Bite-Sized Innovations

Albert Einstein said that "if at first the idea is not absurd, then there is no hope for it." In this vein, here's a list of some of my favourite ideas and innovations from the past 18 months, together with a few comments and suggestions. Work out for yourself which are sublime and which are ridiculous.

A company in Japan has developed a bicycle that pumps up its own tires. Kinetic energy from the wheels drives small pumps hidden in each wheel hub. Has anyone applied this idea to automobiles, buses, or trucks?

If you're the type who likes to live dangerously, especially on holiday, then you might be interested in Dogtag insurance. The UK-based company covers a huge range of sports from scuba to snowboarding. Using a unique dog tag identity tag, which is worn around your neck at all times, emergency medical staff can confirm that you are covered for medical insurance and will instantly know of any medical conditions. It looks pretty cool, too. Why can't other "invisible" products be given a physical presence?

A Swedish company has developed an organic alternative to cremation. The problem with burning bodies is that the process releases toxins into the atmosphere. Freezing bodies to -196 degrees Celsius and then shattering them into very small pieces (and then removing the water and metal content) is deemed a safer alternative.

Pet owners these days don't like the idea that their pet might die before they do, so Procter & Gamble has created an Iams pet food-branded MRI scanning service for cats and dogs. The company is also launching a pet insurance service to pay for the $1,200 scans. What other human innovations could be transferred to animals -- and vice versa?

Dulux in the UK has created a paint that makes it easier to repaint white walls. The paint starts off pink but dries white making sure you don't miss anything.

A group of rather inventive cultural activists called the Carbon Defence League recently put together a web site featuring the bar codes of everyday supermarket items -- only with all the prices reduced! Visitors to the site could print the bar codes onto stickers and reprice their weekly shopping list. What else could you print for yourself?

How do you know if your toddler is wearing the right sized baby shoes? One way is to make shoes with transparent soles so you can take a look at their feet. Genius.

A Japanese phone company (NTT DoCoMo) has introduced a smart tag that allows shoppers to interrogate clothes mannequins. If a properly equipped phone is held next to the tag, information such as price, colors, and size is instantly downloaded to the handheld. Given our thirst for information (and our lack of time), surely this technology could be used elsewhere?

We've seen transparent cameras and see-through staplers. Now a transparent canoe has been designed for people who want to see what lies beneath. Not recommended if you live in shark infested waters.

A US car safety group has come up with the novel idea of printing expiration dates on the walls of tires. What else could use by dates be applied to?

Triangular taps produce the smallest drips, according to mathematicians at Harvard University. The discovery should influence inkjet printer design and may increase printer resolution. Could the idea work with pens or needles?

In what has been referred to as a trend for "creative sentencing," a judge in the US has ordered a woman driver who killed a man in a car crash to carry a photograph of the victim in her wallet.

Forget you door keys again? No problem with a domestic door lock that operates by fingerprint recognition. The system recognises up to 20 different prints.

Headblade is a razor specially designed for shaving your head (which, of course, is a different shape to your face).

What if, instead of typing your name into Google, you could scan in a picture of your face and find out how many times your photograph or image appears? This could be used to monitor illegal surveillance or usage.

Known criminals in southeast London are likely to get a big surprise with the installation of street cameras linked to facial recognition software. Similar technology is being used in a hockey stadium in Utah.

Lick'ems are the world's first glow-in-the-dark popsicles. They're sold in selected dark venues like night clubs. Is there a market for other glow-in-the-dark foods or drinks?

Idea from Japan: selling cheap voice recorders to forgetful old people. How else can we stop people forgetting?

Sony and another Japanese company, Toppan, have invented a paper disc that can hold 25 gigabytes of information. This is five times the amount that can be stored on conventional DVDs. The paper disc has an added security advantage because it can be shredded, burned, or simply torn up.

Radio Your Way is a normal AM/FM radio that, thanks to a built-in timer, allows you to record radio program in the same way as your VCR. Brilliant. Why has nobody thought of this before?

