#844: PartyPull

Christmas crackers are a significant part of the festive season, just like decorations and holly and all sorts of other stuff which is utterly inessential but somehow comforting for having been around long enough to be considered traditional. At least they provide a pretty harmless icebreaker at festive events: vying for plastic junk and wearing silly hats makes intrafamilial conflict marginally less likely.

Challenged by the IET magazine‘s Vitali Vitaliev, today’s invention is an updated version of the cracker…and of course it’s electronic.


Each table would have only a few cracker devices: basically a plastic tube with a female USB connection at both ends. Diners would bring their own usb memory sticks to the table and insert these in pairs into the cracker. Two guests at a time would then attempt to withdraw their thumbdrives.

Just as with real crackers, the winner would be the guest who supplied mostly nearly the optimal tension vs time profile (Pull too hard or too gently and you come second). This would be monitored by the cracker itself which would release the loser’s stick, generate a loud cracking noise (via eg a .wav file), a short pulse of light and display a message on a screen on the cracker’s side saying “Congratulations.” It would then equip the winner to read a displayed joke aloud and pass a prize url to his/her memory device…allowing a small prize to be claimed later online. It might even take a quick snap of the smiling victor.

Two, preloaded, compressed paper hats would also be spat onto the table each time, made perhaps from sliced paper mesh (as in expandable metal sheets).

Everyone could get to pull a cracker with everyone else and there would be much less cleaning up required of the resulting waste paper.

#843: Blurrid

A decade ago, I did some work for the BBC on how they could disguise the faces of people in broadcasts (whilst still retaining the image in each case of a live, moving face).

Since, then the field has moved on and the world is an even less safe place (with security cameras on almost every vertical surface). Recent research has found that we extract most recognition-related information from images of faces when they are around 30 x 30 pixels in size.


Rather than demanding ever more detail, it seems we recognise faces best when they are quite coarsely pixellated (but not too coarsely).

Today’s invention is therefore a new way for overloaded security observers to be presented with eg on-screen crowd scenes, when searching for individual terrorists (or suspects).

Knowing how far away members in a crowd are, it’s possible to pixellate the whole image so that an average sized face occupies 30*30 pixels. This image would then be automatically blurred a little to remove the distractions of the high spatial frequencies present in the edges of the pixels.

It would then be easier for observers to detect individuals more quickly.

#842: Show-and-Sell

There is still a cultural disconnect between online stores and those in the bricks-and-mortar high street.

The only reason, it seems to me, for not buying everything one needs online is that there are some product qualities which are hard to assess without being there (and some sellers who don’t do it via the web).


Today’s invention offers an extra opportunity for hard pressed offline store keepers to compete with their low-overhead online competitors. This would work particularly well for bespoke, high-price, low-volume boutiques (I’m thinking Aston Martin, amongst others).

The store would equip itself with a website. Users of the site could book a time to view products in the shop in close-up, via a very high quality webcam, held by a real-life sales assistant. The assistant could be quizzed in detail about the products and directed to manipulate them onscreen by the customer in order to demonstrate colour/functionality etc.

This could then result in delivery of a purchase by conventional mail order fulfilment processes.

#841: Dialtiles

As if life weren’t complex enough, various cellphone makers are interested in providing people with dynamically changing keyboard layouts (so they can switch electronically between QWERTY and standard numberpad formats).

Well, why not go one better and provide complete user-flexibility, in the form of a keyboard in which the keys are free to slide on a grid -just like the elements of one of those tile puzzles?

This would need each key to be able to transmit information about its identity by connecting to a common underlying bus when pressed.

#840: Aisle-lights

Shopping in supermarkets…it’s a nightmare. One of the worst aspects is simply finding where product x is, amongst the forest of signs for products a,b,c etc. Wandering about looking is supposed to satisfy your hunter-gatherer instincts as well as induce you to buy more stuff (I’m not sure at all about this).

Today’s invention is to equip each store with say 100, separately switchable pocket projectors. These would each be located in a different section of shelving (one for sauces, one for breads etc) and aimed at a nice flat ceiling vertically above them.

