#275: Yopod

There are hundreds of “solutions” to the problem of how to manage your mp3 players’ cables.

I’m quite keen on wireless headphones myself, but for those still struggling with stereo spaghetti, here’s a new option.

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Today’s invention is to embed the player within a yo-yo and to use the mp3 cable as the yo-yo’s string. Obviously the player would be allowed to rise only as far as the user’s hand, not right up to the “v” leading to the earpieces.

This would be useable whilst the music played (without doing too much damage to the wires) and then instantly self-stowing on the final rise of the yo-yo.

An entertainment win-win.

#268: Takeoff tracks

It costs a lot to get planning for and to build an airstrip from scratch. Given that thousands of miles of straight railway track lie around most of the time doing absolutely nothing, I’d like to propose some reuse of our underemployed transport infrastructure.

Today’s invention is to allow straight sections of railway line, in unpopulated areas, to be used as a take-off and landing strips for light aircraft.

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Obviously this would require small modifications to existing planes (eg a detachable sled), and a mechanism put in place to ensure that they operate on sections of line which aren’t just about to be used by other services.

This approach could work for gliders too. If a railway engine were equipped with a winch, the combined speed of the engine and winding speed would be more than enough to get a glider aloft.

Landing…well that could certainly prove trickier. Descending smoothly onto a flatbed car, already moving at speed, would however be well within the capabilities of most private pilots.

This whole approach could be funded by landing fees and help pay for improvements in the world’s neglected railways.

#235: Vibration visible

Engineers expend a lot of effort trying to preserve plant against the damaging effects of vibration. There is a whole world of vibration monitoring kit out there but today’s invention is a new way to address this issue.

It’s well known that, when you have a cylindrical container containing particles, the biggest will rise to the top if the cylinder is subject to vibration. It’s called the Brazil nut effect (think of what happens when a box of muesli is transported on the back of a lorry to a supermarket).

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So my proposal is to create a cylindrical, transparent tube full of particles which are coloured by size. Attach this to eg some piece of high-value rotating kit offshore for a while -until the mixture has had a chance to stratify. Invert the cylinder and, under the action of the vibration, a sequence of colours will appear on the top surface.

If the largest particles are coloured red, eventually, the top surface will turn bright red, at which point it’s time for new bearings, or at least an oil change.

#221: Waitless

People who have been trained to wait on tables have an uncanny knack of turning up to deal with requests at exactly the right moment. Such people are very rare.

It’s generally considered rude to attract the attention of waiting staff by waving or even snapping one’s fingers (despite the fact that they may have been discussing the football results together in a corner for the last 20 minutes). Not only that, but inexperienced staff may (eventually) respond out of turn to particularly intense waving or snapping -making everyone even more agitated.

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Today’s invention provides a way for staff to be made discreetly aware of the requests of restaurant customers -and in the order in which they arise.

Every table in a restaurant has a torch fixed to the centre, pointing upwards. When people at a table need something, they switch the torch on and it creates a pool of light on the ceiling. A simple integral eggtimer simultaneously starts to pour sand in front of the torch lens, reducing the size of the illuminated region above each.

Staff can thus work out, by glancing upwards, which table has been waiting longest for service at any given moment.

#200: Auto-actuary

I’m seriously cheesed off that I can never tell when my aging car is about to develop a need for a terminally-costly repair…ie one which is actually higher in price to fix than the value of the vehicle to me.

I had a BMW once which was in excellent condition, but one day its drive shaft main bearing shattered and the estimated repair cost was thousands of pounds. I tried arguing with the garage that the purchase price premium for such fancy vehicles should make their repair costs lower, but you can imagine the reception i got as a ‘valued customer of BMW‘…Needless to say I don’t buy that brand any more.

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The problem is a wider one though, so today’s invention is to provide car owners with access to manufacturers’ data about what repairs are generally required when -for each different model. If I know that a C-class Mercedes will, in general, need a new set of brake discs at 150,000 miles and that the job will cost £2,500, then I can start to calculate how much it’s worth spending on that vehicle, given how long I expect to keep it.

Without this actuarial knowledge, cars can have a small fortune spent on them by owners, whilst garages accept the cash knowing that there is an economically terminal problem looming within the next few months. Access to these data would also have interesting effects on the second hand market (and perhaps ultimately manufacturers would start to build in greater longterm reliability -or at least to create a more predictable pattern of decline for each vehicle).

#188: En-route refuelling

If you’re driving a long way and still feeling fresh, the last thing you need is to have to draw into a service station and buy fuel (together with their wildly overpriced coffee, sandwiches and traditional butterfudge cake).

If aircraft can refuel in-flight without needing to drop into the nearest Moto station then why can’t cars? (btw, who the hell designs Moto signage, Martians? )

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Today’s invention is en-route refuelling. When your vehicle’s tank approaches empty, rather than having to stop and lower your average speed, you can simply call up and locate the nearest road tanker vehicle. These would be hammering along the world’s road networks full of eg four-star, diesel or LGP. A distributed computer system would detect which tanker was nearest and direct both vehicles towards a rolling rendez-vous.

On meeting up, you would drive your vehicle until it docked with the rear of the tanker and received an injection of fuel. You might even be able to take on some window-wash or radiator water -or even a cup of coffee (toileting facilities might be made available, but I’ll leave those details to your imagination).

Refilled, your vehicle would undock and carry on its merry way.

#187: Autodeodorant

I found myself standing recently on a city street where I used to live and I couldn’t believe the level of pollution in the air. It was actually hard to breathe and the whole area stank -mostly the smells of vehicle exhausts (although there was also a whiff of abandoned rubbish, since the council decided to save money by going for bi-weekly collections).

We routinely have cars now with catalytic convertors (and they smell pretty terrible too), so I wondered, why can’t cars smell better?

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Today’s invention is to fit activated carbon filters (ie the ‘odour-eaters’ used in trainers) within vehicle exhaust systems. This could seriously reduce the unpleasant smells emanating from the rear ends of cars and trucks. A further improvement could be made if we arranged to inject ‘natural’ scents into the exhaust stream of each vehicle (cut grass, perhaps or baking bread or newly tilled soil…).

This does nothing, of course, about the levels of particles emitted or dangerous gases but it might make urban life more tolerable while we work on solutions to those other issues.

#180: All-weather sunroof

For those of us who live in Northern climes, a car sunroof tends to stay sealed closed for half the year. This a particular problem for anyone who suffers from seasonal affective disorder and who has to spend long periods in a vehicle (away from a conventional, room-based lamp).

Today’s invention is a daylight spectrum lamp fitted in a vehicle to give the impression, and emotional benefits, of glorious daylight streaming in from above (even when the roof is firmly shut against the dark Winter elements).

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#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?

#90: Recursive photocopying

As a technique for assessing the accumulation of photocopying errors, I propose that a given test image, containing a suitable range of greylevels and spatial frequencies, be photocopied (using a standard tv ‘testcard’ would be an obvious approach). That copy should be itself be copied. Let the process continue for a fixed number of times (I’ve typically used 100 such cycles).

The final image will show up regions in which the device has been introducing noise of various sorts, and thus provide a measure of imperfection in the system. In particular, try this with eg a name badge bearing your photograph. After about 30 recursive copies, you will find yourself transformed into Ben Grimm of the Fantastic Four.

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Even if it is hard to make absolute measurements of image quality this way, it’s possible to use it to understand something about the relative strengths and weaknesses of different copiers -a kind of crude modulation transfer function test.