Discovering innovations that matter since 2002

It’s well known that we’ve become overly reliant on our smartphones. They have become so multi-functional they can let us do anything from watch TV, track a marathon, warn us of impending tinnitus and even perform molecular analysing. And while many would be horrified by the idea of a phone that strips away everything but the ability to make and receive phone calls, a new phone has been launched which can only make calls. The Light Phone can’t even text – users can forget playing The Walking Dead games.

The handset – which isn’t much bigger than a credit card and costs USD 150 – was designed by Joe Hollier and Kaiwei Tang, who also founded the company. On their website, they wrote: “Our phones have become our nervous habit, our invisible crutch. We find ourselves reaching for them without thinking. We love their illusion of productivity & stimulation that is socially acceptable to abuse. Multitasking is a myth, it is addictive and exhausting.”

While being designed in America, the handsets are being produced at Foxconn in Yantai, China. With a basic LCD display and numerical keypad, the company is hoping users will adopt it as a second phone, so they can have breaks from the internet, while still being reachable using calls. A good example might be going out on a dinner date – there are few things ruder than pulling a phone out to check the football results while waiting for dessert to arrive.

As our lives becomes cluttered with smart devices, are we going to see more solutions with minimalist design aiming to optimise the time we spend on the web?

By now, we have heard a lot about driverless cars, trucks, and even taxis, but now French startup Stanley Robotics has introduced an automated parking valet named Stan at Paris-Charles de Gaulle Airport. Passengers will no longer need to waste valuable time looking for a parking space or ferrying their luggage from a distant parking lot to the terminal. Cars can now be dropped off at Stanley Robotics’ dedicated parking terminal. Drivers lock their car and take their keys, then enter their flight details and confirm their booking at a nearby terminal. Stan the valet robot will then arrive to collect the car, clamping the wheels and lifting the entire car to move it around. Stan also knows when each customers’ return flight is due, and will have their car ready and waiting in a pick-up area on their return.

The valet robots allow airports to achieve greater efficiency in parking by allowing cars to be parked much closer together without risking dings and dents. And because they are able to operate in existing car parks, no new parking infrastructure is needed. Stanley Robotics spent two years designing the all-electric robots, and the company hopes that the deal with Charles de Gaulle airport is just the beginning. They have recently closed a funding round, which raised USD 4 million, and hope the fresh capital will allow the Paris-based company to expand into airports globally. Although Stanley Robotics is focusing on the airport parking market, the technology may also hold out hope for easier parking in other areas. With robot delivery vehicles almost here, will robot parking valets also be coming to your neighborhood soon?

Few things are duller than lift journeys, especially long ones that are crammed full of people. But Panoramia – a Swedish interior design technology company – is set to change all that.

A service clearly aimed at the more upmarket building (office skyscrapers and swish apartment blocks), it uses either one or multiple screens installed into the lift then displays one of several completely different themes so users will think they’re doing something much more exciting. Example themes include having the lift rise up through a mountain range, or being in a space rocket that’s blasting off to space. And the technology is clever enough to adapt to the direction the lift is travelling in, and what time of day or night it is (so the scene will be nocturnal at night time, for example).

This isn’t merely just a screen that scrolls up and down – the firm has used its background in VR tech to create a 3D image effect, so when you scroll up and down the image depth will make the experience a lot more realistic.

At the moment customers can only pick one theme pre-installation, but the company has said by 2018 it will be far more customisable with owners able to swaps themes using simply software (regardless of if they bought it now or next year), plus the company is offering to deliver specific themes based on a customer’s design.

It sounds like it might work well in a high-tech building like the Pod Skyscraper concept (a completely modular block built using 3D printing). It also reminds us of the Field Trip to Mars, a group VR that uses 3D screens inside a school bus to make kids think they’re travelling across Mars. What other applications could this sort of headset-free VR be used for?

Rifath Shaarook has built a satellite that weighs just 64-grams and is only 1.5 inches wide. The 18-year-old won a design competition called Cubes in Space, a challenge organised by NASA, the Colorado Space Grant Consortium and education firm idoddle.

It’s made from 3D-printed carbon fiber and will be launched on June 21 from NASA’s facility on Wallops Island, Virginia. Rifath has said it’s going to go on a four hour suborbital flight, 12 minutes of which the cube will spend in microgravity. He has named the cube KalamSat, after the late Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam, former president of India and renowned nuclear and space scientist.

