Inventions

A universal Web-USB plugin for all browsers

As our devices get more and more complex, configuring them gets harder and harder. And for members of the non-tech-savvy public, close to impossible.

Here’s an answer: Develop a simple browser plug-in for all platforms that can connect a USB peripheral to a TCP socket back to the server where the plugin page came from. (This is how flash and Java applets work, in fact this could be added to flash or Java.)

Once activated, the remote server would be able to talk to the device like its USB master, sending and receiving data from it and talking other USB protocol commands. And that means it could do any configuration or setup you might like to do, under the control of a web application that has access to the full UI toolset that web applications have. You could upload new firmware into devices that can accept that, re-flash configuration, read configuration — do anything the host computer can do.

As a result, for any new electronics device you buy — camera, TV remote control, clock, TV, DVD player, digital picture frame, phone, toy, car, appliance etc. — you could now set it up with a nice rich web interface, or somebody else could help you set it up. It would work on any computer — Mac, Linux, Windows and more, and the web UIs would improve and be reprogrammed with time. No software install needed, other than the plug-in. Technicians could remotely diagnose problems and fix them in just about anything.

So there is of course one big question — security. Of course, the plug-in would never give a remote server access to a USB device without providing a special, not-in-browser prompt for the user to confirm the grant of access, with appropriate warnings. Certain devices might be very hard to give access to, such as USB hard drives, the mouse, the keyboard etc. In fact, any device which has a driver in the OS and is mounted by it would need extra confirmation (though that would make it harder to have devices that effectively look like standard USB flash drives into which basic config is simply read and written.)

One simple security technique would be to insist the device be hot plugged during the session. Ie. the plugin would only talk to USB devices that were not plugged in when the page was loaded, and then were plugged in as the app was running. The plugin would not allow constant reloading of the page to trick it on this.

For added security, smarter devices could insist on an authentication protocol with the server. Thus the USB device would send a challenge, which the server would sign/hash with its secret key, and the USB device could then check that using a public key to confirm its talking to its manufacturer. (This however stops 3rd parties from making better configuration tools, so it has its downsides.) It could also be arranged that only devices that exhibit a standard tag in their identification would allow remote control, so standard computer peripherals would not allow this. And the plugin could even maintain and update a list of vendors and items which do or don’t want to allow this.

There are probably some other security issues to resolve. However, should we resolve this it could result in a revolution of configuring consumer electronics, as finally everything would get a big screen, full mouse and keyboard web UI. (Non portable devices like cars and TVs would require a wireless laptop to make this work, but many people have that. Alternately they could use bluetooth, and the plugin could have a similar mode for working with paired bluetooth devices. Again, doing nothing without a strong user confirmation.)

This works because basic USB chips are very cheap now. Adding a small bit of flash to your electronics device and a mini-USB socket that can read and write the flash would add only a small amount to the cost of most items — nothing to many of them, as they already have it. Whatever new toy you buy, you could set it up on the web, and if the company provides a high level of service, you could speak to a tech support agent who could help you set it up right there.

Automatic retracting pen

I put pens in my pockets. However, sometimes I put them in without caps, or I put in retractable pens without retracting them to keep the tip inside.

The result, as all who do this know, is from time to time a pen leaks out and ruins a pair of pants, sometimes more than that. It’s expensive, and hard to solve. Since the earliest days the badge of the nerd has been the shirt pocket protector, but I put them in my pants. You could try tyvek pocket liners, I suppose, but it’s hard to see how to easily add them.

I wonder if we couldn’t come up with designs for retractable pens where there is some timed decay to the extension of the tip, so that it automatically returns to being inside after a modest time, perhaps half an hour to an hour. It could either just return at a very slow pace with the spring pushing back against something firm enough to keep the tip in place, or something that slowly bends and releases the ratchet. The latter is better because of course the tip must be firmly held for writing, we don’t want to be able to push it back in with the pressure of writing.

The time to return might well be fairly short. Today I find that I only use pens for short bursts of writing. I do all serious writing on a keyboard. I will pull a pen out to make quick notes and then I am done. While it might be annoying from time to time, I could even imagine it clicking back after just a couple of minutes. Of course many pens would not do this — which is a problem, because one will still be regularly picking up other pens, as one often does. But you could still reduce the number of times pen accidents happen if you bought mostly pens like this for yourself.

Electronics getting as cheap as they are these days, this could also be done instead with a sensor. Clicking the pen to extend the tip stores energy in the spring and might store it elsewhere, so that after a couple of minutes it beeps if it hasn’t been reset.

