December 10, 2013
You probably don’t know this, but it takes about six months for a coffee bean to go from crop to cup. During that time, it undergoes a lengthy bureaucratic process of being shipped around from facility to facility, clearing a gauntlet of regulatory hurdles along the way, before it arrives finally to a local cafe. In fact, a coffee bean can change hands as much as 150 times before it’s served up.
Sadly, many coffee drinkers will never know how sweet, not bitter, a freshly brewed cup of joe actually tastes. That’s because the aromatic qualities of freshly roasted coffee degrades almost immediately, as the flavorful sulfur compounds begin to oxidize the moment it’s exposed to open air. Though roasting is carried out just prior to the beans being sealed and packaged, fluctuations in the surrounding temperatures as the coffee is moved from one place of storage to another also causes staleness to set in. Coffee connoisseurs have criticized large coffee shop chains like Starbucks for trying to compensate for this uncomfortable fact by using dark, overly-roasted beans that leave behind more of a burnt or charred taste than any actual resemblance of the bean’s natural flavor.
The so-called Third Wave Coffee movement, a search for the freshest brew possible, is in some ways a revolt against the highly-profitable industrial complex that has coalesced around coffee production. A Wall Street Journal report that explores home brewing methods delves into the extravagant lengths some aficionados go to, from repurposing vintage hot air popcorn poppers to $4,000 propane-powered systems, to yield a perfect, even roast.
Hans Stier, a German inventor, feels something isn’t right about having to turn your kitchen or backyard into some kind of elaborate makeshift laboratory just to enjoy the fresh taste of coffee. What the world really needs, he believes, is a device that makes the entire process of roasting, grinding and brewing as simple as pressing a button on your home coffee machine.
It took two years, $100,000 of his money and testing 135 prototypes for the former tax attorney to develop the Bonaverde, an all-in-one coffee appliance. No one, however, wanted it—at least that’s what he was told by every potential investor and manufacturer who he had hoped would help bring the product into the consumer marketplace.
“I found out while pitching the technology that this wasn’t just a new device, it’s a major disruption,” Stier says. “I was going against large industrial roasters and a bunch of other middlemen whose business is dependent on keeping the status quo intact.”
Electronic companies, for the most part, reasoned that such a device would be too expensive to actually make money. Some even expressed doubt as to whether offering superior taste would even make a difference. But, Bonaverde’s Kickstarter campaign, which ended on Sunday, raised a grand sum of $681,461, easily surpassing its fundraising goal of $135,000 within the first week.
The machine, which resembles a mini jukebox, features a timer than can be programmed with specific presets based on the roasting profile of certain kinds of beans. As demonstrated in this video, green coffee beans can be scooped and dumped into the stainless steel rotating roast compartment through a sieve at the top. After the beans are roasted and cooled, they move into a separate area where they are ground and collected into a coffee filter. The rest of the process is similar to standard coffee machine brewing, and, in just 15 minutes, you have a truly fresh brewed cup of coffee.
The most challenging part of combining the various components, Stier notes, was developing an efficient roasting mechanism, since temperatures, roast time and rotation speed varies depending on the type of beans used and the particular flavor a person wants to create. (The product will likely come with suggested roasting profiles for different beans, though users will surely do some experimenting of their own.) The Bonaverde runs on non-combustion technology, with fine roasting achieved through a process similar to what you’d find in a toaster.
“Everything else is applying too much heat,” Stier explains. “And who wants a gas system in their kitchen anyway? Ours a bit more technology enhanced.”
For $300, Stier claims its a difference everyone can taste. His company’s internal blind taste tests found that 100 percent of subjects could differentiate between Bonaverde’s “fresher” coffee and other varieties of drip coffee. People tend to describe the coffee produced by the Bonaverde machine as tasting much milder and sweeter. “People who aren’t coffee experts can even detect the more flowery highlights of beans that come from Costa Rica without even having a reference point,” he adds. “It has its own taste, just like wine.”
As for where to find raw coffee beans, Stier is working with growers to foster an online marketplace of sorts where consumers can order shipments directly from farmers, a potential business model that’s beneficial to both parties. Coffee farmers earn only 10 to 12 cents for every dollar the consumer spends on coffee. Home roasters would also save money as high-quality raw coffee beans cost at least half as much, sometimes less, than the $12 a pound or more for roasted beans from Starbucks and other suppliers. While Stier admits he doesn’t have any specifics on how such a platform would work, he believes adamantly that there are enough motivated people for fairer trade systems to flourish.
