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Ask HN: What API to the physical world do you wish existed?
67 points by lemma on Sept 24, 2011 | hide | past | web | favorite | 81 comments
Inspired by the recent post on the startup that turns your emails into physical letters, I was wondering what other opportunities exist like this. What service do you wish you could initiate online (through an API or otherwise) that would have a real-world outcome?

I'd like to be able to pay other people to phone up companies on my behalf to do things like closing accounts or changing my address on accounts. Ie, so I could go to a website and fill in a quick form with the following info:

Phone water company X on phone number N Close my account Information you might need: My name is Y, my account number is Z, my address is A and my password is B

I hate having to speak to people whos job it is to try and stop me achieving my goal, ie cancelling accounts. And having to wait on hold, and having to phone back when the call queue is shorter. etc

I guess you could create a dedicated API wrapped around Mechanical Turk, and then stick a website in front of it.

I'd like a trustworthy and central repository for my current billing/mailing address that all the big companies simply "subscribe to". When I move, the update should be pushed to every bank/magazine/delivery company.

How about just never changing your address? I use Virtual Post Mail but there a a bunch of companies offering virtual mailing addresses. I couldn't be happier.

We have this in The Netherlands, it's called the "basic city records", but is for government services, churches and some other basics.

Oh, and the mail company has a service to forward your mail, and change your addresses for various companies when you move. Part of the deal...

I'd combine this, the grandparent's post, and the example given in the original post (along with it's inverse, making physical mail available digitally,) into the ultimate personal correspondence service.

Almost sounds like how a credit report can work. I've had my current address appear on mine without any effort on my own part. Once one company gets it, it seems to propagate.

I think https://www.trustfabric.com/ does that.

In an ideal world this information would be stored in an OpenID attribute.

Seems neat, but it's unfortunately very US-centric. Under the list of things they "can't" do: "Telephone calls outside the United States". I'm in the UK.

Coming very soon.

I don't remember the exact name of the website, but a sponsor of mixergy (during the talk on trello at least) is doing exactly what you're saying.

It's not very realistic, but my body health status API would be awesome: see what vitamins or minerals does it lack, body temperature, level of cholesterol, blood pressure, levels of hormones. That would allow to create insanely useful and impactful applications!

Yes, this! For years I have been complaining about how silly it is that I know far more about the day to day condition of my vehicle than I do about my own body.

Yes, the fact that I have to physically go to a doctor is absurd. I want real-time feedback of how bad (or good) the meal is that I'm eating right now, as I'm eating it. I want to get warnings and reminders of the vitamins and minerals that I'm low on. Even hydration. Everyone says that if you're thirsty, you're already dehydrated. Getting in the habit of staying hydrated is hard work. Little help here?

I suspect that most of this stuff will have to wait for nanobots. Any way we can do this sooner?

I don't think we need to wait for nanobots, the technology is already here now to accomplish real-time monitoring. Here is one example for blood glucose monitoring implant: http://www.popsci.com/technology/article/2010-07/wireless-im...

Implant is 1.5 inches wide and half an inch thick? No thanks. I'll wait for the nanobots.

Partial solution: http://www.bodymedia.com

Get realtime satellite pictures of any geo coordinates as shown in Hollywood movies, govt/military probably has access to it, but if it was available then people can see how humans are treating earth and its ecosystem, this can lead to sustainable development and can help a lot in natural disasters

We're not too far off: http://urthecast.com

Shopping. Plenty of places in the UK have online shopping with home delivery but the interface is terrible. If they published an API someone could do a proper job of it. I would pay a fair bit of money for a weekly box of food with a list of recipes for each day so I don't have to make decisions. Even better if I can thumbs up/down each meal and the system learns what kind of food I like.

I am a web developer at Ocado. I have forwarded this on to my boss. Realise, of course, that this isn't simply a matter of releasing an API.

I do like the idea of a system that learns recipes that you [probably] like, and sends you their ingredients and a recipe every few days.

I am working on a shopping site - http://giniji.com. It only has laptops right now but I am looking at adding other categories too, including food.

I would love to hear more about the kinds of things you'd find useful (email in profile). I am also based in the UK.

I assume that it's doable one way or the other, there are a number of third party sites like MySupermarket which can automatically add products into your basket on different supermarket sites. I'm guessing they do so either via URL hacking or XSS, but it should be fairly easy to figure out.

I'd say Ocado is good! Would love for them to have an API though..

This. Most online catalogues are awful.

