Archive for: May 2008

30th May 2008

#531: Jaggedges

Filed under: Possible inventions - 30 May 2008

The human visual system is particularly good at detecting small misalignments (ie as small as the width of a pencil viewed at 300m).

Today’s invention makes use of that fact to help provide screen displays which are less susceptible to ‘shoulder surfing.’

Such tiny misalignments in gratings of lines can be seen, but only when viewed from straight ahead. A shape can thus be seen in the diagram, formed simply by small jumps in the black lines. These jumps, and the shape, would be much less visible to anyone observing them from, in this case, the 10 or 4 o’clock position.

The display on eg an ATM touchscreen could flash up an array of apparent numbers formed from misalignments in a grating and a bank customer could then choose their pin number, without showing these digits to bystanders.

#530: WalkWheel

Filed under: Possible inventions - 30 May 2008

It had to happen sometime: IOTD reinvents the wheel (again).

A wheel (in this case of a bicycle) is replaced by two sectors. Each of these can rotate independently about their common axle. The bicycle is moving right to left. When the sector marked ‘a’ has come close to the end of its tyre’s contact with the road, the other sector marked ‘b’ is flipped around the axle counterclockwise to take its place, just in time to provide smooth forward motion (with much lower rotational inertia than normal).

Such a setup requires a spring mechanism to drive the sector and a robust trigger to activate the process. The axial spring would be wound by the forward motion of the machine and the triggering could be quite crudely coordinated using a mechanical latch.

This arrangement also allows a greatly reduced weight and space requirement for a fold-up machine. It’s also rather a cool way to ride about, always looking as if one is about to fall off.

Rather than flip counterclockwise from a to b, the sectors might swap places by raising the rear one off the ground and ‘stepping’ clockwise from position a to b (at the cost of added complexity). This would save some frame height (and the cost of material) as well as reducing the energy drain from the system.

#529: Rollerr

Filed under: Possible inventions - 30 May 2008

The scroll wheels on computer mice seem to be highly variable in terms of the precision with which they locate the cursor. I know this because today’s invention is a technique for quantifying these errors.

Open up your favourite browser and point it at Google maps. Now you can centre the map on some prominent feature (I use a huge, white-roofed exhibition hall in Vancouver). Next, secure the mouse to the desk (duct tape works, as ever) and use the scroll wheel to zoom out to ‘space’ and back a fixed number of times (say 5). Record the new screen centre location on the map (this will have changed, in general, due to sloppiness in the way the scroll wheel mechanism works). If you can stop the hypnotic process of zooming in on terra firma, eventually you will have characterised the on-screen precision of your scroll wheel.

This probably isn’t important for most users, but I understand that it affects some games players’ performance. In addition, if you have identified a brand of scroll wheel which operates with known, high accuracy, this could then be used to detect any hand tremor in users of an untethered mouse.

27th May 2008

#528: Coolometer

Filed under: Whimsical inventions - 27 May 2008

Many thermometers operate on the basis that some internal fluid expands when heated.

Today’s invention turns that on its head by making a thermometer consisting of a fluid with a very low coefficient of thermal expansion (eg coloured water) in a glass enclosure which expands greatly on heating (eg soda glass).

When this device comes into thermal equilibrium with something hot, the glass will expand, whilst the liquid stays at almost constant volume. The temperature will thus be measured by the fall in the liquid level.

Similarly, a temperature fall will be registered as a rise on the coolness scale.

26th May 2008

#527: Frugasity

Filed under: Possible inventions - 26 May 2008

Today I was reading one of those increasingly hysterical stories about how the high price of ‘gas’ is causing US drivers to consider more economical driving techniques (£1.12 per litre is what I’m paying in the UK…probably enough to cause a riot if the US govt inflicted our levels of tax over there).

Anyway, one of the suggestions I read was to drive as if one were on a pushbike…ie to live with a reduction in speed whenever the vehicle engine suddenly comes under increased load eg when heading uphill. Most people have a tendency to sink their right foot and try to maintain uniform speed, so this seems like reasonable advice.

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Today’s invention is a modification to the accelerator pedal which helps implement this regime and save fuel. A tlit sensor detects when the vehicle is heading uphill. Other sensors measure the load being pulled and the weight of its occupants. These data are interpreted by a hydraulic resistor which makes the pedal harder to depress when the engine is experiencing such harsh demands.

Gradual changes in loading, such as in smooth overtaking, could be arranged not to affect the accelerator pedal stiffness in this way.

25th May 2008

#526: IDkeys

Filed under: Feasible inventions - 25 May 2008

If I can’t find a convenient way to do away entirely with mechanical keys (primitive, clanking, medieval relics in my pocket) then at least I can spare myself the problem of ‘which key should I use for this door?’

