It's the question that's asked,in one way or another, throughout the year, every year, all around the country. It dominates the background hum at technology conferences, the alphabet soup of gatherings such as TED, PC Forum, DEMO, and the Emerging Technologies Conference at MIT. As attendees mill around between sessions with coffee cups in hand, there's one thing they most want to know: Who's working on something really new?
The question reflects both the tantalizing sense that somebody, somewhere, is working on an extraordinary breakthrough and the bedeviling suspicion that, whoever they are, they aren't turning up to do show-and-tells at big industry gabfests. The technology sector is starting to show signs of life again, but the stars of the next wave may not be the same folks who surfed the last one. A new cast of characters is out there, cultivating ideas that could really shake things up.
So Fast Company rooted around at academic research labs, the workshops of independent inventors, and corporate campuses to identify five innovators who are working on ideas that could either trigger earthquakes in existing businesses or give birth to entirely new ones.
They work in fields as diverse as portable power, biotechnology, and information visualization. Who's working on something really new? Here are five compelling answers.
Jerry Hallmark >> Portable fuel cells
Jerry Hallmark is into fuel cells in a very small way. Hallmark supervises research at Motorola's Energy Technologies Lab in Tempe, Arizona. For the past five years, his team of materials scientists have been working on portable power devices that could eventually replace batteries.
Batteries, Hallmark points out, are heavy. They take too long to recharge. They're an environmental concern. And as our world becomes increasingly handheld, portable, and digital, those problems will grow. "We think that the amount of energy a person uses on portable devices will triple by the end of the decade," Hallmark says, "and batteries just can't keep up."
His group at Motorola is developing micro fuel cells to power handheld devices. Instead of using a battery, you'd pop in a cartridge filled with methanol, and a chemical reaction involving oxygen from the air and either the methanol or hydrogen extracted from it would generate electricity. The waste products are heat, carbon dioxide, and a small amount of water.
One big benefit of having a tiny power station in your pocket is that you could replace a fuel cartridge instantly, avoiding those annoying recharging periods. Another is that it would last longer. A lithium ion battery, like the one inside your cell phone, can deliver about five hours of talk time. A fuel cell powered by methanol could let you gab for 24 hours straight—or supply a month of standby time. The race is on to develop these fuel cells, with Duracell launching its own initiatives and Toshiba and NEC preparing to market the first fuel-cell-powered laptops next year.
Hallmark and his team started with a fairly feeble prototype of their direct methanol fuel cell (DMFC)—one that produced just 100 milliwatts. The current prototype, unveiled last spring, produces 2 watts of power. It can run a portable TV, is roughly the size of a recipe-card box, and weighs less than a pound—not including fuel. The ultimate goal is a battery-size cell. "Then you'd have a computer that you could use on an airplane from the United States to Japan without having to bring a suitcase of spare batteries with you," Hallmark says.
Alan Broad >> Smart dust
Alan Broad is the Johnny Appleseed of sensors. He wants to sprinkle them everywhere.
Broad, the chief engineer of Crossbow Technology in San Jose, imagines a world where sensors can be easily placed anywhere to monitor and report on changes in an environment. That would make it easier for people (and computers) to gather information about the wider world.
Wireless sensor networks could be used in museums to keep tabs on the levels of light and humidity around individual works of art, or on battlefields to alert troops to the maneuvering of enemy vehicles. Already, Broad says, sensor networks are being used on Great Duck Island off the coast of Maine to allow researchers to study an elusive bird called Leach's storm-petrel without disturbing its habitat. And Intel is using wireless sensors to monitor vibration in chip-making equipment, getting a jump on production problems before they happen.
Crossbow makes sensors that can report on vibration, tilt, acceleration, temperature, and other factors. They're about the size of an ice cube and cost about $100. In turn, the sensors are networked by communications modules about the length and width of the two AA batteries that they sit on top of (though they're much thinner). These radios, which now run about $70 a piece, can transmit between 500 and 1,000 feet—but they need only relay their data to the next sensor in the network.
Making the sensors and their accompanying radios smaller and cheaper is central to Broad's work. How small and how cheap? Consider that one name for wireless sensors is "smart dust," and you'll get a sense of the goal. The hundreds of sensors in a network, in Broad's vision, would collaborate when making decisions. Before sounding an alarm, they'd poll one another to make sure that one of them wasn't operating on bad data. To conserve battery life, sensors would sleep most of the time, waking up at predetermined intervals, or when something in their environment changes.
That would let engineers cover a bridge with sensors to better gauge how winds, waves, and traffic affect its structural elements over time. They would let farmers and wine makers conduct more precise monitoring of the amount of sunlight and rain their crops receive. "You'd put sensors anywhere you wanted to gather information, instead of needing a person out there in the field with a clipboard," says Broad.
Cynthia Kenyon >> Longevity
Cynthia Kenyon wants to help you live a longer, healthier life. She thinks a microscopic worm that grows to just one millimeter in length may hold the secret to doing so.
