#106: Deal ‘DNA’ display

These days businesses often need to negotiate deals with companies on the other side of the world.

Instant messaging can provide a limited substitute for face-to-face meetings. The absence of social cues makes it harder to exert undue pressure and may actually enable fuller and clearer discussion.

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One of the standard difficulties of negotiating is that of holding a lot of information in the minds of the parties at once. This is expecially true if they are intent upon injecting new bargaining chips during the process. Every book on negotiation technique says “get all the issues that need to be discussed written down and agreed beforehand”. Of course that never happens because the to and fro of bargaining will itself throw up new variables.

Today’s invention is a simple graphical tool which allows every active variable to be shown in realtime on a bar chart to all negotiatiors. This chart indicates the current numerical position of both sides (and could be used to show the positions of more than two negotiating parties).

This limits cognitive overload and the tendency to switch to ‘gut feel’ which often results when the details blur. When one side decides to change its position (by conceding on some things and demanding more in other areas) this can be achieved by moving sliders.

Users of the system could arrange for variables to be displayed in order of the priority which they have assigned them. A deal would be shown when the red line and the blue line become coincident.

A more advanced version of this would incorporate models of how a dealer would require his sliders to interact. The ultimate system would also model how to react in the event of various moves by the opposition.

#105: Virtual CD player

Acoustic levitation is the use of a very intense sound wave to keep a body suspended in mid air. It is fascinating, but not obviously useful for very much outside the space research lab -this despite being allegedly capable of lifting masses of up to a few kilograms.

Today’s invention attempts to apply this effect. Imagine the usual CD system with two speakers. As well as having the loudspeakers play music (or what currently passes for it), they would also emit low-frequency sound waves from a ‘high’ slot in one speaker and a ‘low’ slot in the other.

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Although inaudible (to all but a passing, infrasound-tuned elephant) these standing waves would be capable of levitating a single compact disc. It would also be possible to use small pressure fluctuations to spin the disc about a vertical axis, just about as precisiely as is achieved by the motor in a discman-type device (See eg this).

The disc reading optics could be held near the disc surface on a single, elegant arm. This system would not only look stunning but it would do away with the cost, and noise, of a conventional motor.

#104: Per ads ad astra

The Mars Rovers have been spectacularly successful in their mission. The cost though, for a species like ours that can’t even feed itself, has been high: a billion dollars, give or take.

Today’s invention is a way to help recoup some of the costs. Although Spirit and Discovery move at the pace of a NASA committee on decision day, their capabilities are constantly being enhanced by remote uplink from Earth. At some stage, they may be deemed effectively obsolete, at which point I propose that their speed be upped in order to allow them to draw messages on the red planet’s surface.

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This would, for a while, be the prime advertising real estate in the Solar System. With the eyes of the world watching (having the robots fight or crash over a cliff would help here), corporations would be allowed to bid for ‘scratch-time’, ie to have their logos and other marketing messages engraved by the trowels and ploughs of the intrepid robot explorers…

#103: Litter litter

I’m always shocked when walking in the countryside to see how much litter is casually dumped everywhere. I can’t understand why anyone would carry a full bottle of lemonade up a mountain and then not bother to cart the empty down again (although I believe this is true even of professional mountaineers).

I tend to enhance my reputation for eccentricity by walking with a nylon sack and collecting as much of this crap as I can (from discarded crisp packets to entire glue sniffing kits).

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Today’s invention would have been a robot capable of doing this work autonomously, but the greatest barrier to that approach is that it’s very hard to get a robot vision system to discrimnate reliably between rubbish and other objects in the countryside -determining items by eg their bright colours, as perceived by people, is a fiendishly hard problem. . Any such system might well cart back only boulders and cowpats.

Dogs, on the other hand are readily trainable to make this distinction (both in terms of colour and scent). Today’s invention is therefore a pannier system capable of standing stably on a rough path whilst a trained litter dog scampers about and gathers anything it has been trained to recognise as rubbish. When the pannier detects that it is full (by eg sensing the weight inside itself) it displays a small light. This alerts the dog to squeeze under the pannier and lift it home on its back.

