Inventions

Solar powered, wireless webcam

Everybody loves their webcams (though the surveillance aspects of some are to be worried about.)

What about a way to make them cheap and easy to put in cool places. Combine a webcam with a solar panel, 802.11 link and small bettery. The webcam charges the battery off the panel, and when there is enough charge to take a picture, it takes one and spits it out the wireless link. You don't need much of a battery or much of a solar panel, because the amount of power simply controls how often it can take a picture.

When the sunlight is bright, it's taking pictures frequently. When it's cloudy, they are less frequent. When it's dark, it's not taking them at all. (Though a unit with larger battery could do even this.)

These devices could easily be stuck on mountaintops, antenna towers, roofs etc. The only issue -- keeping the lens clean. Possibly a wiper (fired when blur is detected or manually) or occasional service. A little protection from the rain and wind for the lens of course.

And now that megapixel sensors are so cheap, why not produce a 1280x720 HDTV image, which people can stick on their new plasma screens on the walls, sampling images of the world?

Stirling Engine based hybrid car

I'm not the only one to have thought of this, but as yet no real work has been done. How about a hybrid car powered with a Stirling Engine? (Not spelled Sterling, btw.)

The Stirling is more efficient than the internal combustion or diesel engine, and it's also a lot quieter. Sounds great, but it's not good for cars because it can't rev up quickly and it takes about 5 minutes to get the engine hot enough to run well. We want our cars to start the minute we put the key in.

A hybrid design (with enough batteries for 10-20 miles) solves this. You can get all the acceleration you need from the electric motors, and you can start driving right away, while heating up the Stirling "boiler". Then it kicks in to provide the power to run the car for the long haul. If you know the trip is short, no need to fire up the Stirling until the battery gets low.

The Stirling can burn anything. Gasoline, kerosene, diesel, vegetable oil, hydrogen, even wood! Yes, you could, in theory, be stuck by the side of the road out of gas, then go out with an axe to chop trees and refuel your car.

Well, almost. You want high-temperature burning for the best efficiency, and this would pollute and probably dirty your nice clean boiler. Right now the engines are expensive to machine but I suspect that could change.

High quality videoconferencing restaurant

It's always dangerous to predict that soon we will all videoconference, but the technology really is getting better (See the Marconi ViPr, for example.) And bandwidth is getting cheaper. The Marconi system wants 8 megabits bidirectional -- the secret being not to do very fancy compression to instead push for really low latency and hi resolution -- but this is getting to be more affordable.

Here's a possible application. Nice restaurants making tables for a remote virtual dinner date. A table for one facing a screen, connected with another such table in another city. Get together for dinner with distant friends. Of course, one would also like to do it for larger groups but as the Marconi project shows, that requires losing too much resolution (at least for now) to get an acceptable experience.

Another barrier -- you want a lifesize screen here, but a bigger screen means a larger difference from the other's eyes and the camera, and that just looks wrong. The low latency requirement stops us from playing cute tricks, like having two cameras left and right and trying to calculate an eye that's looking at you. This is hard to do though some day we might solve it.

For an added touch the restaurants, if they share a menu, might even offer you a taste of the dish the other person ordered. Here, try this, it's delicious. Hokey, but who knows? Harder of course to provide physical contact, though there have been attempts to build gloves for virtual handsakes and in the extreme there is teledildonics.

Of course the system (without the teledildonics) would also be popular for business lunches. Of course there are lots of videoconferencing centers trying to sell their services for business meetings, but we have a certain attraction to meeting for lunch for a one one one or 2 on 2. It might make work what we haven't done before.

On the other hand, I think we should work to eliminate the speakerphone from the audio conference call. It's never great. Just give everybody in the room a bluetooth earbud or headset, and headsets for anybody joining remotely. Good audio, full duplex, ability to interrupt. Forget the echo cancelling and tinny acoustics.

Native games for native casinos?

Whenever I see a First Nation's (That's the Canadian politically corect term for Indians) Casino, I have a cynical thought along the lines of "ah, the great Indian tradition of video poker."

So here's a good idea for folks in the gambling machine industry: Track down some traditional native games that can be turned into gambling games on machines. Make machines to play them.

Sure, nobody plays these games any more, not even the Indians. But while everybody understands the financial attraction of the tribes using their special sovereignty to make a bundle with casinos, I suspect many would jump at the chance to offer a game with even limited origins in their own traditions.

At first, gamblers would be confused at new games, but they are remarkably adept at learning, especially with a little marketing. In particular, just provide better odds to introduce the games. Games like "Bowl and Dice" which are random, could easily be converted to slot-machine style games.

