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Science

Cebit award shows innovation doesn't always have to be innovative

Don't dismiss existing technology - use it in a new way instead. It could win you the CeBIT Innovation Award. This year's has gone to three young German startups in sport, urban design and cryptography.

Sometimes it really is a stupid idea to reinvent the wheel. And yet we try so hard when perhaps we should spend more time looking for new applications for - or iterations of - existing technology.

You could argue true innovation needs to break new ground. A radical disruption of established concepts. But sometimes all it takes is a fresh perspective to achieve something quite ingenious. Would we have invented the cogwheel if the wheel hadn't come before it? Probably not. And see how wheels and cogwheels have both stood the tests of time.

The three winners of the CeBIT Innovation Award 2016 are by no means radical. Their ideas redeploy existing technology to new ends, and for that they share a combined 100,000 euro ($110,000) cash prize.

First prize: climbtrack

Felix Kosmalla and Frederik Wiehr of the German Research Center for Artificial Intelligence in Saarbrücken were awarded first prize and a 50,000 euro check for climbtrack.

What's the innovation?

Climbtrack uses augmented reality to analyze and teach bouldering moves.

"We do assistive technologies for climbing," says Kosmalla. "And one of our newest components is the betaCube, which is a camera projection unit. You place it in front of an arbitrary climbing wall, it automatically calibrates itself, and you can do life-size video analysis. So you can record yourself [climbing a bouldering wall] and play the video back on the big wall and you see where you grabbed a hole, where you put your feet, and you can use it to explain new bouldering moves."

What am I seeing on the wall?

Cebit 2016 Innovation Award: Felix Kosmalla Foto: DW/Z. Abbany

Felix Kosmalla is just one half of the climbtrack team

"What we see is the recording of a climber, who climbed a certain route," says Kosmalla. "We see his shadow and we can copy him. We can pause the video and put ourselves in the exact same position, and learn the movements."

Is there a market for climbtrack?

"Climbing is a new trend sport," says Kosmalla. "There are a lot of new bouldering gyms opening up, so we think we can totally address that."

Second prize: ActiWait

Young developers Amelie Künzler and Sandro Engel took second place and a 30,000 euro cash prize for ActiWait. Their company Urban Invention is based in Hildesheim.

What's the innovation?

ActiWait is a "smart signal request device." The company aims to gamify pedestrian traffic lights. Sound strange? It is, but intriguing too.

Chief technology officer, Niklas Schulze, describes ActiWait as a "disruption wall," which prevents pedestrians from crossing the road when the light is red. How? By raising a barrier? Or by shooting them? No. A touchscreen at the lights draws pedestrians in with a 1980s-style computer game, like Pong.

Cebit 2016 Innovation Award: Niklas Schulze Foto: DW/Z. Abbany

Niklas Schulze says ActiWait is 'gamifying the urban space'

"We are gamifying the urban space," says Schulze. "And we want to get our device installed at as many crossings as possible."

He says ActiWait uses existing technology in a new way.

What if I get sucked in by the game, miss a green light, and try to cross anyway?

"When the lights go green the game stops," says Schulze. "It doesn't tell you to cross because we aren't allowed to display information concerning the status of the lights [for legal reasons], but as soon as the lights go green the game stops and you're forced to move along."

LRedit 3943 CeBIT Innovation Award 2016

Who said waiting for the light to change had to be boring?

Or you wait 20 seconds for the light to go red and start playing again.

Have you come up against any resistance to this idea?

"We've had a lot of positive feedback and cities are interested in getting it, so we're going into serial production in Q1 2017 [the first financial quarter of 2017]," says Schulze.

Third prize: Cryptomator

Tobias Hagemann and Sebastian Stenzel of Cryptomator took third prize, which comes with a 20,000 euro check. They got the award for "usable security and privacy."

What's the innovation?

Cryptomator is an encryption tool for securing individual data files you store in the cloud. It's similar to TrueCrypt, made famous after Edward Snowden's NSA revelations, and successors, such as VeraCrypt. But the difference is it encrypts each individual file rather than an entire drive.

Cebit 2016 Innovation Award: Tobias Hagemann Foto: DW/Z. Abbany

Cryptomator's Hagemann was awarded the prize for 'usable security and privacy'

"It's open source software for client-side encryption before your data gets to the cloud," says Hagemann. "And it's targeted at consumers."

"You create a vault and assign a password," he says. "When you later enter your password to unlock the vault it creates a virtual drive - like a USB flash drive - and you can interact normally with your data. The only thing [the cloud service] gets is the encrypted file and each file is encrypted individually, so it's not a big container, as with other solutions which are not optimal for cloud services. If you just change one file, only that one file is encrypted and uploaded to the cloud."

Isn't it a contradiction using open source technology for an encryption tool?

"It might look like a contradiction," says Hagemann, "but the only secret you have to keep is your password. The algorithms behind the encryption software, they have to be open source so security experts can review them - and we only use internationally standardized methods - so security software has to be open source to be secure."

How do you make money?

"Because it's open source, we have a "pay what you want" model, so you can download [a desktop version] and try it for free, and we would be happy for donations," says Hagemann. "On the other hand, we have a mobile application which you can get for a small fee in the Apple app store, and it's a one-time fee. We're launching an Android app, possibly in the autumn, which will also be for a small fee."

All three innovations are striking in their use of existing technologies. But that's what development is: building on what's gone before.

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