Discovering innovations that matter since 2002

3D printing has ushered in the era of customized food, and without any doubt, the most satisfying use for this new technology is the creation of edible treats which bear a strong resemblance to the eater. We have already seen 3D printed Gummy Men, and now Kinneir Dufort are using their 3D printer to make the ultimate personalized breakfast — a pancake with the diner’s face on it.

Kinneir Dufort’s prototyping director Ian Hollister explains how it works —

“Combining CNC (Computer Numerical Control) technology with embedded face recognition and tracking software, the system dispenses layers of batter directly onto a hot plate allowing the creation of detailed and complex images within the pancake surfaces. As the conventional pancake batter is applied it immediately starts to cook and change colour and as subsequent layers are added the different tonal qualities of the image build up.”

First, a digital camera captures the ‘sitters’ likeness and an image processor extracts the information needed. Kinneir Dufort’s bespoke software transforms brightness into contours, which are then produced gradually by the batter dispenser. The greatest challenge is timing the printing process so that the pancakes are both delicious and bear an uncanny resemblance to the diner’s face.

The system could be adopted by restaurants aiming to offer customers a unique, humorous dining experience. The camera could capture the diner’s portrait on arrival, for example, and their individualized portrait pancake would take no longer to produce than a regular stack. If nothing else, it would certainly help the waiting staff avoid mixing up orders.

Last month saw pancake-makers across the world attempt to fry batter with a perfect likeness to R2D2 and other heroic figures in celebration of Shrove Tuesday. Let’s just hope these new capabilities don’t kill off the dying art of analogue pancake painting.

Smartphone owners, quite literally, now have the internet at their finger tips at all times, which has opened up a world of possibilities unknown to previous generations. Unfortunately, it also means that current generations are more easily distracted than ever before. As a result, we’ve seen numerous apps which deter owners from using their phones at inappropriate times. RodeDog penalizes drivers who text behind the wheel, for example, and now Pocket Points renumerates students who can resist checking their phones during lessons — rewarding them with discounts at local stores.

Well-intentioned students can download the app onto their iPhone for free. At the start of class they simply open the application and lock their phone. The longer the phone remains untouched the more points they earn — 20 minutes earns one point and rewards usually cost ten or fifteen points. Students then visit the online gift store where they convert their points into coupons to be redeemed at participating local stores. Businesses signed up for the scheme can offer anything from a free coffee to ten percent off all instore clothing — they can create their own offers and add, remove and update them via the Pocket Points Business Portal.

Pocket Points enables businesses to market themselves to a key demographic cheaply and easily. It encourages students’ loyalty to local stores and motivates them to pay attention in class. The app was developed at Penn State and California State University, Chico, and the platform is currently available in those towns. The team behind it hope to expand it across the states soon. Are there other disagreeable consumer activities which could be discouraged through similar schemes?

In the US, over 50 percent of companies currently provide customer service via social media, and we have already seen Places enabling customers to talk to any local business via text message. Moving customer relations online makes support teams more available and approachable, significantly cutting down on the stress and costs associated with call centres. Now, two new solutions from Germany and India are hoping to help the rest of the world’s businesses catch up — providing new platforms for digital customer service.

Haptik is a mobile messaging assistant from India which enables customers to receive real-time support and information for over 200 international companies, including American Express, BMW, British Airways and many more. Users begin by downloading the app to their smartphone or tablet. They then send a query to Haptik via the WhatsApp-style platform and an assistant will respond within six minutes. The platform’s experts — who specialize in specific areas such as wireless and telecom or food and delivery — offer a huge range of services from finding a mobile plan, to locating a nearby ATM, to troubleshooting a customer’s IT problem. Users simply browse the categories in the app to see if Haptik can help with their particular problem. As more companies come on board, potential services offered will continue to expand.

In Germany meanwhile, offer a similar service using the pre-existing social messaging platform — WhatsApp — as well as social media sites including Facebook and Twitter. Businesses can outsource their customer services to who will provide a gateway platform on WhatsApp where consumer problems and enquiries can be seen to by’s e-commerce sales assistants. Additionally, their staff can respond to queries on Twitter and Facebook, managing the companies’ reputation and offering customers a more enjoyable alternative to lengthy, costly phone calls.

Are there other businesses that could make use of these services?

