December 21, 2012
Earlier this week I rolled out the first half of a list of a dozen of the more innovative ideas of 2012.
We’re not talking Google Glass or invisibility cloaks or other flashes from the future. No, these are less splashy things, yet, in their own ways, no less inspired and probably more likely to become a part of our daily lives. They’re the creations of people joined under a common maxim, namely, “There’s gotta be a better way.”
So, muffled drum roll, please…the Fresh Ideas of 2012, Part 2:
7) While you’re at it, can you pick up a paper and some gum: Yes, suitcases with wheels were a big breakthrough, but Madrid designer Rodrigo Garcia Gonzalez says why stop there? Why should we still have lug luggage?
So he has invented a new kind of suitcase he calls Hop!. What makes it so special is that it follows you around like the most loyal of pets.
Well, technically it follows your smart phone. The suitcase contains three receivers that communicate, via Bluetooth, with an app on your smart phone and, put simply, it follows that signal. The same controller also directs a dual caterpillar track-type system on the bottom of the suitcase to move it along. If the signal gets lost, the bag locks itself and vibrates its owner’s phone.
Of course, there are issues to resolve–think of the security challenges of an airport full of roaming luggage–but Gonzalez deserves props for giving us hope that we’ll one day break loose from our bags.
8) Anticipation was so overrated: It never really made much sense: In a world increasingly geared to instant gratification, we waited for ketchup. It took forever to come out of the bottle, but we seemed willing to live with that.
Not Kripa Varanasi and his team of MIT engineers. They’ve developed a substance called LiquiGlide, which, when coating the inside surface of bottles, helps ketchup and mustard slide right out. Now this may seem a trivial modern indulgence, but, as the LiquiGlide team estimates, roughly a million tons of food could avoid being tossed in the garbage if it wasn’t getting stuck in bottles. So it’s only right that we go with the flow.
9) Which gives new meaning to “All you can eat”: While we’re on the subject of food waste, let’s give it up for WikiCells. These are the edible membranes created by Harvard professor David Edwards and French designer Francois Azambourg that encase food and liquids. In other words, it’s packaging you can eat.
The membranes, meant to mimic the skin of a grape, are made of food particles, such as cheese or dried fruit, and are held together by calcium or magnesium ions. So far, the pair have conjured up a tomato membrane containing gazpacho, an orange one filled with orange juice, a chocolate version holding hot chocolate. They’ve even created a grape-flavored pouch filled with wine. The goal is to do away with plastic bottles and packaging. Let’s raise our membranes to that.
10) Talk to the glove: Four Ukrainian students have designed gloves that can communicate with a smart phone and, as a result, developed a way for people with speech and hearing disabilities to talk to people who don’t use or understand sign language.
Their invention, which they call Enable Talk, works like this: The gloves are lined with 15 flex sensors in their fingers that can recognize sign language and transmit the message to a smart phone where it’s converted to text. The phone then says the words that the gloves sent.
11) So now we can stay focused on not changing the oil: If you’re like me, you have no idea when you last checked your tire pressure. It’s a blind faith thing. As long as the tires keep rolling, no need to look for that little gauge you bought many tires ago.
Goodyear understands this so they’ve gone ahead and invented a tire that takes us out the equation. It does this by inflating itself. A regulator in the tire senses when the pressure drops below a pre-set point and opens to allow air flow into the pumping tube. As the tire rolls, deformation flattens the tube, pushing air into the tire cavity. And we’ll no longer have to worry about keeping our tires pumped up. Not that we ever did.
12) No longer will a charger come between you and your phone: A few years ago the 11-year-old daughter of Wake Forest University scientist David Carroll wondered aloud if a cell phone could be charged solely by human body heat. Good question, thought Carroll, and earlier this year he and his team came up with an answer.
They unveiled Power Felt, a fabric that uses nanotechnology to convert heat into electricity. It’s still in the early stages of development but initial results suggest they’re on to something big–an inexpensive material that could use the heat from your car’s engine to run its AC and radio and the sun to power your home’s appliances and yes, your own personal warmth to keep your cell phone alive. Thanks, Dad.
