#115: Hoover improver

I’m sick to death of buying vacuum cleaners that don’t. Whether it’s a Dyson (greedy price, tacky mechanicals) or a Hoover (zero capacity, instant clog) they simply fail to pick up enough of the crud that inhabitats my floors.

So, inevitably, today’s invention (patent not pending) is a truly revolutionary machine that could take the exciting international marketplace for skin cell collection and dust management by storm (or so it will boast on the packaging -these cleaner guys do get carried away sometimes).

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This consists of the usual box with an inlet and an outlet pipe. Inside the box, at the outlet, a glorified roll of toilet paper would be inserted, so that the paper covers the outlet (lying on some kind of open grid, for support). As the household games progress, the paper begins quickly to clog with small particles but -here’s the fun bit- the paper is continuously advanced across the outlet so that suction is uninterrupted by clogging. Something like a 35mm film advance mechanism, from the days before digital eveything.

The paper could be made slightly adhesive so that much of the dirt would remain attached to it for easier cleaning out later. The larger detritis would fall in the box in the usual way.

It would even be possible to have the paper move faster when the power drawn by the motor increased (ie when clogging was taking place). Somebody really smart will come up with a way to advance the paper using the motion of the air itself.

The manufacturers thus get to sell something ‘New and Improved’ together with superannuated bog roll.

#114: Chromoscope

When he wasn’t engaged in squeezing the back of his eyeball with various metal implements, Isaac Newton spent a lot of time scribing lines across a spectrum which he had arranged to fall onto his wall at Trinity College. One interesting thing he discovered was that the presence of these lines somehow allowed more colours to be seen than when they weren’t there.

If you count the distinct colours visible along the top edge of the image, it comes to perhaps five. Repeating this at the bottom edge of the image results in a count of almost twice that number. (This phenomenon may account for why stained glass windows are so vivid and why shops display different coloured garments piled under lights casting sharp shadows).

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Today’s invention makes use of this 17th Century discovery (Why did anyone invent anything, before they invented ‘Intellectual Property’? -discuss ; )

During the manufacture of products, the precise amounts of any dye or surface colorant used can be controlled -if that’s important to marketability. Post production, when all you have is a swatch of material or a splash of paint, it’s much harder to find a perfect match from within a spectrum of available shades.

The delineation described above enables enhanced colour discrimination and so viewing colour samples side by side through two adjacent ‘windows,’ formed from a handheld, sharp-edged black frame, would enable significantly better matches to be achieved).

#113: Interchangeable garden drive

Digging a field or vegetable patch is always a physical challenge. It’s even tough when using a rotavator. So we have an enormous range of shiny and expensive, labour-saving toys with which to create a cacophony for the neighbours’ benefit.

Today’s invention provides access to a range of these devices, whilst cutting the cost of an entire shed-load of appliances.

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I propose designing a range of motorised garden implements all of which are powered using a single, heavy-duty electric drill (it could be cordless, but I’d be happier with a nice fat cable and no need to recharge any massive battery packs).

In this way, gardeners could make more use of an existing (expensive) tool, by plugging it into a range of mechanical ‘business ends,’ each with a suitable small gearbox (such as rotavators, strimmers, hedge clippers, wood chippers and even leaf blowers). I understand that each powertool actually gets used for only 10 minutes, in total which makes the sale of multiple redundant motors even less justifiable.

All this is fine, as long as your garden doesn’t require a simultaneous, multipronged surprise attack.

#112: Numerical palette

Lots of people find that, when learning to paint, it’s perfectly possible to follow a technique for sketching the underlying shapes correctly. What is much more difficult is matching the colours in a real scene with mixtures of the paints available in a given palette.

When you play with any image processing tool such as The Gimp (or Photoshop if you have that kind of cash), the ‘eyedropper’ tool can be used to demonstrate that the actual colour extracted from a region of a digital scene is very different from how it looks when located beside its neighbouring regions.

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Painting therefore requires a) determination of what the local hue in a part of a scene should be, when extracted from the perceptual influence of the surrounding colours, and b) mixing the correct proportions of basic palette colours to achieve this.

Today’s invention attempts to overcome both these difficulties. First, a digital camera captures an image of the scene which is to form the subject of a painting. The image is blurred slightly and colour quantised and each region, larger than a few pixels, is digitally labeled with its average RGB coding.

These figures are then translated into the nearest equivalent CMYK values at each position in the image. A mechanical dispense device contains replaceable paint tubes in each of these four colours (cyan, magenta yellow and black). When operated, (by eg clicking on the screen of the laptop on which the software is running) the device squeezes out paint in the required proportions. These can then be mixed and applied to the corresponding location in the painting.

After using this system for while, it should be possible to start to mentally link the local colour in the scene more directly with the paint mix required (I’ve just discovered another possible application).

#111: Servo seating

It’s hard to sit still for any length of time in comfort. Even the most ergonomically adjustable seating arrangement will start to cause some pain if you don’t get up and walk about every so often.

