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The 25 Best Inventions of 2016

top-gadgets

Photographs by Lucas Zarebinski for TIME

Every year, TIME selects the best inventions that are making the world better, smarter and—in some cases—a little more fun. In the past, we’ve featured everything from the real-life hoverboard to the desktop DNA lab. Here’s which ones made this year’s unranked list.

flyte-floating-bulb

Lucas Zarebinski for TIME

The Levitating Lightbulb

Flyte / $349
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Since he was a child, Simon Morris has been obsessed with making objects float in midair. At one point he even managed to turn a skateboard into a hoverboard, though as he recalls it, “I couldn’t ride on it.” Now he’s applying that same passion to Flyte, a lightbulb that relies on electromagnetism to levitate and spin, and on resonant inductive coupling—a technical term for wireless power ­transmission—to shine. Morris sees his design as a seamless blend of science and art honoring both pragmatists, like Thomas Edison, and dreamers, like Nikola Tesla. And consumers appear to agree: Morris says Flyte has sold so well since its official January launch that his team is planning to introduce a whole ecosystem of floating products, including a planter, Lyfe, which debuted in June. “We’re just scratching the surface,” he says.

https://timedotcom.files.wordpress.com/2016/11/morpher-helmet.jpg

Lucas Zarebinski for TIME

The Folding Bike Helmet

Morpher / $119

Like many cyclists, Jeff Woolf has been involved in a serious crash—one that might have killed him were it not for his helmet. So why, he wondered, do so many of his contemporaries refuse to wear one? Turns out, it’s mostly because they’re hard to carry around; they’re thick and bulky, and don’t fit into bags or backpacks. And that was a problem that Woolf, an engineer, knew he could fix. The result: Morpher, a bike helmet made from interweaved plastics that is just as strong as its traditional counterparts (it meets general safety requirements in both the U.S. and Europe), but flexible enough to fold almost totally flat, making it easier to transport. Woolf recently shipped the first units to his Indiegogo backers, who helped raise almost $300,000; he’s now in talks with stores too. “It’s inevitable that as more people take to the road on a bicycle, more people will have accidents,” Woolf says, adding that he hopes Morpher will save lives.

solar-roof-tesla-solarcity

Tesla

Solar Panels That Don’t Stick Out

Solar Roof / Developed by Tesla and Solarcity

Help the environment, save some money—and litter your roof with bulky metal boxes. That’s the dilemma home-solar-panel buyers have faced for years. Tesla’s response: the Solar Roof, a series of tiles designed to blend together while also harnessing the power of the sun. The product line, which will be available next year, is a collaboration between Tesla and SolarCity, a longtime provider of traditional solar panels. (The former is set to acquire the latter.) And although pricing information has not yet been released, SolarCity CEO Lyndon Rive is optimistic about Solar Roof’s potential. “It’s addressing a new segment,” he says, referring to the 5 million Americans who install new roofs each year, some of whom might want to go solar.

nike-hyperadapt

Lucas Zarebinski for TIME

Shoes That Tie Themselves

Nike Hyperadapt 1.0 / $720

Almost everyone who sees Back to the Future wants three things: a time-traveling DeLorean, a working hoverboard and a pair of self-lacing shoes. Now, thanks to Nike, the shoe dream is a reality. When wearers press a button near the tongue, the HyperAdapt 1.0s automatically tighten and loosen around their foot. And although this technology may sound frivolous, it’s not just for kicks: simplified shoe fastening could give athletes an edge during competition, and it’s especially useful for people with impaired motor function. “We’re already seeing powerful feedback” from the disabled community, says Tinker Hatfield, Nike’s vice president of design and special projects.

ap-thailand-bangkok-unusual-soccer-fields

AP Thailand

Soccer Fields That Fit Anywhere

The Unusual Football Field / Developed by AP Thailand

The Khlong Toei district in the heart of Bangkok is packed tight with buildings and ­people—which doesn’t leave much room to build new parks, let alone giant rectangular fields on which kids can play soccer. So real estate firm AP Thailand took a different approach. As part of a recent project, the company used aerial photography to find what developer Pattaraphurit Rungjaturapat calls “untended areas,” or unusually shaped patches of land that weren’t being used. Then it covered them with concrete, paint and anti­slip ­materials—all the trimmings of a proper sports venue, without the typical boundaries. Not that locals seem to mind: Rungjaturapat says the first two fields, which opened earlier this year, are packed with kids as soon as school lets out. This December, AP Thailand plans to open a third.

sony-playstation-vr

Lucas Zarebinski for TIME

The Headset Leading a Virtual Revolution

PlayStation VR / $400
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In order to access the most cutting-edge virtual reality, people typically have to shell out thousands of dollars—not just for a headset (like the $800 HTC Vive), but for a computer that’s powerful enough to support it. Sony’s PlayStation VR, by contrast, is designed to work with a console that millions of people already own: the PlayStation 4. That’s a boon for gamers in search of what Sony engineer Richard Marks calls “the most intense, most extreme” action, as well as casual consumers, who now have an easier way to experience VR.

hmbldt-cannabis-vape

Lucas Zarebinski for TIME

Cannabis That Could Replace Pills

Hmbldt Vape Pens / $100 each

Millions of Americans rely on over-the-­counter medicine to treat routine complications such as insomnia and headaches. What if they took hits of pot instead? That’s what California-­based ­Hmbldt is banking on with its new line of vaporizer pens. When inhaled, the pens dispense a dose of cannabis oil that ­Hmbldt says has been chemically engineered to make people feel a certain way—calm, sleepy, relieved of pain—­without getting high. Cannabis-­delivery methods like this one haven’t yet been thoroughly vetted by physicians. But as more states legalize medical marijuana, and more studies show that it does have merits, products like ­Hmbldt’s (now available only in California) could become increasingly commonplace. “This really can help people feel better,” says Jason ­DeLand, the company’s head of strategy.

(Gifts: The 100 Most Influential Images of All Time)

hello-sense-alarm-clock

Lucas Zarebinski for TIME

The Ultimate Alarm Clock

Hello Sense / $149+
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It’s hard to believe that an alarm clock—the cruel, clunky gadget that jolts you awake and ruins your morning—could not only be beautiful but also improve your sleep. That it could gauge the temperature, humidity, light and even air quality in your bedroom to help you engineer a perfect sleep environment. That it could monitor your sleep cycles and wake you when you’re least likely to feel groggy—all thanks to simple voice commands. Indeed, Sense (and its companion pillow sensor) is no ordinary alarm clock. It took hundreds of prototypes to get it right, says James Proud, founder and CEO of Hello, which makes Sense. Early adopters report that using the small glowing orb feels almost as natural as crawling into bed. That was key, says Proud, who adds, “Nobody wants to introduce complexity into their lives, least of all when it comes to sleep.”

goodyear-eagle-360

Goodyear

Tires That Spin In Every Direction

Eagle 360 / Developed by Goodyear

As companies race to develop self-­driving cars, Goodyear is reinventing their wheels. Its spherical concept tire, which debuted in March, allows cars to move in many new ­directions, including sideways into a parallel parking space and at specific angles and speeds to counteract slippery surfaces. The key, says Sebastien Fontaine, an industrial designer at Goodyear, is magnetic levitation: whereas traditional tires are bolted to cars, the Eagle 360s hover beneath them, free from “the limits of [traditional] steering.” To be sure, these tires won’t hit pavement anytime soon: they’re meant for self-­driving cars that are likely at least five years away. In order to shift the status quo, says Fontaine, “we need different companies working with us, together.”

