Why you should care

Even one of the world’s most universal and humble objects can’t escape getting a serious 21st-century makeover.

Would you pay 100 bucks for an umbrella? What if it could change color to match your clothes, stay dry indoors or be invisible? Armed with the latest technology, a new generation of designers is reinventing one of the world’s simplest yet most iconic objects.

But hang on, why mess with something that for centuries has been doing a pretty good job of, you know, keeping rain off our heads? Some designers are working to solve those umbrella problems you didn’t even know you had, transforming the device into a high-tech gadget. “It’s always optimistic and inspiring to reinvent objects, especially when it’s day-to-day objects,” says Tala Dajani, product designer at RB and design mentor for the Qatari TV show Stars of Science. “But it’s only beneficial when they’re reinventing it to solve a real problem.”

Like the umbrella’s habit of flying away, which requires you to constantly hold it — annoying if you’re pushing a stroller or checking your smartphone. So for those who can’t sit in the rain without tweeting about it, designers have come up with two hands-free models: One has a handle that frees up the user’s thumb, and the other is a transparent, futuristic-looking hood worn like a backpack.

But really, is the small convenience of a dry umbrella worth an extra $95?

Another pesky problem? The umbrella’s inevitable wetness. Two models aim to change the way water is handled by revamping the design: One origami-inspired solution closes tightly and repels water; the other is built with the metal spoke mechanism on the outside, meaning that when the object is folded, the wet surface is on the inside.

But really, is the small convenience of a dry umbrella worth an extra $95?

Designers have created other pricey solutions to our rain-protection problems. Like an invisible version that keeps water away with air expressed from a tube. A cool, superhero-esque idea perhaps, but while trying to solve one issue, the design introduces another: The battery lasts 15 to 30 minutes and takes two hours to charge. Not very convenient if you live in a rainy climate.

An umbrella with a handle that allows the user to free their thumbs to text

The Brolly umbrella has a handle that frees up the user’s thumb.

Source Brollytime

Owners are also at constant risk of losing their brollies. Maybe tracking devices are the way to go? Dajani, as a designer, disagrees. “I would want to avoid bringing more sensors and gadgetry to an object that has always been designed to be an inanimate, functional object,” she told OZY. But some designers conceive this as the next step in improving your inferior umbrella. Like being able to pinpoint the location of a traceable umbrella with your smartphone or receiving a notification when you move away from yours. The people behind startup Umbrella Here also want to turn rain-shielding devices into sharable community resources, while making you more sociable: A special light signals that yours is available for sharing, just like a taxi.

But for all of the big ideas in upgrading the humble brolly, tweaking is more complex than you might think.

And did you know that umbrellas just haven’t been healthy enough? A team from the Copenhagen Institute of Interaction Design created the Sensing Umbrella, which can measure the level of pollution in the air, complete with built-in light-emitting diodes that respond to air quality by changing color and rhythm. Co-creator Simon Herzog told OZY there hasn’t been commercial interest in the project because of the high cost of production, but he’s optimistic.

But for all of the big ideas in upgrading the humble brolly, tweaking is more complex than you might think. “An umbrella is very complicated, if you look at the spokes of metal arms that are putting stress on a lightweight metal shaft,” says Leslie Birch, the creator of FLORAbrella, an umbrella that changes color with LEDs to match the owner’s mood or outfit.

Looks like our umbrellas have been letting us down for so long, we didn’t even know. Thank goodness for the forward thinkers who are designing brollies to save us from even worse things than the pouring rain.

Comment

OZYGood Sh*t

If you’d want to drink it, eat it, wear it, ride it, drive it; if it’d be cool to see, listen to or do, we’re writing about it.