If you're a hard-core, dyed-in-the-wool gadget freak, Popcorn, Indiana LLC may have a design task for you.
The maker and seller of snack foods recently introduced the Popinator, which it calls a "fully automated, voice activated popcorn shooter." In videos, the device reacts to the spoken word "pop" by launching a kernel of popcorn into someone's mouth.
It's supposed to be a novelty -- a modern-day, mechanized version of the Pet Rock. And public reaction to it has been virtually off the charts. A YouTube video from the company (at the bottom of this post) has drawn 1.7 million hits. National and local television news shows have featured it, and newspapers around the country have written about it.
Popcorn, Indiana calls its Popinator a "fully automated, voice activated popcorn shooter." (Source: Popcorn, Indiana)
The problem with the machine is it doesn't work -- at least not in the way described in the company's video. "It does shoot popcorn, but it is remote-operated, not voice," Amanda Tiberi, marketing coordinator for Popcorn, Indiana, told us in an email. "It does exist, but only one, and it is a prototype in our office."
The video claims otherwise. "The Popinator uses a binaural microphone system, which is similar to the way the human hearing system works," says Ted, an electrical engineer seen in the video. "Basically, it is able to calculate, using the small differences in the arrival time of sound waves and their reflections, where a sound originated from."
Technically, Ted's description sounds good. But when a CNN reporter tried to use the device, it launched popcorn all over the floor. And it didn't react to the word "pop." It wasn't clear if the binaural microphones were even installed.
Of course, Popcorn, Indiana's idea -- post an embellished video on the Web, wait for it to go viral, and reap the name-recognition benefits -- isn't new. In truth, it's no different from what Volkswagen did this year with the Hover Car we discussed in June. In terms of plausibility, however, the Popinator and the Hover Car are in different leagues.
Randy Frank, an expert in sensing technology, told us it would be feasible for the Popinator to have a binaural MEMS audio sensor, which is often used in smartphones. Moreover, there's no reason the device couldn't find the source of the sound and launch a kernel in the appropriate direction. "Using a reasonably sophisticated software algorithm and some sensor fusion, you can make that projectile travel accurately to the direction of the sound."
The project could be expensive and could have its challenges. "Any time you do voice activation, you have to worry about false triggers," he said. "You don't want this thing shooting popcorn at your dog every time it barks, and that takes some engineering expertise. It's not trivial."
Can it be done? Popcorn, Indiana (which, by the way, is located in New Jersey) isn't asking for our help. But we encourage readers to weigh in with a comment. After all, who hasn't dreamed of owning a voice-activated machine that shoots popcorn into your mouth?
OK, I'll bite (pun intended). So, you want to launch a projectile, that has a bad habit of sticking in one's throat under normal conditions, at high velocity, into one's mouth, not an eye where the cornea could get scratched, while breathing in after issuing a command that opens the trachea exposing one's lungs to this projectile, and make it available to the youth of the household and your pets?
Maybe the better way is a video processing system with acoustic distance-determining subroutines?
Next, how about one that launches pins for those who sew a lot? Or nails for a carpenter who is putting up framing? Or syringes for nurses giving injections. The possiblities are endless!
First, Warren sounds like a fear-burdened worry-wart that I would never invite to my party!
Now as for making the thing work, ultrasonic ranging and locating is a fairly mature art form, and laser tracking systems are available off the shelf. But none of those laser systems are in the required price range, at least not the high accuracy ones. So a good start would be a sonar system for ranging and a camera system for face and moth recognition. The speech recognition system would need to discriminate against all other sounds than the word "pop", so it could probably be fairly simple. And the whole search could wait until the trigger word was heard so that it would know the target was available.
Of course there are a lot of add-on things that would add to the fun, like a laser pointer and a butter squirt option. And what about a system to make all manner of remarks as it shoots the popcorn?
The challenge would be to make it all for a low enough price that Walmart would not offer a cheaper knock-off after a few weeks.