Video bonus: While we’re talking about nifty ideas whose time is about to come, it’s pretty certain that Samsung will come out with a bendable phone next year. As you can see in this video, it passes the hammer test.
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December 18, 2012
Within the next week or so, the year-end reviews will start rolling out like strips of prize tickets in a games arcade.
Most will revisit events that we’ll all remember, albeit some we’d rather forget. My own list is a little different. I want to look back at ideas that haven’t received a lot of attention, but struck me as being particularly clever and ripe with potential. Chances are you haven’t heard of many of them. But chances also are you will.
Here’s Part 1 of my list of a dozen ideas whose time is about to come:
1) Sadly, it does not say, “You’re getting warmer.”: Are you flummoxed by how often you lose things–your keys, your TV remote, your glasses. Have I got an invention for you. It’s called Stick-N-Find and it works like this.
You attach one of the Bluetooth-powered stickers to whatever object you’re tired of losing, then download the Stick-N-Find smartphone app. The app will tell you how far away you are from the missing item–it has a range of 100 feet–and you can set off a buzzer in the sticker. If you’re in the dark, you can trigger a blinking red light. Where has this been all my life?
2) Will it do nails? It may be a while before we see it in action, but Dyson, the British company that makes those high-powered Airblade hand dryers, has filed a patent for a tap that would wash your hands with water, then dry them without you having to move an inch. Put your hands under the tap and sensors release water. Move them slightly so that they’re under two connected tubes and warm, dry air shoots out. You’re wet, you’re dry, you’re outta there.
3) All hail plastic: Using nanotechnology, a team of researchers at Wake Forest University has developed a plastic material that glows like a soft white light when an electric current is run through it. Its inventors say it’s as efficient as an LED light and twice as efficient as a fluorescent bulb. But what makes it so innovative is that because it’s plastic, it can be made into any shape. Imagine a soft glowing ceiling panel replacing those hideous fluorescent lights above your head.
4) And all hail fewer jerks on planes: Gemma Jensen used to be a flight attendant for Virgin Atlantic so she has seen more than her share of airline passengers doing the jerk. I’m talking about that moment during long flights when just as you’re starting to nod off, your head tips forward. End of snooze.
So Jensen has invented the J-Pillow. It’s a step up from the familiar U-shaped pillow that keeps your head from falling from side to side, but can’t stop it from dropping forward. Her pillow comes with a “J-hook” that goes around the neck and under a person’s chin. Doctors seem to like it because it keeps your spine aligned while you’re sleeping on a plane. Which explains why a panel just chose it Great Britain’s Best Consumer Invention of 2012.
5) Cause that’s how they roll: Two former MIT students have designed a camera that bounces and rolls. Who needs a bouncing camera, you ask? How about firefighters who have to see inside a building or a swat team looking for hostages? That’s what Francisco Aguilar and Dave Young had in mind when they invented their ball-shaped device outfitted with six wide-angle cameras packed inside a rubber casing.
The idea is that first responders could toss it into a space they need to survey. Its cameras could snap pictures every second as it rolls, then send them wirelessly to a smartphone where they would be stitched together to provide a 360-degree view.
6) Can I make Kit Kat bars in that thing?: There’s nothing new about 3D printers, but Virginia Tech’s College of Engineering has come up with a novel way to give its students access to the nifty replicating devices. It has set up something it calls DreamVendor, which it has described as a “vending machine with infinite inventory.” What it is is a station of four 3D printers where engineering students can load in their designs and wait for the printers to do their magic. It’s free for the students, but it’s not hard to imagine some entrepreneur refining the idea of vending machines that print stuff.
Video bonus: And under the category of an idea whose time is still coming, there’s the LuminAR lamp system invented in MIT’s Media Lab a few years ago. Still being refined, it allows you to screw a LuminAR device–it’s combo projector/camera/wireless computer–into a standard light socket and turn your desk into an interactive surface. See for yourself.
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December 7, 2012
Yes, this is the time of year for getting together with family and friends and chowing down like you’re eating for all of them. It’s also a time when, during the height of shopping madness, we get a chance to reflect on just how clever we humans can be.
