20 July 2011

Aeroponic farming in towers on the roof

The 16 July issue of The Daily Telegraph had an interesting article about a New York restaurant, Bell Book & Candle, which grows many of its vegetables on the roof.

Plastic towers are scattered across the flat roof with cups on their side which hold the plants. 20 gallon water tanks anchor them at the base, and also provide a nutrient-rich solution for the plants. Every 12 minutes warmed water is pumped up the tower and then trickles down for three minutes past the roots, which are held in rockwool balls. As the water is recycled, only 10% of the water needed for lettuces, for example, is needed. The pump motor is very economical as well. The towers can be 9 feet high (but are lower in this case as the building facade is listed and they must not be viewed from the street).

The plants also grow much faster than normal. All the restaurant's needs are met for four months of the year, and about a third is provided in all except the two coldest months. However, the food cannot be certified organic because US regulations say that the majority of fertilisers have to come from plants and animals, while the system uses mineral sources. Still, food miles are definitely minimised.

The article states that Tim Blank, the CEO and founder of Future Growing, came up with this Tower Garden system in 2004. It is an interesting variant on the vertical gardens movement, and the general idea is called aeroponics as a variant on the established hydroponics idea.

I couldn't find any published patent specifications under the company name or that of Blank, but have come across a rather similar invention by Robert Simmons of Florida, applied for in 2009 as Apparatus for aeroponically growing and developing plants. The main drawing is given below.

Aeroponics apparatus patent drawing 


The Bum Box®, a portable seating invention

Recently I was at an open-air concert at Kenwood House, and we were offered free portable, collapsible seats made out of cardboard.

As soon as I was offered it I guessed there was a patent, and I was right, as the British patent numebr was printed on it. In 2007 Australian company Box Clever Pty Limited first applied for a patent for A collapsible seat, which has already been granted rights in the UK, and in most of Europe through the European Patent Convention. Here is the main drawing.

Collapsible seat patent image 
It consists of a seat panel connected to a back panel which, when adjusted, forms a back panel in a prism shape. The seat panel is laid on the ground and the back panel forms a firm and comfortable support for the seated user. The "collapsible" angle is that the back panel can collapse back down again, and the whole structure has grip handles to take away as an almost flat, reusable pack. Advertising for the concert sponsor was applied to the back panel so those behind could see it.

The trade mark is quite interesting and, shall we say, imaginative. Under the Madrid Agreement Protocol, which covers numerous countries including the UK and the USA, there is the following registration:

Bum Box trade mark image 

I won't make any comment about it other than wondering why the image includes the TM symbol, as its registration means that the more powerful and universal ® is, instead, applicable. TM is often used in common law countries for unregistered names to show that the user considers it to be a trade name, but it is much more difficult to protect than a registered trade mark, at least in the UK.

More information is available on the website selling the product.

18 July 2011

Tanning through your swimsuit invention

There have recently been newspaper advertisements headed "Get an all-over tan through your swimwear!" The copy goes on to say that their "revolutionary world patented Transol® fabric has millions of tiny apertures that allow up to 80% of the sun's tanning rays to pass through". However people can't see through it.

I was intrigued by the mention of the magic world "patented". I can never resist a mention of that word, and so looked up the name of the company, Kiniki, in a patent database.

In February 2011 Kiniki had their Tan through material world patent application published. This was through the PCT system, where you can apply for protection in numerous countries with a single application. Each country, or regional patent system, then decides, years later, if they will grant a patent. The applicant was Kiniki Holdings Limited, of Newcastle-under-Lyme, Staffordshire. The main drawings are shown below.

Tan through material patent drawings 

In this case it is still "pending", and has not been granted protection anywhere, unless there is a patent under another name. A list of patent specifications with a certain similarity has been provided on the Espacenet database, which comes from research by a patent examiner. If an invention isn't considered new it will be refused protection in many jurisdictions, or will be modified when allowed, but this is up to each patent office to decide. There is not a world patent giving rights to inventions.

The invention involves using polyester and elastane in a pattern to form an "open mesh". They suggest that a double layer can be provided at sensitive areas such as the bust and the crotch. Yes, I had wondered if sunburn could potentially be a major problem, as suntan lotion can't be applied, presumably.