Not sure that this really counts as an API, but I'd like a converter between things in my life which require polling and a push sort-of interface. Here's an example: I ordered some things from eBay, and I'd like to confirm that they arrived in one piece. After clicking "buy it now", I have to somehow remember to confirm within a couple of weeks that the items arrived. I used to add a calendar task N days out with a note like, "ensure delivery of XYZ". However, I've fallen off the wagon on this of late. The fundamental problem is that there is no ebay-originating tickler event which lets me know that it's time to validate delivery. As an analogy, I think I'd like a way to add cron jobs for my life. Imagine your phone asking you, "Hey, did your package arrive?" If you affirm delivery, nothing more happens. If you say no, a task gets added to your todo list to figure out what went wrong (wife mis-placed package, etc.). You can also say "bug me later."

I'm not sure that I've done a good job articulating what I want, in part because I only have a vague notion of what would help me out. I do know that keeping all sorts of "polling lists" in my head (or even in a calendar/todo list) is very stressful. I'd love to offload the work of remembering this stuff to a trusted assistant.

What other things in life are missing async callbacks?

- Cancelling X service before it auto-renews next month/year/whatever - Generally, any task with the word "confirm" in it - Audit-related tasks such as making sure my client writes me a check for the amount I invoiced.

One could implement basic "tickler" functionality at first without any back-end integrations and then build one-off interfaces for common use cases -- for example, use the eBay API to observe purchases I've made and add ticklers based on the auction's stated delivery dates. Maybe this service also grabs tracking numbers and digs a level deeper for you. "Remember to grab your package from the front porch -- there's a 90% chance of rain tonight!"

A simple todo list with a "later" option could do that. I.e. you write

  "Receive package" (Report in 2 weeks)
So, your todolist is empty but you can safely remove that task from your mind as it will remind you in any due time. (I.e. 2 weeks in this example)

Object retrieval. Little helicopter UAVs that can buy you a pencil or a granola bar, or pick up a flash drive or some paperwork from your house, and fly it out to you.

We'd slowly turn into that lost human civilization from Wall-E.

I'd like an API for places that have bad customer service. Ideally, there would be an automated boxing glove set on the customer service representative's desk, that I could tap into in the case of bad customer service, and I could bop them in the face. There's been several times when I'd like to reach through a computer or phone and hit them (Note: I'm not an especially violent person). Those companies could monazite the process and make money off their poor customer service (There's been times when I'd definitely pay for that).

Or the inverse.. if you've got a good service, you opened up your iphone and just click "Nice service"; it's indirect publicity. You could go one step further and click the name of the employee. So, it'll be a kind of "Employee of the month" in a less cheesy way.. customer decides instead of the boss choosing someone.

a "Like" or "+1" button for employee interaction?


If you are truly God, please implement ASAP

Ha, wouldn't that be a useful function. Extremely dangerous as well. I could see people using it and violating causality in ways unimaginable.

More thermodynamics than causality. Most physical processes are reversible.

Reminds me of the games Achron and Braid.

An Errand and Task API. Child shuttle/delivery API. Hardware store parts-in-stock API.

And, because I'm in Seattle....a Weather API (with CRUD capabilities.)

Hrmm... sat here thinking about the question, then thought 'a weather API would be nice, let me see if anyone else already answered that'.. ctrl-f weather.. oh great, the one guy who mentioned a weather API is also from Seattle.

I think this is simply validation of the idea...

Check out task rabbit for the iPhone. Real life task API. Haven't had the chance to use it yet, but looks pretty cool.

Or on their site: http://www.taskrabbit.com/

Google Maps for retail stores. (Standing in a store): "Is X in stock?" "on which isle is X located?"

I want search functionality at the grocery store.

"Search into what I'm currently looking right now". I'm at the library, I need to find the number "x8iz8x7c8z" somewhere.. meh, lost of time. I'm at the grocery store searching for a particular cheese: "Search moz". I'm driving and I want to find a particular street.. "Search [street-name]" and when it's in my vision, it'll be shown.

Basically, a small camera on my ear or something that watch in real-time with AI to recognize text. And then, a small 'bip' + a red light pointing to it.

In other words, you want to be the Terminator.

Join the club.

GeoLocation for Keys. (literal keys)

There's a few devices like this out there, usually with a limited range and audio-only alerts though: http://www.amazon.com/EZ-FIND-Item-Design-Electronic-Locator...

Full geolocation would be quite a bit harder, what would be the use case where you'd need to, say, plot the location of your keys on a map?

Yeah.. Totally Agree.. Geo Location is like absolute file path (absolute co-ordinates on the map), but, relative path (relative to the user) is more sufficient here..

Google is pretty much working on this: telling a car to go where I want it to go.

I'd like each parking meter to have an API. When you park, you tell your phone what the API endpoint of the meter is, via QR code or whatever. Then you can continue to monitor it, and pay the meter, remotely. Or if there are ordinances forbidding parking more than N hours it alerts you.