“The sad thing is my parents used to actually roast coffee beans at home, before coffee became industrialized,” he says.”Now, if we can get a fresh cup of coffee conveniently without the middleman, we’re back in the game again.”
December 9, 2013
Umbrellas shield people from the rain, but the current design is far from perfect. They fold down into soaked, dripping messes, crumple when hit by powerful blasts of wind and fail to safeguard us from muddy puddle splashes.
Recently, a handful of designers have put forth their best revisionist ideas for shoring up some of these deficiencies. There’s the Rain Shield, which features an enlarged canopy that extends, sort of like a tail on a tuxedo, down one side. This extra coverage guards against incoming splash while also preventing forceful gusts from catching the inside of the umbrella. The Rainshader resembles a blown-up motorcycle helmet (without the face guard). Hugging the user’s head, this version is designed to not interfere with people’s views at crowded events like concerts or games and to prevent poking others. The Senz umbrella, another oddly-shaped reboot that comes in the shape of a stealth fighter, is aerodynamically formulated to channel wind flow across the surface, in a way that won’t cause it to flip over. The company claims the Senz can withstand winds of up to 70 mph.
None of these improvements, however, has the makings of a true evolutionary leap for the old school rain cover—at least not yet. Each concept, while mitigating one flaw, propagates others. For example, the Rain Shield’s unorthodox shape requires that the user skillfully twists it down to size, similar to folding down those mesh pop-up hampers. Using a Rainshader can feel a bit confining while appearing to others as if you’re wearing a “nylon mullet.” And if you’re thinking of sharing the Senz umbrella with someone else, forget about it. Coverage is entirely lopsided.
The latest to try his hand at a 2.0 version is Japanese designer Hiroshi Kajimoto. With the collapsing frame on the outside, his new creation, the inside out folding UnBRELLA, is not only better at resisting wind, but also folds upward to keep the wet surface inside and away from yourself and others. The ability to quickly funnel and drain the excess water also means you’ll have more space in the living room, without an array of open wet umbrellas left out to dry. It even stands up to drip dry.
The most obvious drawback, however, is that, when folded, it nearly doubles the length of a conventional umbrella. Again, there’s something about these efforts to revolutionize a tool that’s been around and has remained, at its core, mostly unchanged for a millennium that comes off like trying to reinvent the wheel. It’s understandably tempting for designers to try their hand at something that’s intuitively simple enough, yet has befuddled numerous imaginative minds before them. The Telegraph has even called the challenge to improve the umbrella the holy grail of amateur inventors.
“The rewards for whoever improves the umbrella are substantial,” writes Susan Orlean in the New Yorker. “The annual retail market in the United States alone is now $348 million—about 33 million umbrellas. The rest of the world, including many cultures where umbrellas are used both as rain protection and as sun shade, consumes many millions more.”
But perhaps, when it comes down to it, people have grown too accustomed to the distinguished aesthetic of a perfectly circular hat on a stick that simply opens and folds when we need it. They’d like it to stay cheaply disposable enough to forget in taxi cabs, parties and other public nooks. Maybe, it’s fine the way it is.
“It’s hard to improve on the umbrella,” writes designer Charles Lim at Crooked Pixels. “A better umbrella would have to be easier to recycle or repair, or would be constructed from carbon fibre to make it both durable and light. But why even bother? Umbrellas are perfect because of their price and size. It’s a satisfied and dry market.”
December 6, 2013
To a butterfly, even the slightest torrential downpour can feel like getting pelted by a barrage of bowling balls. And as the insects take cover, the slightest residual moisture touching their wafer-thin wings can also hinder their ability to fly. Fortunately, the little critters evolved uniquely textured wings that excel at repelling water and dirt.
Scientists have known this for some time. But it’s the remarkable wingspans belonging to the blue morpho butterfly, a tropical species native to rainforest regions of Central and South America, that’s of particular interest to scientists as of late. The special ridged patterns on the surface, similar to nasturtium leaves, has been found to repel liquids at a rate that surpasses even the heralded water-shedding capabilities of the lotus leaf.
