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Category: Technology

Prism glasses will improve your posture! Never hunch over your laptop like some kind of Quasimodo again!

Background:

Since laptops are so convenient and portable, many people work in locations that are not set up for long-term ergonomic comfort (for example, dining room tables or coffeeshop counters, e.g. Figure 1).

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Fig. 1: A setup like this is a common work environment, despite its presumably questionable OSHA rating.

The issue:

Since these locations were never designed for laptop use, they are typically set up in such a way that the laptop keyboard and screen are way too low, and you often see people hunching over their laptops in ridiculous fashion (Figure 2).

 

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Fig. 2: This highly dubious pose is the common reality of laptop use in non-optimal situations, and is, additionally, an affront to the human form. People tend to blame themselves for having “bad posture,” but really it’s an inescapable element of such a work environment.

Ideally, people imagine that they would sit up straight, as shown in Figure 3. But that is incompatible with the position of the computer screen.

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Fig. 3: This “ideal posture” scenario is totally unrealistic given the position of the laptop. The user will inevitably return to the situation shown in Figure 2.

Proposal:

Luckily, the fix is simple: a modified version of belay glasses, a type of prism glasses used in rock climbing that were allow wearers to look up without craning their necks.

Except in this case, the prism glasses will look down at the laptop screen, rather than up, as illustrated in Figure 4.

 

 

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Fig. 4: These “prism glasses” (in this case, actually a giant prism attached to a hat) are  suspended in such a way that the user is able to look directly at the prism, yet see the laptop screen below. The prism would presumably not actually be purple, although technically that would be an option.

Conclusion:

Since prism-based belaying glasses already exist (surprisingly, only commercially available after 2007!), laptop prism glasses are probably not totally infeasible.

It would also be possible to use a VR headset to set up something like this, but at that point you might as well just set up a proper work space.

PROS: Improve your posture!

CONS: The “sweet spot” for seeing the screen is probably extremely narrow, so any movement of the wearer’s head may move the laptop screen out of the user’s view. Additionally, even the slightest imperfections in the prism would probably make text very difficult to read.

Expand the ability of your small business to collect tips using the incredible secrets of UI / UX design plus human psychology!

Background:

In the United States, certain classes of business receive a substantial amount of their total revenue in the form of tips. Restaurants are probably the most common example.

However, now that a huge fraction of transactions are done by credit card or phone, it has become feasible for additional businesses to get in on the tip-collecting process (tip-collecting tablet example in Figure 1).

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Fig. 1: A lunch truck or takeout restaurant might have a tablet like this one. If designed properly, the user interface should subtly persuade the customer to click one of the tip buttons.

For example, previously, a lunch truck might have had an anemic tip jar—obviously a repurposed peanut butter jar—with 87 cents in it. But now, that same truck can just put a button labeled “TIP: 15%” on their electronic checkout screen, and a substantial fraction of patrons will select that option.

As a thought experiment, consider how many people would tip two dollars on a $10 burrito cash transaction (very few), then compare that to the number of people who would click the “20%” button on an electronic checkout (many more).

(Please appreciate the high-quality market research that went into the preceding sentence.)

The issue:

While the best part of this system is that it allows a normally non-tip-based or non-service business to get tips, there are still stubborn holdout customers who will not include (for example) a 25% gratuity for an oil change, or when buying tomatoes at a grocery store, or when paying a traffic ticket.

But there is still a way to persuade these individuals!

Proposal:

In order to incentivize people to click the tip button (instead of just the “checkout: NO TIP” button), we can simply have a secondary screen that shows the tip amount.

People might object to this brazen attempt to shame them for not including a tip, so we will disguise it a bit by calling it an “Order Confirmation” screen, and using it to provide a customer transaction number (i.e., it is a supplement to the normal “your order is number 326, your burrito will be ready when that number is called” process).

 

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Fig. 2: Here, we see a checkout counter with the tablet from Figure 1 at the bottom, and a helpful order confirmation screen at the top, showing off a customer’s generosity to other patrons along with a reminder of their order number.

Conclusion:

People might object to having the full dollar value of their transaction visible on the “confirmation screen,” so we could potentially show only the tip percentage rather than the full value.

PROS: Increases previously-untapped revenue streams for low-margin businesses.

CONS: None!

“Potemkin Maps”: Impress foreign dignitaries and out-of-town investors by following a GPS map route through a misleadingly-nice part of your city!

Background:

Phone map apps often have a few optional settings for a route, such as:

  • Avoid highways (for driving)
  • Fewer bus transfers (for public transit)
  • Avoid hills (for walking)

The issue:

Sometimes, you want drive on the most scenic route from point A to point B, without too much concern about efficiency.

For example, you might want to impress an out-of-town guest, or hide the seedier parts of a city from a visiting foreign dignitary or investor.

Proposal:

The “scenic route” to a destination attempts to route you through the highest-economic-value areas that it can find.