Virgin Atlantic Airways has an in-flight bar and massage service while Gulf Air has a "Sky Nanny" service on selected flights. What else remains to be introduced on board aircraft?

An author in the UK is being paid by Ford to feature a Ford Fiesta in her new novel. Are they putting copies of the book into new Ford Fiestas?

Given all the technology fitted to modern cars, it's remarkable that the gauge in conventional fuel tanks, which is linked to a float sensor, is still inaccurate. "Empty" could mean anything from nothing to a gallon or more. Touch Sensor Technologies has developed a gauge that uses technology usually found in flat electronic keypads.

What's the biggest problem with glass? Fifty years ago it was the fact that it broke. These days it's the fact that it gets dirty (cue nanotechnology and self-cleaning glass). Another less obvious problem is the fact that you can see through it. Transparent glass is energy inefficient, so what's really needed is glass that's transparent in winter (self-heating) and opaque in summer (self-cooling). An innovation called Smartglass does both.

Quiet steel is a metal that makes much less noise. The idea is to place a 0.001-inch layer of polymer between two sheets of metal (in a similar way to safety glass). Quiet steel absorbs vibrational energy and cuts down on noise in everything from cars to computers. Could the idea work in reverse? Maybe there's a niche market for noisy versions of quiet products, for example, a noisy wristwatch.

A German supermarket chain has opened a store in Austria aimed at older shoppers. The stores feature permanently large prices -- and if you still can't read them, there are magnifying glasses available on each aisle. The aisles are also wider than normal, the shelves lower, the floor non-slip and the lighting anti-glare. Some of the trolleys are also designed to hook onto wheelchairs while others double as seats. What would a Gen Y supermarket look like?

Scientists in New Zealand have invented a fruit sticker that changes color when fruit is ripe. How about food packaging that changes color when the food is off?

The US Department of Energy has suggested that oil companies think about adding perfumes to diesel fuel to cover up its foul smell. The odor of diesel is one of the main reasons why the fuel is not more popular, especially among female drivers. Meanwhile, Bentley has created a branded smell to be applied to all new models (the smell of money presumably). Is there anyone out there with another smelly product that could be made to smell sweeter?

A UK company is the first car insurance firm to publicly admit using lie detection technology to reduce false claims. The DigiLog "voice stress analysis" technology analyzes a caller's voice looking for stress indicators such as a raised voice tone (lying creates stress that affects blood pressure which in turn narrows the larynx).

With a touch of sublime insight, an Australian department store (David Jones) put a breast cancer screening clinic in its lingerie department. Where could you put a screening unit for prostrate cancer?

Mitsubishi has developed a product called the i-glass. This is a wineglass with an embedded microchip and radio frequency coil in its base that sends a message to the bar when your glass is empty.

First came the self-heating sake can in Japan. Now a South Korean entrepreneur has invented the world's first self-cooling can. Self-heating and self-cooling drink cans have been done, so what else could the idea be applied to? How about hot (or cold) wash cloths in a can?

How can you stop graffiti on the railways? One solution, adopted by the Newcastle Metro in England, is to play 24-hour classical music on station platforms. A similar idea would presumably work if you played rap music to get rid of anyone over the age of 40.

Corus Steel in the UK has produced what it claims is the world's first square tin (which looks a bit like the old Spam tins). The benefit of the new tins is that they use 20% less space than conventional round tins.

A Japanese company (the Fuji Spinning Company), has launched a range of vitamin-enhanced clothing. Each garment has added extracts of seaweed and caffeine, which are supposed to make you thinner by massaging your bottom. Other smart clothes include T-shirts with added vitamin C and vitamin-enchanced underwear. On a more serious note (but not much), other clothing companies are producing business suits that block electromagnetic radiation (from cellphones) and stress-reducing clothes impregnated with aromatherapy oils.

Police in Stoke-on-Trent in England are being asked to do all their paperwork in fully marked police cars outside the houses of regular criminals.


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