Of course this is a heavily regulated industry so a random person can't just enter it on a whim, so I cast this idea out for those already in that business.

Friendscrow -- Key Escrow Among Friends

In thinking about the GMail encryption problem, I came to realize that for ordinary users liable to forget their passwords, it would not be suitable to tell them after such an event that all their email archives are forever lost. This means some sort of Key Escrow. Not the nasty kind done with the clipper chip, but one done voluntarily.

I came up with a system I call Friendscrow. (I suspect others have also thought of the same thing.) This is a ZUI (Zero User Interface) system, at least for normal operation.

Your key would be broken up into some number of fragments, say 20. The fragments would be arranged so that getting any 10 of them recovers the key, but getting fewer gets you no closer.

The system would search your mail logs to find your 20 most frequent correspondents in the system. (It has to be a big and popular system for this to take place, otherwise some UI is needed.) Most of these will be your friends, a few may be enmies. Techniques would be used to eliminate mailing lists, etc. If you want to add basic UI, you might scan and approve the list.

The key fragments are then distributed to the 20 close contacts. They will not know this has been done, the fragement will just be placed in their files, encrypted with their key.

If you lose your key (or when you die) you use your friends to get it back. You mail those you know to be your closest correspondents a special message. It says to them, "You may not know it, but you may have a fragment of my lost key. Go to the system and click on the link to help a friend recover a password."

The link explains that you should first confirm you are really talking to the friend through some other means than e-mail. Or confirm that they are dead. It will ask you to confirm they are not under duress. Then it will give you the fragment to hand over to the authorized person.

You should be able to find half the fragments, which would be enough to get back your key, and read your archives again.  read more »

Closed-circuit HDTV for cruise ship inside cabins

Inside cabins on cruise ships are somewhat depressing. Here's a plan to make them better. Equip them with flat-panel HDTV video screens. Then place HDTV cameras on the bow, stern and both sides. Tune the video panel to the camera that is pointed in the same direction to make a virtual porthole.

Why is this valuable? Well, aside from giving the passengers something to look at in high-res, a lot of seasickness comes from your eyes not telling you the same thing as the balance organs in your inner ear. It's why staring at the horizon is the right thing to do when feeling queasy. This simulated window (if aligned well with the camera) should provide some help with that.

Not having done tests I don't know if it will be necessary to have the camera be close to the screen or whether a camera amidships (not moving up and down so much) could work with a screen near the bow, or vice versa. The disparity might make things worse, and tests would be needed. One axis might work while another would not. It might also be possible to compensate for the difference by cropping the frame from a larger view, and introducing artificial motion to provide the level of horizon motion that would be seen from a window.

Of course, they could also add bright full-spectrum lights to the inside rooms (I assume some ships do) to make them more cheery.

Inside cabins sell for a lot less than outside ones, this could jack up their price. Of course the screen could also tune the other cameras, or indeed other closed circuit cameras showing public areas on the ship, or semi-public ones like the bridge during interesting times.

And, duh, they would be great for movies and other video entertainment. In fact the outside cabins might want them so they can see out the window to starboard and see forward as well! Making a few hundred extra per trip would easily pay for the flat panel displays in a short time.

How are pricepoints moving on HD cameras meant not for camcordering (with associated expensive compression) but closed-circuit work? I could see a market for this even in homes, with one's flat panel showing the view from the roof of your house, if it has a view.

Accelerometer in Cell Phone for emergencies

In writing the previous entry, another idea came to me that I stuck at the end which is worthy of its own entry. Place an accelerometer in your cell phone that will detect a violent event, such as a car crash or bike crash. Similar to the detector already in the car that triggers the airbag.

Upon detection of the event, the phone would start beeping for about 30 seconds warning about the emergency. If there is no emergency, you would press any key to stop the call. Otherwise it could call 911.

However, it would need to be sure not to trigger an emergency just because you dropped the phone or threw it or went flying when you turned a corner in your car. However, if this can be arranged it could be a handy feature to sell as a cell phone extra.

Cheaper beds to move patients

A lot of patients sit in hospitals unable to move, and as such they develop tremendous bedsores and other problems. My grandmother lost a leg to this (and the resulting hospital-caught infection) many years ago. (Hospital-caught infection is the 4th largest cause of death in the USA, after heart disease, cancer and stroke.)

Today I saw one answer, a fancy bed that uses inflatable chambers in the bed to adjust the patient. Seems like a good plan, but the kicker is the bed costs $1000/day to rent. This bed is good in an ICU with a patient hooked up to tons of tubes and wires, but for the more stable stroke and paralysis patient, it seems there could be something much cheaper.

