Barometer: innovation

The future, now

1. Wireless sensor tags

Many people already use webcams as security cameras to keep an eye on their homes from afar. Cao Gadgets goes further with its wireless sensor tags that send out alerts via email, smartphone app or tweet when they detect movement or temperature change, such as someone opening the door of the garage or fridge, or a wine cellar overheating. The small tags, $15 each, connect wirelessly to a tag manager, costing $69, up to 200ft away.

2. Beyond Meat

The world’s growing appetite for meat is putting a strain on the environment, health and animal welfare. But conscientious carnivores may no longer have to sacrifice their fleshy pleasures for tofu. Beyond Meat, backed by Twitter co-founders Evan Williams and Biz Stone, aims to provide a realistic substitute for chicken and, in the future, beef mince, without costing the earth. It should soon be available beyond its native California, where it is stocked by Whole Foods.

3. Wikicells

Why throw away that milk bottle when you can eat it after you’ve drunk the milk? That’s the premise behind Wikicells, a new form of edible packaging to be tested out in Paris later this month by Harvard professor David Edwards. Wikicells is first focusing on restaurants, serving ice cream, soups and juices contained in his charged-polymer membranes, which were inspired by grape skins.

4. Cardiio

This iPhone app is a heart-rate monitor that dispenses with chest straps to detect your pulse, using only the smartphone’s camera. Spun out of the MIT’s Media Lab, Cardiio works on the principle that each heartbeat creates a small rush of blood to the face, which is detected using the phone’s front camera and the app’s software smarts.

5. Digital art

Skywriting is almost a century old but Californian artist Ishky has higher ambitions for airborne calligraphy. As part of the Zero1 biennial, a San Francisco Bay Area digital arts festival, five synchronised planes will use dot-matrix technology to skywrite the first 1,000 numbers of Pi (3.14159 …) across airspace above Silicon Valley. “Pi in the Sky” will see numbers more than a quarter of a mile high written sometime between September 12 and 16, weather permitting.

Meet the innovators: Matt Webb and Matt Jones, Berg

Berg, a London design-agency-cum-technology-consultancy, has several memorable creations to its name. It made 3D light paintings using an iPad during work for ad agency Dentsu. A comic-book collaboration with Warren Ellis came bundled with an ultraviolet torch that revealed hidden messages, while a BBC project, How Big Really, made numbers in news stories meaningful through graphics, for example, showing that car parking space in the US equals the size of Jamaica.

Matt Webb

Many of these were developed using what Matt Webb and Matt Jones, two of Berg’s three principals alongside Jack Schulze, like to call “material exploration”. “The best way to invent is not to sit in an armchair and wait for an idea to hit you, but to soak in it and try to meet the idea on the road,” says Webb.

Berg’s approach to innovation has more in common with that British tradition of garden-shed invention than thinking grand thoughts in sparkling white laboratories. “A lot of people imagine that inventing new things is about the lightbulb moment,” says Jones. “It’s not really the case.”

Matt Jones

He advises would-be innovators to “stop thinking and start making”. “Even just drawing something will make you confront how something has to be in the world,” he says.

Berg’s approach embraces “public prototyping” that takes advantage of a new ease in mucking around with hardware that was previously limited to software. That line of thought has led Berg to create its first commercial product: Little Printer, a device that repurposes a supermarket receipt printer to churn out personalised paper-based tweets and headlines from the web.

Little Printer also reflects the Berg team’s fascination with “technologies that are so cheap that they find their way into the world in pervasive and odd ways”, says Jones. His tip for tinkerers? “Lots of Haribo.”

Digitally manipulated image of Golden Gate Bridge courtesy of Pi in the Sky/Salim Virji. Copyright AirSign

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