Cardboard bicycle can change the world, says Israeli inventor


A bicycle made almost entirely of cardboard has the potential to change transportation habits from the world's most congested cities to the poorest reaches of Africa, its Israeli inventor says.

Izhar Gafni, 50, is an expert in designing automated mass-production lines. He is an amateur cycling enthusiast who for years toyed with an idea of making a bicycle from cardboard.

He told Reuters during a recent demonstration that after much trial and error, his latest prototype has now proven itself and mass production will begin in a few months.

“I was always fascinated by applying unconventional technologies to materials and I did this on several occasions. But this was the culmination of a few things that came together. I worked for four years to cancel out the corrugated cardboard's weak structural points,” Gafni said.

“Making a cardboard box is easy and it can be very strong and durable, but to make a bicycle was extremely difficult and I had to find the right way to fold the cardboard in several different directions. It took a year and a half, with lots of testing and failure until I got it right,” he said.

Cardboard, made of wood pulp, was invented in the 19th century as sturdy packaging for carrying other more valuable objects, it has rarely been considered as raw material for things usually made of much stronger materials, such as metal.

Once the shape has been formed and cut, the cardboard is treated with a secret concoction made of organic materials to give it its waterproof and fireproof qualities. In the final stage, it is coated with lacquer paint for appearance.

In testing the durability of the treated cardboard, Gafni said he immersed a cross-section in a water tank for several months and it retained all its hardened characteristics.

Once ready for production, the bicycle will include no metal parts, even the brake mechanism and the wheel and pedal bearings will be made of recycled substances, although Gafni said he could not yet reveal those details due to pending patent issues.

“I'm repeatedly surprised at just how strong this material is, it is amazing. Once we are ready to go to production, the bike will have no metal parts at all,” Gafni said.

Cardboard Bike

Israeli inventor Izhar Gafni rides his cardboard bicycle in Moshav Ahituv, Israel, on Sept. 24. Photo by REUTERS/Baz Ratner

Gafni's workshop, a ramshackle garden shed, is typically the sort of place where legendary inventions are born. It is crammed with tools and bicycle parts and cardboard is strewn everywhere.

One of his first models was a push bike he made as a toy for his young daughter which she is still using months later.

Gafni owns several top-of-the-range bicycles which he said are worth thousands of dollars each, but when his own creation reaches mass production, it should cost no more than about $20 to buy. The cost of materials used are estimated at $9 per unit.

“When we started, a year and a half or two years ago, people laughed at us, but now we are getting at least a dozen e-mails every day asking where they can buy such a bicycle, so this really makes me hopeful that we will succeed,” he said.

A ride of the prototype was quite stiff, but generally no different to other ordinary basic bikes.

“GAME CHANGER”

Nimrod Elmish, Gafni's business partner, said cardboard and other recycled materials could bring a major change in current production norms because grants and rebates would only be given for local production and there would be no financial benefits by making bicycles in cheap labour markets.

“This is a real game-changer. It changes … the way products are manufactured and shipped, it causes factories to be built everywhere instead of moving production to cheaper labour markets, everything that we have known in the production world can change,” he said.

Elmish said the cardboard bikes would be made on largely automated production lines and would be supplemented by a workforce comprising pensioners and the disabled.

He said that apart from the social benefits this would provide for all concerned, it would also garner government grants for the manufacturers.

Elmish said the business model they had created meant that rebates for using “green” materials would entirely cancel out production costs and this could allow for bicycles to be given away for free in poor countries.

Producers would reap financial rewards from advertisements such as from multinational companies who would pay for their logo to be part of the frame, he explained.

Cardboard Bike Construction

Israeli inventor Izhar Gafni demonstrates how he makes his cardboard bicycle in his workshop in Moshav Ahituv, Israel, on Sept. 24. Photo by REUTERS/Baz Ratner

“Because you get a lot of government grants, it brings down the production costs to zero, so the bicycles can be given away for free. We are copying a business model from the high-tech world where software is distributed free because it includes embedded advertising,” Elmish explained.

