Science fiction author Kim Stanley Robinson’s brilliant Years of Rice and Salt (2002) beautifully illustrates how the pursuit of military supremacy is the genesis for a great deal of human innovation. The alternate history novel depicts a Middle-Ages Islamic civilisation where the Khan (tribal leader) commissions the heroes of the story to devise and construct better weapons to vanquish his enemies.
In doing so, the small team expands their understanding of physics unimaginably as they study the ballistics of projectiles from catapults and the use of light sources to communicate across battlefields.
We see the same expansion of technological innovation in real life. As well as the deaths of 55 million and the destruction of vast tracts of human habitation, World War II gave us — among other things — radar, computers, synthetic rubber, nuclear power and rocketry. A double-edged sword indeed.
Just as productive for human invention (and far more peaceable), the aerospace industry has fostered similar entrepreneurial activity, with sharp-eyed investors seeing the potential for consumer or industrial markets in some very specialised products such as those below.
Honda Walking Assist
We all laughed at the Segway — Americans were so consumed by the pursuit of convenience they invented a device that did away with the need to walk. But muscle and joint problems such as rheumatoid arthritis make walking difficult for millions.
Lasting two hours on a single charge, the Honda Walking Assist was developed to help movement in high gravity environments. It responds to pressure from your feet to take the load of part of your body weight as you walk, the frame taking the step for you instead of the muscles of your leg as you perch in the small saddle.
Search YouTube for ‘Honda Walking Assist’
Talking First Aid kits
Scrabbling through a first aid kit when you’re faced with an emergency is stressful — even after all those school first aid courses it’s likely to be the one time you freeze up in panic. intelligentFirstAid products are like having a doctor there to tell you what to do, just like the voice on the other end of the radio was your only chance locked in a space capsule.
You’re met with a series of clearly marked packs about problems like Breathing, Bleeding, Head & Spine and Shock. You simply open up the right one, touch the speaker icon on the instruction card and a recorded message walks you through applying the treatment.
In our market-centred society, you can even buy sleep. A day spa in New York City offers naps from 20 to 40 minutes (with or without a reflexology massage) for between $15-60.
The treatment is given in a YeloCab, a dedicated pod where you can control the aromatherapy, sound and lighting. Belief in the effectiveness of power naps comes partly from a NASA study at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, which found they can improve certain memory functions.
Alcohol monitoring system
Made almost fashionable by misbehaving Hollywood starlets like Lindsay Lohan and Michelle Rodriguez, the SCRAM (secure continuous remote alcohol monitor) bracelet reports your blood alcohol level to police by taking readings and sending them via the Internet, as it did when it alerted authorities to Ms Lohan’s recent binge.
Worn around the ankle, the SCRAM dobs you in if it detects the small amount of alcohol that leaves through the skin an hour or two after you’ve been drinking. Every hour it fires a small jet of air, vapourising the alcohol and measuring the concentration.
The MyBottle Purifier is a drinking bottle with an integrated virus filter that purifies drinking water in small quantities for when you’re hiking or traveling.
Based on an iodinated resin developed by NASA to sterilise drinking water in space, the filter removes bacteria, protozoa and any other particles larger than 0.3 microns. The bottle holds 600mls and the filter cartridge is good for around 100 litres depending in the quality. As the website says, it turns a swamp into a spring.
Re-entry into the atmosphere can result in a bumpy ride, and with so little room in landers or space shuttles for comfortable seating, NASA scientists came up with a special foam that moulds to your body.
It’s the same as ordinary bedding foam but with a far higher cell viscosity. Because it yields to your unique shape in more detail and takes longer to bounce back after pressure’s applied, it makes the ideal back support or circulation-assistance bedding, seating and cushions.