20161213

The Best Inventions Of 2016 That Were Made To Impress


Flyte / $349
Since he was a child, Simon Morris has been obsessed with making objects float in midair. At one point he even managed to turn a skateboard into a hoverboard, though as he recalls it, “I couldn’t ride on it.” Now he’s applying that same passion to Flyte, a lightbulb that relies on electromagnetism to levitate and spin, and on resonant inductive coupling—a technical term for wireless power ­transmission—to shine. Morris sees his design as a seamless blend of science and art honoring both pragmatists, like Thomas Edison, and dreamers, like Nikola Tesla. And consumers appear to agree: Morris says Flyte has sold so well since its official January launch that his team is planning to introduce a whole ecosystem of floating products, including a planter, Lyfe, which debuted in June. “We’re just scratching the surface,” he says.
Like many cyclists, Jeff Woolf has been involved in a serious crash—one that might have killed him were it not for his helmet. So why, he wondered, do so many of his contemporaries refuse to wear one? Turns out, it’s mostly because they’re hard to carry around; they’re thick and bulky, and don’t fit into bags or backpacks. And that was a problem that Woolf, an engineer, knew he could fix. The result: Morpher, a bike helmet made from interweaved plastics that is just as strong as its traditional counterparts (it meets general safety requirements in both the U.S. and Europe), but flexible enough to fold almost totally flat, making it easier to transport. Woolf recently shipped the first units to his Indiegogo backers, who helped raise almost $300,000; he’s now in talks with stores too. “It’s inevitable that as more people take to the road on a bicycle, more people will have accidents,” Woolf says, adding that he hopes Morpher will save lives.
The Khlong Toei district in the heart of Bangkok is packed tight with buildings and ­people—which doesn’t leave much room to build new parks, let alone giant rectangular fields on which kids can play soccer. So real estate firm AP Thailand took a different approach. As part of a recent project, the company used aerial photography to find what developer Pattaraphurit Rungjaturapat calls “untended areas,” or unusually shaped patches of land that weren’t being used. Then it covered them with concrete, paint and anti­slip ­materials—all the trimmings of a proper sports venue, without the typical boundaries. Not that locals seem to mind: Rungjaturapat says the first two fields, which opened earlier this year, are packed with kids as soon as school lets out. This December, AP Thailand plans to open a third.
Millions of Americans rely on over-the-­counter medicine to treat routine complications such as insomnia and headaches. What if they took hits of pot instead? That’s what California-­based ­Hmbldt is banking on with its new line of vaporizer pens. When inhaled, the pens dispense a dose of cannabis oil that ­Hmbldt says has been chemically engineered to make people feel a certain way—calm, sleepy, relieved of pain—­without getting high. Cannabis-­delivery methods like this one haven’t yet been thoroughly vetted by physicians. But as more states legalize medical marijuana, and more studies show that it does have merits, products like ­Hmbldt’s (now available only in California) could become increasingly commonplace. “This really can help people feel better,” says Jason ­DeLand, the company’s head of strategy.
It’s hard to believe that an alarm clock—the cruel, clunky gadget that jolts you awake and ruins your morning—could not only be beautiful but also improve your sleep. That it could gauge the temperature, humidity, light and even air quality in your bedroom to help you engineer a perfect sleep environment. That it could monitor your sleep cycles and wake you when you’re least likely to feel groggy—all thanks to simple voice commands. Indeed, Sense (and its companion pillow sensor) is no ordinary alarm clock. It took hundreds of prototypes to get it right, says James Proud, founder and CEO of Hello, which makes Sense. Early adopters report that using the small glowing orb feels almost as natural as crawling into bed. That was key, says Proud, who adds, “Nobody wants to introduce complexity into their lives, least of all when it comes to sleep.”
When it comes to dental hygiene, most Americans are slackers: 1 in 2 don’t brush twice a day, and 3 in 4 don’t replace their bristles every three months, no matter how many times they’re warned of the risks (which include cavities and gum disease). “We needed to get people to care a lot more,” says designer Simon Enever. So he and partner Bill May set out to make brushing feel more rewarding. The result is Quip, a simple, affordable, battery-­powered toothbrush that works like its counterparts from Oral-B and ­Sonicare—a two-­minute timer vibrates every 30 seconds, reminding users to switch ­positions—but looks and feels like something you’d find in an Apple store; customers can even opt for a matte metallic finish. “It’s a nicer experience,” says Enever, who adds that he’s already working on his next design challenge: getting you to floss.