“It could be sold for around $20, because (retailers) have to make a profit … and we think they should not cost any more than that. We will make our money from advertising,” he added.

Elmish said initial production was set to begin in Israel in months on three bicycle models and a wheelchair and they will be available to purchase within a year.

“In six months we will have completed planning the first production lines for an urban bike which will be assisted by an electric motor, a youth bike which will be a 2/3 size model for children in Africa, a balance bike for youngsters learning to ride, and a wheelchair that a non-profit organisation wants to build with our technology for Africa,” he said.

CHEAP AND LIGHT

The bicycles are not only very cheap to make, they are very light and do not need to be adjusted or repaired, the solid tyres that are made of reconstituted rubber from old car tyres will never get a puncture, Elmish said.

“These bikes need no maintenance and no adjustment, a car timing belt is used instead of a chain, and the tyres do not need inflating and can last for 10 years,” he said.

A full-size cardboard bicycle will weigh around 9 kg (about 20 lbs) compared to an average metal bicycle, which weight around 14 kg.

The urban bicycle, similar to London's “Boris bikes” and others worldwide, will have a mounting for a personal electric motor. Commuters would buy one and use it for their journey and then take it home or to work where it could be recharged.

He said that as bicycles would be so cheap, it hardly mattered how long they lasted.

“So you buy one, use it for a year and then you can buy another one, and if it breaks, you can take it back to the factory and recycle it,” he said.

Gafni predicted that in the future, cardboard might even be used in cars and even aircraft “but that is still a way down the road.”

“We are just at the beginning and from here my vision is to see cardboard replacing metals … and countries that right now don't have the money, will be able to benefit from so many uses for this material,” he said.

Writing by Ori Lewis, editing by Paul Casciato

Science of hearing loss moving near speed of sound


The music coming from Bob Dylan and his band at the indoor concert is awesome, but what I can hear of his vocals suggests that people backstage are strangling frogs and stepping on ducks.

Sure, Dylan’s voice is throaty and growly, but he can articulate his songs as well as anyone. I know it from his CDs. At a distance of more than 50 yards from the stage, however, the form of his words, especially the higher frequencies of his consonants, are lost in the hurricane of sound from the mighty speakers and the reverberations of the theater’s vast interior.

If I were a hearing-impaired person, I might switch my hearing aid to the “T” setting and get the best of Bob with sound of near-studio CD quality, while the hearing-normal folks around me were still worrying about those frogs and ducks.

At least I could do that if the concert were taking place at the DeVos Performance Hall in Grand Rapids, Mich., or the Rialto Cinemas Lakeside in Santa Rosa. These are among the growing number of facilities equipped with induction loop systems that broadcast directly from the output of instruments and microphones to hearing aids equipped to receive them.

Science is ringing in a new era in the world of the hearing-impaired, and the technologies to accommodate, treat and prevent hearing loss — and even cure it — are advancing at almost sonic speed. And that’s welcome news, considering how doctors are wringing their hands over study after study predicting hearing loss for a generation that seems constantly connected, almost from birth, to MP3 players.

Age is the major cause of hearing loss, and your level of predisposition to it is genetic. If your parents lost hearing with age, it’s likely you will, too. Age-related hearing loss is found in about one-third of people older than 60 and half of people older than 80.

The hearing loss comes from breakdown of the “hair cells” in the cochlea (the spiral-shaped part of the inner ear containing the auditory nerve endings). There are some 16,000 to 20,000 of them in each ear, and each hair cell is believed to have about 100 tiny hairs known as stereocilia. Sound causes pressure variations in the cochlea, which makes the stereocilia vibrate and send impulses to the brain.

First lost with a combination of age and excessive sound — like loud music from your iPod — are the hair cells that resonate to higher frequencies, which is why speech becomes harder to understand as the ability to hear the higher frequencies of consonants disintegrates. But that could change, thanks to research at the House Ear Institute in Los Angeles.

“We’re developing totally implantable hearing aids, so we may some day implant a device allowing a person to hear without having an [external] aid,” said John House, the institute’s president.