This method, called the “Potemkin Route” after the 1787 idea of the same name, uses the following data:

  • Tax records (to find the highest property values)
  • The police blotter (to avoid areas of high crime)
  • Elevation maps (to look for scenic views)

Then, it routes you to the optimum area to show off the most appealing areas of the region near your route (user interface mockup in Figure 1).

 

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Fig. 1: If you select both [AVOID HIGHWAYS] and [AVOID LOW PROPERTY VALUES], as the user has in this example, your route might be substantially longer.

Conclusion:

You could use this route yourself, even if you aren’t trying to impress a foreign dignitary.

PROS: Allows you to ignore the problems of your city.

CONS: Allows you to ignore the problems of your city.

Trash Can with an alarm that screams if you jenga more trash into it

TITLE: Never be annoyed when emptying an over-full trash can again, with this new “screaming trash can” technology!

The Issue:

In shared-living or office situations, there is a strong incentive to wait for someone else to empty a full garbage can: the person who discards the last piece of trash has only contributed a tiny fraction of the total can’s volume, but has to expend the trash-removal effort for the entire can.

Thus, people tend to creatively stack trash as high as possible (Figure 1), forming a “Jenga“-like tower of precariously-balanced trash.

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Fig. 1: People will often stack trash in unstable towers, as shown here, even if the stacked trash prevents the lid from closing.

Even worse, once trash is piled up in a tower, it can be difficult to fit it all into the trash bag (which makes it even less likely that someone will want to take it out).

Proposal:

The solution is simple: install a grid of “electric eyes” (the laser grids from every heist movie) that would monitor the top level of the trash can (Figure 2).

If the electric-eye beam is blocked for more than a few seconds, the trash can would know that the trash can needed to be emptied, and can take action accordingly.

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Fig. 2: The grid of sensor beams (labeled “electric eyes”) will, if blocked for more than a few seconds, trigger the “siren of shame” (bottom left). Instead of allowing the culprit to slink away in anonymity, the siren would wail until the trash-abandoner returned to take out the trash.

Gamification:

One could “gamify” the process (and help promote a dystopian 1984-esque future) with a trash can that would 1) have a camera to identify each user and 2) a weight sensor to keep track of the total amount of trash generated and emptied by that person. Perhaps stat tracking would encourage trash-can-emptying. Whether or not it actually helps, the manufacturer of such a trash can could always sell the face recognition data to advertisers and each country’s secret police, so it’s a win-win situation.

PROS: This would be a popular product for many homes and offices.

CONS: Creative individuals might be able to place trash in creative ways such that it does not obstruct the beams, but is still precariously stacked.

 

Never forget your laptop at home (or at work!) again! The ultimate briefcase / laptop bag for the sophisticated and discerning professional!

Background:

At many companies, employees take a laptop to/from work every day.

In the past, laptops were heavy enough that it would be incredibly obvious whether a laptop was in a bag or not.

The issue:

Modern laptops are light enough that it is possible to take a laptop bag (Figure 1) to work without realizing that there is no laptop inside. This can be an annoying and time-consuming mistake.

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Fig. 1: The briefcase shown here could easily weigh 5 pounds without a laptop inside, so it may not be immediately obvious whether or not a one-pound laptop is present inside or not.

Proposal:

Proposed here is a laptop bag that makes it unavoidably obvious that there is no laptop inside. The model shown in Figure 2 pops up a spring-powered flag whenever a laptop is not present.

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Fig. 2: The high-visibility “Pack your laptop!” reminder flag (A) at left protrudes from the bag when the laptop compartment is empty. A proposed mechanism is shown at right: the flag is attached to a “laptop cradle'” (B) that is supported by several springs (C). When the laptop is placed in the bag, its weight compresses the springs and pushes down the cradle-and-flag mechanism.

The flag-based approach described above makes it incredibly obvious if a laptop is not present. It also has the advantage of being easily overridden by a user who is intentionally not packing their laptop: they can simply press down on the flag while zipping the bag’s laptop compartment.

Rejected simpler Idea:

One could imagine a laptop bag with a transparent panel that would allow visual confirmation of the presence/absence of a laptop. Although this would work (and requires no moving parts), it would still be easy to grab the bag in a rush without realizing that the laptop was missing. Additionally, it has the disadvantage of advertising the presence of a (highly-stealable) laptop to fellow commuters.

Tactile alternative to the “flag” idea:

For a briefcase, the handle could change texture when the laptop is present. For example, dozens of metal spikes could protrude from the handle until a laptop weighed down the laptop cradle, at which point the spikes would retract into the handle, like they were part of some kind of Indiana-Jones-style ancient temple trap. (This could be all done mechanically, with no need for electronics, using cables that connected the handle to the laptop cradle.)

Conclusion:

You should crowdfund a laptop bag like this right now! If you are successful, it will prove that a market exists, and hundreds of much-cheaper knockoffs will flood the market before your initial prototypes are even done!

