Dynamic Stationary Headlights

Innovation keeps rolling forward full steam ahead when it comes to auto design and manufacturing.  I don’t say that lightly, being a safety driver testing some of the most advanced cars on the planet. Yet I feel like auto companies have focused all their attention on bluetooth, autonomy or other sexy technological advances and have overlooked one crucial point:  headlights.

I mean, cars have them and all, but I feel like we’re working with the same basic design as when headlights were first attached to cars.  There’s two, on the nose of the vehicle, pointing forward.  With the addition of LED bulbs they’ve made the light brighter and more efficient, but didn’t otherwise challenge the overall design.  The problem being, when they were designed a hundred years ago they only seemed to be thinking about the driver, who really is only 50% of the user base they should be concerned about.

Headlights are designed to show the driver what they’re missing at night when our vision no longer becomes adequate for moving around at high speeds.  I’ve observed that the newer or fancier the car, the more powerful the LED or higher angle used.  Which I’m sure is GREAT for the driver.  Just think of all the cars and cyclist and pedestrians they’ll blind while driving around at night.  Why doesn’t the design and function of headlights take into consideration those who are caught in them?

Working as a safety driver for the Google Self Driving Car project and before that as an Uber driver, one downside of the job is that you spend more time than you would like sitting in uncomfortable positions in order to avoid being blinded by very bright headlights in your rear and side view mirrors.  And that isn’t even considering the pair you can’t avoid coming straight at you.  It’s getting to a point where I flash my high beams at cars dead certain that they are driving with their high beams on, only to get flashed back at very close range as they pass me.

We have to share the road; and if your normal headlights are so bright that I think you’re driving around with your high beams on, then that’s a problem.  I understand you need to see the road, but so do I.  And I can’t do that if it takes my eyes three seconds to adjust to the night environment after being momentarily blinded.

There should be new design standard that requires all normal beams to be at such and such an angle.  You might come back to me with “Well, Emma, there already is that standard,” but unless you show me in whatever book where that standard exists, and then the clause that exempts all Prii from it, then I will believe you.  I’m starting to think there’s an unspoken equation auto companies use that goes something like for every ‘n’ (being smugness factor of vehicle) increase headlight angle by 2 degrees.  I’ll leave it to your imagination how they factor ‘n’.

Auto companies should be able to design a stationary headlight.  Stationary not in that it’s locked into place in the car, but that the pitch of the beam does not vary if the car drives over a speed bump or into a driveway.  The bulb could be on a rocker so that the upward or downward movement of the car would not affect the angle of the beam.

I was almost stumped by a coworker I was sharing this idea with.  He asked what if the car was going uphill?  Which is a very good concern to have.  After all, the car can’t be going uphill but have the lights pointed straight down at the ground, right?  I’m not entirely sure what the solution is, but I feel like the rear of the vehicle would have to be taken into consideration when angling the rocker.  For instance, with a speed bump, the front and back of the vehicle will move vertically independently of each other depending how far away the tires are from each other and how fast the car is going.  Unlike going uphill, where the whole car will be pitched at the same angle.

I’m not asking for anything (too) complicated; certainly nothing that hasn’t already been invented.  Maybe that’s the issue.  It’s too simple.  Or maybe just not sexy enough.  I wish someone would do a study on how much staring down really bright headlights damages your eyes.  Yes, I will get a group of optometrists to run a study in order to make my idea sexier….

Sun Tracking Transition Windows

First I’ll start with an update about how the Stemsational fared on Quirky: it didn’t.  I’m not even entirely sure they looked at it as they claim to do.  I got a form fill letter stating “Sorry _______, but Quirky decided not to go with the _________.  But you should keep trying!” I guess the key to getting stuff developed is to get people who have already bought stuff on the site to vote for you.  That’s the only thing that carries any significance; which I’m not too stunned to hear, they are after all, a business.

So, the Stemsational has been pushed back onto my plate, where I will push it to the side like so many over cooked peas, only to have one roll back into the middle of my dinner every once and a while, forcing me to reconsider before eventually deciding to corral it back with it’s unfortunate brothers.  So goes the life of an inventor.  Or at least, that’s what I’ll tell myself since I neither know any other inventors nor have actually invented anything myself.  But if there was ever a notion to spur oneself on, it’s romance.

