Archive for August, 2012

4 innovative back-to-school tech tools

August 29, 2012 Cheryl Perkins No Comments » Cool Inventions and gadgets

BackpacksWhat’s in the backpack these days? Only the latest high-tech gadgets I’ll bet you never dreamed possible! I’ve collected a few ranging in price from $13 to $129.

Lots of schedule-challenged students are using TimeCommand, an app-enhanced audio alarm clock that not only wakes them up to noise and lights, but soothes them to sleep. This app transfers alarms from an iPhone, iPod or iPad to other devices, whether or not they’re plugged in. You can even turn on lights and lamps or waken to a siren. But this is no freebie app–it retails for $99.95.

Then there is the reference book scanner called the IRIScan Book 2, a lightweight and portable gadget for $129 that saves time and paper by capturing information from books and magazines. it even scans in color. You can then import the pages right to your iPad or into Word and Excel spreadsheets that are fully editable and searchable.

Need something cheaper? The AViiQ Ready Clip is only $12.99, and is a great for USB charging and syncing iPhone, iPad and Android devices without using cords.

For anyone who uses an iPad for their textbooks, one of my favorites is the Griffin’s Binder Insert Case for $24.99. It’s a holder that comes with a free app download, and allows teachers to monitor classroom participation. They can even create a pass-code protected classroom so students can join the network to answer quiz questions during class. My favorite part is the Buzz-in mode, showing everyone who buzzed in first with the right answer!

Seeing Mars with new eyes

August 25, 2012 Cheryl Perkins No Comments » Cool videos

Aerial Regional-scale Environmental SurveyIf you’re a NASA fan, you probably already know what the topography of Mars looks like, thanks to fun tools like Google Mars. Before August of 2012’s historic Mars landing, I played around with it a bit. But nothing compares with the real thing: Panoramic photos of the red planet –the most beautiful photos of Mars— we can only dream of visiting one day.

So while we watch those images coming back from the rover, “Curiosity,” here is a fun site that shows gorgeous photos that make you feel as though you are navigating the hills and valleys with a sensational interactive panorama.


FDA Approves Digital Pill

August 23, 2012 Cheryl Perkins No Comments » Pharmaceuticals


Could new medical technology help people with chronic pain get consistent relief? That’s what manufacturer Proteus Digital Health, Inc is hoping. The company is moving forward with its ingestible sensor for marketing as a medical device, after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) gave the green light earlier this month.

I am thinking it would be a great help for those who care for the elderly to be able to know when and how much medication has been taken. Doctors can even tell if the patient has missed a dose, and make the necessary adjustments. The ingestible sensor is part of the Proteus digital health feedback system, an integrated, end-to-end personal health management system that is designed to help improve patients’ health habits and connections to caregivers.

The FDA has been working with Proteus for the past four years to pave the regulatory path for this innovation, which represents a new category of medical device and patient care.

The way it works is quite interesting. Once the ingestible sensor reaches the patient’s stomach acid, it sends a unique signal through the user’s body tissue to a patch worn on the skin that detects the signal and marks the precise time the meds were taken. (This patch can also collect data on heart rate, body position and activity!) The patch then sends information to a mobile phone app, which can then be accessible by caregivers and doctors anywhere in the world.



Nature can show us how to move forward!

August 22, 2012 Cheryl Perkins No Comments » Biotechnology

Spine and back dorsal fin of a black dogfish (...

The exploration of nature and its processes to yield innovative solutions to complex problems is an interesting and novel approach that companies are starting to use as another way to “think outside the box” to identify business opportunities.

As those of you who follow my articles know, I’m very intrigued with the idea of using nature as a guide to providing technological insights. My company is currently working with biomimicry organizations in San Diego to help companies worldwide drive the adoption of nature-inspired innovation approaches and I’m excited about it.

I’ve given some examples over the last year of the contributions of biomimicry to innovation: the development of Velcro from the hooks on plant burrs, research into “artificial leafs” for energy production, the construction of energy-efficient buildings based on the design of termite mounds, looking at insects for clues on how to build miniature flying drones, and using the shapes provided to us from the fins of humpback whales to improve the efficiency of wind turbines.

