Last Saturday, I bought a new mattress. Haven't done that for a while, so I was surprised to discover that I had to wait a week before it would be delivered. "Yes, we make them on demand," the young woman said brightly. "No one keeps them in stock any more." And then she added, sotto voce: "Bed bugs."
It wasn't the "ew!" factor that caught my attention, but the idea that someone somewhere was actually making something for me. Of course, they weren't retooling their production line to suit my "Princess and the Pea" tendencies, but some designer had thought about what I might like. It was a welcome contrast to the generic, faceless feel of most products.
This summer I hung out with a bunch of students and professors who do exactly that: imagine men and women like us and create digital products that meet our needs.
They're working in Ryerson University's Digital Media Zone, a collaborative space that supports the commercialization of digital innovations from young entrepreneurs. It's a wonderful thing to behold: all of these super-bright people working across the traditional silos and with people from outside academe, too. Here are three of the inventions that have just emerged from this space (it opened last spring):
Burstn (Dave Senior and Josh Davey)
You take photos on your phone. Then you want to share them, but first you have to go to a site and upload them (or you can't be bothered and they linger on your phone). Sound familiar? Well, now you can use a brand-new service that allows you to share your photos automatically on Facebook and Twitter. Like them, tag them, follow your friends. And no need to do "context shots" because Burstn includes GPS. Yes, there's even an app for your iPhone. In fact, check out the founder's accounts to see how they're using Burstn. Here's Dave Senior. And Josh Davey. (Young people look away now, parents read on: imagine being able to look over your fledgling's shoulders on this first weekend at school. Shhh!)
Soapbox (Brennan McEachran)
Know London's Hyde Park soap box tradition? Where someone with an axe to grind -- or something beautiful to say -- climbs atop an upturned box and shares with passersby? Now there's a way for less vocal -- yet equally passionate -- students to share what's on their minds. They sign onto Soapbox, which invites them to make a comment, vote on each other's submissions and, in doing so, uncover the collective voice of the community. Even better, students aren't the only ones who see what rises to the top -- the administration does, too. Conversations happen. Stuff gets done. Students feel heard. What's not to love? Soapbox was launched as part of Ryerson's frosh weekend. Coming soon to a uni near you.
Mobile Transit Companion (Hossein Rahnama, Petar Karmaric, Justin Lam, Damyan Petkov, Alexey Adamsky)
When I met Val Fox, director of the DMZ, in May, she told me she was off to Paris. "Oh?," I replied, casually, as if I, too, am a regular in those environs. Turns out she was going for the prototype test of a DMZ-designed application for users of the Paris subway system. By law, the Paris Metro has to be completely accessible by 2014, and this gadget may be just the ticket. The MTC will recognize you when you enter the system (you fill out a profile when you download it to your phone), and give you the information you need. Tourist? Get directions and prompts at each stop. Local? Find out when the next train is due. In a wheelchair? Locate the closest elevator. Can't hear or type? Draw a letter on your screen, like E for elevator, or H for help. And if you choose "help" you'll get a message from a real-life operator assuring you that assistance is on the way. This is one smart gadget, that's designed with real people -- in all our complexity -- in mind.
All of these creative acts made me think of my grandfather, Jock Ritchie. He built houses. And he signed every one of them, usually on a piece of lumber inside a wall -- there to be discovered by future residents. I wonder if coders do the same thing, leaving traces of who they are deep inside the workings of the technology that finds its way into our lives?
More DMZ stories to come. In the meantime, check out the Ryerson University's Digital Media Zone site. You'll love the good works of the EDGE Lab (follow them on twitter, @edgelab), the eerily real augmented reality of ARB Labs, and the totally insane Sodoku3D.
One more "inventors" story (did you know that August was National Inventor's Month in the U.S.?). I'll be writing about some of these folks this fall, but thought you might like a sneak preview. BBC Earth has been running a fascinating series of people whose inventions were inspired by animals and plants. Not to be missed. (You can also follow the series on Facebook.)
One more New Radical update. It's not too late to register for the annual Peter C. Alderman Foundation walk -- raising funds to help support this foundation that works on behalf of victims of traumatic depression and PTSD around the world. Sept 10. Questions? firstname.lastname@example.org.
Julia Moulden is an author, speaker, and columnist. Follow Julia Moulden on Twitter to keep track of the New Radicals, and to hear more about her new book. For more, please see Julia Moulden's HuffPost archive.