Lightbulb moments: James Dyson Awards

Hundreds of aspiring inventors entered the James Dyson Awards. Will their visions be realised? Simon Usborne hears from the brightest sparks
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The Independent Tech

A cyclist's jacket that uses technology from the Nintendo Wii to control automatic brake lights and indicators; a smart loo that emails your doctor a health assessment; a wheelchair that uses caterpillar tracks to lower a patient down a flight of stairs. Some of these brilliant ideas are bound to wing their way into our homes and lives, while others are flights of fancy that may never get off the drawing board. But all the ingenious designs on this page, which were shortlisted for this year's James Dyson Awards, suggest that the instinct for innovation among young people is in rude health.

For the vacuum-cleaner tycoon Sir James Dyson, 60, whose foundation coughed up more than £8,000 in prize money, the quality of the designs is no surprise. "I'm continually impressed by the original ideas that young people are generating to solve everyday problems," he says. "One advantage they have is that they have no fear of trying something that might go wrong."

Michael Chen's Reactiv cycling jacket picked up the £5,000 first prize. Dyson, who helped judge the designs from national contests held in 14 countries, agreed with the decision. "I thought Michael's working prototype was very impressive, and I think his design, if he can get it into production, could save lives."

Other designs to impress Dyson included a one-handed bicycle braking system designed by a Canadian team, and a hydration vest for runners, designed by a student in New Zealand. "I think prototypes like these show that, while virtually all patents are filed by big corporations, there is still room for the individual to come up with an idea at home and make it happen."

Dyson, who invented his Ballbarrow wheelbarrow while still a student, admits to a degree of nostalgia. "There's a theory that you are at your most creative up to age 29, when it starts to tail off and experience kicks in. At that age, the lines on the graph cross and you have the ideal combination. Here, we're seeing people at their creative peak."

The light-up cycling jacket

Anyone who has driven or ridden through one of our cities at rush hour will know that relations between light-jumping cyclists and horn-hooting motorists are more strained than ever. Cue Michael Chen, a British product-design graduate and electronics whizz. His hi-tech take on the cycling jacket, the Reactiv, which won the top prize in the James Dyson Awards, sports 20 light-emitting diodes (LEDs) sewn into the lining, which are activated by accelerometers. When the cyclist picks up speed, the LEDs on the back of the jacket turn green; they turn red under braking. Additional lights along the arms flash amber when the wearer raises an arm to indicate a turn.

Watch a demonstration of the cycling jacket

Chen's inspiration came from the remote controller of his Nintendo Wii games console, which uses accelorometers – microscopic silcon weights connected to a chip by miniscule springs – to direct the action on the screen. Chen even ordered the chips that make his prototype work from the same manufacuter. He has been surprised by the effect of his award-winning invention. "For the first time, I noticed that cars passed me more slowly, gave me more room, and that the drivers and passengers were even making eye contact."

The smart stove

The kitchen market is awash with induction hobs, lava stone hobs, ceramic hobs and great big industrial gas ranges. But the principle of the stove top has not changed since the days of the earliest cookers – circles of heat cook whatever sits on top, be it a tiny pan or a huge wok. Or, indeed, a paella. Student Jesus Franch Jimenez, 28, and a team from a Madrid technical college wanted to design something better suited to cooking their national dish, and have come up with the HOB BiE a concept they think will be a great success.

"It's annoying to cook on conventional hobs, because they never create exactly the right amount of heat," Jimenez says. His solution was to ditch the tried and tested four-ring layout and replace it with more than 2,000 miniature "hobs" the size of pencil erasers. Weight sensors embedded in the surface of the unit immediately detect the precise shape of any pan or dish and activate only those heat sources required for cooking. Jimenez says: "It means that no energy is wasted, and you get a regular and very controllable amount of heat to create the perfect paella."

