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!”

Don’t get on another video chat until you’ve fixed your crazy mountain-dweller hair with this incredible “green screen wig” lifehack!

Background:

When on a meeting with video chat, people generally like to look at least vaguely professional / presentable, even if they just rolled out of bed 5 minutes before the meeting.

The issue:

There are two main problems in video chat for people who want to project a corporate-approved professional image:

  1. The background should look non-disastrous.
  2. The person taking the call should not look like they have been living in a cave for weeks (Figure 1).

Several videoconferencing applications have solved problem #1 by adding a “virtual green screen” feature, which can automatically transform the user’s messy room into an expensive-looking modern mansion interior (e.g. the house from the movie Parasite).

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Fig. 1: This videoconferencing individual may be harshly judged for their unkempt appearance. If only there was a technical solution to this (besides using a comb)!

Proposal:

Fortunately, we can use the exact same green screen technology to allow the user to fix up their hair situation.

The implementation is simple: the user wears a cut-out green screen “hat” (Figure 2) that allows the computer to superimpose a flowing mane of magnificent hair behind them. Hair problem: solved!

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Fig. 2: The head-attached green screen could be secured in place by a hairband, or it could be glued to the front of a pair of headphones.

PROS: Should save millions of hours per year in hair maintenance for videoconferencers.

CONS: May promote a new standard of unrealistically majestic hair.

Stop procrastinating—accomplish items on your to-do list! This new candy-based “Kanban board” will amaze and shock you when it doubles your productivity! Results not guaranteed.

Background:

One popular method of organizing items that need to be done is the “Kanban board” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kanban_board) (e.g. the web site Trello).

Conceptually, this resembles a to-do list with categories as columns. Each item to be done a single sticky note (Figure 1).

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Fig. 1: Here is a basic Kanban-style to-do “list” with sticky notes on a whiteboard. Some of these tasks are quite annoying, and may be postponed for a long time! That snake will have the run of the garage forever, at this rate.

The issue:

Unfortunately, it’s often hard to get motivated to do items on a to-do list, especially if there is no appealing inherent reward.

Proposal:

In order to fix this procrastination-promoting scenario, we simply use clear tape to affix a pice of candy to each to each sticky note (Figure 2).

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Fig. 2: The board above has been modified in a cheap and easy-to-set-up manner: a single piece of candy is taped to each not-yet-completed task.

When a person completes a task, they are allowed to eat the piece of candy that is taped to the task’s card.

For especially time-consuming tasks (e.g. “file taxes”), one could imagine taping several dozen small chocolates to the note in order to provide sufficient motivation.

PROS: Allows even the most unrepentant procrastinator to get motivated to accomplish a task.

CONS: May have negative health consequences for people who are especially productive, thus reducing their overall productivity. A paradox indeed.

The “NO SNACKS!” credit card is the latest premier credit card idea—you won’t believe it, but people will (probably) pay extra for a credit card that is objectively worse in every way! Look inside for an incredible dieting secret.

Background:

Part 1: Some credit cards provide special bonus features, such as a discount on certain purchases, “airline miles” that can be redeemed for plane tickets, or extended warranties on certain purchases.

Part 2: When attempting to eat healthy foods, the battle is often lost at the supermarket: it’s easy to buy a gallon of ice cream and 800 gummy worms, and obviously you’ve got to eat these things once you’ve purchased them.

Proposal:

Thus, we propose a “restricted” credit card (Figure 1) that could operate in one of two ways:

1) It prohibits certain items from being purchased (i.e. junk food is blocked at point of sale).

or

2) It adds a 100% “you are cheating on your diet” tax to these prohibited items.

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Fig. 1: Left: a regular credit card. Right: a special restricted-use credit card that would make it easier to not buy junk food. The note on the front is intended for the cashier (“Do not allow the bearer of this card to buy snacks / junk food!”), in a manner similar to the (generally ignored) “CHECK ID!!!” message that people sometimes put on their credit cards.

