Last night the 2008 Dyson Product Design Awards were handed out in New York City. (Yes, that’s Dyson as in Sir James Dyson, TV’s most pretentious vacuum peddler.)
These prizes are awarded annually for inventions that demonstrate exceptional ingenuity and function. This year’s finalists hailed from 14 countries, and their inventions ranged from the simple (a showerhead you wear like a glove, thereby requiring less water pressure) to the borderline insane (a solar-powered underwater capsule that lets you deep-sea dive without coming into contact with any yucky sea water—no more ear infections!)
First prize went to a safety device for cyclists called the Reactiv jacket, designed by Michael Chen of London. The jacket has a built-in accelerometer that regulates the color of the LED lights sewn into the back—green means the rider is accelerating, red signals braking. If the rider lifts an arm to indicate a right turn, amber-colored lights in the right sleeve begin flashing.
It’s easy to see why this product won top honors. Chen took a real problem—the dangers of urban biking—and devised a relatively simple and effective solution. But for the recipient of a prize bearing the name of Sir Dyson, who made dustbusters chic, I’m not sure I’d call the design of the jacket elegant. As you can see in the photo below, there was nothing understated about the lightsaber glow of the back panel and the wide reflector strips on the sleeves. And while I realize that drawing attention to yourself is the entire point, the safety benefits are negated if you get beat up every time you wear the jacket. But hey, biking is good for the Earth—and we kind of like the Earth.
Nonetheless, my favorite invention at the reception had nothing to do with sustainability or gadgetry. A student from a French design institute created a line of clothing with strategic pleats, folds, and interlacing parts that make it possible for people with a limited range of motion (the elderly, the disabled) to dress themselves. The clothes could actually improve the lives of ordinary people and, as an added bonus, they won’t make you look like an extra on Battlestar Galactica.
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In a Q&A last year with Fast Company’s Chuck Salter, Dyson admitted that he made over 5,000 prototypes of his bagless vacuum before he found a successful model. While that sounds like a lot of work, some of the products on display could have used another iteration or two.
Grossest product: A "wired" toilet that analyzes your waste and transmits information about your health and nutrition directly to your physician. Not surprising that this was the Japanese finalist—it saves you the shame of having to discuss taboo subjects with your doctor. Then again, I can’t remember the last time my doctor asked me about my—yuck, nevermind.
Coolest-looking device of dubious usefulness: A CPU shaped like a tree with the motherboard contained in the trunk. I think this was designed so that an individual part (branch) could be swapped out easily when it malfunctions, instead of replacing the whole computer, but the press release also said something about reminding users through design that their energy consumption affects the earth. A stretch?
Most obnoxious contraption: The Ergoskin, a posture-correcting vest that alerts you when you’re not standing up straight, since most of us only see our mothers on special occasions.