Archive for the ‘industrial design’ Category

Is Samsung about to become the new… Apple?

13 February, 2013 1 comment

Apple’s iPhone vs Samsung’s Galaxy S…
(photo from

Oh boy, oh boy… game on. It’s no news that Apple and Samsung are going head to head in the smartphone and tablet computer industry. Since 2011, they have been involved in at least 50 lawsuits all over the world, with Apple winning some, and Samsung winning others. So, why, exactly, am I now blogging about this, when this is so… like… 2011? Better yet, why is this rivalry suddenly of such interest as to warrant a full story in the Technology section of the New York Times just this last Sunday? Apparently, Samsung actually now has a chance to be a real competitor, no, perhaps even to dominate Apple in the not-too-distant future.

This is a particularly interesting prediction, seeing that Apple still clearly has the market cornered, raking in 72% of the profits in the mobile phone industry and Samsung taking the remaining drippings (Apple and Samsung surprisingly are currently the only two companies turning profits selling mobile phones!). What makes Samsung a potentially lethal competitor is their approach on design.

In 1989, Steve Jobs was named as Entrepreneur of the Decade by Inc. Magazine. Characterized as brash, boyish, and a perfectionist, in his interview with Inc. editors George Gendron and Bo Burlingham, Jobs proclaims that he designs not for what consumers want (they don’t know what they want), but what they might think is impossible. In other words, if you ask consumers what new functionality they want in a gadget, by the time you can deliver that functionality, they are ready for the next step and won’t be satisfied. As a result, in Jobs’ mind, the key to innovative design was to tell consumers what they want before they know it. Clearly, this worked quite well for Apple.

In contrast, Samsung takes a more… traditional approach, using market research to guide trends and innovation. According to Kim Hyun-suk, the executive vice president of Samsung, the company’s modus operandi is to use the market as the driver for product design, and not to drive the market in a certain direction — interesting, considering their extraordinary success with the Galaxy product line, and its reviews claiming its innovative features. Another example: while Apple just recently released the iPhone 5 with a larger screen, Samsung was already selling the 5.3″ screen Galaxy Note. This difference in design philosophy is reflected, also, in the budget allocations at the two companies, with Samsung outspending Apple in R&D, at a nearly 3:1 level ($10.5 billion to $3.4 billion).

What I found particularly notable is Samsung’s approach for design inspiration. They employ 60,000 staff members distributed across 34 research centers in multiple different countries, all saddled with the ultimate task of studying trends in each country and gaining inspiration for ideas. They look far outside electronics for inspiration, including fashion, automobiles, and interior design; and employ designers from a multitude of different backgrounds, including psychology, sociology, economy management, and engineering. Ah, curious… Much as biodesign and the application of biomimetics to idea generation benefits from multidisciplinary diversity, here we have again the melting pot of creative people coming from very different backgrounds, bringing to their design a perspective unique to their training and their lives, creating products with broad appeal and forward-thinking functionality… when the goal is not to drive the market… just a little food for thought.


STEM-STEAM is it time? Are we ready?

22 January, 2011 1 comment

STEM to STEAM Conference, hosted by the Rhode Island School of Design, 20-21 January 2011

I have just returned from a truly stimulating conference co-sponsored by RISD (Rhode Island School of Design) and NSF (National Science Foundation). The conference was entitled, “Bridging STEM to STEAM: Developing New Frameworks for Art/Science Pedagogy.” Attendees included everyone from artists and designers as far-flung as Japan, policy-makers and program officers from NSF, National Endowment of the Arts, and AAAS, accomplished academicians/designers from Brown, RISD, MIT… and then there was me… mesmerized, overwhelmed, and thrilled.

I realize this is not truly a direct discussion of biomimetics or bioinspiration, for that matter, but it is directly related. STEAM is simply a reimagining of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) with Art added in, to signify a new initiative to push for direct collaboration and synergy of the STEM fields with the arts. It also creates a clever, catchy, new acronym. My concern is with the question of whether we, as professionals, academics, students, ready for this collaboration, or are we looking instead at the generation of exactly what the new name suggests: hot air? And if we are ready, what can we do to maximize the success of this wonderful collaboration?