Rotating digital picture frame

Digital Picture Frames are finally coming down to tolerable prices and decent resolutions. We are about to give my mother one that’s 1024x768 and 15” on the diagonal. In part that’s because I never got around to building one out of a laptop though I still think a linux distro that turned an old laptop into a digital PF would be a great idea because the ability to do wireless networking to subscribe to flickr and other feeds is the waiting killer app for these frames. (Or frankly, I just want the wireless module for flat panel displays I have spoken of before.

However, turnkey appliances still have their attraction, and digital picture frames are one of the hot items for this year and probably a few to come.

However, one thing bothers me about them (and all other computer slide shows.) I take a modest number of photos in “portrait” mode, which is to say tilting the camera on its side to make a picture that is tall rather than wide. Of course I take many landscape too. And most digital picture frames are set up in landscape mode. When you see a portrait picture you lose half the resolution. You could get two frames — one arranged in portrait mode and one in landscape, but I propose making a frame where the panel and frame have a small motor on them. Every so often the motor would rotate the frame 90 degrees, and the frame would then switch to doing the pictures that are right for that orientation, and later switch back.

You would want a silent motor of course. It need not be very fast, and you could blank the screen while it turns, or even put up a clever animation that itself counterspins around the axis point so it looks still. It would not work if you only had a very small number of portrait photos, but should be fine for most folks.

Slow, quiet stepper or servo motors are not very expensive, much cheaper than a second frame, though this does add moving parts.

I’ve wanted something similar as well for projected slide shows. There the motor could turn the internal panel, or perhaps just a mirror. If these things existed, people might take more portrait pictures. Today, seeing most photos on computer screens, there seems to be no reason to shoot portrait (other than to get a wider field of view.) If you will always view on the computer, shooting portrait — for those who don’t understand its value as a compositional tool — may just seem like a waste. Now it would not be.

A credit card that won't let you shop at bad merchants

Here’s an idea for a way to bring reputation based shopping to the brick and mortar world.

You would get a new special credit card, Visa or Mastercard. In order to use it, you would be required to rate merchants with reputation scores. You would do this when getting your online credit card bill — a random set of the merchants you purchased from would be highlighted and you would have to put in ratings. You would not have to do all of them, nor more than a set number each month and could also beg off some months to avoid it being a burden. This produces a set of ratings which are not nearly as self-selected as most rating systems, and makes it harder for the merchants to deliberately inflate their own ratings or lower competitors, because they actually have to buy stuff and don’t always rate the purchases they choose. (The system could allow manually chosen ratings but would treat them differently.) If you chargeback, your rating would also get special examination.

However, that’s just step one. The real meat comes when you use the card. You could set thresholds, and if you made a purchase at a vendor with a very poor reputation, below your threshold, the card would decline your purchase. At that point, you would have several options:

  • Get the signal that the merchant is bad, and abandon the purchase
  • Call the 1-800 number on the back of the card on your cell phone. It would spot your caller-ID, and immediately the computer voice would tell you the reputation of the vendor — or tell you that you hit your credit limit. You could then command it to authorize the transaction.
  • Alternately, you could just have it automatically approve any second attempt at the transaction, and thus you could just say “run it again.” (Stores could know this and abuse it, however, so the call method makes more sense.)
  • More simply, if you still want to purchase, you could just pull out another card, and tell them to try that one.

This would work just as well in online shopping, through frankly browser plug-ins make more sense there. However, people don’t use them so this would still work well. In this case you could go to a web URL instead of call the number. And of course it would be nice if paypal also did this, but they don’t seem inclined.

I don’t know if this would violate any bank agreements with Visa or Mastercard, or if, more to the point, they would rewrite the agreements to make it be a violation. The stores who lose business would of course hate it, but they would tend to be the scam houses that just cause lots of chargebacks anyway, so I don’t see why Visa/MC would want to come to their aid.

Bluetooth necklaces

More and more people are walking around Borg-ified with bluetooth earpieces. It's convenient, and a good idea when driving, but otherwise looks goofy and also wears on the ear. I've been a big seeker of headset devices that are wireless, but meant to be only put on while talking, and thus very easy to put on and remove. Self-contained bluetooth devices, with the battery in them, tend to be hard to put on. Nothing I have seen is as easy to put on (or as bulky) as a typical headphone headband.

I thought of something you could quickly clip onto your glasses but the weight will tilt them. It should be possible to build bluetooth eyeglass frames with thick over-ear sections with the battery, slightly thick arms (ideally not too dorky) for the electronics and a microphone hidden in the bridge (though it might pick up breathing a bit too much.)

