Postcards from the Bleeding Edge
Tuesday, September 02, 2003

  Weird ideas - for a R.E.M. aware alarm clock and an audiophile CD ripper... and the nuclear airplane

I've spent a lot of my life, lying in bed, too tired to move, but unable to sleep - thinking. I used to think that the extra think time was the primary source of my creativity, now I believe that I put in my dream time in while awake, and sleptwalked through the corporate world. Normal people get three periods of dreaming per night, for years I got much less than that. No matter, now - I sleep better than I ever have - but I've thought about sleep a lot while I wasn't sleeping!

There are hundreds of patents filed for devices that sense brain patterns, usually for devices to awaken you when falling asleep operating heavy machinery. I haven't found one for one that wakes you up at an appropriate time in your sleep cycle. Hmmm.

An alarm clock... that senses when you are in the lightest stages of sleep: stage 1 or 2 sleep. If you need to get up at 7AM and are passing into deeper sleep at 6:45 - it wakes you up a touch early. Perhaps it also has a setting to awaken you towards the end of a dream, if you want. I think a lot of people would get up easier if their alarm clocks were sensitive to their brain pattern.

Those of you that have trouble getting up in the morning sometimes, raise your hands! If your hand isn't up you aren't listening, or lying!

I like markets that are this big... that use really small embedded devices.

OK, OK, there's problems. R.E.M. sleep is not the best time to wake someone; detecting subtler levels of sleep is harder. Sensing brainwaves from a distance takes Star Trek level technology. If we could do it, for any price, it probably would be in use elsewhere. So, you need to be willing to add a sensor net to your sleep ware, with at least 5 sensors placed at inconvienent places on your head. The sensors cost about 20 bucks apiece, and age quickly.

Boom, end of good idea, right? Well, this hurdle would be difficult - but millions of people are tied to apnea machines every night - a mask on the face is not much more invasive than a couple sensors.

So instead of just an alarm clock, start with a higher end device targeted at markets like that... that tracked sleep states and other brain wave patterns - and then work on cost and invasive-reducing the sensor net so you could mass market an alarm clock....

Wouldn't it be great to know how much and what kind of sleep you got, to always awake refreshed?

My favorite feature of a smart alarm clock: if you haven't got quite enough sleep, it could let you sleep in without having to slap the snooze alarm every 5 minutes.

Audiophile CD ripper

The mp3 players - in handhelds, cars, and computers, all have one thing in common. They sound like shit. It's not the players fault, most mp3s are ripped and encoded at a fairly low bitrate. To a vendor, everyone making mp3 players stress one thing - quantity. "Store 1000s of songs!" "New, with 128MB of Flash". Etc.

Lots of music sounds pretty decent on mp3, and lots of music gets listened to because it is on mp3, so the artifacts and quality doesn't matter as much as the pulsating techno beat and samples.

There's no real instruments on most records, and few people have gone to a quality acoustic concert of anything, so they don't know what they are missing... alright, alright... I'm an audiophile... a purist... I can't stand listening to music on any but the highest bitrate mp3, and I have issues with the sound quality of both CDs and DVDs (give me a DAT any day).

I'll never listen to records like Pink Floyd's Animals or Keith Jarrett's Koln concert on mp3. Never. Never. Never.

I want something more, something that doesn't really exist yet, but has become seriously possible in the last couple years. It's easy to give a 30 second pitch for it now:

"It's a TIVO for audio, only with a pure fiber-optic digital toslink output and a sound quality identical to the original CD. It sidesteps the entire mp3 issue - it doesn't use them. You put your (purchased) cd in, it looks up the information for the tracks on the intenet, and then, boom, you never have to use the cd again. "

There's a lot of devices that store and play mp3s, but all of them (that I'm aware of) stress quantity over quality. The mp3 revolution was a revolution of available bandwidth and storage over quality... Most people participating listen to music in cars, on cheap speakers on their computer, or on headphones, while doing something else. Few people go into a room to just. listen. to. music.

There are, however, enough people doing that - that maybe, just maybe, there exists a market for people, like me, that want a sound as close as possible to the original sound of the record, but don't want to hassle with finding and preserving CDs. The hardware can be built cheaper than a mp3 encoder/recorder and with better fidelity, especially if you just skip on-board D/A converters and rely on the amplifier to take the digital signal.

Nobody's building it. It seems odd to me. With disk storage capacity rising at a rate of 100% a year, and 120GB hard disks going for 84 dollars (roughly 240 uncompressed CDs) today... hmm.

I want my dollah!


If I were Edison I'd just hand ideas like this off to a patent attorney and sit back and wait for investors, but I'm not. Usually I've been an employee of the modern corporation where the intellectual property license agreements are frightening: as soon as you have an idea, unless you can absolutely prove you had it in your spare time, it is not yours, but your employer's. You have to hand it over. Typically you get your name on the patent (ego-boo) but that's it. No fame, no bonus, no royalties.

No incentive, either. That's what bothers me about patents today, my reaction on having a new idea has typically been - oh, my god, did I have that on work time?

Ownership of copyrights and patents was originally conceived (I think) as a contract between a person and the government for a limited monopoly on the idea itself. I don't know if this is true, or when it changed, but it stopped being true long ago, if it ever was. Also - you used to have to have a legal exchange of currency - a formality, typically a dollar - in order to assign the idea to the owner rather than the creator.

During WWII, as part of their contract with the government, the physicists of the Los Alamos project were asked to come up with patentable ideas for th e use of nuclear technology. When you are surrounded by people inventing the future, a lot of things seem obvious that aren't, as Dr. Richard Feynman found out, after one brief conversation with a patent attorney. He spent an hour describing "obvious" ideas like atomic submarines, rockets, and airplanes to the attorney... and was much surprised when a few months later the attorney told him: "That the submarine was taken... but the nuclear rocket and airplane are yours!"

Feynman came up with these ideas in an hour. He had to struggle a lot harder to get his two dollars. That story's on record, it's called "I want my Dollah" - you will laugh your ass off at what he did with his two bucks. The CD, with more stories like this, is at TuvaTrader. I have an mp3 around here somewhere...

The internet connects so many people inventing the future. To freely publish ideas on the internet - is to create public intellectual property that anyone can use - and to make the synthesis of other ideas more probable. Ultimately, when enough ideas accumulate, on top of each other, a new market - like the one for Linux - arises.

A single idea, in isolation, isn't worth much. But that's an old story - no-one's ever built a nuclear airplane. It was, however, the subject of a Tom Swift novel. I guess the idea was worth a dollar. Nuclear rockets... that's another story - good idea - no market here on earth. A good idea combined with a viable product and market, held secret and funded in the classic stealth mode - does that still happen anymore?

I keep thinking of things that are not products, yet - and I keep struggling to project myself 3-5 years, minimum, into the future. Is it worth gearing up to manufacture it, etc. ? That question usually stops me, but I figure from now on I'll publish even the really unworkable ideas and see how much faster the future comes. If any of them work out... I want my Dollah!

Now back to my quad opteron toaster.... hmm, a tight loop with 4 floating point ops ought to do for the blacken setting... but how to cook light toast? Maybe I can fool the power management code into believing the battery is low, so it goes into a light sleep mode. No, no, the solution is to re-factor the power management code to be toaster-aware! Oh my god, I didn't realize: toast comes in different sizes - maybe installing a sensor and putting a conditional branch in the blacken routine - ah... screw it, I'll contact the ietf, it's obvious we need an international standard for toast size...
 
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