10 Everyday Innovations That Came From NASA Research

NASA’s Technology Transfer Program is “the agency’s oldest continually operated program,” according to Spinoff, its annual guide of consumer products developed from NASA technology. The agency has issued the guide since 1976 to emphasize just how much NASA research has gone into products and innovations that you see in everyday life. It's catalogued 2000 innovations and counting. Here are 10 technologies that owe their existence to space exploration.

1. CELL PHONE CAMERA, 1995

The world's most popular selfie tech is also NASA’s most ubiquitous spinoff technology. Cell phone cameras use a complementary metal oxide semiconductor (CMOS) image sensor—not a new technology, but one revolutionized at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which made the sensor smaller, lighter, and able to produce a cleaner image. Coincidentally, the very notion of digital cameras was born at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in the 1960s.

2. DUSTBUSTER, 1981

Its origins trace back to the Apollo program, when NASA contracted Black & Decker to design a special drill for taking core samples of the lunar surface. The computer program used to develop the low-powered, battery-operated moon motor was then used in the consumer space. A plethora of home cordless tools, and a tiny vacuum cleaner, were born.

3. MEMORY FOAM, 1966

The key ingredient in your comfy pillow was developed to absorb shock and improve the comfort of airplane seats. Today, the ubiquitous “slow spring back foam” improves just about everything, from football helmets and mattresses to race cars and saddles. Ironically, airplane seats remain uncomfortable.

4. EAR THERMOMETER, 1991

The thermometer sensors were first developed for satellites to check the temperatures of stars and other celestial objects by reading infrared radiation. The underlying technology was modified to measure the energy emitted from the human eardrum, making it much easier on everybody to see if the baby has a fever.

5. BABY FORMULA NUTRIENTS, 1985

When NASA needed to find a way for astronauts to eat on long-duration, deep space missions, it cultivated nutrient-enriched algae containing docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and arachidonic acid (ARA), which are polyunsaturated fatty acids. The idea was for astronauts to grow their own food. Because these nutrients are also found in breast milk and delivered in utero to developing babies—DHA and ARA are key to visual and cognitive development—another, more terrestrial use was soon found. And while astronauts have yet to need it, babies have been eating it up.

6. ROADWAY SAFETY GROOVES, 1985

The goal was to help reduce hydroplaning on NASA runways. By carving slim grooves in the pavement, water would run off, allowing the Space Shuttle and other winged craft to land in the rain. The grooves came to the first commercial runway in 1967 (Dulles, in Washington D.C.) and eventually made their way to highway curves, saving countless terrestrial lives over the years. A test study of 14 before-and-after grooving sites in California found an 85 percent decrease in highway accidents during rainy weather [PDF].

7. INVISIBLE BRACES, 1989

These tooth straighteners owe their superpower to translucent polycrystalline alumina, which is a super-strong, super-invisible ceramic. It was first developed for heat seeking missile technology. NASA helped apply it to smile technology.

8. SCRATCH-RESISTANT LENSES, 1983

They're hard to scuff up thanks to NASA research into water purification. A thin, plastic film was developed and applied to a certain filter in the purification process, and would turn up again in NASA research into ways to protect space suit visors. In 1983, Foster Grant licensed the technology, and glasses have never been the same since.

9. WINGLETS, 1976

These are the vertical folds at the ends of aircraft wings. They save fuel for the same reason that you folded the wingtips of paper airplanes as a kid: They help the aircraft fly farther and faster. Winglets derive from NASA research into reducing fuel costs during the 1973 oil crisis—and have reduced those costs by billions in the decades since.

10. CARDIAC PUMPS, 1996

This technology helps keep heart patients alive while they wait for donor hearts. The idea grew out of a conversation between a NASA engineer and two heart surgeons. NASA used its experience simulating fluid flow through rocket engines to develop the technology for flowing blood through the human body.