What about a U shaped bed with curved side walls that simply sits on a track with a geared motor that can rotate it left and right to flip a patient over? The U sides could be lowered by the hospital staff to remove the patient from the bed, though in fact the motor might also be able to turn the bed to roll the patient onto a gurney for transport.

Also handy would be cushions on a conveyer belt. Such patients, and I have known several, often move down the bed if the back is tilted up for them, and they have to be lifted and moved back up. This could also help. For many patients it could all be under their control, with safeguards of course to avoid going too far.

The value of being moved is well known, the problem is how to make it cheap enough so that all these patients can have it. Perhaps the inflatable concept can be made cheaper. Typical airbeds aren't that expensive and the principles are similar. Does being "medical grade" really jump the cost of the bed to $300,000?

Exercise bike that makes you exercise

Everybody knows one of the big problems with exercise machines is they end up as clothesracks. I've seen this literally happen. A lot of people put their machine in front of the TV to make them use it, for a while we even had no couch.

Here's an invention to create an exercise machine you'll really use, if you watch TV. The machine, or a device attached to it, would be programmed to constantly broadcast a recorded infrared signal trained from your remote. This code would be one that would interfere with watching TV. For example, volume-mute or channel-up, or a digit. Whatever you want to train it to. (Off doesn't work as that also turns the TV on.)

However, once you get on the machine and start using it, it stops sending this code, and you can watch TV. Once you have done your exercise quota, it would stop sending the muck-up code until you are next due to exercise, whatever your schedule is.

To stop you from just covering the transmitter with clothing (remember the clothesrack?) it would also need to have a receiver some distance away which gets upset and chirps annoyingly if it can't see the regular ping from the transmitter.

Others in the house not on a regimen could enter a code on the remote to temporarily disable the system when they want to watch. If 2 or more people had a regimen, they would have to enter which person they were to activate their disabling code. That gets a bit messy but it can be done.  read more »

Limit children's hours of TV viewing

Generally, I'm the last person to suggest we use technology to control people's lives and what they view. However, it's also the duty of parents to help teach their children how and when to use the media. Most commonly today you see things like the V-chip, which let parents block their unskilled children from seeing shows with certain "ratings."

A far more useful concept, I think, would be a device which limits the amount of time children can spend watching the TV. What they watch in that context can be mostly up to them, and if they understand the concept of a time budget, it will probably improve not just how much they watch but what they watch.

A PVR like the Tivo, or in particular, the DirecTivo, is the ideal platform for doing this. Children would get their own remotes, or a code to enter on the master remote to start using their weekly budget of TV hours. Once the budget was used up, they could not watch TV for a while. With a PVR, this would not block them from seeing a highly desired show, but it would delay it.

If two children wanted to watch the same show they could both enter their code to halve the amount of TV credit used, encouraging sharing and (minimal) socialization. Siblings would pretty quickly develop a market, trading TV hours like prison cigarettes with one another for real-world things, even money. This need not be discouraged. Random TV surfing would be discouraged, and commercial viewing strongly discouraged.

Adults would have to take the burden of having to enter their own code for unmetered viewing, a price they would pay to cut down their kid's TV hours.

Of course there are also some privacy considerations to consider.  read more »

Open Source voting machines

As I noted earlier, there are all sorts of risks with remote voting over the internet, even if I suggest a way to make it doable. However, this is different from the question of voting machines. Like the folks at Verified Voting I believe that a voter-verifiable paper ballot is the simplest way to make computerized voting more secure. And I like voting machines because they can improve access and even make preferential ballot possible down the road.

But I look at the huge cost we are paying for voting machines. I propose breaking the voting machine process into two steps. The first is the ballot preparation machine. It helps the voter generate their ballot, and then prints it out on paper, in a human readable form that is also machine readable. You need lots of those.

With paper ballot in hand, you walk over to the scanning machine, which is stage 2. This machine reads the standard-format paper ballot, does OCR on the human readable text and confirms the ballot is readable as the voter desires. It also counts it. The ballot is then placed in a locked ballot box.

The scanning machine will be expensive, and secured, and built by an audited vendor. However, you need only a small number of those. The voting stations, which you need many of, can mostly be cheap. In fact, they can be free.

That's because you would generate a voting program that runs on standard PC hardware. On slow standard PC hardware. Probably an open source program, meant to run on Linux, and audited and verified by the open source community. They would love this job.

