Every single manmade thing in the world was once just an idea. It didn't exist until someone put said idea to paper, gathered the necessary raw materials, assembled a prototype, tested it, and deemed it functional: a vehicle, an appliance, a textile pattern, a form of government, a book, a song, a vaccine, and so on. Most of us have had such an idea or two in our lives, but for whatever reason – not enough time or money to develop it, someone else already thought of it, or it was just kinda dumb – we didn't see it through to fruition. Here are nine of my own ideas that would surely make for a better world, if only someone would run with them.
- ATMs that dispense small bills (and even coins). This is hardly a pipe dream. Indeed, as long ago as 1986, Seattle's now-defunct Seafirst Bank had ATMs that dispensed both $20 and $5 bills. Decades later, some other banks started doing same. But why isn't this universal? Why can't you get exactly what you want from any ATM? Presumably the manufacturers and banks decided it was easier to just load up their machines with twenties, leaving it up to the client to make change.
- TV that offers "decade" channels like satellite radio. My wife and I love our SiriusXM satellite radio. While most of its customers are tuning in to Fox News and Howard Stern, we prefer the company's decade-specific music channels: the '50s on 5, the '60s on 6, and so on. As a nostalgia buff, I'd love to see cable or streaming channels follow suit. Picture a channel stuck in the 1970s, from sitcoms to dramas to soap operas to TV movies to the news. (Yes, many classic shows straddled more than one decade, but you get it.) The option of playing a kooky vintage commercial during the station break could add to the fun.
- Location-specific satellite radio. While we're on the topic, my wife and I thought on our long drives that it would be neat to have a station that played music to match your current GPS location. Cruising down the Sunset Strip? You get classic rock from bands that made the Strip famous. On your way to Vegas? Rat Pack selections, natch. Driving across West Texas? Lonesome country ballads from long ago. There are many reasons why this wouldn't totally work, but... dare to dream.
- Childcare at movie theaters. I had this idea so long ago that there must now be cinemas that do this, unless insurance issues make it economically unfeasible. But what moviegoing parent would say no to dropping their toddler off at a safe childcare facility right outside the theater door, instead of hiring a babysitter? Sure, you'd still have to pay, but it's more dependable than a sitter and you wouldn't have to pay for the time spent driving to and from the theater. Plus you'd have the peace of mind of knowing that you could rush to your child within seconds (parents would be supplied with silent buzzers in case of emergency).
- Child-free flights. Speaking of kids, I thought of this years ago – as did, surely, everyone who had to endure a stranger's screaming baby on a redeye flight. The concept is finally starting to gather steam, according to several news articles I just now skimmed. It's the simplest idea: airlines would schedule certain flights that barred children under, say, seven years of age. No need to be draconian about it – it could be just one or two flights a day, and only on the busier routes. It hasn't happened yet, but why not?
- Custom subtitles/closed captioning. If ever I launched a one-man crusade, this would be it. Why are subtitles relegated to the bottom of the screen? Well, it started with the rudimentary way in which they were literally burned into reels of film, back in the early sound era. Since actors' faces are typically two-thirds high in the frame, the easiest solution was to just burn all the text into the bottom. Too much work to adjust it scene by scene. But watching a subtitled film is no fun: your eyes have to keep looking down from the actors and the action in order to read the words below. I envision movies following the lead of comic books, which they already do in so many other ways, and having shot-specific subtitles, approved by the filmmakers. Your eye won't have as far to travel – it's so much easier to observe an actor's expressions when his subtitled speech is just an inch away from his face – and the text would never cover up an important visual detail. It's a no-brainer for me, but I guess some folks think it'd look "weird".
- Modular cars. Automobiles take up way more space than they should. My Prius can sit five people, yet I almost never have anyone in the back. Wouldn't it be great to have a car that, like an extendable dining table, could easily be broken down into single-seat or double-seat mode, leaving the bulky bits behind when you don't need them? No, I don't know how it would work. But think how much it would reduce traffic, save gas, and make parking easier.
- A Shazam-like app that can contextualize your off-key singing. Ever get a tune in your head, then go crazy trying to figure out where you know it from? The Shazam app is handy when you need to identify a professional recording: if the room's not too noisy, Shazam can analyze the track's unique waveform and name it within seconds. Warble a half-remembered chorus into Shazam, though, and you're out of luck. I have a feeling that someone, somewhere, is working on fixing that. Call it "reverse karaoke".
- A "fuzzier" search engine. Search engine technology feels like it plateaued years ago. If you're looking up clear-cut facts ("Best Picture Oscar 1950"), it's fine. But as a frequent Googler, I've found it to be lacking when researching nebulous things. For example, a few years ago I wanted to buy a narrow table. Do you know how many different names such a table can go by? Side table. End table. Accent table. Console table. And they're all slightly different things. How do you know what to look for if you don't already know the exact term? One day, hopefully, we'll have a search engine where you can say, "I'd like to buy a table that's about 2 feet long, 6 inches wide, and 3 feet high. Brown wood, not too dark. Made in the USA. With a small drawer if possible," and it will understand what you mean. Imagine doing this with statistics, medical symptoms, legal cases, etc. The more details you feed the engine, the more streamlined and relevant the results. Right now it's just the opposite! Real live human beings are still a hundred times more intuitive. While I'm not clamoring for the Singularity, we need to hone computers' perception skills.