The Indians and their amazing ideas

10 cool and inspiring inventions

Been sifting through the inventions lists of 2010 and came across some gems. Here’s the short list.

1. Autonomous bionic robo-penguins and air-penguins that float around your lobby. Quite enthralling.

2. Piano stairs. This is an initiative of Volkswagen and its agency DDB Stockholm that came up with the Fun Theory that you can change the behaviour of people by turning the most mundane tasks into something enjoyable. Great to see the original idea replicated in Auckland, New Zealand and Melbourne, Australia. Other ideas at the dedicated website include a) the world’s deepest garbage bin b) the bottle bank arcade c) the scratch mat and d) the Wiki traffic light. On a side note, Coca Cola came up with its take on the fun theory ~ a happiness vending machine.

3. In 2011, Sugru is going to become as common a word as Blu-Tack and Play-Doh. Sugru is like modeling clay but when exposed to air turns into a tough flexible silicone overnight. The company is touting it as the ultimate hacking material offering the layman a chance to fix or re-purpose things as he/she sees fit. The website offers a gallery of ways fans have used the versatile product. According to the Wikipedia entry, inventor and former sculptor Jane Ni Dhulchaointigh of Kilkenny, Ireland conceived the idea for the substance and worked with FormFormForm, a “ninja team of inventors and material scientists”, to come up with the moldable, adhesive and self-curing silicone elastomer now trademarked as Formerol. Caution though, one user has pointed to a possible allergic reaction to the product or its colouring..

4. The Looxcie wearable camcorder looks like a spaceship of Star Trek’s Federation fleet. It hooks over your ear and leaves your hands free for those times when you may need them for some other activity (ahem!).

Can see it being really useful for recording breaking news events eg. running for cover when faced with angry pro-Hosni Mubarak goons. Other applications including using it for rock climbing, mountain biking, water-skiing and recording an interview subject who is about to flip a plane and using a handy mirror to switch back to see your own petrified face.

5. Square is a tiny magnetic card reader that turns your smart phone into a credit card processor. Sounds like an ideal app for on-the-go merchants who may have to leave in a hurry eg. pirated DVD salesmen. Square received another round of funding and a speculated US$200m valuation early this year, and may be another winner for Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey.

6. The driverless car from Google is a godsend for every parent turned child-chaffeur/transporter slave. Considering we parents break our backs and sometimes clock 100km daily just driving the kids around the city, this is something we really need today! Where do we send the cheque Larry and Sergey?

7. Synthetic life. In May 2010, pioneering geneticist J. Craig Venter and his team announced that they had created a new bacterial genome and used it to reboot a cell.

Venter described the synthesized cell as “the first self-replicating species we’ve had on the planet whose parent is a computer,” which doesn’t bode well for those of us who didn’t believe Arnie when he famously said “I’ll be back!“.

Venter said his team had also inserted four hidden messages as watermarks into the synthetic bacteria for others to decipher. One is an explanation of the coding system, the second is a URL address for those who crack the code to go visit, the third is a list of names of the 46 contributors to the project and the fourth is a series of famous quotes including “To live, to err, to fall, to triumph, to recreate life out of life,” from James Joyce’s A Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man..

8. iReal Book App. Described by Pandora founder Tim Westergren as the “backup band in your pocket”, the iRealBook iPhone app has hundreds of bass, drum and piano tracks of the standards, pop classics and then some. A great tool for musicians and wannabes according to this reviewer, below:

9. The Dyson bladeless fan. British inventor Sir James Dyson is best known for the bagless vacuum cleaner, currently manufactured in Malaysia, which went through 5127 failed prototypes before meeting success. The bladeless fan is safer, easier to clean and has a cool factor that makes one want to go out and buy one right away.

10. The personal robot. Cynthia Breazal’s TED presentation was fascinating and holds a promise of what is to come.

Time magazine’s 50 best inventions of 2010
Best iPhone and iPad Apps of 2010

The fun theory

As media trainers, we try to make our workshops fun for our participants. When you have fun learning something new, the higher the probability the learning will be remembered and internalized.

I like the ideas at, an initiative of Volkswagen.

How do you get more people to use the staircase instead of the escalator? Turn it into a giant piano of course:

The other idea, posted so far, makes throwing rubbish more fun, with some sensors and sound effects:


How do you run a whole country without oil?

Shai Agassi was a rising star in German software giant SAP when he was challenged to rid the world of oil addiction.

He kicked off Better Place, raised US$200m and convinced Renault-Nissan to build the cars. He has already signed on Israel, Denmark and Australia and aims to convert the US with projects running in Hawaii and Northern California.

Watch this convincing presentation at TED.

Related links:
Shai Agassi: A Moment of the Transformation
Project Better Place
Dafna Berezovski explains how.
Tell it to me like I was a 5th Grader
The Wired article.
Shai Agassi’s revived blog

Will Kindle 3 End the Printed Book Era?

