Posts Tagged ‘innovation’

More new ideas of 2008

December 28, 2008

This is the second installment looking at innovations of the past year that have both the potential to make all our lives more comfortable and, at the same time, illustrate why researchers and inventors typically live such lonely, pathetic existences.

The Dog-Poop DNA Bank – The mayor of a small city near Tel Aviv wanted a more effective way to enforce regulations requiring pet owners to clean up after their dogs have done their business. So he turned to the city’s director of veterinary services to come up with a system that could use DNA fingerprinting technology to attach (so to speak) unclaimed feces to specific dog owners. An army of 13-year-old volunteers recruited by the mayor’s office fanned out across the city, going door to door to collect samples of poop with which to create a DNA bank. Surprisingly, about 90 percent of city residents who had kids showing up on their doorstep asking for some shit complied with the request. Once the problem of random canine defecation is solved, scientists will then turn to less pressing issues like genetic research on dog diseases and returning strays to their owners.

Eat Kangaroos to Fight Global Warming – An official with Australia’s wildlife services, which you’d imagine is supposed to be protecting indigenous species, proposes that raising and eating kangaroos instead of sheep and beef could cut methane emissions by as much as three percent. Unlike the ruminants we’re used to slaughtering and devouring, kangaroos have a different stomach structure with different organisms to digest their food — probably something to do with the pouch. Already considered a specialty meat that’s (not surprisingly) a bit gamy in taste, the hoppers-cum-whoppers sustained native Australians for 40,000 years before Europeans arrived with their stupid cows. Reaction in the land Down Under has not been especially positive: the official can’t find any funding to further his study, plus he’s battling newspaper headlines that read “Skippy on the Menu!”

Scrupulosity Disorder – Researchers from Brigham Young University suggest that as many as a million Americans suffer from this disorder defined as “obsessive doubt about moral behavior often resulting in compulsive religious observance.” Not to be confused with your standard evangelicals, sufferers worry about thinking bad thoughts, whether or not these thoughts are acted on in the physical world. An omniscient God, after all, sees past the bumper stickers on your SUV and into your heart, where you may be doing things like being aware of curse words. Though possibly related to obsessive-compulsive disorder, there can be a fine line for chronic hand-washers like certain sects who observe such a ritual as part of ordinary religious observance. Treatment is thus problematic but another researcher says once patients are released from the crippling doubt about their own virtue, they can emerge with a new sense of faith, even if it means slightly more soiled hands.

The Spray-On Condom – The idea with this device is not so much the convenience of application but with the way it can made to fit a variety of sizes. Rather than asking retailers to stock a quantity of as many as 30 or so sizes, the spray-on condom can be customized to each man. The inventor, a German entrepreneur, got the idea in an automated car wash – not in the back seat while canoodling but while observing that the car was being inserted into a tube-like structure and then sprayed with latex from all sides. (Oh, baby). The only drawbacks reported in real-life testing were that the spray was a little cold and that the latex would take up to two minutes to dry. That, and the fact that the European Union’s strict product standards will make it difficult to bring to market, means the condom won’t be commercially available any time soon. I guess if you can wait two minutes, you can wait two years.

Vending Machine for Crows – An NYU graduate student (probably a marketing major) put coins and peanuts into a dish attached to a vending machine he created. The crows arrived and picked out all the peanuts, leaving only the coins. As they pushed the coins out of the way while looking for more peanuts, the coins were dropped into a slot which then dispensed more peanuts. When the crows figured out the equation that coins plus slot equaled more nuts, the more entrepreneurial birds starting looking for loose change on the ground to put into the slot. Realizing that the flock was quickly becoming his intellectual match, the grad student brought in a few more researchers to help him figure what all this might mean. Rather than arriving at the obvious answer (a fleet of trained ravens who could steal cash from the pockets of pedestrians, thereby giving the students the power to ultimately rule the world), they’re trying to do something positive. “Why not see if they can do something useful for us, so we can all live in close proximity?” they asked. They’re now busy trying to apply their techniques to train rats to sort garbage for us, instead of imagining a future in which they could practically bathe in dimes.

