Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Technology repurposing can be innovative, too

More years ago than I care to remember, the president of a small engineering company asked me if I would join several other members of his engineering team on a panel to help judge a competition that he was running in conjunction with the local high school.

The idea behind the competition was pretty simple. Ten groups of students had each been supplied with a pile of off-the-shelf computer peripherals that the engineering company had no longer any use for, and tasked with the role of coming up with novel uses for them.

As the teams presented their ideas to the panel, it became obvious that they were all lateral thinkers. Many of them had ripped out the innards of the keyboards, mice, and loudspeakers they had been provided with and repurposed them in unusual and innovative ways to solve specific engineering problems.

Recently, a number of engineering teams across the US have taken a similar approach to solving their own problems, too, but this time with the help of more sophisticated off-the-shelf consumer technology -- more specifically, inexpensive smart phones.

Engineers at the California Institute of Technology, for example, have taken one of the beasts and used it to build a "smart"petri dish to image cell cultures. Those at the University of California-Davis have transformed an iPhone into a system that can perform microscopy. And engineers at Worcester Polytechnic Institute have developed an app that uses the video camera of a phone to measure heart rate, respiration rate, and blood oxygen saturation.

Taking existing system-level components and using them in novel ways may never win those engineers the same accolades that the designers of the original components often receive. But the work of such lateral thinkers is no less original. Their work just goes to show that great product ideas do not necessarily have to be entirely game-changing. Sometimes, repurposing existing technology can be equally as innovative.

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