Alphabet wants to build a wearable full of needles
Cellular AirPods, virtual art IRL, clip-on smartphones and other patents from Big Tech.
Congratulations to making it through one full year of lockdown — and just about one year of these Big Tech patent roundups! While there is some light at the end of the tunnel of this pandemic and we might be able to leave the house soon, these roundups aren't going anywhere. And thankfully, these companies keep delivering on the patent front. This week, Alphabet's Verily wants to build a smartwatch that can inject you with drugs, Amazon wants to protect you from phishing and Apple is thinking about how to add cellular radios to headphones. Perhaps soon I'll have to start narrating these reports if you're able to leave your phone at home.
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.
Welcome to my art gallery. No, you're not wrong — there's nothing hanging on the walls. If you'd be so kind as to hold up the AR device of your choosing, though, you'll see that they are in fact emblazoned with some of the finest CryptoKitties and Nifties that cryptocurrency can buy. Perhaps that's a future that will come to pass at some wealthy elite gatherings in the future, thanks to the work being explored in this patent from Google. The patent outlines ways to anchor virtual images to the physical world that can be experienced on multiple AR platforms at once.
Remembering whether you've taken your medicine every day is a surprisingly difficult task, especially considering that you do it every day. But this Verily patent aims to make it easier by combining two of the biggest buzzwords in health care today: automation and wearables. It envisions a watch that has tiny needles on the underside that will inject you with the doses of medicine you need, when you need them, and could even potentially scan vitals to ensure you need them. While this might be overkill for your blood-pressure medicine, it could be invaluable for someone needing insulin. Just don't forget to refill your watch.
In some future where Alexa could perceive human emotions, it might react differently to someone who's angry when asking it something versus someone who's calm. But everyone's different, and the system in this patent would be able to determine a baseline for each person who uses the assistant; some people are just louder than others or might raise their voice in some contexts, like losing a video game. The assistant could also take some actions based on what it perceives as the emotional state of the user: For example, if they sound agitated or tipsy, perhaps the assistant wouldn't let them drive. The patent also suggests that someone's emotions "while watching or hearing a commercial can be used for marketing research."
Have you ever gotten an email that feels like it might be shady, but the URL looks right to you, and then you realize just in the nick of time that it actually has a "Ъ" instead of the letter "b" in it? That's what Amazon's patent is trying to prevent: By using a list of known major websites (especially those that might be sites hackers want access to), the system in the patent would compare the possibly shady URL with the list to see if it's legit. Phishers often subtly change URLs and build dummy sites in the hopes that unsuspecting prey aren't looking as close as they should be. But also, if you ever get a text, call or email that feels fishy — just assume that it is.
Apple has been on a slow path to replace the smartphone with wearables for years now, and this could be a pretty big piece of that puzzle. According to this patent, Apple is exploring the possibility of including cellular radios and antennas in wireless earbuds and headphones, as well as just about any other device imaginable, like glasses or vehicles. This patent is just a theoretical exploration of how various wireless networking tech works together in small devices, and hedges whether it's talking about accessories that can directly connect to the internet or need to connect to another device like a phone to do so. But it hints at a future where you could leave everything — your phone, your watch, your computer — at home, in favor of a small virtual assistant that lives in your ear. Assuming you have cell service.
If we're ever going to get to a place where drones can fly themselves around, delivering goods, surveilling power lines and whatever else they might do in the future, they're going to need to be able to talk to each other and the world around them. This patent from Apple — a company not known to be doing much in the drone space, other than using them for its maps — explores how drones would hand off a data connection from one cell tower to another. It's quite similar to how a person's cell phone might, though people tend to only be traveling along one plane as they move; drones can fly in just about any orientation as they move from one cell tower to the next.
Lighting in cars has never been great. Usually there are one or two unpowered lights in the roof, and maybe some lights along the doors that turn on when you open them. If you drop something on the floor of your car at nighttime, hopefully you don't need it before the sun comes back up. Apple's patent is rethinking that notion, illuminating where people might need it more accurately, potentially even with directable spotlights to find things dropped on the floor (an elusive AirPod, perhaps?) in a way that hopefully won't distract the driver too much. Assuming there is one.
I hear that people are buying highlights like Pokémon cards, so perhaps this will come in handy. This patent envisions a system that figures out which sections of a video are worth sharing as highlights, based on previous users' interactions with the video. If everyone sends out a heart emoji when their favorite player catches an unbelievable pass, the system will know to suggest that future users share that clip as a highlight. It's like NFL Red Zone, but even more concise. The best part, though, is that the patent artist thought that there should be a team called the Seattle Llamas. I'd follow them.
Trying to make modular smartphones was all the rage a few years ago, but given its difficulties, it never really took off. Microsoft envisions a slightly different approach with this patent: Instead of replacing existing parts of a smartphone, why not add new ones as needed? The example given in the patent is to have clip-on devices for controlling games on a phone, where the clips would wirelessly communicate with the phone to be able to control its software. Carrying a few small clips in my pocket does sound easier than lugging an entire Nintendo Switch with me on the train.
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.