‘Ideas for Good’ competition repurposes technology for greater good

Credit: Adelaide Cole/Art Editor Credit: Adelaide Cole/Art Editor

Toyota conducted an experiment in democracy last November, when the company presented the following challenge: If we gave you Toyota technologies, how could you, the public, imagine using them in a way that would benefit humanity?

The competition Ideas for Good was born in just this way, seeking plans to creatively repurpose five different Toyota technologies. Submissions lasted until the end of February 2011, at which time a panel of gurus from around the country whittled down the pool to five finalists for each technology. After public voting online in April, the company selected a winning submission for each technology.

In April, however, this national competition took on a more local Pittsburgh flavor.

Deeplocal, a Pittsburgh-based design company formed by Carnegie Mellon alumnus Nathan Martin, indicated on Twitter in April that it was teaming up with Toyota on Ideas for Good to transform the winning designs into working prototypes. Deeplocal enlisted the expertise of Carnegie Mellon’s Robotics Institute, asking robotics professor Illah Nourkbakhsh, research engineer Josh Schapiro, and a handful of students for additional help.

“Ideas are everywhere,” Martin said in a promotional video for Ideas for Good, “but when you take an idea into the physical world you’re going to learn a lot more about it.” This was the intention behind the early June weekend of frenetic prototyping on Carnegie Mellon’s campus. “You’re going to learn some of the things you might have otherwise taken for granted,” he said.

“Pure Air,” the winning submission by inventor Tim Witmer from Houlton, Maine, repurposed Toyota’s Solar Powered Ventilation system (which normally adorns the Prius) to reduce cook stove emissions in confined spaces. Woodstoves and meat-cooking, especially when confined in huts or tents, are potent sources of ultrafine particulate emissions, which are linked to both asthma and mortality. Low-electricity fans powered by the Prius solar panel helped rapidly remove cooking emissions from a temporary hut constructed outside of the Gates Hillman Complex.

Near the hut, a fire truck was parked outside of the Gates garage, where designers and engineers used the concept of Toyota’s Advanced Parking Guidance System (APGS) to create a kind of ‘smart’ fire ladder. “The original thought was to guide the ladder without human involvement, but we scrapped that,” said Carnegie Mellon engineer Joshua Schapiro, who was a part of the project. The logistics of borrowing a fire truck from the Pittsburgh Fire Department made fully automating the system an unrealistic goal for the weekend. Instead, the team focused on collecting a robust variety of data (e.g. infrared images, temperature, and air quality), from a custom sensor-array. This information was then relayed to a computer where a firefighter could safely and intelligently guide the ladder from a distance.

The other winning technologies included the “Power Plant Gym,” which employs the hybrid drive system to harness energy from weight and cardio equipment and turn it into electricity; “Build a Better Bicycle Helmet,” which applied an injury-simulation software model to identify weaknesses in existing bike helmet design; and lastly, an ergonomic computer keyboard and mouse that use touchscreen sensor and visualization technology from Toyota steering wheels.

“Prototyping Weekend was reminiscent of a science fair for grown ups,” wrote the authors of the Deeplocal blog, reflecting on the weekend. The weekend was one of jubilation and creativity, especially for the winners of the contest, who were flown in to be a part of the event. “Carnegie Mellon is the perfect place [where] people with completely different disciplines can all come together with crazy ideas, work it out in a weekend,” said Nourkbakhsh in the Ideas for Good promo video. Three weeks ago, was launched. And since Toyota has donated the rights to the winning ideas to Carnegie Mellon, as well as $100,000, stay tuned for what comes next with Ideas for Good.