“For years industry has been copying the lotus. They should start thinking about copying butterflies and nasturtiums,” MIT engineering professor Kripa Varanasi tells BBC News. “We believe these are the most super-hydrophobic surfaces yet.”
Varanasi is best known as the head of the research team that developed LiquiGlide, a slippery surface technology that’s been shown to enable ketchup to slide easily out of the bottle. His latest findings, published in the journal Nature, demonstrate how another fabricated material featuring this added wrinkle may indeed be the most water-resistant stuff on earth.
So, how does this novel material work? As shown in the video, the silicon surface features raised ridges no more than 0.1 millimeter (1/250th of an inch) high, which cause falling droplets of water to flatten like a pancake before immediately breaking apart into smaller, scattered droplets. The smaller the droplets, the faster they bounce off a surface. The amount of time the liquid is in contact with the material is considerably less this way—about a third less, in fact, than it would be with other water-repellant materials.
So what’s the great advantage of a material that can stay drier than the rest? Since smaller droplets are easily repelled, less water on a surface means less likelihood of frost buildup. Commercially, such a material would be of special interest to the aviation industry. Engineers are constantly looking for ways to prevent ice from forming on planes’ wings; this frozen layer can alter airflow and put the aircraft at risk of stalling. Anti-icing systems that melt the ice are already built into airplanes to combat such issues, but a superhydrophobic coating would provide an additional safeguard against the risk. The ridged texture could also be applied to the blades of wind turbines for improved performance and fabrics, which could be used to design clothing that better shields us from the elements.
For now, Varanasi and his research team are working on structural tweaks that they hope will make the material even more water-resistant. They believe increasing the number of ridges may do the trick. “I hope we can manage to get a 70 to 80 percent reduction [in contact time],” he says in a press release. “We can reduce it further.”
December 5, 2013
There’s a reason why big city mayors like New York’s Michael Bloomberg have pushed hard for the widespread adoption of bike sharing programs. Getting people to collectively start pedaling, instead of driving, can ease traffic congestion, reduce the strain on the public health system and clear up air quality in one fell swoop.
But try telling that to the sweaty business executive in the three-piece suit who’s straining to pedal uphill to make it to an important board meeting on time.
Now, the Boston-based startup Superpedestrian has an innovative alternative for those who still want to enjoy all the benefits of bicycling, but with a lot less grunting. Their pedal assist device, called the Copenhagen Wheel, can be easily slipped onto almost any bicycle as a lightweight modified rear wheel that provides a motorized boost for moments when riders need it most, like, for instance, going uphill. Sandwiched between what looks like two metallic red hubcaps is an intricate system comprised of a 350 watt electric motor and a 48 volt lithium-ion battery that combine to generate an energy output that amounts to more than four times what an average person can muster by just pedaling.
Though the company is keeping mum on how the patent-pending technology works, we do know that the system utilizes what’s called regenerative braking to continuously recharge the onboard battery. Such systems, typically integrated into electric cars and hybrids, convert the kinetic energy involved in stopping a moving vehicle’s forward momentum, as brakes are applied, into stored power. The resulting output gives the modified bicycle a range of 30 miles and a potential top speed of 20 mph.
In some ways, the Copenhagen Wheel does for electric bicycles what Apple did for mobile computing with the smartphone and tablets, in shrinking down all the necessary components into a compact 12-pound module. The minimalist design eliminates the need for certain parts, such as an external throttle, and even includes enhancements like a sensor system designed to automatically track the rider’s pedaling patterns, the shape of the terrain and other environmental conditions to determine when extra power is needed. The device also features built-in Wi-Fi so riders can access the data via a smartphone app, which displays fitness-related metrics such as distances traveled and calories burned.
The idea for the wheel was conceived back in 2009 when Assaf Biderman, an inventor and associate director of the SENSEable City Laboratory at MIT, was tasked by the mayor of Copenhagen to figure out a way to motivate more locals to adopt bicycles as a viable mode of transportation. During his research, he found that many deemed bikes as impractical due to a variety of reasons, ranging from the strenuousness of traveling long distances to not wanting to show up at work covered in sweat.