Then you ask the public to donate their old, slower PCs. Give them a small tax deduction if needed, but frankly I think you would get so many machines you wouldn't even need that. You could even be strict on the hardware requirements. Wipe the bios and put in a fresh one, possibly put in a cheap hard disk with the voting system installed. Get donated laser printers. You don't have a lot of security concerns with these machines because there is not a lot they can do to bollux the election.  read more »

Eyes in the back of your head

Reading this NYT article about radar to cover car blind spots, which describes a system that will trigger lights in the rearview-mirror when cars are in the blind-spot, reminded me of an old idea I had some time ago I called “Eyes in the back of your head.”

The idea would be to wear a special collar while driving. This collar would contain small electrodes that could lightly stimulate the skin on the back of the neck. Perhaps just one row, but ideally a small 2-D image should be possible.

This would be connected to a camera, radar or sonar system pointing back from the vehicle. It would map where other vehicles are, and turn that into an image on the back of the neck.

Thus, as a car came up behind you and passed you, it would feel like something brushing the back of your neck on one side.

I was inspired to this by reading about a system for the blind that mapped a video camera image onto a 2000 pixel electrode map on the stomach. It was found that over time, the nerves would retrain and a sort of limited vision could develop. Might this have application in driving, or perhaps combat?  read more »

Paperless Home

In my home I now have a "home computer", for a while in the kitchen, now in the living room. Of course I have had computers in my home since the 70s, but this one is different. It's an old cheap laptop I picked up, not powerful at all. What's different is how I use it.

I have connected a Visioneer sheetfed scanner to it. I can drop papers and business cards into it and it scans them. Then I drop them in a box. I have scans of all the receipets and other documents, but if for some reason I need the original I can see by date which ones were nearby and presumably find it quickly enough. A good idea might be to drop a coloured sheet in once a month.

This has inspired me to design a simple device which would be very cheap to build. It's a small sheetfed scanner like this one, which is the size of a 3-hole punch. It's battery powered so it can be stuck anywhere. It has no cables going into it, instead it has a memory card slot, such as compact flash.

When you scan, the data would just be written to the flash card. (Nicely this means the scans are fast.) A button or two on the scanner might set some basic options (like colour or gray, delete and rescan etc.) At most a small LCD panel would be all you get.

When the flash is full, you would take it to the computer, which would do all the real work. Scan and process the data. Convert grayscales to bitmaps at the right level as desired. OCR the text for searching and indexing. Detect orientation, tilt, business cards (by size) etc. all automatically.

And of course then let you view and organize your papers on the computer.

We've dreamed of a paperless office for some time but never gotten there (though we get a little closer all the time.) But can we get to a paperless home, or at least a lower-paper home? I find the paperwork and nitty-gritty of managing a home gets more frustrating with time and hope something can help it.

As noted, my design is extremely cheap. The scanner, a small controller and a flash interface is about all there is too it. Cheaper than the current scanners, which can be had well under $100. The flash card is the expensive part.  read more »

Wireless hubs at traffic signals

I recently read it costs about $150,000 to put in traffic lights here in California. That's a heavy duty pole, the lights, the power, the connection to other lights and the vehicle sensors. Seems to me modern technology should be able to make that a lot cheaper. New lights are all LED (the energy savings pay for themselves quickly) but that should also mean smaller safer power lines with special digging under the road. (Wonder if they could do it with light pipes and have no electricity up there.)

However, as it turns out, we want electricity up there. It seems there would be a natural marraige between traffic lights and a wireless data network. Years ago I tried to suggest to Metricom that they buy a traffic light control software package and offer free traffic light computerization to any city.

That's because you could then mount your wireless nodes on the lights. You get everything you want -- you are at the major intersections (by definition, almost) and there is power there. A tiny amount of your bandwidth can control the lights from a computer. You're up reasonably high. Metricom used streetlights for their power and altitude.

And while I am loathe to suggest putting cameras at the intersections, ones watching the cars and not the people don't bother me nearly as much and are already there. These could allow human beings to direct traffic at important intersections during rush hour and unusual traffic flow.

A temporary light with wireless camera and control could also do this for special locations that need traffic control on weekends. Police forces can't afford to send an officer out, even though the time saved by the drivers would be huge, and besides it's risky work. However, remote tele-operators could easily do the job and save lots of time and bad traffic.

