Invention ideas

From time to time, I'm struck by something that I feel someone should be selling (or, preferably, giving away). In the hope that someone will take the hint, here is a list of some ideas, with the understanding that I'm hereby not going to be making any money out of them (although I wouldn't mind some credit if anyone makes a million). Note that I merely haven't seen these products, it doesn't mean that they don't exist or haven't been previously patented.

I will be filling in fully detailed description pages for the following shortly, so please excuse any headings on this page for which my meaning is less than clear. If anyone has any feedback on these ideas, please contact me.

Car security
Hide a wide-angle time lapse camera in a cigarette-lighter sized fitting. Powered (or at least recharged) from the socket. Might need to send images in real-time when changes are detected (via MMS and GPRS?) rather than just recording, to avoid being destroyed by observant car thieves. Sadly won't help with external vandalism.
Very portable keyboard
This requires (or at least it helps) a flat surface. I have an ongoing plan of making a watch out of a StrongARM and a small colour LCD; one input method I'm looking at requires placing the watch on a flat surface. Then project (with a bright LED or possibly a small semiconductor laser) an image of a keyboard layout onto the surface, at a very shallow angle, from the side of the watch. Using two planar rangefinders (or possibly angle finders) on the watch corners, detecting intersections within a couple of mm above the surface, would allow a "key press" to be detected, and which key it affected. Would require care to avoid hairline fractures (since there is no key "give"), but it's much more portable than VR keyboard gloves (recently demoed as a Bluetooth application) or a folding keyboard. Working on ideas for a cheap planar rangefinder - I can see expensive ways of doing it (such as sweeping lasers, in the style of barcode readers).
Virtual key caps
Another keyboard design - this allowing real keys with changing legends. The normal approach is to use a touch-sensitive screen, but this allows proper (moving) keys. Initially I was thinking of an LCD built in to the top of the keys, but this is prone to breakage and has connectivity issues. The solution I propose is to have a backlit LCD below the keyboard (or possibly each individual key, depending on which is cheaper) and have transparent keys supported around their edges, with a lens projecting the LCD image to a translucent key top.
Keyboard with air vents
I find that when typing a lot, in cold weather my fingers get very cold (I tend to switch to Dvorak keyboard layouts or my Libretto, which has a small keyboard, to compensate), and in hot weather my fingers sweat more than the rest of me. The proposed solution, inspired by the Mattel Aquarius 8-bit micro of the early 1980s, is to blow air out between the keys. A small heating element would raise the temperature a bit, and active cooling could be used at a push - although the extra ventilation would probably be enough. This would also help keep dust out of the keyboard, so long as the vent was out of the way (the Aquarius sucked in at the bottom, and vacuumed the carpet if you weren't careful). This could be combined with a PSU fan (using an air hose alongside the keyboard cable) possibly?
Varicolour handbag
For the fashion conscious. Active heating and a thermochromic material were what I was originally thinking, although in retrospect a cuttlefish-style contractable colour bladder set may be a better idea. One bag fits all costumes, in colour at least.
Bag lighting
Another handbag thing - this inspired by "it's in my bag" from my other half. She keeps a cold light in her bag, on the key ring clip, but I'd propose stitching the whole inner lining out of a photoemissive material. This is one for the developers of light emmitting polymers, although existing electroluminescent materials (watch backlights) might be enough.
Constant headlamps
It's possible to arrange for the illumination from a headlamp to be constant over an area in front of the car (by having a more obscure shape than a parabolic reflector; I thought of this in an A-level physics class, and still find life too short to work out the shape). Assuming some non-constant illumination is available beyond this range, it would be interesting (to me) to know whether this would be any more pleasant for driving. There is a loss of depth cueing, but then if the constant region were tailored to stopping distance it could actually help. I don't actually know the exact distribution the car industry uses, so this may be a previously researched moot point.
Teflon toilet bowl
Not much more to be said. But I don't understand the fixation on ceramic (and, in commercial situations, stainless steel). Wouldn't whatever's easiest to clean be better?
Electrostatic fluff guard
The fluff guard in most tumble driers seems to be a bit of gauze, both in my new tumble drier and the one my parents were given to dry my nappies in (in 1974). Lots of fluff gets through. Why not make it metal and give it a static charge to attract a bit more? Or even use a Dysonesque cyclone?
In the town where I grew up (Eye, in Suffolk) there is a wall which is sinusoidal - this cunningly stops it from falling over, since it runs quite a long way around a garden. It occurred to me that of the base is sinusoidal the top can still be linear. I have a rendering of the shape I mean (on-line shortly); allowing for a slight slope of the top of each layer of bricks towards the centre line, each sinusoidal brick row should be self-supporting. It's only an interesting feature (it gives lots of alcoves, whether you want them or not, so it may not catch on) - but I think it's stable.
Perfume alarm clock
Given that smelling salts wake people up, why not use a perfume spray as part of an alarm clock? Obviously the smell needs to be one which will dissipate pretty quickly, and it needs to be something which will wake you up without being offensive. But it's a thought, and it's nicer to the neighbours than an audible alarm - assuming there aren't air gaps.
Air traffic control
