Analog Angle Article

You’ve got your problems (to solve) and I’ve got mine

Engineers are always seeing opportunities for new ideas which solve real or perceived problems and annoyances, and here at Planet Analog , we're no different. Of course, the problem can range from a trivial annoyance to significant health or safety issue, but the underlying urge to solve problems is the same.

So here's my problem and solution: I often see people walking around with their heads down, looking intently at the screen of their Blackberry or similar, and texting, reading messages. Oblivious to everyone and everything around them (and eerily reminiscent of horror-movie zombies!), they literally walk into people, walls, columns–whatever is in their path. (Some emergency rooms even have a new class of injury: “walked into wall”.)

I'd like to see an add-on accessory for these devices which s a simple collision avoidance system, similar in function to the systems now being installed in high-end cars. These devices combine a sensing scheme which determines the distance to an object and calculates the “closing velocity” (range and range rate), and sounds a modest alarm if a collision is imminent. (Obviously, if you are moving very slowly or not at all, it's OK to get closer than if you are moving at a higher speed.)

The units in cars use a radar signal in the high-GHz bands and must accommodate a wide range of speeds as well as distances. My proposed accessory only has to work at the low speeds of walking, up to about 3 mph (5 km/hr) and a short distance of about 3 feet (1 meter), so an ultrasonic-based design would be cheaper, lower-power, and smaller. (Basic ultrasonic transducers are used in many industrial and consumer applications for object and collision detection).) And, of course, there are no RF regulatory or RFI/EMI issues with ultrasound.

There are various similar collision detectors on the market; my idea mostly requires tailoring it to the low speed and distance of this situation, and providing an enclosure and attachment scheme so it can be added to the handheld device and not be blocked by the user's hands. Anyone out there up for the challenge?

Not all useful ideas require electronics or mechanical complexity. I caught a few minutes of a PBS TV show called Everyday Edisons (click here), where budding inventors bring their ideas to a skilled design, model-making, and marketing team for assessment and refinement. One idea was in the “super-simple and clever” category. Its function was to solve the annoying but admittedly modest problem of cord clutter, with excess appliance ac-line cord lengths dangling and tangling on kitchen counters, or under and behind desks and furniture. If the user does anything at all to discipline the cords (and many don't), they just wind the excess up in a coil and then use some sort of strap to tie it; this strap is typically a wire or nylon tie, or a Velcro strap (and there many other cord-holder devices are on the market).

But the Everyday Edisons idea featured on the show extended this idea just slightly, using a Velcro strap but with a larger tab which fit under the ac-outlet cover, and with a hole in the tab so that the cover's screw can hold the tab in place. As a result, the excess cord length that the Velcro ties up is now off the floor or counter, and is instead held just below the ac outlet, neatly corralled and out of the way.

Sure, cord clutter is not the biggest problem we face, and it might be petty to you, but it illustrates how a person, apparently bothered by cable cluttering floors and counters, can develop yet another solution to this common excess ac-cord problem–and maybe make some money from it, as well.

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