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Tiny keypad is the latest from inveterate inventor

Graduate student David Levy has been inventing things for quite a while, and he has the patents to prove it.

In keeping with the trend toward electronic miniaturization, he was recently granted a patent for the world's smallest full-size keypad. The idea was prompted by the observations that, as technology pushes electronic devices to become smaller, the limiting factor will ultimately be the size of the human hand itself, and also that people hate using tiny keys. He came up with a design that squeezes full-sized keys into one-fourth the space of existing keypads with the same number of keys. The device fits 26 letters, 10 numbers and eight other functions into a keypad smaller than a credit card yet with keys that look, feel and operate like full-size keys. Several companies have expressed interest in the device for use in products still beyond the horizon, such as interactive television and pagers that can send messages.

3M now sells another of his inventions, a label for videocassettes that has seven thin layers, so users can neatly peel off an old label to get a fresh one underneath without having to hunt for an entirely new label or tear the old one off. He also holds patents on a bicycle-seat lock and a volume-control wheel for portable radios and other devices that gives the user visual and tactile feedback on where the volume is set. Because the wheel is spiral-shaped like a snail shell rather than circular, the height of the protruding semicircular portion changes; the louder the volume, the more it sticks out.


Mr. Levy holds about a dozen patents for products he has invented on his own, and companies for which he's worked own the rights to more of his ideas, including an extensible keyboard and a mouse that instantly transports the cursor to commonly used locations by tilting it towards the location. Last week he applied for a new patent for a method that allows severed arteries to be snapped together in a minute instead of sewn together in half an hour. In its simplest form, the technique involves turning one severed end inside-out around a biocompatible ring, then sliding the end of the other segment around the first and clamping them all together with a second ring. This provides a continuous seal, eliminating the risk of leaking, clots and other problems that can result from stitches.

Mr. Levy was encouraged to invent and patent new devices while a student of Professor Slocum's several years ago (he recently returned to study at MIT after five years with Apple Computer) and is now doing doctoral work focusing on ergonomics. Practical devices like those developed by students in Professor Slocum's lab will help achieve the larger goals of programs like the UDC, Mr. Levy hopes. "How mechanical engineering can be used to make the world a better place is something that's not addressed enough," he said.

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