Exercise bikes may be great for those looking to train in bad weather, but the experience has a number of significant drawbacks for the avid cyclist. Gone are the rolling hills of a scenic touring route, and also absent are any cycling companions to lend a sense of camaraderie and competition. Looking to address this, VeloReality’s training software simulates rides through famous scenic cycle tracks and roads via responsive HD videos. Indoor training cyclists can connect their training bikes to the software during the off-season and experience real resistance, admiring the views, which change in correspondence to the bike’s actual speed. Now, the latest incarnation of their VRide product — VRide Multi — connects riders to an online network, which enables them to find other cyclists also undertaking a VR ride, and join them on the course.

To start, cyclists simply plug in the VeloReality USB hard drive to their bike, and load up the VRide Multi map of Europe showing all current users. They can then choose from any of the training courses they have purchased — each course covers approximately 40km and costs EUR 9.95 — and fast forward the cinema quality video to the current position of their new teammate or competitor. The riders then cycle alongside each other, adding friendly competition to the otherwise lonely pursuit of indoor cycling.

We have already seen companies offering a range of visual stimulation and responsive equipment to motivate users — such as BitGym’s vibration based exercise platform — but VRide Multi is the first to enable remote interaction between users, injecting a welcome element of comradery to off-season training. It is currently in Beta and welcoming cycling enthusiasts to test the system. It is compatible with a growing number of indoor bikes including VeloReality’s own LYNX trainer. Are there other ways to connect athletes to each other remotely, for stimulation during training?

Awareness of good interior design, and the effect it can have on a space, has never been higher — with image-led platforms such as Pinterest and Instragram enabling users to view and interact with trends online, formulating strong, informed tastes. Nevertheless, professional designers still hold a level of expertise and understanding about space and material that the average consumer simply doesn’t possess. In the past, high service costs and a intimidating sense of the unknown will have often put potential clients off from enlisting a consultant’s help. However, a new web based platform called Laurel and Wolf is now aiming to bring the profession into the digital age and entice a whole new clientele.

Customers can enlist Laurel and Wolf for a flat fee — starting from USD 299 depending on the room size and service required. The customer then answers a few simple questions about their space and completes a visual quiz about their design tastes. Finally, they upload pictures and measurements of the room in question. A selection of designers then use this information as a brief to compete for the customer’s business, submitting style boards for them to view. There are 650 designers on the books at Laurel and Wolf and each project will be bid for by three to five of them. The customer can then give feedback and receive revised designs before picking their favourite. They will then receive a personalized shopping list, custom floor-plan, and instructions.

Laurel and Wolf offer services for both residential and commercial spaces. The company generates revenue by retaining 20 percent of the design fee. On top of this, it receives a cut of sales made through its e-commerce store where most products recommended in designs are sold. Are there other intimidating industries which could adapt their pricing model in this way?

Nowhere is the potential of image sharing more powerful than in the medical profession, where photos and videos of real cases provide infinitely superior resources compared to text descriptions. We have already seen Figure 1 — the ‘medical Instagram’ — which enables health professionals to upload and share photos of conditions, creating online discussion as well as crowdsourcing a database of reference images. Now, ReelDx is aiming to become the YouTube of the medical world — an easy to use platform for creating, sharing and storing videos of medical procedures and conditions.

Medical professionals can capture real, interesting cases using traditional video cameras, mobile devices or Google glass and upload the videos to ReelDx’s secure HIPAA-compliant servers. They are then converted into a common format and reviewed by the company’s medical editorial board, before being published on ReelDx’s peer-reviewed online libraries. The video cases can then be viewed by medical students and professionals to enhance learning and diagnostics.

In order to protect patient’s privacy, last names, medical records and other identifiers are omitted, and cases are only included with patient or family consent. The database is only available to registered professionals and institutions who sign up to ReelDx Education. Are there other industries where video sharing could prove a useful, educational tool?

Among the many alternatives, energy produced from waste products remains one of the most ecologically sound methods for creating power. We have already seen used ground coffee converted into fertilizer by Espressogrow, and now Bio-Bean are a UK based start-up turning the used beans from London’s many coffee shops into green energy.

In London alone, coffee shops and instant coffee factories produce over 200,000 tonnes of coffee waste per year. Bio-Bean collects these waste coffee grounds from coffee shops, roasteries and freeze-dried coffee facilities and transport them to their local processing plant, where they can be recycled and turned into biofuel. The process is far more ecologically sound than other traditional disposal procedures, such as dumping the ground in landfill, which releases harmful green house gases into the atmosphere.

