The Worst Ideas. Updates every Monday!

Your weekly source for terrible ideas.

Category: Technology

Never worry about losing your laptop again with these TWO EASY TIPS that will shock and horrify you. You’ll never believe what happened next! The amazing secret of proximity-based encryption.

The issue:

Currently, the loss or theft of an unencrypted laptop can be a huge pain for an employee and/or their company.

If a laptop gets stolen out of a person’s car, or just gets forgotten in a train or cafe, it’s entirely possible that the laptop owner will now have to change all their passwords.

And if they were working on some sort of top-secret project, now it’s a major hassle to worry about what might (or might not) have been disclosed to a competitor.

Additionally, travelers to foreign countries with especially valuable company secrets may have to worry about state-sponsored corporate espionage.

Proposal:

If a user really plans to only use certain data while physically at work (and never access this data while off-site), the user’s laptop can have a special hard drive that can only be accessed while within range of a specific WiFi network (see the solid state hard drive mockup in Figure 1).

Thus, if the user misplaces their laptop or has it seized by a foreign government, there is literally no way to decrypt the data. (Unless the laptop makes its way back within range of the company’s WiFi network, but presumably the laptop would be blacklisted as soon as the theft/loss is discovered).

secure-drive-concept

Fig 1: The hard drive is integrated with a WiFi radio; the decryption key must periodically be refreshed by proximity to the company’s WiFi key broadcasting system. If this hard drive is taken out of range, the hard drive locks itself again.

Since the drive must be within the range of the company’s WiFi “key” broadcaster in order to decrypt (Figure 2), it is nearly impossible laptop theft to result in exposure of sensitive data.

(If an adversary did steal an encrypted laptop, they would theoretically be able to access the data if they 1) know the user’s password and 2) are able to drive the laptop to the company’s parking lot (within range of the WiFi) before the theft is discovered and the laptop’s access credentials are revoked).

secure-key-broadcaster

Fig 2: In order to access the files on the hard drive, the user must be within range of the “key broadcaster” (just a specially-configured WiFi network). Whenever the user takes their laptop off-site, the data will be totally inaccessible even if the user has the correct password.

Possible issue:

Would an adversary be able to circumvent this system by having a co-conspirator sit in the company parking lot, capturing all the (encrypted) WiFi traffic and re-broadcasting it over the Internet? (It seems like this method would be extremely labor intensive, plus the parking-lot-infiltrator would need undetected access to the company network.)

PROS: Makes it impossible for foreign travelers to be coerced into revealing their laptop’s contents, since the laptop owner themselves cannot even access the data while traveling.

CONS: Opens up new way for a company to lose all of its data if the decryption broadcasting system fails.

Five easy improvements to the despised “four-way or all-way” stop sign! End your confusion about road signage, and never get a ticket for rolling through a stop sign again!

Background:

The stop sign, for all its utilitarian simplicity, has a severe and critical shortcoming: it has two different roles, both marked by the same sign (Figure 1).

The two situations, and what the driver must do in each case:

  1. All-way stop: driver can casually check for other cars right there at the intersection, and then proceed.
  2. Two-way stop: driver must look far down the road for quite some distance to identify any fast-traveling cross traffic.

These two situations are TOTALLY DIFFERENT, but the sign marking them is the same (Figure 1).

 

stop-big-plain

Fig. 1: Is this an all-way stop or a two-way stop? Who knows! See Figure 2 for the answer.

stop-intersection-two-way

Fig 2: Oh, it was a two-way stop. I hope the driver looked far down the road before proceeding!

Previous attempts at solving this problem:

This is a recognized problem, and sign designers have attempted to (poorly) solve it before, as shown in Figure 3.

So far, they have been completely unsuccessful.

Fig 3: Some (but not all!) signs specifically indicate “Cross traffic does not stop” or “All-way stop.” But just the fact that a subtitle is required is an admission that these signs are fundamentally flawed.

Proposal:

The “all-way” and “partial-way” stop signs need to be clearly different at a glance.

See Figure 4 for a proposal that is backwards-compatible with existing stop signs.

Fig 4: Proposal A (“Four leafed clover”): The traditional “octagon” stop sign (left) will now indicate partial-way stops: its meaning is now upgraded to “be EXTRA CAREFUL, because the cross traffic does not stop!”

