If necessity is the mother of invention, then the father must be ingenuity. Or imagination. Or determination. Or maybe even luck.
The point is, a lot of factors must align for someone to invent something that’s truly groundbreaking.
Which is why when a lone tinkerer or a team of engineers capture lightning in a bottle, it should be celebrated for the rare achievement it is.
As part of our continuing focus on innovation, CNN once again is honoring 10 new inventions in technology and related fields. These are gadgets or prototypes with big, game-changing goals: to harness wind energy a thousand feet off the ground, to seal gunshot wounds in seconds, to send text messages by waving your finger, to ferry private citizens into space.
Some of these creations have been in the works for years but are finally ready for their close-up. Others are brand new on the scene. But all have the potential to shake up industries, to save lives, to make our daily existences a little bit easier.
May we present the 2014 edition of The CNN 10: Inventions.
Look, up in the sky! It’s a blimp! It’s a kite! It’s a …wind turbine?
Yes, that strange-looking, helium-filled winged gray doughnut with the propeller-like blade in the center is a wind turbine – a Buoyant Airborne Turbine, or BAT, to be precise. And it just may be the answer for supplying energy to underserved regions, as well as providing cheaper and safer wind energy to the United States.
The BAT is the brainchild of Altaeros Energies, a Boston-based company founded by four MIT grads. With funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the National Science Foundation and the California Energy Commission, among many, the company’s stated goal is to “deploy the world’s first commercial airborne wind turbine to harness the abundant energy in strong, steady winds at higher altitudes,” particularly in remote locations.
Wind turbines have become common in certain areas around the world. But the towering machines have drawbacks: their power generation is unreliable and sometimes more costly than established forms. They can be deadly to birds.
Moreover, they’re often criticized for their unsightliness. One planned wind farm, off the coast of Cape Cod, has been mired in controversy for years, partly because it would spoil the views of scenic areas.
The BAT, says Altaeros, avoids many of those issues. The turbines, which are tethered to a power station on the ground, are portable. They’re less problematic with birds and the surrounding environment. And at altitudes as high as 1,000 feet, they’re more productive than ground-based turbines, since winds are much stronger and more consistent at high altitudes.
“The reason high-altitude wind is so exciting and worth going after is really very simple: there’s just a lot more of it,” says CEO Ben Glass in a promotional video. Other companies, including a Google subsidiary, also have high-altitude wind turbines in development.
The BAT won’t necessarily displace other forms of energy. Wind power can be expensive on its own. But in the remote areas Altaeros is targeting, it can be far more economical than the alternatives. Altaeros currently is testing the BAT in Alaska, and hopes to bring power to other isolated areas.
In addition, the BAT may be able to function as a communications tool, useful for Internet and telephone transmission and weather coverage, as well as become handy in a crisis. If a disaster levels a local grid, a few BATs can provide emergency power.
Sounds like a hit.
In the mobile world, our screens have gotten smaller and more defined. Some are curvy or bendy and some show 3D images.
But what if we could skip the screen altogether? That's what Glyph promises – 3D images beamed directly into our eyes.
From Michigan-based Avegant, the Glyph headset looks like a chunky set of headphones with a pop-down, "Star Trek"-style visor. (They promise a sleeker look for the final product).
It hooks up to a smartphone, TV, gaming device or laptop and uses a system of 2 million microscopic mirrors to beam the images directly into your retinas.
Yes, the image will exist nowhere except in your brain. And that opens up a ton of possibilities. While other entries in the high-tech headset field, like Google Glass and the Oculus Rift, will rely on specially developed apps or games, Avegant says the Glyph will work with the media you already consume.
Early response has been strong. A Kickstarter campaign early this year aimed to pull in $250,000. It hit that mark in four hours and went on to raise more than $1.5 million.
"It's like ordering flowers for your girlfriend and they show up with a whole truck full of flowers," Avegant CEO Edward Tang told CNN.
When not being used, the visor can be flipped up and the headset can be used as a regular set of headphones.
Last month, Avegant said it remains on pace to deliver what they're calling beta-testing models of the headset to Kickstarter donors by late this year. The company has already sent headsets to outside developers, who they hope will come up with new, previously unknown uses for the technology.
If you're trying to improve the sound of music, it helps to have a rock 'n' roll legend on your side.
When that legend is Neil Young, with support from other rock royalty like Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty and Sting, you get Pono.
Pono is the triangle-shaped music player, set to be released late this year, that backers hope will bring the quality of hi-fi stereo sound back to the mainstream in the age of the iPod.
