TV Room Tranquility, Revolutionary Robotics, Sweeter Swings

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Picture this pre-dinner scenario: Dad is catching up on today’s news, while Mom, an Oprah devotee, is taking note of the newest Book Club selection. The daughter is watching the new Kelly Clarkson video on MTV, as the son is finishing his season of Madden ’06 on the Playstation. The twist is, they’re all in the same room using the same television.

This is the vision of Francisco Martin-Rayo W’06, who hopes to revolutionize the way households watch TV. As he describes his invention, called VuShare, his excitement recalls a proud father relating the tale of his child’s first steps.

Martin-Rayo was among hundreds of Penn students who took part in this year’s Weiss Tech House PennVention and Wharton Business Plan competitions. For both annual contests, student-inventors and entrepreneurs compete in rigorous rounds of competition against their peers, showcasing their innovations while benefiting from the mentoring of experienced professionals. The winners receive prizes that range from cash to free legal counsel to office space.

Martin-Rayo’s VuShare, which won third place at PennVention ’06, uses a device about one-third the size of a standard cable box to split a television signal, so that two or more viewers can watch different channels or video input feeds using the same television. The viewers wear special goggles and headphones to receive the feed from the box.

This system, he contends, would vastly improve upon the current alternatives: picture-in-picture technology does not match VuShare’s sound and picture capabilities; Sharp’s new “Dual View” technology forces viewers to watch the screen at angles, which detracts from the intimacy of curling up on a couch with a loved one. Buying an extra TV isn’t the best solution, though it is the most common, Martin-Rayo says. “Forty percent of all American households already have three or more televisions. So there’s a problem, because now the mom has her television, dad has his television, and the daughter and the son have their televisions, but they aren’t spending any time together.”

After conferring with various venture capitalists about his business prospects, his focus now includes a potentially larger and more compatible market: video gaming. For multiplayer games, the screen is usually split into two, three, or four individualized sections. With VuShare technology, each player would be able to view his segment as a full screen with perfect clarity.

The grand-prize winner in both competitions this year was MuscleMorph, which has developed a power-efficient, lightweight motor for prosthetic and robotic applications. “Essentially, wherever something needs to be moved, our technology could potentially provide a novel, cost-effective solution,” says team leader Rodrigo Alvarez GEAS’05. “We build fibers of electroactive polymers that essentially stretch or contract when they are electrically activated, and whose performance matches that of biological muscles with comparable volume and weight. There is nothing else out there that can match the strength, strain, and speed in such a lightweight embodiment.”

The MuscleMorph motor also has the potential to function beyond the field of prosthetic implants. “Consumer cameras will benefit by using our technology to focus, zoom, and control exposure in a more compact, silent, smooth, and fast way,” Alvarez explains. Other uses may include powering robotic toys, medical devices, and automotive parts. Alvarez and his team hope to bring the technology to market in the next two years.

Other Wharton competition winners were Home Base, a call-center outsourcing agency that plans to hire military spouses to work out of their own homes, which won third prize; and Intellistem, a company working to improve on the shortcomings of current prosthetic implants, which took second prize. Intellistem, founded by Jared Bernheim and Jonathan Danoff (both EAS ’06), also won second prize at Pennvention last year [“Gazetteer,” July/Aug 2005], and the company is moving forward with animal trials of its technology.

Current prosthetics can grind against bone, causing bone depletion around the site of an implant and requiring costly surgeries to repair the damage, Danoff explains. Intellistem’s technology uses electrical stimulation to accelerate fracture recovery, increasing the current lifetime of joint-replacement devices. It uses the natural voltage generated by bone compression to stimulate bone growth. Winning the Wharton competition enhanced the inventors credibility, says Danoff, “because it tells investors and those interested in our company that we have a strong plan for bringing Intellistem to market.”

Second-place PennVention winner Erik de Brun GME ’06 has created a device to aid golfers like himself in the quest for the sweetest swing. The Octave Swing Trainer can be attached near the head of the club without impeding the grip. When the golfer swings, the device gauges the probable acceleration and trajectory of the shot and uses Bluetooth technology to transmit the results to the user’s cell phone or personal digital assistant. Players can then immediately adjust their form to prevent “slicing” or other technical problems from interfering with their game. “It’s inexpensive, easy to use, hopefully really fun and helpful,” de Brun says. Other athletes, including baseball players and tennis pros, could also use it to improve their technique, he adds. De Brun is awaiting approval on a patent before attempting to commercialize or license the product.

Both the PennVention and Wharton Business Plan competitions give student innovators and entrepreneurs a unique stage to showcase their talents and visions. “Financially, it helps a lot,” says Martin-Rayo, “but the most important part was the people you get to talk to. You have access to people like the founder of [Joshua Koppelman W’93] or the founder of Tiger Electronics [Roger Shifman] … [who] have started businesses which are tremendously successful. They can give you solutions you wouldn’t have thought of otherwise because of that experience.”

Carter Johns C’07

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