New ideas of 2008

December 27, 2008

The New York Times recently ran a feature in their Sunday magazine profiling what they called the “Year in Ideas.” They examined several dozen new concepts floated in 2008 that “helped make the previous 12 months, for better or worse, what they were” – an introduction that belied their alleged astonishment at the unlimited nature of the inventive mind.

I’ll admit that all the ideas are extremely imaginative, but that doesn’t mean that some of them can’t also be extremely bizarre. Today and tomorrow, we’ll look at a few examples:

Air Bags for the Elderly – In light of the fact that falls are the leading cause of death among people 65 and older, a Japanese company has begun selling a wearable set of airbags. Describing the device as looking “something like a fishing vest with a fanny pack attached,” it contains motion sensors that will inflate two airbags – one around the hips and the other around the neck – when a fall is detected. “Instant Michelin Man,” notes the Times. This innovation updates an earlier attempt to reduce injuries, the foam hip pads. Both the low-tech hip pads and the high-tech air bags could be a success from a bioengineering and cost standpoint and yet still fall victim to the elderly’s penchant for wanting to be fashionable. “One of the reasons people shy away from these is that they don’t want to make their hips look larger,” said one independent researcher. “These air bags look kind of parachute-y.”

The Biomechanical Energy Harvester – A knee-brace-like contraption has been developed by a Canadian scientist that reportedly can harness the power of your walk and turn it into something your cell phone and other small electronics can run on. Strapped to the back of your leg, the device taps the power of your muscles with each stride without making walking feel any more difficult. At less than three pounds, it’s small enough to fit under your pants (or, less subtly, just below the hemline of your skirt), which is a significant improvement on version 1.0 – a backpack that made its own electricity from the subtle bouncing of your walk but, unfortunately, weighed in at 80 pounds.

Bubble Wrap that Never Ends – Again it’s the Japanese leading the way to a better future. They’ve created a battery-powered keychain with a panel of eight buttons that simulate the tactile joy of bubble-package destruction. Roughly translated as “Infinite Pop Pop,” the company has already sold a million of the gadgets in its first two months of release, and it’s reportedly now available at American outlets such as Target and Wal-Mart. Makers of the real thing, the Sealed Air Corporation of New Jersey, acknowledge the tension-relieving properties inherent in ruining their product, yet they won’t admit to feeling the stress of potential competition from the Far East. (Probably the same way GM felt when that first Toyota rolled onto the docks of California.) No word yet on whether the Biomechanical Energy Harvester could be used to power the “Pop Pop” keychain.

Carbon Penance – To assuage the guilt many of us feel about our contributions to climate change, a Swiss-born inventor (again with the foreigners) has built a leg band that monitors how much power you’re consuming. When levels have exceeded a certain threshold, the techno-garter slowly drives six steel thorns into the meat of your leg. The concept came to the inventor, who not surprisingly also refers to herself as an artist, while designing a device that punishes the wearer who doesn’t spend enough time talking to their houseplants. The leg band is apparently not quite ready for full-scale development and distribution because of a slight flaw: when the spikes dig in, they don’t hurt that much.

The Cloth Car – This is a concept car developed in Germany that substitutes fabric for the more conventional (and you’d think safer) hardened plastic and aluminum auto body. The shell, made of polyurethane-coated Lycra, is stretched over a car’s frame in four separate pieces. It creases when the door opens, can be unsealed if work needs to be done on the engine, and contains eye-shaped slits so the headlights can shine through. The interior is similarly flexible, featuring a steering wheel and dashboard that collapse to lie flat and create more interior space. Perhaps the seatbelt and upholstery will be made of steel.

Tomorrow: eatings kangaroos and a vending machine for crows