quip-toothbrush

Lucas Zarebinski for TIME

A Sleeker, Smarter Toothbrush

Quip / $25+
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When it comes to dental hygiene, most Americans are slackers: 1 in 2 don’t brush twice a day, and 3 in 4 don’t replace their bristles every three months, no matter how many times they’re warned of the risks (which include cavities and gum disease). “We needed to get people to care a lot more,” says designer Simon Enever. So he and partner Bill May set out to make brushing feel more rewarding. The result is Quip, a simple, affordable, battery-­powered toothbrush that works like its counterparts from Oral-B and ­Sonicare—a two-­minute timer vibrates every 30 seconds, reminding users to switch ­positions—but looks and feels like something you’d find in an Apple store; customers can even opt for a matte metallic finish. “It’s a nicer experience,” says Enever, who adds that he’s already working on his next design challenge: getting you to floss.

eatwell-assistive-tableware

Lucas Zarebinski for TIME

Dishes That Work Around Cognitive Decline

Eatwell Assistive Tableware / $60+
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After her late grandmother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, Sha Yao felt helpless. It was especially frustrating, she recalls, to sit with her during meals while she struggled to perform basic functions, like using silverware without spilling. “There was nothing I could do,” Yao says. Inspired by her grandmother’s plight, Yao created Eatwell Assistive Tableware, a dining set designed to make mealtime easier for people with Alzheimer’s and other diseases that affect brain and body function. (Among the design hacks: using bright colors to help people distinguish their plates from their food and putting wide rubber bases on the cups to prevent spills.) The goal, Yao says, is to “bring back the joy of sharing a meal together.”

https://timedotcom.files.wordpress.com/2016/11/better-shelters-ikea-nepal.jpg

Better Shelter

The All-Purpose Shelter

Better Shelter / Co-developed by The Ikea Foundation

Last year, Ikea made headlines when its philanthropic arm, the Ikea Foundation, helped launch Better Shelter, a line of temporary ­houses—­equipped with features like door locks and solar ­panels—that could be shipped flat and assembled in under four hours, much like the retailer’s popular furniture. But now that the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees has helped send more than 16,000 of these units all over the world, they’ve taken on a life of their own. Just as DIY experts have found ways to remodel Ikea staples into expensive-­looking furniture, refugees and aid agencies are turning Better Shelter structures into hospitals, reception areas and more. In Greece and on its border with Macedonia, the shelters are being linked together and used as early-­childhood-­development centers; in Djibouti, their walls have been retrofitted with “air conditioners” (plastic bottles cut in half to facilitate air flow). Now designers are trying to revamp the Better Shelters to allow for even more flexibility. After all, says Johan Karlsson, managing director of Better Shelter, “we cannot design a one-for-all shelter.”

Correction: The original version of this story misstated Johan Karlsson’s employer. He is the managing director of Better Shelter.

dyson-supersonic-hairdryer

Lucas Zarebinski for TIME

A Stronger, Softer Hair Dryer

Dyson Supersonic / $399
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James Dyson has famously streamlined all kinds of air-centric appliances, most notably vacuums and fans. Now he has set his sights on the hair dryer. Unlike traditional models, which Dyson dismisses as “noisy, heavy and not that fast,” the Supersonic does its job with remarkable efficiency. It’s quiet, thanks to a tiny, jet-engine-like motor that reaches 110,000 revolutions per minute (making it ultrasonic and therefore inaudible to the human ear). It’s fast, thanks to a design that multiplies air flow. And it’s consistently gentle, thanks to a sensor mechanism that keeps hot blown air at one of three exact degree settings. This is hair drying as Dyson thinks it should be, even if it comes at a cost. “We never design down to a price,” he says.

sweet-potatoes

Benjamin Rakotoariso

Sweet Potatoes That Could Save Lives

The Orange-Fleshed Sweet Potato / Developed by The International Potato Center (CIP) and Harvestplus

In sub-Saharan Africa, vitamin A deficiency afflicts more than 43 million children under age 6, leaving them vulnerable to blindness, malaria and more. It’s inefficient to provide entire countries with pills, so plant scientists from HarvestPlus and the CIP are helping countries grow their own ­solutions—in the form of sweet potatoes. The key is biofortification, or cross-­breeding locally grown sweet potatoes with versions rich in vitamin A, so that over time the crops naturally get better at addressing the deficiency. Plant scientists have also bred them to be more resistant to droughts (as Maria Andrade did in Mozambique) and viruses (as Robert Mwanga did in Uganda). This year, Andrade and Mwanga shared the World Food Prize for their work, alongside agricultural economist Jan Low and HarvestPlus founder Howarth Bouis. Sweet potatoes may once have been seen as “a crop of the poor,” says Low, who’s helping to bring the super-spuds to more countries. Now they’re “a healthy crop for all.”

dji-mavic-pro-drone

Lucas Zarebinski for TIME

A Drone With Mass Appeal

Dji Mavic Pro / $999
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In recent years, drones have become smarter flyers, faster racers and better photographers. But for the most part, they’re still too big and bulky to carry around comfortably, which can turn off more-­casual consumers. Not so with DJI’s Mavic Pro, which debuted in September; it’s got all the trimmings of a state-of-the-art drone—obstacle-avoidance technology, a 4K camera and the ability to track subjects while ­flying—but it can also fold down to the size of a loaf of bread, smaller than any of its competitors. Realizing that goal required DJI’s engineering team to “rethink all the aspects” of a typical drone, says Darren Liccardo, who helped lead the project. But ultimately, he adds, the effort paid off: because of its smaller size, the Mavic Pro is more nimble and less prone to ­accidents—yet another selling point that could attract new users.

arc-instatemp-thermometer

Lucas Zarebinski for TIME

The No-Touch Thermometer

Arc InstaTemp / $40 (for the InstaTemp) and $350 (for the InstaTemp MD)
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Anyone who has ever had a sick child knows what a hassle it can be to take someone’s temperature using the traditional ­method—­slipping a thermometer under her tongue, getting her to sit still for minutes at a time and hoping that whatever reading you get is accurate. That’s why, in recent years, many brands have started to make no-touch thermometers, which use infrared technology to measure core body temperature quickly and precisely. But one model stands out both for its design and its efficacy: Arc’s Insta­Temp (and its more precise, clinical version, InstaTemp MD), which was recently approved by the FDA. Once the device is placed roughly an inch from a patient’s forehead, it spits out a temperature in 2.5 seconds—­coded red, yellow or green, depending on the reading. “If you can take a temperature this way, why would you do it any other way?” says Irwin Gross, CEO of Arc, which is marketing the Insta­Temp devices to consumers and health care professionals alike. “We think this is the way all temperatures will be taken in the future.”

artificial-pancreas-medtronic-fda-medtech

Medtronic

The Artificial Pancreas

Minimed 670g / Developed by Medtronic

In order for people with diabetes to stay healthy, they must continually check their blood sugar and adjust it with insulin or snacks. Medtronic aims to render this tedious process obsolete with its MiniMed 670G, a.k.a. the “artificial pancreas,” which has been in development for years but was only recently approved by the FDA. (It will be commercially available next year.) Once users attach the iPod-size device to their body, it measures their blood-­sugar levels every five minutes, providing more insulin or withholding it as needed. For now, they still need to manually request a dose after they eat. But Medtronic is working on a fully automated version, which Fran Kaufman, chief medical officer of the company’s diabetes group, says she hopes will help the 1.25 million people living with Type 1 diabetes “spend less time managing their disease and more time enjoying life.”