 

Implementation of this process could be straightforward, as it would have a high degree of overlap with the existing “restricted items” list that is already in place for government food assistance (“food stamps” / “SNAP”), as seen in the unusually specific list of ineligible items below:

https://www.fns.usda.gov/snap/eligible-food-items
Households cannot use SNAP benefits to buy:
  * Beer, wine, liquor, cigarettes, or tobacco
  * Live animals (except shellfish, fish removed from water, and
                  animals slaughtered prior to pick-up from the store)
  * Prepared Foods fit for immediate consumption
  * Hot foods
  * [and additional items]

This restricted-use credit card would operate in a roughly similar manner, although it would presumably be unrestricted when dealing with non-food items (i.e. you could still use it to buy an umbrella or car battery).

PROS: Could help promote a healthy diet, thus increasing quality of life and reducing overall national health care expenditure.

CONS: May be difficult to sell people on the idea of “a credit card, but more expensive and less useful.”

Never get on the wrong train again (assuming your city has a functional public transit system), thanks to these new musical cues—enjoy country music and/or smooth jazz on your entire commute! Also, it’s the same songs every single day.

The issue:

In cities with extensive public transit systems, it can be easy to get on the wrong bus/train/subway or miss your stop.

Obviously, an astute transit-taker could realize their mistake by noticing the following:

  • Stop names being verbally announced
  • Stop names being indicated on a screen, even on buses.
  • In some places, different metro stations may have a distinctive jingle that plays. This “train melody” can be unique for each station.
  • And now that essentially everyone has a cell phone, a rider can also check their position with their phone’s GPS.

But we can still improve things further!

Proposal:

In order to make the “train melodies” even more informative—and make it less likely that you’ll get on the wrong train—the following system is proposed:

  • While moving, each train (or bus, subway, etc…) plays a song the entire time it is moving between stops.
  • These songs are specific to each pair of stations and direction: so there is a particular song that plays from Station A to Station B, and a different song that plays from Station B to Station A (or we could play the same music, but backwards).
  • The song durations are chosen to be the approximate amount of time that it takes the train to travel between the two stations. So a passenger has a general idea of when they’re about to arrive at the next stop, since they will notice that they’re coming to the end of the song.
  • And here is the key additional innovation: each transit line (e.g. a train line or bus route) has a different genre of music: see details in Figure 1.
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Fig. 1: Each dot in this transit map represents a station, and the four colors represent different lines (a “Green Line,” “Red Line,” etc.). Each line plays a different genre of music: e.g. the Green Line could play American country western (serving the journeys indicated by “A” and “B” above) while the Blue Line plays 1980s German industrial music (which would regale passengers on the commute indicated in “D” above). This will allow each reader to have an immediate intuitive understanding of which line they’re on.

This sort of music-genre-specific train melody also makes it extremely obvious when you’re on the wrong train at a transfer station: you might not notice that you’re on the wrong train if two lines have substantial overlap for much of their routes, but the unexpected music would make it extremely clear.

This might get complicated for bus routes: large cities have dozens (or hundreds!) of routes, so we’d have to start delving into very subtly different musical sub-genres.

PROS: May save hundreds of work hours that have been, previously, lost as a result of commuters getting on the wrong trains.

CONS: It would be very difficult to change the music selection without confusing everyone, so we would end up with a “time capsule” of musical choices from whenever this system was first implemented. It could get increasingly dated as time goes on.

Bonus Idea:

Instead of just playing random unrelated songs in a specific genre, the entire line could be calibrated to play an entire album by a specific band. This might help bring back the long-form album in a world dominated by singles, too! So maybe the “Red Line, Westbound” would also be the “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” line.

 

 

 

Fix your “webcam eye contact” issues with this incredible new “swivel camera” laptop idea! Your conference calls will feature totally natural and not-at-all-unsettling eye contact from now on.

Background:

Most laptops include a built-in camera, typically located just above the top edge of the screen.

This type of camera is generally marketed as a “video chat” or “conference call” camera.

The issue:

When a person is on a video call, they tend to look at the image on the screen instead of directly at the camera. (Of course!)

