Some inventions are so ubiquitous that it's difficult to imagine they started as an idea scribbled on paper and then a patent application submitted to, say, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). Aluminum foil, adhesive bandages, the ballpoint pen, the computer mouse, the microwave oven -- these are just a few examples of great ideas that became indispensable products we now take for granted.
Nevertheless, of the 520,277 applications that inventors filed with USPTO in 2010, chances are that not even half will be granted patents, and far fewer will become commercial successes [source: USPTO]. For every new gadget that becomes a household name and changes our lives, there are thousands of others that languish in patent office files, unappreciated except perhaps as curiosities. Some of them are ingenious, but plagued with small but fatal flaws. Others are too outlandish to ever gain widespread acceptance. A few are simply ahead of their time.
In that spirit, here are 10 of the most outré technological advances from recent years -- inventions that push the boundaries of innovation, yet seem unlikely to gain widespread acceptance. Enjoy them with a caveat: There were people who scoffed at the notion that the motorized carriage would ever replace the convenience of having a horse, and others who figured that nobody would ever need or want to carry a telephone around in their pocket. Enjoy.
The helmet used by the U.S. military has changed dramatically over the years. In World War I, the M1917/M1917A1 helmets, also known as "Doughboy" or "dishpan" helmets, protected the heads of American infantrymen. They were replaced in 1941 by the M-1 "steel pot," the standard-issue helmet in World War II, the Korean conflict and throughout the Vietnam War. By the 1980s, U.S. military helmets had evolved into a one-piece structure composed of multiple layers of Kevlar 29 ballistic fiber.
The helmet of the near future, however, may contain something more than extra protection from flying shrapnel. An Arizona State University researcher, working under a grant from the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), is trying to develop a military helmet equipped with technology to regulate soldiers' brains. The technology is transcranial pulsed ultrasound, which delivers high-frequency sound waves to specific regions of the brain. Under the influence of these sound waves, neurons send impulses to their targets, exerting control over them. On the battlefield, this has enormous implications. Using a controller, a soldier could release ultrasound pulses to stimulate different areas of the brain. For example, he or she might want to be more alert after being awake for many hours or relax when it's time to catch some shuteye. The soldier might even be able to relieve stress or become oblivious to pain, eliminating the need for morphine and other narcotics.
Of course, some people think this type of neurotechnology is pure science fiction. Others worry that Uncle Sam is trying to take over the minds of its soldiers. After all, it's one thing to have a drill sergeant yelling in your ear. It's another thing completely to have one inside your head [source: Dillow].
U.S. businesses use about 21 million tons (19 million metric tons) of paper every year -- 175 pounds of paper for each American, according to the Clean Air Council. This has led to office recycling programs, "please think before you print" e-mail signatures and printers that offer double-sided printing. Now a trio of Chinese inventors hopes to add another device to the cubicle environment: the P&P Office Waste Paper Processor, which turns paper destined for recycling into pencils. The machine, looking a bit like a three-hole punch crossed with an electric pencil sharpener, was a finalist in the 2010 Lite-On Awards, an international competition that seeks to stimulate and nurture innovation.
Here's how the pencil-making gadget works: You insert wastepaper into a feed slot. The machine draws the paper in, rolls and compresses it, and then inserts a piece of lead from a storage chamber located in the top of the device. A small amount of glue is added before -- voilà -- a pencil slides out from a hole on the side. It's not clear how many pieces of paper form a single pencil, but you figure the average office worker could generate a decent supply of pencils in a month.
And that seems to be the biggest drawback to the pencil-producing gadget. How many No. 2 pencils can an office really use, given that most workers take notes on their tablet PCs or laptops? And how much glue and lead core do you need to buy to keep up with the overflowing paper recycle bin? Too much, we would suspect, which is why you may never see this gadget in your office supplies catalog [source: Bonderud].
Printing has come a long way since the computer landed on the desktop. First, there were daisy-wheel printers, then dot-matrix printers, then inkjet and laser printers. The problem with all of these output devices, of course, is that they require paper -- lots of it -- and expensive consumables, like toner. Why can't someone invent an inkless, tonerless printer that allows the operator to reuse paper?
As it turns out, this isn't a new idea. Xerox has been working with so-called electronic paper since the 1970s. Its most promising solution is a type of paper called "Gyricon." A Gyricon sheet is a thin layer of transparent plastic containing millions of small oil-filled cavities. A two-colored bead is free to rotate inside each cavity. When a printer applies a voltage to the surface of the sheet, the beads rotate to present one colored side to the viewer, offering the ability to create text or pictures. The images will remain on the paper until it's fed through the printer once again.