15 July 2011

Rufus Roo® travel jackets

Rufus Roo® travel jackets have attracted publicity lately, such as a big write-up in today's Daily Telegraph, "The flying jacket fooling budget airlines." It's a jacket with lots of pockets so that you can take up to 10 kilos, they estimate, through to the airplane and so have a lighter bag, or just one bag, or none at all, and hence beat luggage charges. Outrageous ? It works, apparently.

I have a personal interest in that Andrew Gaule came to see me perhaps a year ago to discuss his idea. We routinely have free one hour meetings with inventors (or those with business ideas) as part of our Business & IP Centre's programme of support.

I remember our agreeing that you couldn't get a patent for it. He already had the idea for the trade mark, which is now registered:


Rufus Roo trade mark image 
and I recall suggesting that the Australian angle (roo is to do with a kangeroo's pouch) be pushed, and that a "first mover advantage" be obtained by a sudden, big publicity campaign to establish the name early on. No doubt Andrew had thought of these already, but it's always useful to discuss your ideas in a confidential environment. 

It's pleasing to see a discussed product idea out in the market place, and I wish them success. Jackets can be purchased through the company's website.

14 July 2011

Kenneth Grange, industrial designer

Last night's Evening Standard had an interesting article on Ken (actually Kenneth) Grange, a British industrial designer, called "Meet the man who designed everything".

Kenneth Grange is now 82. His designs range from food mixers for Kenwood to cameras for Kodak to Anglepoise® lamps. He says that he is proudest of his design of British Rail's 125 train in 1968. The article quotes him as saying that "the real purpose of design is to make things better and to improve society."

I have to admit that I hadn't heard of him although I've seen his work in plenty of places. I wanted to look at some of his registered designs. Most of his work is for companies where the company name is likely to be given as the applicant, and the actual designer is not named on British registered designs. The American variant, design patents, do name the designer. Google Patents lists over 130 design patents by him.

There are also a number of patents by him, including Plessey's Telephone handset, which dates from 1989 and is illustrated here.

Telephone handset patent drawing 

Another is Warner Lambert's Device for keeping a razor, which dates from 1993, again illustrated below.

Device for keeping a razor patent drawing 

There is an interesting article on Grange in Wikipedia. Geange is the subject of a new exhibition at London's Design Museum, Designing Modern Britain, which starts 20 July, and ends 30 October. He is still active, designing door handles and a new chair has been launched for Hitch Mylius.

06 July 2011

The Wicab BrainPort: using the tongue to "see"

The July issue of Saga has an article by Roger Highfield called "Suck it and see" about a device named BrainPort, where placing a "lollipop" on the tongue, linked by wire to a video camera incorporated in dark glasses, enables blind persons to have some ability to "see".

It sounds like science fiction but apparently it works. The article says that the lollipop is a "400-electrode one-inch square sensor array". The tongue is very receptive to sensations. Wicab, who are based in Wisconsin, is the company behind the development, which is based on the research of the late neuroscientist Paul Bach-y-Rita.

This is a video showing the product in use.


The prototype has been tried out with considerable success. After 20 hours of training, 16 blind and 4 sighted but blindfolded persons were able to walk along a 40-foot obstacle course. It has been described as a low-resolution version of normal sight.

So how does it work ? The visual image in pixels translates to transducers applied to the tongue. Operating the lollipop feels like Champagne on the tongue, with white areas of the image creating strong pulses, black areas none, and grey in between. The first Briton to try the BrainPort, Lance Corporal Craig Lundberg, is said in the article to be able to "read words, identify shapes and walk unaided."

I looked of course for a patent specification, and Tactile input system, published in 2005 in the "world" system is clearly relevant.

Only one patent was cited against it as relevant in a later published search report, an American patent published in 1989. I was surprised to find it cited, as while it too uses tactile means, it does so in a different organ and to deal with a different disability: it's Jeffrey McConnell's Method and apparatus for communicating information representative of sound waves to the deaf. The main drawing is shown below.

Using sound waves to help the deaf patent drawing

The Wicab invention has not (yet) been granted rights. In Europe it has been "deemed withdrawn", see the official status entry, which mentions other "prior art". The US PAIRS status database states that the last "action" has been "mail non-final rejection", as of the 25 March 2011. A 11 page document available in that database explains why the examiner objected to the patent claims and the drawings: ask your local patent depository library if you are interested in seeing it.

The Wicab site gives more detail on this promising invention. The company will need permission to begin to market what is still a prototype both in the USA and in Europe.