The new “four leafed clover” stop sign (right) indicates an all-way stop, where the driver only needs to look for traffic at that stop sign before proceeding. Because existing stop signs are all the “be extra careful!” kind, we don’t need to worry about immediately replacing all existing stop signs.

stop-big-cut

Fig 5: Here is an alternative form of the “four leaf clover” sign proposed above.

Fig 6: Substantially altering the silhouette of the stop sign would make the difference even more obvious, as shown in this “emphatically on-fire” stop sign.

 

Fig 7: Sometimes it may be insufficient to just indicate whether or not an intersection is all-way or partial-way. For example, in a (rare) partial-way intersection with more than four intersecting streets, a driver may entirely miss a street.

Here, the number of dots on the stop sign indicates the number of non-stopping incoming roads. This allows the driver to know how many roads they should be looking out for.

So the five-dot sign would indicate a (very rare) 6-way intersection with only one stop sign, the three-dot one would be a four-way intersection (again, with just one stop sign), and the no-dot sign would indicate an all-way stop.

(A reflective yellow border would indicate that this is a “new style” stop sign, to avoid confusion with the previous no-border signs—otherwise, every old-style stop sign would seem to indicate an all-way stop.)

PROS: May reduce traffic accidents, especially if a simple backwards-compatible system like the one in Figure 4 is adopted.

CONS: People might start to treat the partial-way “four leaf clover” stop signs like “yield” signs, and roll right through them.

Programmers love this one weird trick to handle Unicode characters without any complexity! “Visual-literation” replaces the old-fashioned way of transliteration. Watch as linguists wail mournfully at the years they wasted trying to transliterate sounds between alphabets!

The issue:

Many computers are unable to handle letters that don’t fall into the set of Latin characters used by English.

Even though the Unicode standard has greatly improved multi-character-set accessibility, problems still arise:

  • A character might not exist in a chosen font. For example, “Egyptian Hieroglyph of a bird catching a fish” is probably not available in Comic Sans.
  • Systems may be unable to cope with characters that look exactly the same (“homoglyphs”: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Homoglyph).
    • For example, “Latin A” and “Cyrillic A” look identical, but have different underlying Unicode codes.
    • So an email from “YOUR BANK.COM” might actually be from a different site, with an imposter letter “A” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/IDN_homograph_attack).
    • (This is an issue in English as well, with 0 (zero) versus O (capital “o”) and “I / l / 1” (capital i, lower-case L, numeral 1).)
  • Systems may not allow certain letters for certain situations; for example, if your username is “Linear B ‘stone wheel’ + Mayan jaguar glyph,” it is extremely unlikely that you will have an easy time logging into your user account.

The current failure mode is usually to display a blank rectangle instead, which is unhelpful.

Proposal:

Instead, we can use a sophisticated image-recognition system to map each letter from every language onto one or more Latin characters (Fig. 1).

Usually, this is called transliteration (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Transliteration). But in this case, rather than using the sound of a symbol to convert it, we are using the symbol’s visual appearance, so it’s more like “visual-literation.”

easy-vs-hard

Fig. 1: With a limited character set, it may be easy to display the “Å” as  “A”, or “ñ” as “n.” But it’s unclear what should be done with the Chinese character at the bottom, which isn’t similar to any specific Latin letter.

more-abstract

Fig. 2:

Top: Image analysis reveals that the Chinese character (meaning “is”) can be most closely matched to the Latin capital “I.” Bottom: The Greek capital “∏” (pi) is disassembled into two Ts.

Some letters actually do somewhat resemble their Latin-ized versions (like “∏” as “TT”). However, some mappings are slightly less immediately obvious (Fig 3).

highly-unrelated

Fig. 3: Many complex symbols can—with a great degree of squinting—be matched to multi-letter strings.

Conclusion:

Linguists will love this idea, which forever solves the problem of representing multiple character sets using only the very limited Latin letters.

PROS: Gives every word in every language an unambiguous mapping to a set of (26*2) = 52 Latin letters.

CONS: Many symbols may map to the same end result (for example, “I” could be the English word “I,” or it could have been a “visual-literated” version of ““).