The other big development that has happened since I last wrote is that I’m now working on Google’s Self-Driving Car project!  Which, I might have to kill myself when my contract is up, because I don’t know if I can go back to the mundanity of everyday life after having worked such a sexy job.  It certainly is going to be hard to top.  Maybe underwater welding?  I don’t know.

Anyhow, I get to fly future cars all over Mountain View all week long.  And when you’re in a car for eight hours a day, you start to realize there are some serious design flaws.  My biggest pet peeve is currently right around when the evening commute starts to pick up speed, (if you’ll permit me), is the same time when I need to start using the visor to block out the sun.  When you’re winding your way around a place you find yourself furiously flipping the visor this way and that to make sure you’re blocking out the sun.  It especially becomes fun when the sun sinks below the level the visor is able to help out with, but has not yet set below the horizon.  Sometimes it’s a good thing the car drives itself….

What would be a huge help is if the window worked the way transition lenses in glasses do, and become darker exactly where the sun was.  It would have to be smart of course, because the whole window going dark if the sun was shining head on would not really be an improvement.  The car would somehow need to track the position of the sun and correspond that position with where the driver’s head was, and then create a circle big enough to only obscure the sun and then follow it around has the car pivoted.

A tall order, I know, but Sergei was throwing billions of dollars at a glass project no one wanted.  What if he could pivot it to a product everyone can appreciate?  Plus, I think the general populous will be relieved to know that one of Google[x] core products will no longer be attempting to turn people into cyborgs.  When the robot revolution comes, it will be on four wheels.  Let’s just hope they’ll be considerate enough not to blind us.

Kale Stemmer Phase 3: Overthink

What had started as a simple, straight forward vision quickly snowballed into a Swiss army kitchen tool monstrosity.  What other things do you do to vegetables to prepare them for cooking?  Well, you have to peel several of them, for starters!  How do I incorporate a vegetable peeler into my tool as well?  How do I IMPROVE on the vegetable peeler so that I can create a better tool than what already exists?  Before I knew it, I was trying to solve problems I had never intended to solve in the first place.

Since the kale stemmer had pliable arms, I thought I could apply that notion to the super-veggie sculptor, or whatever I was creating at this point.  I could use tongs, but instead of grippers at the end, that’s where the peelers would go so you could peel TWO sides of the vegetable at once!  Never mind how you would hold whatever root you were mutilating, I just doubled productivity!

I could add the stem slicers to the ends of the peeler arms and viola!  You have a veritable Trogdor of a kitchen contraption.  (Thanks MetaStackExchange for the original graphic, and Strongbad, of course…)

Trogdor the Vegenator
Trogdor the Vegenator

This was clearly getting out of hand.  After turning the whole thing over in my head for another week or so, I had come to the conclusion that I had invented the biggest pile of crap ever.  Maybe I was right the first time around, and have it only do one thing, and one thing well.  I went back to the hard plastic model I liked best and thought about how to add working blades to it so I could test how it worked in the real world.

I got as far as hot glueing razor blades to the model when my roomie Brandon asked if I knew about the finger method of stemming kale.  I suppressed a juvenile giggle and professed I did not.  He grabbed a piece of kale, made a little noose around the bottom of the stem with his index finger and thumb and pulled the leaf with the other hand through the noose.  In an instant, curly leaves were all over the counter and he held a bare stem.  I stared at it, heartbroken.

How did I miss this?  I would later try this technique with different types of greens and–with the exception of collard greens–it worked for the most part.  It wasn’t perfect, but about 80% of the time it got the job done.

Had my whole idea of the kale stemmer been a product of overthink?  Do I really need to invent a tool that my hands are able to carry out somewhat sufficiently on their own?  This new revelation had really impacted me.  I had started preparing my greens using this technique each morning.  Maybe I didn’t have anything worth making in the first place.

