Archive for category Business ideas

Wake up, lens makers!

For more than 100 years, camera and lens makers have been doing signal processing in the analog domain with ever more carefully and cleverly shaped glass – to bend and synchronize light rays.

Now the equivalent thing, and much more, can be done in software, rendering most of that effort moot.

Modern smartphones have the computational abilities of supercomputers, and use them to produce images that rival those from expensive, heavy, bulky cameras – using tiny cheap lenses and sensors.

See, for example:

https://www.blog.google/products/pixel/pixel-visual-core-image-processing-and-machine-learning-pixel-2/

and

https://research.googleblog.com/2017/11/fused-video-stabilization-on-pixel-2.html

Traditional camera and lens makers need to get on the DSP wagon or be left behind. Soon – time is running out! You don’t want to be the next Kodak.

(Canon, Nikon, Pentax, Olympus, etc…this means you.)

 

Idea: In perpetuity web hosting

When people die their web sites usually go down after a year or two, when nobody pays the hosting and/or domain fees, or due to uncorrected technical problems.

This is a problem a company could solve.

For example, my friend Sasha Chislenko died 16 years ago. One bit of luck (in an ultimately unlucky life) was that a group of his friends got together and decided to preserve his web page for eternity – or at least until those friends die off or forget about it.

On the other hand Chuck Moore, the inventor of the Forth programming language, had a personal website at http://colorforth.com that hosted lots of interesting historical and technical material. I don’t know if Chuck is alive or dead (I hope he’s OK!), but his website went down sometime in the last 6 months.

For the subset of humanity that maintain personal websites and blogs, those sites represent an intellectual legacy – I think most of them would like to think that while they may die, their ideas and intellectual contributions will live on, to some degree, on their web site.

Certainly I would.

Of course, the Wayback Machine already attempts to preserve the past web, (and that’s great and worthwhile), but it’s not as good as keeping the original site going. The Wayback Machine doesn’t serve links to the old site, doesn’t preserve the final version (just the last randomly sampled version before the site goes down), and doesn’t serve certain file types, large files, or execute server-side code as the original site did.

Nor is the Wayback Machine well indexed by search engines (for now anyway).

So – a service that does this for a fee would seem to be a viable business.

Like a cemetery or university, in-perpetuity maintenance could be funded by a conservatively managed endowment (a lump sum invested, with the interest/earnings used to pay fees) plus some insurance.

Given that web site maintenance is pretty cheap, this would be quite affordable, I think. Even cheaper if it can be funded by (essentially) a whole-life insurance policy (for younger people).

The main effort would be setting up a suitable legal structure – a technically-minded lawyer could probably do it. I think you’d want some kind of trust and trustees, who manage a central endowment fund (pooled for all customers) and hire technicians to do the work.

Yes, you have my permission to use this idea. My usual terms apply.

Idea: Virtual treadmill

…maybe that’s not a good name.

The idea is a treadmill-like device that allows you to go in any direction, just just forwards.

Ideally, it would let you go up/down, left/right, forward/back. And more.

A few weeks ago I playing with an Oculus Rift demo where you “pick up” and move around cubes with a hand/finger position sensing glove.

I remarked that the cubes were awfully light – must be made of aerogel or something.

Which I guess says the illusion of reality was pretty good.

That got me thinking about what a real VR environment might feel like.

The first obvious thing that’s missing is the ability to walk around naturally.

A treadmill-like platform that can move in 2 axes (instead of 1 like the usual treadmill, or 1 plus angle) would be nice, but I couldn’t think of a way to make it work mechanically.

THE IDEA

But what you could do is make a pair of servo-driven harnesses, one for each foot. They’d be attached to boots that you’d put your feet in.

Within a limited volume (as much space as a foot can reach from a single position), each harness would be able to move the boot (and resist movement) thru 6 degrees of freedom:

  • X, Y, Z
  • Pitch, roll, yaw

It would be able to resist movement to simulate friction, climbing, etc., and to move at various speeds to simulate walking, running, sliding, etc. Each of the 6 degrees of freedom would be controlled by a servomotor and connected by linkages (pretty straightforward mechanically; requires competence but not invention).

Of course it would have limits, but I think you could use this to create a “pretty good” feeling of walking around, running, even jumping.

For example, suppose you want a VR environment that simulates lunar gravity (1/6th g).

