Four Things Inventors Commonly Overlook
Apr28

Four Things Inventors Commonly Overlook

It is an unfortunate fact that both history and creative mistakes repeat themselves. History often highlights the ingenuity and skill of inventors, but conveniently ignores the creative, sometimes glaring, mistakes they make. Listed below are the four biggest mistakes inventors and modern product developers make – and how to avoid them. Lack of Vision Thomas Edison is immortalized for his amazing inventions, among the most famous being the phonograph. So how is it that the French inventor Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville created the same technology 20 years before Edison – and why do we not know his name? Martinville invented the first device capable of recording sound waves in the early 1850’s. However, his invention could only record sound waves without playing them back. Martinville’s limited vision of the product’s capabilities caused the failure of his impressive invention. Lesson learned:  Product developers need to refrain from restricting creativity and brainstorming. Some of the most widely used inventions today, Velcro and Teflon to name just two, began as something completely different from what is now considered to be their primary use. Practical Functionality When Edison originally wrote about his phonograph, he had very different plans for it. Edison proposed about a dozen functions for the phonograph. These included dictation, letter writing and even talking clocks. However, these were insignificant compared to the phonograph’s “killer app” – listening to music. Edison tried to establish the functions of his invention without fully realizing the explosive potential of his machine. Lesson learned:  Inventors need to realize that their idea may evolve in a different direction than originally planned. Ignorance is not Bliss In the early 20th Century, American inventor Lee de Forest sold his half-baked and half researched “audion” invention to Bell Labs. This device created a monotone pulse of electromagnetic energy that manipulated gas flames. He believed his invention was perfect for transmitting Morse code. However, researchers at Bell labs found that the increase in the gas flame was caused by a sonic wave emitted from the spark, not the electromagnetic radiation. This invention eventually became the first vacuum tube, the foundation of the electronics revolution. Lesson learned:  Thoroughly verified and vigorous research and development is critical for any product development success. Demand Creates Supply Frederic Tudor was a 19th-century entrepreneur who wanted to ship frozen blocks of ice to tropical areas at a high markup. However, almost everyone in the tropical areas he visited had no idea what ice was or why it was beneficial. His first business trip was a failure, but he did eventually build up a successful ice shipping network. Lesson learned:  Innovative products cannot be forced on...

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Welcome to the Fourth Industrial Revolution!
Apr27

Welcome to the Fourth Industrial Revolution!

Imagine a future where, as you awaken in the morning, your house is waking up with you.  Using your individual custom settings, the shower begins running, the coffee starts brewing itself in the kitchen, and your car has started itself in the garage, warming up to take you to work. Your phone sends you a push notification that it has determined its battery will wear out soon and that a new one has been ordered and will arrive on Thursday. Welcome to life after the Fourth Industrial Revolution. The phrase “industrial revolution” probably reminds you of sitting in history class learning something about a steam engine and James Watt’s vapor-powered technology making it possible to shift to mass production. However, there have been two others since: one in the late 1800s based around electrification and division of labor (assembly lines), and another in the late 1900s based on the rise of information technology (computers and the Internet). Three years ago, the Germans were predicting a fourth revolution, one that promises dramatic transformations in the workplace, making an entire universe of objects revolve around you; one in which everyday objects are connected to the Internet and are able to communicate with one another. This is the production side of the Internet of Things (IoT). Everything around us, from our cars to our toasters, will be connected to the Internet. Smart devices will be able to talk directly to the machines that manufactured them, making it possible for your dishwasher to notify the factory that it is about to wear out. Factories can then adjust production levels to compensate, so that a replacement unit is ready and waiting for you when you need it. Even automated factory processes themselves are getting the IoT treatment, to the point of incorporating remote alarm notification systems designed to inform operators of breakdowns or failures. As a result of all of this smart technology, backorders and wait times will soon be a thing of the past and factories will largely care for themselves, leading to greater efficiency. Smart factories are set  to irrevocably change the face of manufacturing, avoiding breaks in production and reducing energy waste so often seen in the industrial sector. There are, of course, potential pitfalls. As these smart machines replace human labor, there will be fewer jobs available. It won’t matter much how efficiently products are made if no one has the money to buy them. Also, a universal computer language will need to be developed; otherwise there may be times when devices can’t speak across proprietary company boundaries. Security is another obvious concern. Malware already exists that is designed specifically...

