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Never be concerned whether or not your household electronics are spying on you! This new repurposing of the “ON AIR” sign will save you from fretting!

Background:

It seems that nearly every electronic device with a camera or microphone is now Internet-enabled and can wirelessly send video and audio to the world.

The issue:

Due to the preponderance of electronic hardware in a modern household, it can be difficult which (if any) device is spying on you at that exact moment (Figure 1).

This is a relatively new phenomenon, since it used to be the case that:

  1. Cameras were relatively large
  2. Non-CIA recording devices generally needed to be physically wired to a power source and network cable.

Fig. 1: One of these devices is currently streaming video from the user’s house—but which one? Video-enabled devices sometimes have a recording light (but not always: e.g. phones, tablets), but checking these lights is still annoying and time-consuming. And audio recording generally has no indication whatsoever!

Proposal:

The classic solution to the “are we recording right now?” question is a lit-up “ON AIR” sign [see examples] that can light up whenever a TV station is broadcasting.

This same concept can be applied to modern devices: a person would buy a new piece of “ON AIR” hardware (this would essentially just be a WiFi-enabled screen). This ON AIR sign would connect to the household WiFi network light up any time it detected video being sent out to the Internet.

Detecting that streaming is happening could occur in two ways:

1) Network traffic analysis can generally identify data as “this is a stream of video / audio.” This is a solution that would probably work in most cases.

2) Each video/audio-enabled device can talk to the ON AIR sign over WiFi and notify it that streaming is occurring. This would be on the “honor system”: well-behaved software would periodically report that it was streaming. One benefit of this opt-in method is that streaming devices could send additional metadata: e.g., instead of just “ON AIR (Some computer is sending video),” the user would see “ON AIR (Joe’s PowerBook G4, streaming video over RealPlayer for 4:34)”.


Fig. 2: Thanks to this lit-up “ON AIR” sign, the user knows that there is some device recording them, and exactly which device is responsible (in this case, the “smart television”).

Of course, neither of these methods is a 100% guarantee of detecting live video being streamed: for example, a phone that was using its cellular data to stream would not be detected.

Conclusion:

This could probably be a legitimate product!

PROS: Would be a good value-add option for a router manufacturer. “This router will light up if it detects outgoing video/audio!”

CONS: Might cause the user to become extremely paranoid upon realizing that their watch, tablet, computer, phone, external monitor, fitness tracker, headphones, and dozens of other devices could all be surreptitiously spying at any time.

Don’t stay up too late—keep a responsible and satisfying sleep schedule thanks to a vicious beast that will live in your house!

Background:

Taking a nap in the late afternoon can be a very appealing prospect.

The issue:

Unfortunately, a late-in-the-day nap can easily mess up a person’s sleep schedule, causing them to stay up until 3 AM.

What is needed for most people is some sort of “nap deterrent” that will promote a daylight-hour-compatible sleep schedule. (Individuals who work a night shift can replace “nocturnal” with ”diurnal” in the idea below.)

Proposal:

To promote a nighttime sleep schedule, we obtain a vicious nocturnal animal and train it to sleep on the user’s bed during the day (Figure 1).

The exact method of training this adversarial animal companion is left as an exercise to the reader.

Once the sun sets (and the animal wakes up), the bed will again become appealing for sleeping in.

Fig. 1: Left: this snake (or “danger noodle” as zoologists call it) coils up on the bed during the daytime, making it difficult for anyone else to sleep in the bed. Right: at night, the bed becomes unoccupied and the animal slithers around the house incessantly. As an added bonus, the unsettling slithering could encourage its owner to go to bed rather than stay awake in constant fear.

Details:

Ideally, this animal would be cold-blooded, so as to reduce its feeding requirements and make the whole setup more eco-friendly.

PROS: Helps maintain a schedule that is compatible with standard business hours and the waking hours of most other human beings.

CONS: The same thing might be accomplished by just getting a really angry cat, so it’s hard to see how anyone could make money off this idea.

Will this highly dubious legal loophole allow you to open a casino anywhere? The new “stock market casino” app proposal will amaze you.

