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Some cool products.

Wear black and be visible

Albedo100, July 2017.

albedo100_8.jpgFig. 1: Night-only reflective paint.

Many cyclists get into accidents because, for one reason or another, they don't wear reflective clothing. It may seem a highly irrational behaviour, but that's what human nature is. Design is about giving people what they need while accommodating human nature.

So what if you could make any article of clothing temporarily reflective? Albedo took a product developed originally by Volvo and has developed a series of products for permanent or temporary use. Non-toxic, this paint can just be sprayed on your clothes, your bike, or anything else; there are permanent versions of the paint available too. In daylight, the paint is invisible. But at night, it becomes highly reflective. Since it's paint, you can even create graffiti and other kinds of art that's only visible at night. And you can now wear black at night without worrying too much about getting run over.

Better snorkeling through design

Tribord by Decathlon, August 2016.

easy-breathing-snorkel-mask.jpgFig. 2

Snorkeling can be a wonderful activity. It can be done in groups or alone; it's good exercise, but not boring; and it can increase one's awareness of nature. But it's a pain because the equipment is challenging to use well, often uncomfortable, and requires a level of skill that actually drives some people away who would otherwise very much enjoy and benefit from the activity. The problem is the “snorkeling mask” which has - until recently - been nothing more than an improvised “mashup” of quite disparate and un-ergonomic elements.

The “Easybreath” full-face mask, however, seems to solve most, if not all, of those problems. It's comfortable; it releases one from needing to use one's mouth muscles (which inevitably get sore) to hold on to the snorkel; the lack of mouthpiece eliminates the soreness inside one's mouth that many beginner snorkelers experience; and the air-tube is far less likely to permit the aspiration of water.

Really, what's happened here is that conventional design and ergonomics knowledge has been applied to a situation that has been neglected for a very long time. It highlights just how easy it can be to improve product designs - or, conversely, just how badly design is neglected in so many parts of our lives.

Cheese grater for purists

Personal photo, 1 August 2015.

milancheesegrater.jpgFig. 3

Purists know that parmesan is best grated immediately before consumption. But graters are usually large and unwieldy. This design is compact, easily held, and easily used. One simply holds the grater in one hand, presses a chunk of parmesan against the grinding plate with the other, and give them a twist.

While I'm sure these things have been around a long time, I never saw one till a recent trip to Milan.

DIY handheld sprinkler

Google+, 16 Nov 2013.

diyhandsprinkler.jpgFig. 4

This is a fantastic example of excellent design and DIY engineering skills. No fancy math, no outrageously ornate technology; just a sharp brain and some odds and ends lying around.

This is the kind of work that should get an A+ in any engineering design course.

New egg packaging

Behance, 9 July 2012.

eggbox.jpgFig. 5

Here's a design that has potential!

Besides the obvious aesthetic appeal, I like how all the parts serve specific functions. The brand labeling strap appears to be a structural member, keeping the top half stable with respect to the bottom. The top half seems to touch the tops of the eggs, but the bottom doesn't (it's perhaps better visible in the fourth picture at the Behance website). And that's how you get the flexibility to be able to stack them.

I'm worried about impacts from the side, and how one deals with a cracked egg at the store, and I'd want to see this thing thoroughly tested before giving it a green light. But it sure looks promising!

A new robotic hand

Gizmag, 25 Oct 2010.

images.gizmag.com_hero_universalgripper.jpgFig. 6

Who says that the “hand” is the ideal gripper? It's complex and frail compared to other things. In this case, the robotic hand is closer to how a starfish, anemone, or elephant grips things. What's particularly cool is that the gripper is made out of a latex balloon and coffee grounds. The gripper is pressed against the thing to pick up, such that the coffee grounds conform to the shape of the part and wraps around it. Then a vacuum pump sucks the air out of the balloon, which solidifies the grip. While this isn't something you'd want to use to pick up fine china or to massage a heart during surgery, there are many potential industrial applications.

Yike Bike

Yike Bike website, 2009.

yikebike.jpgFig. 7

Here's an ingenious design for a small, very light, electric-powered bicycle that can be folded up and carried around in something the size of a small duffel bag. Although it's quite expensive (about 3700 €), it is meant to be at the cutting edge of design, technology, and sustainability. Typically, if the high-priced introductory model is successful, lower priced models will become available in the future. This cycle is made largely of composite fibre (to be lightweight) - which certainly adds to the cost.