Within five years, such hearing aids should be sufficiently developed that the institute will be implanting them in children on a regular basis, House said

Among other projects at the House Ear Institute are hearing aids that completely bypass the ear and wire sound directly into the brain.

“Many years ago, we developed a process of implanting electrodes directly applied to the surface of the brain in the area of what’s called the cochlear nucleus, where the nerve attaches to the brain,” House said. “Now we’re working on penetrating electrodes, not only to go on the surface but to penetrate the surface of the brain. That’s called a penetrating auditory brainstem implant. We’ve implanted eight or 10 now.”

Founded in 1946 by House’s father, Dr. Howard P. House, to advance hearing science and improve the quality of life, the institute is among the world’s leading centers of hearing-related research and education. The connection of hearing to cognitive function is taken seriously.

“We’re now screening newborns for hearing loss, something that was developed at the House Ear Institute,” House said, “identifying them at birth, rather than waiting until parents notice they’re not responding at the age of 1, or 2 or 3 years old.”

Besides surgical and other medical interventions, the institute also does research and development on hearing technologies, such as signal processing algorithms applicable in hearing aids. Hybrid electrical-mechanical hearing aids are another example: The cochlea is implanted with an electrode for high frequencies associated with subtle voice recognition, while standard hearing aids provide the lower frequencies.

“We’ve been working on that for the past five years, and it’s still investigational,” House said. “Maybe within five years, we’ll be able to implant hybrid [hearing aids] in people who have residual hearing but not enough to understand speech.”

The hearing aids of today are digital, with increasingly powerful microchips and software that can customize to the individual’s frequency spectrum of hearing loss and can adjust to the conditions of a noisy gymnasium or a quiet garden. Hearing aids are moving toward unprecedented abilities to convey subtleties like footsteps in another room, the sound of the wind, the nuances in music or the voices of loved ones.

“Analog tends to amplify everything, whereas with digital we can actually tune it to respond only to whatever frequencies are needed, and we can insert different programs so the hearing aid can respond to different sounds,” House said. “There have been tremendous advances in hearing aids in the last five years.”

One example, House said, is that of multiple-microphone hearing aids available just in the last two or three years, which help filter out background noise and tune in on close-up speech. The newest, he said, available in just the two or three years, is the “open-fit” hearing aid. It uses a narrow and inconspicuous tube to carry amplified higher frequencies into the ear, leaving the ear largely open to a natural inflow of the lower frequencies without completely plugging the ear like the traditional ear mold.

“In the past, hearing aids couldn’t do that because they couldn’t eliminate the squeal, the feedback problem,” House said.

Tinkerer reinvents airplane passenger seats to prevent clots


Like Henry Ford, Arnold (Arnon) Jonas is a garage tinkerer, but the Israeli native is ready to confer an even greater boon on mankind than the gasoline-powered automobile — to wit, a comfortable and healthful airplane seat.

Working out of his garage in Orange County, the self-taught Jonas has invented and patented an ergonomic plane seat that has won praise from medical specialists concerned about the danger of leg blood clots during long flights by immobile passengers.

Jonas became unhappily familiar with conventional plane seats during monthly business trips between California and Israel in the 1980s and ’90s. Rather than just kvetch, for Jonas’ discomfort became the mother of invention.

As he began to study the matter, Jonas learned that he had stumbled onto major health problems, known as deep vein thrombosis (DVT) and pulmonary embolism (PE).

In both conditions, long immobility causes blood to clot in one of the deep veins near the center of the leg and may eventually block the flow of blood to the heart and lungs.

In the United States, up to 200,000 people die each year from complications of DVT and PE, according to the American Public Health Association, almost twice as many deaths as from AIDS, breast cancer and highway accidents combined. And a New Zealand study found that up to one in every 100 long-distance fliers could develop blood clots.

The condition is informally known, for obvious reasons, as the “economy-class syndrome,” but upscale passengers are not immune.

Vice President Dick Cheney, flying in the luxurious comfort of Air Force Two, had to be treated for DVT during a 25,000-mile tour of Asia last March.