I saw a film a while back showing the abysmal user interface air traffic controllers used. This may have been addressed, but my immediate thought was a 3D view (manipualated by SpaceBall or track ball) showing each air craft in its current position, and with the flight plan fading into transparency in front of it. A scroll wheel then allows a projected view in the future if all current flight plans are observed. This wouldn't be hard to program; the flight paths would show potential collisions more clearly as they approached in time - allowing the controller to avoid being overwhelmed - and the time wheel would allow easy checking of potential problems. Maybe they have something like this now, but it would be better than the classic lines on a green screen and a set of numbers.
De-lens flare night scope
For night time driving, if the lens parameters are well defined an electronic filter could produce a display of the view ahead of a car, reducing bright lights to small saturated regions of the image. This would help those, such as me, who have trouble seeing to drive at night. The problem is compensating for dirt and streaks on the lens; some adaptive filtering could compensate for the problem (much harder than the lens geometry itself), but a hardware solution such as a very small lens and an air deflector may be the way forward. Ths hard part is to keep the latency of such a filter low enough to be useful.
Toast brownometer
I really don't know why I haven't seen this. Given that toast "looks done", why not point an LDR (and possibly a light, if the heating element is insufficient) at the toast and stop toasting it when it's the right colour? A few settings for different kinds of toast and a "learning mode" would be easy, possibly even without i/c control. This seems to me a better solution than the traditional timer - although one might be wise anyway, for safety reasons.
Passive cigarette filters
I don't like passive smoking. I've considered, in the past, taking the filters from cigarettes and stuffing them up my nostrils when in a smokey environment. I haven't tried it - I doubt they allow enough air through. But someone could sell such devices, with sufficient throughput, and I would probably buy them if they were cheap enough.
Flourescent bulbs
This is about energy-saver bulbs - flourescent lamps which plug into incandescent light sockets (e.g. bayonet fittings). I have these all over the house, but a problem I have is that although some designs are quite narrow, they are typically longer than a standard incandescent bulb. This poses a problem where the length is a limit - in uplighter lampshades, for example. Why not make the tranformer electronics more linear - in a narrow cylinder, preferably. Then wrap the flourescent tube around it, giving not much more width than an incandescent bulb and keeping the length down. This should still allow plenty of external light emitting surface. Such a design might cost a bit more (lots of curved glass, a more convoluted transformer), but I'd pay a small premium for places where I can't use the current bulbs.
Endoscope electromagnet
This is a vet thing. Given that a good proportion of foreign objects imbibed might be metal, why not stick an electromagnet on the end of an endoscope? Much less fiddly than a gripper, and easy to arrange. Incidentally, vets should have metal detectors in their surgeries; gets them out of doing an X-ray (or at least an unnecessary one) under these circumstances.
SpaceBall stiffener
This is one for SpaceTek and similar companies who produce input devices with six degrees of freedom, working off strain guages. Since newer Spaceballs have a degree of give (which provides a bit of tactile feedback), it would be nice to combine this with the relatively new idea of force-feedback mice. The problem is, of course, that the input device doesn't actually move; could a stiffener be provided which is sufficiently responsive that it would respond to the direction of the input force in a way which is natural?
Flymo wheels
These may exist in some models, but my Flymo (i.e. hover lawnmower) has the problem that if the lawn isn't flat, the moment the front gets lifted and there is a gap under the skirts, it crashes to the ground. For getting over bumps, it would be nice if such lawnmowers had small wheels - low profile enough not to interfere with the normal hover operation, but enough to get the thing moving again.
Flexible tracks
Caterpillar tracks, while providing exceptional traction, are traditionally inefficient when turning due to the skidding of a linear track as it attempts to follow a curved path. The efficiency could be improved by permitting limited articulation between the elements of the track and positioning the guide wheels along the curve of the turn (in the manner that the front wheels of a car do not turn equally). The additional articulation would weaken the tracks, and this approach would require a great deal of flexibility and range in the support wheels in order to support the traditional ability of tank-steered vehicles to turn in place (at least without resorting to skidding again). Note that it is feasible only to move the support wheels, not the drive wheels, which simplifies the additional movement. Nonetheless the supports need to be both strong and forcefully driven in order to begin the turn, although hopefully the energy expended should be less that that required for the skid turn. Track elements capable of rolling about the axis of forward movement would reduce this friction, both in the case of a bendable track and that of a traditional skid steer, but at the cost of reduced lateral control and track strength. Note that there is substantially more traction available during turning in the case of a curvable track that for a traditional skid steer.
On Robot Wars
I am a fan of BBC's Robot Wars and related programs - BattleBots, Robots' Revenge, etc. - although not necessarily of the presentation or of Mentorn's attitude to the participants (as reported; I'm not actually a participant). As such, along with a number of my technical minded friends, I have a plethora of ideas on combat robot building. See my concerns about Robot Wars, or my designs.

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