The most interesting feature, however, is how they completely redesigned the geometry of the cycle. One reason they could do this is that you don't pedal it. Pedalling causes lateral forces that require more active control by the rider; this means the rider's arms must be located where they can exert sufficient force to control the bike. If there's no pedalling, there's less need for that kind of control, and the arms can be moved away from their usual location. This in turn changes everything about the design. The designers obviously sought to arrange the rider in a more “natural” posture that would still allow control of the cycle, even though the steering column is not anywhere near where it would be on a conventional bike.

In 2013, Yike Bike has introduced lighter models with greater range.

Instant whiteboards

Fast Company, 2009.

ideapaint.jpgFig. 8

A great idea: paint that dries into a whiteboard. Now you can turn any - or all - walls into surfaces you can write on for whatever reason.

Since it's a coating for a wall, you can still hang pictures and other objects on walls - which you can't do with a whiteboard. It even works better than regular whiteboards - able to hold the marks you draw longer and better. You can also draw art on it, instead of a to-do list or a brainstorming exercise, and change the art easily to suit the moment.

The carbon footprint of transporting a real whiteboard is also far higher than transporting the paint.

A usable and pleasing fire extinguisher, 2007.

Fig. 9

A significant number of kitchen fires get out of control because the homeowner doesn't have a fire extinguisher near by. A common reason for this is that the fire extinguisher doesn't “fit” in the kitchen. This is a stupid reason, but it is still how people behave. Designers need to recognize that people will do stupid things, and design accordingly.

In this case, the HomeHero fire extinguisher is one of the first human-centric fire extinguisher designs. It's easier to guess how it works; it has a rubber foot to protect countertops, an ergonomic handle, and a 12 year life. In some countries, it is sold as shown - without instructions printed on it - because the instructions ruin the perceived aesthetics of the product, and because its operation is self-evident.

Stopping high-speed pursuits

StarChase, 2007.

starchaseatlapd.jpgFig. 10

High-speed police pursuits are extremely dangerous, and often lead to serious injuries and damage to innocent bystanders. As a result, many police forces will not engage in high-speed pursuits - which lets the suspects escape.

Here's a simple and apparently highly effective solution. A laser-targeted launcher mounted in the grille of a police car, can fire a small wad of very sticky material at a suspect's vehicle. The sticky material has a tracking device embedded in it that can be tracked by the GPS system. This avoids high-speed pursuits, but makes tracking suspects very easy.

This product is possible largely due to the advancements in GPS and tracking electronics like RFID chips, which are now robust enough to survive the physical abuse of being fired into an object like a car.

Handy but faceless clock

Gizmodo, 2007.

viceversaclock.jpgFig. 11

Who needs a body when you have hands? The insight of this design is that a clock's face isn't necessary all the time. In this product, the hands can sense their orientation. From this information, the hands display the nearest numbers that would have been on the clock's face. Note the hour hand in the figure, which shows parts of both the 3 and the 4, because it's between 3 o'clock and 4 o'clock.

In this case, the insight was a physical minimalism - although the electronic complexity of the product is higher than that of a regular clock. While serving its primary function, the product introduces a new quality that increases the quality of life on the emotional spectrum - which is just as important as the more conventional ways of thinking about quality of life; after all, how useful is a product if it doesn't make you happy.

The Trek Lime Bike

Trek Bikes, 2007.

Closeup of the transmission of the Trek Lime bike.Fig. 12

The Trek Lime bike can be “re-skinned” (you can change the coloured plates to suit your taste) and has an electronic, three-speed transmission that shifts automatically as you pedal.

In fact, the transmission itself comes from Shimano, which makes equipment you can add to almost any bike. Even though automatic transmissions for bikes have been under development for some 30 years, it's only now that they're becoming competitive. And as we start weaning ourselves off automobiles, systems like this will become more popular. And the electronics are powered by the bike's motion (like the classic pedal-powered bike headlight). Some have argued against batteries on a bike, but that's not a good argument: a couple of rechargeable batteries can't possibly harm the environment as much as a car does!

You can read more about the Shimano in this Scientific American article.

Shimano isn't the only source of automatic transmissions for bikes. B.W. Browning invented the Browning Automatic Bicycle Transmission in 1974. It's even been the subject of student design projects.

The Apple iPhone

Apple, 2007.

iphone1.jpgFig. 13

The Apple iPhone is another example of how Apple keeps innovating regularly, but not particularly disruptively.