Background:

  1. In most regions of the world, gambling is regulated by government bodies.
  2. Unrelatedly, one of the criticisms of the stock market (especially the derivatives market) is that many participants use it exactly like a casino.

Proposal:

In regions where gambling is prohibited, but access to a stock market exists, a stock trading app could be designed that is a thinly-disguised casino.

Instead of playing the slots in a traditional casino, participants in this “stock casino” could spin a wheel to buy random stocks or mysterious financial instruments (Figure 1).

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Fig. 1: A user interface mock-up for the proposed “STOCKASINO” app. Note the “PURCHASE RANDOM ‘HOT’ STOCK” button.

Normally, a person who is day-trading stocks might need to wait for weeks in order to realize a substantial profit (or loss). Fortunately, this process can be hastened using leverage, which will allow gains and losses to be multiplied. A user will be able to win big—or lose it all!—on just a 1% price movement of a stock, if they use enough leverage. In this way, a user can win or lose within hours, rather than needing to wait for weeks.

Gamification:

As a secondary bonus feature, we can “gamify” the stock-buying experience in order to encourage more trading activity (i.e. more profit for the operator of the app).

Specifically, we will use the “in-game achievement” system (AKA “badges” or “trophies”) in which users are awarded special app “badges” for particularly noteworthy or dangerous trading-related activities (Figure 2). This could encourage users to make a lot more trades than they otherwise would (and risk a lot more of their savings).

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Fig. 2: The app might be able to entice normally-cautious “investors” (we’ll call them that) into dangerous trades by awarding trophies to particularly terrible ideas. My personal favorite is the “QUICK CLIK” badge above (in purple), which is awarded to an investor who purchases a stock within 60 seconds of it first being available.

One complication of this “stock casino” system is that stock markets have limited hours, but we really want to keep the app operational 24 hours a day. A developer would probably need to include stock exchanges in other time zones as well, which increases up-front development complexity.

Conclusion:

Just to be safe, anyone developing this app should do it in close collaboration with (and in the territory of) a nation that does not extradite.

PROS: Great way for a developer to make a profit while promoting financial irresponsibility.

CONS: Probably not a great idea to base your business and future not-being-in-prison status on a highly theoretical “loophole” that may not even exist.

Stop putting off reading of CLASSIC LITERATURE: you can do it without spending any time at all by using one of these new incredible methods! Never fold a paper crane again without learning some classic poem!

The issue:

It’s often hard to get motivated to read a famous work of literature, especially when there are so many other forms of entertainment competing for one’s attention.

Proposal:

Let’s create a situation so that a person can read a book as a “bonus” along with a primary activity that they were already doing.

(Ideally, the primary activity should be something that doesn’t require linguistic processing, since then it would compete for attention with the text of the book.)

Examples:

  1. Jigsaw puzzles in which a book is printed on the individual pieces (Figure 1). This could work well for a novella or a Shakespeare play (which is something that is already commercially available in entire-play-on-one-poster form).
  2. Knitting yarn with a chapter of a book written on each ball of yarn, so you can read War and Peace while you make a scarf. As a bonus, the ink could be water soluble, so when you’re done knitting the scarf, the text washes right off!
  3. Origami paper with famous poetry printed on them. You could read some Robert Frost while folding an origami crane.
  4. A “learn to type” program in which the example sentences are famous quotations. For example: Classic: a book which people praise and don’t read.” – [Mark Twain].

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Fig. 1: The person solving this jigsaw puzzle will also have the opportunity to read the entirety of “A Tale of Two Cities” (possibly in a very confusing out-of-order fashion).

Conclusion:

It is very surprising, in retrospect, that the 20th-century invention of “popsicle sticks with jokes written on them” did not inspire a more widespread “literature-on-everyday-products” genre.

PROS: Increases appreciation of classic literature.

CONS: May cause existential angst in children who just want to assemble a jigsaw puzzle but end up also reading The Stranger by Camus.