Kenyon is a cofounder of Elixir Pharmaceuticals, a Cambridge, Massachusetts, biotech company, and also director of the Hillblom Center for the Biology of Aging at the University of California at San Francisco. Her laboratory is crawling with a species of worm known to scientists as Caenorhabditis elegans. She studies this worm because it's both simple enough to understand—it has a transparent body and fewer than 1,000 individual cells—and complex enough to have been conceived from a sperm and an egg and have a basic nervous system. Plus, the tiny critter's genome has already been sequenced.
Ordinarily, C. elegans has a life span of two to three weeks. But Kenyon's worms have had their genes altered in a way that lets them live up to six times longer. "When a normal worm was lying dead, or it was time for the nursing home, these other worms were moving around," she says. "You'd just never think you could do that."
Picture Kenyon and her researchers sitting at a giant mixing board that can adjust the activity levels of various systems in the worm. "We're looking at about 50 genes and asking what their functional significance is," she says. The circuits, or signaling pathways, that genes use to control various activities can be turned on and off by feeding the worms bacteria spiked with RNA. The lab has discovered that reducing the worm's genetic receptivity to insulin increased its life span, but they also knew that if you knocked out insulin receptors entirely, the animal would die because it couldn't regulate its metabolism. Dialing down the worm's susceptibility to stress seemed to add to its life span, as did enhancing its aggressive attack on bacteria inside its body.
In 1999, Kenyon cofounded Elixir to help turn her research into products, joining forces with a venture capitalist and Lenny Guarente, a longevity researcher at MIT. "There's no more important question, in my mind, than how can you control longevity," says Kenyon, who was elected into the National Academy of Science last summer. Kenyon doesn't spend too much time worrying about the societal repercussions of extending the human life span. Longer-life humans would have more years of productive work, and maybe fewer years of infirmity as they approach the end. And in any case, she says, "we tend to believe, as a society, that it's not good to die."
Chad Dyner >> Interactive floating display
Chad Dyner quit his job at one of the world's most famous architecture firms because he wanted to do something different. He wanted to become an inventor.
In 2000, Dyner left the Los Angeles firm of Gehry Partners to spend time tinkering in the two-bedroom apartment that he shared with a roommate in Hermosa Beach, California.
Dyner wanted to transform thin air into a movie screen—a full-color display. And he wanted users to be able to use their hands to manipulate the images, the way Tom Cruise did in the film Minority Report. "I wanted to come up with a system that would allow for collaboration," Dyner says. "It would give designers and architects a way to manipulate data and discuss a project together."
Dyner bought a digital projector—the same kind used to display PowerPoint presentations—and took it apart. Inside was a micromirror system, a single chip that relies on a million tiny mirrors that tilt back and forth to create images. Dyner spent "seven days a week, 18 hours a day" trying to figure out "how to make the light stop in free space" using the micromirror system.
The key lay in using a fan to create a sheet of air that would reflect light projected at a given angle by the micromirror system. Dyner won't be too specific since his patents haven't yet been issued. But his first prototype made images from a computer hover in midair, something like a two-dimensional hologram. The nifty part: Sensors built into the box can tell when a user's hand (or an object used as a pointer) "touches" the image, allowing a finger to serve as a mouse.
Dyner formed IO2 Technology to develop his invention, dubbed the Heliodisplay. "What people respond to is that [the Heliodisplay] allows for digital information to coexist spatially with the real world," Dyner says. "You can imagine it being used as a heads-up display for doctors doing surgery, for videoconferencing, or for commanding a submarine." Not to mention video games. After seeing a demo of the Heliodisplay, a member of Disney's Imagineering group had one question: "How many can you build by May?"
IO2 is considering licensing the technology to other display manufacturers but may build the product itself. The price, at least initially, will be about the same as a plasma-screen TV—several thousand dollars.
Meanwhile, a team of contractors is working on producing a prototype capable of creating a 42-inch image. "I like the idea that an image can now be anywhere—it doesn't have to be confined in a box or stuck on a screen," he says. And Dyner is already onto something that could be another big idea. Now at MIT's Media Lab, the inventor is working to develop an intelligent material—call it "digital clay"—that can change form, texture, and color in response to user input.
Bill Bass >> Online customization
Bill Bass is wearing a landmark pair of blue jeans. He has spent the morning packing boxes in a distribution center, something he does a few times a year as the senior vice president for e-commerce at Lands' End. And so he's dressed casually. The denim pants that he's wearing were one of the first prototypes produced by a customized clothing system that the company introduced in 2001.
Customized clothing is a back-to-the-future innovation in the world of online retail, using smart software and new manufacturing equipment to produce the kind of clothing that used to require a skilled tailor and scads of money. Online customization, Bass says, is allowing Lands' End to make clothes the way Dell makes computers. Items are cut to order, so the company doesn't have to keep inventory sitting around. The approach could free the company from forecasting sales or guessing whether customers will prefer pleats this season, because customers will tell Lands' End exactly what they want to buy.
Of course, an online tailor can't reach out and measure your inseam. Lands' End relies on a list of simple questions that don't require the shopper to break out the measuring tape—such things as shoe size, sport-coat size, height, and weight. Software uses those answers to calculate how weight is distributed around a customer's body.
Lands' End put custom chinos up for sale in 2001 and is now rapidly expanding the number of its custom products. "This is the beginning of a wave hitting the apparel industry," Bass says. "And it's taking off for the same reason the Internet took off: convenience and price."