For Jonas, it got to the point that “even thinking about taking a flight gave me a pain.” He tried putting cushions or wooden slats under his thighs and knees, but nothing helped.

A lesser man, especially one with only a high school education and no engineering background, might have grumbled and then gotten on with his life, but not Jonas.

“I have always had an entrepreneurial spirit,” said the 62-year old native of Hadera, about halfway between Tel Aviv and Haifa, and a veteran of the Six-Day and Yom Kippur wars.

Without any journalistic experience, Jonas said he rose from ad salesman to owner of three successful small-town weeklies. In 1986, Jonas sold his newspapers, though he retained an advisory position, and moved to the United States. He and his wife live in Laguna Woods.

In the early ’90s, Jonas started to think about constructing a better plane seat. He studied DVT in medical books and went to Home Depot to buy some basic tools and material.

Next, he bought two standard coach seats from KLM Royal Dutch Airlines and began modifying them. The Dutch also provided computer modeling of the seats, and by 2001 Jonas had completed two demonstration models, which he named NewSit1 and NewSit2.

They look like regular plane seats, but consist of two sections. At the push of a button, the front section of the seat rises, lifting the passenger’s legs slightly off the ground, allowing them to dangle or move back and forth in a rocking chair motion.

Both the swinging motion itself and the pressure of the calf muscle on the seat cushion on the downswing increase circulation. As a bonus, Jonas said, the seat makes for more comfortable sitting and sleeping positions.

NewSit received an encouraging scientific imprimatur recently in a study by Dr. Harry Abramowitz and professor David Gertz of the vascular surgery unit at Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem.

In a paper published in the Annals of Vascular Surgery, the two scientists reported on tests by 25 volunteers.

“After sitting in the conventional (airline) seat, volunteers saw the venous volume of their legs swell by about 26 percent, while after sitting in the modified [Jonas] chair, swelling increased by just 3 percent. This means that the blood circulation was close to normal [in the Jonas seat],” the study reported.

Jonas has spent “a few hundred thousand dollars” on his research (“My wife thinks I’m meshuggeh,” he acknowledged) and is now looking for investments of some $30 million to put NewSit into production.

Once manufactured in quantity, Jonas calculates, NewSit would raise the current $2,500 cost of a regular coach seat by $600.

So far, airlines have not been beating a path to the inventor’s door. Jonas blames this on the inertia of a civilian aviation industry averse to any changes in the established design.

He also points to legal implications. Passengers have been filing lawsuits against carriers for flight-induced DVT, and switching to NewSit might be taken as an implicit admission that standard seats caused or aggravated the problem.

On an encouraging note, a couple of weeks ago Jonas signed an agreement for marketing his chair with YISSUM, the technology transfer arm of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

Jonas is expanding his horizons. “I’m sure the NewSit concept can also benefit wheelchair users,” he said, “or any other person forced to sit in the same position for hours on end.”

For a graphic demonstration of the NewSit chair and further details, visit www.newsit.org.

Israeli photo application promises more beautiful you


If the camera could lie, would you let it?

Three Israeli computer scientists from Tel Aviv University have developed the ultimate enhancement tool for retouching digital images. Called the Beauty Function, their program scans an image of your face, studies it and produces a slightly more beautiful you.

Introduced at a conference in Boston recently after more than three years of work, the Beauty Function is the inspiration of Tel Aviv University’s Daniel Cohen-Or and Tommer Leyvand.

In developing the Beauty Function, they asked 300 men and women to rank pictures of peoples’ faces — with varying degrees of beauty — on an attractiveness scale of 1-7. The scores were correlated to detailed measurements and ratios of facial features, such as nose width, chin length and distance from eyes to ears.

Some 250 measurement points were taken into account and, once formulated, researchers developed an algorithm that let them apply some of the desired elements of attractiveness — as mathematical equations — to a fresh image.

The result is a computer program that within minutes can decide how to make you more beautiful. Larger eyes perhaps? A less-crooked nose? How about lips slightly closer to the chin?

