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 . 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.
10.Military Mind Control
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 “steelpot,” 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.
9. Pencil Pusher
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.
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