Some ideas are so common that it’s hard to believe they began as a scrawled notion on paper and then a patent application filed with, say, the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). Aluminum foil, adhesive bandages, the ballpoint pen, the computer mouse, and the microwave oven are just a few instances of brilliant concepts that have evolved into essential goods that we now take for granted.
Nonetheless, only around half of the 520,277 patent applications filed with the USPTO in 2010 will be awarded patents, and much fewer will become commercial successes [source: USPTO]. Thousands of new gadgets languish in patent office files, unappreciated save possibly as curiosity, for every new gadget that becomes a household name and affects our lives. Some of them are brilliant, but they all have fatal weaknesses. Others are far too bizarre to ever acquire popular acceptance. A small number of people are simply ahead of their time.
In that vein, here are ten of the most bizarre technological breakthroughs in recent years — ideas that push the bounds of innovation while also appearing unlikely to win mainstream adoption. Enjoy them with a caveat: some scoffed at the idea that a motorised carriage would ever replace the convenience of having a horse, while others reasoned that no one would ever need or want to carry a phone in their pocket. Enjoy.
1. Robot That Devours Insects and Rodents
Robotic vacuum cleaners, singing androids, and synthetic dogs are now commonplace. The Carnivorous Domestic Entertainment Robot, created by British inventors Jimmy Loizeau and James Auger, is a robot that would stalk and consume mice and insects, then eat and digest their bodies to generate its own power.
They’ve come up with five alternative ideas, including the mousetrap coffee table robot, which is designed to entice unwary rodents onto its surface via a motion-activated trap door. The contraption would chemically deconstruct rodent victims and feed them to a microbial fuel cell. The amount of energy produced by the auto-extermination would be indicated via a light on the device’s side. [source: Scott].
The Lampshade Robot, which would entice flies and moths to their deaths, the Cobweb Robot, which would fool spiders into spinning webs and then extract and feed them into its fuel cell, and the Flypaper Robotic Clock are among the other designs.
These robots are still just concepts right now, which you could argue is a good thing: who wants to watch their coffee table swallow a mouse?
2. License Plate Flipper
Remember James Bond’s custom Aston Martin from the 1964 film “Goldfinger,” the one with hidden machine guns, pop-out razor rims to shred pursuer tyres, and an ejector seat? Wouldn’t it be great if you could get some of that stuff for your Toyota Yaris?
Unfortunately, the high-powered armament is likely to be impracticable, not to mention deadly. However, a business sells an electronic licence plate flipper similar to the one Bond used to hide his identity from inquisitive eyes. The $79.00 Vehicle Plate Flipper doesn’t let you pretend to be a Swiss or French driver, but it does let you put a message on an underneath plate for the driver behind you. There’s also a $74.99 motorcycle-specific variant.
We doubt that this device will ever become generally popular, in part because some of its potential uses, such as masking your identity from red light cameras and cops, or encouraging tailgaters with insulting comments, might land drivers in serious trouble. Indeed, the business that sells the device includes a disclaimer on its website, stating that the gadgets are “STRICTLY meant for off-road use only” and that purchasers assume “all responsibilities related with the use or misuse of our equipment” [source: Plateflipper.com].
3. Portable Cat-toy Park
Comedian Steve Martin used to do a joke in which his cat learned to imitate his voice and ordered $3,000 worth of cat toys from a mail-order catalogue. The remark struck a chord with cat owners, who are well aware of how readily felines can get into mischief in order to pass the time when bored. A patent was granted in 2009 to a New York-based inventor for one possible solution: a fold-up “cat toy park” with a scratching post, a tunnel for crawling through, a hanging chew toy, and, most ingeniously, a tube equipped with a fan that blows coloured balls around a mesh tube, a game that’s “devised to occupy one or more cats” [source: USPTO].
While cat lovers may admire the concept’s inventiveness, cats are famously fickle and erratic, and there’s no guarantee they’d choose to play with such a toy over, say, clawing your antique furniture. Furthermore, the utility of having a portable cat entertainment centre is debatable, as we’ve never encountered a cat willing to travel.
4. Bat Suit
Have you ever wished to take to the air and fly like a bird — or a bat? A Connecticut-based inventor was given a patent in January 2012 for “a completely dynamic human powered flying suit” designed after the bat’s way of flight, according to the application. Bats are fellow mammals and the winged species “most closely linked to humans,” according to the inventor’s patent application.
