Archive for: May 2007
May 21, 2007
For getting heavy vehicles (eg tanks) across rugged countryside, articulated tracks have been the ‘obvious’ solution since about 1916. Tracked vehicles tend, however, to have to be pretty slow, or they shed their links in a way which must be terrifying for occupants in a warzone.
Today’s invention is a way to allow very heavy vehicles to move across open country quickly and smoothly (perhaps to deliver food or medicines under inhospitable conditions).
Imagine a vehicle like a railway locomotive standing on a pair of parallel, joined rails, as usual. Instead of requiring that these rails run continuously for miles across country, this vehicle is supported by only one such section of rail, which is about 50% longer than the vehicle itself.
The vehicle also carries another joined pair of rails, identical to the one on wich it stands. As it approaches the end of its current ‘track’, it pushes the spare section forward onto the ground in front and drives onto it. The original section is then automatically lifted from behind and readied for the next movement cycle.
It would be necessary to design the ends of the rails so that driving from one to the next could not result in derailment (by having them link together temporarily, even over very rough terrain). Significant gradients would also require a rack and pinion drive system to operate between the train and the active track section.
This panjandrum would allow only very gradual changes of direction, but the rails could support very great loads moving rapidly and not be vulnerable to local damage (by eg landmines).
May 20, 2007
I was astonished recently, when browsing the content of a weekend woodcarver’s manual, to discover how many different woods there are which are suitable for making everything from furniture to musical instruments.
The only trouble with wood as a material is that it comes in a wide range of natural colours from light brown to dark brown.
Today’s invention is to supply growing trees with a constant flow of coloured vegetable dye. This would be taken up through the xylem (in the same ways as natural brownish dyes are) and gradually perfuse the entire inner structure of the wood. After logging, the timber which emerges from a given tree would all be of a uniform shade (and more colourful than nature’s basic palette).
It might even be possible to introduce different colours to different regions of the growing tree and thus create shading and mixing effects.
This would save significantly on subsequent painting bills and introduce a more modern, colourful perspective to the design of wood products.
May 19, 2007
For those of us who live in Northern climes, a car sunroof tends to stay sealed closed for half the year. This a particular problem for anyone who suffers from seasonal affective disorder and who has to spend long periods in a vehicle (away from a conventional, room-based lamp).
Today’s invention is a daylight spectrum lamp fitted in a vehicle to give the impression, and emotional benefits, of glorious daylight streaming in from above (even when the roof is firmly shut against the dark Winter elements).
May 18, 2007
There is a whole world of investment going on just to get people to pay attention to advertisements.
Actually of course, attention isn’t really enough; they need to achieve emotional engagement. A recent article in the New York Times (which will probably disappear behind the subscription barrier by the time anyone reads this) describes some of these efforts to create and retain customers who are ‘tech-savvy’ enough to view material in a variety of different formats.
“…many networks hope to engage viewers during commercial breaks is by wedging original content into the blocks of advertising time, so that viewers will anticipate seeing something fun if they sit through (sic) a few ads”.
I don’t believe that it’s great customer service to ask people to endure the experience of being advertised at…great ads are fun in themselves.
Today’s invention attempts to achieve a higher level of personalised engagement with eg TV commercials by the new technique of ‘Person Placement‘ (notice the deliberate absence of a stupid little ‘TM’ at the end).
Now that it’s becoming easier to create yourself a little online avatar that really looks like you physically, people could elect to have theirs appear in ads (or a slimmer, more tanned version). When viewing someone driving the new Lextar 400 convertible gliding along on the sunlit freeway, that guy at the wheel in the shades, with the blonde woman -could be you.
Imagine the voiceover saying “How is the new car [yourname]?” Your avatar turns and smiles and lipsynchs direct to camera…” It feels sooo great “.
May 17, 2007
Document shredders seem to work fine, as far as they go, but if you have serious need to destroy printed information, it may be necessary to take more drastic steps to thwart the brigades of phishers and espionage agents lurking around your rubbish bins.
Today’s invention is a machine which combines the following techniques to stop the revival of postmortem paperwork.
Imagine a printer which undertakes the security role of a shredder. (Actually, my current printer shreds quite a lot of the paper I feed into it, but that’s a different story). This device would overprint information appearing on a page. Since the ink itself is a major cost consideration, the overprinting wouldn’t be just a complete blacking out but would be targetted (using a simple lightbeam shone through the paper) at the edges between print and whitespace.
For a more sophisticated approach, a small scanner could be used to recognise page content and deal with each item more effectively. This would be driven by an inversion of OCR technology: if the machine has a model of what makes certain characters differentiable from others, it can mask those features preferentially.
Conventional shredders do a nice line in cutting paper into neat little strips. The cutters are pretty uniformly spaced, making it easier for determined miscreants to paste them back together. An alternative would be to do the cutting using a very fine waterjet (or even a laser). The advantage of this approach would be that just as with overprinting, the cutting could be directed so as to chop the paper in a content-dependent way. This would mean cutting long words into more fragments than short ones, for example.
