Innovation

Smithsonian Innovation Festival: 10 projects changing humanity's future

The second annual Innovation Festival at the American History Museum in Washington, DC showcased some of today's the boldest and most practical thinking.

Image: Erin Carson/TechRepublic

The Smithsonian National Museum of American History and the US Patent and Trademark Office held the 2015 Innovation Festival in Washington, DC on September 26-27, with the idea that the first step toward innovation, might just be hearing from those currently doing it.

The event returned for the second year to the Innovation Wing of the National Museum of American History and showcased interviews and presentations from organizations, companies, and universities involved with a variety of projects from sustainability to assisting the physically challenged to retail to healthcare. The Innovation Festival even featured some teen inventors who are turning their attention to weighty problems.

Here are ten projects from the festival with potentially big implications for the future.

SEE: Photos from the 2015 Innovation Festival at the National Museum of American History

1. PepGel

Kansas State University presented PepGel, a hydrogel that can go quickly from liquid to gel based on pressure exerted on it. The gel is made of proteins and can be injected into the body safely, as proteins will just be broken down for energy. Uses include cell therapy, sustained release, vaccine development, 3D cell culture, and as "scaffolds or artificial extracellular matrix for tissue engineering and healing wounds," according to the PepGel site.

2. Exoskeleton powered by brainwaves

Jose Contreras-Vidal from the University of Houston demoed an exoskeleton that moves using brain waves. The exoskeleton is for the lower body. The user wears a cap with sensors that read electrical activity going on in the brain. It could help those who are paralyzed, or even folks like stroke victims who might need more temporary help regaining the ability to walk.

3. Zugara's Virtual Dressing Room

Trying on clothes can be a real pain. Zugara is a Los Angeles-based company that makes an augmented reality product that could save you the armful of clothes and hopping around trying to avoid touching the changing room floor with your bare feet. They have versions for kiosks, the web, and in-store retail. The idea is to use a webcam and technology like the Microsoft Kinect sensor (or Intel's RealSense camera) to select outfits you might want to try on, and the software will put it on for you.

4. Souped-Up wheelchairs

The design of the wheelchair hasn't changed much in the past several centuries. Rory Cooper, director for the Human Engineering Research Laboratories at the University of Pittsburgh has been working on ways to improve wheelchairs in ways that it's hard to believe haven't existed before. For example, he discussed a feature called path lock, which lets the person in the chair keep moving in a straight line. Another example, is designing more ergonomic wheels. He said 80% of wheelchair users end up with injuries like carpal tunnel syndrome. A more ergonomic handwheel would be better for braking, steering, and avoiding such injuries.

5. NRG's Insulated Concrete Blocks

NRG's insulated concrete blocks are two pieces of concrete separated by a layer of rigid expanded polystyrene insulation. The idea is to boost a building's thermal performance by shifting insulation to the middle of the wall. According to NRG, concrete's thermal storage properties allow for the absorption, storage, and slow release of energy, which they say will save money and energy over time—and it's already being used in government, residential, and commercial buildings.

6. Keeping students safe during lockdown

After the 2012 Sandy Hook shootings in Newtown, Connecticut, (and the countless ones before and after) students on the Benjamin Banneker Academic High School Lemelson-MIT InvenTeam set out to find a way to easily keep an intruder out of a classroom during a lockdown. Their design is simple. It's a metal rectangle with a lip that fits over the top of a classroom door and slides over the door's pivot hinge, preventing the door from opening. It's called DeadStop and it costs about $20 to manufacture.

7. 3D braille printer

In another instance of youthful innovation, 9th grader Shubham Banerjee presented his design for a 3D braille printer, which he started working on in 7th grade. While there are 3D braille printers in existence, they tend to be expensive, and Banerjee figured out how to make one that would cost about $350.

8. Solar Turbines

Solar Turbine's Jim Blust talked about to reduce the emissions of gas turbine engines. The Caterpillar subsidiary is working on ways to deliver power in cheaper, more environmentally-friendly ways like creating low-emitting turbines.

9. Green HVAC system

San Jose's C.G.I. Technology plays off the idea that thermostats should recognize three zones in a house instead of one. Warmer air rises, so it tends to end up in the attic. Cooler air stays beneath the house. Their HVAC system uses those the air from those two other zones to regulate the house and to save on energy consumption.

10. WiperFill

WiperFill is simple, but nevertheless, another way to be environmentally-friendly. It also happens to be the 9 millionth patent issued by the U.S. Government. WiperFill collects rain water, runs it through a filter that mixes it with wiper fluid concentrate, and puts it back into a car's wiper fluid reservoir. Founder Matt Carroll said they could make 200 times more of their product than containers of wiper fluid, which would work toward not just saving water, but the carbon emissions associated with manufacturing and shipping bottles of wiper fluid.

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About Erin Carson

Erin Carson is a Staff Reporter for CNET and a former Multimedia Editor for TechRepublic.

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