Rather than stick on coloured tabs etc, today’s invention is to make a set of plastic holsters to accommodate one’s keys. The purpose of each would be indicated by the shape of the holster into which it has been slid (as shown).

24th May 2008

#525: ScissorSipper

Filed under: Possible inventions - 24 May 2008

Certain long beaked shorebirds have been shown to be able to move water upwards into their mouths by ‘scissoring’ their beaks together. Opening and closing the beak causes food-filled droplets to ratchet upwards against gravity.

Today’s invention is to exploit this effect in a self-priming pump. One of the difficulties in designing such pumps, which have to draw eg water upwards without first being filled, is that they have to suck air for a long time, requiring high performance air seals. If you are raising dirty water, this sealing is even more difficult to maintain.

A pump might consist of an array of simulated beaks, each electrically driven to open and close and thus draw liquid (with the right surface tension) up into a plenum. This would allow liquid to be raised, as a sequence of small droplets, through an arbitrary height.

Once in the plenum, a simpler conventional pump could take over. If the liquid were to change in surface tension, the system could sense this (by the fall in flowrate) and automatically adjust the angle between the halves of the ‘beaks’.

#524: Pulswitch

Filed under: Possible inventions - 24 May 2008

Batteries are a source of constant joy and frustration. Joy that they power my mobile kit: frustration when they stop.

This is particularly true when I’m using my MP3 player…I can remove the earpieces to talk to someone, or just to get changed after a run, and routinely forget to switch the damn thing off. The result is a hugely reduced operational duration.

Today’s invention is to equip earbuds with a small microphone which can detect my heartbeat within my ears and automatically power down the system when it senses that they are no longer in contact. It might be useful also to embed a thermocouple in each earpiece to confirm that they have been removed.

22nd May 2008

#523: Hand-off

Filed under: Feasible inventions - 22 May 2008

Until somebody comes up with a car body material capable of repairing itself when dented by careless fellow motorists, surface damage to vehicles is going to remain a problem.

Today’s invention is one way to limit the pain caused by doors being opened into the sides of their neighbours in a carpark. Previous solutions have involved attaching lumps of high visibility rubber to the door edge. This is just too ugly, given the work that goes into the aesthetics of bodyshell design.

Instead, I propose a defence mechanism consisting of a discreetly modified door handle which, when the door is opened from inside, flips backwards to form a springy ‘wand’ which then prevents the door being bashed into any adjacent panels.

21st May 2008

Inventing: the future

Filed under: About inventing - 21 May 2008

The world of Intellectual Property is changing faster than the legal processes which apply to it. If it’s true that inventors suffer from Peter Pan Complex (we never want to grow up) then surely lawyers suffer from Captain Hook Syndrome: they are always running away from the ticking clock of technology.

The Law Society of England and Wales announced confidently, only a few years ago, that it was “Against Email.” Since the Internet’s arrival in Neverland, certain legal specialities have, unsurprisingly, become endangered.

The global scope of markets available to companies now means that they are selling direct to customers in countries where no meaningful patent-based protection is available for their products.

In addition, the lifecycles of even their most complex offerings is now so brief that the costs and timescales associated with seeking monopolies are prohibitive. So many organisations are now adopting a strategy based on some combination of the following approaches:

  • know-how, protected by secrecy and the physical thwarting of attempts at reverse engineering
  • investing in their brand, rather than a costly IP portfolio
  • moving from products to services which “leverage” these brands
  • fast product turn-around, yielding early sales

The pressure to deliver new products faster is now so great that virtual organisations are being formed of teams from competing companies. Based on trust (and working with no written contracts), they can deal with tight timescales in a way that would be impossible if they had to wait for lawyers to argue about due diligence and the minutiae of termination clauses.

My vision for the future of invention is that the market will support a large but limited number of big brands, each of which will feed on a complex, flexible web of cooperating, and competing, suppliers. These development organisations will continue the trend of relying for new product ideas on outside sources, rather than supporting a costly internal research function.

One of their main sources will be individual inventors who, having developed a track record, will be signed up to work for a fixed period and be rewarded in proportion to the commercial success of their inventions.

These people (such as Mark Sheahan) will form a ˜premier league” of inventors and be in a position to command both massive payments and lucrative transfer deals.

How tragic that being an inventor is still associated with madness. You certainly have to be nonconformist, but that is really only a sign of mental illness to someone who has been to law school or its equivalents. Refreshing, therefore, that New Scientist offers this piece describing becoming an Inventor as a viable career choice.

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