So from the camera’s perspective—and the perspective of the remote video chat partner—the person using the webcam isn’t making eye contact, and is instead looking down semi-randomly.

Proposal:

We can solve the “video chat participant is not making eye contact” scenario by reducing the angle between the camera and the screen.

There are two straightforward ways to do this:

  • Solution #1: Move the laptop much farther away, so the camera and display are at nearly the same angle from the video chatter’s perspective.
  • Solution #2: Move the camera so that it is in front of the display. This is the solution we will be exploring.

Implementing Solution #1 is impractical with a laptop, since it (in most cases) needs to be relatively close to the user.

But Solution #2 is easy: we can put the camera on a swiveling arm and allow it to swing down to the middle of the screen (Figure 1).

Eye contact problems solved!

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Fig. 1: Left: a normal laptop camera. Even though the chat participants are both making eye contact with the image on their screens, they are actually looking down from the perspective of the top-mounted camera. Right: now that the camera has been “swiveled” to the center of the screen, the chat participants are making eye contact in a natural manner.

PROS: Solves the weird eye gaze issues inherent to video chatting.

CONS: Adds a new fragile plastic part to snap off your laptop.

Bonus Part 1: A simpler solution:

  • Solution #3: The camera doesn’t actually have to move in order to have its viewpoint moved to the center of the display: the same result can be achieved with a small periscope (or fiber optic cable) that hangs on the laptop lid and redirects the camera view to the center of the screen.

One could imagine that such an aftermarket attachment could be manufactured extremely cheaply. Perhaps this is a good crowdfunding opportunity!

Bonus Part 2: Overly complicated solutions:

  • Solution #4: Create a partially-transparent laptop screen and put the camera behind it. This would probably require a new and highly specialized LED panel manufacturing process.
  • Solution #5: Edit the video feed in software, changing the user’s eyes in real time to always point directly at the screen. This is probably feasible, but it could be somewhat unsettling. (See also the related “touch up my appearance” face-smoothing feature on Zoom).

Related Idea:

See also: the laptop camera prism idea for including multiple people on a single machine on a conference call.

Stop writing dog noises as just “bark” or “woof”—use a new and complete dog alphabet to give them their proper due! Linguists love this one weird tip that will expand the linguistics job market!

Background:

Written languages have generally been optimized for the most meaningful elements of speech, so sometimes strange workarounds are required to capture certain subtleties: e.g. capital letters for YELLING, alternating capitalization for “thE spEaKer is VEry StUpid,” ellipses for a stilted-last-gasps sort of speech (“tell… them… the… killer… was…”), or the HTML-inspired “/s” for “please interpret the former sentence sarcastically.”

The issue:

Unfortunately, although the workarounds above are generally sufficient for human languages, they fail for non-human sounds: for example, a dog barking or a bird chirping.

If we want to write down bird songs or distinguish between different dog barks, our vocabulary is limited to various stereotyped sounds (e.g. “bark,” “woof,” “yip,” “growl”), as shown in Figure 1.

These words have very little relationship to the actual sounds that the animals are making, however!

 

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Fig. 1: Latin letters do not allow the expression of more than a few types of dog barks. Outrageous!

So if we want to write down exactly a very specific dog bark, we are out of luck.

Proposal:

Out of luck until now, that is! What we need is a special dog-bark alphabet (Figure 2) that can capture both the range of dog sounds and their pitch.

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Fig. 2: What we need is a new set of letters specifically for representing dog sounds.

In this case, the new alphabet works as follows:

  1. It is a fully-featured alphabet, with each sound corresponding to one of the perhaps few-hundred basic dog vocalizations. As an upper bound, it’s probably reasonable to assume that we will need no more than 250 letters.

  2. The vertical position of the letters will indicate higher or lower pitch, just like musical notes on a staff.

Figure 3 shows an example of a hypothesized candidate alphabet, where the dog noises from Figure 1 have been converted into a new sound-and-pitch-based alphabet.

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Fig. 3: This poorly-documented alphabet nevertheless conveys the basic idea that 1) vertical position is pitch and 2) that dog noises are drawn from a fixed set of symbols (e.g. the “Ѱ”-like character being used for the start of a growl).