You can’t change the force with which gravity pulls you toward the floor, but if you “jump” (a vigourous downforce on the boot), you’d measure the force of the jump and plot the jumper’s ballistic trajectory. While “in the air”, all resistance to movement (all 6 degrees) are turned off – so the user feels he can wiggle his feet around as if floating. When he “lands” there’s a sudden locking of the pitch/roll/yaw axes and a sharp jerk in the +Z direction (if he lands upright).

Main applications would be VR exploration, exercise games, FPS games, etc. If the experience feels right I think there could be a mass market for the things. In any case, there’s a small high-end market that could (and should) be pioneered first.

The next step is to make another pair for the hands, maybe even with actuators for each finger joint…

Yes, you have my permission to use this idea. My usual terms apply.

Idea: Intelligent lawn sprinkler

A friend is thinking about doing a startup – I promised to email him my occasional business ideas. I’m posting the rejects here. This is the first. My usual terms apply.

 


 

We recently had a landscaper redo our lawn. So we had a law full of dirt that had to be seeded with grass and then watered daily.

We setup 8 sprinklers – every 15 minutes I had to turn one off and the next on (lots of valves and splitters) because we didn’t have enough water pressure to run more than one at a time.

So –

From a single spot an intelligent sprinkler has pan and tilt servos and a nozzle that emits a single tight stream (the opposite of normal sprinklers). The servos drive the sprinkler in a raster pattern to cover any arbitrary shaped pattern of lawn evenly – water goes only where you want it, not where you don’t.

Because it emits one single high-pressure stream, the area it can reach is far larger than a conventional sprinkler.

It’s programmed when you turn on the water and “draw” the outline of the area you want covered by hand, moving the nozzle. After that it’ll keep that area watered as long as you want.

Also it has a timer, so it can run intermittently in any on/off pattern you like.

It’s powered by a little water turbine that drives a generator, which charges a battery.

Webcam with privacy shutter & mute

Another business idea – this time a simple one.

Today the BBC has an article about “webcam hijackers” who blackmail people (mostly young women) with remote access trojans that grab webcam video.

I don’t get it. Why do almost no webcams come with a physical privacy shutter – just a sliding piece of plastic?

The right way to do this is a knob that turns a cam and slides a shutter in front of the lens.

It should have four positions:

  • Off – shutter blocks lens, cam opens a switch that electrically disconnects the microphone
  • Audio only – shutter blocks lens, cam closes mic switch
  • Video only – shutter away from lens, cam opens mic switch
  • On – shutter away from lens, cam closes switch

How hard is that, really?

 

Hey: VCs often say that good ideas are a dime a dozen. Mine go even cheaper than that. If you use this idea to make money, I’d like 0.5%. Of the equity in your company, or the profits. Or something. If that’s too much (or too little), fine – whatever you think is fair. This is a request for a gift, or reward – it is not a legal obligation. You’re free to use this idea and pay me nothing. If you can live with yourself that way.

A platform for crowdsourcing rewards for good deeds

Here’s something the world needs – build it and get rich! (I’m too lazy.)

I really want somebody to finish porting OpenCV to Python 3. It’s an open-source project that isn’t getting enough effort to finish it.

I’m willing to offer money for it.

Not a huge amount – a few hundred dollars.

Somebody needs to build an online platform that will let me make an offer like that – finish the port, get my money.

Surely there are other people who share this goal – probably many of them are also willing to kick in something to make it happen.

The platform should allow me to set a goal with clearly-defined criteria for success, and then aggregate the rewards offered by everyone who signs on to the goal. Developers looking to make some money could pick a goal, accomplish it, and collect the reward.

Whoever sets up the platform (analogous to Kickstarter, Indiegogo, etc.) can charge a fee or small percentage of the rewards.

 

While you’re at it, the world also needs ways to reward people for other kinds of good deeds.

For example, florist Debbie Dills heroically tailed Charleston shooter Dylann Roof’s car until the police arrived to arrest him.

When I read a story like that, I should be able to click on the hero’s name and send him or her $1 or $5 as a reward, in appreciation of the heroism. I think millions of people would do that upon reading about a hero in a news story, if it was as easy as clicking on her name and entering the dollar amount.

That should be doable.

So, go do it. Please. You’ll make the world a better place by rewarding good deeds – it’s not only fair, it might make people behave better.

And if you’re the one to do it, it’s only fair that you charge something for setting up and running the system.