 

letter-translation

Fig. 4: A collection of potential mappings from various symbols to an ASCII equivalent. Finally, the days of complex transliteration are over!

 

 

Solve your getting-research-participants problem in one easy step with the medium of VIDEO GAMES. Possibly even ethical, who can really say!

The issue:

Gathering data for scientific studies can be difficult. So why not tap into the world of VIDEO GAMES to conduct experiments on willing participants for no additional monetary cost!

Normal scenario:

  • Researcher: “I wonder what factors lead to a person trusting Person A instead of Person B?”

or:

  • Researcher: “I suspect that—all else being equal—ugly defendants in murder trials are convicted twice as often as attractive defendants”

Then, a ton of work has to be done to design a study and recruit participants for it.

Plus, people are always going to nit-pick your conclusions, for example: “what if ugly criminals are also just worse at committing crimes than attractive criminals? Then you’d expect them to be convicted more often, too, thus invalidating your results!”

But, maybe we can short circuit this process AND get scientifically-valid conclusions!

Proposal:

Instead of making researchers talk to a bunch of undergraduates and/or figure out how to get a sufficient number of participants over the Internet, we can perform research via video games.

A researcher would come up with a scenario that they’d like to test, for example:

  • “People with annoying voices are less likely to be helped by a random passerby.”

Then, they’d set up a scenario like:

  • Record both annoying and not-annoying voices for a character in a game.
  • Later, see if the player is motivated to save the character from falling into a volcano / being eaten by a carnivorous plant / falling behind on their car payments, etc.

This could be done for a variety of scenarios, as shown in Figures 1 through 3.

suspects

Fig. 1: We can randomly generate a huge variety of different faces to test how players’ behavior is determined by appearance. For example, upon finding out that the middle guy here is a murderer, does the player let it slide (“well, he had it coming”) or turn him into the police? Maybe we’ll find that EVERY triangle-headed individual is let off the hook, which would raise interesting sociological questions.

 

final_candidates

Fig. 2: Here is a feature that can be added to any game where the player accumulates money: one of the characters above steals money from the player, but there is evidence implicating all three characters, so it’s difficult to determine the actual perpetrator. The culprit is randomly chosen for each player, and is equally likely to be the colonel, the horse or an octopus. However, players are FIVE TIMES more likely to accuse the octopus, as seen in this fabricated figure!

Fig. 3: For a Cold War spy thriller game, any one of these three characters might be a spy. Despite the fact that all three characters have essentially equivalent behaviors (randomly chosen) and backgrounds, we might find that the horse is usually executed when he is discovered to be a Soviet agent, while players allow the toaster to escape back across the Iron Curtain—thus revealing a widespread callous disregard toward the welfare of horses.

PROS: Probably could be a useful research tool!

CONS: Expensive! Requires very specific programming and art expertise.

Stop missing out on life because you’re wearing headphones and playing music, and your comrades have all gone off to experience something truly incredible, but you are abandoned because you didn’t hear them leave!

The issue:

If you’re wearing headphones, it can be difficult to hear when someone is trying to get your attention.

(Similarly, it can be heard to get the attention of someone wearing headphones without startling them.)

Proposal:

Headphones could have a small microphone on them with a processing unit that could listen for certain words.

When the headphones detect a specific trigger word (for example, the user’s name, or important phrases like “free food in the break room” or “someone’s breaking into your car”), the headphones would temporarily reduce playback volume.

headphone

Fig. 1: These headphones have a microphone that listens for certain user-specified key phrases that will cause playback to be temporarily muted.

The user would need to specifically configure a set of phrases of interest. For example, a user would most likely want their own name to mute the headphones, but probably they wouldn’t want their a co-worker’s name to also have this effect.

 

 

 

mute-action

Fig. 2: Here is an example for a headphone-wearer named Joe. The headphones would most likely incorrectly reduce the volume in situations F and G, unless sophisticated linguistic processing was performed to determine that they do not actually refer to the user “Joe.”

Conclusion:

This seems like a product that could actually exist. It might be annoying to configure the headphones for your specific name, however.

PROS: All of them!

CONS: If you have a name that shares syllables with common words, this set of headphones might not work too well. It is recommended that you change your name in such a situation.