Do any programmers work at your company? Give them the ultimate retirement gift—save all code contributions (e.g. `git` commits) and have them published as a leather bound book!

Background:

Occasionally, people get a gift or memento from a company after working there for a certain period of time, or, sometimes, when their jobs are outsourced to a much cheaper country and everyone is fired.

Proposal:

For programmers, what better way to commemorate their contributions to a company than a log of all their code contributions?

Specifically, the proposal is to collate all of the log messages into a giant bookshelf-worthy tome.

Here, I’m using git as an example (Figure 1), but any version control system with annotation could work (e.g. user comments in Microsoft Word’s “Track Changes”).

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Fig. 1: Each time user “jsmith44” changed code in a codebase, a line like the ones above was generated. The comments in red are what we’ll be including in the published book. Note that only comments are included—not the actual source code.

All of a user’s contributions to a codebase can be collected by running a simple command (e.g. git publish_book –user=jsmith44 –start 2014 –end 2018). This would generate the raw PDF / ePub / Microsoft Word document that would then be sent off to a print-on-demand printing company to generate a physical book (Figure 2).

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Fig. 2: After the code contributions in Figure 1 are printed out, we would end up with a book like this one. For users with particularly extensive “commit” messages, a multi-volume series could be generated.

 

PROS: Makes for a great retirement gift!

CONS: Reading it could cause existential dread, especially if the code was contributed toward an ultimately-failed project.

Increase driving safety AND driving enjoyment with this new speedometer-linked fan system. Ask for—no, DEMAND—this option in your next fine luxury automobile!

Background:

When traveling in a vehicle, a person’s intuitive sense of speed is partly determined by the feeling of air movement.

For example, going at 30 miles per hour on a bike (enclosed cabin: no) may feel faster than going 600 miles per hour in an airplane (enclosed cabin: yes).

The issue:

It’s important for automobile drivers to intuitively understand their speed, especially when driving on slick or windy roads.

But with a properly sound-insulated passenger cabin, it’s easy to ignore the fact that you’re going 70 miles per hour on a highway.

Proposal:

In order to help drivers intuitively understand their current speed, a fan should be added to the dashboard in order to blow air on the driver’s face.

This fan would be synchronized with the speedometer: more speed equals more airflow, thus resulting in intuitive “feeling” of car speed (Figure 1).

 

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Fig. 1: A fan mounted on the car dashboard would allow the driver to get an intuitive understanding of speed based on the sensation of airflow.

This system is basically a just a more complicated version of sticking your head out the car window.

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Fig. 2: Increased driving speed translates into higher fan speed. Fan is not to scale.

Fan Implementation Option #2:

The car’s existing climate control system could be used, instead of requiring an additional fan. The only downside here is that the car’s normal fans are probably not sufficient to fully convey the speed of highway driving. But on the plus side, this could be implemented entirely in software!

Fan Implementation Option #3:

The fan could be replaced by a simple duct leading from the outside of the car, which would direct outside air directly into the driver’s face. This has a few downsides, such as the possibility of venting ice-cold air or swarms of insects directly into the driver’s face, which may negatively impact driving safety.

Conclusion:

“Implementation option #2” could probably be an actual product. Not sure if it would run afoul of any automotive safety regulations, though!

PROS: May cause people to once again buy driving goggles, thus revitalizing a neglected manufacturing industry.

CONS: None! Only upsides found here.

Battle to the death (metaphorically) when getting customer support over the phone, thanks to the new “phone support roguelike” text adventure system! Customer support will never be the same again.

Background:

Sometimes, getting technical support from a company requires making an actual phone call. Like the audio / voice kind that people used to do in old movies!

Typically, one ends up in an “on hold” scenario in which soothing music is intermittently interrupted by the message “representatives are busy, your call will be answered in the order in which it was received.”

The Issue:

Since this is a very non-interactive process, it is easy for users to feel bored, un-engaged, and unvalued. It’s very likely that a caller will be on hold for half an hour or more, and the hold music loses some of its charm after it repeats five times. (If you want to re-live the experience, try searching for Cisco CallManager Hold Music).