Bio-Bean process the waste into two advanced carbon-neutral Biofuel products — biomass pellets and biodiesel — which they sell to London businesses to power buildings and transport, reducing landfill waste, fossil fuels and methane production. The products are carbon-neutral because they make use of an existing source material, as opposed to biofuel produced from crops such as corn ethanol, which take away land from food production.

Converting ground coffee beans into energy isn’t an entirely new idea, but the scale of the operation means it could have a far greater impact than earlier schemes. Are there other waste products created in the food industry which could be recycled by other businesses?

Prescription glasses have always been more than a medical necessity for most wearers. They have the ability to transform the wearer’s vision and appearance simultaneously, but often come at a high cost. Now, US optician Ditto is helping to transform designer specs and sunglasses from a long term investment into a stylish temporary accessory. The company’s new subscription service, Endless, enables customers to rent glasses, instead of buying them — swapping for a new pair anytime they like.

Customers in the US can sign up to the Endless Designer Prescription service for USD 29 per month, or the Endless Sunglasses service for USD 19 per month. They can then choose from a selection of over 1,000 glasses, including the latest styles and weekly new arrivals. The glasses are shipped, for free, to the customer’s chosen address, and they can then keep them for as long as they want. When they are ready for a new look, they simply pick out a new pair which will be sent out within the week. Customers must then return the first pair within five days. The monthly fee includes insurance, allowing for a bit of wear and tear, and if a customer wants to purchase a pair, Ditto will deduct the rental fees they have already paid into the program — up to a total of two months.

In a market where everything from jeans to cutting edge gadgets can be rented instead of bought, Ditto are likely to find a large customer base looking for access to a huge range of styles at a relatively low cost. What other products could adopt a similar model?

New Yorkers can already increase their chances of finding love while ordering a coffee at the Matchmaker Cafe, and now multitasking love-seekers can find a date without even leaving the world’s favorite procrastination platform — as Lovebook brings online dating to Facebook.

Lovebook takes out Facebook adverts on behalf of its clients, targeting potential suitors using the social media site’s inbuilt marketing algorithms. The dating service believes that by integrating their platform into Facebook’s huge existing user base it can set itself apart from the many dating sites already in existence. Statistically, users do get a lot more potential for their money, since USD 15 will buy them an ad with a reachable audience of 1.2 billion people — of course, only a small portion of these will actually be targeted by the customized ad. Although the company guarantees a minimum of five responses, they can’t guarantee the quality of them.

To use the service, budding romantics fill in a submission form listing basic information and a range of interests. They then send three possible photos to Lovebook, who choose the best one. The ad goes live within eight hours and Lovebook manages responses for the duration of its run. Afterwards, the customer initiates communication with their potential matches by making a friend request.

Based in the UK, the company has already instigated a number of matches. However, while Lovebook may cast the net wider than other services, Facebook adverts are not the most popular medium, and the format may alienate some users. How else could Facebook ads be used more imaginatively?

Those with complex medical conditions often rely heavily on their own ability to communicate their symptoms in short — and sometimes stressful — healthcare visits. We have recently seen, a smartphone app which uses big data to improve communication between patients and clinicians in between visits, and now OurNotes is a Commonwealth grant funded program that will enable patients to contribute to their own electronic medical records.

The scheme, currently being researched at Beth Isreal Deaconess Medical Centre in Boston and four other sites in the US, is part of a countrywide initiative called OpenNotes, which has already enabled five million patients to read their medical records online. Since an initial pilot scheme in 2012, OpenNotes has met with great success — creating improved communication between patients and doctors, and making patients feel more in control of their healthcare and treatments.

The new OurNotes scheme is expected to have particular benefits for medically complex patients who have have multiple chronic health conditions. It will enable patients to make notes on an upcoming visit, listing topics and questions they want to cover. In turn, this presents doctors with an opportunity to prepare and research for tricky or niche questions before meeting their patient. The platform will also encourage users to review their treatment plans and sign off on notes from their doctor, making sure everyone is on the same page. The research team hope it will result in more efficient and effective treatments, with higher quality care and more engaged patients.

Are there other personal records that could be made available to consumers to give them a better understanding of their situations?