Never be unfashionable again, with these five amazing 3d-modeled clothing tips! You’ll never believe tip number three!

Background, part 1:

Clothing catalogues occasionally provide a summary of the clothes that a model in an advertisement is wearing; usually this will be a piece of text that looks something like Get this Look: Jeans $100, Shirt $40, Weird Socks $10.”

This is a good system: the company can sell you more clothing this way, and the purchaser gets a pre-vetted complete outfit that (presumably) looks good.

Background, part 2:

“Open world” games often allow the player to customize the look and clothing / armor / random accessories of their character.

One example of this is Grand Theft Auto, where a player can buy hundreds of distinct clothing items for their player character.

Proposal:

Strangely, no games have yet implemented the (seemingly obvious) step of adding an in-game “Get this Look” button that would:

  1. Confirm the player’s clothing measurements
  2. Generate an order online for correctly-sized versions of the clothes that the player’s character is wearing at the moment.
  3. Mail those clothes to the player’s home address.

This could be made even easier if players could set their clothing sizes in a common interface (Figure 1), which would be shared between games.

get_this_look

Fig. 1: “Clothing Size” (bottom left, highlighted in blue) could be another system setting for a user, next to “WiFI settings” and “Sound.”

Conclusion:

This seems like it’s almost an inevitable feature of games in the future. People will probably wonder why it took so long!

Since it’s already profitable to sell virtual cosmetic items in online game, the sale of actual clothing (which can be printed / ordered on-demand) for human beings should be a simple extension of that idea.

 

Fig. 2: When selecting a shirt for one’s avatar in a game, a “BUY IT NOW FOR YOURSELF” button will appear next to it.

 

dark-souls

Fig. 3: Some games—particularly ones in futuristic or medieval settings—would be more difficult for designers to adapt as modern clothing.

 

duck-head

Fig. 4: Strange novelty outfits are a staple of character customization. Now it’s easier than ever to bring those options into the real world.

PROS: Adds new and amazing fashion options, just a click away!

CONS: All your old clothes will seem TOO UNFASHIONABLE now. May not work for 2D games.

Teachers: help your shy and introverted students engage in discussion with the HELM OF UNRELENTING GAZE, the newest and most valuable teaching fad.

Background:

One problem that educators face is that, with so many students in a lecture hall / classroom, it can be difficult to easily interact with these students on a one-on-one basis.

Specifically:

  • Students are far away. Quieter students are difficult to hear.
  • It’s hard to single out a specific student to talk to.
  • Less assertive students will often never manage to ask their questions—more outgoing students will monopolize the discussion!

Proposal:

What is needed is a way for the lecturer to specifically single out a student in the audience in a way that is obvious to both the student and the rest of the student body.

Additionally, we need a way for the lecturer to easily be able to hear the student (who is most likely far away and not using a microphone).

The best solution, as shown in Figure 1, is a special piece of headwear for the lecturer that has:

  1. A directional microphone (for ease of hearing the student in the far away audience), and
  2. The ability to shine a directed beam of light onto the student, so the student feels like part of the discussion.

helm-1-ray

Fig. 1: This “Helm of Unrelenting Gaze” allows the lecturer (pictured) to easily engage with the students in the audience. It features directional microphones (located on the “ears” on the crown) and an aim-able beam of light that can be directed toward the student being interacted with.

helm-2

Fig. 2: Sometimes, we may want to acknowledge more than one individual in the audience: for example, when the teacher is talking to one student, but also wants to inform another student that they are “next in line” for the discussion. This Crown of Twin Accusatory Snake Heads can track both the current question-asker and the next-in-line individual.

helm-2-annotated

Fig. 3: The dual spotlights allow the current speaker to be interacted with in one color (yellow beam, part A), while also acknowledging the member of the audience who is next in line for the discussion (orange beam, part B).

Conclusion:

It was once believed that computers would totally change the way in-classroom education is done, but clearly that was mistaken—the actual technological advance that will revolutionize education is the HELM OF UNRELENTING GAZE.

PROS: Increases student interaction, makes it easier to allow shy / introverted students to contribute without being pushed out of the conversation by their more extroverted peers.

CONS: None!