Personally, I’d also train these dogs to bite anyone found making a mess, but that might be considered too enthusiastic (A dog-operated excrement scoop is already on my drawing board).

#102: Bootwash

I don’t have any kind of mud-room in my house, unless you count the dining room. This is a particular problem when there are several pairs of festering, filthy boots mounting up outside the front door -and I’ve been forbidden to experiment with the dishwasher ever again.

“Waiting for the mud to dry so they can be brushed clean” sounds like the kind of thing that manufacturers advise on product literature -marketing types wearing designer loafers that only ever come in contact with polished wood and deep pile carpet.

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Today’s invention is simply a carwash for boots. I envisage a box, into which boots get placed, soles facing up. Brushes would scour the boots clean with the aid of some water jets. With brushes made of say 20cm strands, there would be no need to worry about moving them around the boots’ geometry: the brushes would reach everywhere in the box.

Naturally, the water could be recycled, as in a carwash and there might be a fan blowing warm air, if the boots needed urgent reuse.

It should be possible to sense the flowrate of dirt off the boots (by eg optical inspection of the recycling filters). Once the dirt removal rate had fallen below a certain threshold, the boots would be pronounced sufficiently clean and the wash process terminated. (Shining a light through a filter and recording the rate of change of opacity, seems to me to be a generally good way to alert the users of eg washing machines and vacuum cleaners to undertake an urgent clean out -I suspect it’s already done).

The final wash could even contain some waterproofing waxy agent. A number of these bootwash devices could be stacked together for family use, sharing the water and air flows.

This would be a particular boon to people suffering from smelly trainers.

#101: Child risk management

We hear a lot about parents who are either neglectful or overprotective of their children. It can be quite hard to equip young people to manage the risks they encounter. They have no experience and just giving them abstract rules like not to talk to strangers may not mean anything when they are offered a lift by a nice lady who looks like their auntie.

The adult world is now full of software tools to help us control risk and make better decisions -mostly aimed at safeguarding money. Similarly, there is huge interest in helping soldiers protect themselves on the battlefield by the use of eg virtual reality simulators.

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Today’s invention is simply to populate a simulated world with potential risks, so that kids can learn about road crossings, paedophiles, drug pushers, being bullied, dangerous games, peer pressure etc. I’d imagine a number of age-related games supplied to schools. They needn’t be fully immersive VR programs: children get immersed easily enough, if the content is engaging.

A semi-realistic, games-like environment would still work and there need be no simulated horrific consequences of making a wrong decision. The simulation could be made to stop when one has occurred, and some form of corrective tuition delivered, either by a teacher or via another simulation.

It might cost £500,000 to build such tool, (or adapt an existing one) but think of the value of allowing every child at school to learn some effective personal risk management.

#100: Road safety ‘movie’

The Schyns Illusion enables the creation of ‘hybrid images’ in which elements of two different pictures may be superimposed to create a new one.

When viewed at different distances, the hybrid image looks like one or other of the two originals. An example is provided here in which a single image of a human face is shown as it would appear to observers at two different distances (and rescaled so that both views of the image are shown at the same size). It undergoes a radical change in expression from angry to calm.

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This technique can be used to superimpose more than two original images. This would allow someone approaching a single image, printed cheaply in the traditional way, to perceive a short sequence of different views (without any need for animation equipment).

Obvious applications for this would be as an alternative to the costly electronic billboards used in outdoor advertising. You could create a crude, walk-by movie consisting of several superimposed scenes, each of which only becomes visible at the right distance from the poster.

Today’s invention is even simpler, however. Imagine a printed poster placed on a pedestrian crossing and visible to children as they are about to cross the road. The poster would carry the face of a trusted sports start or tv ‘personality’ (I’d tolerate even more ubiquitous narcissism if it can save lives).