Once aloft, the equipment consists of a pair of strap-on batlike wings having stiff and non-rigid sections that the wearer can move once aloft. To get off the ground, the wearer of the flying suit would have to be towed, or ride a bicycle, skis, or rollerblades down an incline, then assume a leaning-forward flying position and leap into the air at the right moment [source: USPTO]. Is this anything that could actually work?
5. Body Armor With Built-in Stun Gun, Flashlight and Cameraphone Charger
The Armstar Bodyguard 9XI-HD01 resembles the terrifying black body armour used by Christian Bale in the recent Batman films. Actually, it’s kind of like that.
The Bodyguard is a shield, a non-lethal weapon, and a communications device all in one [source: Justia.com].. It was invented by a California inventor in 2007 under the description “wearable shield and self-defense equipment.” A rechargeable lithium battery pack powers a “electronic deterrence” device placed within the flexible arm’s artificial skin, which is armoured with Kevlar and hard plastic. All the user has to do is pull a pin, and anyone who grabs his or her arm will be shocked by electricity. A brilliant LED flashlight, an HD camera capable of transmitting photographs, and a charging slot that appears to suit an iPhone are all included in the Bodyguard.
We can see this device becoming an indispensable tool for future law enforcement officers and bodyguards, but given that you have to inquire about it to get a price quote, we’re guessing it’ll be too expensive to make a dent in the everyday suburban adventurer market [sources: Armstar.net, Inventionreaction.com].
6. Seed Racer
Mercedes-Benz has a long history of being a trailblazer. The German automaker is responsible for diesel and supercharged engines in passenger automobiles, as well as antilock brakes, electronic stability systems, and other features. Nothing, however, could be more revolutionary than the BIOME concept automobile, which was unveiled in November 2010 at the Los Angeles Auto Show. The vehicle was characterised as follows in an official news release: “From seeds placed in a nursery, the Mercedes-Benz BIOME thrives in a purely organic environment. The car emits pure oxygen on the road, and it may be composted or utilised as building material at the end of its life.”
The car was built by engineers from the Mercedes-Benz Advanced Design Studios in Carlsbad, California, as part of the Los Angeles Design Challenge, which sought for a safe and comfortable compact car of the future that could seat four passengers, handle well, and weigh less than 1,000 pounds (454 kilograms). The Mercedes-Benz vision is represented by the BIOME. It is made of BioFibre, an ultralight material that allows the final vehicle to weigh only 876 pounds despite being broader than a regular car (397 kilograms). If that sounds too wonderful to be true, consider the following: The BIOME hasn’t been put together yet. It is made up of two seeds, one for the interior and one for the exterior. The wheels sprout from four more seeds that were planted in the nursery.
Of course, the BIOME isn’t available at your local Mercedes-Benz dealership. This is due to the fact that the futuristic design is a concept car that is decades ahead of its time. As a result, it is no longer possible. After 20 or 30 years of innovative thought and inspired engineering, it may be as common as a Corolla [source: Leavitt].
7. Insect Assailants
Many people are unaware that the USPTO can issue a patent with a secrecy order if patent office officials and military experts believe the concept could be utilised to damage national security. The USPTO can publish a patent and clear the door for commercialization once it determines that an invention is no longer a danger. Some patents may be kept secret for a year or two, while others may languish for decades. More than 5,000 patents — inventions we may never learn about or see — are currently subject to confidentiality orders. [source: Marks].
That isn’t the end of top-secret inventions. The Pentagon budgets billions of dollars each year to develop top-secret military weaponry. Since the September 11 attacks, the so-called “black budget” has exploded, surpassing even the money spent during the Cold War’s peak. Some of the funds were used to build nano air vehicles (NAVs), which are small, remote-controlled micro-drones that could readily infiltrate enemy territory. Larger drones have been employed by the US military to conduct reconnaissance, deliver supplies, and even target humans, as we all know. Larger attack drones, such as the MQ-1 Predator, can, unfortunately, result in unintended civilian casualties.
The Samarai micro-drone from Lockheed Martin could be able to help. The Samarai looks like a maple-seed whirligig, but it weighs only 5.29 ounces (150 grammes) and has a 12-inch (30-centimeter) wingspan. It also has a micro jet engine for thrust and a tiny flap on the trailing edge of the wing to control direction. This nature-inspired micro-drone will take images in the near future with a camera attached on the device’s central hub. However, the longer-term goal is to convert the Samarai and other similar micro-drones into armed assault vehicles capable of murdering a single person with minimal collateral harm. [source: Weinberger].