All images: iStock

Apple Wants to Show Off Your Best Night Mode Photos as Part of a New Campaign

Austin Mann, Apple
Austin Mann, Apple

Calling all aspiring photographers who nabbed an iPhone 11 for the express purpose of trying out its fancy camera capabilities: It’s time for your night mode photos to see the light of day.

As Travel + Leisure reports, Apple is currently hosting a competition to find the best night mode photos taken on an iPhone 11, iPhone 11 Pro, or iPhone 11 Pro Max. You can submit your photos through January 29, after which a carefully selected team of experts will evaluate all submissions and announce the five winning images on March 4.

Judges include Arem Duplessis, the former design director of The New York Times Magazine; Darren Soh, an award-winning photographer from Singapore; Tyler Mitchell, the first black photographer to shoot the cover of American Vogue (his subject, rather memorably, was Beyoncé); and several other esteemed members of the industry.

golden gate bridge shot on iphone 11
The Golden Gate Bridge, shot on an iPhone 11 Pro.
Jude Allen, Apple

In addition to appearing on Apple’s homepage and Instagram (which has more than 21 million followers), the photos could also be featured in digital campaigns, Apple stores, third-party photo exhibitions, or even on physical billboards. In addition to all the exposure, the winners will be paid a licensing fee in exchange for granting the company complete freedom to use their work for one year.

To submit your shots, you can either share them on a public Instagram, Twitter, or Weibo account with the hashtags #ShotoniPhone and #NightmodeChallenge, or email your images to shotoniphone@apple.com—just be sure to title your files in this format: ‘firstname_lastname_nightmode_iPhonemodel.’

If you’re new to the iPhone 11 and aren’t quite sure how to snap photos in night mode, it’s easier than you might realize. The feature comes on automatically in dim or dark places and decides on a capture time for you (which you can always adjust). And if you think editing your photos afterward will increase your chances of winning the competition, that’s fine, too: Apple will accept photos edited in the app or even with non-Apple software.

You might want to avoid capturing the Eiffel Tower after dark, however—here’s why.

[h/t Travel + Leisure]

This Smart Speaker Is Designed to Help You Learn Chinese

Maybe
Maybe

This latest in smart speaker technology isn’t designed to turn on your Wi-Fi-connected lights or help you figure out a wine pairing. Lily, a new smart speaker now available on Indiegogo, can help you learn Chinese writing and speaking “faster than anything on the market,” according to its creators.

The voice-controlled gadget is equipped with artificial intelligence that allows it to engage in real-time conversations, so beginning to advanced students can learn to speak the Chinese language Mandarin. It can correct pronunciation, perform translations, and help you learn vocabulary through interactive games, too. It helps you learn to write with an associated app where you can practice using both Pinyin and Chinese characters. Lily’s curriculum can also prepare you for the HSK Chinese proficiency exams necessary to work or study in China.

A Lily speaker conversation illustrated with text bubbles that read 'Hey Lily, how do I introduce myself?' and '你好,你叫什麼名字'
Maybe

Designed by the language-learning company Maybe—which is based in San Francisco and Shenzhen—with Chinese tutors, the AI is engineered to recognize different accents, even if your pronunciation isn’t perfect.

Language learning is all about repetition, and unless you live in an area with a large Chinese population, you may not have much opportunity to practice your Mandarin in everyday life. A smart speaker like Lily can provide the next best thing by creating an immersion environment for you at home, putting it a step ahead of other language-learning apps like DuoLingo.

It’s currently only in the prototype stage, but it’s scheduled to ship by April 2020. As for other languages, the Lily team says that they hope to release software updates in the future that could give the speaker French and Spanish capabilities. (Once you have the speaker, you’ll be able to download any other languages that are released—you won’t have to buy a whole other language-specific speaker.)

The smart speakers start at $229 for early-bird buyers, which may seem like a significant investment, until you start looking at the prices of even a few weeks of private language classes. Get yourself one on Indiegogo. And don't worry about it matching your home decor—it comes in red, white, black, blue, teal, and pink.

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