(Gifts: The 100 Most Influential Images of All Time)

tiangong-2-space-station-china

Xinhua News Agency—Getty Images

China’s ‘Heavenly’ Space Station

Tiangong-2 / Developed by China’s National Space Agency

When China’s newest astronauts, Jing Haipeng and Chen Dong, arrived in orbit earlier this year, they docked at some impressive digs. Specifically: the orbital laboratory Tiangong-2 (Heavenly Palace 2), which is more than 34 ft. long and nearly 14 ft. wide and includes an exercise area and a medical-­experiment bay. Yes, that’s all modest compared with the multimodule International Space Station (ISS), which is roughly the size of a football field, but it’s a remarkable machine all the same. China, after all, built Tiangong-2 on its own, just over a decade after launching its first man into space; the ISS is a collaboration among 15 nations, including space veterans like the U.S. and Russia. China’s next move: launching the core module for a much bigger space station, set to happen sometime in 2018.

iko-prosthetic-system-arm

Lucas Zarebinski for TIME

A Prosthesis That’s Built To Play

IKO / Developed by Carlos Arturo Torres

By design, most prostheses aren’t fun—they’re built to fill a utilitarian need. And while that’s fine for adults, who need to work, it can be tough on kids, who want to play along with their friends. Enter Iko, a prosthetic arm built by Carlos Arturo Torres to enable children to replace a lost limb with one that could have come from Inspector Gadget. When they need a hand, they have one. But they can replace it with any number of toy-like attachments, all of which are compatible with Lego products. (Torres developed the device while working at Lego’s experimental Future Lab in Denmark.) Torres is still finalizing distribution details, but his larger hope is that Iko will destigmatize disability—like it did for 8-year-old Dario, an early tester. Before the test, one of Dario’s friends told Torres he felt sorry for Dario, because there were things he couldn’t do. That changed after the friend watched Dario use Iko. “I want one too,” he said.

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Jessica Lynn Walker—Chevrolet

A Crowd-Pleasing Electric Car

Chevrolet Bolt / $40,000

For most buyers, electric vehicles fall into two camps: too expensive (think the $66,000 Tesla Model S) and too limited (the Nissan Leaf gets just 100 miles per charge). General Motors aims to bridge that gap with the Chevrolet Bolt, which touts crowd-­pleasing features, like more than 200 miles of driving on a single charge, at a relatively low cost. “This is an opportunity to take electric cars mainstream,” GM engineer Pamela Fletcher says of the Bolt, set to launch in December. One industry analyst estimates that GM could sell as many as 80,000 Bolts next year, which would boost the overall market by almost 67%—a small but significant step toward reducing our collective reliance on planet-­warming fossil fuels.

(Gifts: The 100 Most Influential Images of All Time)

unicef-kid-power-band-ammunition

Lucas Zarebinski for TIME

A Bracelet That Helps Kids Give Back

UNICEF Kid Power Band / $40
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One in four American children doesn’t get enough exercise, and 1 in 4 children globally doesn’t get enough food. UNICEF’s Fitbit-like Kid Power Band, designed by San Francisco-based Ammunition, aims to address both problems at once. Its mobile app encourages kids to be physically active with videos from stars like Pink and Alex Morgan. Once they meet step goals, it awards them points, which translate to real food packages that UNICEF sends to malnourished children all over the globe (funded in part by sales of the device). The band “allows kids to feel like they can change the world,” says Rajesh Anandan, who co-created it. Since Kid Power Band’s soft launch in 2014, participants have collectively walked over 7 million miles to feed more than 30,000 severely malnourished children.

apple-airpods

Lucas Zarebinski for TIME

Headphones That Make Wireless Cool

Apple Airpods / $159
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Apple has a history of changing the technological status quo, from digitizing music to making phone screens touch-­sensitive. So when the tech titan announced that its iPhone 7 would not have a 3.5-mm headphone jack, which has been standard on most audio gadgets for decades, it also previewed a compelling alternative. Unlike many of their Bluetooth predecessors, Apple’s AirPods not only have microphones (enabling you to control your phone via Siri) but also can detect when they’re in your ears—­allowing you to automatically pause music, for example, if you pop one out to have a conversation. But their most convenient feature may be automatically pairing with an iPhone, which eliminates the need to dig through settings menus.

The Speaker That Speaks Back

Amazon Echo / $180
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Echo may look like a standard Bluetooth speaker, but at its core lies one of modern society’s holy grails: the ability to talk to your tech. This isn’t a new idea; Apple’s Siri and Microsoft’s Cortana have been around for years. But in many ways, Amazon’s version, Alexa, which is embedded in Echo, is more powerful. Since its 2014 launch, Amazon has greatly expanded Alexa’s functionality; it’s now integrated with dozens of third-party apps, enabling you to call a car (via Uber), turn off lights (via Philips Hue bulbs, among others) or even order pizza (via Domino’s). And Amazon appears determined to keep its edge. It recently launched a junior version of the Echo (the $50 Echo Dot), and it’s working to make Alexa even more intuitive. “We don’t want to teach someone how to speak to Alexa,” says Daren Gill, who heads product and customer experience for Alexa. “They should be able to just speak the way they naturally do.”

wynd-air-purifier

Wynd

A Personal Air Purifier

Wynd / $154

No matter where you live and work, you’re breathing in chemicals and pollutants, some more dangerous than others. And while changing that norm will take years, if not decades, of policy work, there are interim solutions. Among them: Wynd, a portable air ­filter—­roughly the size of a water ­bottle—that creates a clean-­climate bubble by sucking up pollutants in your immediate vicinity, including ones that can contribute to cancer and heart disease. “What we breathe matters,” says Ray Wu, creator of Wynd, which raised more than $600,000 on Kickstarter and should be commercially available next year. “We want to enable everyone to enjoy a healthy air environment, no matter where they live or travel.”

Correction: The original version of this story misstated the price of the Wynd personal air purifier, and the name of the company’s founder. It costs $154, and his name is Ray Wu.

barbie-dolls-mattel

Lucas Zarebinski for TIME

Barbies That Look More Like Real Girls

Mattel Barbie dolls / $10 each
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For 57 years, the world’s most famous doll has been stick-thin, setting an ­unrealistic—and, studies show, ­damaging—beauty standard for generations of young women. That all changed in January when Mattel, faced with slumping sales, decided to make Barbie look more like the girls who play with her. Although the original doll still exists, she now has three additional body types (petite, tall and ­curvy)—a shift that has boosted global sales of the Barbie Fashionista brand by 44%. Of course, society is still a long way from solving its body-image issues; that’s “a heavy burden for [Barbie’s] tiny shoulders,” says Robert Best, a Barbie designer. But the new shapes, along with the new skin tones and hair textures introduced last year, are undeniably a step in the right direction.

Gifts: The 100 Most Influential Images of All Time

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New Interview Practice Video: USPTO AIR

Watch the USPTO’s Interview Practice short video for a brief introduction to the USPTO Automated Interview Request (AIR) tool and learn about our interview specialists, who are subject matter experts in interview practices and policies.

AIR is a convenient online form for submitting a request for interviews. After the form is submitted, an examiner will email you to confirm your request within two business days.

For more information visit the USPTO Interview Practice web page.

