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 [source: USPTO]. 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.
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 [source: Dillow].
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.
And that seems to be the biggest drawback to the pencil-producing gadget. How many No. 2 pencils can an office really use, given that most workers take notes on their tablet PCs or laptops? And how much glue and lead core do you need to buy to keep up with the overflowing paper recycle bin? Too much, we would suspect, which is why you may never see this gadget in your office supplies catalog [source: Bonderud].
Printing has come a long way since the computer landed on the desktop. First, there were daisy-wheel printers, then dot-matrix printers, then inkjet and laser printers. The problem with all of these output devices, of course, is that they require paper -- lots of it -- and expensive consumables, like toner. Why can't someone invent an inkless, tonerless printer that allows the operator to reuse paper?
As it turns out, this isn't a new idea. Xerox has been working with so-called electronic paper since the 1970s. Its most promising solution is a type of paper called "Gyricon." A Gyricon sheet is a thin layer of transparent plastic containing millions of small oil-filled cavities. A two-colored bead is free to rotate inside each cavity. When a printer applies a voltage to the surface of the sheet, the beads rotate to present one colored side to the viewer, offering the ability to create text or pictures. The images will remain on the paper until it's fed through the printer once again.
A Japanese company, Sanwa Newtec, is offering its version of inkless, tonerless and rewritable printing technology. Its product is called the PrePeat rewritable printer, which, like the Xerox solution, requires plastic paper. But PrePeat uses a different technique to produce an image. Each sheet of paper comes embedded with leuco dyes, which change color with temperature -- colored when cool and clear when hot. The PrePeat printer, then, heats and cools the paper to first erase an image and then create a new image in its place. According to the company, a single sheet of paper can be reused 1,000 times before it needs to be replaced.
What's the catch? A single PrePeat printer costs almost $6,000, while a pack of 1,000 sheets of paper costs more than $3,300. If you're running a printing-intensive business, you might be able to recoup your investment over time. But the average PC user likely won't be willing to shell out that kind of money to replace a standard printer [source: Miller].
Many people don't know it, but USPTO can apply a secrecy order to a patent if patent office staff and their military advisers think the idea could be used to threaten national security. Once the USPTO decides that a technology is no longer a threat, it can publish the patent and pave the way for commercialization. Some patents may remain cloaked under a secrecy order for one or two years; others languish for decades. More than 5,000 patents -- inventions we may never know or see -- currently have secrecy orders attached to them [source: Marks].
That's not the end of hush-hush inventions. Each year, the Pentagon sets aside billions of dollars to develop top-secret military weapons. This so-called "black budget" has grown tremendously since the Sept. 11 attacks, surpassing even the funds spent at the height of the Cold War. Some of that money has gone toward the development of nano air vehicles (NAVs), remote-controlled micro-drones that could easily infiltrate enemy territory. We all know how the U.S. military has used larger drones to conduct reconnaissance, transport supplies and even target individuals. Unfortunately, the larger attack drones, such as the MQ-1 Predator, can result in unwanted civilian casualties.
Lockheed Martin's Samarai micro-drone could solve that problem. Weighing a mere 5.29 ounces (150 grams) and boasting a 12-inch (30-centimeter) wingspan, the Samarai looks like a maple-seed whirligig, except this one comes with a miniature jet engine to provide thrust and a tiny flap on the trailing edge of the wing to control direction. In the near future, this nature-inspired micro-drone will snap photos using a camera mounted on the gadget's central hub. But the longer-term goals are to turn the Samarai or other similar micro-drones into armed attack vehicles capable of killing a single individual with little or no collateral damage [source: Weinberger].