Another idea is a microphone in a necklace, but just the microphone. It's a good place to get sound and it's far from the speakers which is good. One could imagine a permanently worn necklace/pendant and them another piece which is put on the ear or head for calls. Some vendors are selling "bluetooth pendant" headphones which have earbuds which plug into a pendant worn on the neck today.

My necklace could work with a 2nd wireless part (meaning two batteries) that comes from the pocket or snaps onto the pendant itself. Or a combination eyeglass frames with speaker and pendant with microphone. Of course, no phone is able to understand talking to two devices for the mic and speakers as yet, and while that could be fixed in the future, this system would need one of the devices to talk to the other and combine the signals for the phone, which is wasteful but doable.

Another way around that would be a retractable earbud or other earpiece that pulls out of the pendant and retracts back into it. Or this could be something that hangs on glasses.

Of course the pendant could also vibrate for calls, and show you the caller-ID. These pendants could be designed by fashion designers as jewelry, and not look so borgish. Some models might be super thing and be designed to be worn unobtrusively under the shirt (but still in range of good sound) for people who don't want it to be so obvious. They could be pulled out of the shirt for calls if need be for superior voice.

And please, no bright blinking LED just to tell me you're alive!

Wanted -- better tools to fill out, sign forms

I get forms to fill out and sign in electronic form all the time now. Often they come as PDFs or word documents, every so often by fax, and more and more rarely on paper. My handwriting is terrible and of course I no longer have a working typewriter. But none of the various tools I have seen for the job have had a nice easy workflow.

Now some PDFs are built as forms, and in Acrobat and a few other programs you can fill out the form fairly nicely. However, it’s actually fairly rare for people to build their PDFs as fillable forms. When they do, the basic Acrobat tools generate a form which free Acrobat reader will let you fill out — but bars you from saving the form you filled it out. You can only print it! Adobe charges more, on a per form basis, to make savable forms. However, some other readers, like Foxit Reader, will let you save what you fill into forms, even if the creator didn’t pay Adobe.

You still can’t sign such forms in electronic fashion, however. And as noted, many forms of all types aren’t enabled this way. Forms that come as Microsoft Word documents can be filled out in MS Word or the free Open Office writer or abiword. And you can even insert a graphic of a signature, which gets you closer to the target.

Often however, you are relegated to taking a fax, scanned paper document or PDF converted to bitmap, and editing it in a bitmap editor. Unfortunately the major bitmap editors, like Photoshop or GIMP, tend to be aimed entirely at fancy text and they are dreadful and entering a lot of text on a form. They don’t even make it so easy as quickly clicking and typing.

I encountered a commercial package named “Form Pilot” which is for Windows only but appears to run on WINE. It’s better than the graphics editors, and it does let you click and type easily. However, it has some distance to go. Here’s what I want:

  • Be smart and identify the white spaces on the form, and notably the lines or boxes. Figure a good type size if the default isn’t right.
  • When I click in one of those boxes, or above a line, automatically put me at a nice position above the line for typing. This is not a hard problem, hardly even OCR, just finding borders and lines. Let me use a different click if I want to do precise manual positioning.
  • When I hit TAB or some similar key, advance to the next such box or line in the form.
  • If I type too much in a box, do an automating shrinking of the text so that it fits.
  • Of course, let me go back and edit my text, and save the document with the text as a different layer so I can go back and change things.

Signing

Now the interesting issue of signing. For this, I would want to scan in a sheet of paper which I have placed many signatures on, and have it isolate and store them as a library of signatures.

When I wish to apply a signature, have it pick a random one. In addition, have it make some minor modifications to the signature. Modifications could include removing or adding a pixel here or there along the lines, or adjusting the aspect ratio of the signature slightly. Change the colour of the ink or thickness. There are many modifications which could generate thousands of unique signature forms. If you run out, scan another sheet.

Then make a log of the document I signed and the parameters of the signature that was added, and record that. All this is to assure the user that people who get the document can’t take the signature and copy it again to use on a different document and claim you signed it. You’ll have a log, if you want it, of just what documents were signed. Even without the log you can have assurance of uniqueness and can refute fake signatures easily.

(Refuting forged signatures is actually pretty easy on electronic documents.)

When done, let me save the document or print it, or hook up with a service so that I can easily fax it. The result should be a process of receiving a document or form, filling it out and signing it and sending it back (by fax or email of course) that’s even easier than the original method on paper.