The list grows every day.

There is a system under development that mimics the back-and-forth motion of underwater plant life for generating electric power. It is called bioWave and gets its inspiration from the motion of underwater coral and kelp.

In a school of fish, studies are showing that each fish utilizes the motion of its neighbor to increase efficiency. Wind farm engineers are looking at inspiration from these fish formations to see how to redesign and increase the efficiency of their turbines.

Conventional wind farms have to space the turbines appropriately so that the turbulence generated from each doesn’t interfere with the operation of the surrounding ones. By designing wind turbines with vertical rotation axes rather than horizontal, they can take energy from many directions and utilize, rather than waste, some of the random wind motion generated by others.

And while we are on the subject of wind farms, Netherlands architects are developing the concept of the “Power Flower” — a futuristic wind turbine that even looks somewhat like a tree. Perhaps if wind turbines weren’t so aesthetically objectionable, we might want to have more local, even personal ones.

The outlook is for bioinspiration looks quite promising and it is quite an exciting area to be involved in. Over the next decade, experts predict it will have a huge effect upon new products and economic output, accounting for billions of dollars and tens of thousands of jobs.

With so many unique and wonderfully made species of plants, insects and animals to inspire future innovations, pioneers in biomimicry are delivering solutions.

Nanotechnology, adhesives, sports, consumer goods, alternative energy, manufacturing, medicine, transportation and many other industries and markets are seeing progress.

We are seeing more examples every day. Who knows where else ideas from nature will inspire us? As the biomimicry author Janine Benyus says, we are “surrounded by genius.”

A sheep in a sweater could revolutionalize computer animation

August 17, 2012 Cheryl Perkins No Comments » Cool Inventions and gadgets

I’ll be the first to admit that computer graphics and animation are not my forte. But I also know that those who can expertly maneuver computer images with ease rely heavily on advanced technology and innovation to make lifelike images. And this type of imaging is not just for movies, video games and other entertainment. A multitude of industries from medical to automotive are utilizing computer imaging and animation to bring about real change for consumers and patients.

So why am I sharing news of a sheep in a knitted jumper? Because knits and fabrics ushering in a new era of ultra-realistic animated characters. This image is the first of its kind to demonstrate how researchers are using and mastering a complex feat. Read on:

The images of a sheep in a knitted jumper is the first time Pixar researchers have been able to ‘virtually knit’ an outfit, and could lead to far more realistic animated characters.

To put clothes on their characters, computer graphic artists usually simulate cloth by creating a thin sheet, then adding some sort of texture.

However, this doesn’t work for knitted garments, as they are simply too complex.

Source: DailyMail


To make the image realistic, the computer has to simulate the surface right down to the intricate intertwining of yarn.

So computer scientists are in effect teaching the computer to knit.

The research, from Cornell University, was unveiled at a computer graphics conference.

‘We are actually changing the shape of the yarn loops that make up the stitches,’ Professor Steve Marschner from Cornell, who led the research, explained, ‘simulating how they wrap around other loops.’

The result is a simulation with detail down to the yarn level.

The trickiest part, Marschner said, is to make sure the images of yarn loops don’t slide through each other like ghosts.

That would cause the simulation to “unravel” like a dropped stitch in real knitting.

The team has also revealed far more natural looking knitted outfits for human. Funded by Pixar, the research could be seen on a cinema screen soon.


The Cornell innovation is to create a 3-D model of a single stitch and then combine multiple copies into a mesh, like tiles in a mosaic.

The computer projects the mesh onto a model of the desired shape of the garment, treating each stitch as a tiny flat polygon that stretches and bends to fit the 3-D surface.

Then it “relaxes” the graphic image of each stitch to fit the shape of its polygon, just as real yarn would stretch and bend to fit the shape of the wearer.

In knitting, a single stitch is formed by pulling yarn through a loop. Rows of stitches, built on the loops formed by previous rows, make up the finished garment.

The yarn can be pulled through in a variety of ways or multiple times, creating various shapes and textures.

