1. Artificial Muscle
Mohsen Shahinpoor, a New Mexico professor turned inventor-entrepreneur, is creating muscle from Teflon and other sinewy synthetic materials that turn out to be good conductors and excellent sensors. While Shahinpoor and his company, Albuquerque-based Environmental Robots, wait for FDA approval for the muscles' potential medical uses, they're selling faux muscle material to nanotechnology research groups around the country and $79 science kits that let people create their own artificial muscles at home.
2. Home Videos Straight to Digital
For a fee, Digital Silo, based in Highland Park, Ill., will convert all your home videos to digital format, and you can even store and display them on the company's secure website. (You also receive a DVD of your old tapes.) All grandma needs is Internet access and a password, and she can log in from anywhere to see what the kids have been up to. Video conversion costs start at $45 an hour.
3. The Pentop
LeapFrog, based in Emeryville, Calif., has created a "pentop" computer, a talking computerized pen that looks a lot like an electronic toothbrush. The $99 gadget can help users translate words into other languages, compose music, and solve math problems. The pen, called FLY, interacts specifically with "FLY Paper," which is covered with tiny, interactive dots. Users write with the pen on the special paper, and the pen's computer recognizes the written words or images, much like some PalmPilots do. The pen then reacts by speaking a response. A user could, for example, draw a calculator on FLY Paper and enter a calculation, and the pen would speak the answer.
4. Online Aromatherapy
Japanese electronics manufacturer Mirapro has developed an aroma generator shaped like a crystal ball and outfitted with a nozzle for emitting blends of lavender, sandalwood, lemongrass, and other oils. NTT Communications, a Japanese Internet service provider, is running an experiment in Tokyo that asks people to send their birthdate to a website that triggers the generator to conjure up a perfumed blend.
5. Pennies From Heaven
A Waltham, Mass., company called Peppercoin is gambling on the idea that micropayments -- payments of $5 or less -- will be the next big thing in the financial services world. Peppercoin is rolling out software to facilitate payments to parking meters, vending machines, kiosks, jukeboxes, and cafeterias. The company recently partnered with Reino Parking Systems, in Alameda, Calif., to introduce sleek, futuristic meters that use Peppercoin software to accept credit cards, debit cards, and even payments by phone.