I was surprised, by the way, at how bad all the free bitmap painters I tried were at typing. Gimp and Krita are poor. xpaint and kolourpaint seemed to have the easiest flow even though they are much older and primitive in UI. If you know of programs that do this well, let me know.

Video virtual reunion

Videophones are still an early adopter thing, but I was imagining an interesting application for them — reunions. Recently a theatre company I was in had a reunion far away, and I couldn’t come, but I wanted somebody to bring in a laptop so we could run a SIP or Skype videophone there. It would not have given me a true sense of participation, but individuals I wanted to catch up on could have come to the video phone and chatted.

Most conferencing applications assume there is going to be one big meeting with everybody talking together. That’s useful, but I can see a use for something that facilitates a lot of parallel one-on-one or small group conversations, for something like a reunion. In fact, one might be able to do a decent reunion entirely on the internet, or mostly on it.  read more »

Digital cameras should have built-in tagging

So many people today are using tags to organize photos and to upload them to sites like flickr for people to search. Most types of tagging are easiest to do on a computer, but certain types of tagging would make sense to add to photos right in the camera, as the photos are taken.

For example, if you take a camera to an event, you will probably tag all the photos at the event with a tag for the event. A menu item to turn on such a tag would be handy. If you are always taking pictures of your family or close friends, you could have tags for them preprogrammed to make it easy to add right on the camera, or afterwards during picture review. (Of course the use of facial recognition and GPS and other information is even better.)

Tags from a limited vocabulary can also be set with limited vocabulary speech recognition, which cameras have the CPU and memory to do. Thus taking a picture of a group of friends, one could say their names right as you took the picture and have it tagged.

Of course, entering text on a camera is painful. You don’t want to try to compose a tag with arrow buttons over a keyboard or the alphabet. Some tags would be defined when the camera is connected to the computer (or written to the flash card in a magic file from the computer.) You would get menus of those tags. For a new tag, one would just select something like “New tag 5” from the menu, and later have an interface to rename the tag to something meaningful.

As a cute interface, tag names could also be assigned with pictures. Print the tag name on paper clearly and take a picture of it in “new tag” mode. While one could imagine OCR here, since it doesn’t matter if the OCR does it perfectly at first blush, you don’t actually need it. Just display the cropped handwritten text box in the menus of tags. Convert them to text (via OCR or human typing) when you get to a computer. You can also say sound associations for such tags, or for generic tags.

Cameras have had the ability to record audio with pictures for a while, but listening to all that to transcribe it takes effort. Trained speech recognition would be great here but in fact all we really have to identify is when the same word or phrase is found in several photos as a tag, and then have the person type what they said just once to automatically tag all the photos the word was said on. If the speech interface is done right, menu use would be minimal and might not even be needed.

Patient's room phone with basic presence

Those who know about my phone startup Voxable will know I have far more ambitious goals regarding presence and telephony, but during my recent hospital stay, I thought of a simple subset idea that could make hospital phone systems much better for the patient, namely a way to easily specifiy whether it’s a good time to call the patient or not. Something as simple as a toggle switch on the phone, or with standard phones, a couple of magic extensions they can dial to set whether it’s good or not.

When you’re in the hospital, your sleep schedule is highly unusual. You sleep during the day frequently, you typically sleep much more than usual, and you’re also being woken up regularly by medical staff at any time of the day for visits, medications, blood pressure etc.

At Stanford Hospital, outsiders could not dial patient phones after 10pm, even if you might be up. On the other hand even when the calls can come through, people are worried if it’s a good time. So a simple switch on the phone would cause the call to be redirected to voice mail or just a recording saying it’s not a good time. Throw it to take a nap or do something else where you want peace and quiet. If you throw it at night, it stays in sleep mode until 8 or 9 hours. Then it beeps and reverts to available mode. If you throw it in the day, it will revert in a shorter amount of time (because you might forget) however a fancier interface would let you specify the time on an IVR menu. Nurses would make you available when they wake you in the morning, or you could put up a note saying you don’t want this. (Since it seems to be the law you can’t get the same nurse two days in a row.)

In particular, when doctors and nurses come in to do something with you, they would throw the switch, and un-throw it when they leave, so you don’t get a call while in the middle of an examination. The nurse’s RFID badge, which they are all getting, could also trigger this.

Now people who call would know they got you at a good time, when you’re ready to chat. Next step — design a good way for the phone to be readily reachable by people in pain, such as hanging from the ceiling on a retractable cord, or retractable into the rail on the side of the bed. Very annoying when in pain to begin the slow process of getting to the phone, just to have them give up when you get to it.

