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7 Ordinary Things Turned Hi-Tech

A previous test flight of the jet pack. (Image credit: Jet Pack International)

As scientists expand their knowledge of how things work, they are finding undiscovered potential in everyday objects from T-shirts to umbrellas. The idea that basic objects can be turned into hi-tech systems opens up all sorts of possibilities and makes us look at our surroundings in new ways.

Here are seven ordinary objects that scientists and engineers have made extraordinary.

Man Power

To some, a backpack is just a container for lugging books and daily essentials around. But one biomechanics researcher saw it as a way to harvest electricity from body motion.

Your body is like a machine, one that’s fueled by food. But your body isn’t very efficient at converting food into useful work—only 5 percent is used and the rest gets lost as heat.

To capture this wasted energy, Lawrence Rome of the University of Pennsylvania and his colleagues created a two-part backpack. The frame is rigid and fixed to your body, while a soft pack is attached to the frame with springs. As you walk, the pack bounces up and down. This up-and-down motion turns the gear of a generator attached to the backpack frame, producing up to 7.4 Watts – enough to power an MP3 player, a PDA, night vision goggles, a GPS locator, and a cell phone.

Fabric with vision

Functional garments are coming back in style – that is, 21st century style. MIT researchers have developed a light-detecting fiber that, when woven into a fabric, acts like a camera that can see in all directions.

“At this point we have definitely redefined how functional a fiber could become,” said Yoel Fink, MIT professor and lead researcher developing the fabric.

With a diameter equal to that of a strand of hair, each fiber is packed with tiny electronic materials. When light hits the fibers, they create an electrical signal, which can be sent to a computer and transformed into an image you can see on, say, a visor equipped with a display.

Applications abound, Fink says, from helping blind people sense their environment to entertainment and military functions.

The fibers could be woven into a soldier’s uniform, giving him access to what’s going on around him, such as “a sniper aiming at you from behind,” said Fabien Sorin, a postdoctoral MIT researcher involved in the project.

The laser from the sniper’s rifle would hit the light-detectors in the soldier’s uniform and alert him to the potential threat, Sorin explained.

The Internet Umbrella

An umbrella that lets you surf the Internet while walking in the rain takes mobile electronics to a new level.

Called Pileus, the Internet umbrella sports a large screen, which drapes across the inside of the umbrella, and a camera, digital compass, GPS, and motion sensor, all located in the umbrella’s handle.

So far, the umbrella, which is only in prototype form, has two capabilities: photo-sharing through Flickr and 3-D map navigation via Google Earth. To operate this handheld electronic umbrella, you just rotate the grip of the handle.

The umbrella was created at Keio University by Takashi Matsumoto and Sho Hashimota, who have now co-founded the company Pileus LLC.

Virtual Reality Sneakers

Today’s sneakers come equipped with plenty of bells and whistles that let you walk, run and jump on real streets in the real world in style and comfort.

But Adidas has tech-ified shoes by giving users access to a “virtual” reality of sorts. Called the Adidas Originals Augmented Reality, these sneakers come in five varieties—the Superstar, Stan Smith, Forum, Nizza and Samba. Each has a special code embedded in the tongue of the shoe which, when held up to a Web camera on your computer, gives you access to the virtual world.

The shoes will unlock what Adidas refers to as the Originals Neighborhood. Over the Spring/Summer seasons of 2010, Adidas will release three games within the Neighborhood, the first of which is inspired by the shoe company’s Star Wars collection.

T-Shirt Body Armor

Possibly the most ordinary of ordinary, the T-shirt has been turned into low-cost body armor. Kevlar certainly holds the title for lightweight bulletproofing, but it’s expensive, limiting its use to those who can afford it.

But a new inexpensive kind of protection relies on a cotton T-shirt and a solution of boron powder. The result: a material made up of tiny wires of boron carbide – the third hardest material known to man at room temperature.

"We should be able to fabricate much tougher body armors using this new technique," said Xiaodong Li of the University of South Carolina and study researcher. "It could even be used to produce lightweight, fuel-efficient cars and aircrafts."

Laptop Earthquake Detectors

Scientists have turned ordinary laptops into earthquake detectors. The portable seismic recorders rely on accelerometers built into the laptops, which are motion-detecting devices made to turn off your computer if dropped.

The jostle of an earthquake could do the same trick. And when an earthquake is detected, a special software program transmits the shaking intensity over the Internet to researchers at the University of California, Riverside, and Stanford University. To avoid false alarms, the software only signals a quake when several computers in one area transmit the earthquake alerts.

So far about 1,000 people from 61 countries have volunteered for the Quake-Catcher Network.

Wearable Batteries

A new development could turn your clothes into rechargeable batteries.

By coating cotton with ink made from nanoparticles of lithium cobalt oxide, researchers from Stanford University turned the fibers into conducting materials. Other cotton threads woven between these conductive ones were coated with a salt solution to serve as the electrolyte, which carries a battery's charge.

The result scored 20-Watt-hours per kilogram in energy density – meaning that a T-shirt made from this coated material could hold up to three times more energy than needed to power a cell phone.

Possible ways to use this new technology include high-performance sportswear, wearable displays, new classes of portable power, and embedded health monitoring systems.

Michelle writes about technology and chemistry for Live Science. She has a Bachelor of Science in Chemistry from the Salisbury University, a Bachelor of Chemical Engineering from the University of Delaware and a degree in Science Journalism from New York University. She is an active Muay Thai kickboxer at Five Points Academy and loves exploring NYC with friends.