A Japanese company, Sanwa Newtec, is offering its version of inkless, tonerless and rewritable printing technology. Its product is called the PrePeat rewritable printer, which, like the Xerox solution, requires plastic paper. But PrePeat uses a different technique to produce an image. Each sheet of paper comes embedded with leuco dyes, which change color with temperature -- colored when cool and clear when hot. The PrePeat printer, then, heats and cools the paper to first erase an image and then create a new image in its place. According to the company, a single sheet of paper can be reused 1,000 times before it needs to be replaced.
What's the catch? A single PrePeat printer costs almost $6,000, while a pack of 1,000 sheets of paper costs more than $3,300. If you're running a printing-intensive business, you might be able to recoup your investment over time. But the average PC user likely won't be willing to shell out that kind of money to replace a standard printer [source: Miller].
Many people don't know it, but USPTO can apply a secrecy order to a patent if patent office staff and their military advisers think the idea could be used to threaten national security. Once the USPTO decides that a technology is no longer a threat, it can publish the patent and pave the way for commercialization. Some patents may remain cloaked under a secrecy order for one or two years; others languish for decades. More than 5,000 patents -- inventions we may never know or see -- currently have secrecy orders attached to them [source: Marks].
That's not the end of hush-hush inventions. Each year, the Pentagon sets aside billions of dollars to develop top-secret military weapons. This so-called "black budget" has grown tremendously since the Sept. 11 attacks, surpassing even the funds spent at the height of the Cold War. Some of that money has gone toward the development of nano air vehicles (NAVs), remote-controlled micro-drones that could easily infiltrate enemy territory. We all know how the U.S. military has used larger drones to conduct reconnaissance, transport supplies and even target individuals. Unfortunately, the larger attack drones, such as the MQ-1 Predator, can result in unwanted civilian casualties.
Lockheed Martin's Samarai micro-drone could solve that problem. Weighing a mere 5.29 ounces (150 grams) and boasting a 12-inch (30-centimeter) wingspan, the Samarai looks like a maple-seed whirligig, except this one comes with a miniature jet engine to provide thrust and a tiny flap on the trailing edge of the wing to control direction. In the near future, this nature-inspired micro-drone will snap photos using a camera mounted on the gadget's central hub. But the longer-term goals are to turn the Samarai or other similar micro-drones into armed attack vehicles capable of killing a single individual with little or no collateral damage [source: Weinberger].
Mercedes-Benz has been an innovator for decades. You can thank the German auto manufacturer for diesel and supercharged engines on passenger cars, antilock brakes, electronic stability systems and more. But nothing could be more innovative than the BIOME concept car, unveiled at the Los Angeles Auto Show in November 2010. Here's how the official press release described the vehicle: "The Mercedes-Benz BIOME grows in a completely organic environment from seeds sown in a nursery. Out on the road the car emits pure oxygen, and at the end of its lifespan it can be simply composted or used as building material."
Engineers from the Mercedes-Benz Advanced Design Studios in Carlsbad, Calif., created the car as part of the Los Angeles Design Challenge, which called for a safe and comfortable compact car of the future that could accommodate four passengers, demonstrate good handling and weigh only 1,000 pounds (454 kilograms). The BIOME represents the Mercedes-Benz vision. It is made from an ultralight material called BioFibre so that the finished vehicle, though wider than a typical car, only weighs 876 pounds (397 kilograms). If you think that sounds too good to be true, then get this: The BIOME isn't assembled. It grows from two seeds -- one that forms the interior and one that forms the exterior. The wheels germinate from four additional seeds placed in the nursery.
Of course, you won't find the BIOME at your local Mercedes-Benz dealer. That's because the far-out design is a vision of the future -- a concept car that's decades ahead of its time. As such, it couldn't exist today. But it might be as common as a Corolla after 20 or 30 years of innovative thinking and inspired engineering [source: Leavitt].
The Armstar Bodyguard 9XI-HD01 looks a bit like that scary black body armor that Christian Bale wears in the recent Batman movies. And it is kind of like that, actually.