My personal hope is that the combination of art with the sciences will inspire and catalyze progress in both fields. To me, the contribution that art/design can make to the sciences is limitless (and thus a motivation for this blog). In the most obvious connection, art can help with maximizing the visualization and communication of our science. In fact, ask Edward Tufte, and he will probably tell you that the best scientists also have an impeccable design flair combining aesthetics with efficient information communication. See, also, the Nature Methods Points of View column by the Broad Institute’s Bang Wong, for monthly commentary demonstrating how basic design principles facilitate data accessibility. I think all us scientists have a lot to learn from our artist counterparts.

Open source software such as Circos can be used to visualize genomic data in a visually pleasing way while simultaneously enhancing communication. Shown here are ChIP-Seq, chr 22 methylation, whole-genome methylation, multi-species comparison, human genome variation and self-similarity and MLL recombinome. (from Circos website)

A more challenging aspect justifying combining arts with the sciences is in identifying how art can actually accelerate scientific progress. An excellent example of this is the use of animation software such as Maya for pushing forward X-ray Reconstruction of Moving Morphology (XROMM) development, an increasingly valuable tool for biomechanical analyses. Art can also inspire new science, as shown in the PBS documentary “Between the Folds“, in which the ancient art of origami is inspiring mathematics, engineering, and product design.

I leave the challenge of identifying how science can help the arts, to the artists, who can speak more directly about why they would want us in their world… and not for the lack of having ideas about how we can help (think prosthetics and ergonomics, for starters!).

The challenge of the STEM to STEAM conference was to discuss how we can increase the collaborations, to identify the similarities and differences among artists and scientists, and to devise strategies on how to go about bridging the gap… priming the machine, so to speak, for a rather revolutionary change in the way we all think about and do our work.

If you are out there reading this, please weigh in. I would love to hear your thoughts about this matter.

And I now leave you with a video of a project co-produced by one of the conference attendees, Jonathan Harris, called, “I Want You To Want Me.” He is only 30 years old, and already very clearly quite a force to contend with.

Geeky dreams of an obsessed biomechanist

28 September, 2010 2 comments

There are countless stories (legends?) about dedicated faculty who conjure brilliant theories while showering, solve a major molecular roadblock while folding laundry, or dream up innovative interpretations of  complex data. Every time I hear a story like this, I have felt… so envious. But then I  would brush it off with the thought of, “Well, at least I’m not that big of a geek!”

My research strives to understand how we navigate through our complex universe with seemingly barely a thought. After all, how many of us have stood at the edge of a sidewalk in deep contemplation about how much we must flex our ankle, simultaneously activate our gastrocnemius and tibialis anterior, and then absorb the shock with the thick pad of flesh (and fat) on our heels combined with perfectly choreographed knee flexion, as we step down to the asphalt below? Should we have to go through such deep lines of thought, we would undoubtedly all go the way of the indecisive squirrel that gets 3/4 of the way across the road, just to turn around and throw itself under a tire in an effort to return to safety, rather than continue forth to the opposite side of the road a mere couple leaps away. To return to the point, we regularly move across a myriad of different surface types and barely notice it. To top it off, not only do we do it, there are tons of other organisms out there who do it better than we do. What’s going on?

To quantify movement across surfaces, my workhorse is something called kinematic analysis. This basically boils down to marking up an animal with a bunch of points (traditionally drawn on with correction fluid and a fine-tip Sharpie marker), filming with a high speed video, and then going through the record frame-by-frame clicking on each individual point across sometimes as many as 600 frames with 10-15 points per frame. Since our motion analysis is done in 3D, this means we then continue on to repeat this on a second camera (and in some instances, a third). Needless to say, this is a very time-consuming way to collect data, even when it is slightly automated with custom-written tracking software (e.g., see Ty Hedrick’s DLTdataviewer MATLAB program).