The truth is, though, not all of us got around to inventing something this year. Let the following list serve as inspiration for 2013.
1) Every move you make, every step you take, I’ll be tracking you: Sometimes you follow your heart, other times you listen to your wrist. So it goes with the Nike+ Fuelband, a slick little bracelet that tracks every step you take during the course of the day. But it doesn’t stop there. It tracks all of your physical activities and lets you know how many calories you’ve burned–whether you’re doing push-ups or lifting a cup of coffee. You can set a daily target and follow your progress and, if you hold up your end of the deal, you’re rewarded with a big flashing “Goal” on your wrist, which is way better than a corsage.
2) Break a lag: For those whose body clock is out of whack because of jet lag or working overnight shifts or just forgetting about the whole sleep thing, consider the Re-Timer. Invented by sleep researchers in Australia, the Re-Timer is a pair of glasses without the glass, but instead has LED lights that emit a soft-green glow on to your eyes. And that light is of a wavelength, according to the scientists, that has the effect of resetting your body clock so that your circadian rhythms get their beat back.
3) Although probably only your mother would agree to watch it: So if we expect bicyclists to stop at red lights, why shouldn’t they be able to look down at their smart phones while they’re waiting just like everyone in the cars around them. Now they can, thanks to Biologic’s Bike Mounts–there’s one for iPhones and one for Android phones. But this isn’t just some little attachment that connects to the handlebars. It pivots so your phone can shoot photos or video of your ride.
4) Why deal with the added stress of watering a plant: It’s safe to say that most people know how to water a plant but, strangely, so many are unable to pull it off on a regular basis. That’s why the self-watering flower pot from Click and Grow is such a godsend. It has sensors, batteries, a pump and a water reservoir that delivers water to the otherwise neglected plant as needed. If it needs a refill or the batteries run out, a light on the pot blinks. Think you can handle that?
5) Look, I’m just a cup but even I wouldn’t eat this: While we’re on the subject of products that remind us of how lame we can be, Hammacher Schlemmer is selling a measuring cup that talks. That’s right, it tells you how much of an ingredient you’ve added because why should you have to look for yourself?
6) Are your toys smarter than a fifth grader?: In today’s gaming world, just how cool could a set of little cubes be? In the case of Sifteo Cubes, very cool, because each cube has it own small LCD screen and a built-in acceleromenter and they interact with you when you shake or flip or tilt them. Or they’ll connect wirelessly to each other, exchanging info, like numbers and colors, so you can play puzzle games or take on number equations. They’re supposed to be for kids, but we know better.
7) But let’s draw the line at handkerchiefs: In most places these days, every day is casual Friday. But every man still has a few occasions when a team jersey just won’t do. And that’s why a business like Tie Society just might make it. Started in Washington, D.C. last year, it’s been described as the Netflix of ties. We’re talking rental ties. It works like this: For a monthly fee, starting at $11, a person can select ties and keep them until he wants to trade them in for a new set.
8) Does a man tweet in the woods?: Just because you’re out in the woods doesn’t mean you need to act crazy and let your gadgets lose power. The Biolite CampStove not only allows you to avoid lugging cannisters for cooking–it burns twigs and pine cones and anything else combustible you find lying around–but it also converts the heat from your fire to electricity that can recharge your stuff.
9) Rock faster, grandpa, I need to shop: Sure, it’s relaxing, but killing time in a rocking chair can seem oh-so-unproductive. No more. Zurich-based Micasa Laboratories has come up with a way for grandpa to contribute to household peace by doing his part to keep the old iPad charged. The iRock looks like a rocking chair and works like a rocking chair, but it’s also a charging station. The back-and-forth motion actually creates enough power to juice up an iPad. Okay, so it costs $1,300, but we’re talking Christmas miracle here.
10) Video bonus: Ready for liftoff? Maybe this is the year you’ll finally get that jet pack you’ve been waiting for your whole life. Neiman Marcus can get you the the Jetlev R200 for under $100,000. Such a deal.
December 4, 2012
It was a moment that would have brought a smile–a sardonic one, of course–to the face of Bones McCoy.