To simulate this realistically, a computer graphic artist would have to painstakingly model the 3-D structure of every stitch.

The researchers tested their method with several patterns from knitting books and created images of dresses, sweaters, a shawl and a tea cozy.

The simulations are highly realistic, but the researchers noted that the results of knitting a particular pattern depend on the yarn and needles used, as well as the style of the individual knitter.

The method has some parameters that can even be adjusted to simulate the effects of different needles or yarn, or different yarn tension used by the knitter, they said.

The research was supported by the National Science Foundation, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation and Pixar.

Source: DailyMail


Surf’s Up! And going green!

August 12, 2012 Cheryl Perkins No Comments » Disruptive Innovation

A surfer carries a surfboard along the beach

Surfing should be a fairly eco-friendly sport. At least that’s what most people think. But did you know that the boards themselves are anything but? Most surfboards can contain petrochemicals and carcinogens in the polyurethane and epoxy. This summer a California-based non-profit company called Sustainable Surf has created an “ECOBOARD” certification label for boards whose resin is made of at least 25 percent biological content and whose foam is made of at least 25 percent recycled material.

One surfer is rising to the challenge of making the sport more environmentally friendly. Danny Hess is a 37-year-old surfboard shaper who is causing a bit of a stir in the $7 billion surfing industry. That’s because his boards made of salvaged wood, natural finishes and organic resins could easily transform how surfboards are made and used. Plus, these boards are built to last, which is great for sustainability but not so good for manufacturers who’ve expected surfers to replace their beat-up boards every couple of years.

Read more about Danny’s board here.

“What I’m trying to do is build heirloom surfboards that are passed on from father to son over many generations, rather than these disposable things that we’re just consuming,” Hess says. “The idea is that you just buy one and take care of it and hopefully you don’t have to come back and buy another surfboard.”

As a child, Hess possessed a keen interest in the outdoors and working with his hands. He was using beach trash to make bodysurfing handplanes and was shaping surfboards before he could even drive. Before founding Hess Surfboards, he lived in a straw-bale house in Colorado, studied sustainable architecture at the San Francisco Institute of Architecture, built tree houses and worked as a licensed contractor. But even as his remodeling business prospered, Hess felt frustrated and dissatisfied by his career. A dozen years ago, Hess found himself spending his spare time experimenting with surfboard technology to escape the creatively stifling world of zoning ordinances, building codes and government regulations.

His work as a contractor provided a solid foundation for his work as a surfboard shaper.

“One day I had this “aha” moment where I realized I could create these molds, like the ones I was using to bend wood for cabinet doors, for surfboards,” Hess says.

Wood surfboards are nothing new, of course. Boards have long been made of wood and natural oils, and some surfers have never ridden anything else. But polyurethane has been the standard for half a century, mostly because it is cheaper, lighter and easier to use than wood.

Polyurethane was originally developed as insulation for aircraft and refrigerators during World War II. Early pioneers like Bob Simmons, the father of the modern surfboard, began experimenting with foam in the late 1940s, and shapers like Whitey Harrison and Hobie Alter honed the process through the 1950s. By the early 1960s, polyurethane was the go-to material.

Surprisingly, the fundamental technology has changed little in the decades since, largely because Clark Foam dominated the field. At its height, the California company supplied more than 90 percent of U.S. market for the inexpensive foam slabs, called blanks, that shapers use to make surfboards.

But polyurethane is nasty stuff. It contains toluene diisocyanate (TDI), a cyanide-rich compound that, when heated, releases fumes that can cause asthma, cardiac arrest, respiratory failure, hearing and vision loss, and other problems. Increasing harassment from state and federal environmental regulators prompted Clark Foam — where, media reports later showed, there was one TDI-related death — to suddenly close its doors on Dec. 5, 2005. It simply shut down without warning, an incident known as Blank Monday.

“There was just no foam one day,” Hess says.

Clark Foam’s closure prompted a discussion among surfers and shapers about the sustainability of their sport, a topic Hess was well-versed in. He started using natural materials in 2000, drawing ideas and inspiration drawn from luthiers, boatmakers and other artisans. Going green, he says, is good for surfing and for surfers.