Barbi Honeycutt and Cake Saver / Slice N Stand

The Slice-n-Stand is designed to keep leftover cakes slides standing upright during transport, delivery, and storage. The stand fits into a standard cake storage container to provide support to the leftover slices of cake. The stand is designed to prevent the cake slices from slipping, sliding, and tipping. The “L” shaped stand includes an adjustable “hinge” which can accommodate different sizes of cake slices. The hinge locks into place to keep the cake slices stable. Additional hinges can be added to provide support for multiple and varied slices of cake. When the party is done and the guests are headed home, there always seems to be leftover cake. Usually you might wrap the slices in plastic wrap, but that makes a mess and the icing sticks to the plastic. Or, you might use storage containers, but usually this means stacking the slices on top of each other, crushing the cake, and results in the need for cleaning more dishes and storage containers. The Slice-n-Stand keeps leftover cake slices upright and prevents the cake from slipping, sliding, and tipping. No additional storage containers or plastic wrap is needed to keep the cake fresh and in tact. The Slice-n-Stand is designed to fit into a standard cake storage container, so after the party, you can just slide the Stand underneath the leftover cake and keep it safe and in tact while you return home or store the leftovers for later. If you want to keep a small portion of cake, the Slice-n-Stand adjusts to accommodate these slices using a specialized ‘hinge’. The hinge locks into place to provide additional support.

Listen to her pitch on My Cool Invention click here

Cake Saver

Barbi Honeycutt made it on this show. She is one of the inventors from my UMI Inventors Meetup Group and one of my clients. She got a 94% Thumbs up from the listening audience. She has more views and shares of her show as shown on Facebook then any other for her week and for the month of January.Thanks for your support.

The 25 Best Inventions of 2015

Welcome to TIME’s annual round-up of the best inventions making the world better, smarter and—in some cases—a little more fun.

  • The ‘Hoverboard’ Scooter

    Gregory Reid for TIME
    Developed by multiple brands
    Prices varyPart Segway, part skateboard, the self-balancing scooter—generally known as a hoverboard, even though it doesn’t actually hover—is easily the year’s most viral product, drawing fans like Justin Bieber, Jimmy Fallon and Kendall Jenner. Once someone hops on, the device uses a pair of electric gyroscopes (one under each pad) to balance automatically, allowing users to speed forward, backward and around by slightly shifting their body weight. That enables all kinds of fun stunts, ranging from hallway races to motorized dance routines. Maxx Yellin, co-founder of PhunkeeDuck, one of more than 20 companies making versions of the device, sees larger implications. “It could evolve as a new form of transportation for cities and colleges,” Yellin says (though British authorities recently caused a stir by outlawing their use on public sidewalks and streets). But convenience comes at a cost: prices range from $350 to $1,700, depending on the brand and its features.

    • The Underground Park

      The Lowline in New York City
      Cameron Neilson
      The Lowline Lab
      Developed by Dan Barasch and James Ramsey“It’s not like any park you’ve ever seen before,” says Dan Barasch of the Lowline, an abandoned trolley terminal in New York City’s Lower East Side that he and architect James Ramsey are trying to turn into an acre of lush green space, replete with flowering plants and areas to relax in the sun. The key: a “remote skylight” dish system that captures sunlight from surrounding rooftops and funnels it underground via fiber-optic cable; once there, it’s beamed out via reflective dome, enabling plants to grow. To prove the technology works, Barasch and Ramsey opened the Lowline Lab; it’s a prototype version of the final park, which is still several approvals—and $70 million in funding—away from completion. But Barasch, who attracted more than 3,300 backers on Kickstarter, is undeterred. Even forgotten places, he says, can still be used “for public good.” —Julie Shapiro

    • The Sensor That Sniffs Out Gluten

      Gregory Reid for TIME
      6SensorLabs’ Nima / $199
      Available for preorder atNimaSensor.comFor the millions of Americans with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity, eating out is often anxiety-ridden—any menu item might contain traces of the protein, which is off-limits. The Nima sensor, which starts shipping early next year, would work to put their minds at ease by allowing them to test any kind of food or drink in as little as two minutes. After a sample is dropped into the well of the device, a proprietary antibody (loaded in a disposable cartridge) mines it for traces of gluten. If they exist, a frowning face lights up; if not, a smile appears. “My hope is that people are going to be able to eat socially” without accidentally getting sick, says Shireen Yates, a 6SensorLabs co-founder who is gluten-sensitive. The firm also hopes to apply its technology to detect other food allergens, including peanuts and dairy. —Alice Park

    • Bionic Ears

      Gregory Reid for TIME
      Doppler Labs Here Active Listening Earbuds / $249
      Waitlist open at Hereplus.meIf you’re stuck somewhere with unbearable noise, you essentially have two options: plug your ears, or leave. But what if you could isolate the most grating sound and mute it? Or just lower the volume, much as you would on a TV? That’s the promise of the Here Active Listening system, a groundbreaking set of earbuds from New York–based Doppler Labs. Unlike hearing aids, which amplify or decrease all noises at once, Here’s processor syncs with a smartphone app, so users can handpick which frequencies they want to filter. That means you could stand on a subway platform and have a normal conversation as a train screeches by, or even tune out a crying baby on a plane. “It’s augmented audio reality,” says Doppler Labs CEO Noah Kraft, who initially developed Here for musicians and concertgoers before pivoting to a general audience. The first earbuds will ship in December. —Alex Fitzpatrick

    • The Superior Stethoscope

      Gregory Reid for TIME
      Eko Core
      Developed by Connor Landgraf, Jason Bellet and Tyler CrouchIf there is one aspect of medicine that’s more art than science, it’s the way doctors listen to ­heartbeats—­trusting their fallible ears and memory to detect aberrations over time. Not so with Eko Core. Once the $199 smart adapter is attached to a stethoscope, it streams heartbeat data to the cloud so physicians can download it to a smartphone. From there, a companion app can analyze the audio and compare it to previous recordings, which may help doctors detect murmurs, heart-valve abnormalities and other conditions that “our ears are not able to,” says Dr. John Chorba, a cardiologist (and mentor to one of the inventors) who’s leading an Eko trial at the University of California, San Francisco. If the device works as planned—early signs are positive—it could not only improve overall care but also drastically reduce the need for expensive tests like echocardiograms. —Alice Park

    • The Headset That Helps You Hack Life

      Gregory Reid for TIME
      Microsoft HoloLens
      Developer edition available early 2016Virtual-reality headsets, like the Oculus Rift, create escapes. Put one on, and you’re suddenly swimming with dolphins or fighting in the Battle of Waterloo.Microsoft’s HoloLens, by contrast, augments reality—overlaying holograms and data onto existing surroundings, so you’re not “confined to the virtual world,” as designer Alex Kipman puts it. Imagine gamers defending their homes from robot invaders, engineers manipulating 3-D models or surgeons following directions “on” the human body. Early tests indicate all are possible. Already the HoloLens is being used by NASA to mimic Mars’ terrain in labs and by medical students to dissect virtual bodies. —Alex Fitzpatrick