A super-compact global power adapter

Those who travel on trips through many countries face the problem of how to plug in their laptops and gear. Many stores sell collections of adapters, but they are often bulky, and having multiple adapters for multiple gear can be really bulky. (Usually you get one adapter and then use a 3-way splitter or cord for your type of plug.)

Today, however, almost all my travel gear is 2-prong, not 3-prong. It’s mostly my laptop and various chargers for cameras, phones etc. And all of it runs on every voltage and hz found in the world.

It seems if you’re willing to break the rules on rigidity of plugs, one could make a very small adapter by using independent pins, perhaps with a flexible rubber strip handle between them to keep them together and make it safer, but still allowing the pins to bend and have different spacing.

If you do this, there are really just a few types of pins you need. Thin blades, thick blades, thin round pins and in a few places fat round pins. The blades come at different angles — parallel in North America, slanted in Australia, colinear for thick blades in UK. With pins it’s more a question of spacing than angles. A single plug with a way to adjust the spacing could also work. (Israel has a strange pin I haven’t used, I don’t know if other pins or blades could be adapted to it.)

Generally this would not be suitable for plugging a wall-wart into a wall, you would want to plug in a short extension cord with multiple sockets of “your” type. And it might be hard to sell a product like this due to safety standards, since they don’t want to trust the user to know what they are doing, know that they are only plugging in equipment that takes any voltage and doesn’t care what pin is live and which is neutral, doesn’t need ground and doesn’t draw lots of current in any event. But it would be very compact.

High-speed cooling for the kitchen with flexible brine packs

Everybody who has used a microwave oven has wished at times for a "microwave fridge" that could cool things quickly. Of course the process is very different.

The fastest way to cool things, however, is to get lots of surface contact with a very cold fluid that will absorb and coduct lots of heat. And indeed, drop a drink can into ice-water, which is of course at 0 degrees centigrade (32F) and it will cool reasonably quickly.

Far faster is to drop it into icy brine water. Saltwater (brine) freezes much coooler. A 23% (by mass) brine doesn't freeze until -21C or -6 degrees farenheit. (In fact, 0 on that scale was in part derived from the freezing point of common brine, I believe.) A cooler full of salty icewater will cool drink cans much faster -- just a minute in fact, and this is well known. But it gets salt water on things, and can't be used to cool non-sealed things.

I propose packages of 23% brine in extremely soft and flexible (even at freezer temperatures) plastic packs. Perhaps moderate amounts of 1" or 2" spheres, not tautly inflated, so they can be squished and will conform to objects. The covering must be as conductive as you can reasonably get it, while staying flexible and not too fragile. Ideally dishwasher safe too...

Put them in the freezer, and then when you want to cool just about anything, pack them around it in a box. Get lots of surface area contact. Most freezers are supposed to be kept below 0F (-18C). They could even be placed on top of messy foods, if the container is easy to clean, and as noted, possibly could be dishwashable with modern ingredients. If you just slot a drink can or bottle into them, you would not need to clean them.

There are some risks. These packs could actually frostburn skin fairly quickly, I think. Small plastic pick-up handles/tabs would make sense for moving them by hand, or gloves or tongs could be used. Of course brine is not going to be toxic so puncture would generate nothing worse than a salty mess.

Brine is used in ice-cream making and other cooling applications already. For maximum cooling, a simple device with cold 23% brine, a conductive surface and some means to circulate the brine to generate convection would be in order.

There are some salts, such as Magnesium Chloride and Ca2Cl which stay liquid at much cooler temperatures. Those could be used in a tiny mini-cooler which takes them down to seriously cold temperatures. Then items to be flash-cooled could be inserted among the chilly pillows. Of course, expect frozen condensate if there is water around.

You can test this plan out yourself with solid zipper freezer bags. Take 750ml water and about 230g NaCl salt to make your brine. You don't have to get it exactly right, your freezer is probably not at -6F.

Travel laptop for couples

We often travel as a couple, and of course both have the same e-mail and web addictions that all of you probably have. Indeed, these days if you don’t get to your e-mail and other stuff for a long period, it becomes unmanageable when you return. For this reason, we bring at least one, and often two laptops on trips.

When we bring one, it becomes a time-waster. Frankly, our goal is to spend as little time in our hotel room on the net as possible, but it’s still very useful not just for e-mail but also travel bookings and research, where to eat etc. When we have only one computer — or when we have two but the hotel only provides a connection for one — it means we have to spend much more time in the hotel room.