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Smart Necklace Tracks What You Eat
Apr20

Smart Necklace Tracks What You Eat

Researchers at UCLA, aided by a $148,739 federal grant, have created what is being dubbed a “diet choker.” WearSens is piece of wearable technology; a “smart” necklace that tracks vibrations in the neck to automatically detect if a user is eating, what he is eating, and whether he should stop. A person’s chewing, swallowing, and breathing patterns change depending on what food is being consumed. The necklace uses piezoelectric sensors that generate electricity under applied stress to record the body’s movements as food moves in, around and down the mouth and throat. In March 2015, Majid Sarrafzadeh, Director of the Embedded and Reconfigurable Computing Lab at UCLA’s computer science department, and his team of researchers released a pilot study of the necklace’s performance. “To personalize the device, we ask a new wearer to eat a 3-inch Subway sandwich and then sip down a 12-ounce drink,” he said. In the study published in IEEE Sensors Journal, the necklace could distinguish between solids and liquids 90 percent of the time, and could precisely categorize common foods like chocolate, hamburgers, and nuts about 75 percent of the time. WearSens logs the user’s dietary intake and forwards the data to a smartphone app. WearSens may send compliments like, “You ate at a good speed,” or polite warnings such as, “You may be eating too much.” It may also buzz if it detects undesirable eating habits (read: Thanksgiving dinners and Thirsty Thursdays). But, can it distinguish between baked veggie chips and kettle-cooked potato chips? Can it identify culinary outliers like Arizona’s prickly pear cactus nopales or Cajun Louisiana’s crawfish boil? Questions like this have been raised by Edward Sazonov of the University of Alabama, who says, “It’s an interesting study, no doubt, but I want to see how it performs in a larger community.” Perhaps most importantly, WearSens has the weight of pride stacked against it. A WeightWatchers journal can be maintained in privacy. The mothering WearSens may be construed as a public admission of corpulence and weak willpower. Thankfully, researchers have other uses for the necklace. Sarrafzadeh and his partners have preliminary evidence suggesting the device can track pill schedules, help smokers quit, or remotely measure the breathing patterns of patients recovering from throat...

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Avegant Glyph Mobile Theater is a Breed Apart
Apr20

Avegant Glyph Mobile Theater is a Breed Apart

One of the more recent products to emerge from the Kickstarter world is the Avegant Glyph Mobile Theater, an interesting set of headphones where the headband flips down to serve as a virtual reality screen. The latest in a line of mobile virtual reality headsets, the multimedia Glyph is unlike the gaming-oriented Occulus Rift or SteamVR headsets and is being designed for the masses. However, priced at $500, it is definitely a bit of an investment for the average user. The technology behind the headset’s operation is fascinating. Rather than an image being projected on a screen in front of the eye, the image is beamed directly to the eye, creating sharp, stark images the developers say is unlike anything you’ve seen before. According to the company, “You get noise cancellation headphones when you’re just listening, and razor-sharp, vivid, hi-def, 3D-capable video when you want to watch.” With an initial goal of $250,000, the headset raised a total of $1,509,506 from 3,331...

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No Batteries Needed? Ever?
Apr17

No Batteries Needed? Ever?

On April 15th, scientists from Columbia University announced a power solution that could solve our ‘low-battery’ problems. They’ve created a camera powered solely by ambient light; as long as there’s enough light, the camera will go on snapping photos. It uses no batteries, no power cable, and no solar cells. In short, it’s a completely closed system. Presently, the camera is only a prototype, but, according to Shree Nayar of Columbia, the technology may eventually find itself into a myriad of other devices. The current idea is to have the camera power itself, backing up the main battery when not taking photos. Nayar says this is part of the current imaging revolution, making the camera a stand-alone tool within a device. Since the light is converted into energy by the camera’s light sensor (which also takes the picture), the camera is essentially a self-sufficient system. By charging a capacitor, the camera is able to convert the light of an average house lamp into energy sufficient to run the camera. At 200 lux, (average room light level) the camera voltage maintained a steady level, even while snapping photos at a rate of one per second. Nayar says we’re still a long way – and a great deal of money – away from using this technology in our phones or computers. However, the Columbia University team will be showing the findings at the International Conference on Computational Photography. According to the team, they’ll also be looking for potential collaborators, a good sign for the future of power-starved...

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