• Stephanie Plante

10 Inventions That Will Change Our World


Breathalyzer cars, floating farms, and 760 mph trains are just some of the incredible inventions and innovations that will shape our future.

Tactile virtual reality


Researchers from Northwestern University have built a prototype gadget which aims to put touch within VR’s reach, using an adaptable material equipped with tiny vibrating parts that can be attached to skin.


This system, known as epidermal VR, could be helpful in other cases as well, from a child touching a display sending the gesture to a family member located elsewhere, to assisting people with amputations restore their sense of touch. In gaming, it could alert players when an attack occurs on the corresponding body part of the game character.


The team’s design features 32 vibrating actuators on a thin 15cm by 15cm silicone polymer which sticks to the skin without tape or straps and is free of large batteries or wires.  It uses near-field communication (NFC) technology – which is used in many smartphones for mobile payment today – to transfer data.


Scientists hope that the technology could eventually find its way into clothing, allowing people with prosthetics to wear VR shirts that communicate touch through their fingertips.



760 mph Trains


Hate commuting? Imagine, instead, your train carriage hurtling down a tunnel at the same speed as a commercial jet airliner. That’s the dream of PayPal, Tesla and SpaceX founder Elon Musk.


His Hyperloop system would see ‘train’ passengers travel at up to 760mph through a vacuum tube, propelled by compressed air and induction motors. A site has been chosen with the goal of starting test runs in two years. Once built, the loop will ferry passengers between San Francisco and LA in 35 minutes, compared to 7.5 hours by train.



Heart monitoring t-shirts


Wearable sports bands that measure your heart rate are nothing new, but as numerous studies have shown, the accuracy can vary wildly (especially if you rely on them to count calories). In general, that’s fine if you just want an idea of how hard you’re working out, but for professionals, accuracy is everything.


Using a single lead ECG printed into the fabric, this new t-shirt from smart materials company KYMIRA will accurately measure heart beats and upload them to the cloud via Bluetooth. Once there, algorithms process the data to accurately detect irregular heartbeats such as arrhythmia heart beats, which could prove lifesaving.



Cancer-detecting smart needle


A “smart needle” has been developed by scientists in the UK which could speed up cancer detection and diagnosis times.


Researchers believe the technology could be particularly helpful in diagnosing lymphoma, reducing patient anxiety as they await their results. At present, people with suspected lymphoma often must provide a sample of cells, followed by a biopsy of the node to be carried out for a full diagnosis, a process which can be time consuming.


The new device uses a technique known as Raman spectroscopy to shine a low-power laser into the part of the body being inspected, with the potential to spot concerns within seconds, scientists from the University of Exeter say.



Breathalyzer Cars


The US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has developed devices that can monitor alcohol levels by sniffing a driver’s breath or scanning the blood in their fingertips via the steering wheel, immobilizing the car if levels are too high. Drivers using the system could be offered lower insurance premiums.



$4 pain-free tattoo removal


Got a tattoo that you now regret? There may soon be a gentler, cheaper alternative to laser removal.


PhD student Alec Falkenham in the US has worked out how to harness a property of your body’s own immune system. He’s developed a cream that delivers drugs to white blood cells called ‘macrophages’ (Greek for ‘big eaters’), causing them to release the ink they took up in order to protect your skin during the tattooing process.



Human head transplants


Sergio Canavero, an Italian neurosurgeon, intends to attempt the first human head transplant by 2016, though no successful animal transplants with long-term survival have yet been made. Because of the difficulty of connecting the spinal cord, Canavero has suggested improvements in the process using a special blade and polyethylene glycol, a polymer used in medicine as well as in everything from skin cream to the conservation of the Mary Rose, can help start growth in spinal cord nerves.


Other experts say Canavero is wildly optimistic, but we can at least expect improved ability to repair damaged spinal cords over the next decade, restoring body function to some spinal injury patients.



Car Batteries that charge in 10 minutes


Fast-charging of electric vehicles is seen as key to their take-up, so motorists can stop at a service station and fully charge their car in the time it takes to get a coffee and use the toilet – taking no longer than a conventional break. But rapid charging of lithium-ion batteries can degrade the batteries, researchers at Penn State University in the US say. This is because the flow of lithium particles known as ions from one electrode to another to charge the unit and hold the energy ready for use does not happen smoothly with rapid charging at lower temperatures.


However, they have now found that if the batteries could heat to 60°C for just 10 minutes and then rapidly cool again to ambient temperatures, lithium spikes would not form, and heat damage would be avoided. The battery design they have come up with is self-heating, using a thin nickel foil which creates an electrical circuit that heats in less than 30 seconds to warm the inside of the battery. The rapid cooling that would be needed after the battery is charged would be done using the cooling system designed into the car.


Their study, published in the journal Joule, showed they could fully charge an electrical vehicle in 10 minutes.


Smart food labels


UK homes throw away 30 to 50 per cent of what we buy from supermarkets, says a 2013 report by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers. The report claimed we’re guided by ‘use by’ and ‘best before’ dates on food packaging, which are kept conservative because they are driven by shops’ desire to avoid legal action. An invention called ‘Bump Mark’ could change all that.


Originally developed for blind people, it’s a label that starts out smooth to the touch but gets bumpier as food decays. And since it decays at the same rate as any protein-based food within, it’s far more accurate than printed dates.


Floating farms


The UN predicts there will be two billion more people in the world by 2050, creating a demand for 70 per cent more food. By that time, 80 per cent of us will be living in cities, and most food we eat in urban areas is brought in. So, farms moored on the sea or inland lakes close to cities would certainly reduce food miles. But how would they work?


A new design by architect Javier Ponce of Forward Thinking Architecture shows a 24m-tall, three-tiered structure with solar panels on top to provide energy. The middle tier grows a variety of veg over an area of 51,000m2, using not soil but nutrients in liquid. These nutrients and plant matter would drop into the bottom layer to feed fish, which are farmed in an enclosed space.


A single Smart Floating Farm measuring 350 x 200m would produce an estimated 8.1 tons of vegetables and 1.7 tons of fish a year. The units are designed to bolt together, which is handy since we’ll need a lot of them: Dubai, for instance, imports 11,000 tons of fruit and veg every day.


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