Last week, the California-based firm Scanadu announced that by the end of next year, it will begin selling a device called Scout. The little gadget, which fits in the palm of your hand, will, in conjunction with your smartphone, be able to tell you your temperature, blood pressure, heart rate, breathing rate and the level of oxygen in your blood–all within 10 to 15 seconds.
In other words, it will be the closest thing we’ll have to that bulky but nifty tricorder that McCoy wielded so deftly as chief medical officer on the Starship Enterprise back in the glory days of Star Trek. Which is the point, because Scanadu is one of the competitors for the $10 million award in Qualcomm’s Tricorder X Prize.
Scanadu is already making comparisons to the innovation of the family thermometer back in the 19th century, an invention that gave people the opportunity to gather health data at home. They may be right about that.
Most doctors would certainly agree that this is a good thing, in that it will make it ridiculously easy for a person to check his vitals every day. In theory it would, like the thermometer, let people know if they have a health problem without attempting to explain what it might be.
But then there’s this tagline on the Scanadu website: “Sending your smartphone to med school.” Sure, it’s meant as a clever, pithy pitch. But it also raises a notion that makes a lot of people in the medical community very uneasy about where this boom in health and medical apps is headed.
When does gathering data slide into making diagnoses or even promising cures? And if it does, who’s going to ensure that any of this is based on real science?
Apparently, a lot of what’s out there now isn’t. Last month, the New England Center for Investigative Reporting released the results of its analysis of 1,500 health mobile apps that cost money. It’s not a pretty picture.
The reporters found that more than 20 percent of the apps they reviewed claim to treat or cure medical problems. Of those 331 therapeutic apps, nearly 43 percent relied on cellphone sound for treatments. Others promised results using a cellphone’s light and a few pitched the power of phone vibrations. Scientists told the journalists that none of the above could possibly treat the conditions in question.
There’s no longer an app for that
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is expected to soon announce how it plans to regulate medical apps. It’s not likely to worry about the thousands of health apps that allow people to track their workouts or their daily calorie counts or how they slept. But it will look closely at apps that are promoted as a way to diagnose or treat a disease or condition.
By its latest count, there are now almost 18,000 health and fitness apps and more than 14,500 medical apps. As cautious as the feds have been has been about getting into the business of regulating software, they haven’t been able to ignore a few of the more egregious examples of mobile app magical thinking.
Last year the Federal Trade Commission banned the sale of two apps that promised to cure acne.
And that’s why they call it a smartphone
Here are other recent examples of mobile tech transforming the field of medicine:
- Is it the blue pill or the red pill?: Microsoft has jumped into the medical apps business by joining with NextGen Healthcare to develop, for Windows 8, an app called NextGen MedicineCabinet. It will allow people to create and store a detailed digital record of their prescription medications and be able to share it with doctors and hospitals when necessary. It also will let health care providers identify potentially harmful drug interactions.
- Will it tell you if you’re watching “Cops” too much? California startup Lark Technologies has launched a product it calls larklife–wristbands with sensors that work with an iPhone to track your daytime activities–calories burned, distance traveled, steps taken, food eaten–and your nighttime–how you slept. Then it provides you with tips during the day based on what your data says. For instance, if you don’t sleep as much as usual, it might point out that it’s a good idea to eat breakfast. Or it might congratulate you for a big fitness accomplishment, such as walking 1,000 steps in one day.
- Because it’s so hard to show surgery on stick people: A company called Visible Health has created a product called DrawMD, a series of free iPad apps that allow surgeons to explain surgical processes to their patients. Instead of scratching out a crude pencil sketch on a notepad, doctors can use digital anatomical images in the apps, which they can sketch or type on to illustrate a medical procedure.
- Is there a doctor in the house? HealthTap, with a large searchable doctor directory–complete with ratings, peer-reviews, and the ability to book appointments–plus a popular health Q&A feature, has been a player in the medical apps world for awhile. And last week it got even bigger, buying Avvo Health, another medical Q&A service with a network of physicians. That expands HealthTap’s Medical Expert Network to more than 30,000 American doctors and dentists.