A combination of content-dependent overprinting and cutting would obviously make reassembly that much more time consuming. Although this system would need to work one sheet at a time, at least it wouldn’t self destruct at the first sign of a residual staple.
May 16, 2007
When a vehicle comes under fire (whether it’s a limousine or a personnel carrier), someone may have glimpsed the direction from which the muzzle flash came (assuming they avoided being hurt) but it’s hard to respond fast enough to mount an effective defence.
There are also systems which attempt to detect the origin of the firing by listening for the acoustic source of the weapon’s crack. This is a tough task, given that there is usually a lot of background noise and that many weapons may be in use simultaneously.
Today’s invention is an alternative which might make attackers think twice.
Vehicles would be covered with two layers of mesh, spaced apart by a few centimetres. Each of these would carry a network of wires which could be used to sense the location of any damage. A round from a firearm would easily hole both screens and knowledge of the locations of the penetrations would allow a very fast calculation of its incoming trajectory, by an on-board processor.
Fire could thus be returned automatically, possibly even before the arrival of the next shot.
May 15, 2007
I’ve always fancied having superhuman powers. I suspect this is part of the motivation behind much of the research into robotic exoskeletons.
Instead of helping the disabled or allowing stevedores to lift loaded pallets single-handed, today’s invention is a repurposing of this type of unit.
Athletes of every kind, from joggers to Olympians, could benefit from wearing such a system during training. Rather than using it to enhance performance, it would actually inhibit easy movement, in a highly controlled way, and thus provide a convenient source of resistance training.
Each joint could be programmed to allow a particular force/acceleration relation -which could be tailored to optimise performance during some subsequent competitive event.
Such a system could be worn and used throughout the day, so that the training might become ‘ambient’ -thus overcoming much of the mental resistance which can limit training effort. A computer could provide several high-inertia periods during which training would be explicit, but alternate with bouts of lower intensity drag.
The suit could also rapidly sense any sudden change in its wearer’s movements, which might indicate the onset of injury in time to protect against further damage.
May 14, 2007
Office buildings are usually equipped with double-glazed units: large numbers of them. Triple glazing would actually be only marginally more expensive (around 5% extra, if you believe the brochures).
Today’s invention is a way to use this technology to brighten up both working environments and city centres as well as cutting down on the glare which often requires expensive sunshades to be fitted to buildings, post commissioning.
Each window would have a triple-glazed window unit. Only one of the two voids would however ‘contain’ a partial vacuum. The other would be narrower than standard (say 1mm thick) and have a small inlet and outlet pipe attached to the space.
The narrow space would be used to hold a thin film of liquid. This liquid could have dye added to it to vary the translucency of the window during the course of a day and from season to season.
The colour of the dye might be used to enhance the mood of the occupants of the building. At any rate, they could all vote, using a picker tool in a browser, for their choice of colour, which would then drive the dye injection machinery.
A skyscraper might even be transformed in this way into a massive, coloured advertising image (or a cellular automaton, if you prefer).
May 13, 2007
It’s tough to learn any musical instrument. I’m always so frustrated by the long period of amusical plunking, when learning the guitar, that I tend to give up -no point ‘practising’ something that’s just so bad.
Part of my problem is that how I experience the music in my head is not related at all to where my hands have to be to make it happen. I certainly can’t deal with having someone tell me how to move my hands…too many translations between modalities for me to make sense of the tuition. It’s generally true also that even a small misplacement of a fingertip turns the noise produced from perfect to unrecognisably discordant: the whole thing demands precision and gives no positive feedback for attempts that are ‘nearly right’.
Today’s invention is a tool which can help move fingers into the right positions repeatedly until those movements get related mentally to the sounds and the process is absorbed into motor memory.
The fingers are inserted into ten plastic tubes. Each tube is attached to the end of one finger of a robotic hand. Such hands are now just about dextrous enough to position a human hand, riding piggyback, accurately relative to the fretboard. The robot hand could be ‘taught’ how to play each required piece by being worn by an expert guitarist whose movements would be stored in the controlling computer as a pattern of reverse emf’s.
The system could in principle be used to ‘teach’ any instrument and might even be ‘tuned’ so as to emit the correct note (electronically, from an electric guitar amp) even if the finger positions weren’t actually perfect…so that a pupil would be less demotivated by the instrument’s sensitivity.
May 12, 2007
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Window shopping is currently a pretty unexciting business.
Today’s invention is a way for a shop’s window dressing to become much more interactive (This seems to have been picked up by Ralph Lauren).
People could press a simple, armoured button on the outside of the shop. Each press would cause a small light to illuminate near each item in the display, in sequence. Pressing the button would therefore illuminate the next item along the window. There would be one button and one screen for each section of the display.
A delay in which the button had not been pressed for say two seconds, would launch a multimedia infomercial about the currently-lit product on its adjacent screen.