Niklas Roy is an inventor of useless things

Words and interview by Tara Kenny

Like an artist who paints for art’s sake, German inventor Niklas Roy dreams up his useless inventions for creation’s sake, “just the way he likes”. His mini works of art have thus far included an electronic instant camera that will give you a receipt with your mug on it, a “little piece of privacy” that words cannot explain and judging from his enthusiasm for delicacies, a hybrid sauerkraut, bratwurst and schnitzel national dish may be in the pipeline. Just don’t mention your love of all things Mac, for Einstein’s sake…

Electronic Instant Camera

You describe yourself as an inventor of ‘useless’ things. This title reminded me of a book I once read about ‘chindogu’, a term the Japanese have coined for an ‘unuseless’ idea – strangely practical yet completely eccentric inventions. Examples include duster slippers for cats and glasses for birds to stop them pecking each other’s eyes out. Would you describe your ‘electronic instant camera’ as a chindogu?
Yes, I have also heard about chindogu. For instance, I really like the ‘Hay fever hat’ (google it)! But I have to admit that I don’t see too much connection between my work and this phenomena. Well, if I dig a bit deeper in my oevre, there might be some slight relations… I once built this chair leg saw, years ago. It is a little device that you mount on the leg of a chair and whenever someone sits down on it, the apparatus starts to cut the leg of the chair. The device relates to the German proverb “to saw on someone’s chair leg” which metaphorically describes the particular situation where you try to get the job of your boss by plotting against him. So maybe that can be considered as chindogu?

But you mentioned my camera and I don’t consider that chindogu. Anyway, I have to admit that I don’t really get the fuss about it [the camera]. It’s more or less just a weekend project. I just had those parts, the printer and the camera module, and I thought they’d make a nice team. I was interested in how the photos taken with this peculiar device might look like and it turned out that I liked them a lot.

To comment on the “inventor of useless things”: I didn’t want to describe myself as an artist on my web page because I think that this would repel a large part of my audience. But the end of the day, artists are somehow inventors of useless things. That’s what makes this profession so exciting and funny. So even if many people consider me as an artist (including myself, sometimes), I prefer this more open explanation of what I’m doing.

“My little piece of privacy” curtain

I noticed that you run a lot of workshops for non inventor types. How do you think these people benefit from learning how things work?
We’re surrounded by technical devices, so it’s just very interesting to understand how they do what they do. It is also a great source for inspiration as a slight shift in the inner working of devices might cause them to express a total different meaning. In my workshops, I just want to share this kind of technical curiosity as it leads to knowledge… and knowledge is always beneficial, isn’t it?

What is one invention you wish you got to first (apart from the light bulb/Mac)?
Do you really consider a closed niche personal computer system as one of the two most notable inventions of history? I mean the first light bulb was literally quite a hot thing, but the Mac??? Didn’t you forget far more important inventions, like the wheel? I’m sorry, I am so upset now, that I almost want to refuse to answer this question and to say “next one, please!” But just give me a few moments to calm down … Okay, now I’m ready! Well, this is an interesting question!

I think that one of mankind’s most useful inventions is actually the 90° angle. I cannot understand at all, why this important invention never makes it into those most-useful-invention-ever-hit-lists. Anything which is designed with 90° angles on its outside magically fits to any other which is designed with the same paradigm. I can get really excited about 90° angles! Just think about bricks, pixels, Tetris, pyramids – the list is endless. And yes, if the 90° angle wouldn’t have been invented yet, I’d be more than proud if it would be an original idea that grew in my mind.

Lumenoise pen

When inventing, do you look for gaps in people’s lives that need to be filled by objects or simply come up with an object that doesn’t exist and then create a need?
None. I just do what I like and I don’t care about the rest.

Lastly, being German, do you like sauerkraut, schnitzel or bratwurst best? Have you thought about inventing a hybrid national dish?
Okay, we’re back on track – and please let’s forget this invention thingy for a moment because now we can talk Bratwurst and Sauerkraut! So even though I live in Berlin at the moment, I was born and raised in Nuremberg, a middle sized city in the south of Germany, which is not just well known for some historical incidents, but for its spectacular Bratwurst too!

You have to know that the Nuremberg Bratwurst is quite special because of its size: It is very small, thick as a finger and a few centimeters long. Its history goes back to the medieval times, where a butcher from Nuremberg (who was a dedicated Bratwurst-lover) was imprisoned. His wife was aware of his enormous Bratwurst appetite so she decided to provide him with his beloved sausages even in his lonely prison cell. She’s the one who actually invented this special kind of Bratwurst, which was very thin so that she could push it through the keyhole of his cell door.

The fascinating thing is that due to its small size, the Nuremberg Bratwurst has an outstanding surface/volume ratio. What you get when you eat a Bratwurst from Nuremberg is a lot of crispy crust without too much greasy sausage meat in its middle. It’s simply the best Bratwurst you can get! I promise! And I can quickly elaborate a bit more on the most popular ways this Bratwurst is eaten:
There is option number one – you eat it in a bread roll with mustard. Due to its minor size, a normal portion consists of three sausages per bread roll. Option number two is to eat it with Sauerkraut. Option number one is definitely my favourite!