Monthly Archives: July 2010

Poked by a Car Seat

Car Seat
Photo: Arthur McClung III

Drivers can look forward to having an additional feature in their cars – vibrating motors at the back of their car seat that warn danger from blind spots. The blind spot monitors currently in the market uses visual and audio components such as a red warning triangle that appears on the exterior mirror or an audible warning.

Engineers from Yale University have designed a car seat that serves as an interface between the driver and the environment. Servomechanisms are installed to the back of the seat to detect the location of a following or approaching car, which would then activate the motors. The closer the following car is, the stronger the vibrations.

According to John Morrell, assistant professor of mechanical engineering at Yale University, the goal of the design was to create “renaissance user interface” through which the mind and body are used to the fullest by coupling every part of the body into experience.

We’re keeping our fingers crossed that this would be seen soon in cars.

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Innovative Disguises

The New York Times
MARTIN FACKLER, October 20 2007

Vending Machine and Backpack

On a narrow Tokyo street, near a beef bowl restaurant and a pachinko parlor, Aya Tsukioka demonstrated new clothing designs that she hopes will ease Japan’s growing fears of crime.

Deftly, Ms. Tsukioka, a 29-year-old experimental fashion designer, lifted a flap on her skirt to reveal a large sheet of cloth printed in bright red with a soft drink logo partly visible. By holding the sheet open and stepping to the side of the road, she showed how a woman walking alone could elude pursuers — by disguising herself as a vending machine.

The wearer hides behind the sheet, printed with an actual-size photo of a vending machine. Ms. Tsukioka’s clothing is still in development, but she already has several versions, including one that unfolds from a kimono and a deluxe model with four sides for more complete camouflaging.

These elaborate defenses are coming at a time when crime rates are actually declining in Japan. But the Japanese, sensitive to the slightest signs of social fraying, say they feel growing anxiety about safety, fanned by sensationalist news media. Instead of pepper spray, though, they are devising a variety of novel solutions, some high-tech, others quirky, but all reflecting a peculiarly Japanese sensibility.

Take the “manhole bag,” a purse that can hide valuables by unfolding to look like a sewer cover. Lay it on the street with your wallet inside, and unwitting thieves are supposed to walk right by. There is also a line of knife-proof high school uniforms made with the same material as Kevlar, and a book with tips on how to dress even the nerdiest children like “pseudohoodlums” to fend off schoolyard bullies.

There are pastel-colored cellphones for children that parents can track, and a chip for backpacks that signals when children enter and leave school.

The devices’ creators admit that some of their ideas may seem far-fetched, especially to crime-hardened Americans. And even some Japanese find some of them a tad naïve, possibly reflecting the nation’s relative lack of experience with actual street crime. Despite media attention on a few sensational cases, the rate of violent crime remains just one-seventh of America’s.

But the devices’ creators also argue that Japan’s ideas about crime prevention are a product of deeper cultural differences. While Americans want to protect themselves from criminals, or even strike back, the creators say many Japanese favor camouflage and deception, reflecting a culture that abhors self-assertion, even in self-defense.

“It is just easier for Japanese to hide,” Ms. Tsukioka said. “Making a scene would be too embarrassing.” She said her vending machine disguise was inspired by a trick used by the ancient ninja, who cloaked themselves in black blankets at night.

To be sure, some of these ideas have yet to become commercially viable. However, the fact that they were greeted here with straight faces, or even appeared at all, underscores another, less appreciated facet of Japanese society: its fondness for oddball ideas and inventions.

Japan’s corporate labs have showered the world with technology, from transistor radios to hybrid cars. But the nation is also home to a prolific subculture of individual inventors, whose ideas range from practical to bizarre. Inventors say a tradition of tinkering and building has made Japan welcoming to experimental ideas, no matter how eccentric.

“Japanese society won’t just laugh, so inventors are not afraid to try new things,” said Takumi Hirai, chairman of Japan’s largest association of individual inventors, the 10,000-member Hatsumeigakkai.