It would be nice to see a laptop adopted for couple’s use. In many cases, this could be just a little software. Many laptops already can go “dual head”, putting out a different screen on their VGA connector than goes to the built-in panel. So a USB keyboard and a super-thin laptop sized flat panel would be all you need, along with power for the panel. In the future, as more and more hotel rooms adopt HDTVs, one could use that instead of the display.

Of course desktop flat panels are bigger than laptops, this would need to be a modified version of the same panels put into laptops, which are readily available. A special connector for it, with power, would make this even better. The goal is something not much larger than a clipboard and mini-keyboard. It could even be put in an ultrathin laptop case (with no motherboard, drives or even battery.)

Now, as to software. In Linux, having two users on two screens is already pretty easy. It’s just a bit of configuration. I would hope the BSD based Mac is the same. Windows is more trouble, since it really doesn’t have as much of a concept of two desktops with two users logged in. (Indeed, I have wondered why we haven’t seen a push for dual-user desktop computers, since it’s not at all uncommon to see an home office with two computers in it for two members of the family, but for which both are used together only rarely.)

On Windows, you would probably need to just have one user logged in, and both people would be that user to Windows. However, you would have different instances of Firefox/Mozilla, for example, which can use different profiles so each person has their own browser settings and bookmarks, their own e-mail settings etc. It would be harder to have both people run their own MS Word, but it might be doable.

Some variants of the idea include making a “thin client” box that plugs into the main computer via USB or even talks bluetooth to it, and has its own power supply. It might do something as simple as VNC to a virtual screen on the main box. Or of course it could plug into ethernet but that’s often taken on the main box to talk to the hotel network if the hotel has a wired connection. (More often they have wireless now.) The thin client could also act as a hub to fix this.

If you want to bring two laptops, you can make things work by using internet connection sharing over wired or wireless ad-hoc network, though it’s much more work than it should be to set up. But my goal is to avoid the weight, size and price of a 2nd laptop, though price is not that big an issue because I am presuming one has other uses for it.

Do our secure passwords in a bluetooth cell phone.

Password security on the web is a troublesome issue. We have hundreds of web accounts, some of them with access to all our money, and it must be secure, not just from phishers and people snooping the web line, but from viruses and keyloggers that can take over our own computers or roaming computers we want to use to access password protected web sites.

The only way to be secure if you can’t trust the very computer you’re logging in from is to have a security dongle which contains the real secrets and does the logon negotiation, plus confirmation of any big actions like large cash transfers. People have carried login dongles for years, typically which have a screen with a constantly changing number (securid) or which can do challenge/response.

Most of the world is moving now to having a smart phone, in particular one with a standardized data protocol such as bluetooth. I propose a protocol so that web sites can, given a limited channel to the phone, do a login dialog with the phone. The computer would just be a conduit for the data, it would not matter if it were compromised, as the passwords would not be sent in the clear.

More thoughts…  read more »

Digital Piano keys with computer controlled resistence

The sound of digital pianos continues to improve, and expensive ones also have a good feel, often by building individually weighted keys that go beyond simulating a key on a real piano.

What might be done with more modern technologies, such as super-fast servos, and fluids whose viscoscity can be varied based on the strength of electric or magnetic fields applied to them. (Some of these fluids are being applied to the development of dynamicly responding shock absorbers.)

So the first step would be to build an action to connect to a keyboard, be it either a servo, a fluid or just a plain powerful magnetic coil, so we can adust, with millisecond resolution, how much backwards force the key applies to the finger of the player. Of course we must also accurately and quickly measure the force being applied by the finger to drive the process.

Next, we would build a device to measure the force-response of a real piano keyboard. It would press the keys in various ways that real players press them -- slowly, quickly, hard, soft and with other forms of varying touch measured from real pianists. Then attempt to develop a model of how the keys on the real piano respond.

With this, we could measure all sorts of great pianos. The concert Steinways, the finest pianos available. These all feel different. In some cases the feel is not necessarily "superior" but just what people have come to expect from that type of piano.

Then we would program our dynamic resistence keys to model any piano that had been measured. Throw a switch and change how it feels from Steinway to Yamaha. Just as you can throw a switch to change how it sounds. Ideally, the equipment would be light so the keyboard would not have to be heavy, as today's weighted MIDI keyboards are. (Of course they are still much lighter than grand pianos.)

inflatable sofabed

For many the guest bed has for years been the sofabed. But they are usually terrible beds, with too-thin mattresses that get lumpy. People are moving more towards inflatable beds they put on the floor or a stand. On the floor of course is not comfortable either.