    • Power Pasta

      Gregory Reid for TIME
      Banza Chickpea Pasta / $4+ per 8 oz. box
      Available at EatBanza.com“When people think of pasta, they almost always think, I ate way too much and now I feel like crap,” says Brian Rudolph. Not so with his brand, which is made from chickpeas instead of wheat. That simple switch—in a recipe perfected over 10 months of trial and error—has yielded a healthy twist on the al dente dinner. Banza, shorthand for garbanzo pasta, has double the protein and four times the fiber of traditional pasta, and far fewer carbs; it’s also gluten-free. And to those who may question how good it tastes, consider the sales. Banza launched in two U.S. stores last year; now it’s in 1,700, including Fairway markets, where it was recently the top-­selling pasta of any kind (including wheat). Now Rudolph and his brother Scott plan to reinvent products like pizza and cereal. “People want to eat better,” he says. “We see Banza as a true replacement, a more filling version of the food people love.” —Mandy Oaklander

    • The Desktop DNA Lab

      Mark Serr
      Juno
      Developed by FluidigmIt can take a full day to “amplify” DNA, the technical term for making millions of copies of one strain so it can be compared with many others. Juno cuts that process to just three hours, freeing scientists to concentrate on actual ­analysis—a shift that makes it easier to match bone-marrow donors, find cures for genetic diseases and more. The key is Fluidigm’s proprietary microchip, which can amplify samples that are 1,000 times smaller than a drop of water. And the sleek, Yves Béhar–­designed aesthetic doesn’t hurt, either. “We see a lot of possibilities for clinical labs and hospitals,” says Marc Unger, a senior vice president at Fluidigm, of the $120,000 machine, which is now being used at academic and research labs. “We really want to help.” —Alexandra Sifferlin

    • Housing That Welcomes the Homeless

      Star Apt 14-11 MMA 1204.JPG
      Iwan Baan
      Star Apartments
      Designed by Michael MaltzanFor decades, housing for the homeless has too often meant transient shelters or warehouse-­like abodes. L.A.’s Star Apartments aims to buck that trend by design; it functions more like a minivillage than a single building, says Maltzan of his third collaboration with Skid Row Housing Trust, a local nonprofit. In addition to 102 prefabricated studios, which are ingeniously staggered into four terraced stories, Star Apartments offers a ground-floor medical clinic and, above that, a garden, an outdoor running track and space for classrooms. The goal, says Maltzan, is to make the residents of its 300-sq.-ft. units—who are handpicked by the county department of health ­services—feel “like they’re part of a dynamic and intimate community,” a strategy that can help people, especially those struggling with homelessness and substance-­abuse issues, re-­establish stability in their lives. —Richard Lacayo

    • The Transparent Truck

      Martin Gee for TIME
      Safety Truck
      Developed by Samsung and Leo BurnettEvery year, thousands of people get hurt or die in traffic accidents, in part because their visibility gets blocked by a lumbering vehicle. This is especially true in Argentina, known for its winding, narrow roads. There, however, Samsung and ad agency Leo Burnett have partnered on a creative solution: a system that relays video footage from the front of a truck to four screens on its back, giving drivers a clear view of what’s ahead. During its initial test, the Safety Truck covered some 620 miles (1,000 km) over three days without incident. Now Samsung is refining the technology and working with Argentine officials to roll it out more broadly. “We believe this will change the history of road safety,” says Sang Jik Lee, president of Samsung Electronics Argentina. —Julie Shapiro

    • The Next-Gen Baby Monitor

      Gregory Reid for TIME
      Sproutling / $299
      Available for preorder atSproutling.com“Is my baby O.K.?” That’s the question Sproutling aims to answer—in real time—with its first product. Once in place, the Fitbit-like device can track an infant’s heart rate, body temperature, position and more, and notify parents, via mobile app, if there’s cause for alarm. (Though regular check-ins are still encouraged.) Once it learns a baby’s habits, Sproutling can also offer helpful predictions, like when he or she will wake up from a nap. “We want to get more understanding of how children behave as a whole,” says CEO Chris Bruce, a father of two. “That’s the holy grail.” —Sarah Begley

    • An Airport for Drones

      Martin Gee for TIME
      Drone Port
      Developed by Foster + Partners and Afrotech-EPFLAs Amazon, Google and others ramp up their drone-delivery tests, one question looms large: How will their home base function? For hints, the tech titans may well look to Rwanda, where workers will soon break ground on three “drone ports,” designed to make it easier to transport food, medical supplies, electronics, spare parts and other goods through the hilly countryside, where road travel is difficult. The Rwanda project “is a relatively modest beginning,” says Norman Foster, chairman of architecture firm Foster + Partners, which is leading the first phase of construction (scheduled to be completed in 2020). But, he adds, “it could be a catalyst,” helping to solve an array of pressing health issues and creating a model for other countries looking to regulate commercial drone use. —Sarah Begley

    • Period-Proof Underwear

      Gregory Reid for TIME
      Thinx / $24+ per pair
      Available at Shethinx.comFor decades, women trying to avoid leaks or stains during menstruation have mainly had to rely on disposable pads, tampons and panty liners, which can be bulky and expensive. “But can’t underwear do the same thing, better?” wondered Miki and Radha Agrawal. That’s the idea behind Thinx, a line of thongs and panties that the twin sisters—alongside co-founder Antonia Dunbar and a team of manufacturers in Sri Lanka—have engineered to (mostly) replace traditional products. Each pair is washable, reusable and equipped with four layers of moisture-wicking, antimicrobial fabric. On heavier days, however, some women may need extra protection. “We always say, Know your flow,” says Miki. —Samantha Grossman

    • The Bed in a Box

      Martin Gee for TIME
      Casper Mattress / $500+
      Available at Casper.comBuying a new mattress is a lot like purchasing a used car: stressful, confusing and likely to overwhelm you with options. “We want to cut the clutter,” says Philip Krim, CEO of Casper, one of many startups upending the sleep industry, including Leesa and Tuft & Needle. The model is simple: create one mattress style; up the comfort factor (using a mix of foams); set clear prices; and sell it online (cutting costs, so prices remain low). Once the mattress arrives—it’s vacuum-packed in a cardboard box—customers get a 100-day trial period during which they can return it for a full refund. But that rarely happens, says Krim. Casper’s sales are expected to exceed $75 million this year, making it a leader among its startup competitors.—Victor Luckerson

    • The Virtual Brush and Canvas

      Gregory Reid for TIME
      Apple Pencil and iPad Pro / $99 and $799+, respectively
      Available at Apple.comIn the 450 years or so since its invention, the pencil has become so ubiquitous, it’s easy to forget how remarkable a technology it is. It can write at any angle. Shades get darker depending on how hard you press. Marks can be erased. Reproducing this functionality digitally has vexed computer engineers for years, which is what makes Apple’s latest effort so impressive. The Pencil allows users to draw, paint or write on a screen, just as they would a sheet of paper. And it works in tandem with the iPad Pro, a tablet faster than roughly 80% of laptops sold in the past year, so there’s no perceptible delay. That combination has already sparked chatter about new ways to create art, animations, blueprints and more. “You can rest your hand anywhere and [the iPad Pro screen] totally ignores it and it just reads the Pencil,” wrote Don Shank, an art director at Pixar, after testing the products in September. “It’s pretty amazing.” —Matt Vella