Digital Photo Organizing in the future

We're not there yet, but let me write my notes about what future digital cameras might do to help us organize our huge collections of photos:  read more »

  • GPS and compass in the camera knows where it is, and where it was pointing. Thus, if standing on the south rim of Grand Canyon and pointing north, probably a picture of the Grand Canyon. Organize your photos on a map.
  • Record audio said while taking photo if special button pressed. Later, upload audio to PC where it's able to do speaker-dependent speech to text at its leisure to caption the photos.
  • Face recognition. No, I'm not kidding. While this is Big Brother technology, and not very useful in airports, one thing it can do is try to find similar faces. So once you tag your mother, it will be able to search your photo collection for other shots with your mother. This is much easier than trying to take a random person and see if they are on the FBI wanted list.

Design of the ideal digital AV system and the Broadcast Flag

For some time I have been musing over the design of an ideal home A/V system using digital technology. Sadly it's not coming, in part because it's illegal under the new Broadcast Flag rules.

To read my design of this system, and the musings of the legality of it and why that presents a problem, see a draft on an Ideal A/V digital system

Airport Check-in on the way there

Transit idea #2. Air travel is getting to be like hell, with searches and the need to get there so far in advance of the flight to be sure you will get through security that it cancels much of the benefit, turning 40 minute flights into 3 hour ordeals. High Speed train advocates point out the downtown-to-downtime time of the train on routes of 300-500km beats or is competitive with the plane, and it's true.

But this would not be true if they could check you in and through security while on the train, bus or ferry to the airport, and then said bonded carrier took the cleared passengers directly to their gates in the cleared section.

Imagine you board the special airport train downtown. Security personel and airline agents move through the car on the trip with wireless terminals, metal detector wands and an X-ray machine. Their machine moves down the aisle (a bit easier in a ferry than a bus I will admit, but it could be designed) and everybody behind them is cleared, everybody ahead of them waiting, until they get to the end, and the whole train/bus/ferry is cleared. Then, if not on a bus, you are dropped where you can transfer to special busses which drive around the inside of the terminals on that little road, dropping you at stops near your gate in the cleared area. Your checked bags were stuffed at the back of your train and are put on the right conveyers.

This was easier to work out before 9/11 but I still think it could be done. And many passengers would happily pay a fair bit extra for this, because the result -- by making use of the otherwise dead time heading to the airport -- would be to have a zero-time trip through check-in and security.

You could even insist on web pre-checkin to smooth the process. Even people who lived closer to the airport than downtown might find it worth the time to get this train.

The handicapped would need a way to get from ground level to the jetway
entry level. Probably require airport staff to escort them to elevators in such airports. Or they would (if the ADA allows this) be forced to use the existing system. Does the ADA forbid improvements for those who can climb stairs and keeping the status quo for those who can't?

It would also reduce congestion at the airport and the existing security stations and free up parking and reduce private car exhaust. A win all round, worthy of the cost of any extra security staff or machines.

Those without checked luggage could schedule to arrive at the gate 15 minutes before take-off the way we used to be able to do on short flights, if using a ferry or train with dedicated right of way. With checked luggage you would need to go earlier to give them time to rape that.

This kills the argument in California that a high speed train from SF to LA would be worthwhile compared to the current downtown to downtown time. You would get the best downtown to downtown time by putting in such rail just from the downtowns (and other places) to the airport, and using the time on the train to advantage.

Update: I have expanded on the idea on this page on transit checkin

The real location aware service

There is much talk of Location Based Services and geographical annotation these days. We either see scary LBS (network tracks you all the time, sends you Latte coupon when you walk near Starbucks) or query based services -- "based on where I am, where's the nearest good place to eat?" That's something Vindigo does without nearing a GPS, and does it fairly well.

I've been wondering about proactive location based services and annotations that work for you and protect your privacy.

One I envision works like this. Imagine your cell phone or other portable location-aware device has a big yellow button. The button, if you press it, means "The service here sucks." Not the cellular service, but the service (or quality, or prices) in the store you're currently in. Pushing the button sends your opinion to a reputation database associated with the location.

Stores will fear the button. If you hold it up and threaten to push it, they will probably snap to attention. Why? Because you and many others will also download the database into your location aware device. If you walk into a store with a high rate of complaints, your phone will ring and warn you about where you're going.

It would probably try to electrocute you if you walked into Fry's electronics.

There are many valuable servcies when you know you're looking for geographical information, but many others that can warn you of things you didn't know to ask for. That you're walking into a bad part of town or driving into bad traffic. That you're near a historical site that's of interest to you, or a store that sells something you've been looking for.

As noted, all this can happen by pre-downling the data into a device that has the GPS-WAAS or other position information. Your device looks out for your interests based on your location, which it doesn't have to transmit to anybody. Even your vote with the yellow button can be transmitted up later, so you're not tracked in real time.

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