Discovering innovations that matter since 2002

Car rental company Hertz has developed a prototype for a unique rental car – one that can keep the kids entertained on long journeys, and possibly prevent the dreaded, “Are we there yet?” The Innovation Team at Hertz have adapted a Volvo XC60 into what Hertz calls, “a moving canvas,” by covering every interior surface, from the seast to the ceiling, in a specially-developed upholstery printed with coloring book designs such as animals, flowers and – cars. The designs can be colored in and then wiped clean for the next rental.

The one-of-a-kind car recently had a trial run at the company’s London Heathrow branch, where children were brought in as ‘expert testers’ to give the car a trial run. During the trial, both children and parents expressed delight at the potential to rent the boredom-busting car in the future. Although not yet available for rental, Hertz will continue to consider customer reaction while deciding whether to roll the car out in the future.

We have see a wide variety of automotive innovations recently, from a car audio system that uses the vehicle’s interior as speakers to smart gas pedals that warns lead-footed drivers when they are wasting fuel, now there is a car that may alleviate boredom for children on long journeys. What other automotive innovations may help make car journeys more engaging?

A massive 311,400 acres of land in Egypt have been earmarked for a new ‘agricultural city’, thanks to a deal struck between Egypt and the South Korean Korea-Arab Society (KAS). The farming complex could potentially consist of around 50,000 smart greenhouses, seawater desalination plants, solar power plants, fodder production facilities, as wells as specific cultivation areas for stevia (a plant grown as a healthy substitute for sugar).

The deal was signed on the 15th of August, and engineers estimate that the whole plant could be built within six months at a cost of around USD 10 billion. At a recent press conference, Egypt’s Prime Minister, Sherif Ismail, said that the latest technologies will be used to ensure that the development is as eco-friendly and efficient as possible.

The plant will be built in the Qattara Depression, which is an area well known for its salt pans and marches near to the Mediterranean shore. It’s also the second-lowest point in all of Africa, and was also chosen because of the renowned fertility of the soil in Egypt’s Nile Delta.

Other ecological innovations in farming include a farm in Australia that uses 23,000 mirrors to harness the sun’s energy to grow tomatoes more sustainably, and a low-energy, low-water vertical farm in Singapore. With increased in technology though, there are more and more inventions being developed to help those in dry areas grow crops. Can you think of any ways to help this?

Sift, which is available on iOS, is an app that helps customers keep abreast of all their credit card benefits and claim refunds easier. Now, CEO Abhinav Dubey has confirmed the company will be adding an additional function to the app, giving users the chance to also obtain advice on the best card to choose based on their lifestyle. The new functionality is due to be launched at the end of the year. The app could see the end of customers spending hours on the phone to customer service centres resolving refund issues, as well as helping them keep track of their spending habits.

Currently, the app keeps track of price changes within users’ credit cards, protecting them from changes and also alerting them of additional benefits they may be missing out on. Sift also claims back money for products like price protection policies, allows users to get refunds for products and also provides warranties for electrical and audio purchases including TVs and laptops for example. The app works by sifting through all the credit cards’ policies and benefits associated with each purchase and automatically files a claim in the user’s name. It also provides additional information such as the amount of time left to return an item.

As customers move towards using their mobile devices more frequently to do every day tasks, including banking and shopping, innovators need to come up with more products that meet their needs. Sift is a key example of a mobile function that will really tap into customers of the future. Similarly to the UK’s invention, DrnkPay, an app which curbs drunken overspending, this is just another function which makes life easier for customers.

Researchers from the Environment and Sustainability Institute at the University of Exeter in the UK have created Build Solar, a company that harnesses solar power creation and building into one entity. Its key product coined Solar Squared are glass blocks that are embedded with linked solar cells. In direct sunlight, a group of the transparent blocks can generate enough energy to power an entire building.

The company is led by entrepreneur and solar scientist Dr Hasan Baig and renewable energy scientist Professor Tapas Mallick, in collaboration with Glass Block Technology Limited. The team aim to build integrated, affordable, efficient, and attractive solar technologies as part of a building’s architecture in places where energy demand is highest, while having minimal impact on the landscape and on quality of life.