 

Hey: VCs often say that good ideas are a dime a dozen. Mine go even cheaper than that. If you use this idea to make money, I’d like 0.5%. Of the equity in your company, or the profits. Or something. If that’s too much (or too little), fine – whatever you think is fair. This is a request for a gift, or reward – it is not a legal obligation. You’re free to use this idea and pay me nothing. If you can live with yourself that way.

Half-baked copyright reform ideas & nanotechnology

In March 2008 I posted the below to the nsg-d mailing list, from which it was forwarded to a few other lists and engendered some discussion.

Seven years later, I think I have a solution to the problems I couldn’t solve then – it’s decentralized, voluntary, reasonably immune to spoofing and fraud, yet I think it’ll work.

I’ll leave you in suspense for a week or two until I write it up. For now, here is my 2008 post, with only very minor corrections:

 


 

from: Dave <dave@nerdfever.com>
to: Nanotechnology Study Group <nsg@marshome.org>
date: Fri, Mar 7, 2008 at 6:29 AM
subject: Half-baked copyright reform ideas & nanotechnology

Hi all,

I’ve been sitting on the ideas below for a little while.

I’ve decided to just post this half-baked, as it is. Maybe it’ll stimulate some better ideas from other people.

(The problem of copyright is particularly relevant to nanotechnology, if you think molecular assemblers are eventually going to be practical. Once you have assemblers, physical goods have very little value, and intellectual property becomes a relatively much larger component of the economy.)

Comments are welcome.

Premises

  • Creators need to get rewarded for creating things of value to others, somehow. Incentive is important.
  • Copyright today is not working very well. Consumers do not like DRM and find ways to circumvent it.

History

Zero

In the beginning, before the invention of the printing press, copyright was not an issue because there was no way to copy information in a way that was inexpensive enough to be economically viable.

Such information as was copied was transferred mainly by word-of-mouth. Since anyone could do this at any time, there was no practical way to regulate or charge for the distribution of information, even if someone had thought of doing so.

To the extent that payment was associated with information distribution, it was performance-based. Authors or readers might pay a scribe to make a copy, storytellers or entertainers might receive something in exchange for a performance, but there was no restriction on the retelling, copying, or further transfer of information other than that which could be achieved by simply keeping information secret.

One

After the invention of the printing press, copyright law was introduced (literally, the “right to copy”). It worked reasonably well because making copies was difficult. Making a copy of a book or a phonograph record required a lot of capital equipment and labor, and was economical only in large volumes.

Therefore the number of people who could make copies (practically speaking) was limited, and therefore fairly easy to police.

A certain amount of “fair use” was implied at this stage – people could loan and resell books and recordings without charge (in most countries), but the economics of reproduction technologies limited who could make copies.

Two

With the advent of Xerox machines, audio tape recorders, and VCRs, copying became easier and cheaper. In many cases an illicit copy could be made for less than the cost of purchasing a licensed copy from a copyright holder.

This is when the copyright system began to break down. Copies would be made for friends and passed around by hand. Still, the amount of damage to the copyright system was limited, because of the limited distribution abilities of those doing the copying, and because the copying itself still required some amount of capital and labor. A typical copier might make one or a few copies for friends and acquaintances, but still could not practically engage in mass distribution.

Three

The Internet changed all this. With universal connectivity and broadband capacity, individuals could distribute copied works easily and almost cost-free. Low-cost computers removed labor from the process. The traditional merits of the copyright system started failing in a serious way.

In some ways, the situation today is similar to that at “stage zero” before the invention of the printing press – anyone can copy and transfer to anyone else costlessly (as was true of word-of-mouth), and there is no practical way to regulate or control this.

The difference is that today large industries have formed to produce creative content, and society has benefited tremendously from this. These creators need to be paid (or otherwise rewarded), somehow. Yet the copyright system as we have known it seems increasingly unable to do the job.

Economics

The fundamental problem of the copyright system is the implication that a consumer must pay some fixed amount for a copy of a work, but the cost of reproducing the work is essentially zero. (I refer to the marginal cost to produce an additional copy; not the cost of creating the work in the first place.)

When a consumer places a positive value on having a copy, but that value is less than the price of the work, the consumer doesn’t buy it. This represents a dead loss to society (to the consumer). The amount of loss is the value of the work to the consumer, less the (nearly zero) reproduction cost of the work. [1]

Of course the same was true in the age of the printing press – if the value of a book to a reader was greater than the cost of printing, but less than the sales price, the reader didn’t buy and there was a loss to society of the difference between the value to the reader and the printing cost. But this loss was far less than the loss today on the Internet, because the cost of printing was a significant fraction of the price of the book – so relatively few readers found themselves valuing the book in the narrow range between printing cost and sales price.