Proposal:

Instead of just having the calls answered in the same order they are received, a company could reward the most attentive callers with faster service—in other words make the customers prove their dedication and loyalty!

Here are three proposals that will accomplish this:

Proposal #1 of 3: “Arbitrary Questions”

This is the simplest to implement (Figure 1): while on hold, a caller will need to occasionally answer simple questions (e.g. “What is two plus two?”). If the user pays attention and answers the question correctly, they remain in their position in the customer support queue. But if they make a mistake or fail to answer, they move down in the queue. Thus, attentive callers get faster service.

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Fig. 1: This “customer support flowchart” shows a hypothetical “Arbitrary Question”-based customer service queue. Note that in this case, the penalty for failure is extremely high—complete disconnection! This makes it the world’s first “customer support on-hold roguelike game.”

Proposal #2 of 3: “Text Adventure”

This proposal is inspired by text adventure video games (e.g. Zork) or the famous series of “Choose Your Own Adventure” books. In this system, instead of being presented with simple math questions, the user is asked to survive in a fantasy adventure.

An example text-adventure-themed question might be:

“Your party of adventurers encounters a horrifying army of mummies in the crypt. Do you:

  • 1) Attack them with your mace
  • 2) Throw a lit torch onto their ragged forms
  • 3) Try to retreat
  • 4) Try to convince them that your quest is noble”

This system has the disadvantage of requiring more effort to write, but it has the advantage of potentially being more engaging to the audience*. ([*] This requires that the questions are tailored to the audience correctly: users of a municipal railway line might not as enthused about the mummy-crypt example above as customers for an online board game store would be.)

Proposal #3 of 3: “Battle Royale / Thunderdome Tournament Brackets”

In this system, a tournament bracket is generated to include all callers in a specific interval of time (say, 5 minutes). These users are then pitted against each other in one-on-one trivia battle: whoever answer the most questions correctly advances in the technical support queue, while the loser is moved down in the queue.

This could reward the most loyal fans of a company, since the trivia questions could be themed around that specific company (e.g. an Apple technical support call might ask “Which of these individuals was a co-creator of the original Apple Macintosh?” and then have a list of names).

Conclusion:

All of these systems allow the “on hold” process to be more engaging, thus (presumably) increasing brand loyalty and customer satisfaction.

PROS: Adds a sense of danger and adventure to even the most trivial technical support question.

CONS: If you call for customer support, but you don’t know that much about the product, you might ALWAYS have to wait for hours while the true fans destroy you in (say) Samsung-themed trivia questions.

Behold the natural evolution of “in-game purchases” for video games: instead of “pay to win,” this new system is “pay to lose” or “pay to not be able to play at all.”

Background:

The financial model of the video game industry now makes heavy use of in-game purchases (“microtransactions” / “DLC” (downloadable content) / “loot boxes”). These supplementary purchases frequently bring in more revenue than traditional sales.

Most transactions fall into these categories:

  • Pay for additional content: the “expansion pack” model. This is old-fashioned, but still exists.
  • Pay for cosmetic items (e.g. “pay 5 dollars and you get a helmet shaped like a giant bird”)
  • Pay to skip the grind (e.g. “pay 10 dollars to get to level 100 and be able to use the best sword, rather than playing the game for 100 hours).
  • Pay to win (for multiplayer games, e.g. “pay 5 dollars, and in the next 5 matches, your tanks will reload twice as fast”). Frequently seen in mobile games.

Proposal:

Conspicuously absent from these models are “pay to stop being addicted to the game” and “pay to force myself to become a more responsible adult.”

Below are a few proposed new categories of in-game purchase wherein a user would pay in order to play less of the game (Figure 1):

  • Pay to cause the game to automatically quit if you’ve been playing for more than an hour.
  • Pay to prevent the game from running at all until after your taxes are filed.
  • Pay to prevent playing the game after 11:00 PM on a work night / school night.

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Fig. 1: These new in-game purchase options would be irresistible for an individual with an important presentation to give in a few days, but who couldn’t bring themselves to stop playing this addictive game. “Pay to lose” may seem counterintuitive, but it opens up a large number of surprising new microtransaction options.

