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I don't know if it's because we're in the height of summer travel season (people seem to still be going places, even with this pandemic raging on!), but it was a pretty fallow week for new patents from Big Tech. But that's not to say there weren't a few gems. Alphabet's Verily is looking into tracking injections for chronic diseases, Facebook is working on VR gloves, Microsoft is thinking about what the future of TV looks like, and Apple might be getting into the security camera game.
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.
Some people suffering from chronic diseases, like diabetes, need to inject themselves several times a day with specific doses of drugs. Using the smart syringe and drug cartridge outlined in Verily's patent, patients could potentially track exactly how much they need to inject each day. Presumably paired with a blood-glucose monitor, the app connected to Verily's injection device could see how big the patient's spike is that day, and exactly what dosage of insulin to provide in the drug capsule. It sounds a lot like the future of at-home health monitoring.
In data centers around the world, operators attempt to maintain as secure a database as possible, often restricting who has access to server blades. But as the patent suggests, it's tougher to track what happens to servers if they need to be moved, and that there could be "malefactors" like rogue employees nabbing databases under the guise of moving them. Amazon's solution is trackable carts that can be monitored remotely to ensure that nobody who's not authorized is accessing them. The patent also suggests the "transport trolley may be a drone, robot or other automated device." I can't wait until we have ED-209s patrolling our data centers to ensure my bank details remain safe.
Early last year, Apple purchased a company called Lighthouse AI, which builds home security cameras that perform facial recognition. And it seems now that Apple may be gearing up to do something with its acquisition. The company won a patent this week for a two-way communication system for a monitoring camera, where a person could essentially use a smartphone app to dial into a camera at home to speak to someone there. Hopefully that person isn't robbing you, because I'm not sure what you'd say to them other than "please stop."
Coming a week after Apple won a patent for what amounted to two iPads stitched together, it has a new patent that's reexamining the paradigm of the laptop. This patent presents a more traditional laptop structure, but with half of the bottom part of the laptop replaced with an illuminated touchscreen area. The space could be used as a trackpad that could be resized how the user saw fit, or to potentially show other pieces of content when needed. It's like the MacBook Pro Touch Bar, but on steroids.
Looking like a cross between the controls on the old iPod headphones and AirPods, Apple's latest patent could be a new way it's thinking about interfaces for its smallest devices. The rocker switch, the patent says, could be applied to smartphones or watches, among other devices. Beyond the up-and-down buttons on each end of the switch, it would also feature a touch sensitive strip in the middle, which could interpret various taps or presses as different commands. I'd be here for this change to future Apple Watch designs, because I wear my watch on my right hand and occasionally will press the crown in without realizing it, causing Siri to start listening to whatever stupid thing I happen to be saying at that moment.
Mark Zuckerberg is reportedly a fan of the dystopian sci-fi novel "Ready Player One," and his company's VR subsidiary gives the book to employees to read, so perhaps it's not that surprising that the company would be patenting something like this. The patent outlines implementing "large-scale haptic devices" — a product that can provide tactile feedback to the person holding it, often by using small vibrations. One of the implementations mentioned in the patent is a thin haptic glove that could be used for VR experiences just like those in the novel. Hopefully the energy crisis and the economic collapse outlined in the book don't also come to pass.
People have long talked about the "second-screen" experience while watching TV, where we have such short attention spans that we can't even watch a show anymore without tweeting about it or Googling the height of the actors on screen. But what if our phones and computers were actually helping enhance whatever we were watching instead of distracting us from it?
That's the idea behind Microsoft's new patent, which outlines pairing a smartphone with a TV program to do simple things like switch between episodes or pause what you're watching, but also more complicated things like providing advanced stats of players during a basketball game or the route map with live locations of racers during a live race. These sorts of things could definitely add to the TV experience, but they also feel like things that cable providers have been testing out for the last few years, to varying degrees of success.
One of the most common complaints about using tablets in work settings is that you can't easily do "real work" on them, like spreadsheets. It's generally far easier to manipulate individual cells in an Excel sheet with a mouse cursor than fingertips, but it seems Microsoft is working on fixing that. The patent outlines creating a gesture area within a spreadsheet page that users could touch in different ways to "select data, filter, sort, drill down/up, zoom, split rows/columns, perform undo/redo actions," as the patent suggests. If they can figure out spreadsheets, what else is left to keep tablets from replacing the laptop?
There's a lot of ergonomics design work that goes into devices that are meant to be used by a large group of people, but invariably, some group of people won't be able to use them perfectly. Like people with small ear holes struggling to use Apple AirPods or small kids and large adults having to use the same games controllers. One size doesn't always fit all.
Microsoft is apparently looking to fix that latter problem by exploring adjustable controllers for future VR devices. The device, which looks a bit like a small lightsaber, would feature buttons that could be shifted to make them easier for individual users to reach, much like raising or lowering the seat on an exercise bike. It'd be a welcome addition for a company that's already one of the few to consider the accessibility needs of its gamers.
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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.