America's Next Killer Ideas From Google, Under Armour, and More

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A flashlight that finds cancer. Fake leaves that turn sunlight into fuel. A shirt that tells you if you're feeling sluggish. They're all real products, and they're all right here, in The Atlantic's "Killer Ideas" series.

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Where great ideas really come from. A special report

What does the next generation of innovation look like? We wanted know. So we got in touch with some of the most famous and creative companies and research universities in the country with a very simple request.

Tell us the coolest thing you're working on.

Below are the best responses from the last three weeks. It's a kaleidoscopic range of products and ideas, from bendable smartphones to a $100 DNA-sequencing machine to a brand new Internet. These are the coolest ideas in America right now.


GOOGLE
A Personal Translator on Your Phone

The problem: You're in a foreign country. You don't speak the language, even a little. You want directions to the nearest bus stop. How do you ask a local who doesn't speak English?

The idea: Google's "Conversation Mode" is a real-time polyglot and translator living in your smart phone. It listens to a sentence -- "Where is the bus stop?" Then it displays the translation within seconds, and reads back the sentence in the foreign language so you can have a (nearly!) seamless conversation with somebody in a foreign country who doesn't speak a lick of English.

Google is traveling around the world collecting speech samples from native speakers to expand their speech recognition technology, called Voice Search. They've added 20 new languages in the past year. Fourteen are available for instant translation on Conversation Mode.

The potential: You're in a foreign country. You don't speak the language, even a little. You want directions to the nearest bus stop. You ask your phone. Your phone displays the translated sentence. You show the displayed translation to a local. She speaks the answer back into the phone. The phone translates her response back into English. Voila! It's down the street to the left.



CALTECH
Artificial Leaves That Turn Sunlight Into Fuel

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Caltech

The problem: Human beings have a big appetite for energy. Meanwhile, the sun is the largest source of power in the solar system, but it doesn't play a big role in our energy diet.

The idea: Caltech is creating artificial leaves that can produce fuels directly from sunlight, water and carbon dioxide to fuel cars and heat homes. The artificial leaf prototypes are composed of thin sheets of plastic embedded with light-absorbing materials that can absorb sunlight and water vapor, and emit hydrogen or methanol.

The awesomely named project, the Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis (JCAP). is a $122 million energy hub established by President Obama and the Department of Energy.

The potential: A cheaper and cleaner energy future.



UNDER ARMOUR
A Shirt That Measures Heart Rate and G-Force
underarmour.pngThe problem: We know if an athlete -- say, a football player -- is performing at a high level. That's what statistics are for, like yards receiving and dropped passes. But there are some statistics we don't know that would help coaches and players understand their performance in real time -- like heart rate, running speed, and the impact of violent hits. If only we could measure vital information instantaneously with a computer attached to players' bodies on the field...

The idea: There's a shirt for that! It's the Under Armour E39, and it might be the most sophisticated shirt in the world. A computer built into the front can measure heart rate, breathing rate and G-force and send the information out to computers to run real-time analysis on how the athletes are performing.

The potential: If coaches knew more about athletes' vital stats, they could make smarter decisions about who to sit and who to play based on who seemed injured, who seemed tired, or who just wasn't trying terribly hard. If they knew more about G-force, they could keep players with a concussion history off the field after a big hit. If players knew more about their performance on a second-to-second basis, they could tailor their workouts to improve their play and monitor their progress.



MASTERCARD
The Post-Plastic Credit Card

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Intel

The problem: It's 8:45am, and you're running late for work. You go to pay for your morning coffee only to realize that your wallet is missing. Your mind races. Is it at home, or worse, did you lose it during your commute? How are you going to get through the day wallet-less?

The idea: MasterCard's PayPass technology lets consumers use their phones to simply "tap and go" to pay for goods at more than 144,000 merchant locations in the U.S. Across Europe, Asia, and Africa, PayPass has rolled out to over 37 countries and is being incorporated into several different payment platforms -- from cards to wristbands, keyfobs to mobile devices.

PayPass' reach is also moving beyond the physical world to change the way consumers pay online. MasterCard and Intel recently announced plans to enable customers to purchase goods online with a simple tap of their PayPass-enabled device on Intel-powered Ultrabooks.

The potential: In the not-so-distant future, MasterCard sees a world beyond plastic cards enabled by new payment technologies like PayPass. Since every smart device will eventually become a commerce device, consumers will be able to shop with their phones, tablets, game consoles and PCs with a simple and secure tap, click or touch.



FACEBOOK
A Friends-Based Solution to Online Security

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The problem: Hackers are out there. But also out there are regular, honest people who have a tendency to forget their passwords. What's the simplest way to design a password retrieval and verification program that's easy and effective?

The idea: Facebook is using your friends to protect you. One way is the "Trusted Friends" program. You pick three friends who are "trusted," and if there's a problem with your log-in, Facebook can send them a special code they can forward to you.

In another security project, Facebook would verify your identity by showing you a few pictures of your friends and asking you to write their names. "Hackers halfway across the world might find a way to get your password," Facebook explained, "but they don't know who your friends are."

The potential: A social solution to hacking and authentication problems.


GE
A Real-Time Energy Dashboard For Your House

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GE

The problem: The price of lighting and heating a home and running all of its appliances keeps rising. The typical energy bill for an American household is $1,400 per year. What's a smart, way to help households save money -- not the mention the environment?

The idea: GE's Nucleus energy manager is an odometer for your house's energy use. The size of a phone charger, it's a data storage device that measures electricity use and offers a minute-to-minute estimation of utility costs that families can track on their personal computers (see picture below).

The potential: Today, consumers don't know what they're spending on energy until they see the monthly utility bill. The Nucleus energy manager would give them a real-time dashboard. Dave McCalpin, general manager, home energy management, GE Appliances & Lighting put it this way: "GE's Nucleus energy manager was developed to provide near real-time information for more control over household energy costs and consumption. It serves as the command center for energy and cost conscious homeowners to make smarter, more informed decisions."


IBM
The $100 DNA-Sequencing Machine

The problem: Learning to sequence DNA fast and cheap might be the most important challenge in health technology. Understanding each patient's full genetic sequencing would give doctors X-Ray vision into their patients' unique makeup and future diseases. There's one big catch. Gene sequencing costs tens of thousands of dollars.

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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