7 Genius British Inventions You Need to Know About

By Chris Mills on at

An art gallery isn't normally where you'd go looking for the next generation of entrepreneurs  But at the Royal College of Art show, up-and-coming design engineers from one of the country's best programmes put their projects on display. We've had a poke round, and collared together the best of them for you.

The projects are the work of only about five months, from inception to final prototype. Pretty much every exhibit we saw was surprisingly well-accomplished; most had working prototypes, with research from relevant experts in the field. Some students were even talking to industry partners about making their designs reality.

Many of the students could only make their ideas into real prototypes with the help of extra funding. Tooling like moulds or 3-D printed parts are horrendeously expensive, especially for a student; organisations like the James Dyson Foundation (especially pertinent, since James Dyson is the Provost of the Royal College of Art) provide bursaries for the students to turn prototypes out (just) in time for the exhibition.

 

 

Humi

Humi is a clothes dryer. I know, hardly novel. But the way it works is incredibly clever, yet elegantly simple. When assembled (it folds down pretty small to store), Humi is basically a wardrobe where you can hang clothes, with holes at the top and a couple of (hyper-powerful) computer fans at the bottom. The fans pull air down through the space, over the clothes, replicating the effects of hanging your clothes on a drying line.

This has a couple of advantages over tumble-drying. Normally, a tumble dryer that's vented into a house will pump a couple cubic metres of water vapour into your home over the course of a cycle. That water vapour can cause or worsen breathing disorders like asthma, and provides a perfect atmosphere for dust mites.

Additionally, a tumble dryer uses a fair whack of electricity -- in the order of kilowatts per cycle. Since Humi doesn't have to heat the air, and only has to rotate fans, the energy use is about twenty times lower. Most importantly, air-drying clothes makes them far less wrinkled, meaning less time spent ironing, which is an all-round win.

The designer, Chris Pinches, reckons that the pop-up unit is perfect for students or households with one or two occupants, who really don't need an expensive and cumbersome tumble dryer. Given the low projected cost of Humi (sub £100 if it ever comes to market), I'd have to agree.

 

 

Obscura

Obscura is a wearable technology with a twist. Unlike, say, for example, Google Glass, it doesn't record the world around you; rather, it stops people from taking photos of your ugly mug.

To do so, it combines LEDs and lasers, two of our favourite things. The system comprises two parts: the detector, and the blocker. The detector is a basically a camera and a ring of LEDs. They detect cameras by working with the retro-reflective properties of lenses -- that is, no matter what angle you shine light at a lens, it'll reflect it straight back at you. (This property is ably demonstrated by hi-vis jackets and road signs, which are also retro-reflectors.) The LEDs emit a specific wavelength of light -- 850 nanometres, since you asked -- which is reflected back off the camera lenses, and picked up by the camera on board Obscura.

Now that it's worked out where the cameras are, Obscura can dazzle them. To do so, it uses a (fairly safe) low-power laser that dazzles the sensor, without overwhelming the camera or destroying anything. Or blinding any poor people wearing high-vis jackets.

Although the prototype's pretty big at the moment, the inventor reckons he can quite easily get the size down to the pictured lapel-wearable device. The only thing that's not small enough at the moment to fit in there is the laser; but using a more expensive, micro-produced model, he should be able to shoe-horn it all in there. Google Glass haters, your nirvana is here.

 

 

Terracase

You wouldn't normally think of wool as a structurally sound material. But when combined with an eco-friendly resin and pressure-moulded, as here, wool off-cuts from the clothing industry can be effectively recycled as a unique material.

The demo application for the new material is this suitcase. Since the wool/resin is hard -- almost like a plastic -- on the outside, but soft and fluffy on the inside, it has better impact resistance and cushioning than the typical cheap plastic you'd find in hard-shell suitcases. Even better, it's light -- the prototype suitcase weighed just 3kg.

Developing a new material like this isn't the easiest process. The inventor (who suitably hails from wool-Mecca New Zealand) went through about 35 different combinations of resin and wool before setting on his final solution, which provides the perfect combination of strength and impact absorbance. From testing done in collaboration with Imperial College London, he's found that a fully-loaded case can withstand drops of more than a metre onto a concrete floor without shattering -- more than good enough for international travellers.