Regarding sustainability, Solar Squared’s lifetime costs are lower than an equivalent glass block wall due to the free electricy generation and improved thermal insulation. The cubes can also be tinted to prevent rooms overheating and are available in a variety of colours purely for aesthetic pleasure.

Solar powered infrastructure is popular among architects and visionaries alike, and green methods as a result of damning research on global warming are becoming commonplace. In the UK, London’s first ‘eco-street’ shopping destination opened earlier this year, and the world’s largest data centre has revealed plans to become solely reliant on renewable energy. How could you incorporate green methods into your day-to-day activities?

The first part of a plan to build a sign language interpreter has been unveiled in Antwerp. The robotic hand, that can turn text into gestures, prints the translation in 3D. If the team succeeds, they aim to create an entire robot that can read sign language and has an expressive face.

The University of Antwerp’s Sign Language Actuating Node, known as Project Aslan, has a team of engineers working towards minimising the communication barriers between the deaf and the hearing. The hand can spell out ‘ASLAN’ and it is hoped, once complete, will be able to recognise more complex sign language. Using 3D technology, a full arm has been created at a very low cost, making it readily available across the world. As well as meeting social needs, the robot is also a great innovation for the engineering industry, as modifications can be easily added.

The project still has a few years to go before the entire robot is built, but even in its prematurity is already achieving recognition. In 2014-2015, Project Aslan won the best thesis within the Faculty of Applied Engineering at the University of Antwerp. It has also featured on Belgian TV.

This is just one of the many innovations in production across the globe against the challenge to help deaf people communicate more easily with the hearing. In the Netherlands, banking customers are able to tap into a sign language webcam as part of the services by ABN AMRO bank. Could this be the end of a need for sign language skills in the service industry with the robot replacing the traditional system of tapping into a hearing loop?

With climate change an ever-increasing concern, scientists have been working to develop new materials that can aid the fight by ridding the environment of pollutants, such as carbon dioxide, that contribute to global warming. We have recently seen innovative pollution-fighting materials that range from an absorbent bikini that may help rid the ocean of pollutants to a smog vacuum that can turn pollutants into jewellery. Now, materials scientists in the Ajayan Research Group at Rice University, led by Dr. Pulickel Ajayan, have create a lightweight foam that absorbs CO2.

The foam is made from two-dimensional sheets of hexagonal-boron nitride (h-BN). Flakes of h-BN are combined with polyvinyl alcohol and freeze-dried to create flat sheets of the absorbent material. According to researchers, the one-step manufacturing process is fully scalable. The porous foam is capable of absorbing up to 340 percent of its own weight in carbon dioxide. The CO2 gas can be evaporated out of the foam, which can then be reused. When coated with the polymer PDMS, the h-BN foam can be used as a shield from lasers, allowing it to be used in biomedical and electronics applications.

The researchers would ultimately like to be able to manipulate the size of the materials’ pores in order to use it to absorb specific materials, such as separating oil from water. The research was funded by the Air Force Office of Scientific Research and appears in the American Chemical Society journal ACS Nano. What other types of materials might one day absorb greenhouse gases from the environment?

Researcher and designer Daniel Goddemeyer has worked with New York-based research and design studio OFFC to create the Urban Canary, a plastic bird-like toy that can track pollutant levels in its surroundings. This is the result of a conceptual experiment exploring new ways to combat city air pollution.

The device is designed to accompany a child, continuously measuring the air quality nearby to alert the owner in case of air pollution. In areas with poor air quality, the canary becomes ‘ill’ and can be examined using the parents’ smartphone to gather more information about the cause of the illness and learn of ways to heal the toy. For more detailed information, a summary on the app shows the areas, times, and amounts of pollution that both the Urban Canary and the child were exposed to throughout their daily activities.

When the Urban Canary is first given to the child it is healthy and well, indicated by its steadily blinking green pulse. Over time, as if reflecting the child’s own health, the Urban Canary’s health becomes affected by prolonged exposure to higher levels of pollution. Changing with continued exposure to pollutants, the colour of the Urban Canary’s pulse gives a constant visual indication of its health and recent exposure to pollutants, with red signifying the poorest ‘health’ and therefore the worst pollution. Depending on the child’s age, general health and inevitable exposure to low levels of pollution in the urban environment, the sensitivity of the Urban Canary to pollution can be adjusted in the settings.