On the Internet, the reproduction cost is approximately zero, so if a consumer places any non-zero value on a work there is a loss to society, unless that value is greater than the sales price.

If we could come up with a replacement for or reform of the copyright system that eliminated this loss, while still incenting creators to create, that would be an immense win for society.

Summary of the problem

In practical terms, copyright has become unenforceable. (DRM schemes don’t work – that is a topic for another essay.)

In economic terms, copyright is undesirable.

Yet there is a strong social benefit to be captured if, despite these facts, creators can somehow be paid (or otherwise rewarded) for creating useful or desirable works.

Requirements

Requirements for a new system to replace copyright:

  • Producers of valuable content must get paid, somehow
  • Consumers must be able to obtain and use copies of content at a marginal price to them that is at or near the marginal cost of reproduction. For almost all practical purposes, this means content needs to be free at the margin. (However this does not mean the non-marginal price needs to be zero.)
  • Producers of useless content must not get paid
    • Otherwise they will be taking resources they have not earned, or which should have gone to producers of valuable content
  • In order to preserve intellectual and cultural freedom, the determination of “value” must not be centralized, but must be a function of the opinions (expressed or implicit) of individual consumers.
    • The copyright system did an admirable job of this by using market mechanisms – valuable content sold for high prices and/or in large volumes. Less valuable content did not.

Assumptions:

  • As now, creators of joint works (works with multiple authors) agree among themselves the relative value of their contributions and the distribution of rewards for the joint work.
  • Any new system would apply only to public (not private or secret) information. These ideas do not address trade secret or patent law, only works which are offered to the public and currently controlled by copyright.

How could we go about achieving these goals?

[2015: The remainder is a list of half-baked ideas that I no longer support. I’m leaving it in only for completeness.]

Half-baked idea #1

Taxes are collected in the amount that now goes to all copyright creating industries (publishing, film, music, software, etc.). These taxes are levied without regard to consumption of content.

All content is placed online on special “distribution servers” and is freely downloadable.
Read the rest of this entry »

About flying cars

About three years ago I spent a lot of time thinking about this. Recently Elon Musk has spoken about flying cars.

So now seems a good time to publish this. It’s long, and it’s half-baked. I decided I had too much else on my plate, so I dropped it. Anyone who wants to pick this up and run with it – go for it!

TLDR: Flying cars must be safe and cheapThe way to do that is automation and redundancy.

Redundant systems make things cheap because (a) they don’t have to be highly reliable (as do conventional aviation components), and (b) more units means mass-production prices. Redundant brushless electric motors driving simple fixed-pitch props are the solution.

Here’s how.  (PDF version is here; 37 pages. PDF doesn’t have the crappy CSS formatting…)

1   The vision

“Liftoff”

You step into your vehicle and settle into your seat as you say “liftoff”.

Your voice is recognized as that of an authorized user – the vehicle actually belongs to your wife.  There’s a quiet click as the charging plug automatically retracts into its compartment, then 100 thrusters –  near-silent electric motors, each with a small fixed-pitch propeller – spin up all around the vehicle.  Over a few seconds, they gradually take up the weight of the vehicle with you in it.

As they do, the vehicle determines the total takeoff weight by measuring how much power it needs to send to the motors to lift you off the ground.  It checks that all the motors are supplying the expected amount of thrust and are running smoothly and in balance.

Oh no – it discovers that 2 of the 100 thrusters are producing less thrust than they should, one is producing no thrust at all, and a fourth is wobbling, probably due to a chipped prop or loose mounting bolts.  It shuts down all four, noting the problems with each one in its maintenance log.  (You meant to replace a couple of those, but things have been busy.)

96 out of 100 motors in good condition is still within the “green” zone for safe flight[1] and the batteries have enough charge, so the vehicle rises vertically toward it’s default hover height, 50 meters above the ground.  It automatically maintains its balance, rising level and straight, directing a little extra power to the motors near the 4 failed units.

You stretch out, putting your feet up and opening your magazine.  The vehicle senses the beginnings of the tilt as you lean backwards (moving the center of gravity), and shifts some of the thrust that way to compensate.

