. They are not going to be measuring the diameter of pipes horizontally (it is not ergonomic and hard on the shoulders to do this repeatedly) and would simply place a square on the ground with a crescendo of holes to plant the pipe in. In addition, the icosahedron that was found was clearly not used for this purpose (with the many equally sized small holes) so that theory should be discarded.

The use of this device in quality control applications did not require the dodecahedron to even be placed perfectly flat relative to gravity, or be manufactured with “perfect” precision. It only had to compare 2 devices for likeness, so it was clearly well engineered for this purpose. Even the feet themselves give indication to the need for repeatability. A close inspection shows that they often took care to not only make the feet large but make the area of the feet that touches the bowl somewhat small, guaranteeing a higher repeatability because of a lowered chance of dirt to be trapped in between the contact point of the structure and the measurement tank.

We think you are pretty adamant about your dodecahedron theory. Let’s talk about the future of engineering. What can you do with this device?

We extend the accuracy and speed of this device by adding capacitive fluid level probes within the dodecahedron structure. By snapping two of these dodecahedrons together in hour-glass form, and sealing the dodecahedron, accuracy is unparalleled because the top dodecahedron knows very accurately how much fluid was dispensed into the bottom and the bottom structure obviously knows the displacement through the capacitance level reading. By using modern fluids, such as fluorinert, we can even penetrate into some test objects to map out the interior of a cavity. Fluorinert has extremely weak intermolecular forces and is almost twice as heavy as water. Its ability to penetrate a medium and then quickly drain out (without hysteresis) is demonstrated in our videos. That is the big advantage here over photons, the persistence of molecules to penetrate into a medium, and their determination to achieve a state of minimum potential energy. The software package delivers a useful rendering of the subject (in voxel space) on the home computer. Additional angles of measurement are performed in real-time to isolate areas of interest where higher resolution is required (by utilizing the statistical engine), and to avoid air-bubble traps that are flagged by the time displacement information that is captured. Additionally, the fluid level operation serves as a “slant-edge” line-of-sight calibration procedure that maps out the imaging zones for traditional color image sensors that are embedded in the dodecahedron vertices. This approach allows a full color surround image of the DUT’s surface to be overlaid onto the geometrically accurate liquid scan volume image, morphing the RGB surface information to coincide with the geometrical liquid scan data. We anticipate that users will be stunned to be able to scan unique objects (such as twinkies for example) that contain filling and render density scan images along with the color surface on websites.

We recognize that the fundamental technologies that have proven themselves throughout time are ideal building blocks for the device of the future. People have proven that they have always been willing to carry around water bottles or flasks, and sometimes on the hip. Tape measures are worn on the hip. Are slick device will be worn on the hip, and since it is a fluid containment system will naturally be able to hold hard alcohol, which is actually a decent lower-end substitute for fluorinert to do some basic 3d rendering—hard alcohol, depending upon type, has low surface tension and reasonable levels of measurement hysteresis. Fluroinert is a very inert and non-toxic substance and the risk of cross-contamination being an issue to human health is nonexistent. In the future we expect that the dodecahedrons that are joined in hour-glass function to perform scanning functions will have a social proximity based tie-in that will allow for meaningful face-to-face interaction between people. This might be an acceptable replacement for the problem presented by modern social media which leave people feeling isolated and lonely hitting refresh on their computers on a Saturday night. By having the two dodecahedrons “talk” to each other, with a natural hand-shake operation, a certain level of privacy is achieved while allowing both devices to screen for commonalities that would serve as excellent ice-breakers. As engineers, we recognize that face-to-face interaction and problem solving is a key ingredient in accelerating our economies forward. Not much good development happens without a whiteboard, no matter how advanced our virtual conference rooms become. I fear that I am getting to far ahead into the future market for our device and have strayed. My apologies.

How long before we see these 3d “Roman Ruler” products on the store shelves?

Oh the weather outside is frightful…but the fire is so delightful. And if there is no place to go, let it snow… let it snow… let it snow! I think Santa will lend eeweb one of the first to stuff their stockings with. Thank you for your time.

Wait. If the Romans used the Dodecahedron and measured the water level, wouldn’t it be difficult to measure a very small displacement caused by say a small defect in an arrow head?

Exactly, and surprisingly, this adds a great deal of credibility to the theory. We are working on an app that allows volume intercept injection of a table of Roman style hand measurements into both a 3d rendering program and a simple quality assurance program that would be more in keeping with the Roman technology. We plan to issue a significant cash prize for the both the best rendering of a projectile and the best quality control measurements (lowest standard deviation error between two projectile standards that can be resolved). Anybody is welcome to beat us to the app and it should be an interesting competition. We can only answer your question at the time with two references for an upper and lower bound on what can be achieved.

