Alphabet wants you to eat balloons instead of dieting
Guessing clothing size, AR car maps, wearable security and other patents from Big Tech.
It's the end of another long
month week in lockdown, and if you're in the U.S., you're probably not going anywhere this weekend. So sit back and enjoy the latest zany patents from Big Tech, including headphones that allow you to have conversations in multiple languages, AI that can guess what size your clothes are, and AR that helps navigate while driving. And don't worry about getting a snack — Alphabet has an idea for that.
And remember: The big tech companies file all kinds of crazy patents for things, and though most never amount to anything, some end up defining the future.
Instead of getting invasive surgery to curb weight gain, why not just swallow an inflatable balloon? That's the gist behind this Verily patent: a person swallows a small liquid-filled device, which over a period of time, turns to a gas and inflates the device, filling up much of the empty space in the person's stomach. This will make them feel fuller quicker, and then after a few hours, a vent opens in the device, letting out the gas, and deflating the balloon, and allowing it to make its way through the rest of the digestive system. Hopefully no one is around that person when that gas releases, though.
In the future, when we can easily travel again, this could be a useful patent idea. Google is looking into how headphones could be shared between two people, and how sound travels between two different people. This could be for sharing a song or a movie together, but one interesting thought in the patent is around sharing headphones with someone else to be able to speak with them in another language. The Google Translate app can already live-translate another language into a person's headphones, but this would allow both people to talk and listen to translations of two sides of a conversation. Now you'll just have to convince the waiter at that French restaurant to put one of your earbuds in his ear, instead of learning what ris de veau means.
I can see this one being contentious. A few years ago, Amazon launched and killed the Echo Look, a smart camera that could judge your outfits and suggest new ones. Although it doesn't make the Look anymore, it seems it's still exploring trying to mix fashion and AI. In this patent, a system would look at images of you (that hopefully comply with very strict privacy rules!) to determine which sizes and cuts of clothing fit you best, allowing you to then buy with more confidence online. I could see how it'd not be ideal for a machine to tell me I'm actually a XXL, but then, I have a coat sitting in a box that I guessed my size for that I now have to go outside to return, even though it's cold and I really needed that coat to go outside.
Ring has come a long way from its days as a failed "Shark Tank" company. Its security cameras are now owned by Amazon, and some 2,000 law enforcement agencies have signed up for its portal for requesting footage for customers' cameras. This patent takes this idea a little further, allowing emergency services to request access to every Ring camera in a geographic area for live footage. This could in theory help them figure out where issues are and monitor where to send first responders, but it seems like it'd be a slippery slope to just creating a law enforcement panopticon where everyone's front door just becomes security cameras for local police.
An increasing number of cars have head-up displays that show things like speed and turn-by-turn directions, but they're usually just static images overlaid onto the real world. Apple's patent would take things a step further, using augmented reality to overlay dynamic information on the real world. Apple is working on autonomous vehicles, so any vehicle it would be working on would have a deep set of sensors that it could use to map the world. The patent gives the example of showing a 3D map of the road ahead, and overlaying a route guidance on top of it, even the bits that are occluded by the real world. It could also display other information — that hopefully wouldn't be too distracting — on the buildings as a car passes by them, perhaps explaining what's in them.
Another Apple patent that tries to figure out what life with autonomous vehicles could actually be like. Many concepts for AVs have people sitting facing each other, like some sort of moving living room, rather than in banks of seats. While this might be useful to let the conversations flow as a robot drives passengers to their destination, it doesn't really address what happens if there's a crash. Apple's patent looks at ways to install airbags when there aren't the typical places to put them in a car's cabin. That might be in the seatbelt, or in an empty seat across the way, or even in the ceiling. Hopefully if they're shooting airbags at your face, they're less forceful than whatever you're crashing into.
In many of the applications of AR to date, systems overlay digital information on the real world, often to replicate experiences we have IRL. But with this patent, Facebook is looking at ways that real-world objects can serve as focal points for AR information. In one instance, this could mean recognizing devices in a user's field of view, and allowing them to control the devices in AR. For example, a user could see their Nest thermostat in their AR headset, see how it's set, and change the settings by virtually tapping on it, or they could see what's playing on the TV without having to reach for the info button on their clicker — it really would be adding the "augmented" into AR.
Remember the days of having to carry around an RSA dongle to log into your work email? Now you probably just have some codes on your phone, but this Microsoft patent envisions a world where your security keys for sensitive information are stored on a wearable, like a ring or a wristband. To pay for something, in this scenario, your mobile wallet on your phone would look to see that the phone is connected to your security wearable, and if so, complete the payment. According to the patent, this would make stealing your information harder, as a thief would have to steal both your phone and your security wearable. But then, if someone is determined enough to steal your phone, they could probably steal your ring, too.
Scheduling meetings is the worst. No one's ever free at the same time, and it's never obvious where you should meet, especially if more than one office is involved. Microsoft's proposed system would make things a little easier: someone could just put in what a meeting is about, when it roughly needs to take place, and who needs to be there, and the system will figure out what works for everyone. If the system could also go to all those meetings for me, I'd be sold.
Mike Murphy ( @mcwm) is the director of special projects at Protocol, focusing on the industries being rapidly upended by technology and the companies disrupting incumbents. Previously, Mike was the technology editor at Quartz, where he frequently wrote on robotics, artificial intelligence, and consumer electronics.