In Book End: How the Kindle Will Change the World, Jacob Weisberg suggests how the new iteration of Amazon’s reading device will start the fire that ends the Gutenberg era:

I’m irksomely enthusiastic about my cool new literature delivery system. Like the early PCs, the Kindle 2 is a primitive tool. Like the Rocket e-book of 1999 (524 titles available!), it will surely draw chuckles a decade hence for its black-and-white display, its lack of built-in lighting, and the robotic intonation of the text-to-voice feature. But however the technology and marketplace evolve, Jeff Bezos has built a machine that marks a cultural revolution. The Kindle 2 signals that after a happy, 550-year union, reading and printing are getting separated. It tells us that printed books, the most important artifacts of human civilization, are going to join newspapers and magazines on the road to obsolescence…

The Kindle is not better than a printed book in all situations. You wouldn’t want to read an art book, or a picture book to your children on one, or take one into the tub (please). But for the past few weeks, I’ve done most of my recreational reading on the Kindle—David Grann’s adventure yarn The Lost City of Z, Marilynne Robinson’s novel Home, Slate, The New Yorker, the Atlantic, the Washington Post, and the New York Times—and can honestly say I prefer it to inked paper. It provides a fundamentally better experience—and will surely produce a radically better one with coming iterations.

The notion that physical books are ending their lifecycle is upsetting to people who hold them to be synonymous with literature and terrifying to those who make their living within the existing structures of publishing. As an editor and a lover of books, I sympathize. But why should a civilization that reads electronically be any less literate than one that harvests trees to do so? And why should a transition away from the printed page lessen our appreciation and love for printed books? Hardbacks these days are disposable vessels, printed on ever crappier paper with bindings that skew and crack. In a world where we do most of our serious reading on screens, books may again thrive as expressions of craft and design. Their decline as useful objects may allow them to flourish as design objects.


Mind-blowing TED demo of sixth sense wearable tech

Out-of-this-world demo at TED by Pattie Maes and her brilliant student Pranav Mistry on the possibilities of wearable tech.

Maes and Mistry put together a crude US$350 device made with off-the-shelf parts that acts as an intelligent sensor cum projector and showed how you could project a calculator on your hand or use the numbers to make a call.

The device can sense what you are reading – a newspaper story triggers a related video off the Internet and projects it directly on the paper, a page in a book brings additional info on the author. At a supermarket, the device can detect the eco-friendly product versus the one that isn’t. The airport ticket can pull up info on whether the flight has been delayed.

Meanwhile David Merrill demos his Scrabble tiles on steroids called Siftables that is likely to make a killing in the toy market soon.

Watch on
Pattie Maes & Pranav Mistry: Unveiling the “Sixth Sense,” game-changing wearable tech
David Merrill: Siftables, the toy blocks that think
or on YouTube:
Pattie Maes & Pranav Mistry
Pranav’s videos
David Merrill’s siftables

Wolfram Alpha: Google + Wikipedia?

There is buzz about genius entrepreneur Stephen Wolfram’s unveiling of Wolfram Alpha in May, 2009. Nova Spivack who was privy to a private demo reveals on TechCrunch some details on the “computational knowledge engine” he touts will be The Next Big Thing:

It doesn’t simply return documents that (might) contain the answers, like Google does, and it isn’t just a giant database of knowledge, like the Wikipedia. It doesn’t simply parse natural language and then use that to retrieve documents, like Powerset, for example. Instead, Wolfram Alpha actually computes the answers to a wide range of questions — like questions that have factual answers such as “What country is Timbuktu in?” or “How many protons are in a hydrogen atom?” or “What is the average rainfall in Seattle?”

Think about that for a minute. It computes the answers. Wolfram Alpha doesn’t simply contain huge amounts of manually entered pairs of questions and answers, nor does it search for answers in a database of facts. Instead, it understands and then computes answers to certain kinds of questions.

Wolfram Alpha is a system for computing the answers to questions. To accomplish this it uses built-in models of fields of knowledge, complete with data and algorithms, that represent real-world knowledge.

For example, it contains formal models of much of what we know about science — massive amounts of data about various physical laws and properties, as well as data about the physical world.

Based on this you can ask it scientific questions and it can compute the answers for you. Even if it has not been programmed explicity to answer each question you might ask it.

But science is just one of the domains it knows about — it also knows about technology, geography, weather, cooking, business, travel, people, music, and more.

It also has a natural language interface for asking it questions. This interface allows you to ask questions in plain language, or even in various forms of abbreviated notation, and then provides detailed answers.

The vision seems to be to create a system wich can do for formal knowledge (all the formally definable systems, heuristics, algorithms, rules, methods, theorems, and facts in the world) what search engines have done for informal knowledge (all the text and documents in various forms of media).

