Barometer: innovation

Not just in the movies ...

Talking gloves, 3D controllers and weather tracking apps

1. Enable Talk gloves

Deaf people can now make themselves heard – literally – with sign language. The Enable Talk gloves, created by four Ukrainian students, contain contact and flex sensors, a small controller and a Bluetooth connection. Connected software detects the gestures and reads out the words. The prototype won Microsoft’s Imagine Cup last year and the team is now hoping to develop the product.

2. Leap Motion

Nintendo’s Wii and Microsoft’s Xbox Kinect showed the potential of motion detection but Leap Motion’s 3D controller will bring much greater precision when it’s released in the next few weeks. It can track movement to within one hundredth of a millimetre. Any PC can gain touchscreen-like gestures – but without touching the screen.

3. Solowheel

The Solowheel scooter runs low to the ground, held between the ankles, and progresses when the rider leans forward. A 1,000-watt motor goes about 10 miles per charge, ideal for trundling to the shops – but careful those carrier bags don’t cause wobbles on the way home. The inbuilt accelerometer helps with balance. Created by serial inventor Shane Chen, the Solowheel has so far made close to $1m in revenues. $1,800,

4. Koozoo

Have an old smartphone lying in a drawer? Start-up Koozoo has one use for them: an open, crowd-sourced live video network. Install the (forthcoming) app on your current smartphone, attach the device to a window and check out the weather across the world or the coffee line across the street.

5. Dark Sky

Weather apps are two-a-penny but Dark Sky has a twist. It uses precise weather tracking and mapping to warn you a few minutes before it starts raining or snowing – just enough time to make a dash for the car before the deluge. The app came into its own during the Nemo snowstorms on the east coast of the US, with international editions coming soon.

Meet the innovators: Makerbot’s Bre Pettis

Some tech entrepreneurs do it for the money. Others want to disrupt industries. Bre Pettis humbly proposes kick-starting a new economic era – using 3D printing. About the size of a microwave oven, a desktop 3D printer turns digital renderings into physical objects by layering tiny deposits of plastic or resin to create everything from screws to doll furniture to busts of human heads.

Pettis, founder and chief executive of Makerbot Industries, says: “We are so used to living in a consumerist mindset – we want something and then we go buy it. A Makerbot interrupts that and makes you a maker. You see the world differently.”

Since founding the company in January 2009, Pettis has sold 15,000 3D printers, assembled in his Brooklyn factory. Makerbot has doubled in size twice over the past year, now employing more than 160 staff. While the growth is impressive as industrial revolutions go, it’s early days. But then, as Pettis admits, 3D printing is “still science fiction” to many people. “We may as well be telling people it’s a teleporter in some cases,” he says. “But when they feel it, they get it.”

Pettis promises that with Makerbot’s latest Replicator 2X, “you have the same power of the factory and put it on your desktop”. More colours and new software have been added. Ready-made designs can be downloaded from its “Thingiverse” community, which now hosts more than 35,000, um, “things”.

Professional customers range from architects to Nasa engineers and designers such as Pretty Small Things, who have built businesses selling doll’s-house furniture printed on the Replicator 2 ($2,199). Makerbot’s devices are also aimed at the hobbyist and “prosumer” markets, where the revolution is personal as well as industrial. “If we are manufacturing anything, it’s not 3D printing – it’s that feeling of accomplishment you get when you’re creative,” Pettis says.

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