This past year, five 1998 graduates of the College of Visual and Performing Arts' Industrial Design program nearly parlayed an award-winning project into a patent.|
"The patent processwhether you go all the way through it and receive a patent or notis a valuable learning experience for students," says Don Carr, professor of industrial design and the group's advisor.
In the case of Chris Cotsonas, Aaron Double, Matt Heller, Kevin Lindberg, and Chris McCullough, a design called "Flying Hands" seemed to take on a life of its own, carrying the quintet through a series of experiences that culminated with a patent search and a trip to Germany.
In the fall 1996 semester, Carr assigned the fourth- year industrial design students to improve on the idea of the traditional computer keyboard. The project, which the students called Biolink, required them to develop a product that would work within the constraints of the computer marketplace and be a viable alternative to existing products. "As a designer, you have to ask questions of objects that we take for granted and struggle with every day," he says. "How we interrelate with information sets up all kinds of potentials for the evolution of interaction with information."
Flying Handsone of several design concepts that emerged from the classcapitalizes on a range of three-dimensional movements, providing oval-like resting spaces with sensors for the palms and pad-like switch attachments for the fingers. The design evolved from appearance model to working prototype when it was recognized as one of the top 34 entries in an international student design contest sponsored by Audi. The team was awarded $3,000, which it used to further develop the design. They also received an honorable mention citation from I.D., an international design magazine; and netted a bronze prize and $2,000 in the LG Electronics Design Competition last fallthe only American entry to do so. Last spring the team traveled together to Germany for the Audi award. During the process, they consulted with Dr. David Warner of the Center for Really Neat Research at SU, who provided them with feedback and helped them interface the model with a personal computer. They also sought advice from ergonomics experts at the Rochester Institute of Technology.
The Audi competition was our first taste of success for the project and we realized other people were enthusiastic about it and saw a future for it," says Lindberg '98. "It was two years of taking an idea and exploring it as far as we could. It was very much an evolutionone thing leading to another. When we got to the point of looking into patenting itthat became a very real experience. We weren't as concerned with getting it patented as we were with going through the experience and seeing how everything was done. It made us realize how specific and complicated the real world is, and we also realized how a lot of people have ideas that touch upon the same areas."|
The Office of Sponsored Programs supported the patent search and assessment through the University's patent attorneys. The search turned up enough similar prior art to prompt the University not to pursue protection rights, but the investment was well worth it, says Lorrie Anthony of OSP. "We had five student inventors who got one heck of an education. These kids are very creative; somewhere down the line they will undoubtedly be involved in decisions of whether to patent a product. Now they have a leg up on the process and know what decisions have to be made."
Carr knows what the students will face in the future. He has received numerous design patents while working in the corporate world. And, prior to joining the SU faculty, he sold the rights to an electronic sensor to K2, which the company now uses in skis and snowboards. To enhance the classroom experience, Carr invites a patent attorney to talk to students about the different forms of protection, including various kinds of patents and copyrights. "For the Flying Hands patent process, the students had to describe their idea and explain its novelty in layman's terms, writing up a description so the search could be conducted," Carr says. "After that, they read through all the existing patents that related in any way. This really helps them understand the process and they begin to see if they have something truly unique.
"The world has its constraints," he adds. "But if designers don't develop concepts such as Flying Hands, we'll all be banging away on the same old keyboards forever."