So why not a sofabed with an air mattress inside, a quality one like those found in the higher-end airbeds. Those are quite nice to sleep on, with adjustable firmness. You can't have the thick foam walls, those would have to be inflated, but you could have the foam padding on top. Could auto-inflate with built in pump.

Would be a good idea in RV sofas as well.

Smarter headsets, smarter headset jacks

Millions now use PCs for VoIP and online audio chat, and you soon realize the quality is vastly better if everybody uses a headset.

But there’s a problem on PCs. If you plug in headphones, it usually disables the regular speakers, often in hardware. So if you leave a headset connected, the system can’t play a ring sound when somebody calls you.

So time to rethink the design of the headset jacks, and the headsets themselves. Instead of disabling the main speakers, the presence of a plug in the jack should just be a software signal. Both the jack, and the speakers/speaker jack should be independent software-selectable outputs in the sound driver. Plugging in a headset should just change the default output. VoIP software, however, should be aware of this and know to send call audio to the headset, and ringing sounds to the speakers.

However, it could be even smarter than this. It might change its mind if it knows you are at the computer, or at least change the volume of the ringing on the speakers if you are at the computer. And make it louder if you haven’t touched the computer in a while.

Beyond that, we could make headsets smarter. They should be able to easily know if you have them on, due to tension in the headband or ear-strap. Earbuds could use a small temperature sensor to know if they are on. This could also effect where we direct sounds. Of course, this involves either a new headset jack, or perhaps more cleverly, a small and inaudible data protocol (or even something as simple as a click protocol) over the existing plugs. Many cell phones use a non-standard headset jack to include extra wires for button signals (such as to answer the phone. This should be formalized.

Of course, with bluetooth headsets and USB headsets, you have the potential for all sorts of additional communication with no change to the jack. A bluetooth headset should be able to tell, via temperature and pressure, if it is on the ear or not. It can even tell quite readily if you’re speaking or have spoken recently. Though I doubt most of the world is ready to wear their bluetooth headset all the time, though I do see people doing this more and more.

Slow RAID for the home network

Hard disk drives these days are cheap. Too cheap, in that while we love paying 30 cents/GB, the reliability is getting pretty poor. Doing backups, especially automatic backups is a must, but what about RAID?

One of the problems with RAID, at least RAID-5 is that you need to have 3, and ideally 4 or 5 drives in a machine. That’s a lot of drives, a lot of power, a lot of heat, a lot of noise. And many machines only have two IDE controllers so they can barely do 3 drives and can’t readily do more even if they had the slots and power for them.

So I propose a software RAID-5, done over a LAN with 3 to 5 drives scattered over several machines on the LAN.

Slow as hell, of course, having to read and write your data out over the LAN even at 100mbits. Gigabit would obviously be better. But what is it we have that’s taking up all this disk space — it’s video, music and photos. Things which, if just being played back, don’t need to be accessed very fast. If you’re not editing video or music, in particular, you can handle having it on a very slow device. (Photos are a bigger issue, as they do sometimes need fast access when building thumbnails etc.)

This could even be done among neighbours over 802.11g, with suitable encryption. In theory.

Not that there aren’t some major issues to overcome. The machines must be on most of the time. (A single disk can be taken out of a RAID temporarily, and thus a single machine hosting one disk can be turned off or rebooted, but not for long periods.) If you lose access to two disks (or your LAN) you can’t get access to the data. And it’s going to use a lot of your network capacity, though gigabit networking is starting to get cheap. And the idea gets better…  read more »

Fast, self-service store

We hate waiting in line at the cashier and stores don’t like paying cashiers so some have self-service cashiers which are still hard to use. So here’s an idea.

Provide shoppers who wish to self-serve a scanning wand, which is battery powered and attached by coiled cable to the shopping cart. In the shopping cart, have a number of shopping bags present and numbered. Paper bags which hold a square shape are better. Also have an open area or special bag.

As you pick up an item you scan it and put it in a bag. It would probably tell you which bag to put it in, though in some cases you could pick and tell it.

However, if the item is “unverifiable” then the scanner would indicate it should be put in the special bag.

An unverifiable item would be one whose weight can’t be reliably measured. That’s because the idea is to verify the main bags at check-out by weighing them. That weight should match the calculated weights for the items put in the bag, plus the weight of the bag of course. If the weight matches, the bag is just loaded back into your cart. If it doesn’t, the items are scanned by the cashier as they normally are today.