And even if its $399 price tag proves troublesome for some consumers, there appears to be, at the very least, a healthy niche market developing. A Kickstarter project to fund the device raised $6.2 million -- the 3rd-biggest campaign in the crowdfunding site's history.
"You have helped to set the stage for a revolution in music listening," Young wrote in a thank-you note to backers. "Finally, quality enters the listening space so that we can all hear and feel what the artists created, the way they heard and felt it."
Digital music sales and online music streaming have crippled the physical sale of CDs in much the same way CDs moved folks past vinyl albums. But with each step, we sacrificed a little sound quality.
For digital music, sound files get compressed to make them take up less storage space, squeezing out some of the music's more delicate details.
In Pono's Kickstarter video, rocker Elvis Costello compares the end effect to looking at a Xerox copy of the Mona Lisa.
Pono will stream music in 24-bit, 192-kHz sound, which is far cleaner than mp3s and even better than CDs.
Young had been a critic of digital music, particularly Apple's iTunes store, for years when he decided to do something about it in 2012. That's when he teamed up with Silicon Valley tech entrepreneur John Hamm, who now serves as Pono's CEO.
A handful of high-definition music players already exist. But they're super-expensive, sometimes going for more than $1,000, and there's very little music available for them. And that, in the end, might be Pono's most practical innovation.
The company says it has agreements with all major record labels to make music available in its online store and that it's working with independent labels to help them do the same.
Today’s smartphones, it can be argued, are rigid and wasteful. With preassembly, there’s no real way to personalize them. And if your camera breaks or battery dies, you’ve got a useless brick.
Google is reimagining that concept with Project Ara, a totally customizable phone made of individual pieces.
Need a new feature? Just add it. Something broke? Swap it out.
The phone starts as a basic frame, called an Endo. Then you pick out the microprocessor, camera, battery and extra hardware that’s best for you. They snap together like Legos, except with magnets.
The world of possibilities really opens up when you consider that 3D printers could be used to make special add-ons that are totally unique to your phone.
The flexibility it gives phone owners is unprecedented. You can start at $50 and add on hardware as you can afford it. You can bulk up features for everyday use – or slim down for travel. And swapping out specific parts makes repairs cheaper and overall phone life longer.
But will it actually work?
If the magnets don’t hold up, the phone will fall apart. Awkward combinations could make your phone buggy. And overall, it’ll be more expensive. Big phone makers buy parts in bulk, so they can build entire devices more cheaply than you can.
Project Ara might turn out to be like custom PCs – a niche reserved for a crowd that doesn’t mind higher prices and technical headaches. Maybe the unrivaled level of individuality will be worth it, though.
Google expects an early version of the phone will be available in early 2015. For now, it’s calling on computer developers everywhere for input. And it’s asking for everyday people around the globe to become “Ara Scouts” to help guide the engineers. The whole project is open source, so independent 3D printing shops can get in on the action too.
What’s not to love about freedom and choice?
Modern technology hasn’t yet been able to bring us magic wands, but we’re getting close. Ring, a new project from Logbar Inc., is the latest step toward that goal.
Using a Bluetooth sensor and gesture-recognition technology, Ring lets you do things like send text messages and control connected home devices with just a few waves of your finger. As you walk into your house, for example, you might wave your finger to engage with your lamp and then, with another gesture, adjust its brightness or turn it off. Another couple of swipes will turn your TV off or on and allow you to switch channels.
Logbar has also developed payment software that you can use to pay participating retailers or other people just by waving your finger in the shape of a checkmark and then tracing out the amount you’d like to pay. Customized gestures for other tasks can be created using your smartphone or tablet.
Going forward, Ring’s makers hope independent developers will come up with even more potential functions for the device, which works with both Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android software. It’s also compatible with Google Glass and smart watches.
At the moment, Ring is only good for about 1,000 gestures before it needs to be recharged, so it doesn’t make sense to use it for texting too often. It’s also a bit cumbersome and isn’t waterproof, so you may want to be selective about when you wear it. But as developers dream up novel ways of using it, Ring has the potential to give us continuous access to the “Internet of Things” without having to stare at our smartphones all the time.
The device was a big hit on Kickstarter earlier this year, blowing past its funding goal of $250,000 and ultimately raising over $880,000. The first models will ship in July, with donors having ponied up between $145 and $185 to get their hands on one.
Thanks to nutritional labels on packaging, most store-bought foods give you a breakdown of their contents: fat, sugar, calories, and so on.
But what about that watermelon in the produce aisle? The cheese Danish at Starbucks? That glass of pinot noir you’re drinking?
A new handheld gadget called SCiO takes the guesswork out of analyzing your food. The device, about the size of a cigarette lighter, can be used to scan almost any food or beverage, analyze its chemical makeup and send the data wirelessly to your phone.