The shopper walks into the store, grabs a small wireless microphone, labeled with a unique symbol or number, and says the name of a product category eg “baking.” Press a button on the mic and immediately, the projector where this stuff is housed flashes on the mic’s number for a second so the shopper can get there directly.

This massively reduces the signage in stores and allows produce to be moved around flexibly in the way that retailers love to do.

#839: ShellCasing

Today’s invention is a design for a modular tank (or armoured fighting vehicle, if you will) which is a little like an eggbox.

A tracked chassis is used as usual, but within this base are housed hemispherical modules, each geometrically strong and heavily armoured. One, the crew module, would contain the vehicle controls -but without the weak point at which a normal turret attaches to the upper deck. This module would still rotate but only to allow crew to enter and leave through the hull when its underside hatches were deliberately aligned.

Control cables and a ventilation duct would penetrate this hemisphere via a central axle (these might even include video cabling, obviating the need for any windows in the crew compartment).

A second module would contain the vehicle’s engine and a third its armament (remotely controlled) and ammunition.

In this way the crew could be maximally protected from noise, fumes and external attack, whilst malfunctions of the vehicle’s main sub-units could be addressed by rapid, in-field substitution.

#838: RearViewer

Security cameras are everywhere in the UK (maybe the word ‘security’ is one of those decoy euphemisms, just as ‘speed cameras’ are now called ‘safety cameras’).

Anyway, these devices are vulnerable to being interfered with (by we disgruntled citizenry) and so today’s invention is simply to attach a small mirror to each so that they can transmit what’s going on around them, outside their normal field of view.

The mirror could be a spherical section, one of the type used by employees on computer screens to detect the approach of over-inquisitive bosses. Its image need only occupy a small corner of the transmitted screen view.

Such a system would inevitably need a rainroof and to be made of stay-clean coated glass. A clever design would allow the main camera view field to encompass the rear of the mirror itself, so that there would be no need for a mirror to monitor the back of the first mirror…

#837: Skillstore

Surgeons with shaky hands? I don’t want to even think about it, but it seems that there is research going on to develop handheld systems capable of detecting and reacting against natural levels of tremor.

Today’s invention is a much cruder version of this type of thing. Ordinarily, using eg an iPhone with its accelerometers on board wouldn’t be nearly accurate enough to analyse the dynamics in realtime of any manual task.

Imagine however a hairdresser attempting to recreate Mrs Miggins’ favourite style (or anybody executing a repetitive manual task -like shaving).

The movements made when performing a cut with which the customer was happy could be stored aboard the phone. This information could be accessed again later by another stylist. The chances of recreating the right cut would be small but for the fact that the iPhone can give very rapid instructions, via eg arrows on its screen, about where the trimmers should be moving in the next instant.

This visual feedback could make all the difference in terms of precision and an iPhone-like device could be easily attached to a variety of tools -opening up a trade in guidance programs stored by experts.

#836: Light-programme

People seem to listen to the radio in their cars a lot. This is despite the adverts which both plague and enable the medium.

Today’s invention is a light which is visible externally on vehicles and which changes colour, depending on the station to which their radio is tuned.

This would allow people listening to the same programme to share eg a broadcast joke whilst in traffic jams and develop more of a feeling of community. It might also allow audience members to try listening to the favourite station of people driving a vehicle which they admire.

The most useful aspect of this would be to enable automated, realtime collection of listening statistics by area (using roadside, colour-sensitive cameras) so as to tune the costs and timing of advertising (it might even allow for a new form of social segmentation: ie are those Bentley owners really listening to Radio 3?).

#835: Inkdicator

If you are using a ballpoint without a transparent barrel or which uses sealed refills, it’s possible to find yourself scribbling (or doodling) in a meeting and then suddenly run out of notetaking ability.

Today’s invention is to add a small blob of ink, in a contrasting colour to the reservoir in such pens. The ink is highly viscous and therefore largely immiscible. The life of such a pen is short and so serious colour bleeding by diffusion wouldn’t be a problem (at least in non-equatorial regions).

The user would notice that his or her blue ink e.g. had suddenly turned black (for say the final hour’s writing) and that it was therefore time to re-equip before the next lecture/meeting/oeuvre/opus.