#645: Racerbracer

I used to live in Newmarket and watch the early morning strings of thoroughbreds walking back to the stables after training sessions on the Heath. These journeys took place amidst normal car traffic and on occasion, a horse and vehicle would collide -causing potentially terminal damage to both. The car might have been worth £20k, the horse might easily have been valued at over £5M.

Riders have been able to buy themselves airbag jackets for some time. Today’s invention is an airbag blanket which is worn by a valuable horse when moving anywhere near vehicles. This would be activated by any collision so that, even if the horse were knocked over, its impact with eg the road surface would be effectively cushioned.

The blanket would of course carry inbuilt electric lights and reflectors (and proximity detectors might be even more useful for pre-emptive deployment of the bag(s) in order to save those spindly legs).

#644: Flowratchet

According to Mech Eng 1.01, fluid flows more easily in this duct from right to left than from left to right. Careful choice of the geometrical details enables that difference to be maximised, for a given fluid and speed.

Today’s invention makes use of this basic asymmetry by forming a marine drive unit from a matrix of these ‘leaky valves.’ The valves would be wafted fore and aft within a submerged duct, preferentially propelling fluid more to the left than to the right (and thus driving the vehicle slowly rightwards).

Each valve would be driven axially by an independent magnetic field, fluctuating in both frequency and amplitude so that:

a) the vessel’s acoustic signature would be more like white noise and thus harder to identify than the less variable frequency of a rotary drive
b) electrically-driven valve matrices could be located in pods anywhere on the hull of a vessel
c) each matrix could sustain some significant damage without stopping
d) marine creatures, such as whales, would be less disturbed by the resulting clamour.

It just occurred to me that fitting these to the surfaces of a future generation of submarines that swim like fish would add to the ‘grip’ they exert on the surrounding fluid and allow speedier movement (think of each cylindrical section of an eel’s body, twisting to the left and right about a vertical axis).

#643: Physiogno-me

A fingerprint expert need only find around 16 similarities between a print at a crime scene and the one on your finger to be taken seriously in court when recommending your conviction.

Today’s invention makes use of the idea that fingerprints, for all their complexity, seem to differ from each other by only a relatively small number of features. This is true of diagrammatic faces too, so the idea is to map one’s fingerprints to a simple iconic facial representation of each individual. The distances between significant features in a print might then be used to draw a face, using them as dimensions between eg eyes, cheek-to-chin, eyebrow width, etc.

Such faces, although not provably unique to an individual, could be generated automatically from a fingerprint scanner and used as avatars. This would create a characteristic and recognisable representation, whilst also preserving online anonymity.

A system which insisted on working only with dimensions fed to it from a laptop scanner would make it hard for anyone to pose behind an avatar which was not their own.

#642: ProfilePool

Somehow, neither a shower nor a shallow tub delivers the same relaxing soak that a hot bath provides. Think of the energy required to heat a whole bath of water, however. In these straitened times, when bond traders are down to their last billion, this might be considered an extravagance.

Today’s invention is therefore a bath which is in the shape of the bather (eureka!). Most people would fit into a pretty generic gingerbread-man-shaped one, although those with a more rotund figure might need to order a bigger than standard size (think more doughboy).

The person-shaped tub would require much less hot water to fill and thus help save what’s left of the planet. It might be harder to find the soap, though.

#641: Anti-coughcuff

Marvin Minsky tells us that people increase their incidence of disease 30% by shaking hands. I’m prepared to believe him (although I’m less impressed by his failure to demo any artificial intelligence yet).

Today’s invention is one that might appeal to politicians in particular. Rather than having to stop periodically on the campaign trail to surreptitiously wash their hands, their suits would have a lining in the right sleeve which was impregnated with disinfectant. After every 100 or so shakes, the right hand could be discreetly drawn up into the sleeve and wiped clean. The right sleeve might be made in a slightly elasticated fabric and the lining could be removed each day and destroyed. Actually, thinking about it, it makes more sense for the disinfectant laden lining to be in the right hand pocket.

This would result in significantly less illness for the wearer and reduced transmission rates to his or her unfortunate electorate.

#640: Rubrick

Just because something is an incredibly clever mechanical design, needn’t preclude an electronic upgrade.

Todays invention is a(nother) Rubik’s cube which is simply more ‘today’ than 1975.

Take a solid cube of black plastic material. Embed on each face 9, colour-switchable leds, in a 3×3, grid pattern. Each led is also equipped with a simple light sensor.

This device operates by always ‘turning’ one end of the cube relative to the rest of it (ie what would have been the nine adjacent small cubes which formed an end face in the old-fashioned mechanical era). Place three fingers over the detectors on one, 3×1 face of this end-9 (not the end face, of course). Place the thumb over one of the squares in the 3x 1 on the opposite face.

This pattern of occlusion of the detectors immediately changes the colours of the lights to simulate the turning of one end of a traditional Rubik’s cube (This system could easily be extended all the way to cubes made of up to 4x4x4 small cubes).

Proceed to solve the puzzle as fast as possible, even in the dark.

#639: Genelectrics

I’ve been reading about designing electronics using evolutionary techniques.

Each design can be boiled down to a bit string. You build a large number of circuits, each based on a different string. Choose the ones which best fit your design spec (fitness function) and recombine their parts to create a new set of bitstrings…Eventually, the behavioural features you want, start to appear.

The trouble is that, although this can yield great performance, using small numbers of components, just as with neural networks you often can’t tell how the resulting systems are working. Fine for a disposable mobile phone, not so good in a jet engine control circuit.

Today’s invention is the inclusion in the fitness function for an electronic design, of some measure of its “understandability”…or at least simplicity of operation. Each design would have an associated complexity (eg algorithmic complexity) represented in its bitstring. Minimising this would contribute to the overall fitness of a given design.

#638: Sperm-detherm

Whether it’s by sitting on a heated carseat or when nursing a laptop (or doing both at once), men’s sperm quality is increasingly under attack from diverse thermal sources.

Today’s invention is a pair of jeans with a thermocouple wire embedded in the fabric supporting the fly buttons. One of these buttons would have an led placed centrally which would illuminate when the internal trouser temperature reached a predetermined level.

This would alert the wearer, concerned about his reproductive ability, to go for a cooling walk until the light switched off again.

#637: ScreenName

Given that I particularly dislike using phones, when someone calls my mobile, I always like to know who it is (it’s hard enough to deal with calls from friends and family, but customers always call when I’m crossing the road or eating a sticky toffee).

Screening like this requires me to have keyed in the names of people likely to phone me…which is itself unlikely.

Today’s invention is therefore a mobile phone function which will prompt a receiver, at the end of an incoming call “Who was that?” This then allows the name to be entered verbally (with the option to edit via the keyboard any unusual or misrecorded name).

#636: Footfangs

Having to buy different running shoes for different conditions underfoot is a significant nuisance.

Today’s invention is a running shoe in the sole of which a bistable metal plate is embedded (blue in the diagram). A small change in pressure within the cavity in the sole causes the geometry to switch from a flat, road-going configuration (left) to a much more grippy trail-running shape, with prominent studs (right). The pressure change might be achieved by use of a small hand-operated bellows or even by winding a wedge in or out.

This approach has the added advantage that, on springing between different sole profiles, any dirt accumulated will tend to be spat off, improving grip generally.