"The first application (of SCiO) is for consumers interested to know the nutritional value of what they're eating," said Dror Sharon, CEO of Consumer Physics, the Israeli company behind the device. "I often meet people who don't know what's in cheese, fruit and vegetables and have a hard time discerning what they should eat.”
SCiO contains a tiny optical sensor, called a spectrometer, which reads the molecular fingerprint of an object by shining an infrared light on it. The gadget then sends the data to the cloud for analysis and forwards the results to your phone, all in seconds. An accompanying SCiO app displays fat, protein and carbohydrate levels down to the milligram.
The underlying technology has been used for decades by corporations in quality control of oil and chemicals, although SCiO is being pitched as the first portable spectrometer for consumers.
The sensor can only detect materials and objects that were previously uploaded to its database. But it’s a smart device -- the more items you scan with it, the more it learns to recognize items and their ingredients.
SCiO was a sensation this spring on Kickstarter, where its creators asked for $200,000 and reached their goal within 24 hours. They eventually raised more than $2.7 million, and have promised to deliver the first SCiOs, for $149 apiece, to early backers by the end of the year.
Sharon acknowledges the device still has some flaws. It’s not yet effective at identifying allergens, gluten or lactose. And its sensor is less accurate when it has to scan through glass, plastic or other packaging.
But the pocket sensor has more applications than just demystifying food. It can identify an unknown medication or check on the health of houseplants. And although its makers are quick to say SCiO is not a medical device, it could even be used to perform a basic, non-invasive blood scan.
The first version of SCiO may be somewhat limited in what it can do. But as the device learns and improves -- outside developers will likely want to create apps for it -- its potential will only grow.
Augmented reality is getting a lot of talk in the gaming world, with products like Sony's and the Oculus Rift promising to make play time more fun.
But what if it could make the roads safer?
That's what the makers of Skully promise with what they're calling the world's first augmented-reality motorcycle helmet.
The Skully AR-1 helmet's anti-fog, anti-glare face shield features a heads-up display that shows blind spots, navigation information, weather and other data. The rider can use voice controls to play music, answer phone calls and do other things that might otherwise involve fumbling around with their hands.
A rear camera shows what's going on behind the rider and a voice guide gives Google Maps-style voice directions.
Skully also features Internet connectivity and a Bluetooth smartphone connection.
According to a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 4,502 people were killed in motorcycle crashes in 2010 (the most recent year available when the study was conducted), an increase of 55% from 2000.
Skully's already making waves in the tech world. In March, the helmet won the coveted Accelerator Award at the South by Southwest Interactive festival in Austin, Texas. Five hundred companies submitted for the contest and Skully was a category winner among the 48 chosen to present at the festival.
"This is a great jump-start for the new year as we head forward to our product going to market," Skully CEO Marcus Weller said of the honor.
The helmet is set to be released later this year and Skully is currently accepting applications to be part of an early beta test.
In 1968, the movie “2001: A Space Odyssey” predicted regular Pan Am shuttle flights to a rotating space station equipped with hotels, restaurants and reasonably priced phone service.
Thirteen years after the actual 2001, Pan Am is long out of business and the space station is a sparsely furnished shell barely roomy enough for several astronauts. But, finally, we’re embarking on an era of regular space flights – courtesy of Virgin Galactic’s rocket plane, SpaceShipTwo.
It’s been a long time in coming, as Virgin Galactic head Richard Branson is the first to admit. He and his colleagues in the proposed field of space tourism, including SpaceX’s Elon Musk, have been tinkering with plans for some time.
SpaceShipTwo, based on the Ansari X prize-winning SpaceShipOne, is a clever solution to a challenging problem: How do you create a ship that can transport visitors to outer space and return them to earth safely, frequently, routinely and relatively inexpensively? Even NASA’s space shuttles only went up 135 times in 30 years, far less than the space agency had planned.
The first challenge is getting it aloft. NASA’s space shuttles were lifted by rockets; SpaceShipTwo has a jet-powered aircraft called White Knight Two, which takes the spaceplane to about 50,000 feet. At that altitude, SpaceShipTwo fires its RocketMotorTwo, a hybrid rocket engine powered by both solid and liquid fuel.
SpaceShipTwo then reaches supersonic speeds on its way to its intended altitude of about 62 miles above the Earth, which marks the beginning of outer space. At that point, passengers will get about five minutes of weightlessness before the bonds of earth retract with 6 G’s of force.
The spaceplane will then glide back through the atmosphere to landing.