Better Shelter / Co-developed by The Ikea Foundation
Last year, Ikea made headlines when its philanthropic arm, the Ikea Foundation, helped launch Better Shelter, a line of temporary ­houses—­equipped with features like door locks and solar ­panels—that could be shipped flat and assembled in under four hours, much like the retailer’s popular furniture. But now that the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees has helped send more than 16,000 of these units all over the world, they’ve taken on a life of their own. Just as DIY experts have found ways to remodel Ikea staples into expensive-­looking furniture, refugees and aid agencies are turning Better Shelter structures into hospitals, reception areas and more. In Greece and on its border with Macedonia, the shelters are being linked together and used as early-­childhood-­development centers; in Djibouti, their walls have been retrofitted with “air conditioners” (plastic bottles cut in half to facilitate air flow). Now designers are trying to revamp the Better Shelters to allow for even more flexibility. After all, says Johan Karlsson, managing director of the Ikea Foundation, “we cannot design a one-for-all shelter.”
Dyson Supersonic / $399 Shop it
In sub-Saharan Africa, vitamin A deficiency afflicts more than 43 million children under age 6, leaving them vulnerable to blindness, malaria and more. It’s inefficient to provide entire countries with pills, so plant scientists from HarvestPlus and the CIP are helping countries grow their own ­solutions—in the form of sweet potatoes. The key is biofortification, or cross-­breeding locally grown sweet potatoes with versions rich in vitamin A, so that over time the crops naturally get better at addressing the deficiency. Plant scientists have also bred them to be more resistant to droughts (as Maria Andrade did in Mozambique) and viruses (as Robert Mwanga did in Uganda). This year, Andrade and Mwanga shared the World Food Prize for their work, alongside agricultural economist Jan Low and HarvestPlus founder Howarth Bouis. Sweet potatoes may once have been seen as “a crop of the poor,” says Low, who’s helping to bring the super-spuds to more countries. Now they’re “a healthy crop for all.”
In recent years, drones have become smarter flyers, faster racers and better photographers. But for the most part, they’re still too big and bulky to carry around comfortably, which can turn off more-­casual consumers. Not so with DJI’s Mavic Pro, which debuted in September; it’s got all the trimmings of a state-of-the-art drone—obstacle-avoidance technology, a 4K camera and the ability to track subjects while ­flying—but it can also fold down to the size of a loaf of bread, smaller than any of its competitors. Realizing that goal required DJI’s engineering team to “rethink all the aspects” of a typical drone, says Darren Liccardo, who helped lead the project. But ultimately, he adds, the effort paid off: because of its smaller size, the Mavic Pro is more nimble and less prone to ­accidents—yet another selling point that could attract new users.
Arc InstaTemp / $40 (for the InstaTemp) and $350 (for the InstaTemp MD) 
Anyone who has ever had a sick child knows what a hassle it can be to take someone’s temperature using the traditional ­method—­slipping a thermometer under her tongue, getting her to sit still for minutes at a time and hoping that whatever reading you get is accurate. That’s why, in recent years, many brands have started to make no-touch thermometers, which use infrared technology to measure core body temperature quickly and precisely. But one model stands out both for its design and its efficacy: Arc’s Insta­Temp (and its more precise, clinical version, InstaTemp MD), which was recently approved by the FDA. Once the device is placed roughly an inch from a patient’s forehead, it spits out a temperature in 2.5 ­seconds—­coded red, yellow or green, depending on the reading. “If you can take a temperature this way, why would you do it any other way?” says Irwin Gross, CEO of Arc, which is marketing the Insta­Temp devices to consumers and health care professionals alike. “We think this is the way all temperatures will be taken in the future.”
