The 8 wackiest inventions of 2011

From caffeinated inhalers to a beer can Transformer, this year has had more than its share of funky innovations

A eerily realistic mask of your own face
(Image credit: Facebook/REAL-f)

If necessity is the mother of innovation, then novelty must at least be its cousin. Just look at some of the last year's rather odd inventions, from polar bear robots to a cyborg-like eyeball:

1. The disturbingly accurate mask of your own face

A Japanese startup called REAL-f began selling "three-dimensional photo forms," or frighteningly realistic masks of human faces made from a chloride resin modeled on several photos of a person's face taken from a variety of angles and positions. (See some samples here.) If you have a spare $4,000, said Mariella Moon at Tecca, it's essentially "the best Halloween mask ever."

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2. The world's lightest material

A team of researchers in Southern California created the "world's lightest" material, a "microlattice" capable of sitting atop a feathery dandelion without damaging its seeds. (See a demo here.) What's its secret? Tubes of ultra-durable nickel, each 1,000 times thinner than a human hair, that together form a spongy, ultra-lightweight material. Just don't take it out on a windy day.

3. The caffeine you can inhale

Hate the taste of coffee, but need a fog-clearing jolt of caffeine? AeroShot is probably for you. This caffeinated inhaler, invented by a Harvard professor, gives you a shot of powdered caffeine with each puff. The caffeine dissolves in the mouth and goes instantly into your system. Good news, says Suzanne Labarre at Fast Company, especially for "Red Bull-pounding college kids."

4. The polar bear robot that fights snoring

A new cuddly polar bear robot named Jukusui-kun — "deep sleep" in Japanese — promises to combat snoring and sleep apnea. Just strap your hand into a device that measures your blood oxygen level, tuck yourself in under a sheet with built-in sensors, then plop down on the polar bear and get some shuteye. If you're having a hard time breathing — which can cause you to snore — your blood oxygen level will drop, Jukusui-kun will realize it, and the bear's paw will tickle your forehead so that you change positions and quit snoring. (Watch the video.)

5. The devices you move with your mind

Researchers at Duke University Medical Center attached electrodes to the brains of two monkeys and trained them to move objects on a computer screen with a virtual arm — using only their minds. This technology could one day help quadriplegics walk by using "fantastical" robotic exoskeletons that patients would manipulate using just their thoughts.

6. The Terminator-like video-camera eye

Canadian filmmaker Rob Spence lost his right eye in a childhood shooting accident, but his replacement is no ordinary glass sphere. Working with a group of sci-fi-loving engineers, Spence procured a robotic eyeball that sports a video camera. The robotic eye also has a wireless transmitter that beams the video signal to a hand-held screen. Just call him "Eyeborg."

7. The iPhone

The future of cell phones may be in the palm of your hand — literally. Researchers at the Hasso Plattner Institute in Potsdam, Germany, developed a way to answer a phone without taking it out of your pocket. Instead of tapping a button on the phone, users tap the same location on their palms. The whole process is facilitated by a depth-sensitive camera that detects hand motions and relays the commands to the phone via Wi-Fi. (Watch a video demonstration here.)

8. The "diabolical" beer can robot

Japanese robot enthusiast Ron Tajima built a robot hidden inside a beer can, and gives it orders via a rigged Wii controller. The machine, aptly named CanBot, has a rather "diabolical" M.O.: Surprise tipsy drinkers with its transformative ability to sprout three legs and walk around like a spider. (Check out here for a video demo.) Terrifying, says John Biggs at Crunchbeat, if only because there isn't any beer inside.

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