The Bodyguard, which was patented by a California inventor in 2007 under the title of "wearable shield and self-defense device," is designed to be a shield, a non-lethal weapon and a communications device all in one [source: Justia.com]. The flexible arm, which is armored with Kevlar and hard plastic, contains a rechargeable lithium battery pack that powers an "electronic deterrent" device built into the arm's artificial skin. All the user has to do is pull a pin, and an assailant who grabs his or her arm is going to get zapped with electricity. The Bodyguard is also equipped with a bright LED flashlight, an HD camera capable of transmitting pictures, and a charging slot into which an iPhone apparently fits nicely.
We could see this gadget becoming an indispensible tool for law enforcement officers and bodyguards of the future, but given that you have to inquire about it to get a price quote, we're guessing that it'll be too costly to make much of a dent into the everyday suburban adventurer market [sources: Armstar.net, Inventionreaction.com].
Have you ever wanted to leave the ground and soar like a bird -- or perhaps a bat? In January 2012, a Connecticut-based inventor was granted a patent for what the application describes as "a completely dynamic human powered flying suit" that is modeled after the bat's style of aviation. The inventor explains in the patent application that bats are fellow mammals and the flying creatures "most closely related to human beings."
The device consists of a pair of strap-on batlike wings with rigid and non-rigid portions that can be manipulated by the wearer once aloft. Initially getting off the ground is a bit trickier: Unlike bats, who simply do what comes naturally, the wearer of the flying suit would have to be towed, or ride on a bicycle, skis or rollerblades down an incline and then assume a leaning-forward flying posture and leap into the air at the appropriate moment [source: USPTO]. The question is: Would this really work?
Comedian Steve Martin used to have a routine in which his pet cat figures out how to imitate his voice and orders $3,000 worth of cat toys from a mail-order company. The bit certainly resonated with cat owners, who know how easily felines can get into mischief when they're trying to alleviate boredom. In 2009, a New York-based inventor was granted a patent for one possible solution: a fold-up "cat toy park" equipped with a scratching post, a tunnel for crawling through, a hanging chew toy, and most ingeniously, a tube equipped with a fan that blows colored balls around a mesh tube, a game that's "devised to occupy one or more cats" [source: USPTO].
While cat fanciers may applaud the ingenuity of the concept, cats are notoriously fussy and capricious, and there's no guarantee they would choose to play with such a toy rather than, say, claw your antique furniture. Also, the value of having a portable cat entertainment center is questionable, since we've never seen a cat who was a willing traveler.
Remember James Bond's tricked-out Aston Martin in the 1964 movie "Goldfinger" -- the one equipped with hidden machine guns, pop-out razor rims to slice pursuer's tires and an ejector seat? Wouldn't you love to outfit your Toyota Yaris with some of that stuff?
The high-powered weaponry, alas, probably is a bit impractical, not to mention dangerous. But there is a company that offers an electronic license-plate flipper of the sort that Bond used to conceal his identity from prying eyes. The $79.00 Vehicle Plate Flipper doesn't allow you to impersonate a Swiss or French driver, but it does flip down at a 90 degree angle at the press of a button to display a message on an underlying plate for the driver behind you. There's also a special $74.99 version for motorcycles.
We're not sure that this gadget will ever become widely popular, though, in part because some of the device's conceivable uses -- hiding your identity from red light cameras and police, or provoking tailgaters with taunting messages -- could get drivers in a lot of trouble. Indeed, the company that sells the device attaches a disclaimer to its Web site, warning that the gadgets are "STRICTLY intended for off-road use only" and informing potential customers that they take responsibility "for all liabilities associated with the use or misuse of our product" [source: Plateflipper.com].
At this point, robotic vacuum sweepers, singing androids and mechanical dogs are old hat. But British inventors Jimmy Loizeau and James Auger have made a quantum leap with the Carnivorous Domestic Entertainment Robot, an automaton that would stalk and devour mice and insects, and then eat them and digest their bodies to produce its own power.
They've come up with five different concepts, including the mousetrap coffee table robot, which is designed to lure unwary vermin onto its surface, which contains a trap door triggered by motion sensors. Rodent victims trapped by the device would be chemically dismantled and fed to a microbial fuel cell. A light on the side of the device would inform the owner of how much energy is being produced by the auto-extermination. Other configurations include the Lampshade Robot, which would lure flies and moths to their doom, a Cobweb Robot that would trick spiders into weaving webs and then extract and feed them into its fuel cell, and the Flypaper Robotic Clock [source: Scott].
Right now these robots are still just concepts, which you might say is good thing: Realistically, who wants to watch their coffee table devour a mouse?
Can you match the invention to the inventor? Test your knowledge with this quiz at HowStuffWorks.
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