Then again, we do live in a consumerist society!  I decided that maybe my idea was not good enough to waste anymore of my own time or energy on, but maybe it’s worth wasting other people’s!  Besides, my tool would be 100% effective for ALL leafy greens!

That’s why I’ve launched a Quirky campaign!  In the off-chance they do not approve my campaign, maybe I’ll tinker around with it some more and put it up on Shapeways and see how well it does there.  I’ve even got a great name: the Stem-sational!

Vote for the Stem-sational on Quirky here!

With your help, I can make this idea a reality with minimal effort!  You are required to sign up for Quirky because social media, but it is free.  Now go get voting!  I’ll let you know where we land next week!

[Author’s note:  since the voting period is only open for about two weeks, it’s safe to say that the above link is now completely useless. I debated edited the post to be in past tense, but ultimately decided to leave in it’s original form with this addendum.]

Kale Stemmer Phase 2: Successive Iterating

We left off last week at my first hurdle I needed to overcome, which left me dead in the water.  It wasn’t until I spoke with a friend who suggested 3D printing, which would fling the door open on the iteration process.  I knew about 3D printing but had written it off because I didn’t want a plastic tool.  But that was the problem.  I was getting stumped on the material!  My friend told me it doesn’t matter what the material is when iterating, especially since it’ll save me money to print several versions in plastic.

The next task was to figure out a 3D program I could use to mock the tool up.  I first looked to Autodesk because it’s the most well known.  They had two free options, TinkerCad and 123D.  I started with TinkerCad, which is probably the most approachable of the two.  After a few hours piddling around, I was satisfied with my first mock up.  I uploaded it to Shapeways and a couple weeks later, like magic, I get a physical thing in the mail!

Kale Stemmer Version 2
Kale Stemmer Version 2

The first lesson I learned was about size.  I knew when I saved it, I didn’t really have a good feel for how big it was going to be; and sure enough when it arrived, it was rather small.  Manipulating three dimensional objects has always come second nature to me.  I’m a kinesthetic learner, and can master quickly anything I need to use my hands to learn.  So I was surprised when it took me a while to really get my bearings with 3D software.  I think the difference is: even though the object I’m creating will ultimately be 3D, I’m working and perceiving it in a two dimensional way.  But I guess calculating in the learning curve is all part of the iterating process.

The second lesson I learned right away was about material.  I decided to print it in stainless steel because that was one of the materials Shapeways had available, and I figured, why not?  Since it was ultimately what I wanted the tool to be made in, and I just wasted a month banging my head against a wall about it.  I’m glad I did, because I learned that it wasn’t a good option to print in stainless steel as it’s 1) expensive and 2) has major printing constraints: I was not able to make the arms thin enough to really be pliable.

Lastly, the shape did not allow enough room for the arms to be manipulated around a stem.  Back to the drawing board I went.

I decided to mock up the next version using 123D, just to try out that software.  It took me even longer to figure out how to use that, and I did not do as good a job as with the TinkerCad.  It’s also pretty powerful software, probably too much for my poor, first generation 11” Macbook Air to handle.  However, I did have an idea for how big the tool was going to be this time.  The shape changed in order to make the tool work the way I had envisioned.

Kale Stemmer Version 3
Kale Stemmer Version 3

I made the arms on this model as thin as Shapeways would allow me to print.  This time I printed it in a few different materials, just to see what the difference would be.  I tried stainless steel once more because I like wasting money.  As it turns out, it was still too stiff to really be pliable.  I also printed it in a soft plastic, which was far too soft; and a hard plastic, which was juuust right.

Kale Stemmer Version 4
Kale Stemmer Version 4

I was pretty happy with the shape and size of the hard plastic version and having a hard time thinking how to make it better.  It was a simple design, it worked the way I wanted it to.  I showed it to friends and no one had any real feedback except, what else does it do?

Which made me think, what else should it do?  What if it could do more?  I know the whole point of the tool was to be a simple one-function kitchen tool, but if it had more than one function, wouldn’t it then be more valuable?

Maybe it was because I was reading 1984 at the time, but I like to call this next phase “overthink”.