We recently purchased a super-duper auto-tracking high speed system to film our animal of choice: lizards. The system consists of six cameras that we mount in a ring, which automatically track reflective markers as the lizard runs through a calibrated filming volume. The amazing part of this system is that it literally can track up to 400+ points so accurately and quickly that we have all our tracked data the second the animal is done running through the field of view. The drawback is that we require markers covered in reflective 3M tape, which gets expensive fast, at $0.40 per mostly non-reusable marker. We are currently marking our animals up with 35-40 points, so burn through points at a rather high rate.

Chinese water dragon

A water dragon with nearly $17 worth of markers, most of which will get soaked off and destroyed in its water dish later that day.

At least one reason for the high cost of these points is that they are literally individually hand-wrapped. Yet, for us “non-professionals” in the way of sticker-wrapping beads, this can be a risky endeavor as the point is useless if it does not effectively reflect light. Additionally, wrapping beads can be extremely time intensive and mentally dull for anyone — including one of our undergraduate helpers — to do. As a result,  I have been in the midst of mental conniptions as of late, trying to figure out an inexpensive, easy way to build markers… all the while watching the dollars fall away as the lizards soak in their water bowls after a hard day’s exercise, destroying the markers so that they are unusable in future studies.

Water dragon model: lateral view

A side view of a tracked model of the lizard shown above running bipedally.

I woke up early this morning — too early by anyone’s standards at 4.30AM — and my brain started whirring. Perhaps it was due to the various discussions we have had in this course, or possibly it was due to one of our recent chapters from Janine Benyus’s book on Biomimetics, but I started seeing bubbles in my half-dream, half-awake state, and gradually began to realize (to my growing horror) that I had become a bona fide geek. These “bubbles” were actually phospholipid balls that were oriented with hydrophobic tails facing inwards and hydrophillic heads facing outwards. It was as if I had returned to Intro Bio my freshman year, only this time, it had really gotten in my head.

Liposome and micelle

When exposed to water, phospholipids will orient the hydrophobic fatty acyl side chains (tails) inwards, away from water, and their hydrophilic heads outwards, forming globules, or balls. Image by Mariana Ruiz Villarreal

As I was lying there confused, disturbed, and exhausted but still determined to stay asleep enough to continue this thought process while awake enough to remember it, I realized that if there were some way to attach reflective glass beads to the hydrophobic heads, I could drop this solution into water to form balls that I could use as quick and easy, highly-reflective markers. Of course, I would also need to find a way to make them solidify so they maintain their shape in air… but that’s just my cynical, awake inner voice talking.

A tent like a leaf

14 September, 2010 1 comment

Sketches for a biomimetic tent by Ondrej Vaclavik

I happened to come across these sketches tonight for a biomimetic tent designed by Ondrej Vaclavik, a graduate from Prague’s Academy of Arts, Architecture, and Design.

Top view of tent

A top view rendering of the biomimetic tent. Note the clear leaf-like veins!

The structures for this tent are modeled after a leaf, with the veins forming the primary support structures for the tent. Despite the obvious beauty of this structure, it nonetheless is not immediately clear if this offers any added functionality. For example, is it lighter or stiffer? Does it shed water more effectively or deal with wind storms? Alternatively, is this a tent simply constructed for its beauty and to invoke emotions of oneness with the surrounding environment?

Irrespective of this, the design reminded me of tent caterpillars (and other similar insects) that actually will stick two or more leaves together to form a shelter while they pupate. My best guess is that the leaves provide more camouflage than protection, although I could imagine that there could be additional environmental advantages conferred from being wrapped in live, respiring leaves, possibly for temperature or humidity control.

Tent caterpillar cocoon wrapped in leaves (from

Can this design be taken a step further: Are there certain repeatable patterns to the way the leaves or folded and stuck together that can be predictable based on the structural properties of the leaves? Are there any properties to the cell structure and their patterns relative to the veins that can be adapted for addressing construction challenges or for increasing the efficiency/organization of transport?