In order for people with diabetes to stay healthy, they must continually check their blood sugar and adjust it with insulin or snacks. Medtronic aims to render this tedious process obsolete with its MiniMed 670G, a.k.a. the “artificial pancreas,” which has been in development for years but was only recently approved by the FDA. (It will be commercially available next year.) Once users attach the iPod-size device to their body, it measures their blood-­sugar levels every five minutes, providing more insulin or withholding it as needed. For now, they still need to manually request a dose after they eat. But Medtronic is working on a fully automated version, which Fran Kaufman, chief medical officer of the company’s diabetes group, says she hopes will help the 1.25 million people living with Type 1 diabetes “spend less time managing their disease and more time enjoying life.”
When China’s newest astronauts, Jing Haipeng and Chen Dong, arrived in orbit earlier this year, they docked at some impressive digs. Specifically: the orbital laboratory Tiangong-2 (Heavenly Palace 2), which is more than 34 ft. long and nearly 14 ft. wide and includes an exercise area and a medical-­experiment bay. Yes, that’s all modest compared with the multimodule International Space Station (ISS), which is roughly the size of a football field, but it’s a remarkable machine all the same. China, after all, built Tiangong-2 on its own, just over a decade after launching its first man into space; the ISS is a collaboration among 15 nations, including space veterans like the U.S. and Russia. China’s next move: launching the core module for a much bigger space station, set to happen sometime in 2018.
By design, most prostheses aren’t fun—they’re built to fill a utilitarian need. And while that’s fine for adults, who need to work, it can be tough on kids, who want to play along with their friends. Enter Iko, a prosthetic arm built by Carlos Arturo Torres to enable children to replace a lost limb with one that could have come from Inspector Gadget. When they need a hand, they have one. But they can replace it with any number of toy-like attachments, all of which are compatible with Lego products. (Torres developed the device while working at Lego’s experimental Future Lab in Denmark.) Torres is still finalizing distribution details, but his larger hope is that Iko will destigmatize disability—like it did for 8-year-old Dario, an early tester. Before the test, one of Dario’s friends told Torres he felt sorry for Dario, because there were things he couldn’t do. That changed after the friend watched Dario use Iko. “I want one too,” he said.
One in four American children doesn’t get enough exercise, and 1 in 4 children globally doesn’t get enough food. UNICEF’s Fitbit-like Kid Power Band, designed by San Francisco-based Ammunition, aims to address both problems at once. Its mobile app encourages kids to be physically active with videos from stars like Pink and Alex Morgan. Once they meet step goals, it awards them points, which translate to real food packages that UNICEF sends to malnourished children all over the globe (funded in part by sales of the device). The band “allows kids to feel like they can change the world,” says Rajesh Anandan, who co-created it. Since Kid Power Band’s soft launch in 2014, participants have collectively walked over 7 million miles to feed more than 30,000 severely malnourished children.
Echo may look like a standard Bluetooth speaker, but at its core lies one of modern society’s holy grails: the ability to talk to your tech. This isn’t a new idea; Apple’s Siri and Microsoft’s Cortana have been around for years. But in many ways, Amazon’s version, Alexa, which is embedded in Echo, is more powerful. Since its 2014 launch, Amazon has greatly expanded Alexa’s functionality; it’s now integrated with dozens of third-party apps, enabling you to call a car (via Uber), turn off lights (via Philips Hue bulbs, among others) or even order pizza (via Domino’s). And Amazon appears determined to keep its edge. It recently launched a junior version of the Echo (the $50 Echo Dot), and it’s working to make Alexa even more intuitive. “We don’t want to teach someone how to speak to Alexa,” says Daren Gill, who heads product and customer experience for Alexa. “They should be able to just speak the way they naturally do.”
For 57 years, the world’s most famous doll has been stick-thin, setting an ­unrealistic—and, studies show, ­damaging—beauty standard for generations of young women. That all changed in January when Mattel, faced with slumping sales, decided to make Barbie look more like the girls who play with her. Although the original doll still exists, she now has three additional body types (petite, tall and ­curvy)—a shift that has boosted global sales of the Barbie Fashionista brand by 44%. Of course, society is still a long way from solving its body-image issues; that’s “a heavy burden for [Barbie’s] tiny shoulders,” says Robert Best, a Barbie designer. But the new shapes, along with the new skin tones and hair textures introduced last year, are undeniably a step in the right direction.