8. Perpetual Printing
Since the computer first appeared on the desktop, printing has gone a long way. Daisy-wheel printers were first, followed by dot-matrix printers, inkjet printers, and laser printers. Of course, the issue with all of these output devices is that they require a lot of paper and expensive consumables like toner. Why can’t someone invent an ink-free, toner-free printer that allows the user to reuse paper?
This isn’t a novel concept, as it turns out. Since the 1970s, Xerox has been working with so-called electronic paper. A sort of paper known as “Gyricon” is the most promising solution. A Gyricon sheet is a thin layer of clear plastic with millions of tiny oil-filled holes. Inside each chamber, a two-colored bead can freely rotate. When a printer delivers voltage to the sheet’s surface, the beads rotate to reveal one coloured side to the viewer, allowing text or graphics to be created. Until the paper is put through the printer again, the images will remain on it.
Sanwa Newtec, a Japanese business, is promoting its inkless, tonerless, and rewritable printing technology. The PrePeat rewritable printer is its product, and it, like the Xerox approach, uses plastic paper. PrePeat, on the other hand, creates an image using a different method. Each sheet of paper contains leuco dyes, which change colour as a function of temperature, becoming colourful when cold and clear when hot. The PrePeat printer then warms and cools the paper to remove an image before replacing it with a new one. A single sheet of paper can be reused 1,000 times before it needs to be replaced, according to the manufacturer.
What’s the catch, exactly? A single PrePeat printer costs about $6,000, while a 1,000-sheet paper pack costs more than $3,300. If you run a printing-intensive company, you may be able to recuperate your costs over time. However, the average PC user is unlikely to spend that much money to replace a conventional printer. [source: Miller].
9. Pencil Pusher
According to the Clean Air Council, businesses in the United States consume around 21 million tonnes (19 million metric tonnes) of paper every year, or 175 pounds per person. This has resulted in office recycling initiatives, e-mail signatures that say “please consider before you print,” and printers that print on both sides. The P&P Office Waste Paper Processor, which turns paper designated for recycling into pencils, is the latest technology to enter the cubicle environment, according to a trio of Chinese innovators. The machine, which resembles a three-hole punch crossed with an electric pencil sharpener, was a finalist in the 2010 Lite-On Awards, an international competition aimed at encouraging and nurturing innovation.
The following is how the pencil-making device works: Wastepaper is inserted into a feed slot. The machine pulls the paper in, rolls and compresses it, and then inserts a piece of lead from the device’s top storage chamber. After a small amount of glue is applied, a pencil glides out of a hole on the side. Although it’s unclear how many sheets of paper make up a single pencil, you’d think the ordinary office worker could produce a respectable supply in a month.
That appears to be the most significant disadvantage of the pencil-making device. Given that most workers take notes on their tablet PCs or laptops, how many No. 2 pencils can an office actually use? What kind of glue and lead core do you need to keep up with the overflowing paper recycle bin? We assume it’s too much, which is why you’re unlikely to see this device in your office supply catalog. [source: Bonderud].
10. Military Mind Control
The American military’s helmet has evolved drastically over time. The M1917/M1917A1 helmets, often known as “Doughboy” or “dishpan” helmets, were used to shield the heads of American infantrymen during World War I. In 1941, they were replaced by the M-1 “steel pot,” which was the standard-issue helmet during World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. Military helmets in the United States had evolved into a one-piece structure made up of numerous layers of Kevlar 29 ballistic fibre by the 1980s.
However, the helmet of the future may feature more than just increased protection from flying shrapnel. Under a grant from the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), an Arizona State University researcher is attempting to construct a military helmet with technology to manage troops’ minds. Transcranial pulsed ultrasound is a method of delivering high-frequency sound waves to specific areas of the brain. Neurons send impulses to their destinations under the impact of these sound waves, exerting control over them. This has huge ramifications on the battlefield. A soldier may use a controller to send out ultrasonic pulses to activate different parts of the brain. He or she might, for example, prefer to be more attentive after being awake for several hours or relax when it’s time to sleep. The soldier may even be able to ease tension or become pain-insensitive, reducing the need for morphine and other opiates.
Some individuals, understandably, believe that this form of neurotechnology is simply science fiction. Others fear that Uncle Sam is attempting to take control of the soldiers’ minds. After all, having a drill sergeant roaring in your ear is one thing. It’s a whole another matter to have one inside your head. [source: Dillow].