Conclusion:

Once this is successful, it will open up new jobs for linguists in creating bird alphabets, cat alphabets, and whale alphabets.

This expanded-alphabet idea can also be applied for humans, allowing us to represent common sounds that still have no adequate textual approximation, like the sound of a sneeze or yawn.

PROS: Strategic addition of new dog-sound-related words could legitimize a few new and useful Scrabble words (possible candidate dog sounds: “RR,” “GR,” “RF”).

CONS: Possibly would be substantially more effort to learn than just learning 10 synonyms for “bark,” which is the current status quo.

Did you forget to lock your door? Close your garage? Turn off the lights? Well, two out of those three scenarios can be solved with this new feature that should be on every car key fob and garage remote control!

Background:

When an action is routine and uninteresting (e.g. locking a door, turning off a light, etc.), it’s sometimes hard to remember if you did it at all.

The issue:

Occasionally, people find themselves wondering “did I close the garage when I left the house?” or “did I remember to lock the car when I parked it on the street?”

Proposal:

The solution to some of these scenarios is straightforward: every remote control device could have a small LCD screen to indicate how long it has been since the last time it was used.

For example, for a garage door opener, the display might read “5 MIN. SINCE “CLOSE”.” Then you would know that you had pushed the “CLOSE DOOR” button on the remote 5 minutes ago (and thus, probably did in fact remember to close the garage door).

Since LCD displays are so cheap, this would only increasing manufacturing costs by a few cents per device. See Figure 1 for a car remote-entry key fob mockup.

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Fig. 1: This car key fob allows the owner to remotely lock or unlock their car. It now has an additional feature: an LCD display indicating when the remote was last used. With this innovation, you will never again need to ponder whether or not you remembered to lock the car!

Upgraded Version Idea:

In order to reduce complexity, the system above only checks to see the last time a button was pushed, not whether the action actually occurred (most remotes are one-way, and do not have any way of determining, for example, whether or not the garage door did, in fact, close successfully).

Thus, a logical extension of the idea above would be to put a small receiver in the remote as well, so that the garage could send back a “yep, garage door closed successfully!” message. Then the LCD screen would be able to say “GARAGE DOOR LAST CLOSED 5 MIN. AGO” instead of the (somewhat weaker) statement “BUTTON LAST PRESSED 5 MIN. AGO.”

PROS: This seems like it could legitimately be a product, and it is unclear why it is not!

CONS: Adds a 15¢ cost to each device for the LCD display and additional plastic.

All-natural method for encouraging social distancing using a trained animal. Sssssssssocial distancing!

Background:

During the times of the COVID-plague, it has been recommended that people maintain “social distancing”—keeping apart by approximately six feet.

The issue:

Unfortunately, this advice is difficult to follow in many situations, for example, on public transit, in an elevator, etc.

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Fig. 1: Social distancing is easy when there is no one else around (left), but in a crowded situation (for example, in a supermarket or building lobby), people tend to cluster together (right).

Proposal:

This snake-based “sssssssssocial distancing” plan involves training a territorial species of snake to wrap itself around a person and then give a bit of a nibble to anyone who comes within six feet of it (Figure 2).

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Fig. 2: The snake will need to be at least 10 feet long in order to have six feet of length remaining after it has coiled around the person who it is defending.

It might end up being uncomfortable to have the snake coiled around its host / owner, so one improvement could be carrying the snake in a backpack or some kind of modified wrestling championship belt.

Conclusion:

This system would also help discourage “close talkers” who do not respect a person’s need for personal space.

PROS: May reduce the spread of plague, creates valuable jobs for snakes.

CONS: You will probably get a different snake-borne plague instead.

Special Economic Note:

If there is high enough coverage of this system, costs may be reduced by requiring only three feet of snake coverage per person, and relying on the two independently-carried snakes to provide the total six-foot distance.

Thus, it is important to encourage widespread adoption of this system in order to make it more economical on a per-unit basis.