    • Shoes You Can ‘Tie’ With One Hand

      Gregory Reid for TIME
      Nike Flyease 8 / $130
      Available at Nike.comIn 2012, Matthew Walzer, a then high school junior with cerebral palsy, sent a note to Nike: “My dream is to go to the college of my choice,” he wrote, “without having to worry about someone coming to tie my shoes every day.” Sensing an opportunity to create a new footwear category—both for casual consumers who want a simpler way to tie sneakers and for people like Walzer, who need one—Nike dispatched a design team. This year, they unveiled their solution: the Flyease 8, a LeBron James–branded basketball shoe with a one-handed fastening mechanism that drew inspiration from “opening and closing a door,” says Tobie Hatfield, the shoe’s head designer. (To tie the shoe, wearers yank on a strap, which zips around the ankle as they pull.) There are still kinks to work out; pulling the strap too hard or too fast, for example, may cause the zipper to break. But Walzer, now a sophomore at Florida Gulf Coast University, has said the shoes have given him a great “sense of independence and accomplishment.” —Sean Gregory

    • The Pan That Teaches You To Cook

      Gregory Reid for TIME
      Pantelligent / $199
      Available at Pantelligent.comHow hot should the pan be? When do I stir? It it done yet? If you’ve ever cooked an unfamiliar dish, chances are you’ve asked yourself one or more of these questions—­and ­Pantelligent aims to answer them all. Once you select a recipe from its smartphone app, the pan uses Bluetooth and a special heat sensor to offer real-time instructions on your screen, so you’ll know exactly when to flip a steak, for example, if you want it medium rare. When they first dreamed up the concept at MIT, Humberto Evans was a great cook, but Mike Robbins could barely fry an egg. Now, according to Evans, his former roommate whips up dishes like chicken piccata. “The food speaks for itself,” he says of how people can use the pans, which started shipping in October. —Samantha Grossman

    • The Book That Filters Water

      Gregory Reid for TIME
      The Drinkable Book
      Developed by Teri DankovichAn estimated 663 million people globally do not have access to clean drinking water, in part because filtration is complicated and expensive. The Drinkable Book is neither: thanks to a special ­treatment—­developed with a team of scientists over several years—its pages double as water filters, killing over 99% of harmful bacteria during trials in Bangladesh, Ghana and South Africa. (They also list usage instructions.) Though research is still needed to determine whether the system can filter all contaminants, including viruses, Dankovich is optimistic; she says she is talking to partners who could help fund more testing and, eventually, large-scale production. —Sarah Begley

    • The Ocean Vacuum

      Martin Gee for TIME
      The Ocean Cleanup Project
      Developed by Boyan SlatThere’s a glut of plastic trash in the middle of the Pacific Ocean that’s bigger than Texas—and growing. But the default removal process of chasing it with nets is both costly and time-­consuming. Instead, the Ocean Cleanup Project proposes a 62-mile-long (100 km) floating boom—at an estimated cost of $15 million—that would use natural currents to trap trash. (Its net drops roughly 10 ft., or 3 m, below the surface, shallow enough for fish to swim around.) If next year’s trials succeed, a full cleanup operation would aim to start in 2020; internal estimates suggest it could reduce the trash by 42% over 10 years. —Bryan Walsh

    • The Personal Pollution Detector

      tzoa 34 with shadow.JPG
      TZOA
      TZOA Environmental Tracker / $139
      Available for preorder at Tzoa.comIn order to avoid potentially harmful pollutants and allergens, it helps to know about the air you’re breathing. That’s where Tzoa comes in. The stationary device, developed by electrician Kevin R. Hart, uses sensors to evaluate the atmosphere in any given area—­measuring factors like temperature, particulate matter (dust, pollen, mold, car exhaust) and UV ­exposure—and uploads that data to the cloud, so that institutions like Johns Hopkins can conduct air-­quality research. The company plans to launch wearable versions in May that offer a similar service, allowing consumers to chart specific walking routes, for example, if they want to avoid pockets of pollen. —Alexandra Sifferlin

    • The Ball That Teaches Kids to Code

      Gregory Reid for TIME
      Hackaball / $85
      Available for preorder atHackaball.comAt a time when demand for computer scientists is skyrocketing, most Americans get little or no exposure to coding during their formative years. Made by Many, a New York City–based digital-­consulting firm, is trying to change that. Its Hackaball toy syncs with a mobile app, allowing users to program how and when it lights up—and then to see how those programs affect their lives in the real world. During one test, for example, kids set the ball to change colors at random intervals, then used it to play a hot-potato-style game. Enabling social ­scenarios—rather than a more isolated, screen-based introduction to ­coding—is the point of Hackaball, says William Owen, a strategy director at Made by Many. Its concept appears to be resonating: some 2,800 people backed the project on Kickstarter, raising $240,000. The first units ship in January. —Lisa Eadicicco

    • All-Access Virtual Reality

      Gregory Reid for TIME
      Google Cardboard / Price varies
      Available DIY or from third-party sellersMost of the hype surrounding virtual reality has rightly centered on premium headsets, such as the forthcoming Oculus Rift and HTC Vive (both of which will likely cost several hundred dollars). But Google Cardboard is revolutionary in its own right. Since its 2014 debut, the scrappy viewer—which can be built from scratch using free online instructions and relies on your smartphone screen for visuals—has emerged as a playground for virtual reality, priming brands and consumers alike for one of the world’s most anticipated technologies. There are Cardboard apps that let people drive cars (from Mercedes-Benz), attend concerts (from musician Jack White) and even play immersive video games. “We ask people, ‘Hey, put your smartphone in this piece of cardboard. It’s going to do something amazing,’” says Clay Bavor, a Google VP who oversees VR projects. “And then it does, and they’re shocked.” —Alex Fitzpatrick

    • The Musical Instrument That Anyone Can Master

      Gregory Reid for TIME
      Artiphon Instrument 1 / $399
      Available for preorder atArtiphon.comAn estimated 70% of adults want to play an instrument on a regular basis, but only 5% actually do, partly because it’s tough to choose just one to master. That’s not an issue with the Artiphon, which can mimic dozens of ­instruments—not just how they sound but also how they’re played. It can be strummed like a guitar or tapped like a piano. Or it can mix and match inputs, allowing users to bang banjo chords as if they were drumming. “We’re trying to pave a different path toward musical creativity,” says Jacob Gordon, an Artiphon co-founder, of the device (and its companion smartphone app), which raised $1.3 million on Kickstarter. —Victor Luckerson

    • The Meanest, Greenest Driving Machine

      Tesla
      Tesla Model X / est. $130,000
      Available 2016Tesla’s Model X, unveiled in September, marks a leap toward a reality in which electric cars aren’t simply exotic, but just as useful as their competition. The world’s first luxury electric SUV can go 250 miles on a charge, Tesla says, and haul seven passengers. It features futuristic back doors that open like the wings of a bird (up, not out). And the Model X is a blast to drive: it can hit 60 m.p.h. from a standstill in 3.2 seconds, and its battery pack gives it a low center of gravity, enabling sports-car-like handling. (That’s rare for any SUV, let alone one that runs on clean power.) For Tesla, more than one model is at stake. As CEO Elon Musk put it during the Model X unveiling: people need to know “that any kind of car can go electric.” —Matt Vella

    • The Toy That Talks Back

      CogniToys_Blue_Front Right.JPG
      Cognitoys
      CogniToys Dino / $120
      Available for preorder atCogniToys.comRather than repeating catchphrases, as “talking” toys have done for generations, this dinosaur taps IBM’s Watson technology to engage with kids ages 5 to 9 in a meaningful way. In addition to answering plain-language queries (like “How far away is the moon?”), the wi-fi-enabled figurine talks back and learns from kids’ responses—helping them hone their math skills, for example, by asking harder questions once they nail, “What is 2+2?” and “Can you count to 10?” The trick, according to CogniToys CEO Donald Coolidge, is to make educational development seem like a “cool, fun experience.” “That’s kind of the best toy possible,” he says. —Sarah Begley

    —Lisa Eadicicco

Successful Transition to the Cooperative Patent Classification System

Cooperation between the USA and Europe is a good thing! KTA

Blog by USPTO Commissioner for Patents Peggy Focarino

On January 1, 2015, the USPTO successfully transitioned to the Cooperative Patent Classification (CPC) system from the United States Patent Classification (USPC) system. The CPC is a collaborative venture between the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) and the European Patent Office (EPO), designed to develop a common, internationally compatible classification system for technical documents used in the patent granting process. It offers a more robust and agile classification system for both offices’ user communities and enables more technical documents to be classified, because the USPTO and EPO are both entering documents into the system. Since its launch, the USPTO has successfully issued about 47,000 U.S. patent documents under the CPC.