PROS: Never forget your laptop again!

CONS: Any object that is similar in shape to a notebook computer (e.g. an actual notebook) would cause false positives.

 

If you obey the demands of this phone app, you’ll never have to wait at a stoplight again! If you are a pedestrian, anyway. Might also work for bicyclists and drivers!

Background:

In most American cities, four-way intersections with stoplights are the most common form of traffic control.

The issue:

As a pedestrian, these intersections are frustrating: if the stoplights are not synchronized, you’ll randomly encounter red lights while walking from block to block. But even when lights are synchronized, they are synchronized for car driving speeds. Thus, at normal walking speed, a pedestrian will inevitably spend a large fraction of travel time waiting at crosswalks for the light to turn green.

Although a pedestrian can increase or decrease their walking speed, it is difficult to select an optimal speed without knowing exactly when the light will change.

Proposal:

Fortunately, a phone app can easily measure walking speed and distance to the next traffic light, and then display a recommended walking speed that will get a pedestrian to the light when it is green (Figure 1).

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Fig. 1: Since this phone knows how far the next light is and exactly when the light will change, it can recommend a walking pace that will get its owner to the light while the light is green. The green / gray arrow in the middle of the screen is a “progress bar,” showing the pedestrian’s current position relative to the previous intersection (base of arrow) and the next light (tip of arrow).

 

Using this app, a person can enjoy both a more leisurely pace at lights they’d miss anyway, and can walk ever-so-slightly faster (Figure 2) in order to make it through intersections just before the light turns red.

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Fig. 2: In the top example (A), a pedestrian walks at a uniform pace that causes them to have to wait at two of the three lights. In the bottom example (B), the pedestrian is using our new app, and adjusts their walking speed to hit all the lights while they are green. Recommended walking speed is shown by the orange bar at the very bottom.

Conclusion:

This type of app would probably work for drivers and bicyclists as well (ideally through audio instructions).

PROS: Encourages walking in cities, thus improving national cardiovascular fitness.

CONS: Users of this app might wait at fewer lights, but would be at higher risk of being run over by a car / bicyclist / steamroller while distracted by the app’s various recommendations and statistics.

Stop getting hit by self-driving cars with this one fashion trick that involves putting weird labels on all your clothing! Don’t be the last one to catch on to this new fashion trend.

Background:

In a hypothetical future where self-driving cars are increasingly common, they’ll have to do a really good job of automatically distinguishing between things that require sudden braking (e.g. a person in the roadway) and things that are OK to hit (e.g. a tumbling empty cardboard box).

The issue:

This is a hard problem. When a car gets data from its various cameras (and other sensors), it needs to figure out what exactly it is that it is seeing (Figure 1).

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Fig. 1: This is probably a pedestrian in the roadway, but could it also be a billboard advertisement hundreds of feet away?

Although the specific “distant-billboard-or-close-pedestrian” question in Figure 1 can be answered just by using two cameras to estimate distance, there are situations where the problem must be resolved in a more complex fashion (Figure 2).

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Fig. 2: Top: the image is interpreted correctly, and the car does NOT hit the pedestrian. Bottom: the car incorrectly believes that it sees a sunflower, and collides with it at full speed. Lest you think this is totally implausible, check out some specially-crafted adversarial examples (that can turn a panda into a banana) and a method of tricking lane-following algorithms into swerving the car into oncoming traffic.

Proposal:

We propose to place special “this is a human” symbols on articles of clothing that a human might wear (Figure 3).

When a car sees one of these unusual QR-code-like symbols, it will instantly say “ah, sunflowers do not wear specially-marked shoes, time to hit the brakes!”

To avoid this becoming a fashion disaster, these markings would not be apparently at normal human-visible wavelengths of light, but would only be detectable by special camera equipment.

Perhaps the markings could have fluorescent ink in them, and all cars could drive around with UV lights in the front.

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Fig. 3: Left: this is what the shoe looks like to a human—the markings are invisible to the naked eye. Middle: the camera can see wavelengths of light beyond human ability, and can detect these special markings (shown here as yellow checkerboards). Right: the camera sees the checkerboard, and the object-classification algorithm realizes that this shoe is likely to be attached to a human.

One common objection to many self-driving-car-related issues is “couldn’t some criminal put these markers all over the city, to trick self-driving cars?”

The answer is yes, but it would be as equally illegal as it currently is to put mannequins on a winding road (which would also confuse human drivers).

Conclusion:

This might be redundant with an infrared camera—in most locations, a human already is obviously distinguished from the background environment just by their warm-blooded glow in the infrared spectrum.

PROS: This will definitely make me a ton of money when it is licensed by major car manufacturers. Also, would someone please apply for and pay for a patent on my behalf? Thanks!

CONS: If one of these specially-marked shoes falls onto the roadway (perhaps by falling out of someone’s messenger bag while they’re biking), do we really want every car to come to a screeching halt at the sight of a single unattached shoe?