The lower bound would be dropping a lead ball into a bowl and measuring the fluid level displacement—that would be a single angle with a single “slice”, and also be called an Archimedes experiment. That is a lower bound that anybody can achieve and is still the most accurate way to measure the volume of a solid object. To perform fine resolution “slicing” and more angles takes increasing skill, both for the fluid level measurement and the repeatability of the DUT placement methodology. We have played with the measurement and found that we are still on the steep learning curve where repetition will only make us better.

We can get guidance about the practical upper bound from the mathematics of 3d volume displacement imaging. For example, from 6 angles of measurement, and 10 data “slices” per angle, we can mathematically resolve a simple object with only 0.7% voxel error on a 10×10×10 volume grid. With this as the upper bound, it is unlikely that a small point defect could be recorded and rendered; it would have to be a significant chip or deviation in the shape of the arrowhead. If the Romans intended to only perform a comparison between two projectiles for consistency, they need not record in such a manner that would even be able to be injected into a modern computational engine and render. It need only provide error data that over many samples could be indicative of the quality of a manufacturing line. In other words, they may only need to know “which slave to whip.”

For the practical upper bound, one can imagine some highly skilled characterization engineer in a tower performing weeks of measurements without interruption. The engineer may provide many angles of measurement using supports under the “feet” of the dodecahedron. His experience with the device may cover a lifetime of trial and error and meticulous experimentation. He may look across the fluid level like a sharpshooter aligns the open sights of a gun, closing one eye for added precision. Or he may place a wooden stick into the bowl and have a pigment or oil floating on the surface of the water which soaks into the wood and dries, recording each increment. After removing the stick, he may be able to directly compare a column of data with a stick measured from another projectile. This is analogous to the method of checking fluid level from an automobile engine.

In summary, we think that this method of 3d recording is challenging, and there is significant sources of error. It is clear that the Romans understood the error and took many efforts to reduce it. The choice of the dodecahedron itself shows an understanding of the challenge of 3d volume displacement recording and choosing a structure that has the lowest practical error. They showed an understanding that the mass of the object under study must match the interior volume of the cage and the bowl as well as possible because the holes for DUT placement were large on at least one side of the dodecahedron. The range of sizes of dodecahedrons found (4cm to 11cm) exhibit an understanding that the dodecahedron must closely match the size of the object under study for maximum practical accuracy.

Did they find any watering bowls in the field near the dodecahedrons?

This would be nice data to have and is a profoundly important question if we are to get much traction from the non-engineering crowd. We would like a “smoking gun.” However, it appears that gathering this kind of data could be a challenge for several reasons. First, although dodecahedrons were found near military sites, projectile manufacture can also take place in civilian territory. The number of samples found is relatively low. In addition, dodecahedrons were found in graves which led to speculation it was a religious artifact. That is a hurdle. We are not surprised that some would choose to be buried with a device if it was their lifelong craft. When you hold the device, it does “grow on you.” Imagine holding a baseball for most of your life, but something that feels even more ergonomic in the hand because it has corners and will not slip out. Engineers who worked on the NASA missions were very proud of their slide-rules and wouldn’t go anywhere without them.

Another problem is the disparity in cost between the bowl and the dodecahedron. While the dodecahedron was expensive, a bowl simply needed to closely match the dodecahedron in size. Because of the difference in cost between the two devices, you would naturally expect that dodecahedrons would be stored with some care, while the bowl may not be close by. The bowl obviously had secondary uses as well. Our strategy for the search for a “smoking gun” is actually to start with electrical engineers who are familiar with our particular terminology. If the interest is there, historians will take a closer look at what we are doing and hopefully provide some assistance. It may not be easy. We don’t know what material the bowl was composed of (it may have shattered or rotted) so we could be facing a lot of the problems that surround theories of how the pyramids were built, especially if wooden tools surrounded the use of the dodecahedron.

Ultimately, our efforts are aimed at bringing a useful product into production and creating some jobs in the United States. However, to solve a historical mystery would be neat. We are confident we have found the answer, but our reasoning is fortified through engineering principles, and not a “smoking gun.” We think our historical efforts will help people understand and appreciate the technical sophistication of people outside our own century. Every time I begin to have a slight doubt, I take another look at the Roman Dodecahedron and recognize the proficiency of manufacturing these engineers possessed.

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