Is it safe? With composite lightweight materials, “feathered” rudders capable of turning 90 degrees and that hybrid system, as safe as modern technology can make it. As designer and aviator Burt Rutan put it in 2008, "This vehicle is designed to go into the atmosphere in the worst case straight in or upside down and it'll correct.”
It’ll have to be safe. In 2008, Virgin Galactic had plans for SpaceShipTwo to go up twice a day.
Of course, Virgin Galactic has been predicting the imminent launch of SpaceShipTwo for years. In 2008 it was supposed to start flying in 2009; in spring 2013 Branson said he’d be flying by the end of the year. There’s a list of more than 600 people waiting to fly, including Stephen Hawking, Tom Hanks, Ashton Kutcher and Katy Perry – and the privilege costs as much as $250,000. NASA’s also waiting in the wings with experiments.
But if tests continue to be successful, the next 12 months should tell. Then, perhaps, the 21st century can really start looking like “2001.”
It’s hard not to watch movies like “Iron Man” or “Aliens” without imagining how cool it would be to inhabit a metal suit that gives you superhuman powers. Suddenly, your puny arms can lift hundreds of pounds, and no physical task seems too daunting.
Sadly, that future is a ways off. But the Titan Arm is a promising first step.
Developed by a team of mechanical engineering students from the University of Pennsylvania, the Titan Arm is a battery-powered, robotic arm which instantly increases human strength. The arm straps to the right arm of the wearer, is anchored by a harness and can augment arm strength by 40 pounds -- not superhero level, but enough to hoist heavy objects with ease.
The device is mostly made of aluminum and steel components, and is powered at its elbow joint by a DC battery. It also can be locked into any position with a ratchet brake to hold an object steady without any exertion from its wearer.
Its makers believe the Titan Arm can help rehabilitate people with back injuries by allowing them to rebuild muscle and relearn motor control. They also think the bionic arm could assist people who lift heavy objects as part of their jobs, such as baggage handlers, warehouse workers or delivery-truck drivers.
This is not a small thing. Back problems afflict 600,000 American workers with a cost of around $50 billion annually to the U.S. economy, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.
And the Titan Arm prototype cost only $2,000 to produce, which is much less expensive than other exoskeletons.
For all these reasons, the Titan Arm has already made a splash in the inventor community. The device earned its inventors $10,000 in the Cornell Cup for Innovation and then won last year’s James Dyson Award, open to student inventors and engineers around the world.
“Titan Arm is obviously an ingenious design, but the team’s use of modern, rapid – and relatively inexpensive – manufacturing techniques makes the project even more compelling,” said Dyson in awarding the $45,000 prize.
Its young inventors hope to eventually market the arm as a commercial product. But they have already caught the attention of Hollywood. The students say they were contacted last year by the makers of “Elysium,” the futuristic 2013 movie starring Matt Damon as a man who wears an elaborate exoskeleton to battle his enemies.
So with the Titan Arm, that sci-fi future may not be so far off after all.
As any Army medic will tell you, life in battle is measured in blood. And the standard method of plugging wounds -- packing them with gauze and then applying direct pressure -- can take too long.
This is why the U.S. military turned to RevMedx, an Oregon-based medical-technology company, for help. Their solution: The XStat, a syringe-like device, packed with tiny sponges, that could change the way troops are treated for gunshot and shrapnel wounds.
Medics insert the syringe into the wound cavity and inject dozens of tiny, pill-shaped sponges which have been treated with chitosan, a substance that clots blood and fights infections. The sponges expand to 10 times their size in seconds, plugging the wound and stanching the bleeding.
Its makers say the XStat can seal a wound within 20 seconds and remain in the body for up to four hours, stabilizing a wounded patient so that he or she can be transported to a hospital. This is especially crucial for wounds in the armpit or groin area, which cannot be treated with a tourniquet or manual compression.
"Three to five minutes can mean the difference between life and death," says John Steinbaugh, a former Special Forces medic and RevMedx’s director of strategic development. "You put it (the XStat) in and the bleeding instantly stops."
Each of the absorbent sponges is marked with an X, visible via X-ray, to help doctors spot and remove them before a wound is stitched up.
In April, the device won a 2014 Inventions Award from Popular Science. That same month it won FDA approval, meaning that RevMedx can now legally market and sell the XStat in the U.S.
The company plans to provide a limited quantity of XStats to the U.S. military by late 2014, with hopes of making them available to other clients, such as paramedics and law enforcement officers, in 2015 and beyond.
RevMedx also is working on a slimmer version for wounds with narrow entry points.
Given that the U.S. Army says nearly 50% of combat deaths since mid-World War II were due to excessive loss of blood, the XStat could save countless lives -- on and off the battlefield.