In fact, Japan produces so many unusual inventions that it even has a word for them: chindogu, or “queer tools.” The term was popularized by Kenji Kawakami, whose hundreds of intentionally impractical and humorous inventions have won him international attention as Japan’s answer to Rube Goldberg. His creations, which he calls “unuseless,” include a roll of toilet paper attached to the head for easy reach in hay fever season, and tiny mops for a cat’s feet that polish the floor as the cat prowls.

Mr. Kawakami said that while some of Japan’s anticrime devices might not seem practical, they were valuable because they might lead to even better ideas.

“Even useless things can be useful,” he said. “The weird logic of these inventions helps us see the world in fresh ways.”

Even some of the less unusual anticrime devices here reflect a singular logic. A pair of women’s sunglasses has wraparound lenses so dark no one can see where the wearer is looking. These are intended to scare off sexual harassers on Tokyo’s crowded trains, where the groping of women is a constant problem.

The same is true of some of the solutions for schoolyard bullying, a big problem in Japan. Kaori Nakano, a fashion historian, wrote a book with a chapter on how to ward off bullies with the “pseudohoodlum” attire. Her advice includes substituting a white belt for the standard black one in Japanese school uniforms, preferably with metallic studs or tiny mirrors, and buying short socks with flashy patterns.

“Japan is so fashion conscious that just changing the way you dress can make you safer,” Ms. Nakano said. “Culture plays a big role in risk prevention.”

Ms. Tsukioka said she chose the vending-machine motif because the machines are so common on Japan’s streets. For children, she has a backpack that transforms into a Japanese-style fire hydrant, hiding the child. The “manhole bag” was also her idea.

Ms. Tsukioka said her disguises could be a bit impractical, “especially when your hands are shaking.” Still, she said she hoped the designs or some variation of them could be marketed widely. So far, she said, she has sold about 20 vending-machine skirts for about $800 each, printing and sewing each by hand.

She said she had never heard of a skirt’s actually preventing a crime. But on a recent afternoon in Tokyo, bystanders stared as she unfolded the sheet. But once she stood behind it next to a row of actual vending machines, the image proved persuasive enough camouflage that passers-by did not seem to notice her.

She said that while her ideas might be fanciful, Japan’s willingness to indulge the imagination was one of its cultural strengths.

“These ideas might strike foreigners as far-fetched,” she added, “but in Japan, they can become reality.”

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A Cooker that can Bake Bread from Rice

Gopan - the Rice Bread Cooker
Photo: AFP

Craving for freshly baked bread late at night, but all the bakeries are closed at such an unearthly time? Now you can bake it yourself, from rice.

With the launch of the world’s first cooker by Sanyo in October, branded as ‘GOPAN’, coined from ‘gohan’, meaning cooked rice and ‘pan’ Spanish for bread, Asians can look forward to enjoying their own creation through the rice bread cooker from next year onwards.

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24 Cars Turn Into a Giant Musical Instrument in the Desert

By Priya Ganapati

Line up 24 cars in a desert, wind 1,000 feet of welding cable through them and throw one-hit-wonder Gary Numan into the mix and the result is a cool, fun video that turns all the cars into one big musical instrument.

Syyn Labs, a Los Angeles-based arts and technology collective, worked with Zoo films to create the video as a commercial for DieHard, a maker of car batteries.

Over three days in the desert, a team of six engineers worked on 24 cars and removed the batteries from each. Instead, they connected them all together to a central computer and a keyboard. The horns inside the cars were removed and instead an MP3 player was connected to the each car’s speaker. The entire set-up was hooked to one DieHard battery.

As Numan hit each key on his keyboard, the software turned on the lights and sound for the corresponding car. It activated the speaker in that car so the MP3 player would blare out the right note for just a few seconds, says Brent Bushnell, who works at the Labs.

“Everything in the car, the keyboard and the computer was powered using a single DieHard battery,” says Eric Gradman, one of the engineers who worked on the project. “Overall, we consumed just about 31.3 amphours.”

The Labs’ previous project was a Rube Goldberg machine whose action perfectly meshes with a song from pop band OK Go.

And if you are wondering what song the cars are blaring, it is Numan’s 1979 hit ‘Cars.’

Video: Syyn Labs

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