Interestingly, Mr. Vaclavik also has designed other rather slick looking products inspired by biological shapes, for example, this “cactus juicer”, shown below.

Cactus juicer

A juicer shaped like a cactus. The edges of the ellipses extract the juice, which is then funneled into the cup below.

Why daddy long-legs are so cool

2 September, 2010 1 comment

A daddy long leg. Image from

I started catching creepy crawlies before I could walk — or at least that’s what my parents insist I did. When I was two, I caught a spider in my preschool sandbox by cupping it with a baby food jar. I remember that spider just barely fit into the mouth of the jar because it was HUGE; or at least I certainly thought it was. With this in mind, it’s probably not hard to believe that there are few things that make me squirm… except daddy long legs.

To be totally clear, contrary to popular notion, daddy long legs are not spiders. They arise from an entirely different order and lack many of the segmentation and life history patterns observed in spiders.

Daddy long legs are characterized by having eight, long, spindly legs surrounding a bulbous body (although there are some short-legged forms). Their legs can sometimes be so thin that their much heavier body seems to float through the air as they gallump about their daily chores. When they have eyes, they only have one pair, which are placed sideways rather than facing forward. These eyes do not functionally project a usable image; so they have modified their second set of legs to effectively act as antennae to help them tap their way around as they either quietly ambush or actively chase down their prey. Unlike most other arachnids, which live off a liquid diet, daddy long legs consume their prey in chunks.

All these characteristics make daddy long legs rather sinister; yet, whenever my hair stood on end as a daddy long leg made an appearance in the room, I found myself inexplicably drawn to the same question over and over and over again: How do these animals support such a heavy body on such skinny legs?

Photo by Will Cook,

I started looking in to this question several years ago and was stunned by what I found. Despite having such skinny legs, Schultz (2000) showed that the muscles are both numerous and complex. While the bulk of the muscle lies close to the hard, carapacial body, long tendons extend all the way to the tippy tips of the legs (often 50+ segments away!!), enabling fine, prehensile motion. This prehensile motion is used to help them climb thin structures such as grass blades, enabling them to wrap their leg completely around a single blade! More detailed studies by Guffey and colleagues (2000) on the microscopic morphology of these leg tips showed that there indeed is only a single tendon that extends to the toe tip, enabling prehensile motion. I couldn’t help but wonder how such a complex, prehensile motion across so many segments could be possible by means of a single tendon, and how this type of design could be applied industrially for highly mobile, exploratory devices… Thoughts? Does anyone know if something like this already exists in true mechanical models?

Is a redesign of baby strollers overdue?

30 August, 2010 1 comment

A baby stroller unmatched in its multitude of functions, but with an equally large price tag.

I decided to take the 23 bus back from the lab this evening. Shortly after we left Temple, I witnessed a young mother struggling to collapse a baby stroller just outside the bus while struggling to balance her 3-4 month old daughter in her other arm. Once on the bus, she needed to lift the stroller up and over a support railing, to remove it from the aisle. I aided the woman with the stroller placement and was immediately struck by the weight and awkwardness of this object, despite the fact that this was a simple stroller (still weighing in at 14 lbs and pictured below) that looks far lighter than the popular, souped-up strollers commonly found today.

A simpler, more budget-friendly stroller that is difficult to collapse and still awkward to handle.

These “souped-up” strollers (~30+ lbs)  feature single finger collapse switches and tout ease of breakdown and set-up, complete with a multi-use car seat, bassinet, and stroller seat, as well as all-terrain wheels. However, while this may ease the convenience of set-up and breakdown after a car ride, what about a stroller for more budget-conscious (or budget-constrained) parents? Where is the simple stroller that can be easily broken down for a bus ride and set-up after exiting the bus, that is also light enough to be handled with one hand by the average 5 foot 4 inch new mom who is also holding a 15 pound baby in the other arm… while being affordable?

So here’s a question to all you creative thinkers out there: Is a redesign of the baby stroller for the modern-day budget-minded consumer overdue? If so, how can biomimetics meet this challenge?

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