Monday 2 February 2009

Innovative uses of technology to help people in trouble

I've always been interested in how people use technology for unintended (but positive) purposes. Two such stories I noticed over the Christmas break included some examples of technologies that were used to help people who had found themselves in a spot of trouble.

In the first, a Toyota Prius was used as a power generator during a three day snow storm blackout:

"The power lines were down, the neighborhood dark, but John Sweeney’s house was glowing with lights and his wife was watching television.

During an ice storm last week Sweeney, of Harvard, Mass., powered his house by hooking it up to his Toyota Prius. The Prius, a hybrid vehicle, starts the gasoline-burning mode of its engine every 30 minutes to recharge the battery with an internal generator. In turn, Sweeney ran his refrigerator and freezer, wood stove fan, lights and television off the car’s battery."

In the second example, an MP3 player used as torch by tourists stuck on a Swiss mountain - a spokesman for the mountain rescue service explained that:

"The two winter sports enthusiasts were found by the crew of the Rega helicopter shortly after midnight - thanks to the faint light of their MP3 player"

Did the designers imagine this use case for the technology they developed? Maybe in these examples its possible they did think about alternative uses, but I doubt very much that they became part of the design brief or marketing plan. On one hand this kind of innovation is amazing - particularly if its saves a life - but of course, it can be dangerous too. I use my mobile phone as torch all the time, but I'm not sure it would be a good idea for me to play around with connecting my car as a power source for my house!

To what unintended purposes are people in your organisation applying the technologies they have on hand to solve problems I wonder? Probably more than we think.


  1. Anonymous3:42 pm

    A light hearted use of technology for an unintended purpose at a previous workplace.

    Our annual Christmas party looked like being a bit of a fizzer, as the mountaintop restaurant had lost all power. Not sure how the restaurant managed to feed 150 hot meals on time, but when some brave souls got up (myself included) and danced to non-existent music, the DJ improvised a system for us that ran his ipod through his laptop speaker, with an oldfashioned megaphone acting as an amplifier.

    Sound quality was awful but it saved the day! Vikki

  2. That's a great story - particularly using the megaphone as an amplifier. The ipod is particularly interesting because it was designed as a personal music player, but of course music is by it nature something that is important in social events. So, it only natural we bend that technology to our needs... and eventually the marketing people caught up and there are now plenty of ipod docking stations with speakers.


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