As a matter of fact, I believe that I have been blasted by popcorn on at least one occasion, without sustaining any injury except for having popcorn embedded in my hair.
Clearly, if one enters a popcorn free-fire zone, one is obligated to blink in the event of an incoming. So the liability for imbedded kernels would lie with the recipient, not with the sender. LIkewise, one is obligated to catch the kernel in flight and not attempt to swallow it whole.
I would anticipate that a modified version of my "Ratapalt" invention could deliver large amounts of popcorn at quite high velocities, which would be an interesting way to overdo the whole concept.
It would seem the most accurate method of launching and hitting a target is to launch unpopped corn kernels; determine direction and range, launch the kernel, focus either laser or microwave energy onto the airborne kernel causing it to pop mid-flight and slowing it to sublethal velocity. A short subroutine to track the kernel until it either disappears or falls below a threshold would suffice to verify the accuracy of the throw and make appropriate adjustments. Using a simple game-camera to discern movement would solve the aiming issue. Disabling the laser/microwave could disuade even the most vociferous pet from repeatedly setting-off the thrower. Launching popped corn using compressed air has proven to be most inaccurate, however lauching unpopped kernels using the same method has shown to be most entertaining (if not painful). I do believe this may have contributed to the mouse population in my garage but I'm not sure.
Popping kernels with a laser beam is probably an excellent way to raise the casualty count quite rapidly. The watt-seconds needed to pop in 2 seconds would be quite dangerous.
And for the compressed air launching? I have driven small green apples through a magazine using compressed air, and likewise driven a broken ski pole through a 2x6 piece of lumber. Compressed air is capable of imparting dangerous amounts of kinetic energy and it is not a force to be played with.
As for the accuracy of using popped kernels, just put them in a thin plastic bag and lubricate the barrel with vegetable oil, (the cheap stuff is OK), and they will hit with a fairly small spread. Or use a smaller diameter barrel, less than an inch, and send out a steady stream. That would be lots of fun. The logistics of creating the steady stream are a bit complex, though. The effect is like tracer rounds. Very impressive.
So we talking about safety or innovation? I agree the laser power may be excessive for 'cold' kernels, but it should be possible to pre-heat them using microwaves in the barrel, then finish them off en-route with the laser. I have color-coded the squirrels around my house using a paint-ball gun, which is about the same caliber as a popped kernel, so perhaps popping the kernels inside a round tube to control finish diameter, then some rifling inside the "barrel" to impart spin to help the ballistics. Caramel-corn, being more dense might be a better ammunition.
Think carefully now! Most of the carmel that I am familiar with is a bit sticky when it is warm. That sounds like a good way to plug tha barrel quite completely. It might have to be rebored to clean it out. Of course another option could be tio use teflon carmel, but that may not be good to eat. Heavily buttered garlic popcorn would be a bit heavier than plain, so it might be another choice. Of course it would also work to open the barrel diameter and then depend on the air0bearing effect to keep the carmel corn from sticking. But the efficiency would be much lower.
The question of whether engineers could have foreseen the shortcut maintenance procedures that led to the crash of American Airlines Flight 191 in 1979 will probably linger for as long as there is an engineering profession.
More than 35 years later, the post-mortem on one of the country’s worst engineering disasters appears to be simple. A contractor asked for a change in an original design. The change was approved by engineers, later resulting in a mammoth structural collapse that killed 114 people and injured 216 more.
If you’re an embedded systems engineer whose analog capabilities are getting a little bit rusty, then you’ll want to take note of an upcoming Design News Continuing Education Center class, “Analog Design for the Digital World,” running Monday, Nov. 17 through Friday, Nov. 21.
Focus on Fundamentals consists of 45-minute on-line classes that cover a host of technologies. You learn without leaving the comfort of your desk. All classes are taught by subject-matter experts and all are archived. So if you can't attend live, attend at your convenience.