A research supervisor of mine once drew my attention to some data that encouraged me to make use of all the adjustable features of the ‘task chair’ I was then using. Changing one of the parameters each day, even if only by a small amount, he claimed was a guaranteed way to decrease muscle strain and improve concentration.

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Today’s invention is therefore a chair capable of cycling through all the small-scale variants on your preferred sitting position -changing one per day at random, for example. If the chair offers four degrees of freedom and each is altered by no more than say 10%, in 2% jumps, then there are 625 possible combinations of seating position. It doesn’t matter that these aren’t noticeably different, your muscloskeletal system is apparently challenged and reinforced by having to adapt just a little each day.

It would be possible to run the program on one’s desktop computer and have the seat itself incorporate only some low power motors, able to reposition the seat elements (using eg worm and wheel gearing) when under no-load.

This approach might most easily be applied to those car seats which already have personalised programmable configurations. Instead of a static shape for each driver, they could be equipped with software to provide a very slowly changing seating position -thus limiting expensive and distracting back problems for road warriors.

#110: Perfumemory

It seems that if you study in a scent-filled room, and then get exposed to that particular scent during the subsequent night’s session of slow-wave sleep, your recall of the material is significantly better next day (See this article).

Today’s invention is a system to promote learning via this mechanism. Users, when asleep, would have their entry to slow-wave sleep detected by a cap wired with an array of electrodes attached to a millivoltmeter. This would in turn be connected an electrical socket scent dispenser (the same one as activated during the previous day’s study period.

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Slow-wave sleep would switch the scent on again and reinforce the lesson from the previous day.

It’s not clear if a different smell is required every day in order not to conflate memories. If this turns out to be the case, then it might be enough to create a stably stratified mixture of different oils in the socket reservoir (using scented oils with different smells and densities).

As time passes, and the reservoir level falls, so the relative concentrations of these oils would vary -gradually changing the scent in the room (a duplicate reservoir would be needed to create the right smell during the slow-wave sleep periods).

#109: Circuit certainty

From 1 January 2005, all electrical work in UK dwellings will need to comply with the new ‘Part P’ requirements and be carried out by persons who are ‘competent to do the work’. Anyone thinking of, for example, adding new circuits to their house will have to get ‘building control’ involved : (

Of course, it’s a well-intentioned scheme -amateurs do kill people unintentionally by crazy high-hubris tinkering. The sad reality is though that the UK is a place where engineering is not recognised as a profession and where tradespeople are free to set up shop without any serious scrutiny.

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Sending around some duffer from planning control (who has never changed a plug in his life) and who may be able to devalue your home, by denying you a certificate when you want to sell up, seems a waste of everyone’s time. Actually it seems more like 1984.

Today’s invention is a way for genuinely competent electricians to ‘fingerprint’ their work. This will not only allow house sales to proceed without further external interference, but may also give cowboy tradesmen some serious pause for thought.

Each time an electrician performs a task, he would attach a tag to the work. This would probably best be a laser printed metal one, capable of withstanding a serious domestic fire for many hours. These tags would be printed with a digital signature incorporating the tradesman’s identifier, the date and the postcode of the property (and which would therefore be impossible for a bogus worker to fake or spoof).

Anyone wanting to verify that the work is that of a professional could photograph the tag and send it (by email or MMS) to a government server on which the installation would have been registered. This would enable householders to withold payment, make insurance claims and smooth conveyancing of their property.

Obviously all this would result in increased costs for the homeowner but at least planning people wouldn’t need to get a cut. A small price hike would probably be acceptable, given the real costs of dangerous wiring.

Personally, I’d prefer proper training and professional recognition for everyone who works in an engineering context.

#108: Automatic eyestrain relief

My optician advises me that the latest thinking in his field suggests that users of computer screens should adjust their brightness frequently during the day, to compensate for the changing ambient light levels. Failure to do this is, he says, a major cause of eye strain and general fatigue.

Trying to remember to make these adjustments, let alone finding the miniature control button, would be a major pain.

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So today’s invention is simply to equip screens with the ability to decrease and then increase their brightness automatically throughout the working day.

Ideally, when setting up a new machine, information entered about your location would be used to compute the required, latitude-based lighting variation.

Although the situation is more complicated with mobile devices, it could be catered for either by having a light meter or a GPS transmitter built in. Failing which, your laptop could locate itself roughly by identifying the network to which it it was connected.

#107: Shop window turntables

Today’s invention is a cheap alternative display system for shop windows.

It involves using a number of those low-cost, square electronic clock mechanisms, which are battery-powered. Remove the hands in each case and replace the second hand with a small, round platform.

Placing a lightweight object for sale on this mini turntable would allow it to slowly rotate in the shop window, adding a certain extra visual interest at very little additional cost. This effect would be enhanced by playing the usual spotlights on the object(s) in question and by having a large array of merchandise items. Battery replacement need only happen once or twice a year.

For those with an interest in ‘novelties’, it would be possible to make an internal sundial using one such clock mechanism with a stationary light source and a pointer attached to the turntable.

#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.