Lev Grossman, writing for Time Magazine (12 Nov 2007) very nicely summarizes things with these key points:

  1. The iPhone is pretty.
  2. It's touchy-feely.
  3. It will make other phones better.
  4. It's not a phone, it's a platform.
  5. It is but a ghost of iPhones yet to come.

Notice how these design features of the iPhone are:

  • with respect to its use and its users, not with respect to arcane technology;
  • relevant to the competition, and the underlying goal that products are supposed to raise our quality of life; and
  • pertinent to the impact it will have over time.

These are things that relatively few designers are either aware of, or able to account for in their designs - or, unfortunately, both.

Reinventing the parking meter

Verrus Mobile Technologies, 2007.

Fig. 14: Pay for parking online.

One of the biggest problems with parking meters is that it's hard to know when to go back to feed it.

Vancouver has a new system that tries to address the problem. The new parking meters in that city will send you a text message when your time is running out. The system requires you to register (online, of course).

This is a good case of user-centred design: it doesn't matter how good the technology is, the product isn't any good if it doesn't make people happy. By identifying the sources of grief to users, the designers of this system (Verrus Mobile Technologies) were able to make a new product without any radical new technologies, but that provides a radical new service.

Of course, Verrus is the only company doing this sort of thing. The image to the right is of a similar meter made by Photo Violation Technologies.

Hybrid gas/steam engine

Crower Cams & Equipment Co., Inc., 2007.

302270007.jpgFig. 15

Bruce Crower, 77 years old (at the time of this writing) has invented an automotive engine in which water is sprayed into a conventional IC engine, which turns heat that would otherwise be wasted into usable power.

Apparently, the recovered energy is enough to improve fuel consumption (or power, depending on who's story you read) by a whopping 40%. And because the waste heat is used, the engine runs much cooler. In the case of semi-truck engines, this could result in 1000 lbs less weight because a cooling system really isn't needed.

The really neat part is that the engine has 6 strokes!

Here is a very interesting invention, that could dramatically lower the rate at which we use gasoline in automobiles, and it's done with existent technology.

Read more about this at Autoweek, EcoGeek, InventorSpot, and Wikipedia.


Elektronisk Plaster, 2007.

www.eplaster.dk_images_stories_anvendelser225.jpgFig. 16

This Electronic Patch monitors heart rate, body temperature, respiration level, blood oxygen concentration and more. It's a small skin-coloured patch that looks like a conventional band-aid, but it automatically notifies the appropriate health care providers if the readings indicate onset of a serious medical condition.

Unlikely to cost much, this is the kind of product that could very significantly impact the health of, for example, the elderly.

Of course, some will be worried about possible abuses: what if unscrupulous individuals were able to tap into the broadcast signal from the patch?

A simple tool helps car safety , 2007.

handybar.jpgFig. 17

The handybar is ridiculously simple: a bar that fits into the latch of a car's door. Once in place, it acts as an easily removable hand rest, to help people get into and out of cars.

Though targeted originally at elderly persons, it also works great for younger people with temporary or permanent disabilities.

To make the tool even more pertinent to car safety, it also comes with a glass-shattering impact point (in case you're trapped and can only get out by breaking a window), as well as a recessed blade able to cut through a seat belt. Though these are functions not relevant to its core use, they are consistent with the product's general safety theme, and impose no significant complexity on it considering it's extant uses.

Cornering the market on cubic food

CNN, 2001.

squarewatermelon.jpgFig. 18

Incorrectly called “square watermelons” by CNN in 2001, the Japanese have done something wonderfully simple: they surround a growing watermelon in a box. The box constrains the watermelon to assume the box's shape - hence a cubic watermelon. Since you can pack cubes and rectangles 33% more densely than spheres (i.e. conventional watermelons), you can ship them more efficiently. And they sit squarely in your refrigerator, taking up less space per unit weight, and not rolling around in there. Think of it: you can transport a third again more watermelon in the same sized container; and you can have a third again more watermelon without wasting space in your fridge.

All this without genetic modification, weird breeding practises, chemicals, hormones, or other nasty stuff.

You can read how to make your own cubic watermelon - and, yes, the same technique works with other fruits and vegetables. You can even buy the boxes from And if you put a raised engraving of some sort on the inside of the box, it will imprint the engraving - like your company's logo - into the skin of the watermelon.

And no, no one has done this with animals - except for Bonsai Kitten, which is a ludicrous hoax.

design/cool_products.txt · Last modified: 2020.03.12 13:30 (external edit)