Sometimes, even in a bag that matches the weight, a random scan of a few items in the bag would be done. Along with a basic visual check every time. This is to stop people from gaming it, by finding expensive items (notably pills) that happen to in combination weigh close to what some cheap items weigh.

Items of very small weight would go in the unverifiable bag, along with the most expensive items (just so that clerks know that they should never see them in the self-checked bags on visual inspection). Items of large weight would not be put with items of tiny weight in the same bag. Bags would also be balanced by weight, and a smart system would know to put cold items together, and not to mix cleansers and food.

Variable weight items, like meat, usually already have their weight encoded in the barcode as they are priced by weight.

There already are self-checkouts, and they do use a weight check, but it’s one item at a time and they are a pain to use — so much so that I have seen people reject them with just a couple of items. I am guessing scan as you shop will seem to add almost no time. Of course you will need buttons on the scanner to remove items, and even to move them to other bags when it won’t hurt the measuring system.

Check-out will be with a cashier, but the cashier will simply place the bags on a scale, and if it beeps correct, put it back in your cart. They will do a quick visual scan (seeing the list of items and the order they were put in the bag on the screen) and if told to by the system, do a random item check. Sometimes they will even do a full re-scan of everything, but ideally this would be rare. Then they would hand check the specials bin, the way they check everything today. And then take your money. You should be through the cahsier in 1/2 to 1/3rd the time. A small number of cashiers would be open for those who wish to have everything personally rung up by the cashier.

Note as well that with this system you don’t need to bar code the individual products! It’s sufficient to have a bar code on the shelf tag, and to scan that, though of course people will get errors sometimes. The screen on the scanner would possibly show a picture of the item so you are sure you scanned the right shelf tag.

In the produce department, you would pick up vegetables, put them in a bag, and put them on the scale. It would show you the weight and price and also beam that to your scanner. Items priced by count would have to go in the specials bin unless they are all so close in weight that the scale can figure out the count based on the weight. I suspect this would work with most items in fact. (You would need to scan the shelf tag before heading to the counting-scale for these items.)

Of course it’s also possible that regular customers could just get dispensation to just put the bags on the scale and walk out (auto-billed to their credit card) but frankly I am not that in favour of systems (like the discount cards) which generate giant databases of everything you buy.

Button on cell phone to answer and play pre-recorded message

Of course, if you don't answer your cell phone it goes to voice mail and plays your pre-recorded message.

But what we need are phones which can answer and play a pre-recorded message for a short time. In particular a message of the form, "Hold on, I'm in a meeting and must keep silent. However, I'm walking out of the meeting right now while you hear this recording, and in a few seconds I'll be able to talk to you. Hold on... Still walking..."

This could be a special answer button on a phone (with the carrier doing nothing) or you could just press a number button (DTMF) or other button right after answer and the cell carrier could receive that and start playing the audio to the caller until you press another button or simply start speaking at full volume into the mic. This latter system would work with any phone, and you could choose from several options to play, including "Hold on, I'm actively driving" and so on.

At a recent conference they asked people not just to put phones on vibrate, but to turn them off unless you're a doctor-on-call. They declared that people getting up (and often briefly talking) was becoming too much of a disruption in meetings. A feature like this could be some of a stopgap.

It could also be implemented in a headset, particularly a bluetooth one, so you could use it with multiple phones.

Immune system based dating service

One of the more interesting results in human sexuality was the study that revealed that women prefer the smell of men whose immune systems are the most different from their own. In the study, women were given a variety of men’s T-shirts (used) and asked which ones smelled the most appealing. It was found they liked the most men who had different genetic immunities from their own. (I’m not sure just how they determined this immune system mapping.) This makes sense, we want to breed children with combined immunities — opposites should attract in this case.

If the mapping is not too expensive, this seems like a good basis for a dating service. Of course do the other things dating services are doing, matching interests etc. But also add “chemistry” of which smell is an important though not complete part. Many people complain that computer dating matches them up with interesting friends but there is often no spark. A dating service that could offer chemistry as well as compatibility could do very well…

(Of course if the immune map is too expensive to build, one could do it the old fashioned way, with a gallery of T-shirts at the office. First find the partners you are compatible with in other ways, then pull out the shirts and see who passes the smell test.)

Note: I’m now back from Australia and at Foresight’s Nanotech conference. Later I will be writing a lot about my observations in Australia, and later still putting up a large array of photos.

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