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It is week 9,437 of lockdown, and much like T.S. Eliot and coffee spoons, I measure out my life these days in patent reports. And this week's patents from Big Tech did not disappoint. Amazon apparently wants to blanket the entire world in beacons dropped from drones; Apple wants to stick two iPads together to see what would happen; Microsoft wants to keep us safe from carbon monoxide; and Facebook just wants to know who's in our family — if it doesn't already.
And remember: Tech companies file all kinds of crazy patents for things, and though most never amount to anything, some end up defining the future.
I had to double-check that this patent was filed by Google and not Amazon because it really reminds me of something Amazon is trying to do. But no, this patent is from Google for a supply chain that can rely on humans or robots at pretty much every stage. Google is doing some work in fulfillment through its Cloud division, but this would be another level. Perhaps after seeing how successful AWS has been and doubling down on cloud, Google sees an opportunity in one of Amazon's other main businesses.
Many of the earliest AR experiences have revolved around a single person with a phone or headset doing something, but presumably at some point, there will be a critical mass of people with AR devices who will want to take part in the same experiences as their friends. In this patent, one example is a virtual game of poker, where two players are sitting around a table with two virtual players who are logging in from elsewhere. The patent outlines a system that wouldn't allow the two people's experiences to overlap, which would both increase the realism of what they're seeing and also help keep people honest. With this software in place, I wouldn't be able to just get up and walk around to see what cards my friend had — the game would either gray out what I'm seeing or just boot me from the game. Also the ideas in this patent art are giving me some strong "Kingsman" vibes:
Amazon recently won a patent for tracking beacons shaped like maple seeds, but apparently it didn't want to stop there. This patent seems to suggest a strategy of just absolutely blanketing communities in beacons, either by nailing them to trees or zip tying them to stop signs, or even dropping them from planes like they're putting out a wildfire. Like the maple seed beacons, these would be to help aircraft, like Amazon's delivery drones, find their way to customers' houses. Hopefully you bring an umbrella if these are dropped on you while you're out.
This could be one way to cut down on the size of a drone. Amazon's patent outlines embedding cameras into the propellers of drones, which could be used to help determine the drone's distance from things around it. That would help ensure the drone can land in busy backyard areas, but I can't imagine the technical prowess of making a camera work on something that spins tens of thousands of times per minute. Just thinking about it makes me dizzy.
When the original iPad was released a decade ago, I (along with many other uncreative people on the internet) joked that it just looked like four iPhones taped together. It seems that Apple is taking that idea even further with a new patent for a device that would allow you to connect two iPads to make something that looks like a laptop … made out of tablets. I personally love this idea as I made the switch to using the iPad Pro as my only real laptop device a few years back, but I can't imagine how expensive this would be. Two iPad Pros would cost at least $800 each, and smart covers cost around $100, so I could totally see this costing at least $1,700, which is a lot for a Frankenstein's monster of a laptop.
Have you ever wished your iPhone were a little more like an iPad? It seems that Apple is exploring building a smart case for phones like the ones it has for its tablets. The cover would have a electromagnet built into the back of it so you could still charge the phone wirelessly without taking off the cover, as well as a capacitive sensor on the outside of the cover that might allow you to interact with the phone in some way even when it's closed. It does not, unfortunately, seem to come with a keyboard.
You can tell Facebook who's in your family if you want to, but what if it already knows? Facebook's patent suggests that it uses "user profile information and social graph data" to corral people into groups of families. This includes things like location data, IP addresses, checking in at the same events, and last names that a machine learning system can use to determine the likelihood that a group of people live together. The reason for doing this? As ever with Facebook, it's because of advertising. According to the patent: "Market researchers use households to provide statistically valid measurements of the effectiveness of advertising campaigns to advertisers, track purchases of products across different demographics, and analyze the reach and frequency of households viewing content."
Who needs a canary in the coal mine? There are countless jobs that put employees in harm's way, and even situations, like carbon monoxide poisoning, where the average person might love to know if they've unwittingly been exposed to something harmful. Having a wearable with a sensor that could detect toxic chemicals in the air could be invaluable, and that's what Microsoft is exploring with its patent. The wearable could even display the level of harmful chemicals in the atmosphere, telling you whether it's time to get out of the area or not.
Microsoft's patent essentially outlines a virtual assistant that could follow you around the web and show you coupons you've collected or that are available on the sites you're visiting, then telling you to use them where it makes sense. That sounds like it could be pretty useful, but I'm mainly sharing for the art in this patent that has both an amazingly bad URL and wonderful images of several Air Jordan sneakers:
I'd probably pay good money for this one. How many times have you gotten a calendar invite from one person you're meeting with, and then another from someone else? There have been times where I've had as many as four invites for the same meeting at the same time in my calendar, and all of the invites are so smushed together during the same time slot that I've no idea what the meeting is actually for. Microsoft is apparently working on a fix, where you'll just see one calendar event for invites that appear to be for the same meeting. My future blissful calendar thanks you, Microsoft.
Correction (Aug. 3): An earlier version of this post included a Ring patent from Amazon for a product it already sells.
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.