— Stimulating the tongue could help people with brain damage relearn how to ride a bike, or even to walk again, according to US company Wicab.
Its patent application says injury or disease can upset the brains ability to balance the body, which hinders rehabilitation, but stimulating the tongue with mild electrical pulses provides the powerful stimulus needed to re-train the brain.
Wicab has developed the technology to test the idea and has won a joint grant from the US governments National Institutes of Health and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to prove it.
A false palate with a square grid of 160 gold-plated electrodes is placed on the tongue and wirelessly connected to the output of a motion sensor and camera fitted on the patients head. The sensors deliver a coarse image of the scene ahead to the grid, which the tongues nerve cells send to the brain.
Wicabs say that with less than an hours training, the brain learns to correlate the input from the tongue with whatever other sensory signals it is getting from the eyes, inner ear and other parts of the body. As patients recover their balance they are weaned off the tongue-based assistance.
The same system can be used to give blind people a coarse image of the outside world, without the need for eye implants. With only half an hours training a blind person can use tongue signals to catch a rolling ball, Wicab claims.
The company claims the system can also enhance night vision, help divers and bomb disposal squads, and cure the persistent rocking sensation suffered by astronauts after prolonged space flight all of which doubtless accounts for DARPAs interest.
A torch that doubles as a covert communications device could help soldiers who are trapped behind enemy lines and need to keep radio silence. The same torch can be used by stranded climbers or lost hikers.
The torch uses white LEDs to produce light, instead of conventional bulbs, because LEDs can be rapidly switched. When the LED light is pulsed at high frequency it appears to the eye as an ordinary beam. But a matching receiver several kilometres away can decode the pulsed message, says defence contractor BAE systems which has applied to patent the device.
The message can be pre-programmed to send Morse code, pre-recorded speech code or live voice spoken into a microphone and converted on the fly.
The torch only works as a communicator after the rightful owner has spoken check words into the microphone or fingered a secret sequence of taps. This protects the device should it fall into enemy hands.
For military use the torch can produce infrared light for "invisible" signalling.
Your cellphone may soon serve as a smoke detector if Nokia gets its way.
Conventional smoke alarms detect smoke particles by the way they scatter light. But they work using a small chamber that allows smoke in while keeping out ambient light. This makes the detector too big for a small phone.
Nokia gets around this by putting a light emitter and detector in the side of the phone. Any smoke particles in the air then scatter light from the emitter into the detector which then triggers an alarm or dials a pre-programmed number.
It gets around the problem of ambient light triggering the detector by using an infrared beam or by pulsing the beam in a way that ambient light cannot reproduce.
The device can also work as a proximity sensor by detecting objects that come within a predetermined distance of the phone, Nokia claims. This might be useful as an intruder alarm, sounding if someone comes through a hotel door while the owner is sleeping, for example.
For more than 30 years, Barry Fox has trawled through the world's weird and wonderful patent applications, uncovering the most exciting, bizarre or even terrifying new ideas. Read previous Invention columns, including:
Jellyfish injections, Flesh-burn sensor, fire-escape tubes, VoIP mangling, in-flight rearming, sense that fat, Designer speakers, throw-away parachutes, password-protected bullets, spinning touchdown, palmtop Feng Shui, Origami gadgets, mile-high showers, Hydrogen fuel balls, human cannonballs, the riot slimer, the bomb jammer, Apple's all-seeing screen, the TV-advert enforcer, the wing-sprouting drone, the drink-driver arm scanner, laser spark plugs, remote-controlled implants,the "I've been shot" gun, the snore zapper, the guitar phone, explosive-eating fungus, viper vision, exploding ink, the moody media player, the spy-diver killer, preventing in-flight interference, the inkjet-printer pen, sonic watermarks, the McDownload, hot-air plane, landmine arrows, soldiers obeying odours, coffee beer, wall-beating bugging, eyeball electronics, phone jolts, personal crash alarm, talking tooth, shark shocker, midnight call-foiler, burning bullets, a music lover's dream, magic wand for gamers, the phantom car, phone-bomb hijacking, shocking airport scans, old tyres to printer ink and eye-tracking displays.