- But does it send an alert when he needs a massage? It’s about time. Last week Japanese tech giant Fujitsu announced the launch of Wandant, a device that attaches to a dog’s collar and keeps track of how many steps it takes during a day. It also measures the dog’s temperature and comes with an online diary where owners can record what their furry overlord has eaten, what it weighs and the condition of its stool.
Video bonus: Yes, there are a lot of fitness videos out there, but few make running as much fun as Zombies, Run! Hear from the diabolical minds who created it.
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October 26, 2012
Yes, Microsoft rolled out Windows 8 yesterday and yes, it’s the company’s biggest high-stakes launch in a long time and yes, it’s its first real plunge into the world of tablets and smart phones. Plenty of others are already covering that ground. I’d rather talk about a little device Microsoft unveiled earlier this month, something far lower on the hoopla scale.
It’s called Digits and it’s one special bracelet. But this is not some flashy bangle that dangles; this is a wrist sensor capable of turning your hand into a control unit.
Created by a team of Microsoft researchers in Great Britain, Digits uses sensors and an infrared camera to put a little Kinect device on your wrist. But the key is that it’s not tethered to a game system, plus it’s focused entirely on your hand and anything you do with it.
Digits is the latest thing in motion control, tech that creates a 3D model of your hand in real time, allowing you to point to items or content on a screen rather than moving a cursor around with a mouse. Or it could, as some think, evolve into the device that ultimately replaces the TV remote.
As David Kim, one of its inventors, explains: “People can interact while moving from room to room or running down the street. This finally takes 3D interaction outside the living room.”
Now you may ask, “What are you going to do with a wrist-mounted sensor when you’re running down the street?” This is a good question. Not sure if even anyone at Microsoft could give you a good answer. The point is that this is a device that goes with you, a virtual controller that one day could allow you to interact with any number of screens–whether it’s to control a TV or dial phone numbers or play video games.
For now, it’s a clunky thing--Steve Jobs would never have permitted the public even a glimpse of something so devoid of sleekness. But Digits is much more about function than form. It’s still a prototype, one whose focus is more about working well than looking good. Eventually, though, Microsoft hopes to be able to scale it down to something that looks and feels more like a watch.
And maybe then we’ll be able to take the bold step of losing the TV remote with forethought, and perhaps a little malice.
It’s a control thing
Here are other recent developments in how we control all the devices in our lives:
- That sweeping sensation: A Japanese company is developing a tiny infrared sensor that will allow you to swipe or zoom content on a computer or a smart phone without touching the screen. All it would take is a sweep of your hand to turn a page.
- But will it understand a stationary middle finger?: Also in Japan, Pioneer has started selling GPS units that you can control with hand gestures as you drive. Horizontal hand waves can be assigned to do 10 different things on the unit embedded in the dashboard.
- It’s all on your head: Motorola has released a head-mounted wearable computer for people who need to keep their hands free while working. The device’s gyroscope, accelerometer and digital compass allow a user to scroll, pan, tilt, zoom and freeze documents or schematics with a simple turn of the head.
- Is this the end of chocolate-covered touch screens?: Qualcomm has come out with a processor that makes it possible to flip pages on a tablet through gestures only. It’s been demoed as a way to play games or read recipes without having to touch the screen.
- A signature moment: Apple, meanwhile, has a patent pending on a process that will allow you to write a much more precise version of your signature with your finger on the screen of a device.
- When cars flirt: Last week Toyota unveiled a teeny-tiny electric car called the Insect. To help a person get past any reservations about riding inside something called an Insect, the vehicle uses Kinect sensors to recognize the driver and unlocks the doors when it sees him or her wave. It also blinks hello with its headlights.
- Because moving your fingers can be such a waste of energy: Sony is developing technology that would make it possible for someone to control a game using only their gaze and, eventually, only their brain waves.
- Riding the wave: As part of its campaign to show how hand gestures can be incorporated into the operation of vehicles, Toyota has created a skateboard for which the rider can change speeds by moving his hands.
Video bonus: Still not sure how Digits is supposed to work? Here’s Microsoft’s video explainer.
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