“We designed it completely from scratch. It will have a new kind of on-board computer and eight indigenous built-in sensors to measure acceleration, rotation and the magnetosphere of the earth,” said Rifath, who’s from Tamil Nadu but is currently working for Space Kidz in Chennai, India, an organisation that specialises in encouraging youngsters to get involved in science.

It always pleases us to see teenagers pushing the boundaries of science, just like it did when schoolboys Sankha Kahagala-Gamage and David Bernstein won the Big Bang UK by inventing a vest that can predict epileptic seizures. The sheer number of applications for 3D printing is also becoming vast, not only can it be used to make carbon fibre satellites, it can now be used to make glass. What does the future hold for 3D printing?

As online content gets ‘better’ designed for the fully sighted it can get harder for those with visual impairments. Text-only sites would be easiest, but companies and services tend to make their content online ever more graphically complex. This puts blind people at a disadvantage and helped prompt the funding of a new project to help them.

The 2 million euro project has developed BlindPAD (Personal Assistive Devices for Blind and visually impaired people) is being coordinated by Luca Brayda of the Italian Institute of Technology in Genova. He explains that “our brain builds mental maps of basically everything [all information]. However this is difficult for visually impaired people, who need to do that in order to be independent in everyday life.”

The prototype developed by EU project partner École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) uses electromagnetic technology to move buttons up and down to create patterns that can be ‘read’ with the fingers. The idea is to translate visual concepts into tactile representations keeping energy consumption to a minimum. BlindPAD is a FP7 EU STREP collaborative project, which aims to help visually impaired people learn to map out the visual world faster and to do it with a device which is portable and cheap enough to be used by the whole community.

Tech’s capacity to improve the lives of those with disabilities is inspiring. We’ve seen listings for disabled access and smart cutlery that stabilises itself for helping diners with tremors or limited mobility, and now BlindPAD has the potential to make a whole area of information more accessible. How can emerging technologies be integrated into urban operations and services to help the visually impaired easily navigate cities around the world?

Content: www.blindpad.eu/contact-us/

An innovative banking solution from Taqanu uses customers’ digital history to allow them to prove their identity rather than traditional paperwork. The application, which will be globally available once it launches, means those that find it difficult to gain access to the necessary paperwork to do things like set up a bank account or rent accommodation, may now be able to using their mobile phones.

Earlier this year Taqanu was presented and discussed at the G20 High Level Forum for Forcibly Displaced Persons (FDPs), an event leading up to the Final G20 meeting in July 2017. The event brought together a diverse range of stakeholders including financial regulators and policymakers. The new banking solution faces huge regulation obstacles, but if approved it would be a big breakthrough in places like Germany, where you are required to have a bank account in order to take out any type of tenancy agreement.

It could be a major turning point for disenfranchised communities and refugees who often flea their homes with nothing, and are then faced with obstacles in settling in a new country. Taqanu’s founder Balázs Némethi, drew from his own experiences attempting to apply for bank accounts in foreign countries and wanted to make the process easier for people likely to have limited access to documentation.

The app has already attracted attention from some major players in the tech world, including Microsoft who are particularly interested in the company’s humanitarian values. It joins a whole host of other digital solutions including the mobile banking app which helps low-income migrant workers in the Middle East and the Dutch business incubator helping refugees to integrate through educational and entrepreneurial activities. Is the growth in digital financial alternatives a pathway to the end of traditional banking as we know it?

A new technology is being developed by the University of Bristol that could revolutionize communications, particularly for Special Forces troops and Secret Service agents. The full name of the concept is “Project Telepathy: Targeted Verbal Communication Using 3D Beamforming Speakers and Facial Electromyography” and it’s been led by engineer Asier Marzo.

Users need to wear a speaker on their head or chest and attach four electrodes around their lips and jaw. The electrodes then read the facial movements as the user speaks, and the speaker fires a narrow ultrasonic beam, projected at a six-degree angle, that only anyone in its path can hear. It can also be paired with an eye-tracking camera or laser pointer to make the beam more accurate.

Asier and his team developed an algorithm to detect 10 different words, such as yes, no, stop and back (simple commands), and even when mouthed silently the electrodes translated at 80 percent accuracy. Future versions of the tech should allow for much more complexity in the language conversion, and for the rig to be smaller and concealed.