Probably wouldn't happen as cities are addicted to parking ticket revenue, and there are unionized meter readers.

Parking meters are often designed to Make long term parking inconvenient and make short term parking available.

See Streetline, a spin-off from PARC, that's been installing metering systems around San Francisco and Los Angeles, among other locations: http://www.streetlinenetworks.com/

A find() method for physical objects that'll return co-ordinates of where it's located. Very useful for locating people as well.

I guess it can be done using some combination of RFID/Building Map, GPS/Google Map and an app(mobile/tablet/web) to manage it all.

We need cheap, mini(or sticker like)RFID/GPS systems, so that we can just stick it to the items we want to track.

A bit different. I think every person should have their own API. Something standardized. This would be all their data and different methods/permissions to access it. Furthermore you should be able to host/move this data where ever you like. Any service can have read and/or write access to your API depending on your preferences.

You want to live in the Matrix?

I'd like to be able to ask a question to the planet (Or at least anybody who's ready to answer it right now). So I ask:

"What's 2.2kg in lbs" (0.10cent)

Someone on their computer just google it, type the answer and receive 0.10cent.

So basically, it's IRC + Stackoverflow but in real-time and you pay to get the answer now without searching. People could wait for the metro or the bus with their phone and see the questions and could click [answer] if they know the answer (or know how to get it really fast) or [next] to get another question.

Ideally, an expert in a field could make real money in situations where he/she would lose their time. Waiting in a queue to pay? Just answer 1 10$ question. Waiting at the metro/subway? Answer a couple question.

Looking for the name of a street? Lost? Searching for ketshup in the grocery? Just ask and put your price.

Aardvark did this: http://vark.com/

Cool but sad :( http://blog.vark.com/?p=379

Sounds like Amazon Mechanical Turk.

Learning: A matrix-like api would be just great.

Money.print(currency, amount) → Banknote or nil

google search on books - on the back cover.

I'd like a digital wall paper on my walls so that I could change how my walls look every day.

not really an API, but related: touchless/cardless ATM:

an App on my phone which I can use to find the nearest ATM and make a withdrawal. It knows my account credentials. I tell it how much cash I need. The app generates the transaction, encodes it in the QR code. I show the phone screen to the ATM's camera. The ATM dispenses the cash, takes photo of the person receiving the money and attaches it to the transactions log/statement.

No germs exchanged, no risk of skimming, more security (password vs. 4-digit pin code), no need to carry the ATM card around.

You're worried about catching germs from an ATM?

I want an API to tap into time itself. Eventually, I'd want to be able to travel through it, but in the beta I'd settle for just the ability to pause it whenever I like. :)

My brain.

yeah i'm working on that one. soon enough friend.

Prices of auto services local to where you live (e.g. oil change).

I would like:

1. An API to connect to non-profits and donate to them.

2. An API to retrieve college textbook information..like what are all the courses for the fall semester and their required textbooks.

What are the (non-spoiled) contents of my refrigerator?

Well I'd like a search function. I'm sure it's possible somehow, you need cameras everywhere and / or microships in everything.

Chicks, man...

you mean... a... Woman Decoder?

No need to decode if you can call API methods, receiving proper replies. You start learning (reverse engineering?) the subject's behavior based on responses to methods.

OK, I'm thinking as I type. The API must represent a functional system (i.e. function calls do no have side effects, produce the same output given the same environment) for RE to work. The first million iterations of such an API would not 'feel' functional because humans tend away from rationality (insert gender-prejudiced joke here.)

I suspect that once you get down into the tiniest bits of the human system (quantum behavior in brains, if indeed that's even necessary for consciousness), you can get much more functional results. Then, that gets us into eliminating chaos (replacing it with knowledge) in complex systems.

Consider: knowing how that precise collection of molecules (that tasty roasted meat, whose chicken was raised on marigold petals but once ate a bug or three) will affect the digestive, circulatory and nervous systems of a human; initially when the odor affects the receptors in the nose and ultimately after digestion has done its job and delivered all the tiny chicken bits to cells in the human body. And between those times, how anticipation from delayed gratification ("we'll wait for Grandma to arrive before we eat") affects the effects of the food on the human. And from here, chaos theory...

I pontificate muchly and pointlessly, but it was fun.

An API to pick best developer who can write code on my behalf :-)

DVRs. For when I space out in long lectures or meetings =)

Definitely my cable box/DVR. Not only for better search (and ANY starch of OnDemand material.) It does such a horrible job of "DVR" functionality it's sad. Constantly clipping shows despite setting it to record minutes early/late.

Sure, I probably just need to get Google TV or Tivo, but you'd think it wouldn't be a Herculean task, y'know?

It would be nice to call someone's car.

The Human Body. Oh wait. We already have one.

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