Not all inventions are conceptually complex or are the result of massively funded R&D. Some of the smallest and simplest ideas with the greatest potential to make a huge impact on the world – are designed by students.
Back in June of this year a range of gadgets and technological advances designed to make an impact on society were showcased during Bournemouth University’s Festival of Design and Innovation. Included in the exhibition was the Sense Egg – a device equipped with sensors that wirelessly communicates with a computer - aimed at children with special needs and created by then final year music and audio technology student, Asha Blatherwick.
Blatherwick, who previously gained an HND in fashion design and then spent ten years working as a cook in a care home, began her BSc in music and audio technology at the age of 27. As part of her degree she did a placement in a special needs school which inspired her to create the Sense Egg – to provide the children with another way to interact with music, rather than just using traditional instruments. And also to make it easier for students and teachers to communicate.
“It’s about the size of a duck egg,” explains Blatherwick. “It has a distance sensor that look like a pair of eyes, a button on the top, a slider on the back, a wind sensor on the bottom that you can blow on, and an accelerometer so that it can detect the forces of movement.”
The prototype egg with off-the-shelf components cost Blatherwick £150 – and the case she 3D-printed at home.
“I had a lot of interest from the schools I tested it with,” says Blatherwick, who gained a 1st in her degree. “They really wanted it to be developed as they could see it being a very useful resource. I am thinking about avenues to pursue in order to develop it – but I’ve just started a EngD in digital media so I think it may need to go to someone with the time and the wherewithal to develop it more.”
Sinclair Kitchen Fire Detector
After an elderly family friend with dementia forgot a pan on the hob and her kitchen was entirely destroyed by fire, 22-year-old MEng student James Popper came up with a fire detector that reacts not to smoke but to actual flame.
As conventional smoke detectors are often susceptible to “nuisance tripping”—i.e. being set off by fumes, heat, or steam, many people don’t bother to install one in their kitchen, or just disable their existing detector by removing its battery - which can be a recipe for disaster. Popper’s invention works by identifying the infrared flicker of a flame, analysing it and responding to the flicker’s specific frequency bands. The device also has both a visual and varying tone alarm, making it more likely to be heeded. And by relying on its nifty IR-detection method, the system is not accidentally triggered.
Popper’s fire detector took him a year to develop, test, and build a prototype – alongside his studies at Trinity College, Cambridge. His invention which has been validated by independent fire testing and field trails – and has a near-zero false alarm rate has won him many accolades including IEEE President’s Scholar 2010, BP/IET Faraday Scholar 2011 and most recently membership to the Royal Academy of Engineering’s Enterprise Hub.
Amazingly Popper has also found time to found his own company Sinclair Fire to market and target his product at the residential construction and social housing sectors.
In January 2014 City University London student Frank Milani launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise £20,000 to manufacture his ‘Popcord’ – a keyring that can be used as a charger for smartphones. By the end of March the campaign had raised 50K and had attracted over 2,000 potential customers.
The Popcord, made of precision-cast zinc and a flexible rubber cord has both a micro USB and Apple Lightning connector, making it compatible with the majority of smartphones. And its sleek design isn’t just about looking cool – the Popcord is long and flexible when plugged into any USB port to top-up your phone’s battery on the go – but compact and pocketable when attached to your keyring.
Milani, who is studying for his master’s in innovation, creativity and leadership, and his business partner Matt Sandrini came up with the idea in Spring 2013.
“A phone out of battery, an ugly keyring, and a laptop dragged to the floor while charging a smartphone were the ingredients that kindled our efforts,” explains Milani. “Cables, external batteries, and power cases didn’t actually help much and power banks in particular, were just another battery to run out of. So we knew that we wanted a simple, reliable charger, but it took months of iterations to come up with a final design that was both beautiful and could withstand being bashed around in your pocket.”
In addition to the actual product Milani and Sandrini have also set up Powergoat Ltd – a hardware start-up developing ‘everyday objects to make life easier’ – to market the Popcord.
“Popcord is currently under production, and we are sorting out logistics to ship it to our backers as quickly as possible once manufacturing ends,” says Milani. “We had a some issues due to certifications that we had to obtain before starting production, and some design challenges brought by the simple form of Popcord. We have conducted even stricter sturdiness and durability tests and the good news is that tooling is progressing steadily, so we will soon receive the first production samples to check.”
While studying for his BSc (Hons) product design engineering degree at the University of Derby, 24-year-old Matt Thompson read about amputees struggling to live normal lives in war-torn countries like Sierra Leone – because of ill-fitting and uncomfortable upper limb prostheses. Further research revealed that upper limb prostheses are more complicated and expensive than lower limb ones, and are beyond the financial reach of most people living in such countries.
As a result he set out to tackle this problem and designed a low-cost, hi-tech artificial hand called the Myo.
The Myo, which set Thompson back a mere £200 in materials, is made from a tough nylon resin called Zytel with non-slip grips for the fully articulated fingers. To bring the cost down Thompson created just two motors to enable all of the hand's fingers move independently that work off a rotating disc in the Myo's wrist. The arm section is controlled through the use of electromyography, a system used for many artificial limbs. Three electrodes run from the Myo hand to the real upper arm of the amputee, who would be taught to control the prosthetic hand using the upper arm's individual muscle movements.
Since completing his degree Thompson has secured a full-time product designer position at Hampshire based 3form Design where he is responsible for creating 3D rendered concepts and taking them through to manufacture.
He is also hoping that his own product can be refined and mass marketed, to bring its costs down even further.
“I have developed multiple prototypes to prove and refine the design and I've had companies interested in working with me - but I don't have the free time right now to develop it further. My plan is to release the files for free online and give someone else with more time and resources the ability to continue my work,” Thompson says.
At the age of 21, Connell Gauld started work on the code that became the content framework for Zappar – now one of the most popular augmented reality (AR) apps on the market – and earned him a distinction for his final year MEng project. Now platform director for Zappar, Gauld manages the teams that look after infrastructure, mobile apps, and creative tooling.
Gauld works alongside Simon Taylor, research director, who is responsible for Zappar’s image detection and tracking technology, which came out of his PhD research at the Department of Engineering at the University of Cambridge.
The Zappar app (free-to-download on iOS and Android) adds things to your phone’s camera view that aren’t actually there – effectively creating a moving virtual world.
When he first started researching for the app in 2007, one of the main challenges Taylor faced was the lack of power behind mobile CPUs. To combat this problem he developed a “match scoring” algorithm, which simplified a core part of the detection and tracking process. This meant that smartphones could process AR experiences at effective frame rates, despite their relatively small processing power. This vision-based AR is now capable of analysing at least 30 images every second, giving the user a fluid 3D experience.
Gauld and Taylor’s product has been developed to such an extent that it can be used not only for larks but also for business and media. For example, if a company wants to advertise a car in a women’s magazine and in a men’s magazine – they can use the Zappar app to create different imagery and highlight different aspects for each market. So successful is this particular app that it now counts heavyweights like Sony, Coca Cola, PlayStation, Nissan and VISA among its many clients.