“It’s a very quiet sound, but you don’t know where it’s coming from,” described Asier. “It’s like someone is whispering into your ear, but nobody is there.” Ultrasound travels well through water, so expect the British SBS and American Navy SEALs to show a huge interest.

We’re seeing more and more uses of ultrasound in inventions, such as a wearable, which helps the partially sighted detect upcoming obstacles and a sensor-packed vest, which helps military and emergency services personnel through low visibility environments. What other uses could this technology be adapted for?

Recently, we have seen ways in which clothing can become more responsive to the needs of individual consumers, such as a dress tailored to the lifestyle of the individual wearer, temperature responsive clothing that can heat and cool the wearer, and a child’s shoe that grows as the child grows. Now, German shoe manufacturer Mime et Moi has developed a solution for women who are tired of carrying one pair of shoes for commuting, another for work and a third for the evening. They have developed a shoe range that allows women to easily and quickly swap heels to suit every situation and mood. The company bills the shoes as a solution to countless problems.

The shoes come with five interchangeable heel heights and shapes. The switch is made by lifting a latch in the sole to release one heel, slipping the new heel in place, closing the latch and stepping down on the new heel to secure it. The inner sole is made from a flexible material that immediately adjusts to the new height. Manufactured in Spain, both the sole and the shoes come in a range of colors, sizes and materials and each pair of shoes comes with your choice of two heels, with additional heels for each shoe also available to purchase separately. Heels come in sizes ranging from 1 to 4 inches, with the high heels in block or stiletto. Now you can pick your shoe, throw a set of extra heels in your bag, and be ready to switch up your look instantly as day turns to night.

Mime et Moi launched the range with a Kickstarter campaign in early 2017 and the shoes are now available online. While they currently only ship within Europe, there are plans to begin worldwide shipping soon, as well as offering more show models and heel options. Will this be the start of a new movement towards ever-more personalized clothing?

While many people might like the idea of decreasing their environmental impact, switching to animal-free products can be difficult when there are expectations regarding flavor and texture, and we’ve already seen such innovations as an algorithm that finds the right plant proteins that can most effectively substitute for meat products. Along these lines, Perfect Day has developed an animal-free ‘milk’ product designed to taste and feel like cow’s milk.

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Perfect Day’s ‘milk’ is made by genetically engineering a strain of yeast that produces milk proteins during fermentation, and then combining these milk proteins (whey and casein) with plant proteins to produce the flavour, texture and nutritional value of milk without having to use cows at all. Its process is vastly more energy efficient than traditional dairy farming practices — a study showed the process required 84 percent less overall energy consumption and 91 percent less land usage. Perfect Day’s production process means it has to work closely with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in how to label their product — despite the presence of milk proteins, will it be considered vegan because no animals are involved? Will the ‘milk’ be considered to contain GMOs, given that while genetically modified yeast is used to produce some ingredients, there will be no GMOs present in the product? The company hopes to have these issues resolved ready for a late 2017 roll out, with several products such as chocolate milk, cheeses and desserts in the pipeline. Oh, and the name Perfect Day is from the Lou Reed song that, a study found, cows find soothing and produce more milk when listening to it…

Engineering natural proteins in labs could vastly disrupt the farming industry on a global scale — what other products could we see artificially grown to reduce environmental impacts?

Scewo, a team of master’s students at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) in Zurich and the Zurich University of Arts, have created a two-wheeled electric wheelchair that can climb stairs. The chair uses large wheels to drive around and is operated with an active control to keep the chair level at all times.

The wheels allow the chair to overcome obstacles such as curbs, tram tracks, grass, stones and mud, and it can also change direction when stationary. The user can climb stairs while sitting in the wheelchair by sitting backwards, as the tracks adapt to the angle of the stairs automatically and keeps the user level.

The first prototype was created in June 2015 as part of a university project, which has now developed into a functioning trial machine. The team of designers and engineers hope to create a marketable model by December 2018 when their studies are complete, and are currently crowdfunding on Patreon to help with its creation.

Mobility options and assistance for wheelchair users is on the up, with inventions such as the all-terrain wheelchair that was created for use in developing countries, and a new website that allows those with disabilities to rate services based on how good they are for the disabled. What will be the next technology breakthrough to help those with disabilities?

Image courtesy of Scewo