PROS: Increases civic virtue and personal responsibility.

CONS: May reduce overall game revenue, since this process would tend to kick out the bigger spenders.

 

 

Improve your car with the new bicycle-bell-inspired “secondary car horn” option. Now you’ll have options besides just honking at people! Unless you are a goose, in which case that will remain your only option.

The issue:

Imagine that you are driving a car down a narrow road and you see a person unloading groceries from a car trunk.

There are two common options:

  1. Continue driving: hope the person unloading the car doesn’t walk out into the street
  2. Honk the horn, to inform the person unloading the car that you are there

The second one is safer, but is considered extremely rude.

Thus, in real-world scenarios, most people will probably politely run over the car-unloading pedestrian rather than honk potentially unnecessarily.

The root problem here is that there is no “polite” way for a driver inform others of their presence. This is also becoming more of a problem as quieter electric cars become more common (so the car engine isn’t generating a “hey nearby people, a car is running” sound at all times).

Proposal:

This was solved ages ago for bicycles with the traditional bicycle bell, which conveys the sentiment “in case you weren’t aware, a bike is passing by!”

The car horn, on the hand, conveys the accusative sentiment “hey, you have committed some major driving error!”

What is needed is the bike-bell equivalent for a car—a “more polite” horn (Figure 1).

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Fig. 1: Left: a traditional steering wheel only features a startling “honk extremely loudly” option. Right: we can add a bicycle-bell-inspired “chime to inform pedestrians of a car nearby” button as an alternative to the normal car horn.

Conclusion:

Why isn’t this a feature, anyway? It seems like this should have been standard on cars since the mid-1980s.

PROS: Improves public safety and may reduce the number of people run over every year.

CONS: Adds one cent to the manufacturing cost of the steering wheel.

Avoid being stressed out by non-stop negative news with this new local news app idea, which will report positive happenings as well! And if there aren’t any, it will fabricate them out of nothing, so don’t trust it too much!

Background:

There are many phone apps that provide neighborhood-focused local news updates in real time (e.g. “Nextdoor” and “Citizen”).

This can make a person aware of every single burglary, car accident, “suspicious dog,” and other strange happening that may occur in their general vicinity.

The issue:

While this information can be useful, it often leads to an unrealistically alarming and paranoia-inducing view of daily life.

For example, in a large city, a person is almost always within a mile or two of a robbery or burglary, and these apps will constantly ping the user that crimes are being committed on a non-stop basis in the user’s immediate area.

Proposal:

In order to combat this relentless deluge of negative news, we suggest a modification of the local news app to provide a more “balanced” coverage of what’s actually going on in a neighborhood (Figure 1).

For example, perhaps someone snatched a purse from a cafe, but also at that same time, a kindly neighbor rescued someone’s cat from a tree.

In a “normal” news app, only the purse-snatching would be reported, but here we also report the cat rescue.

 

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Fig. 1: A neighborhood news app tends to only report gruesome happenings and dangerous things (left). This makes sense, but it also encourages a pessimistic view of one’s neighborhood. On the right, we see a “balanced” number of positive items as well: for example, the negative item “Horse theft” is balanced out by a new map marker for the positive item “very contented horse.”

Conclusion:

If we want to design this app in an extra-cynical fashion, it could just completely fabricate all of the positive situations. As an example, it could randomly populate neighborhoods with fictitious feel-good news like “jogger is complimented on their nice hat” or “dog-walker is high-fived by impressed neighbor.” The fabrications will be harder to detect, since there is no local government department dedicated to collecting statistics on cool and uplifting local happenings. Note: this scenario may negatively affect the reputation of the app if the truth is revealed.

PROS: May reduce the stress of urban living and counteract some of the negative features of constant news updates.

CONS: Crucial “negative” news (e.g. “Huge fire approaching! Evacuate!”) could be drowned out by nonsense like “Extra-fluffy cat spotted at corner of Main and 2nd!”