James Dyson, who has made his fortune as inventor of the bagless vacuum cleaner, launched the James Dyson Award in 2007 to encourage the next generation of industrial designers. The international competition showcases some of the more ingenious ideas of college students and recent graduates for products designed to solve everyday problems. Judging by the winners in recent years, he has clearly inspired some creative thinking.
Two years ago, for instance, British designer Dan Watson won the $45,000 prize with the invention of a “humane” net that makes fishing more sustainable by preventing small fish from being trapped as bycatch. Last year’s big winner was a team of students from the University of Pennsylvania who created a device called the Titan Arm, a battery-powered, upper-body exoskeleton that provides superhuman strength and allows a person to do physical therapy in his or her own home.
This year, the Dyson Foundation selected 20 finalists. A packaging label that you can rub to see if the food inside is spoiled and a marker that will let you know when you need to apply more sunscreen vied for the distinction, as did other clever inventions addressing health problems. James Roberts, a 23-year-old graduate of Loughborough University in England, took top prize with MOM, his inflatable incubator for preemies born in refugee camps.
Editor's Note: This story was updated on November 21, 2014, to reflect the international award winner.
Don’t trust expiration dates? A 23-year-old industrial designer named Solveiga Pakstaite has come up with a better idea. Her labels aren’t meant to be read, they’re meant to be rubbed.
Pakstaite has developed a label called Bump Mark that changes texture as the food inside begins to decay. Her labels contain gelatin, which is a protein, and as such, it begins to decay at the same rate as protein-rich foods, such as meat, fish, cheese and milk. So when the food starts to go bad, the gelatin in the label also begins to break down, transforming from a smooth surface to a bumpy one.
Because gelatin labels actually reflect what’s happening to the food inside, they would be far more accurate than an estimated expiration date printed on a package. Pakstaite came up with the idea while focusing on innovations that could help blind people.
For her invention, Pakstaite, who recently received her industrial design and technology degree from Brunel University in London, was the winner of the national Dyson competition in the United Kingdom.
The team of Canadian students behind a product called Suncayr gets right to the point on its website: “Sunburns suck.” So they’ve come up with a a very simple, yet clever way to help anyone who’s going to be out in the sun avoid the painful consequences. Take a Suncayr marker and draw something on your skin or your kid’s skin. Then rub on some sunscreen.
The trick is that the ink in the pen is UV-sensitive, meaning that it reacts to the sun. So while it goes on green, it begins changing color as the sunscreen wears off and your skin becomes more exposed to UV rays. When your little drawing turns red, it’s time to pull out the sunscreen again. Apply a fresh coat and the color goes back to green.
The ink is water-resistant, and it doesn’t actually block the sun, so you don’t end up with some tan-line smiley face on your bicep. The Suncayr team thinks their invention could be a big winner with kids. A product that encourages them to draw on their skin seems a good bet.
When he was a lifeguard, French industrial designer Julian Lois saw his share of accident victims with wounds that bled heavily. The medical kits he had on hand could help stem the bleeding, but, in truth, they weren’t always that effective. Fortunately, these were cases where medical help was not far away.
But it made Lois wonder about the plight of people who cut themselves badly while hiking or camping in remote areas. How much good would a standard first aid kit do them? He and fellow designer Ines Le Bihan started doing some research and found that more than a third of deaths that occur before someone makes it to a hospital are due to heavy bleeding. They also learned how quickly a person’s blood pressure can drop, sending him or her into shock.
They got to work designing a device that would be easy for a person to use alone, even if seriously hurt, and one that could by itself apply even pressure to the wound to slow blood loss. The result is Uflex, which they describe as a "one-handed, anti-hemorrhage device."
It’s actually a cloth lined with retractable metal bands that allow it to wrap firmly and easily around a bleeding arm or leg and then be locked into place with Velcro. Once the Uflex is secure, the polyurethane foam inside inflates and tightens around the wound, giving an injured person a far better chance of stabilizing his or her condition and staying conscious until help arrives.
While most of us take for granted the seemingly simple act of ascending and descending stairs, it can be an unnerving physical challenge for a lot of people, particularly the elderly. Yes, mechanical lifts can be a big help, but they are expensive to install and don’t fit on many narrow staircases.
With the goal of creating a less costly, easy-to-use alternative, a team of German students led by Alexander Abele has designed a nifty little item aptly named Luke Stairwalker.
Through interviews with older people, the engineers learned that conventional handrails can be uncomfortable and don’t provide enough support for people with balky knees or hips. So they created a C-shaped device that attaches to and moves along a railing as a person steps up or down. It not only provides a grip that extends out from the railing and in front of the person's body, but it also comes with the option of adding a small seat in the back to help prevent falls or just provide a place to rest.
One of the more demanding aspects of caring for the bedridden is making sure they're rotated to prevent bedsores and to ensure proper breathing. This usually requires that the caretaker get up in the middle of the night and physically move the patient into a different position. There is a special bed frame that can mechanically flip a person in bed, but not only can this be jarring to the sleeping patient, the device also is too expensive and bulky for most people to use in their homes.
So Chow Wai Tung Eason, an industrial design student at the National University of Singapore, has devised a product that works like mini-air bags. Called Flipod, it’s a pad that wraps around a person’s back. Push a button and one of its two air bags gently inflates, rotating the body. Once inflated, the air bags pulsate to simulate muscle movement, which provides more relief.
Acting on a challenge from one of their professors to create a mobile app that could provide quick and accurate vision testing in Third World countries, Canadian engineering design students Ashutosh Syal and Daxal Desai spent more than a year researching the problem and writing hundreds of lines of code.
The result is EyeCheck, a smartphone app that through a quick video of a person’s eyes can diagnose nearsightedness, farsightedness or opacity in the eyes, which could be an indication of glaucoma or cancer. Put simply, if the image reveals a crescent at the top of the pupil, the person is nearsighted; if there’s a crescent at the bottom, he or she is farsighted.
Then, EyeCheck's stand-alone camera takes a picture of anyone with vision issues, and the app provides a prescription for eyeglasses that can be easily refined by an optometrist.
During their research, Syal and Desai learned that in many developing countries, vision care is available only in “eye camps,” where people usually have to wait in long lines. But they say their app could reduce the time it takes to do a field eye exam from 20 minutes to two to three.