As we transitioned to the CPC, we made sure to keep patent applicants and owners updated on the transition process. Leading up to the changeover, throughout 2013 and 2014, numerous bilateral CPC events were held with external stakeholders, providing notice that the USPC would become a static document collection for utility patents after December 2014. Stakeholders may continue to see a limited number of U.S. patent grants still issuing with USPC symbols due to allowed applications already in the publication cycle, but the USPTO will no longer actively assign USPC symbols to issued utility patents. However, plant and design patents are not covered in the CPC, so they will continue to be published with USPC symbols.

To facilitate searching for documents, the USPTO’s existing tools have been modified to provide all users the ability to search documents classified in the CPC, the USPC (now a static document collection), and the International Patent Classification (IPC) systems. USPTO examiners are now required to classify and search using the CPC, and we want our user community to understand that the CPC will be continuously updated through bilateral revision and reclassification projects between the USPTO and the EPO. We are also working on creating a bilateral examiner-focused collaborative environment for discussions, work-sharing initiatives and training opportunities.

As a leader in the global patent community, the USPTO is dedicated to providing a quality classification system for employees and stakeholders, and one that is compatible with the international patent community. Most importantly, we will ensure that the quality of the classification system remains strong and agile.

The CPC provides a more comprehensive search result set that includes national documents from China and Korea,  as well as several other countries that are classifying their national documents into the CPC; documents that were not previously available for viewing or retrieval under the USPC. We intend to keep the quality of the CPC documents at a high level by helping more countries classify their national documents into the CPC, and we will continue to work with the EPO to perform an ongoing number of CPC revision projects.

We welcome your thoughts on the transition from the USPC to the CPC. More information, including frequently asked questions, is available on the CPC page of our website. Please send any questions or comments to CPC@uspto.gov (link sends e-mail).

What we need next is  CPC and China cooperative! KTA

USPTO TO HOST FIRST-EVER SUMMIT ON PATENT QUALITY

The USPTO will host a two-day public meeting on patent quality on March 25 and 26 at our headquarters in Alexandria, Va. The Quality Summit will encourage robust discussions among USPTO leadership; patent prosecutors, litigators, applicants, and licensees; and other members of the public interested in the USPTO’s efforts to further improve patent quality through its Enhanced Patent Quality Initiative.

The USPTO is seeking public input and guidance to direct its continued efforts towards enhancing patent quality. These efforts focus on improving patent operations and procedures to provide the best possible work products, to enhance the customer experience, and to improve existing quality metrics. The USPTO has already set in motion several quality initiatives, including robust technical and legal training for patent examiners, as well as a Glossary Pilot, Quick Patent IDS Program, First Action Interview Pilot, and After Final Consideration Pilot. The two-day Quality Summit is one of many ways the USPTO is engaging with the public on this important effort.

Read the press release to learn more.

PATENTS IN THEORY AND PRACTICE: IMPLICATIONS FOR REFORM —

Deputy Director Michelle K. Lee at the Technology Policy Institute

Patent reform is high on the agenda for Congress. Proponents of reform claim the current system produces excessive litigation, particularly on the part of “patent assertion entities,” imposing costs on entrepreneurs and others and deterring innovation. Those on the other side suggest that the litigation explosion is overstated and that patent reform efforts will weaken intellectual property protections to the detriment of innovation.

Deputy Director Michelle K. Lee joined The Technology Policy Institute for a half-day conference “Patents in Theory and Practice: Implications for Reform” on February 11 to explore the evidence for reform from both sides of the issue.

Learn more by viewing the agenda or watching the fireside chat.

THE RANDOM EVENTS THAT SPARKED 8 OF THE WORLD’S BIGGEST STARTUPS

AVA CONSULTING

THESE HOUSEHOLD NAMES BEGAN AS LESS-THAN-GLAMOUROUS SOLUTIONS TO PROBLEMS.

Light-bulb moments don’t happen on command, and brainstorming sessions rarely produce extraordinary results. More often it’s a random remark, event, or memory that sends an entrepreneur down the rabbit hole of innovation. From Airbnb to Yelp, here are the surprising origin stories to eight of today’s hottest companies:

1. A STUDY ABROAD PHOTOGRAPHY CLASS SPARKED THE IDEA FOR INSTAGRAM

A study abroad opportunity during his junior year at Stanford University providedKevin Systrom with the inspiration for Instagram. Systrom brought his advanced SLR camera to the photography class he was taking in Florence Italy, but his teacher replaced it with an inexpensive Holga that used random light leaks and vignettes borders to produce interesting photos. Systrom loved the aesthetic: “It taught me the beauty of vintage photography and also the beauty of imperfection,” he told Forbesmagazine in…

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What Steve Jobs really meant when he said ‘Good artists copy; great artists steal’

AFTER READING THIS, WEIGH IN…WHAT DO YOU THINK?

Apple’s Bud Tribble: “If you take something and make it your own … it’s your design and that is the dividing line between copying and stealing. That is part of Apple’s DNA.”

Tim Cook, Steve Jobs, and Phil Schiller at Apple’s headquarters in 2007.James Martin

Apple has sued a lot of companies for allegedly copying or stealing its intellectual property over the past three decades. In 1988, Apple sued Microsoft and HP for copyright infringement over similarities of Windows and NewWave to the graphical interface of the Macintosh and Lisa. More recently, the late Jobs had declared war against Google’s Android mobile operating system, resulting in a flurry of suits against Samsung, Motorola, HTC, and others who dared to copy ideas expressed in the iPhone and iPad.

“I will spend my last dying breath if I need to, and I will spend every penny of Apple’s $40 billion in the bank, to right this wrong,” Jobs told his biographer Walter Isaacson. “I’m going to destroy Android, because it’s a stolen product. I’m willing to go thermonuclear war on this.”

This from the same Steve Jobs who famously said in 1996: “Picasso had a saying — ‘good artists copy; great artists steal’ — and we have always been shameless about stealing great ideas.”

Given that the seeds of the Macintosh — which led to the iPod, iPhone, and iPad — came from ideas hatched at research facilities like Xerox PARC and SRI, it could be perceived that Jobs wanted to have it both ways. In fact, Xerox PARC sued Apple in 1989 for what it deemed unlawful use of Xerox copyrights in the Macintosh and Lisa computers, but it was unsuccessful.

During a recent interview with Apple executives Bud Tribble, Phil Schiller, and Craig Federighi, I asked about Jobs’ statement and the seeming contradiction between suing competitors and being shameless about stealing ideas.