The underwater boat

Gert-Jan van Breugel's eureka moment came after yet another painful journey to the bottom of the ocean. "I love diving, but I have a problem with my ears," the Dutch designer says. "I wanted a vehicle that could allow me to see underwater without getting wet." Van Breugel, 26, has designed the Reef Explorer, a viewing craft that does more than open a window to the ocean floor. "Motorboats disturb marine life and can damage coral. They also produce pollution," he says. The solution resembles a Bond submarine. Solar panels on two outriggers charge a battery powering two propellers via electric motors and the captain steers the boat using levers like those on a tank.

The single-handed bicycle brake lever

For Lauren Turner, a nine-year-old girl who was born with a deformed left hand, the simple pleasure of riding her bike in the park was just a dream. That was until a team of enterprising engineering students from Guelph University in Ontario, Canada came to her aid. "We hit on the idea of combining the front and rear brakes into a single lever small enough to fit in Lauren's hand," says Micha Wallace, 23.

With support from a bike shop, Wallace and the Canadian team developed a prototype dual lever whose brilliance lies in its simplicity. One half of the jointed lever operates the rear brake using standard brake cables, while the other half is connected to the front brakes. "It means Lauren can control each brake independently, depending on how quickly she needs to stop," says Wallace, who hopes the brake will improve cycling for all bikers.

"Police riders or couriers who need a hand to operate a radio, or anyone who needs an arm to indicate or reach for a water bottle, can brake at the same time with these," she says. Lauren, meanwhile, is delighted. "She used the bike all summer and her parents are much happier because they feel Lauren is safer."

The PC 'tree'

Power-hungry PCs that claim green credentials are nothing new but nobody has deconstructed the PC and built anything as revolutionary – or as striking– as Cultivate. Conceived by Dublin-based design student Laura Caulwell, the prototype machine is designed to resemble a tree. The main processor chip sits in the trunk, while balls at the end of its 10 branches house everything from the battery and the memory to a wireless mouse, which charges itself in the "tree" when not in use.

The cooling vest

When the New Zealand race-walker Craig Barrett collapsed just a few hundred metres short of victory in the 50km walk at the 1998 Commonwealth Games in Kuala Lumpur, he became a sporting hero. For Stephen Smith, watching on television, the fate of his countryman inspired an idea. "He suffered from dehydration and I wanted a solution," says Smith, now 24. The answer was the Arctic Skin, a hydration vest that, with a squeeze of a rubber pump, directs water into a radiator-like network of veins across the athlete's back. "The fabric polymer absorbs the water, which slowly evaporates, mimicking and boosting the effect of sweating," Smith explains. The vest works for up to six hours on a single cup of water. "My dad wore my prototype on the New Zealand coast-to-coast race and loved it," Smith says. But Arctic Skin comes too late for Barrett, who retired in 2006.

The health lavatory

It will come as no surprise that the Health Management Toilet (HMT), the hi-tech lavatory shortlisted for the Dyson award, was designed in Japan, the home of the all-squirting, self-cleaning, computerised khazi beloved of TV travel shows. Not only does it flush, warm your behind and clean itself, it will also analyse your waste and email a report card to your GP. "By measuring smell, colour and make-up, the HMT could give your doctor information about your health," Sekita, 29, explains.

The go-anywhere wheelchair

Paramedics faced with getting a patient from an upstairs room into an ambulance outside have just one way to do it – a back-breaking descent involving two people and a cumbersome wheelchair or heavy stretcher. The Danish industrial designer Morten Wagener, 29, had a better idea; working with Swedish ambulance crews while he was a student at Umea University, he developed the Caterpillar Scoop, which allows a single paramedic to lower a patient downstairs safely. Its key feature is the caterpillar track; as the chair descends the first steps of a flight of stairs, the rear wheels fold flat and the caterpillar track takes the weight. A special clutch brakes the track as the weight on it increases, controlling the speed of the descent. At the bottom of the stairs, the rear wheels fold out again. The unit can fold flat to transport patients with spinal injuries. Wagener has yet to produce a full prototype.