“I think our bodies are more in tune with organic materials,” Hess says. “My boards feel more natural than foam boards. I get a lot of people saying my boards feel really different, but really familiar at the same time.”

Today, he hand crafts 150 boards each year using raw materials like reclaimed poplar, cork and blocks of recycled expanded polystyrene. The surfboards, which range in price from $1,295 to $1,800, take about 10 and 16 hours to build. Whereas conventional shapers carve a big slab of polyurethane, called a “blank”, down to the shape they want, Hess builds his boards from the interior. First, he crafts an interior skeleton for his boards using a system of vacuums, one of 20 molds, and autoclaves. Hess then fills the framework with the foam, covers it all with salvaged wood and seals it with a sap-derived epoxy.

“I’m building from the internal frame structure to the exoskeleton of wood,” Hess said. “I have a system of vacuum molds and forms, autoclaves, that I use to create a specific curve or shape for the wood.”

Most surfers are initially attracted to Hess’ surfboards because of their eye-catching design aesthetic, but they also offer more flex. “When you ride them you find they have a really unique springy responsiveness. The way the strength is built along the rails gives you an immediate responsiveness to flex. And they’re light,” said Luke Bartels, a longtime Hess Surfboard owner and furniture designer in San Francisco.

Each of Hess’ boards are constructed at Woodshop, a studio Hess shares with three shopmates not far from San Francisco’s Ocean Beach. Being so close to the ocean makes R&D a breeze, as the beach is but a quick skateboard ride away. That led Hess to his latest endeavor – making skateboard decks using scraps lying around the shop.

“These skateboards are made for cruising down to the beach to check the surf and getting a six pack on the way back,” Hess says with a laugh. His skateboards echo the experience of surfing.

“When you’re skating on these boards and you flex into a turn you spring out,” said Hess. “It really feels like you’re surfing.”

It’s all about the surfing for Hess, and bringing innovation to the sport. He isn’t embracing sustainability for sustainability’s sake, but because he believes natural materials are genuinely better.

“My whole motivation has been about moving the ball forward for what surfboards could be, rather than sitting on a technology for 50 years,” Hess explains. “I have an idea, I come into my shop, and I do it. I’m always learning.”

That attitude led Hess to embrace Super Sap, the first USDA BioPreferred Certified liquid epoxy resin. And he’s experimenting with organic foam and salvaged redwood in a continued quest to build a truly green surfboard.

“My ultimate goal has always been to build a surfboard from locally sourced salvaged wood that contains no petrochemicals,” Hess says. “I don’t think we’re too far off from it.”

Nature offers many degrees of innovation

August 9, 2012 Cheryl Perkins No Comments » Disruptive Innovation

If you have been following my columns for the past few months, it’s obvious that biomimicry — using nature as a guide for solving problems or designing products — has recently become a topic of passion for me.

To take it a step further, there are efforts at combining biomimicry with another of my interests: green innovation. I would like to share a couple of examples here.

One particularly interesting one comes from the Africa architect Mick Pearce, who has been studying the design of termite mounds, and applying that knowledge to more energy-efficient ventilation systems in buildings.

It turns out that the design of termite mounds leads to a good regulation of temperature within the structure. Despite daily external temperature fluctuations from almost freezing to more than 90 degrees Fahrenheit, termite mounds have been found to maintain nearly constant temperatures inside. This is due to a “clever” combination of shape, insulating construction materials, and airflow through intricate passages in the mound structure.

First a bladelike geometry for the overall mound leads to a high absorption of the suns rays on the broad face of the blade during morning when it is cooler. During the heat of day, when the sun is overhead, the mound presents a narrow blade edge, effectively minimizing the amount of heat absorbed from the sun. It’s similar to desert plants that can turn their leaves from horizontal to vertical in the hottest part of day.

Next, passageways in the mound have a design that provides for a draft of air from the lower regions of the mound out through the top where the warmer air is then vented to the environment. Termites sometimes may even add a type of active control to the process by bringing in wet mud — providing an evaporative cooling as it dries.

