August 28, 2003, 12:00 AM — The problem with our imaginations is that they're held captive. They
tend to be reined in by our sphere of knowledge, tempered by that which
we have already experienced. But not always. Some people, somehow,
manage to cook up ideas that no one had thought of before. Steven
Spielberg comes to mind. And so does Tu Nguyen.
Tu Nguyen is a 23 year-old college student. His family, which emigrated
to the United States in 1989, owns and operates a Vietnamese restaurant
in, of all places, Omaha, Nebraska. The restaurant's chefs speak little
English. It's one thing for a Nebraska Cornhusker to order sauteed beef
with lemon grass and chili vermicelli, but if the chef doesn't get the
message to cook up a serving of Bun Bo Xao Xa Ot, well, dinner's going
to be a long time coming.
Fortunately, Nguyen let his imagination take flight; what he came up
with is fascinating. Using wireless Pocket PC technology and Microsoft's
.NET application-development framework (which is beside the point),
Nguyen single-handedly created something he dubbed iPODS (Intelligent
Pocket Order Delivery System).
It's a wireless application that lets a waiter take an order on a Pocket
PC in one language (presumably English) and have it translated into the
chef's native language. Now, when you order Com Tam Bi Cha Bo Nuong, you
can be sure it will arrive at your table as shredded pork with baked egg
and charbroiled beef served over broken rice, not as shredded pork with
baked egg and charbroiled pork served over broken rice (which is Com Tam
Bi Cha Thit Nuong).
For his imaginative use of .NET technology, Nguyen won the $25,000
worldwide grand prize at the Microsoft-sponsored Imagine Cup contest.
Second prize went to a team from India. Their entry integrates different
mobile devices to improve collaboration among health organizations. The
idea is to empower these organizations to provide mission-critical care
The winners retain all rights to their ideas. You can bet that Nguyen
will turn iPODS into a commercial product with other uses and additional
translation dictionaries. He's off and running; America truly is the
land of opportunity.
Being imaginative is hard. We all sell what we know, and we all push the
products likely to encounter the least sales resistance, even though
another, lesser-known solution may be a better fit. Vendors want you to
sell more of the same. We even raise the quotas on our sales staff,
pushing them toward the same end. And why not? We've all got a
for-profit business to run, after all.
Thinking different means making an investment in time and money to
breathe life into a solution we've probably all dismissed as just one
more crazy idea. Thinking different requires a certain amount of
daydreaming. Think Different. Yeah, it was Apple's slogan a couple of
years ago. Turns out they were right.
Perhaps Tu Nguyen thought his idea was crazy.