20 meters up, you rise above the treetops and the gusty wind pushes on the vehicle, but you barely notice because the vehicle’s gyro sensors and accelerometers, together with the GPS receiver, sense the movement caused by the wind.  Power is shifted to the opposite side as needed to keep you rising straight above your parking spot.

To the garden

You’re looking forward to your lunch at the rooftop restaurant (convenient free parking!).  Normally, you’d just tell the vehicle “take me to Fred’s” and let it do the flying for you[2], but it’s a beautiful sunny day and you feel like a quick look at the progress with the cactus-planting at the little garden you designed for the parks department to replace the old freeway interchange, so you lean forward and grab the control knob.

It’s a stubby rubber knob an inch high, that hardly moves at all.  You give it a gentle twist to the left against its internal spring, and the vehicle yaws the same way, slightly increasing the speed of the clockwise-turning props and decreasing the speed of the counter-clockwise props, to torque the vehicle around.   As those ugly apartment buildings across the river come into view, you let go of the knob.  It returns to its neutral position and the vehicle stops turning.  Then you press the knob forward and the vehicle tilts the same way, shifting a little power to the back and moving forward[3].  The vehicle holds it’s altitude and attitude as it moves toward the gap between the buildings.

Your phone rings.  You click the “hold” button on the knob and let go of the knob, reaching for the phone in your pocket.  The vehicle keeps going exactly on the course and speed you had it.

It’s your business partner, who is going to meet you for lunch.  She’s wrapping up the design for the playground, due to the client this afternoon.  Should the water slide empty into the duck pond or the mud bath?  The client left it up to you.  You find the alternative versions of the plans and stare at each, trying to decide – she can’t leave for lunch until this is done.

While your head is buried in the plans, the vehicle has been flying toward the apartment buildings.  You didn’t really aim it very well – you meant to go through the gap, but it’s a small gap and a ways off.  On the course you set, the vehicle would collide with the larger building in a few seconds. Read the rest of this entry »

CreepAway

Back in 1996 I had an idea I called the “CreepAway”.

It was a device that would screen your phone calls – it would auto-answer (blocking the local ring), and then ask the caller to “Enter Extension Number” (really a password).

If the caller entered the correct password, it would ring the phone so you can answer.

If they didn’t, the caller would be sent to voicemail.

The idea is that you give both your phone number and your “extension” to your friends – they dial your number, enter your “extension”, and the phone rings.

Telemarketers and others calling at random only get to leave a voicemail.

I think this would be easy to do today with an Android app.

I’m sick and tired of getting robocalls offering me legal help with my (non-existent) IRS debt.

Somebody please build this.


Update, 2013-12:

I recently realized that not only would this be easy to do in an Android or iOS app (intercept the incoming call at the API level, assuming those APIs are exposed), but there’s an even simpler way.

Do it as a service.

Your phone company (Vonage, Google Voice, the PTT, whatever) would provide you with two numbers – a public one (to be given out) and a private one (known only to the phone company).

When people call the public number, the service provider (phone company) would prompt for the extension (or password, whatever). If the caller gives the correct one, the call is forwarded to your private number. If not, to voicemail.

That’s it. It would be trivial to implement in a modern SIP or H.323 based phone system. And they could charge for the service.

Hey – somebody – DO THIS.

Idea: Waterproof RV roofs with air pressure

Here’s another idea I don’t want to bother patenting.

I’ve owned 2 motorhomes so far, and the roofs always leak. There are lots of holes in the roof for vents, wires, etc., and with all the jostling a motorhome gets on the road, after a while lots of invisibly small cracks open up (despite sealant) and the roof leaks – even if you apply more sealant every year.

Make the roof a hollow structure with air pressure inside. It could be a flexible inflatable structure, or rigid but with a hollow air-tight space inside.

Then pressurize the inside of the roof with air from a pump or tank.

When tiny gaps appear in the roof, the air will escape outward (being replaced by the pump or tank) and will push away water, instead of letting it in. So the interior will stay dry.

The pressure doesn’t have to be high – a few PSI (tens of kPA) should be enough to prevent water from coming inside.

How often the pump runs (or the tank empties) is a measure of how many leaks there are in the roof – when there are enough to bother with, you go and apply sealant. When the leak stops, you’ve found the spot.

You could even pump in colored smoke to help find leaks.

This would be a cheap solution – a molded (or inflatable) roof doesn’t cost much and a $20 electric air pump are all you need.