As the child begins to cross the road, the face appears to look left, right and then left again and continues doing so throughout the road crossing.

So that’s the first 100 inventions. Why don’t we celebrate by funding a few thousand posters and getting them independently evaluated?

#99: Commuticopter

I admit it. I’m obsessed by flying machines. Not just aeroplanes, but especially those systems which can lift an individual and take him over the rooftops just like James Bond’s rocket belt in Thunderball. In these days when unmanned aerial vehicles are gaining credibility, I still want to get up there myself (as long as I’m not required to be a passenger).

I’d settle for a regular helicopter, but the price tag and running costs are on the steep side of vertical take-off. So today’s invention is a way to make commuting exciting again.

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A high-spec. remote controlled model helicopter can be bought for $1,000. It will lift 5Kg +fuel and fly at 20mph under load for about 20 minutes. For a lot of people, this would be sufficient range to get them to work -if they weighed 5Kg.

So I propose to get together an array of 12 of these machines, attach them to a light aluminium frame using climbing rope and then secure myself to the frame with a hangliding harness.

Not having 24 arms means that all of them would be controlled using a single R/C system, tuned to the same frequency. The frame would prevent (most) collisions and in the event of some malfunction, the multiplicity of lift sources would provide ‘graceful degradation,’ of a sort.

Fuel consumption? Probably not that much worse than a thirsty, 4×4, school-run tank. Noise level? Off the scale. Think of it as a safety feature -no one can claim they didn’t hear you coming.

#98: Business cookies

Being introduced to more than three people at a time makes it almost impossible for me to keep track of names and faces. Rather than continue with all of that shuffling-cardboard-across-the-table and mumbling ‘hello’, maybe it’s time for an up to date alternative to the business card.

Today’s invention is a ‘watch’ worn on the right wrist, which can wirelessly transmit, when brought close to another such device eg during a handshake, a small file of information about its wearer.

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This would contain, in a standardised format, items such as

-name
-any evidence of past meetings
-mutual friends
-topics to avoid
-a thumbnail photo, for scrutiny later
-most likely icebreaker subject, etc.

The watch would contain enough storage for even a politician’s ‘working’ day (ie several hundred pressings of the flesh). Each file, once received, could be transmitted to a portable device (think Blackberry) which would then run a check quickly for additional up-to-date background information on the individual.

A wireless earpiece would be used to transmit snippets of (prioritised) text-to-speech output. This would need to be on-demand -perhaps when the user performs some unobtrusive gesture, like touching his/her ear.

This system would help avoid faux-pas and, with practice, smooth the meeting process. On shaking hands again, at the end of the meeting, names would once more get transmitted to earpieces for a more personalised leave-taking.

(Freemasons’ handshaking habits would be unaffected of course. What would it take to affect them?).

#97: Flux alarm

We are surrounded by more (magnet-containing) motorised devices than ever before. From cameras to pedal bins to door mirrors to catflaps (I haven’t mentioned these for a while, so I thought I’d grab the opportunity).

We are also increasingly reliant on magnetic storage devices, but these two technologies tend not to work well when in close proximity to each other.

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Today’s invention is an alarm which is activated when a significant magnetic field moves near to your credit card or your laptop’s hard drive. It takes the form of a low-cost, stick-on patch containing a copper wire coil.

If someone happens to dump an alternator on the desk beside your patch-bearing wallet, the magnets it contains would induce a small current within the coil: enough to trigger another circuit of the type used in those annoying musical christmas cards so that an alert note sounds (or a quick burst of Silent Night, if you are doubly unfortunate).

This would be made sufficiently sensitive to the arrival of a strong magnetic field that the alarm sounds before damage can occur to the (usually less sensitive) system which is to be protected.

A variant on this patch might also be developed which reacted to high levels of magnetic flux variation; such as that which is sometimes suspected of damaging cell development in young children living near electricity transmission pylons.