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My First Stab at the Kale Stemmer

Last year I decided to put what little money I had where my mouth is and try to actually make one of my crazy ideas a reality.  In the next three posts I describe the trials and tribulations of my first product creation attempt, and how the Kale Stemmer never came to be.  Or at least, not yet.

My favorite breakfast–and by favorite I mean I’ve cooked this for myself five days out of the week for the last year–is eggs and greens.  I sauté some onions and peppers, fry an egg on top, and then steam kale/chard/collards/spinach on top of that.  It’s delicious and nutritious, so when I’m a fatty the rest of the day, I can trick myself into feeling good about my eating habits.  The point of all of this is, I eat a lot of kale.

Kale, for those of you familiar with the leafy vegetable, has an almost inedible woody stem growing right up the middle.  It doesn’t taste very good and makes you fart all day if you eat it.  Most people get around this by using chopped up Tuscan or Dino kale, which has the most digestibly negotiable stem.  I’m OCD about it, so I end up spending a half hour slicing the stem out of every single leaf of kale before I chop it up.

My desire to make this process less of a time suck is how I decided to invent the kale stemmer!  Supporting arguments being: it was the most approachable idea to create, i.e. it didn’t require crazy engineering skills I couldn’t wrap my brain around; and more importantly, it’s a silly kitchen tool that only does one thing.  What do American’s like buying more than silly kitchen tools that only do one thing?  How many stores devote entire sections to silly, one-function tools?  And with kale’s popularity on the rise, I was potentially sitting on a goldmine.

Having finally decided on what I wanted to create, now I had to go about actually doing it.  Which proved a little daunting only because I had no idea what I was doing.  I started with what I knew how to do, which was to physically mock something up with similar materials available to me.  I headed over to SCRAP (Scrounger’s Center for Reusable Art Parts), one of my favorite resources in all of SF.  If you do not know of this place, you need to check it out!  It’s hidden away in the industrial triangle part of the Bayview, but you will not be sorry when you finally find it.  After digging around for an hour I found what I figured would do the trick.  By the end of the day, I came up with this:

Kale Stemmer version 1
Kale Stemmer, version 1

You can see from my very first mock up, that I possess the crafting skills of a second grader.  You can also get an idea for the form I was going for.  Two knife blades that can be manipulated like tweezers to adjust to the width of the stem.  In this case I glued two razor blades onto a metal frame and covered it with leather to make it look “nice”.  The problem with this model is I was looking for a metal that would be pliable in order to manipulate it to the shape I desired.  However, what I should have looked for is a firmer material with more shape memory, since this one does not spring back to it’s original shape.  The goal was for the tool to work like tweezers, where you squeeze the blades together and follow the shape of the stem.  That way you can cut out all types of stem shapes and sizes.

After completing my first mock up, I stared at it for about a week.  Now I had a visual for when I explained what my idea was to people, but it wasn’t exactly something I was proud of.  I knew I had to make it more professional looking.  My problem was I kept thinking that it had to be stainless steel, since that was the material I ultimately wanted it to be made out of.  I sunk hours of research into the properties of the material, how I could get my hands on it, how to work with it.  I made a trip to the Crucible to speak with a craftsman there about how to mock up my tool, which ended up being even more daunting since he went on and on about crafting a fine, chef’s quality knife–which was not what I was looking for at all.  I needed it to be simple and cheap, something that could be machine made.

Progress sputtered to a standstill: I had come to my first road block.  I couldn’t get past this barrier because I didn’t know how to manipulate stainless steel and I didn’t have the money to pay somebody who could.  Luckily I have a friend who is going through the same process with his own inventions, so I set up a meeting and picked his brain.  He told me not to get hung up on the manufacturing process before I even have a tool to create.

How could I have been so dense?  How many countless articles had I read about “attacking a problem from all angles” and “pivoting” and all of those other Google keyword catch phrases entrepreneurs love to throw around.  And yet here I was, stuck on my first problem, and my solution was to continue to bang my head on the wall when really, I only had to walk around to the other side and open the door.

Thankfully I did one thing right in talking with my friend.  He was able to turn my problem around for me.  Now that I had found the door, I could walk through and start the next phase: successive iterating.

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