 

 

Duo

In its current iteration, Duo is like the bad bits of Instagram and the Smart Camera stuff from Samsung's Galaxy S4, mixed together. Essentially, it's two cameras, both of which shoot in square form factor, digitaly connected together. To create one complete picture, one photo is taken with each bit of the camera; when they're placed next to each other, that gives you one complete frame.

The idea, much like Samsung's much-maligned Dual Shot mode, is that the photographer shouldn't always be left out. But unlike on the S4, where the relative position of both cameras is fixed, the Duo is far more flexible, and this results in slightly more interesting and creative shots. Even so, the end result is something of an acquired taste.

More interesting than the dual-shot functionality, though, is the hardware. A camera system with two lenses is innately flexible -- not only can you capture shots from different angles, but it's also ripe for 3D photos -- something designer Chin-Wei Liao is keen to pursue.

Moreover, there's something playfully appealing about the elegant simplicity of the design. Like the Lytro camera or even simple Lomography film cameras, controls are scarce; the emphasis is on using more analogue factors to get a creative shot, rather than fiddling with dials and buttons. It's returning photography to an art form, removing some of the technological barriers well-known to DSLR newbies.

 

 

Coralino

Coralino is a project focused around the regrowing of coral in a non-industrial environment. Although that's interesting in and of itself (you can find more information on it here), the thing that really caught our eye was the packing that had been designed to ship live coral around the globe.

Essentially, designer Michele Tiberio managed to make strong, cushioned, impact-resistant packaging with just two pieces of fairly flimsy cardboard. The main protective shell is made by folding a roughly circular piece of cardboard up into a box, with the corners concertinad in. That provides impact resistance for the object in the centre from almost every angle. The second part is simply a cover for the box, that holds all the protective folding in place.

In testing, Tiberio found that his packaging -- business-card grade cardboard -- kept an egg alive in a metre fall onto concrete, something you'd need a lot of bubble wrap to achieve otherwise. Given more and more things are being bought on the internet nowadays -- and therefore being shipped to and fro -- cheap, simple packaging that provides impact resistance is pretty damn useful.

 

Blastproof

According to figures from the UN, there are about 110 million landmines buried around the world, most of them not in areas of active conflict. De-mining is an expensive and hazardous procedure -- around 15-20,000 people were killed by landmines last year -- and one that's not made any easier given the basic materials and training provided to many volunteer deminers.

That's the problem Chris Natt is trying to solve with Blastproof. At the heart of the project are two things: training mines that accurately simulate the physical size and triggers of real mines; and a cheap tool that allows for much safer de-mining.

The training mines are so simple, it's genuinely baffling why they're not commercially available already. A moulded plastic shell with £10 worth of pressure-sensor and an accelerometer are all that's needed for the training mine to respond exactly like a real one (without the boom bit at the end, of course). When you set the mine off, the companion mine on the surface (they're designed to work in pairs) makes noise to let you know you've failed.

The second part is the de-mining tool. Rather than a simple probe and trowel -- the current basic tools of every avid de-miner -- Blastproof's solution is essentially to mount those tools on the end of a long arm, putting the user out of the immediate blast zone of the mine (typically, mines explode up and out in a mushroom pattern).

 

Versus

While not a fully-formed product as of yet, Versus is a fascinating and far-reaching concept. It's a project that's arisen out of the 'big data' and 'Internet of Things' buzzword phenomenon -- that we can now know more about ourselves and our surroundings than ever before, if we so choose.

The problem that Versus tries to address is that data is fairly meaningless without context. Sure, you can wear a Nike FuelBand and know that you've burnt 2,000 calories today, but that information is fairly meaningless on its own. Sure, it’s a bit better once you know that the average man should burn about 2,000 calories per day, but that's still pretty non-specific information. Much better is to be able to compare yourself to other people -- the social competition aspect that companies like Runkeeper try to tap into when they encourage you to post your running statistics on Facebook (although that causes all sorts of separate problems, like the fact that people don't like having their friends' athletic prowess shoved in their faces).

Versus was ably demonstrated at the RCA show with a simple project involving home appliances. Using data from taps, TV remotes and showers, Versus is able to pit two people against each other, showing who has the better (read: more environmentally friendly) habits with each device, and so encouraging people to change their behaviour.

The project on its own isn't exactly ground-breaking -- although it has apparently been shown to be an effective means of behavourial change in tests; the real innovation here is harnessing all that lifestyle data and using it in a competitive fashion, without totally clogging up the world's Facebook feed with meaningless clutter.