Roger Fillion: Creative juices are flowing in Colorado. That was clear at an unusual event held last month in Denver at the Cable Center. The Colorado Inventor Showcase gave inventors from across the state a venue to show off dozens of their newfangled creations.
They included a recyclable ice cream cone holder that not only protects cone enthusiasts from unwanted drips – but the spent holder can also help the Earth because it can get tossed onto a compost heap.
Another invention: all-terrain roller skates that pack an independent suspension system that cushions the wearer against bumps and jumps.
There were more esoteric creations, such as a Zen swing billed as "great" for meditating, relaxing and entertaining – not to mention its "possible" use as a therapy for autism.
And there were inventions with business applications, such as a small robot that can handle super-precision work measured in nanometers.
"There is significant talent in Colorado," said futurist Thomas Frey, executive director of the DaVinci Institute, a Louisville think tank that sponsored the inventor event. "Most of it is happening under the radar."
Here are stories behind three of the inventions. They were among those singled out for recognition by a panel of judges, which included a reporter from the Rocky Mountain News.
The 1999 Columbine High School shootings inspired Yuriy Umanskiy to create a video technology to help police officers combat gun-toting criminals.
His Centennial company – Tactical Video Solution – developed a small video camera that fits on the butt of a pistol.
A police officer pursuing an armed suspect on foot could point the camera – via the gun’s butt – around a corner to see where the person might be lurking.
Instead of having to use a mirror to peek, the officer can look at a small monitor worn on the wrist. It shows what the camera sees. The system’s power supply and microprocessor are worn inside a small pouch. An infrared system allows the camera to be used at night.
"Our system can work in any light conditions," said Umanskiy, who came to this country from Russia in 1995. He said he has used feedback from police officers to guide the system’s development.
The invention won Umanskiy and his company the Colorado Inventor of the Year award at the Colorado Inventor Showcase.
Recalling Columbine, Umanskiy said he was glued to the TV on April 20, 1999, watching events unfold. It was then he envisioned the video technology, thinking it would have helped law-enforcement officers handle the situation more quickly – and with fewer deaths.
So far, Umanskiy and his three partners have produced 100 of the camera systems for Tac-Arts LLC, a Highlands Ranch distributor of law-enforcement equipment founded by former police officers.
"It’s a pretty big and dramatic life-saving tool," said Tac-Arts owner Todd Stevens. His company tested and evaluated the technology, sending it to police departments around the world for their comments.
The suggested retail price: $700. Umanskiy said a wireless version of the system could sell for less than $1,000, if his tiny company got more financial backing. He’s seeking investors.
So far, Tactical Video Solution’s four limited partners have used their personal savings to bankroll the company, which was founded in 2004.
They produced the initial 100 cameras by hand in their homes. "We have no employees," said Umanskiy.
At least not yet.
Fort Collins inventor Neil Skinn remembers when rock guitar legend Jimmy Page called him at 4 a.m. Mountain time from Britain. It was 16 years ago. Page was interested in Skinn’s invention, a self-tuning electric guitar.
Page became a customer. He owns three models of the computerized guitar and is an endorser of Skinn’s company, TransPerformance, and its guitar.
But it’s been a wild ride for Skinn and the guitar. His company ceased operations in 2000 amid a lack of sales and a failed marketing plan that targeted big stars.
But TransPerformance is back in business as a three-person operation. It has a new product and a new business plan targeting consumers.
And at the Colorado Inventor Showcase, Skinn got good news. The prototype for the company’s new lower cost self-tuning guitar took first place in the consumer products division.
The retail price for the new guitar, due out next year, is expected to be $600 to $800.
"It’s consumer friendly price- wise," said Skinn.
The company’s existing models cost more than $3,000, owing to the steeper prices for parts and labor.
Skinn calls the self-tuning guitars "a miracle of modern science." Some 200 have been made since 1998.
The new prototype required considerable effort to work out the kinks. What was the hardest thing?
"Getting the software right," said TransPerformance Vice President Frank Strazzabosco.
Here’s how the guitar works. A small computer inside controls motors linked to each string. They adjust the string tension to conform to a preprogrammed tuning.
The self-tuning system replaces the guitar’s existing bridge and the tailpiece, which holds the balls of the strings.
The guitarist can touch a button on the guitar or depress a foot switch to activate the system. The whole process takes a few seconds.
"It reduces the need for additional guitars and takes the hassle out of tuning," according to the TransPerformance Web site.
Tens of thousands of distinct tunings are said to be possible. The existing – and costlier – "Performer" system can be retrofitted to any Gibson Les Paul, Fender Telecaster or Fender Stratocaster guitar.
The new, cheaper commercial model will be able to fit on "most guitars," according to Skinn.
In addition to Page, existing TransPerformance customers are said to include Graham Nash, Eddie Van Halen and Pete Townshend.
The year: 1995. British architect Peter Arnold was vacationing in the steamy Turkish port of Bodrum, on the Aegean Sea, when a eureka moment struck.
It inspired the creation of a high-tech personal cooling device that’s designed to combat heat stress and heatstroke for people on the go.
The conditions in Bodrum that day: 110 degrees Fahrenheit; 100 percent humidity; zero air conditioning. After a few hours of sightseeing, an exhausted Arnold plopped down at a -cafe and ordered a cold soda pop.
"Before taking a drink, I took off my baseball cap and rolled the can across my temples and forehead," recalled Arnold. Bingo! He felt refreshed. "Why don’t we have anything like that?" Arnold asked himself.
Today, Arnold’s two-man Boulder company, It’s Kool, has developed a cooling band that soldiers, cyclists, runners and others can wear inside a helmet, hat or sweatband. It received an honorable mention at the Colorado Inventor Showcase.
Thermoelectric technology – which converts electricity into cooling power – drives the rechargeable device.
The band is designed to prevent the blood temperature in a person’s forehead or temples from rising to 101.4 degrees Fahrenheit.
There and above, said Arnold, a person’s reflexes slow, and their ability to think clearly deteriorates.
The patented device combines a circuit board and a tiny battery, among other components. They’re embedded on a flexible band that can be inserted into clothing.
The opposite side of the band – the side facing the skin – contains ceramic "cold spots" that are thermoelectric coolers. The cold spots typically are worn against the forehead and temples.
"That’s where all the blood to the brain goes through," Arnold said.
The cold spots emit temperatures ranging from 70 degrees to 80 degrees Fahrenheit.
"It’s a cool temperature against the skin," said Arnold.
The device weighs about 2 1/2 ounces, about the same as a wristwatch. The battery will provide up to eight hours of operation between recharges.
Prices are expected to range from about $25 for a cooling band that could go in a baseball cap to about $65 for customized installation inside a combat helmet.
It’s Kool has been talking with manufacturers of combat helmets about possible financing. The company hopes to introduce its products on a commercial basis by next fall.
"That depends on our funding and how we move forward on that basis," said Arnold.
• Inventor: Neil Skinn, of Fort Collins
• Invention: self-tuning electric guitar uses a built-in computer to adjust string tension, replacing the guitar bridge and tailpiece.
• Suggested retail price: $3,000-plus for the "Performer"; new model due out in 2006 expected to cost $600 to $800.
Tactical Video Solution
• Inventor: Yuriy Umanskiy, of Centennial
• Invention: Small video camera on the butt of a pistol to extend a police officer’s view around a corner
• Suggested retail price: $700
• Inventor: Peter Arnold, of Boulder
• Invention: 2 1/2-ounce battery-operated personal cooling device, with thermoelectric ceramic cool spots on a flexible band worn against the forehead and temple to cool the blood
• Suggested retail price: Expected to be $25 to $65