When carried out on a large number of sample images, volunteers agreed that 79 percent of time the effects of the Beauty Function — which can be applied to both men and women — made a face more attractive.

Photo-editing software companies such as Adobe (manufacturer of Photoshop) are potential customers of the new tool, and researchers hope it will also become a must-have add-on for all digital cameras in the future, “just like the red-eye function is today,” Leyvand said.

Like a true scientist, Leyvand has also tried using the Beauty Function on himself and family members. One relative told him that she was pleased with the output.

“She told me, ‘Now I know what I need to do to improve my makeup application,'” Leyvand said.

“If you can understand what the algorithm of the Beauty Function has chosen to do on your face,” he added, “it can help you accentuate parts of yourself deemed more attractive. You might want to use more lipstick to make your lips fuller.”

Plastic surgeons, he adds, may find it helpful to increase business. With a flick of a switch they can show people how minor alterations on the face and neck can enhance attractiveness.

Chances are most people will opt to keep enhancements in the realm of the digital world. And there is a need: It is no big secret that celebrities and models are being digitally enhanced in pictures and magazines. Why shouldn’t all of us enjoy some of that picture-perfect retouching too?

“Beauty is not in the eye of the beholder,” co-researcher Cohen-Or said. “Beauty is merely a function of mathematical distances or ratios. And interestingly, it is usually the average distances to features which appears to most people to be the most beautiful.”

“I don’t know much about beauty and I don’t pretend that I do,” he added, “but the nice thing about this project is that we didn’t intend or aim to define beauty. We don’t care about the reasons that make someone appear to be more beautiful. For us, every picture is just a collection of numbers.”

Leyvand and Cohen-Or envision that such a tool will be used for producing the ultimate dating site picture, and as a one-stop-shop enhancement tool for photo editors at glossy magazines.

Whatever the purpose behind using Beauty Function, the researchers are confident it will make a splash in the photo-editing world. Unlike existing software that relies on human intervention to decide what changes to make, the Beauty Function uses the computer to decide. Also, current touch-up software has magazine editors complaining of doctored images looking “cartoony” and little like the original. By comparison, the output of the Beauty Function looks natural.

Since its unveiling in Boston, the response to the Beauty Function has been overwhelming: Media, including New Scientist and Forbes, have been eager to report on a computer program that can change the landscape of digital photography.

The Beauty Function idea started around the time Leyvand had finished his master’s degree in 2003. Lingering around the computer science lab at Tel Aviv University, he continued to ping-pong ideas off his former mentor, Cohen-Or. Together they decided to build on a body of work in the area of computer learning, which was started by Dr. Gideon Dror at the Academic College of Tel-Aviv-Yaffo.

“When I thought about what he did, I thought about using his idea to guide an actual change towards making a picture more beautiful,” Leyvand recalled.
Today, Leyvand is in Redmond, Wash., working for Microsoft as a computer developer, while Cohen-Or has taken on the task of commercializing the beauty software.

As part of his ongoing work as a computer scientist, Cohen-Or also works with the notion of finding a similar beauty function related to color. Color harmonies exist, he said, yet not a lot has been done with aesthetics and color. Finding or matching the right harmonies of color — opposites or colors belonging to the same hue — can have a big impact on advertising and art, he believes.

But with or without color, the Beauty Function is bound to impact the way snapshots of our faces are taken and processed.

“Think about how great this could be for a professional photographer at a photo shoot,” Leyvand said. “Normally they take hundreds of pictures to capture the right expression for the perfect shot. It is a rare combination of light, camera position and angle of the face that makes the perfect picture.

“Getting that moment is a kind of magic. I think with our software we can capture that magic moment every single time.”


Tel Aviv University Homepage:
‘ TARGET=’_blank’>http://www.cs.tau.ac.il/~tommer/

Daniel Cohen-Or’s page:
‘ TARGET=’_blank’>http://www2.mta.ac.il/~gideon/

Karin Kloosterman is a freelance writer for ISRAEL21c, a media organization focusing on 21st century Israel.

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