THE phrase ‘It’s already been done’ is the sound of the door to the treasury being slammed shut to any inventor. After hours of working out what you think is a clever idea, to learn that somebody’s beaten you to it is the worst news you could get.
I have lost count of how many times I have been at the receiving end of these five deadly little words. Usually, they arrive in the form of a laconic email from my son. Shakir runs a software firm and is generally up to date with new developments, so I have to take his word for it.
A word of explanation is in order here: over the years, I have spent lots of time working on ideas and inventions in the hope that one day, I will strike it rich and be able to retire in the style I would like to get accustomed to. The problem is that in order to cash in, I first need to patent an idea; and not just an idea, but the detailed design and working model.
Sadly, having no engineering or software skills, I end up refining my ideas in my head until somebody else thinks of it and makes the fortune that, in a just world, would have been mine.
Let me give you an example: when I first went to the US in the late 1980s, I noticed long queues at tollgates on motorways. I thought then that a pre-paid memory chip on a gizmo on the dashboard could be pinged by a radio signal, and the amount of the toll automatically debited. When the chip ran low, you could take it to a shop and get it recharged.
Now, of course, this system is commonplace, and no doubt the person who actually patented it has cashed in big time. As I said, there’s no justice in the world. Had I been less mechanically challenged (and less lazy), I might have done something with my brainwave.
Or take my idea for car parks: in London on a visit many years ago, I noticed that we’d end up driving around and around different levels in car parks, looking for a slot.
What if, I thought, an infrared beam was placed at each parking bay? When it was broken, it would signify that the slot was occupied. People driving into a car park could be informed of the nearest numbered parking space, together with the level, on a large screen connected to a computer. Although not yet commonplace, car parks are increasingly using this system.
Another idea I still think would work is to do with picture framing. Normally, when you take a painting or a photograph to a framer, you will be shown several kinds of frames and borders, and then decide the size and combination. The framer will then work out the price. I find it quite unsatisfactory as it’s hard to visualise the complete effect on the basis of a couple of frame angles.
What if, I thought, the framer took a digital picture of your painting, and the computer then showed you a number of framing options with your picture in them? As soon as you picked the one you liked, the computer would give you the price. As usual, I haven’t done anything about this idea, even though Shakir didn’t say: “It’s already been done” when I told him about it.
One idea I did do something about came to nought, even though I got in touch with an agent about it in London. This was a board game I called Galleon in which each player represents a trading nation in the year 1600, and gets a fleet of cargo ships and some capital. With the roll of dice, ships are moved to distant destinations to buy and sell goods at fixed prices. Along the way, the ships encounter dangers like storms and pirates determined by ‘hazard’ cards that would be pulled if your ships landed on certain squares.
The point would be to maximise profits, and buy more ships and more high-profit items like spice from the Spice Isles. My old friend Zohra Yusuf got a couple of enthusiastic young colleagues at the advertising agency she works in to make a full playing board, and I took it to London to sell the idea.
I was told that board games manufacturers would only consider games sent to them by agents. The two agencies I contacted told me that new games were just not being developed currently. So Galleon remains at anchor, awaiting its moment.
When smart-phone apps became commonplace, I was sure that finally, I was going to hit the jackpot. I sent a succession of ideas to Shakir, for him to shoot them all down. But there’s one that even he was unable to reject: my concept for a killer app I call iPain remains, as far as I know, unique.
Underpinning the idea is the fact that all of us have some hate figure in our lives. It could be a boss, a spouse or a politician, but nobody is lucky enough to sail through life without wishing great agony on at least one person. Fortunately, social conditioning and the fear of spending years in prison prevents most of us from carrying out these fantasies. But repressing these urges can lead to ulcers and sleepless nights.
Enter iPain. My app will let the user download a photo of the hate figure, and then inflict imaginary pain by ramping up the voltage, and experience the satisfaction of listening to the virtual victim screaming for mercy. Imagine young people gathering after work to subject the boss to untold agony.
Of course the idea is to keep the victim alive, so pain is gradually enhanced up to the point where the life force — shown on the screen — is very low. Other forms of torture like water-boarding, or forcing the victim to listen to Altaf Hussain’s speeches, can also be downloaded at very little extra cost.
Although the app does not exist, Shakir is sure no vendor, including the ubiquitous Apple Store, would sell it. I can see a conspiracy to keep my inventions out of the hands of the paying public. Sadly, my retirement plans will have to stay on hold.
The writer is the author of Fatal Faultlines: Pakistan, Islam and the West.