In his own blogpost, Wolfram describes what he was trying to achieve:

Fifty years ago, when computers were young, people assumed that they’d quickly be able to handle all these kinds of things.

And that one would be able to ask a computer any factual question, and have it compute the answer.

But it didn’t work out that way. Computers have been able to do many remarkable and unexpected things. But not that.

I’d always thought, though, that eventually it should be possible. And a few years ago, I realized that I was finally in a position to try to do it.

I had two crucial ingredients: Mathematica and NKS. With Mathematica, I had a symbolic language to represent anything—as well as the algorithmic power to do any kind of computation. And with NKS, I had a paradigm for understanding how all sorts of complexity could arise from simple rules.

But what about all the actual knowledge that we as humans have accumulated?

A lot of it is now on the web—in billions of pages of text. And with search engines, we can very efficiently search for specific terms and phrases in that text.

But we can’t compute from that. And in effect, we can only answer questions that have been literally asked before. We can look things up, but we can’t figure anything new out.

So how can we deal with that? Well, some people have thought the way forward must be to somehow automatically understand the natural language that exists on the web. Perhaps getting the web semantically tagged to make that easier.

But armed with Mathematica and NKS I realized there’s another way: explicitly implement methods and models, as algorithms, and explicitly curate all data so that it is immediately computable.

It’s not easy to do this. Every different kind of method and model—and data—has its own special features and character. But with a mixture of Mathematica and NKS automation, and a lot of human experts, I’m happy to say that we’ve gotten a very long way.

But, OK. Let’s say we succeed in creating a system that knows a lot, and can figure a lot out. How can we interact with it?

The way humans normally communicate is through natural language. And when one’s dealing with the whole spectrum of knowledge, I think that’s the only realistic option for communicating with computers too.

Of course, getting computers to deal with natural language has turned out to be incredibly difficult. And for example we’re still very far away from having computers systematically understand large volumes of natural language text on the web.

But if one’s already made knowledge computable, one doesn’t need to do that kind of natural language understanding.

All one needs to be able to do is to take questions people ask in natural language, and represent them in a precise form that fits into the computations one can do.

Of course, even that has never been done in any generality. And it’s made more difficult by the fact that one doesn’t just want to handle a language like English: one also wants to be able to handle all the shorthand notations that people in every possible field use.

I wasn’t at all sure it was going to work. But I’m happy to say that with a mixture of many clever algorithms and heuristics, lots of linguistic discovery and linguistic curation, and what probably amount to some serious theoretical breakthroughs, we’re actually managing to make it work.

Pulling all of this together to create a true computational knowledge engine is a very difficult task.

It’s certainly the most complex project I’ve ever undertaken. Involving far more kinds of expertise—and more moving parts—than I’ve ever had to assemble before.

And—like Mathematica, or NKS—the project will never be finished.

But I’m happy to say that we’ve almost reached the point where we feel we can expose the first part of it.

It’s going to be a website: With one simple input field that gives access to a huge system, with trillions of pieces of curated data and millions of lines of algorithms.

We’re all working very hard right now to get Wolfram|Alpha ready to go live.

Wolfram Alpha computes to factual questions. This is going to be big.
Wolfram|Alpha is coming
God, Stephen Wolfram and Everything Else

Amazon re-Kindles the ebook

Jeff Bezos introduces the Kindle, an ebook reader that looks set to do for digital book-reading what the iPod did for music.

Some specs: Holds about 200 ebooks,no cables, no synching, 292 gm, 6-inch E-Ink screen, no backlight, EVDO connectivity for wireless downloads (over Sprint in the US), 30 hours of battery life with a full recharge taking just 120 minutes. Can email your Word documents and pictures to Kindle for viewing. Price: US$399.

88,000 compatible Amazon ebooks on sale at the Kindle Store at US$9.99 for bestsellers and as low as US$1.99 for classics, while newspapers and blogs will be available via subscription. See Newsweek story.


Microprojectors in your phone

Microvision, a Redmond, Washington firm, plans to put a laser in your phone that can beam a 60-inch screen on a wall.

The hard part is getting the right green laser to make it happen. Red lasers are in every CD player; blue lasers are used in Blu-Ray and HD DVD players but for years, no one has made comparable green lasers.

Corning and Novalux are now developing miniature greens — freeing Microvision and its competitors, Texas Instruments and Britain-based Light Blue Optics, to move ahead.

Microvision uses one continuously swiveling mirror to transmit a 30 megapixel/sec image. It requires less power and can be achieved with a projector small enough to fit into the back of an iPod.

In July, the company signed an agreement with Motorola to incorporate its projector into a working mobile device.

By Christmas 2008, Microvision hopes to sell a stand-alone, iPod-size microprojector as an accessory that can be plugged into a video iPod or cell phone. And by Christmas 2009, microprojectors could be built into the devices themselves.


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