Some of these principles that Pearce has studied have been used and refined in at least two of his buildings to date, one in Africa and one in Australia. These buildings have large vent systems that are used to purge the warm air of day with cooler nighttime air, and can periodically bring in cooler fresh outside air as needed.

The design even utilizes externally available fluids for evaporative cooling and heat exchange. It is claimed that the combination of all of these adapted techniques have led to a more than one-third reduction in energy costs, and millions of dollars in cost savings.

Another striking example where nature was used to help solve a design problem was that of the original Japanese bullet train. When the first trains were found to cause loud, disturbing sonic problems as they exited tunnels, insightful engineers took a cue from the kingfisher. The kingfisher is a bird that can almost effortlessly transition from one medium, air, into another medium, water, as it hunts for food.

Redesigning the shape of the front of the train to more closely resemble the shape of the kingfisher, along with some other enhancements to the roof that could be attributed to inspirations from the silent wings of the owl, solved the problem. Not only was the train quieter, but as an added bonus, it was also slightly more energy efficient.

Most business that are involved in the “green” movement today are striving to be more ecologically friendly by simply conserving basic resources. However there are some businesses that are taking a more radical approach — they are looking at how nature solves energy problems and adapting these insights to create unconventional new designs.

These are the inspirational, or rather bio-inspirational, innovators of the future.

Automated reporting technology gaining ground

August 7, 2012 Cheryl Perkins No Comments » Culture of Innovation

In many industries, cutbacks and layoffs have created more and more pressure on the remaining personnel to do more work. Longer hours, making do with fewer resources, and taking advantage of new technology to improve productivity is commonplace in many industries. Journalism and news reporting is no exception.

I recently read an interesting article about the rise of “automated reporting,” where computers are using algorithms to sort through data and create what passes for readable prose. In areas where there are vast amounts of raw data available, the “reporter” might just be a computer algorithm.

At Northwestern University, a group of journalism professors and computer science faculty have developed software to create machine-generated news content from data. This software has been licensed by the organization Narrative Sciences, an organization in the Chicago area that currently has several dozen customers of its machine-generated content business. It’s another area where artificial intelligence — the ability of computers to emulate humans — is making slow but steady progress.

Sports stories are an obvious application of the technology. First of all, if we consider all sporting events, not just professional, there are far too many to cover by human reporters.

Further, any sport today is ripe with data. With the help organizations that are focused on providing sports information, more and more data is being generated and gathered each day for every event.

Computer algorithms can sort through this data and automatically generate a basic story of what happened in the game. They may yet not be able to provide true insight into how the game was won or lost, or critical turning points, but the technology is demonstrating that it can provide something that passes for a game narrative.

There is a tremendous market for creating stories of local sports events. These are events that would not otherwise be covered if not for this technology. There simply aren’t the resources available to have reporters write stories for every event.

One example, so far: Narrative Sciences has produced over half a million accounts of Little League games, and that number is growing. The articles are generated using pitch-by-pitch game data that is actually entered by parents during the game using the iPhone application GameChanger.

Further, the game stories can be made available almost immediately after the game is complete. If Grandma and Grandpa don’t have a computer and access to the internet just yet, here is another incentive for them to get them.

There are of course many other applications. The New York Times has used this content-generation technology to create automated wedding announcements from reader-submitted data.

Earnings reports are another example. is exploring the approach for earnings reports and some financial news. The data is often there, it just needs to be cobbled together into a readable structure.

With some automated articles, not only is there no human author but sometimes there is also no human editing. Here there is certainly the potential for embarrassment. I haven’t yet heard of any major blunders yet, but let’s face it, the technology is still in it’s infancy.

There is an ongoing effort to fine-tune the algorithms to make the results better, or some may say “less bad.” However the Narrative Sciences articles I have seen seem very good, and in many respects might pass the “Turing test” for a readable article. That is, if you can’t tell that a machine wrote the article instead of a human reporter, then that might just be good enough.

Might computers be the reporters of the future? As much as I doubt it happening any time soon, if ever, I believe it certainly has the potential to help free up resources, human resources that can focus less on the mundane and more on the interesting, insightful angles and stories.