“I think that’s been misunderstood. Copying means — I believe this is what he meant when he said it because we talked about it back then — doing the same thing,” said Schiller, senior vice president of worldwide marketing. “I think what he meant by ‘steal’ was you learn, as artists have, from past masters; you figure out what you like about it and what you want to incorporate into your idea, and you take it further and do something new with it. I can see why people might confuse that with the current use people have for that phrase. You don’t just say, ‘I want something that looks just like yours and I’m going to sell it too.’

“Great people actually understand at a deeper level what makes something great and then build on the shoulders of that and build something even more marvelous and take it further,” he added. “I think that’s the case. We all learn from everything in our industry. It doesn’t matter what field you are in, but copying is literally just taking and doing the same thing.”

“I think people focus on the Picasso statement and focus on the word ‘steal,'” said Bud Tribble, Apple’s vice president of software technology and leader of the Macintosh software team during its infancy. “If you take that word, which is kind of pejorative, and replace it with ‘make it your own,’ I think the underlying idea is that you can’t do great design by copying something because you aren’t going to care about it. If you take something and make it your own, what really happens is now you care about that design. It’s your design and that is the dividing line between copying and stealing. That is part of Apple’s DNA. The things we are building and creating, we really care about. We feel like they are ours, and we are making them as great as we can because we care.”

Read: Apple in the courtroom – 25 years of defending the crown jewels

A year before his statement about shamelessly stealing great ideas, Jobs talked about the role that artistry plays in product development in an interview with the Smithsonian.

“I think the artistry is in having an insight into what one sees around them. Generally putting things together in a way no one else has before and finding a way to express that to other people who don’t have that insight so they can get some of the advantage of that insight that makes them feel a certain way or allows them to do a certain thing. I think that a lot of the folks on the Macintosh team were capable of doing that and did exactly that.”

For Jobs, it appears that great ideas are free, but make sure you file copious numbers of patents to protect your own. Ultimately, what matters is the implementation, what you do with the ideas. The Macintosh, iPod, iPhone, and iPad were built on the shoulders of others, but they also were put together in ways that reinvented the product categories.

Whether Apple’s competitors, or Apple itself, have shamelessly but illegally copied or stolen ideas is open to broad interpretation. Apple scored a recent victory in its suit against Samsung, claiming that the Korean manufacturer copied the look and feel of the iPad and iPhone. Apple was given a jury award of about $1 billion. Now chief executives of Apple and Samsung are slated for court-ordered settlement talks to try to resolve the ongoing patent disputes.

Despite Apple’s attempts to claim original art and roadblock Samsung and the Android platform (developed by Google), the iPhone has been losing market share. For the three months ending November 2013, Kantar Worldpanel Com Tech found that Apple’s iPhone share had shrunk in almost all regions compared with the same period in 2012. With the exception of Japan, Android is the leading smartphone platform. In the last quarter of 2013, Samsung had 28.8 percent share of smartphone sales and Apple 17.9 percent, according to IDC.

“Our objective has always been to make the best, not the most,” Apple CEO Tim Cook said during the financial earnings call Monday. So far, the strategy has worked, but it depends on Apple’s artists continuing to have unique insights and products that command a premium.

As Jobs said in prefacing his statement about Picasso and artists: “Ultimately, it comes down to taste. It comes down to trying to expose yourself to the best things that humans have done and then try to bring those things in to what you’re doing.”

The Patents of My Career

 


Patent drawing from Patent 5,996,127 of a Wearable Device for Feeding and Observing Birds and Other Flying Animals.

Patents Pick-5Every patent examiner has a list of patents that hold special meaning to him or her, from the first application they examined to the one for a groundbreaking new technology.

As I get ready to retire from the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) after 24-plus years, I have been looking back at the many people who have been part of my life during my career. It has been a privilege to work with a number of great examiners, managers, attorneys, agents, and so many wonderful and inspiring inventors. I have seen many interesting and not-so-interesting inventions and patents. These five have special meaning to me.

Note: This article is part of an ongoing series detailing some of the Inventors Eye staff’s favorite patents. For each article, the writer selects five patents under a given theme. This list is from Senior Advisor John Calvert. You can read more about John’s career helping independent inventors in our April Spark of Genius .

U.S. Patent No. 4,951,357
Stop Motion Apparatus for a Roving Drafting Device of a Textile Machine

My career as an examiner started in 1990. After two weeks of training, I began examining real applications in the technical area of my college education and work experience: textiles and knitting technology. The very first application I sent a Notice of Allowance for was a stop motion device that helps eliminate excessive fiber waste when a particular part of the machine fails to have the proper amount of fiber moving through the device. While other stop motion devices were previously known, I found that the improvement in this device was new and nonobvious. And so it began.

Fabric cont

 

U.S. Patent No5,515,585
Process for Forming Needled Fibrous Structures Using Determined Transport Depth

When I first read this application, I knew it was different from any other I had ever examined. The subject matter was intriguing; it used mathematical calculations to determine the proper depth of penetration of a needle, so that fiber could be transported without breaking or slipping back and entangling. The invention was intended to create a brake pad disk for use on an aircraft. After extensive searching, I failed to find any patents that disqualified the application. I did find one article in Russian that appeared to show that the invention was not new. However, after a complete translation, I discovered the article did not describe the same invention. For me, this application was one the most difficult and most rewarding.

Needle punch

U.S. Patent No. 5,590,548
Circular Knit Legged Panty Having Knit-in Shaping Panels and a Blank and Method for Making

This was one of many garment patents I examined during my career. The technology provided areas within the legged panty that had more elastic properties for increasing pressure, which resulted in a slimming feature. The real significance of this application for me is not the technology but the attorney who filed the application. Before I joined the USPTO, I worked in a job that I hated. I called my graduate faculty mentor from college for guidance, and he suggested I talk with an examiner at the patent office to inquire about open positions. This eventually led to my work at the USPTO. As it happens, the examiner I spoke with eventually left the office to work as an attorney. She is the one who filed this application. The circle was complete, so to speak.

Legged Panty

 

U.S. Patent No. 5,996,127
Wearable Device for Feeding and Observing Birds and Other Flying Animals

Shortly after I became a supervisory patent examiner in 1998, a new examiner showed me the application that would eventually issue as U.S. Patent No. 5,996,127. It was for a helmet that had a holder for a bird feeder and a place to mount a camera. As soon as I looked at the application I knew it was a candidate for the “Patent of the Month” display. The display showed the most “interesting” issued patent for each month and was placed where almost every patent examiner, manager, and executive would see it. Nobody wanted a patent they had examined to make the display. Once we found there was no way to reject the application, I got a primary examiner to sign with the junior examiner. It did make Patent of the Month, but we all had a good laugh.

Bird Watcher_Feeder

U.S. Patent No. 8,151,720
Open Eye Sewing Needle

My first article in Inventors Eye was about the invention described in U.S. Patent 8,151,720. I met the inventor at the Minnesota Inventors Congress and wrote about how she came up with her invention. The patent issued about two years ago, allowing the inventor to move forward with marketing and protecting her device. While the invention is essentially a sewing needle, the technology she used in engineering the needle allows for a great advancement in that particular technology. Her invention makes it easy for anyone to thread a needle, even folks with large hands and weak eyes like me.

Open Needle

My time at the USPTO is coming to an end. However, my memories of those I have worked with for these many years and have met along the way will stay with me forever. Thank you for allowing me to be part of your exposure to the world of intellectual property.

Keep inventing and innovating.

John Calvert : Office of Innovation Development