Pedal-assisted electric bikes, or e-bikes, have gained popularity over the last decade, rising steadily to account for 12 percent of all bicycle sales worldwide. Millions have been sold in Asian countries, such as China, where bicycles often serve as a main mode of transport. But the technology’s reach stalls out when it comes to ardent bike enthusiasts, many of whom consider the vehicles to be too clunky. For them, pedal-assisted riding barely resembles the true bicycling experience, and all its joys.
“So we said, let’s think of something that is really elegant that keeps the natural pure experience of riding. Just pedal,” Biderman told Public Radio International.
The Copenhagen Wheel is on sale now for $700, with the earliest shipments scheduled for the the beginning of 2014. And it’s only then that we’ll learn whether the technology lives up to its claims in the rockier parts of the real-world.
December 4, 2013
There are “pet owners” and then there are “pet parents.” For the latter, there isn’t an effort to a great or a price too high to make their little ones feel like part of the family.
Over the years, the multi-billion dollar pet market has happily catered to these truest of animal lovers, making it possible for them to spoil their precious furballs with facials and manicures at dog spas, specially-concocted fragrances and custom-designed orthopedic pet beds. Being so attached, you can imagine the separation anxiety pet parents experience when they’re at work or vacationing for an extended amount of time.
To alleviate this stress, a Minnesota-based startup has invented a two-way petcam that enables both owner and pet to connect and interact remotely in a manner similar to Skype or Apple’s FaceTime. The $350 PetChatz device features a “chew-proof” intercom-sized unit with a built-in speakerphone, camera system and interactive LCD screen that can be plugged into any wall outlet.
Connected via Wi-Fi, owners would then use an app on their computer or mobile device to start a “chat” session, which can be recorded and shared with others. A special ring tone signals to the pet that someone’s calling and an additional motion and sound detection system can be set up to notify parents of any activity around the house. While technically dogs or cats don’t have the ability to chat, people can use the “Greet & Treat” system to reward their pets by dispensing tasty treats and even special scents that are kept in a refillable hidden compartment.
PetChatz was created by Mark Kroll, a medical technology developer with more than 350 patents to his name. He holds the title of Minnesota’s most prolific inventor. The idea came to him about a decade ago when, while he was Skyping with his daughter, the family’s labrador recognized her voice and came running into the room. Kroll later collaborated with veterinary technician Lisa Lavin to to develop PetChatz and other similar long-distance technologies under a new venture called Anser Innovation.
“As a pet parent myself, I understand how strongly people feel about their pets,” says Lavin, who estimates that she has spent a total of $11,200 on vet bills and $80 a month on dog food for both of her live-in poodles. “We miss them. We feel guilty when we’re away on vacation and this is a way to alleviate that separation anxiety.”
If there is one aspect of these extravagant pet parenting products that some might find troubling, other than the cost, it’s that promoting them involves a great deal of anthropomorphizing. Though dogs and cats are intelligent, they still aren’t human, and treating them as such hints at a kind of resolute denial to accept the fact that they may not even enjoy being the benefactor of pricey skin treatments. Some experts think its a stretch to believe that the critter on the other end even recognizes a person being displayed on a screen.
“This product introduces the potential for interaction between the dog and the technology,” Margaret Duxbury, an animal behavior professor at the University of Minnesota, told the Star-Tribune a year ago. “It will certainly be disappointing if the dogs don’t respond at all [to PetChatz]. Perhaps they will respond to the voice but not recognize that the picture is of their owner. Does that even matter if they respond to the voice?”
Lavin claims that the company has since tested the device, with pet and human subjects, and discovered that pets can be easily trained to at least recognize the ring in a manner similar to a Pavlovian response. (Some animals have even been trained to be government spies.) As for whether a pet knows who’s on-screen, she says that would depend on how much visual technology the pet has been exposed to.
“What we found was that the pet who spends a lot of time watching TV is more likely to be compelled to recognize your image on the screen and follow commands than one who doesn’t,” she says.
What’s important, she emphasizes, is that this device does more for the emotional welfare of the owner than for the pet. If there is any benefit for the pet (besides food), she adds, it’s that the pet, especially dogs, receives some stimulation during the day, which animal behaviorists agree can do wonders for their well-being.
PetChatz is slated to be available for purchase on the product’s website and at select independent pets stores nationwide during the first quarter of 2014. For now, the company is taking pre-orders for the device. Packets of special treats and essential oil drops will also be available in the near future.