In their connected network, the Urban Canaries would look out for each other and suggest unpolluted spots nearby to recover. By sharing their measurements with each other, they could create a comprehensive pollution map that can be used to spare children from excess pollution in the future. The team behind this conceptual experiment also aims at inspiring a dialogue about pollution between parents and their offspring.

The Urban Canary is another innovative way technology has merged with child’s play to provide an educational tool. Did you ever think programmable bricks that teach children about robotics and a voice-activated artificial intelligence robot that personalises learning would ever reach the market? How else could technology assist with a child’s learning about the wider world?

Brands are posting an increasing number of videos and photos on Instagram, and with 200 million people watching Instagram Stories every day, this comes as no surprise. Now, Brazilian marketing agency Africa has come up with a way to advertise for Heinz by enabling Instagram users in Brazil to actually eat the food pictured in the food posts they were drooling over.

The ‘Irresistible Posts’ campaign was created with the support of Facebook Creative Shop, and uses geolocation to target local users in Sao Paulo who were looking at Stories in Instagram. Users looking at pictures of burgers from local Underdog Meat & Beers restaurant could swipe up to order the burger, which would be delivered by Heinz Brazil in a personalized box, accompanied by Heinz products. Heinz also sent videos and photos of the burger being made to each diner live via direct message.

Heinz Marketing Director Isabella Rizzo, explains, “We decided to turn people’s craving into reality. Irresistible Posts innovate in the way people consume content: by eating it with Heinz.” Although the campaign was only in operation for one two-hour lunch period, linking social media to real world rewards may be the way forward for advertising. We have recently seen this with touchscreens in bathrooms that let users ‘chat’ with brands as well as order products, and job applications that can be submitted through Snapchat. What other ways might there be to creatively connect social media to real world goods and services?

Researchers at the Swedish Medical Nanoscience Center at the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden have developed an innovative way of hacking conducting plastics that could stop the spread of infection in patients and hospitals. The method was found to prevent bacterial growth using silver nanoparticles and a small electrical current. Bacteria is often spread via plastic implements found in all hospitals such as tubes and surfaces, all of which can harbour harmful microbes. Bacteria can also survive for long periods of time on such surfaces, causing it to spread to people that touch effected items.

While both large electrical currents and high silver concentrations are known to kill bacteria, they also pose a risk to humans which is why their use in hospitals is usually limited. The research team focussed on hospital pathogen Staphylococcus aureus, and found that applying tiny electrical currents to a conducting plastic surface had no effect on bacterial growth. On a similar surface exposing an attached layer of silver nanoparticles, bacterial growth was reduced. However, application of a tiny electrical current to the latter surface enhanced the effect of attached silver nanoparticles, and the bacteria were completely destroyed.

Researchers hope that the innovative solution will help to keep surfaces in hospitals and other settings requiring high hygienic standards free from bacteria that can cause life-threatening infections. Research into bacteria, what it can do and how to fight against it, has been plentiful of late. Who thought bacteria could have so many purposes, such as charging a micro-battery or glowing when near landmines as an alert? How else could bacteria be researched to actually be useful?

London is infamous for being one of the most expensive cities in the world to live in, and the prospect of getting on the property ladder or even affording monthly rent can be daunting for young professionals beginning their career. Enter The SHED Project, created by property management company Lowe Guardians, which helps provide low cost temporary housing in high-rent areas for this generation.

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With the design help of Studio Bark, ‘sheds’ are built in a single day within vacant buildings such as warehouses, offices and abandoned buildings, providing renters with a tiny home of their own. The constructions are made from affordable, low-impact materials with a mixture of Oriented Strand Board (OSB), lamb’s wool insulation and a small amount of recycled polyester, all of which are made in the UK. There is also no waste, as the sheds can be dismantled and the materials reused for another dwelling. Every accommodation comes with WiFi, communal spaces and cleaning services included within the license fee.

The renters, known as guardians, can even get involved with building their little home. Guardians must be aged between 21-35 and in full time employment.

Housing alternatives to traditional bricks and mortar have been on the rise in the past 12 months, with shipping containers repurposed as homes in Copenhagen and portable, eco-friendly smart houses in Estonia being just two of the offerings. How else could smart homes be used to help communities?